An unlikely financial analyst of banks

Back in my place I checked the name of the head of the company that Jeroen had written down for me and wrote a quick letter:
“Dear Mr. Wulf,
I am a very dedicated and committed person. To your company I could bring some new, creative ideas, and the knowledge of politics and European relations, which could be very helpful in financial matters. I am especially interested in macroeconomics.
Please, see my enclosed CV for more information about my background and contact information in case MoneyCare will need a person like me.”
I then went with a disk to the Internet shop to print the letter and my CV, then to the post office, and once back home decided to put it out of my mind. I was relatively frank in my letter, in terms of making it clear that I didn’t possess any knowledge in finances, and thus, didn’t expect any reply. My fate was unclear, and I remember that during that evening I went to the bank of the Amstel river to sit on a bench and stare at Amsterdam. There wasn’t much to see, since it is all flat, but I could feel the city responding in a way. The river Amstel with its boats, the beautiful century-old buildings, people on bikes commuting everywhere, the overly dramatic sky because of the flatness, – I could feel that there was more for me in this world to explore, and Amsterdam seemed like a right place to be for someone who was used to travel and wasn’t sure which was a correct path in life.
A week later I was invited to the interview by MoneyCare. I had no idea what the company could possibly offer me as a position, but I certainly became optimistic. Taking with me some diplomas, and a talisman left to me by my grandfather I went, for the first time, to the office of MoneyCare to meet Mr. Wulf, the head of the company.
The office of MoneyCare was situated not far from the business area of Amsterdam city, between a Turkish bank and a recruiting company. On top of the building the letters “MoneyCare” were greeting cars and passers-by on the pavement. During my ride on the underground to reach the Bijlmer station where MoneyCare was located, I was confronted for the first time with the other side of the city. The pretty canals and old buildings gave way to industrial constructions, and big huge buildings, dedicated to banks. It was an area I would certainly avoid under any other circumstances as it looked totally the opposite to why I had come to Amsterdam in the first place. I was attracted to its history and culture, but the numerous banking buildings I could see at the Bijlmer station were an indication of a life in the city where finances and big corporations ruled.
MoneyCare itself was spread across two floors in a five-storey building, and I had to press a button to get in. Inside, it looked like any corporate office, with bare walls, and minimum furniture, and I remember that I hesitated for a few seconds before proceeding to the reception on the first floor. It didn’t really appeal to me, the whole corporate allure around MoneyCare, but I reminded myself that I needed a job, and that an invitation to an interview was a promising gesture, even though I failed to see in which capacity I could ever be employed by a financial company.
At the reception a nice old lady showed me to Mr. Wulf’s office and said that he would arrive in a few minutes.
While waiting for the head of MoneyCare I had a look around the office. It was full of books, not all of them related to finances. Though on the table where I was sitting was a book quite related to finances which gave me a fright.
‘Alpha and Beta in investment decisions’ I read on the cover. I started to feel something resembling fear. I had no idea what alpha and beta could possibly mean in the context of finances.
What the hell was I doing in that room, I asked myself?
At that moment Mr. Wulf stormed into the office, armed with two cups of coffee, several books and a newspaper. Physically he had lots of grey curly hair, had a slightly mad and curious look on his face and at a more careful examination resembled Einstein.
He smiled at me, sat on the opposite chair and said, “I liked your application letter. Very brief and concise.”
I just nodded in return. My sincere hope was that Mr. Wulf wouldn’t ask me anything related to finances and send me home as soon as he realised that I couldn’t really tell the difference between macro and micro economics and that I was simply after a job…to have a job.
“So…” Mr. Wulf winked at me as if reading my mind, “what do you know about finances and why did you apply for a job at MoneyCare?”
Realising that I couldn’t possibly reply that finances were the last thing on my mind until recently, and that I applied for a job due to the lack of any other options, I tried my chance in talking bullshit.
“Well, Mr. Wulf,” I started, in what I judged as a confident voice, “to tell you the truth, my knowledge of finances is rather limited. But I’ve always been fascinated by this world. I mean, when you read some financial magazines, all this discussion about the alpha and beta of finances and macroeconomic developments. I always found it interesting and wanted to see how it is in practice, the world of finances.”
Okay, let’s pray now that he won’t ask me either about alpha, beta or macroeconomics, I told to myself.
“Hmm, interesting. I see that you studied languages and international relations. And you like reading… so what do you enjoy reading?”
This was rather an unexpected question for an interview, for a job in finances, but a good one. Since reading had always been my biggest passion, I surely could talk about it in a more relaxed manner than discussing… what was it again, alpha and beta in investment decisions.
“So, about reading,” I started in a confident voice and even attempted to take a sip from my cup of coffee. Well, not quite. My hand was trembling. Who manages to drink coffee during an interview, may I ask?
“I like all kinds of books, but especially French literature, also some Japanese. I am reading an author named Murakami now,” I said while putting back the cup. No coffee, after all.
As it turned out Mr. Wulf shared my love for books and we spent the next forty minutes discussing different styles of writing, Kafka and Marcel Proust. I was only hoping that Mr. Wulf wouldn’t go back to the topic of finances. However, after a while he came back to the financial issues and in a quite unexpected manner.
“Actually, what we are doing here, is a real Kafka,” Mr. Wulf looked at me trying to see if I got the point. I did not. Although I was familiar with the writings of the Czech author, I missed the connection between MoneyCare and the fiction of Franz Kafka.
Mr. Wulf tried to explain. Taking from the table a piece of paper he started to draw some schemes, explaining on the way the banking business. It was the first time that I got a definite feeling that Mr. Wulf was slightly mad.
“Banking business is quite a metamorphosis,” reiterated Mr. Wulf his fascination with Kafka. “Only a fool looks at figures and annual reports of banks. You have to dig deeper in order to understand the whole banking business. Read carefully newspapers from as many countries as possible and you don’t need to read anything else to make your investment decisions.”
Mr. Wulf then proceeded to draw some graphs and connecting his pictures to some of the banks and countries. On one picture he drew an elephant, while on the other he drew a rose.
I tried to hold on my face an intelligent, concentrated gaze, hoping that Mr. Wulf would have the impression that I was following his thinking process. Apparently, I succeeded, judging from what the boss of MoneyCare said next.
“We have an opening in our banking sector. We need an analyst to analyse banks. Would you be interested?”
Since Mr Wulf was looking at me with a serious expression, I could conclude that it wasn’t a joke. I glanced at my CV, which lay next to the admirer of Kafka wondering if he had read it at all.
“Of course, I understand that you have never studied finances but I think that you have big potential to become a good financial analyst. You are interested in politics, you like reading and I like your way of thinking”.
Okay, it must be the talisman of my grandfather, which is helping. Otherwise, I couldn’t see how else Mr. Wulf could spot my banking potential.
“You could start by analysing one or two banks, gradually building up your capacity, and after some time I expect you to be able to be responsible for one of our portfolios. Meanwhile, you could help us with improving our new internet system from the language point of view. You could begin by translating some texts from Dutch into English.”
I started to see the connection with Kafka. The situation was indeed surreal. And if one of the personages of the writer’s books woke up one day as an insect, I faced a serious possibility to wake up one day as a financial analyst of banks and a translator from a language which I didn’t even know.
“I don’t speak Dutch, Mr. Wulf.”
“I don’t think that it will be a problem. We introduced a new automatic translation system called Trados,” the head of MoneyCare winked at me as if this simple revelation should put me immediately at peace.
I sighed. With a degree in translation I knew what he was talking about (though I had a definite feeling that Mr. Wulf didn’t know what he was talking about).
“Mr. Wulf,” I tried to explain, “Trados is not an automatic translation system – it’s just a tool to assist the translator. One always has to know the language from which to translate.”
But my explanation seemed to be in vain. Mr. Wulf was definitely a person who believed in miracles.
“I am sure you will manage it,” he started his sentence to continue it in Dutch.
For a brief moment I just stared at Mr. Wulf. He was addressing me in Dutch as if simple will power or the power of his gaze was enough to convince me that I did speak Dutch.
But I didn’t.
Finally realising that I wasn’t lying when I said that I didn’t speak Dutch, Mr. Wulf switched back to English.
“Why not just give it a try? I am sure that with the help of Trados you will manage just fine!”
Mr. Wulf was clever. I was so relieved that we were back in the English mode of conversation that the idea of Trados didn’t seem so grotesque anymore.
“Well, I guess that I could indeed try,” I mumbled in a weak voice.
For Mr. Wulf this was a definite yes. He looked at me with a satisfied smile and saying that he would be back in two minutes, went out of the room. I stayed in my chair looking at the seagulls outside the window and wondering whether it all was real. Mr. Wulf seriously thought that I could work as a financial analyst of banks and translate from Dutch into English. I told myself that I had to reread Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka if I got the job.
The head of MoneyCare came back with a file.
“This is the standard contract we can offer you. We have only to put your name on it. Take it home, read it carefully and you can bring it with you on your first day at work. When can you start?”
Mr. Wulf gave me two pieces of paper. On the first one I could only understand the title “Financial analyst”, since it was all written in Dutch. But this was a definite proof that I wasn’t dreaming.
Later at home with the help of one of my Dutch friends I went through the whole contract. It was permanent with a trial period of three months. As my friend explained to me, I was extremely lucky. MoneyCare was providing a pension, a stable salary, forty hours of work per week and twenty-five days of holidays. And, most importantly, the company was willing to prove to the Dutch immigration authorities that I was an Einstein.

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)