Doing business over 'the Wall' was quite exciting in the Eighties. Only the young employees were sent. Officially this was because they lacked the clout to refuse; unofficially it was because we were expendable. I remember sweating in the back of a cardboard Trabant clinging to my various identity papers and warrants. It was unexpectedly sunny, so I enquired as to why the heating was on full blast and a proud comrade explained that I was in the deluxe model with a heater. Unfortunately it wasn't deluxe enough to have an 'off' switch; in those days you bought the car with heating or without, period.
Twenty years ago this month, the Berlin Wall came down and, having ventured back repeatedly since, I've come to rather like the former Eastern Bloc. Poland, for example, has weathered the recession better than us, sticking to the original principle of not spending money it doesn't have. Much of my time is spent designing computer circuit boards and, in an effort to get repeat invitations to dinner parties, I decided to get into architecture. Not seriously, just picking up some long words and arm gestures while considering a goatee to stroke wisely when the time comes. Warsaw, the Phoenix City, is the best place to see just about every genre of building in two square miles. It's like jumping from 'B' for Baroque to 'R' for Romanesque in some virtual reality picture book.
Up until recently, Kiev left me slightly bloated and reeking of garlic, but a last-minute decision to go to Europe's most eastern capital city was worthwhile. Though not yet in the EU, Ukraine imports over €25bn worth of EU products annually and it's surprisingly accessible for us corporate pioneers. The local business culture compares favourably with some of our closer neighbours. In contrast to the unnerving formality of some French companies, the conspiratorial air at Spanish dinner meetings, and the high drama of Italian negotiations, Ukrainian meetings have a British feel — positive, constructive and enjoyable. Even the dismal weather has an eerie sense of familiarity.
Venturing East is easier and cheaper than ever, with genuine economic prosperity, an ever reducing language gap and a hunger for development. Stick to the big cities for now, and stay flexible when it comes to standard business practice. But, who knows? Next year I might be suggesting the Baltic States and Turkey. The world is getting smaller by the day.
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