A career in finances

Apologies if I scared anyone after my last post, but paranoia has become a part of my life since I had watched the September 11th on the tv in a local gym in Amsterdam, while living in that beautiful city.

I was quite surprised that classes in the gym continued despite witnessing the end of the world and on autopilot I joined my class in step-aerobics to run out of the room, the gym and vomit on the street five minutes after the start of the class. I thought that everything was finished, everything in this earth and I don’t remember how I managed to fall asleep that night and even drag myself to my place of work at MoneyCare the next day, to see whether anyone else was able to continue living.

To my greatest surprise most of my colleagues and my boss showed up at our job, albeit everyone looked shattered, sad and disillusioned.

My boss was running in panic from one corner of the room to the next, trying to keep us somehow optimistic. His eyes were red from obvious crying, and he kept on saying that we had to keep going. Salaries needed to be paid, pension funds needed our advice and he even managed to crack some kind of a joke by saying to us:

“Can you imagine? For some people it’s an opportunity to make money!”

MoneyCare in this respect was almost a non-profit organisation. We all were paid more or less the same salary and our working system was transparent and based in strong ethical values. Each client had the same access to the system and the format of writing news analyses was clear and to the point. I was the inventor of the new writing system, btw.

We could only talk about September 11th on that day. We had an American colleague working with us and we were glued to the news.

Still it was the day when I put a Belgian bank, called Dexia on big plus in our cluster of analysts of banks and wrote a smashing uplifting report about the bank, because the bank was Belgian (and I loved Belgium), it was in the European Union that I admired for the initial principle of its creation, and the bank was supported by the Belgian state. Having grown up in the Soviet Russia I knew with certainty one thing: the State has to control the basics, such as natural resources, infrastructure, medical system, internet and banks, to avoid such catastrophic occurrences, as the collapse of the Soviet Union, Invasion of Iraq, September 11th and now, Brexit.

But I probably bored you to death with finances and will switch to something more uplifting in my next post.

My first day at my job in finances

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.”

            Or:

            “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.

How I ended up living in Amsterdam (The Russian Patient)

It was in September 2001 that I became an unlikely financial analyst of banks in the beautiful city of Amsterdam. It was right before the September Eleventh took place and as the majority of the world population, I led a naïve, full of optimism life. I thought that everything was possible, that hope always prevailed, and that the world was full of kindness, compassion and love. This approach to life helped me to manage relatively well till then, only reinforced by the fact that a Dutch financial management company saw somehow a potential in me as a financial analyst with expertise in banks.

It was from the master in international relations and a degree in languages (obtained in Brussels) that I marched into my new destination in finances, and if not for the visa problem, I don’t think that I would ever consider this role if I were in the right state of mind. But as it was then, I wasn’t really thinking straight. My visa was due to expire in October, and if not for a job (any job), I would have to fly back to Russia, my native country from which I had exited at the age of nineteen to do my studies in Brussels. I was twenty-five years old in September 2001, living in Europe (albeit in two different countries) for good six years, and I thought I wanted to stay. It’s not like it was a really conscious choice on my part, but more as a badly deliberated spur on the moment decision: I liked Europe, or rather the idea of the Europe, there was nothing for me back in Russia, such as that no one really wanted me back, and I loved Amsterdam at that time. I had experienced it as a student till landing into my new job, and it was rather a pleasant experience. The beautiful canals, the rides on the boats, parties among other international students, picnics in the park, bikes, and lazy coffees, the city spoke to me of the delights found usually during a prolonged holiday. In my naivety I assumed that it would always remain the same, that life was indeed constantly beautiful and relaxed in the Dutch city, and I applied to that job, under the recommendation of the manager of my master degree.

The choice in finances was a hazard thing. Having reached the month of August I was out of options as how to stay in Europe, and contemplating the return flight to Russia, where I was simply scared to go back, I went to the boss of my master degree and asked him whether he could help me somehow. I had applied to some PhD positions during the summer, more related to my domain of knowledge, such as subjects in the field of humanities, but no one had replied back, and I was without a job, and soon without a visa. The problem to get a job was also due to the fact that any Dutch company willing to employ me, had to provide a proof that no one inside the whole European Union was up for the job.

My decision to stay in the Netherlands was also motivated by the desire to stay next to my mother, who happened to live in the country as well, married to a Dutch man, and working at a Dutch university, in the town of Twente, right at the border with Germany. We were an international family, this was an impression one could have of us, while in reality, I was feeling lost as to where I really belonged, and a job seemed like a good solution to my problems.

The manager of my master degree liked me for some reason. It was vague to me as to why. I had received a pass for the degree, which at some point got an accreditation similar to MBA, but I wasn’t the best student, was known to miss classes, and obtaining a pass was more due to luck rather than to hours spent on studies, and a serious motivation on my part. I had gone for the master degree because I had been offered a bursary, but I had already a master in international politics from the university of Brussels, and a year of study in Amsterdam turned out to be more of a chill year than anything else, or it was how I had approached it. I wasn’t really in need of an additional diploma, but it was attached to a nice bursary, in a nice city in Europe, and upon the instance of my mum, I had moved from Brussels and where I had been extremely happy, to another country within the European Union. And here I was: I had finished my studies without a proper idea as what to do next.

The manager of the master degree was a nice Dutch man, enthusiastic about the program and the students who often made jokes behind his back, simply because he was too present during the whole program, and acted more as a head-master rather than a manager. He wanted to know everything about his students, and pushed us sometimes too hard in terms of attendance and grades. But also in that respect he was more lenient with me than with others and didn’t chase after me when I wasn’t present during the lectures and seminars. In retrospect I wonder whether perhaps he fancied me, but this is a rather pretentious thought on my part and so, let’s just say that Jeroen was simply a very kind man.

‘’Well, I might actually know of a company that is looking for internationally-minded people like you. It is a financial management company…my dad runs it,’’ Jeroen added as an after-thought.

We were sitting in his office, in the beautiful building on Rokin street, right in the centre of Amsterdam. We were lucky to study in such a location, it was five minutes’ walk away from the Dam square, with its Royal Palace and Nieuwe Kerk, and almost across the Waterlooplein, my favourite place in the whole city, because it had the illusion of giving the whole town some dimension of space. Waterlooplein overlooks the Amstel river, with its beautiful boats, and proving some freshness to the overwise overcrowded city where people march on each other’s heads. But this aspect of living in Amsterdam I would notice much later, when I would try to integrate somehow into the Dutch way of life and realise at some point, that integration was rather difficult in the city ruled by tourists.

I was in oblivion though when I was sitting in the office of Jeroen. At that moment I rather liked Amsterdam and it appealed to me, because the city itself is, of course, very beautiful, everyone speaks English, and it’s one of the most popular tourist destination. Living there as a local and employee of a Dutch company entailed, obviously, a different style of life than what I had encountered till then, but this I would discover only later.

‘’But I don’t really know anything about finances?’’ I replied to Jeroen, while still holding some hope. The company of Jeroen’s dad was rather renowned among master’s students. Some very lucky of us had gotten a job there under the recommendation of Jeroen, including one of my friends, Lena, another Russian girl who had also won a bursary, but they all had at least some background in finances, while I was a total novice in the field. Lena had also finished the master with the greatest distinction and had scored high in economics, I, however, had passed the economics, after spending three hours in total to prepare for the exam, but promptly forgot what it was about right after I had handed in my written assignment. I got six for it out of ten, a bare minimum pass.

‘’Well, you can apply and see what happens,’’ Jeroen continued, taking a sip from his coffee, and glancing at the window overlooking Rokin, and I could catch a feeling of sadness and nostalgia in his eyes. Later Jeroen got a job at the Dutch foreign mission at one of the Caribbean islands, and I think I know now why he looked slightly sad and perhaps even lost in the Dutch city, even if by all means, we were at its central position, and for all those not knowing any better, we could even represent an object of envy. After all we were in the middle of Europe, among the most picturesque canals, surrounded by amazing architecture and where the economy was prosperous and strong. But as we all know, appearances can be deceptive, as we can all witness now when we look at lives of our friends on Facebook. It can appear as pinky and rosy to the outside world, while in reality the person posting glorious pictures on online social networks, can suffer from depression and profound unhappiness. This contrast between what we project from exterior and the life in reality would become apparent to me when I started to work for a Dutch company in the role of a financial analyst of banks.

Jeroen wrote for me the name of his dad’s company, and I left his office and the Rokin to proceed to my place of residence, a rather weird apartment in the south of the city that I was renting at a good price from the commercial representation of Russia in the Netherlands. A friend of mine, another master student had rented the place before me, and I got it from her when she decided to relocate to the centre. The commercial representation had two locations, one in the south and another in the middle of the Museumplein, overlooking the Rijksmuseum, and Natalia was lucky to get one of their appartments in one of the most beautiful and sought after places in Amsterdam. I got her previous place, which was on a small street at the end of President Kennedylaan. It was fifteen minutes by bike from the centre, not far from the river Amstel, and is currently one of the most sought residential areas in Amsterdam. At that time it appeared to me as in the middle of nowhere, but places to rent were hard to find in the city, and I was lucky to get it, even if it came with some ridiculous rules attached. Since it was a residence of the official commercial representation of Russia, I wasn’t allowed to invite any foreigners inside, and had to notify the head of the mission, who was living in the apartment next to mine, if I planned to invite any Russian inside our apartment complex. After one month of living there, I realised, however, that I was too young to follow such strict rules, and promptly disregarded them. If other inhabitants noticed that I started to have friends around, they didn’t say anything, and all in all, it was a relatively quiet place to live, where I had one bedroom, and a big living room with a terrace – an absolute top of luxury for Amsterdam’s standards.

But so, the job. How I became a financial analyst of banks without any knowledge in finances, I will tell you about this narrative in my next post.

(Picture found on Lonely Planet)