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)

A lost chance

I was travelling on the train from Amsterdam to Brussels, a city where I lived at that time. I was sitting in a coupe, a separate small room, reserved for those who wanted some quietness and I remember that I was preparing for one of my exams related to English. I was studying at the Institute of Translators and Interpreters and the studies were intense. I had spent a weekend at my mum near the Hague (she lived there), and was returning home – to my beloved Brussels, a city I truly loved.

The train progressed in a good, soothing pace. I was struggling to focus on my syllabus because usually while on a train I just liked thinking: staring outside the window and at the passing landscapes and just reflect. I was also young then, twenty-one or twenty-two, and my head was always in some dream state of mind. I liked thinking about life, about love, and the future as in a fairytale. I was a dreamer.

A boy of approximately my age entered the coupe and installed himself right in front of me. I had noticed him briefly looking inside the coupe before opening the doors with his daring attitude. The train was almost empty. I always travelled between 11 and 14 to avoid crowds of people. I liked the train for myself, and I enjoyed the stillness of the coupe.

‘’My name is Menthe,’’ the guy was already talking and reluctantly I dragged my eyes away from my syllabus. I did notice that he was cute and had incredible blue eyes.

‘’My name is Ekaterina,’’ I answered, not sure whether to stop at that and put my book up in front of my face, or give him a chance. At that age I was shy, terribly shy.

‘’You study languages?” The boy commented pointing towards my book, ‘’I study medicine. My stop is in Antwerp.’’

His stop would be in twenty minutes. And thus, I decided to talk. We chatted about our studies, about languages and our countries. Menthe was Dutch, I was Russian, and it was amazing that we had both ended up doing our studies in Belgium. Menthe wanted to be a good doctor, while I told him that I wanted to be a writer one day but that I wasn’t yet ready. Suddenly, five minutes before his stop Menthe said, leaning towards me and almost touching his face with mine.

‘’I think you are the most incredible girl I’ve ever met, can I see you again?’’

I blushed and leaned backwards. It was unexpected but nice. He was extremely attractive and I liked his directness in declaring his affection for me. Which woman doesn’t like it, may I ask?

We quickly made the arrangements. None of us had a mobile phone then, and so we agreed to meet a week later, on Saturday in Brussels. I would meet him at the train arriving at four o’clock.

Next Saturday he was there, emerging from the train, the most beautiful boy on the platform. We approached each other and we kissed, first on the cheek and then on the lips, and it was long and delicious.

We walked around Brussels and then we came to my flat, which was overlooking the cemetery. I was living in the most incredible place! We cooked together a simple meal, opened wine and made love all night long. In the morning he had to go and I was feeling anxious. Would I see him again? But because I was so anxious, instead of asking him that question, I withdrew into myself and my behavior became cold towards him, and I could feel that he was puzzled.

It was only when we were next to his train ready to depart for Antwerp that he asked me:

‘’But will I see you again?’’

And instead of answering with a question ‘’when’’? I shrugged my shoulders, because I was uncertain when love was screaming into my face.

The mobile phones didn’t exist then, and thus, my hesitation was interpreted as a no. He looked at me from the train until it disappeared and I didn’t see him again.

A lost chance, as they say.