It was a crazy idea from the start.
Here I was in mid 2008 – a 24-year-old female; two years of full-time investment banking experience and a handful of internships; fluent in Russian, Latvian, English and, historically, German and Swedish (there are living witnesses); with existing job offers spanning from Riga and Moscow to Stockholm and Frankfurt; freshly made redundant from a sinking ship of an investment bank. In a nutshell, quite a package.
The most prudent decision, both career- and money-wise, was Moscow. I would be joining Russia’s leading investment bank, with an outstanding domestic and CIS-wide platform, blah-blah-blah, a guaranteed annual package of over US$200k, and they all would live happily ever after. Or I could move to culturally inspired Stockholm to join the country’s oldest private bank and spend those dark winter nights improving my Swedish. I could also go for the Frankfurt option and resume my regular Sunday afternoon’s dancing-under-skyscrapers (there’s nothing else to do in Frankfurt on a Sunday). I could also stay in London and look for job opportunities, which, at the time, were still available. Finally, at the end of the day, I always had the black-sky scenario to return to Riga. But I really wasn’t quite THAT desperate yet.
And the winner is…
I applied my best female logic and decided to move to… Greece. I mean, the summer was on the horizon. My last year’s bonus was firmly deposited at the UK’s stronghold of a bank – in pounds, the world’s most stable and reliable currency (right?). I could produce reasonable conversational Greek and knew more Greek songs by heart than most natives could ever dream of. Finally, I had just met what I thought was the love of my life – a Greek, of course. The choice was clearly a no-brainer. Greece, baby. Like here, nowhere.
The summer went by (as amazing as it was, it is not the topic of the current post). The pound losing value against the euro quicker than you could say “depreciation”, I slowly came to face the music. Life without work was great up to a point. I loved travelling around a jewel of a country, spending hours in the coolest Athenian gym, cooking exuberant Greek dishes, being taken out for coffee in full glory of the Acropolis, and editing my photos to mind’s utter delight. But I felt something was missing. Something to define my life professionally; something to wake up in the morning for, broad smile shining on my face. Not to mention that my money reserves were anything but growing, either.
Let the job search begin
A job in Athens, initially only a possibility, suddenly seemed like an extremely good idea. Armed with those few Greek connections that I had, some groovy banking experience imported from London – and plenty of humour – I began my job search.
My first set of interviews was with a start-up M&A boutique where one of my connections was now working. I cannot say I was impressed. The company seemed to lack the focus somewhat, and generally made an impression of a risky affair. Working hours sounded very similar to pure-form investment banking I had just escaped from. On top of it all, my connection used to be a very close friend indeed, and I just wasn’t sure that having him as my senior would be a fantastic idea. I got a firm offer and disappointed everyone in the company (they visibly loved me) by an equally firm refusal.
The next interview, arranged through a headhunter friend, was with a rather respectable real estate advisory firm. I met a few people (all Greeks, coming to see me ena-ena in a bit of a zoo-like fashion). My main problem was the lack of interest in real estate (my heart is forever with power) and poor familiarity with the sector (which I tried to fake, unsuccessfully). The company kept me on the edge on my seat for about a month, and finally got back with apologies, but due to unstable market conditions they were holding off on hiring, etc. They would call me in a couple of months, perhaps. Uh huh, sure.
That’s where it all got more interesting
It was a good thing I had been saving my sense of humour until then, as I would need it big time for the interviews that followed. The company was a Southeastern Europe focused private equity / real estate advisory with head office in Athens and a few regional bases outside Greece. The guys had seen my CV beforehand. Yet their first question, as I had literally put my foot through the door, was whether I spoke… Serbian. I was frantically trying to remember if I had put Serbian in my CV by mistake? Or perhaps I was expected to list the languages I DID NOT speak in addition to those that I did? Confused, I admitted no knowledge of Serbian whatsoever* – unless, of course, we could count my humble singing of Gibonni’s songs (in Croatian) in the shower as a sort of language proficiency? It’s the same language anyway. Right?
They didn’t look convinced and instead asked me the next question.
“How long do you think it will take you to learn Serbian?”
I was tempted to look at my watch. Were the guys expecting me to come up with a deadline, on which we would later reconvene for a language quiz, or something? Deep inside, I was hoping this was all a joke. I smiled and said I had no plans as yet to learn Serbian, unless I had a very good reason to do so.
The guys looked unimpressed. And how long would I take to learn Bulgarian, they asked. Bulgarian? Was I supposed to tell the complexity between the two Slavic languages involved? On first thought, I would imagine Bulgarian was easier to learn than Serbian, as it was more similar to Russian. However, unlike Serbian, Bulgarian has one weird archaic Cyrillic character that I find terribly confusing. In addition, I had already brought my Serbo-Croatian to some kind of basic level thanks to my passion for the songs from former Yugoslavia. I could even pronounce “kad pukne na dva dijela nije vrijedno, jer više ne kuca ko jedno” without missing a beat.
In short, confused for the rest of the interview, I continued a mental comparison of Serbian and Bulgarian, wondering why anyone would invite a native Russian speaker to an interview while what they really needed was a Serb.
One last try
Not yet discouraged by those few fiascos, I accepted another interview invitation, again with a real estate advisory firm. If you think my previous experiences were completely non-conventional, behold. I showed up, pampered and polished from head to toes and with my arsenal of financial knowledge duly refreshed. This time I was going to be successful at faking real estate sector expertise.
Sadly, I needed none of that. I was invited straight through to the boss’s office (!), seated in a leather chair double the size of myself and introduced to the CEO himself – a small elderly grey-haired gentleman. After casting a quick look at my legs, he announced that I was “a very strong candidate indeed”, picked up his phone and started calling his senior banker friends to help a “very good lady” with a job. One of the friends sounded like a distant “connection’s connection” from London. We agreed to meet within a couple of days to chat about the Greek job market. The CEO then gave me his number, urging to call him “absolutely anytime”. The entire process barely lasted ten minutes.
A few days later, I met my new connection; let’s call him Kostas. I asked for some job search tips. The word “tips” made Kostas laugh. “Oh you would like a tip, would you,” he said, “Be careful with that CEO guy.” To my legitimate question why, he hesitated for a while and then showered me with gossip. Did I know that the guy was 65, had changed a handful of wives, held a harem of lovers, and that his 25-year-old wife was now pregnant? “So you really wanna be careful with that CEO guy,” he said again, “Especially if you’re a… (here he paused) woman kinda thing”.
At that point, I really didn’t want to know anything else about the Greek job market. I made a few final conscience-clearing attempts to get a job and fled the country shortly afterwards, back to the familiar shores of London.
Next time I’ll think twice before relying on that female logic of mine.
*Author’s note: in a fashion most ironic, I actually did learn Serbian later – though for a different reason.