*This article was featured in Smple Magazine 05/2021
Rule 1: Fake it till you make it
Rule 1: Fake it till you make it
Dimitri ushered me into a large office with walnut walls. I glanced up – it had a walnut ceiling too. Dazed, I focused on the man standing at the head of a long conference table. Anton was thickly built and dressed in black, his hair militantly short.
I smiled widely and began to walk towards him.
“You’re so small! So tiny!” said Anton.
I faltered and glanced at Dimitri, who took a step backwards. Clearly, I was on my own.
“Yes, I am quite small,” I said, extending my hand, determined to make a professional impression. This was actually quite a hard thing to do, as I’d been on a plane for several hours, desperately needed a shower, and I was wearing a t-shirt that read: ‘Welcome to Lazy Town! Population: Me!’
I had to focus when Anton asked another question. “How old are you?” he said.
“What? Oh — I’m twenty-two?”
Dimitri and Anton exchanged a look.
“We were told you were twenty-five,” said Dimitri, and both men stared at me expectantly as if I could explain my own age. I just shrugged.
Dimitri left. He smiled something close to an apology and practically jogged out of the office. I turned back to Anton and caught him studying me.
I made a show of squaring my shoulders. He made a show of noticing, amused.
Game on, I thought to myself.
“Please, sit.” Anton gestured to the conference table, and I slid into a seat. He took the chair at the head of the table.
I opened my notebook and considered the lesson plan I’d written on the plane. I looked back up at Anton and decided just to make it up as I went along.
Rule 2: Ignore the elephant in the room
Kyiv must have been playing a trick on me that day, because shortly after reassuring Anton that I was smart for a twenty-two-year-old, I was reminded that I was, in fact, very stupid.
After leaving Anton’s office I tried to distract myself by looking around the rest of the building, expecting swanky desks, some bland wall art and maybe even a superfluous water feature.
Instead, I found a neo-classical spaceship, a liberal mix of black marble and dark wood. Pipes and joists snaked across high ceilings and the gleam of polished concrete occasionally broke up the imperial lines. Everything was backlit by LED strips; the furniture seemed to levitate.
As I studied at a particularly grotesque lamp in the foyer, I felt my anxiety peak. I decided to take refuge in the women’s toilets – hoping that they had escaped the interior designer’s maniacal hands. It was like descending into a cave. Black marble floors were paired with black slate walls, a black ceiling, and black wooden cubicles. Giant Himalayan salt lamps glowed softly from within cages under the sinks. And the piece de resistance: a twelve-foot painting of Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction. I tried not to laugh. My brain was simply too small and tired.
It took me a couple of days to ask one of my new colleagues about the decor.
“They have recently been rebuilt. The rooms, Anton, he designed them,” said Olga in halting English.
“Oh, I see,” I replied, “but the lights and the paintings . . . the black . . . ? I don’t understand the -” I cut myself off and pointed at the elephant in the room - in this case, a giant gorilla mural composed entirely of neon paint splashes.
Olga just looked at me.
I had to have the exact conversation with five other colleagues before I decided to stop asking questions. No one cared or thought it odd, this aesthetic of annihilation, luxury on a dark star.
Rule 3: Carry up to £10,000 in cash through customs
When walking in central Kyiv, you’re surrounded by street sellers. Once one person had set up a stall, people gathered en mass to sell garden paraphernalia: pickled cucumbers, fermented milk, carrots, potatoes, beetroot and, my favourite, fruit-flavoured liqueurs. Most of the vendors sold from blankets spread on the ground, but some had short pallets and tables.
These markets were always cheerful, despite brutalist high-rises walling them in on every side.
They were also part of Ukraine’s ‘shadow economy’ – the millions of informal transactions accounting for a quarter of Ukraine’s GDP.
As I browsed the street markets, the ‘shadow economy’ actually felt quite wholesome, especially when one of its representatives pinched my cheek and called me a “little swallow” when I bought apples from her stall.
However, my employer was in the shadows too. That was less wholesome.
For my ten-month tenure at his investment firm, I was never really ‘on the books’. My Ukrainian visa was registered under a beautician’s company on the other side of the city, and every month I would receive my wage in a blank white envelope.
This was, of course, ridiculous. Counting my wage felt ridiculous . Researching the legal limit of cash I could bring through customs before declaring it also felt ridiculous. Carrying it through customs felt ridiculous. Watching the security guard’s face as my hand luggage, containing roughly £8000 in cash, passed through the X-ray machine – you guessed it – sure felt good. Then absolutely ridiculous, especially when he confiscated my miniature embroidery scissors.
I was convinced my employers were trying to dodge tax. But I just went along with it. My colleagues reassured me that it was completely normal and when I requested an alternative method of payment, I was handed a contract that mentioned the Cayman Islands seven times.
Eventually, the shocks were blunted. I shared an office with Dimitri and a large black safe, so I regularly saw large amounts of cash change hands.
People from nearly every profession visited my shared office. Museum curators, art dealers, construction managers, hairdressers and teachers - all at one point walked through the office and left with a bag full of bills.
One afternoon an orthodox priest walked into the office I shared with Dimitri. He wore a ceremonial black cap and a flowing black robe which hissed slightly when it brushed the floor. He spoke a few words to Dimitri and then left with his own plastic bag. The next day, I spotted an architectural sketch of a church on my boss’ desk. This was how business got done.
What characterised all of these visits was their brevity. A handshake, maybe a joke or two, a handover, and they were out the door. At least the street vendors gave me nicknames.
Rule 4: Do not go on the country retreat
Six months into the job, I decided the best way to describe the company culture was ‘paternalistic’. Anton was the paterfamilias and managed the company like a mafioso. In other words, he was a quiet man, who liked to deal in favours. He also hated compliments. I once noted that his accent had improved a lot. He just said, “Thanks, you too.”
I would watch as people literally ran to him. Entire teams of security guards mobilised when he wanted to take a trip outside the office. Their concealed weapons were never hard to spot. They moved like a machine, coordinating in a subterranean garage and gatehouses on either side of the neighbourhood, sudden as laser beams.
For most of the time I worked there I managed to float on their slick periphery. But then I decided to go on the company retreat.
After two hours in a car, we arrived at a run-down complex in the middle of a forest north of the city. The brochure advertised a hotel, conference centre and spa rolled into one.
I left the car and saw half-wild cats crowded around the entrance, and pine trees stretching in every direction, and signs warning visitors about wild boar. Through the large reception doors, I could see about forty identical clocks spread out in a lattice on the wall, each set to a different time zone like playschool Wall Street. The place was slightly desperate. Chipped paint and pine needles covered the grass, and I could see an artificial beach sunk by a small lake.
I didn’t speak enough Russian to join the itinerary, but this did not stop me from observing how close it cleaved to a cult. Team sessions kept everyone awake for 40 hours as they brainstormed the future of the company and their role within it. Some people bumped around with glazed eyes, while others rode the sleep-deprivation-high more comfortably and practically bounded with grins as big as their dream paycheque. It was easy to guess who’d get the promotion.
I was, unbelievably, having an even rougher time. My sleep had been out of whack for a while. My work week was six days long and my days started at nine o’clock and ended at seven in the evening. I had also picked up the habit of dragging the night out, desperate to reclaim some of myself. The hotel food didn’t help: nearly every dish contained fish or boiled egg. The dining area had a pastel façade on one wall, designed to look like a seaside bistro, the stage of a decayed am-dram shanty set. If someone had burst in and started singing ‘Modern Major-General’, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
So, I paced my room, watched videos on the internet, studied the hotel’s little artificial lake with its little artificial beach. I spent indefinite hours staring at the slimy wallpaper in the bathroom and thinking how The Yellow Wallpaper really made some valid points about the importance of interior design.
Eventually, I left my room to walk through the forest. The only available path took me on a short, circular route around the retreat and across the lake. By my fifth circuit, I felt like I was sleep-walking through the tall pines. The cats watched my progress from patches of sunlight.
When I got back, I hold it together long enough to request an early ride back to central Kyiv, citing a lack of teaching resources.
It took over an hour for the car to arrive and I insisted on waiting outside the reception with my bag the whole time. I was that desperate to go. I spent that last hour watching the cats, who were at least honestly ragged.
Rule 5: Do not become a British spy
“Are you a spy?” asked Anton one day.
I laughed nervously. We had just been talking about the phrase ‘under my skin’ and had somehow swung into James Bond, maybe via Frank Sinatra, but the details were hazy.
“Unfortunately, my life is not that exciting,” I said.
Anton didn’t laugh. He stared at me with his familiar expression: blank, sharp, unadorned, a mild dimmer switch in his eyes. It was during moments like this I was reminded of Anton’s previous career as a Russian naval officer.
As the silence stretched on, I wondered if he was just teasing me. After all, he had access to my work phone, monitored my emails and lent me a flat to live in. We both knew he was in the best position to know whether I was a spy. ‘Under the thumb’ didn’t quite cover it.
A week ago, I’d flown back to London, finding my uncle in an unusually good mood. Weed stench had clawed the air. “Florence,” my uncle said, “I was just having lunch with someone who works in the civil service. He says that they would be very interested in talking to you about Ukraine.”
“Civil service?” I’d replied.
“Well, not quite.” He’d leant forward. “He actually works in British intel –”
“No, absolutely not.” I cut him off and almost bolted from the room.
Standing in Anton’s conference room, thinking about this conversation, I felt the sudden urge to tell him about the whole thing.
Instead, I wrote a new word on the board. The lesson continued.
These discomforting lurches were few and far between. And yet, I often found it best to appear small, girlish and naïve. It wasn’t that hard – after all, I was one or several of those things a lot of the time. I was more intrigued than nervous. After all, standing on the edge of something unknown is always exhilarating - especially when you have no idea what you are doing. Even at my most paranoid, I felt as if I was dancing on the periphery of something vast and dark and lovely.