In the Eastern Bloc, many children grew up with the dream of finding freedom and prosperity in the Western world. But that was never me. My sense of loyalty to my roots is very strong, comparing the connection with your country with the feelings you have towards your parents – that unconditional love you’re born with and you can never get rid of, irrespective how much you’re sometimes trying. The bond you might deny in moments of disappointment, but, as they say, blood is thicker than water. I still believe that, even now, when I live in London and I am a British citizen.
The story I want to share is about the importance of taking a leap of faith, trusting that you will be safe and protected by a force which is greater than you. And the value of learning from, leaning into and being grateful for the people who show up and support you.
I was 35 and struggling to recover after my divorce, with two young children and a demanding job (business unit director and board member), having no career progression aspirations, when our HR head sent an email, announcing the GM role for Serbia & Montenegro was available. At first, I ignored it – that was in no way part of my life’s plan and, honestly, no one, including myself didn’t believe I could do it.
Then, realising that the stretch was not unimaginable – Belgrade, where I was supposed to live, was just 2 hours away from the Romanian border – I decided to give it a try. None of my peers were interested in the role at the time – no big European capital to live in, no big team to take over… I do remember finishing my first interview and telling the hiring manager that, if I’m given the chance of a second one, I will be better. And I kept my promise.
What started as a usual preparation for a business presentation, where I just wanted to be the best I can, became a reality – I was about to take my kids and move to a country I didn’t even know the language, not to mention knowing a single person there.
All I knew was that my children would have the opportunity of an education I couldn’t afford otherwise. And somewhere, deep down inside my heart, I wanted to run away from the sense of failure I had, when I was thinking of my personal life. Spread my wings to live and love again.
This is how my love story with Belgrade and Serbia started.
Before leaving Romania, friends and family members were reminding me about the risks of moving to a country where a war criminal has just been arrested… But there was no turning back. I had given my word and was moving in a couple of months. Every colleague I was speaking to, had only one question – “Is it safe?” All what I can say now is that I never felt safer in my life than in my 3 years of living in Belgrade.
I remember the first week after I moved there, being on a plane flying over Serbia, as I was going back to Bucharest, from a meeting I had at the London headquarters. My daughter was with our nanny in Belgrade, my son was still with my parents in Bucharest, and I was… “in the air”, thinking, what have I done with my life, how will I manage? We women never stop putting all this pressure on us, feeling an almost crushing responsibility for the impact of our decisions on others.
The first few of months have been really difficult – searching for a house, working long hours, learning about the city and the culture, studying Serbian language and Cyrillic alphabet and remaining the pillar of the whole family, children and parents included. A vivid memory of those times was waking up in the middle of the night and not knowing what language to speak – Romanian, English or Serbian? But, one day after another, we started settling in.
What helped? Believing what a friend taught me – “Home is where you are”. Being grateful that this country was allowing me to work, live and educate my children there. I didn’t assess and judge Serbia through narrow European Union lenses but embraced the beauty of the city and the passion of the people living there. Appreciating what we have in common as nations in the Balkans for hundreds of years instead of clinging to the differences between us. I couldn’t have made it without the great friendships l made living in Belgrade. From parents and teachers from the International School, colleagues at work, to my physiotherapist and hairstylist, who have been there for me with all their hearts. I became a huge Goran Bregovic fan and lived all the emotions of Novak Djokovic and Serbian team winning the Davis Cup against US on Beogradska Arena. A piece of my heart will always beat for that part of the world.
All the discomfort from the beginning was worth it! Seeing my daughter coming back from school enthusiastic about the nine types of intelligence and finally feeling seen, understood and appreciated, even if she was not the best at math in her class at the time. My son being fluent in English after 4 months of kindergarten. The three of us skating around the Ada Lake on a Sunday, driving along the Croatian coast on a summer holiday or skiing with friends in Austria. Realising that you don’t need a traditional family and the safety of your home country to feel safe, happy and fulfilled.
When it comes to my professional life, it was my assignment in Serbia which showed me, for the first time in my life, that I don’t only work for a company, but I can be the leader who transforms it. I realised that, even if I wasn’t an Oxbridge graduate and spoke Upper RP English, I can have a massive contribution. I built a great local company, with amazing people, when the 2008 financial crisis was starting. Challenged local hierarchies and customs to empower every employee to thrive, bringing all of us together every year, for our day dedicated to community work. And what a great reward to see today former team members in senior roles all across Europe!
The professional achievements I had in the Adriatic region paved the way to my regional and global roles in London. Transformed my daughter and son, from the spoiled children of two Romanian doctors into global citizens passionate about equality, inclusion and diversity. Taught me that, when you open up to possibility, amazing things can happen. All of these because one day, when I as a single mother of 35, with two young children, I decided to apply for a role which was not part of my career plan. Honestly, I didn’t think it through – I just took a leap of faith.