Sunday, June 28, 2009

Banking on a Global Village

9 June 2009 - Beirut, Lebanon. HSBC in Hamra.

It’s the Tuesday after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections and the city has resumed normalcy. While I have no normalcy to which I may resume, I do feel a sense of calm that I’m finally settling here after about seven months on the run. It’s time to get cracking on the taxes, reconciling my finances, reflecting on the journey and planning the next phase, right? Right.

It’s mid morning when I walk into the big HSBC branch [bxA] down the street from my flat on Rue Makdessi in Hamra, my bustling little neighborhood on the west side of Beirut. The guy at the customer service desk tells me I need to talk to a manager and leads me upstairs to a smiling, happy woman, likely in her twenties, sitting at a desk piled with paperwork and natural sunlight cascading through the windows all around us. I tell her my story.

I’ve been traveling the world and I have bank accounts in the US and the UK, but for various ridiculous reasons I cannot access either of them. Since I’m going to be in Lebanon for a while, I was thinking maybe I could just open an account here. Is that possible? She tells me pessimistically that it’s only possible if I maintain a balance of $25,000. I launch into my saga about how one of the accounts to which I have lost access is an HSBC offshore account, off the shore of the UK, I add in case its relevant…and I was thinking that since HSBC is ‘the world’s local bank’ then maybe this HSBC branch here in Beirut could hook me up with my cash sitting in my HSBC account in the Channel Islands? I look at her longingly for an affirmative response…that yes, there is a way I can access my money. She has a sympathetic half-smile as she shakes her head slightly and explains it doesn’t work that way, ‘we’re all different banks, same name, but different banks.’ Intellectually, I of course know this because I’m a banker and understand it’s impossible, inconceivable even, that there could be a world’s local bank. I flashback to the London days when Rebecca and I fantasized about opening one of those cross-currency bank accounts advertised by Citi in Canary Wharf, imagining ourselves with one bank and multi-currencies easily transferred and converted in any country on whim. A girl can dream, right?

I press on, urging the HSBC manager with the question that brought me here, but what about the commercials? The commercial is playing in my mind as I ask the question. You know, the HSBC commercial - I think it was Phuket where they ran constantly on every channel – depicting a family that moves from one continent to another. When the family arrives in Japan, the movers have already unpacked the house, aquarium and all, so the children run straight to see the fish they last saw in their previous home…and somewhere in this lovely fairytale is the implication that HSBC awaits them in the foreign land…where they will have access to the accounts they left in their previous home country. Just like the fish, ready and waiting. What about that commercial? The bank woman is sympathetic, but she’s starting to be amused, softly laughing despite my seriousness. She explains to me again, nope, now way, doesn’t work like that. Okay, okay, I concede with disappointment and reeling with jealousy of those little kids in Japan. If they can have their little fishies, why can’t I have my money?

To make me feel better, the kind banker woman reminds me of the one option still available to me. I can open an account here is with $25,000 and a letter of introduction. Doh! I haven’t heard letter of introduction since the early, very stressful London days. I’m deflated… who is going to introduce me here if don’t have a job? Oh but wait a minute, I don’t have twenty five thousand dollars either.


Anonymous said...

What's a girl to do with no money?

Just say phuket!

Talked to your DAD this morning and he (and I)are anxiuos to hear all your travel stories.

Look forward to seeing you in Houston soon.