February 21, 2014 7:02 pm

The Diary: Izabella Kaminska

‘The Dolder Grand, where I am due to speak, turns out to be Zurich’s most prestigious hotel’
James Ferguson's illustration of the Dolder Grand©James Ferguson

I am on the train from Geneva to Zurich, bound for the annual forecasting dinner of the Swiss Chartered Financial Analyst society, where I’ve been invited to speak about the virtual cryptocurrency Bitcoin. All I know is that the gathering is at the Dolder Grand hotel, that most people will be CFA society members and that I’ve had about an hour’s sleep the night before.

All in all, I have a love-hate relationship with public speaking. On one hand, I love to do it because it’s a great honour and a wonderful opportunity to articulate one’s views without fear of interruption. On the other hand, I suffer from stage fright.

How monumental the stage fright is depends on a number of variables: how much sleep I’ve had the night before – itself dependent on how intimidated I am by the event; how familiar I am with the topic I’m discussing; the composition and hostility of the crowd; and, finally, the nature of the appearance.

I make myself do these things, nevertheless, because (a) I’m a glutton for punishment and (b) I’ve been told that it’s only with practice and conditioning that I can suppress my public-speaking demons. And true, sometimes it can turn out absolutely fine. Other times it can be . . . well, awkward.

To the annoyance of most of the train’s dining carriage I find myself muttering and gesticulating furiously as I rerun the key points in my head in a vain attempt to memorise some emergency phrases.

. . .

The Dolder Grand turns out to be Zurich’s most prestigious hotel, which is another way of saying that it’s more intimidating than I ever imagined. An impressive “movies are made of this” driveway leads to the gargantuan modernised castle, which sits prominently on a hill overlooking the city. I arrive by taxi. But all around me there are supercars.

The evening air is crisp and my breath lingers as I thank the randomly Russian-speaking taxi driver, and wonder to myself whether I should ask him to pick me up later? After all, how do you get an affordable taxi around here?

As I walk through the corridors on my way to the drinks reception I note that the place is filled to the brim with creepy modern art, illuminated by extremely moody and artistic lighting. Everyone is serious. Everything is sparkly and shiny. Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut rushes to the forefront of my mind.

I’m slightly late, because of a train timetabling error on my part, and the drinks reception is already in full swing by the time I enter what seems to be the gold room. The lack of sleep is beginning to make everything feel very dreamlike and blurry. Like Jack Torrance in The Shining, I would do anything for a drink to relieve my mental block. But I decide it’s better to ask for coffee. A bow-tied waiter appears out of nowhere to take my order.

A Swiss-German man tries to explain his Bitcoin valuation model to me. We’re being constantly interrupted but I think he’s insisting that the currency’s value lies in the inflexible supply. I think I hear a reference to Austrian School economics. I can’t really make him out because it’s noisy and he has an accent. All I know is, if he’s any indication of what the audience will be like, I could be entering hostile territory. I seem to fervently disagree with almost all his points.

We proceed to the dining room, where I finally get a good look at the crowd. Men outnumber women at least five to one, if not more. Most are wearing business suits and some even have little CFA society pins on their lapels. Needless to say, I feel like a total outsider.

It’s time. I take my position on the podium, gulp down the water provided, and begin.

. . .

In hindsight, it is not the best performance of my life. Eventually I see someone making a “cut off’” gesture at me from the audience. The primeval part of my brain interprets this as a final judgment of the society members. I prepare to be ejected from the gathering and never asked back. Thankfully, it turns out that it’s just the end of my allocated speaking time and we will now be having questions.

The inquisition phase of the evening goes much better and I realise that I am generally much more confident when responding to direct points. But the next day I’m back in Geneva preparing to do the whole thing again for the CFA society members who live in the French part of Switzerland. The venue this time around is the equally imposing President Wilson hotel on the lake. But this time it’s a smaller crowd, and a much more informal setting. I am much more confident. There are also more women in the audience.

A lively question and answer session plus positive feedback after my appearance reassures me that I have probably performed more competently. I put this down to the adage that practice makes perfect, and conclude that I can indeed be cured of my affliction with the correct conditioning.

. . .

I have just arrived in Warsaw’s Okecie airport on a direct flight from Geneva to visit my Polish family. It’s the first day of the Winter Olympics and, as a keen skier, I’m annoyed I’ve missed the opening ceremony as a result of the flight.

It’s pretty late and we are hungry. I’m not optimistic about our chances of finding somewhere to eat that late, but then I remember Warsaw is nothing like Geneva. And true to form, the city is more vibrant and abuzz than it’s ever been. We easily find a restaurant open and serving past midnight. And for less than 200 zloty (£40) my husband and I eat like kings. To boot there’s a rerun of the opening ceremony on the restaurant’s TV screens.

My annual Warsaw visit follows a familiar pattern. There are visitations with old friends for reminiscences over coffee and cheese cake. There’s a visit to my bridge-playing great aunt, a war hero, who even at the age of 89 is more familiar with current affairs and technology than most thirtysomethings. (This time she informs me I have too many mobile phones and that I should get a handset with two Sims so I don’t miss her calls. Also that she’s suspicious of recent advances in artificial intelligence.)

And finally there’s a visit to a now snowy Powazki cemetery, Warsaw’s own Père Lachaise, where hundreds of impressively decorated headstones mark the final resting places of the deceased but are so densely packed you need knowledge of key markers to navigate yourself efficiently or be lost. In my case a giant pyramidal tomb points the way to the granite obelisk that marks my mother’s grave and commemorates the date 2011. I think to myself that she would have liked my story about the Dolder Grand.

Izabella Kaminska is a reporter for FT Alphaville

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