Thursday, 30 April 2009

So what has changed?

I have been hearing this question continuously over the last few weeks. Formulated in numerous different ways, it basically reflects general public curiosity about how my life really has changed since I left UBS and joined my current organisation (let's call it "the New Company" for confidentiality). After giving it a thorough thought, I am happy to summarise the answer in one short phrase: I finally have a life!

Let me start with a bit of background. I spent two years of my life (2006-2008) working for UBS Investment Bank in London as a Utilities M&A Analyst. I had my ups and downs and was planning the next step when life hurried forward and took it for me. I was made redundant from UBS last summer, took some time off, evaluated and revalued my life, left London and returned, searched for my dream job and – bingo! – found it bang in the middle of a financial crisis. Since March 2009, I have been employed at the New Company. As short as this time has been, I have already noticed some clear differences from the life (or lack of it) I had before.

I have no choice but to begin with working hours. It might seem obvious to some that a typical working day should be defined by a combination of two numbers: 9-5. I can almost hear my investment banking friends giggling at the idea. Yes, the hours in investment banking are notoriously long. I won't lie that every one of my weeks involved 90-120 hours of office presence. There were indeed more relaxed weeks when I got away with, say, a 70-hour schedule, especially in the summer months. Even then, my investment banking existence was hell. The culmination, however, came during my last six months while working on a pure killer-deal and feeling lucky to escape work before 3am, including weekends! It is perhaps this boot camp experience that makes me appreciate my new role at the New Company so much. To be blatantly honest, very seldom do I have to stay past 7pm on weekdays. Weekend work, while theoretically possible, is certainly not what one is expected to do on a regular basis.

Next in line are the people. There is a clear difference between my average UBS colleague and one at the New Company. First, the average age at UBS was notably lower, youngest employees being very young indeed – new analysts are recruited freshly out of college, after all. British students tended to be particularly young (20-22), typically joining with nothing more up their sleeve than an undergraduate degree. At the New Company, even those ranked lowest in the job hierarchy – my fellow Analysts – tend to be at least in their late 20's. I am almost tempted to bet that I am the youngest full-time employee hanging about. And man, do I already feel old at 25!

Besides average age, typical family situation differs dramatically. I am already used to the fact that many of my new colleagues are married, sporting at least a couple of kids. Not that UBS employees refrain from reproducing, but one has to agree that a 24/7 BlackBerry-dominated lifestyle is not exactly inductive to happy families and things.

Moreover, there is a visibly higher proportion of women at the New Company. This is particularly evident at senior levels, women in senior positions being nothing uncommon. They are, however, an exceptional rarity at an average investment bank. From a personal perspective, such women are probably not the kind you would like to find yourself in disagreement with in a dark backstreet, either.

Finally, I couldn't possibly omit much higher time predictability at the New Company. At UBS, every workday for me was set on a battlefield. One could never infer how a day would develop. Even on a Friday, even at 7pm, there was no guarantee against some miso-bankist client dialling in to request some random analysis of some god-forgotten company. There was no way of saying no, simply because the right of say was non-existent – plus you did want that bonus, right? Looking at my situation at the New Company, I see the processes more established (read: slower) and the word "tomorrow" referred to in its literal sense. As a result, I am able to plan my time without constantly preparing for emergency or keeping my blood-shot eyes fixed firmly on that blinking little curse of a device, the darn BlackBerry.

There are, of course, numerous other quality improvements my life has seen following a job change. A beautifully spacious/subsidised/diversified canteen versus a congested/overpriced/pizza-dominated one. One-hour lunch break versus choking on a sandwich at my desk. Comfortable office temperatures versus insomniac-friendly, full-volume air-con. I no longer have to ask for permission to spend Saturday and Sunday in Riga to celebrate my dad's 50th birthday. Or defend every holiday booking at the price of blood, sweat and tears. Or feel my heart hide in my feet at every missed call from "Number Withheld" first thing on a Saturday. The list goes on. So does my joy!

In hindsight, there is one thing about UBS I am certainly going to miss. That free fruit basket twice a day. But perhaps it's not such a high price to pay for a little life, after all.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Greece: Illusions no more

I mean, Greece is a great country. The food is generous and tasty. The islands are, erm, blue, white and surrounded by the sea. The sun shines abundantly during the summer and beyond. Greek pace of life is relaxed and seemingly void of stress so omnipresent in the Western world. One would think paradise on earth!

That's what I used to think, too. Until I moved there.

Here is just a short list of less glamorous aspects of living in Greece; the ones that tourists fail to notice during their short and sterile stay in the country:

> Greek people. There are lots of them hanging around everywhere. No offence – it's their country. Most of you would transpose the image of “Greek people” solely onto friendly islanders serving you spoon-sweets and inviting you for a cup of Greek coffee on their whitewashed terrace, Aegean Sea splashing about in front. Think again. How about unshaved Athenian urchins with unfinished secondary school education, brushing you aside on the underground, verbal accompaniment censored out? Sunglassed, high-heeled, all-knowing women smiling sympathetically when hearing your Eastern European accent (poor baby must have come here to find a Greek husband)? Their fellow sunglassed young men beeping insistently as you walk/attempt jogging along the road (for ladies only)? Drop by drop, little by little – all these add up.

> Queues. Everywhere and in supermarkets in particular. Greek supermarkets just do not seem to have yet embraced the concept of efficiency prevalent in the US or even the UK. The majority of check-out personnel display spectacular artistic tendencies, carefully taking each purchased item in their hands, lifting it gently, examining it with tips of fingers, looking at it longingly, what not – the rest of the queue following every such movement with bated breath. The process is crowned by check-out assistants being – indeed – of great assistance and packing all goods in plastic bags, which in Greece are still handed out free in numbers which would deprive an average Scandi-Saxon person of a goodnight's sleep. This in addition to Greeks buying a disproportionate amount of groceries per average supermarket visit. Greeks enjoy eating; Greek housewives supposedly love feeding every member of their extended family to bursting point. As a result, Greek queues are just painfully long.

> Cars. Loud, fast, some more environmentally unfriendly than others, some posh and convertible, some old and awaiting conversion to scrap. Greeks swear by their cars, public transport having secondary importance and limited coverage. Unless you drive in Athens – or live literally on top of one of those occasional underground stations – trust me, you are seriously stuck. Having a car, however, does little to solve the immobility problem; especially if you are coming back to Athens after a weekend away – via one of those two or three bottlenecks Greeks humorously dub highways.

> Bureaucracy. Have you ever tried getting a gym or, worse, swimming pool membership in Greece? Forget it. I needed five different doctors' certificates in order to qualify. Dermatologist, pathologist, gynaecologist, microbiologist and – what was the last one? – cardiologist. Note that no gynaecologist can be visited until the microbiologist's results have been obtained. Pathologist comes last in the hierarchy. Dermatologists are by far the pickiest but also the cheapest. Cardiologists have the longest queues. Gynaecologists will seriously lighten your pockets, but try to see if you can skip the receipt and pay less. Good luck.

> Parea. Παρέα is a Greek word for a close circle of friends spending basically every spare moment of their lives together. It's like, you call Giorgos, he calls Eleni, she calls Maria, she calls Giannis, he calls you, and that's us sorted. We get together in our favourite coffee place in Kolonaki or Kifissia (full of cigarette smoke and Greek music, of course) and sit around for a good couple of hours not really discussing anything (you eventually run out of meaningful conversation material after meeting the same people 5 times a week for the last twenty years). How about fresh blood to the parea? Possible, of course. Some people in your parea may have their own, slightly differently defined, parea and occasionally let the two overlap. When you get into a relationship, you may join your partner's parea. Thinking about joining a parea without your partner? Careful here – don’t forget you're in Greece.

> Full window shutters. It is common knowledge that Greece gets plenty of yearly sun. A blessing, really. Sun should typically be enjoyed on an open terrace (in a private house) or a balcony (in blocks of flats). Sun should strictly NOT be enjoyed inside the rooms; bedrooms are a particular no-no. Every Greek window is therefore tiny and additionally equipped with a full garage-like shutter mechanism to prevent any sign of light from entering the room. As a result, nights in Greece are dark as hell. I particularly hated waking up in utter darkness and wondering what hour of day or night it could be. Shutting the sun away… isn't the idea just insane?

> Football. Possibly my favourite point. I mean, I love good football. Ask my male friends how many fun hours were spent in pubs watching high-profile matches over junk food and cider. Sadly though, Greece and good football just do not go together; the only exception to the fact is by now pure history. Greek football clubs are even less superior (more inferior?) against the national squad. Still, they enjoy enormous fan support, with Greek football fans' loyalties biased to the extreme. It's like you're born into supporting a particular team and are, by default, entirely colour-blind to any team in the world (!) not sharing your team's colours. Let me give you an example. If you're a Panathinaikos fan, you like Celtic because they, too, are… green. And you do not like Rangers, because, unlike Celtic, they are NOT green. Personally, I never quite understood this colour thing. I have a feeling I will die before I do.

> Absence of public pavements. Please don’t get me started on that one. I have written a full note on the subject a while ago, so see here: