On the fifth of sixth of September 2001 I presented myself at my new job at MoneyCare. I was quite apprehensive on my way to my first day at work, because it would be the first time that I would end up working in an office, and in a function that wasn’t just new, but would involve, as I suspected, a considerable degree of study. There was nothing I knew about banks, or finances.
Still, at the age of twenty-five I could see the benefits of my new position. I was travelling on the underground station in one of the best cities in the whole world, truly beautiful from the architectural point of view, very international, and where it seemed that the possibilities were endless. The fact that I had relocated there from a deeply loved Belgium, and where I had come for the sole reason to study in French, looked irrelevant at that point. I was young, and I was blessed with opportunities, and approaching the corporate Bijlmer underground station seemed like yet another adventure on my life path, rather than a serious commitment to a new, serious routine.
As I learned rather quickly I wasn’t the only one to get a job in finances without any diploma (or experience) related to the field.
MoneyCare had a historian (Pierre) who analysed energy companies, a political analyst (his future wife) who was writing texts for luxury companies and a geographer who was in charge of the technology sector.
This bunch of people were at the service of MoneyCare thanks entirely to Mr. Wulf. As I discovered, while working for the company, Mr. Wulf was more than just an unconventional person. He was in fact really crazy but in a very good way.
The biggest mistake Mr Wulf could ever do with his life was to choose a career in the banking business.
First of all, Mr Wulf was extremely kind. His company was renowned for keeping the brightest along with the ‘suckers’. This was the expression going on around the company summarizing his management skills. In fact, Mr Wulf was unable to fire anyone whatsoever. Which led to, on numerous occasions, someone else having to intervene (usually a shareholder) and cut the company in half. During my service it happened three times.
Second, Mr Wulf was indeed slightly mad. He adored long philosophical discussions, which in the banking business sounded like “Have you read the latest book by… now, I forgot his name… the one who wrote about the latest developments on the Belgian political scene? Might be very useful for the analysis of German banks.”
“Post-modernism leads us to think of new horizons. How can we translate the latest post-modernist thought into portfolio management techniques?”
And thirdly, Mr Wulf wasn’t in the business for money. He simply possessed what we sometimes call ‘a passionate mind’. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave (until I joined the company). He read all possible newspapers in the five languages he knew for the entire morning, then he would start drawing schemes, then he would talk to his employees (those who could follow his reasoning for two hours in a row and be able to produce some coherent answers in return), then he would try to motivate other workers, then he would start talking again and then he would read again.
Place Mr Wulf in any academic environment and you will have a Nobel Prize laureate in one year.
However, despite quite a benign atmosphere to start my career in finances (that, with Mr Wulf as my boss), my first day of work at MoneyCare couldn’t have been any worse.
I received the most uncomfortable desk (as others were already taken), got a pile of annual reports of banks, a computer screen showing some excel sheet calculations and Ruud as my desk neighbour and a fellow analyst of banks.
Ruud had a background in accounting and therefore we had a clash of personalities right from the start.
“Hey, Ekaterina, you are too quick,” Ruud pointed out to me when I was on my second annual report for a bank. “You have to read them carefully. Tell me, what do you remember from the balance sheet of that bank?”
If you have never come across the banking sector prose, let me reassure you, it has nothing in common with the novels of Jane Austen or Kafka for that matter.
“What is a balance sheet?” I asked Ruud and immediately realised that I shouldn’t ask that kind of question if I wanted to avoid calling emergency services. The face of my colleague looked like he was about to faint.
“No, it’s unbelievable,” was the only thing Ruud found to answer and went to his cupboard in search of something which, to my guess, could inspire me to learn more about balance sheets.
Hesitating for a second in front of his magic warehouse Ruud produced a book and put it on my desk.
Introduction to financial accounting I read on the cover and felt, for the first time, a strong desire to stab my colleague in the face. Without even opening the book I could guess that it was probably even less readable than an annual report of the bank and that, in order to last through the first ten pages, I needed an elephant dose of red bull. I didn’t have time to confirm my guess though, as a colleague from the IT department came to my desk to install Trados on my computer.
“Hi, Ekaterina, my name is Pit. So, you are the lucky one to try Trados in practice?”
Pit was a big, Dutch guy in his forties and from the wink he gave me as soon as I turned to face him, it was clear that he was joking while referring to my new mission in life as lucky. And I liked him immediately. In addition to a head of red hair, mother nature had given him a very nice character, and in the half hour of time which I spent with him on learning the functions of Trados, I knew his sign of zodiac, his favourite music and the true meaning of the balance sheet.
“Well, you know, when the financial institutions do not screw up, their figures are in balance. But if they do screw up, they are in big shit.”
Which was a perfect enough explanation for me.
The way Pit was explaining Trados was also crystal clear, except that we quickly found out the bug. I didn’t speak Dutch.
A totally blank screen was greeting both of us when we opened the new tool on my computer. And I was supposed to translate from Dutch into English.
For a minute or so I contemplated leaving my new job right then and to never return. Why stay when I didn’t understand finances nor could I speak Dutch?
And I wasn’t that desperate. True, Russia wasn’t my home anymore, since I had left it at the age of nineteen in order to study, but I could surely adjust myself rather quickly in the country where, after all, I was born.
But just when I was seriously thinking about buying a plane ticket to try my chances in my native land, Mr. Wulf came to my ‘rescue’.
He probably sensed that I was in some kind of trouble.
“I see that you have some problems here?”
I turned around to see him standing behind my desk. I assumed that he was referring to Trados, but in fact he was talking about the book Ruud had given me.
“Forget all this accounting stuff,” he declared rather solemnly, “if you want to be a good analyst, it will only sabotage your brain. I have something better for you to read. Here,” and he deposited a thick book on my table.
The enigma of Japanese power. The first full-scale examination of the inner working of the Japanese political/industrial system – read the cover. I didn’t have time to adjust my face to a more intelligent gaze when I read the title, and Mr Wulf could catch a completely blank expression reflected in my eyes. None of the banks I was supposed to cover were Japanese.
Taking a piece of paper and a pencil, the boss of MoneyCare started to draw a scheme. We were back in a Kafka analysis. I couldn’t follow a thing he was saying (and later I learned that it wasn’t just my problem) but while pretending that I was tuning in, I made up my mind about MoneyCare.
My new job looked like an absolute nightmare, but if I didn’t give it a chance, I would regret such decision for the rest of my life. After all, it was a job, located in one of the most sought-after cities in the whole world. It was also in finances, and if not for MoneyCare, I would never learn this field anywhere else. And if Mr Wulf was my boss, then the whole experience promised to be little bit funny.
But in reality, of course, it was anything but funny.
Who on earth can have fun while analyzing banks? Especially if you happen to belong to the category of people who don’t even know where the nearest branch of their own bank is located.
This was definitely my case, and I also hated excel sheets, numbers, annual reports, and finances in general as I discovered rather quickly.
But I persevered. For six months or so I would wake up at six, go to work, read all kinds of newspapers for an hour, then sabotage my brain into learning the financial analysis and trying to like it, read the annual reports of banks, study balance sheets and have a weekly Dutch class to improve my Dutch.
This kind of worked, as somehow, I did manage to create an illusion that I was a good financial analyst of banks. After the initial six months of torture I even managed to settle into some sort of routine and started to address other aspects of my life. I joined the gym, tried all sorts of diets, started dating and decided that I had a cool life.
I was fed, dressed, had a nice apartment near the city centre, brilliant career prospects, and if I believed my mirror, I was okay. True, I wasn’t blonde, but in the rubric of physical appearance on dating sites, I would assign myself without any hesitation as ‘I am hot’. Ending up with all sorts of weirdoes on dates as a result, but what we project is what we get, as they say.
Otherwise I was leading perfectly a prefect life.
My morning would start with a cup of coffee and three cigarettes. Without my smoking breakfast, waking up was not worth it. Actually, three cigarettes were the best-case scenario, if I had little bit more time in the morning, I was having at least five.
At nine (and often much earlier) I would sit behind my computer, fully involved in finances. I hated finances already then, but what kind of an idiot would turn down the possibility to become a financial analyst without any diploma in finances? I had a relatively good contract after all, and Mr Wulf seemed to like me.
The most irritating factor at my job was my colleague Ruud. He represented for me the thing I hated the most about my profession: the routine. No clock was needed if someone was sitting next to the guy.
Every single move of Ruud carried an enormous weight, be it a cup of coffee or the annual report of a bank. The major part of the day my colleague spent on placing huge stocks of paper into carefully selected compartments of the cupboard standing behind our desk. Where and why did Ruud produce such an amount of paper was a big question. Sometimes I wondered whether he wasn’t reprinting the annual reports of banks in case of a major terrorist attack. I couldn’t come up with another explanation.
Ruud didn’t even read all the material he carried from the printing room in his arms right to the desk. He simply glanced from one piece of paper to the next, producing a very disturbing noise on the way, trying to decide to which department he would put it. During this busy procedure I was unable to concentrate on anything else. The only thing I could do was to study two big crows which were making a house from the tree in front of my window, without really noticing their beauty until one rainy morning in November, a couple of years later, when I decided to radically change my life.
We were occupied in this way every Monday to Friday starting from nine o’clock in the morning until one in the afternoon. At one o’clock precisely Ruud would go to lunch.
At two he would reappear at his desk with a cup of coffee in one hand and a glass of water in another. Just like in the morning he would put first a spoon of sugar in his coffee, mix it as loudly as possible, take a sip, and then add another spoon of sugar to mix it again. As loudly as possible. Despite the fact that I had bought a palm tree to hide me from Ruud, it wasn’t large enough to spare me from the ritual with coffee. Every time I had to fight the desire to ask him why he wouldn’t put two spoons of sugar in at once. I never asked, because my guess was that Ruud did it on purpose. The truth is, the disliking was mutual. When I had first joined the company, Ruud was looking for a Russian girl on the Internet. However, after only three months of sitting next to me, Ruud switched to Thai girls and was searching for Asian beauties from Monday to Friday from three o’clock until four in the afternoon.
In this sense, I am a total disgrace to my nation. I don’t fit the profile of a typical Russian woman. A typical Russian woman, in the eyes of a Western man, is supposed to be complacent, a good cook, very obedient, extremely feminine and blonde. From this description I can only pretend to be a good cook. Apart from that, I am definitely not blonde, most certainly not obedient and have a set of strong white teeth to show that I am not complacent.
Maybe, this is the reason as to why I wasn’t on anyone’s bride list.