Where is a middle-aged, balding man a 'babe magnet'? In Eastern Europe, discovers Ann McElhinney
Since the fall of communism, $130 billion in foreign investment has flowed into Eastern Europe and with it tens of thousands of, mostly male, ex-pat managers.
Many are middle-aged, middle managers who reluctantly accept the posting as part of a career-building strategy. However, on arrival they discover Eastern Europe's little talked about secret. In the words of one long-time ex-pat in the region, Eastern Europe with its beautiful, intelligent and ambitious women is "paradise for the ugly man".
Take "Paddy Mulligan" (and to be frank no one apart from his wife, whom he married in college, ever did): a typical, ugly Western man in Eastern Europe. The Wife got the house after a messy divorce and more out of desperation than ambition, he accepts the offer to be the company man in Sofia, Bucharest, Vilnius or Prague. All he remembers about Eastern Europe are news stories about poisoned umbrellas, pollution, stony-faced communists and state-controlled chaos.
And then he arrives. Raluca is waiting for him. She's wearing what he will soon realise is the Eastern European version of the business suit; a skirt the length of a long belt and a plunging neckline jacket fastened with three tiny buttons at the waist. He thinks they have sent the office bimbo.
However, Raluca is the tax consultant, who has just finished an MBA at Frankfurt University - in German. She talks enthusiastically in English about mergers and acquisitions. Suddenly Paddy Mulligan and the thousands like him realise Eastern Europe has more than emerging markets to keep a middle-aged, balding man interested.
Jeff, an investment banker who has lived in Eastern Europe since 1992, has noticed the phenomenon. "At every bar, restaurant, reception, opening or closing, you'll see ex-pat males, fifty-somethings, bit wide on the beam, either at the comb-over stage or receding ungracefully. What shocks is that these 'ugly men' are accompanied by absolute babes. They are tall, thin, perfectly formed, intelligent, and 25," he says.
Most Ralucas are not attracted by the corpulence of their ex-pat lovers but by the lifestyle they can offer. This does not make Raluca so different from Gemma from Clontarf who orchestrates accidental meetings with surgeons or lawyers. What is different is how much a relationship with a Western male can change an Eastern European woman's life.
"For women in Eastern Europe, where the average salary can be as little as $50 a month, marriage to a Western man means the women's lives are utterly changed. There's simply no comparison," says John, a journalist who has worked across the region since 1990.
Laureen Vonnegut, a US writer who has lived in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, thinks the attraction is about Western men meeting their fantasy woman. "These women never burnt their bras. In Eastern Europe, men still get to meet the compliant 1950s woman, who is the opposite of the today's Western woman," she says.
According to Steve, a publisher who has lived in the region for eight years: "Women in the West have forgotten what it means to be a woman. They dress badly and make very little effort with their appearance. In the East, glamour is the unfamiliar commonplace."
Martin, who has lived in the East for six years, says it is always easy to spot the Western women in the street. "They are the ones in the comfortable shoes. Locals would never go out without high heels. They see their femininity as a strength whereas in the West, women see it as weakness."
Of course Eastern Europe still has its poverty, drudgery and mind-numbing bureaucracy, which make work challenging. But for Paddy Mulligan, unlike with his last job in the West, home is now definitely much more appealing than the office.