By Michael Willard
It was 15 years ago I came to southern Turkey with a girlfriend of six months and plopped my life savings into a place in the sun, putting that slice of paradise in both our names.
My long-time employees in Ukraine worried that I had only known Olga for a short time. She was three decades younger, and I was, in essence, a twice loser at marriage and on the rebound.
All that didn’t make a whit of difference. I was smitten. We were married four years later.
My motto for the firm was “Risk Takers, Rule Breakers, Opportunity Makers,” and that philosophy had been my North Star throughout careers as a newsman, in politics, in business — and life.
Also, I knew from the outset I was the risky bet in the relationship. She was the anchor, though an adventurist one. I was the weathered sail, a little tattered, but still seaworthy.
Fact was, I had already packed several lives into my years. She, however, was the common sense lady with a masters degree, and at 28, already a veteran of various international advertising agencies.
The awkward moment came with meeting her father, Volodya, an engineer, and someone who could actually fix things. I had never done practical, real-life stuff. Cars ran after you pushed a pedal.
I was a writer who owned ad and PR agencies in Kyiv, Moscow, and Istanbul. I didn’t even own a wrench but was vaguely familiar with what one looked like.
Should I call Volodya pops or son? He was born in 1950 while I a month after President Roosevelt died in 1945.
Olga’s mother, Svitlana , was and is a saint, and a damn serene one. I know she harbored reservations about this relationship, but she was wise and patient and realized her daughter was a near carbon copy.
As for me, I’m the dreamer, the equivalent on occasion of — figuratively here — one toke over the line. Luckily, my more expansive, ego-driven business initiatives worked well in dicey markets.
Okay, there were a few clunkers. I poured more than a million dollars in cash and labor into an eclectic and often controversial “Ukraine Observer” magazine over seven years without once breaking even.
But, boy was it fun. I’d do it again, even knowing the result. It was our gift to the community.
Yes, something clicked early on with this girl from Zhovti Vody, and years later we returned this month to our Side, Turkey home, a 10-minute walk to the Mediterranean. It is our first visit in four years.
Olga and I have been through two revolutions together. We successfully fought the mega agencies that wanted to take our business, and we have experienced the ups, downs, and all-arounds of entrepreneurship in risky markets.
And, as the song goes, we did it our way. We recognized Ukrainian business realities of bribery and kickbacks, but we swam against the tide. You don’t get a medal for this, but there is satisfaction.
True, at times we had to maneuver with sharp elbows, but that went with the territory, and we played fair.
When we lived in Kyiv, Side was a simple hop, skip and jump, and we could be on the beach before the sun was fully overhead. Our last trip from Orlando was 24-hours, three planes, and a bus ride.
However, we have promised ourselves that we will spend summers here, where we have good friends, both Turkish and English. The type work we do can be accomplished virtually from anywhere.
It’s also an hour and a half flight to Ukraine where I have two daughters, M&M (Masha and Mia) as well as in-laws Volodya and Svitlana , and a lovely sister-in-law and friend, Oksana.
A half dozen or so of my novels and other books had their beginning or end in Side, which, in a fit of glorious allegory is sometimes called Cleopatra’s bathtub, given to her supposedly by lover Marc Anthony.
I can go along with that tale. Besides, there’s no one now around who can credibly dispute it.
With its ruins of many ancient civilizations, picturesque “old town” of colorful cafes and expanse of beaches framing the peninsula, it’s our place in the sun.