The call that would change our life came Mid-August 1993. It was around eight in the evening, when a befriended Dutch consultant dropped the bomb. John poured us a stiff drink. A French colleague consultant was looking desperately for an expert in banking and our friend considered my husband the ideal candidate for this project. Now Eastern European countries wanted to imitate the Western standard of living.
The EBRD showed interest to create a new Bulgarian Investment Bank. The project leader would be the president of this investment bank and therefore he had to live for several years in Sofia: Quite a challenge, and a big change from our daily life. Our friend told John that he had hesitated to ask this because daily life in Bulgaria was not exactly the same as we were experiencing right now in one of the best parts of the Netherlands. It was a rush job and time ran out. This idea intrigued us. Apparently, it was time to change our lives.
Our friend had informed his French colleague as next morning a Mr. Perron phoned to ask if John would be interested in this assignment. Would he accept the post as team leader for this mission, and be the president of this bank-to-be? Perron would send documentation. The first meeting was already set for September 1st in Paris.
It was an interesting challenge for John; creating a bank from scratch. His banking experiences were exactly what they needed for this project. However, were we interested to live in Sofia? That was the big question. Frankly speaking, we thought rather lightly about living there; it was still Europe and Bulgaria was not at the end of the world.
Because banking knowledge was nearly non-existent in Bulgaria, the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) wrote a so-called tender to find out, which Western Bank could provide management for this project.
Let me explain what this so-called tender means. Actually, it is a kind of competition and the winner gets the assignment. International help organizations like the World Bank or the EBRD that provide money for a certain project write a “tender”. They invite several European banks to deliver a fat important looking report about how they can offer their services, giving a list of candidates to do the job as well. Usually, the bank with the best report wins, but I know that sometimes politics push certain banks… Of course, only an excellent high-tech report does not help; the quality of candidates matters as well.
For this creation of an investment bank, a real Bulgarian one, Sofia was the place to be.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was the first time that the EBRD considered Bulgaria interesting enough to pour in some development money.
There was a right moment for everything and as we were in the situation that “we had seen it all,” a big change like this was perfect to refresh our predictable life.
John went to the Paris Headquarters of the French bank where Mr. Perron was the manager of the consultant’s department.
After they looked into my husband’s blue eyes, the signing of official papers was the next step.
John met the person that would be his financial director, an intelligent and knowledgeable man. The other Frenchman was not present and when John told me this, I said that I would not be surprised if possible candidates objected leaving France to live for several years, in presumed Bulgarian misery.
When the EBRD had nominated the winner of the tender, they wanted to start this project as soon as possible, being the first one that had to deal with new ventures to privatize companies.
The EBRD had October 1993 in mind to set things in motion as, according to their optimism, they had everything under control.
A cluster of five Bulgarian banks would join in this project, all wanting to grab the opportunity to improve their knowledge and of course to boost the balance of their bank account. Next, to provide Western management, the EBRD took part in the cake with shares.
For the job, John would get a monthly salary, a car with a driver and all expenses paid. It sounded great, but details regarding those expenses remained vague.
This interesting challenge intrigued John, as it would be a pure Bulgarian bank and not a branch of a Western one. He could use all his own ideas and imagination to create a model bank and he saw it as a dream project.
This mission changed our well-organised life drastically.
Soon the Bulgarian bug infected us. We realized that we could not back off if the French bank that would get Johns’ signed contract won the tender. Therefore, it was all or nothing: continuing our convenient life or going back to basics.
My other half worked for quite some years as a managing director for one of the biggest Dutch banks. When this financial institution merged with another Dutch bank, John quit his regular job. To avoid boredom and not to waste his knowledge, he traveled regularly to countries like Poland, Hungary, and Rumania to give financial advice. So far, all assignments were short-term and as long as our children were still frequently coming home, he never accepted long-term contracts. However, our children soon would finish their studies and John ventilated that he would accept long-term assignments as well.
As an independent consultant, John got irregular job offers. Last month’s nearly nothing interesting came along but suddenly John received three job possibilities in the same week. Next, to the option in Bulgaria, another institution asked him to be vice president in Poland of a large international consultants group. The third offer meant staying in Holland to coordinate financial projects all around Eastern Europe. Financially the Polish assignment was a heavy winner. The coordination job meant traveling around a lot but the Bulgarian post, although it paid far less, was most interesting. We compared those with a pear (Poland: juicy and big), an apple (staying in Holland: predictable and solid) and a prune (Bulgaria: small and with surprises such as a possible worm).
I had guessed right: soon John found out that indeed nobody of this enormous French bank was volunteering to give up Western comfort; staying in a decent hotel “yes,” but renting a crummy place in Sofia and living in East bloc style “no”. Living in a hotel for two or three years was above the budget of this “help project”. As the president of a Bulgarian bank had to reside in this country, renting a decent house or apartment was the only solution. Hotels charged ridiculous high Western prices. Housing did not cost an arm or a leg for the locals, but ripping off foreigners was a hobby, I soon found out.
We thought this project over and 1000 scenarios raced through our mind. It would be a thrilling change of our daily life for the coming years. I knew where Bulgaria was located, but I had no clue about their mentality or lifestyle.
As my generation of spouses used to do, I always followed John when he got a job in another country. Going to Bulgaria was a free choice. Although I had to give up all my activities, I was “in” for this challenge as well. I was a busy person and everywhere we lived, I could share my creative skills. The piano was my greatest love and although a soloist career was not in my package anymore, I knew how rewarding teaching was. Several years ago, I discovered my knack for porcelain painting. My third activity was my “Easy and Elegant” cooking lessons. On top of it, I made music with friends. Most of my activities I could probably continue to do in Bulgaria and perhaps the locals would appreciate my creativity. Since the Wall had toppled, I supposed that the creepy East Bloc ambiance had changed for a better one. When the old system was still “working” in Eastern Europe, I had traveled in those countries several times. In Prague, the complete inventory of a shop was in its show-window and in Budapest, it was a bit better regarding food and stuff; especially sheet music. The food that I got in the restaurants of big state-owned hotels in Rumania was so bad, that I would not think of giving it to my dogs. In Prague, you could eat rather well when you knew some places. Budapest’s restaurants served rather greasy food. I knew that Bulgaria produced yogurt, good wines, and rose-oil, but I ignored the rest. I got no first-hand information, as none of our friends ever chose Bulgaria for holidays.
Grim spy stories were another matter. Although I love to read them, I was shocked at their original way of killing their so-called enemies with a poisoned umbrella tip.
Their rose-valley was gigantic, but I did not expect “La vie en rose” in Bulgaria. Because this country was a closed book to me, I tried to find out as much as possible. Our encyclopedias were of little help. Up-to-date information lacked and the figures about some trade were dull and unexciting to me.
Although it was not yet certain that the French Bank would win the tender, a good preparation seemed best, for “just in case”. The Balkan triggered my curiosity and I wondered how to cope with the mentality.
Its language was Abracadabra for me. I could not even read Cyrillic characters. Bulgaria’s second language was Russian. Some elderly spoke German and only a few youngsters could manage with English. John had some knowledge of Greek and Russian, so for him, the funny Cyrillic signs held no secret, but they did for me.
Finding a dictionary was impossible, even the Slavic Institute could not help. Options for an English, French, German, Italian and Spanish version did not exist either. The library had not much to offer: a few outdated travel guides with black and white pictures of remarkable monuments and some history were all I could find. Nobody thought it an interesting place to write about. Travel agents were no help either. A shoestring budget trip to a skiing resort or Black Sea skin burning holidays were not exactly helpful when you look for information regarding immigration and daily life.
I fantasized about living in Bulgarian Style. I saw scenes, with people singing folk songs, during their agricultural work. A warm welcome would wait for us, as they jumped to the opportunity to learn as much as possible to improve their standard of living. Perhaps we could rent a nice wooden Dr. Zhivago-type house and listen every evening to passionate gypsy music. Sightseeing and creating great things were on my imaginary list as well. Luckily, I have an optimistic mind, as otherwise, I would not have thought about living there because the reality was quite different.
Travel guides revealed nothing about crime and violence. Alas, they proved wrong, as the spread of evil went quicker than the printing of this document.
In wealthy Netherlands, we had all imaginable comforts.
Our children had nearly finished their studies and we felt sufficiently young to start something silly like this big project. Considering ourselves old and wise enough not to make too many stupid mistakes, we decided to jump into the Bulgarian adventure. The only thing we knew for sure was that it would not be boring.
Our children thought it a splendid idea: good for Dad to create “his own bank” and for Mom to use all her practical and creative skills. Besides, they looked forward to visiting us in a country that was new for them.
Not all our friends shared our enthusiasm. Some warned us or declared us mad. Others told us frankly that they wished they had our guts, to be in for a total change and to temporary accept a much lower standard of living. Surviving with less for a few years would not do harm.
As no information leaked out about Bulgarians’ growing nouveau rich Mafia, we still considered it a safe country.
Because friends and relatives were utterly curious, I promised them to write monthly letters with all details of our new life.
I still had two living creatures to care for and leaving without them was out of the question. We loved our dogs, a beagle, and a Labrador retriever. Moving dogs complicated matters, but diplomatic friends always had managed to bring their beloved animals in another country, so why not us?