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.

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.

The Dutch, Dutch coffee and Dutch borrel

Having looked at the marvels of Belgian food, let’s move to its neighbouring country and have a look at the Dutch.

The Dutch nation is situated in the Netherlands, which is a beautiful country, famous for its flatness, cosy farms, gorgeous mills, and obviously, the unprecedented amount of bikes. Bikes are everywhere, and it is a national transport. You are considered as really weird and not ‘gezellig’ if you don’t have one. It is almost a crime not to possess and ride a bike, as well as calling the Netherlands – Holland, a place, which doesn’t even exist. There is South Holland and North Holland, two provinces which are just a part of the Netherlands, but Dutch people are very tolerant, so they forgive you for this silly mistake of assuming they all come from ‘Holland’.

 Bikes are a true national trait, but so is coffee. The ritual around this divine drink isn’t replicated anywhere, not even close.

(Dutch bike)

Dutch people love coffee. Coffee is not just a drink, but an essential part of the day. Dutch people start their day with coffee, and drink it throughout the day. If you go to a canteen in the office, you won’t stumble upon tea (and if someone drinks tea, it means they come from England), you will be greeted with coffee. Coffee machine is always on, brewing.

Coffee is a Dutch institution. If you meet someone for a business meeting, or just among friends, it is usually around coffee. Even the famous Dutch expression ‘going Dutch’ was invented in relation to coffee. Dutch people don’t want to spoil their enjoyment of coffee, by sitting and thinking about who is going to pick up the bill. They know from the start that everyone pays for their own coffee, and just relax in the moment. Coffee should be enjoyed in peace, savoured in its taste, fully processed and not hurried up. They have a right to it though, as Dutch coffee is indeed a treat.

(enjoying the coffee)

Yes, Dutch people know how to make coffee. It is always made in a right way. It should never be a brown liquid, it should live up to its name. Coffee is strong, real coffee, never saved upon. While Dutch people don’t like discussing money and who earns how much, coffee is there no expense should be spared. It is probably the best-selling drink in the Netherlands. Everyone drinks it.

The first time I attended a family gathering in the Netherlands, at a birthday party of a relative of my family member, I was trying to process the awkward sequence of how food was served. It was so bizarre that back home, in Moscow, I couldn’t stop laughing about it with my friends. “Can you imagine,” I would say, “They start the party in a reverse order! They first serve coffee and cake, followed by normal food!” I was laughing about it for ages, until I moved to the Netherlands and learned the pleasure of coffee. Yes, everything starts with coffee, cake is just an accompaniment.

It is also only in the Netherlands that coffee is always served with something extra, such as a biscuit, a chocolate, or a waffle. If you know about it, you don’t even need to order a dessert. The dessert comes with coffee, included in the price. It is such a luxury, that no one can really accuse the Dutch of being not exuberant enough. Just look at how coffee is served, always and everywhere, and you will witness the ultimate exuberance. Here in the Netherlands I drink coffee, lots of it, strolling from one small cosy café to another (takeaways at this moment), ordering it after dinner, and during lunch. I savour it, I enjoy it, I study the different biscuits which come with it.

(coffee and a treat)

Coffee is not, of course, the only best thing about the Netherlands (though, extremely important!), it is also their bread and the national ‘gezelligheid’ called the ‘borrel’. Both words are difficult to translate, as is usually the case with true and unique cultural traditions, but I will try to explain.

Dutch people really love the word ‘gezellig’, and for a good reason, as it defines them as a nation. The term can be translated as ‘cosy’, but it implies so much more. ‘Gezellig’ is not just ‘cosy’, it is the whole essence of total relaxation, cosiness, and also of enjoying the moment. And ‘gezelligheid’ is the ultimate cosiness, achieved in the company of good friends, usually around coffee or a good Dutch ‘borrel’. ‘Borrel’ is an event. It is going out with friends and colleague to enjoy some nice drinks, and preferably around ‘borrel hapjes’. If you order a borrel on the Dutch menu, you will get the ultimate tapas. A selection of delicious snacks, that you can enjoy with a good glass of wine or beer, while having a good moment with your friends. It is a tradition, a perfect event to enjoy friendship, nice drinks, and great food, all in one go. It is indeed ‘gezellig’, it is indeed the absolute ‘gezelligheid’.

(Dutch borrel)

And so, to summarize, if you ever go to the Netherlands, and you want to enjoy it as a Dutch, you need to borrow a bike, drink lots of coffee, order a ‘borrel’, and try their bread. It is thin, melting in the mouth, coming in different colours. The brown bread is not just brown bread, it’s darker brown, or lighter brown, with seeds, or plain, perfect accompaniment for any dish!

The Netherlands is ‘gezellig’.

(cheers!)