Sunday, December 19, 2004

Au Revoir

At the tail end of the graduation party at Les Caves in Paris, surrounded by sweaty bodies and crying eyes, I felt myself pulled by the arm toward the wall. The puller was a Spaniard with dark laughing eyes and beautiful dimples, a friend of friends whom I had always enjoyed talking to but hadn’t had a chance to know very well. So imagine my surprise when he said in his thickly accented rolling voice as I gave him a hug, “I have something important to tell you, listen carefully.”

“There is no doubt, my dear, that you are incredibly smart. There is no doubt, of course, that you are very very pretty. And there is no doubt that you are the best dancer I have ever seen. You are a blue princess, and someday very soon you will meet your blue prince. He will come and he will be good enough to deserve everything that you have to give him. Now, that person is not A [insert name of heartbreak]. That person is probably not B [insert another]. And upon deep consideration, I have to admit that the person is probably, probably not myself.”

Here I smiled through the tears running down my face.

“But that person is coming, so you should be ready, and not always looking back. You have so much in front of you, I am sure of it.”

And then we said goodbye amid a background of “le Marseillaise” roared out by a naked rugby team. I found out later that “blue prince” is the literal translation of “prince charming” in Spanish. You see why I cannot leave these people? Sure, it sounds glamorous to say that you’ve got amazing friends in London, Madrid, Moscow, Delhi, Dubai, Cairo, Sydney, Toronto and Paris, but when all you want is to drive your car fifteen minutes down the road to see their smiling faces and share a bottle of wine and then you suddenly realize that you will never ever live together in the same place again, the glamour tastes like ashes in your mouth.

One more queasy trans-oceanic flight, dark bumpy bus ride and yellow cab journey later, I have had a little more time to gather my wits. The reason this weblog was entitled willy-nilly was because I really wasn’t certain, coming into INSEAD, that it was the right choice for me. After awhile it was too late and troublesome to change the name, but the sentiment has done a full 180ْ since I started. The reasons are in every entry and every memory I’ve saved. There has been so much that I have not captured or which has had to rest between the lines. But you can tell, can't you, how momentous this experience has been? I am not the same girl as the one who crashed her passenger side mirror into the back of a truck and ran into the amphi late on the the first day of school.

Now, sitting here in a chill little apartment back in NYC, my tear-sore eye sockets hurting from staring too long at the glare of the computer screen trying to figure out how to write all these longings in my chest, INSEAD seems like a recent dream full of heat and colors and sounds, a Technicolor dance show from which I’ve been pushed into the grayscale real world. I’m sure I’ll get over it in a little while, but I’m just as sure that I will never get over it. Not really, not completely. For now though, I am going to take the Spaniard’s advice, and try to look forward, because I know the good stuff isn’t over yet.

So is this goodbye? No, more like au revoir, I think ;).

Thank you for reading, folks . . . INSEAD fantasticus est, no willy-nilly about it.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

By the pricking . . .

Just back from a four day trip to Cairo and Sharm al-Sheik . . . fourteen hours of travelling today, baby, on zero hours of sleep after a last night spent dancing to songs that will forever forever mean INSEAD to me.

But overall, this trip has been exhausting, through and through. When you take more than hundred people on such a large-scale trip, there’s bound to be friction and travel delay. Mix with Egypt, add water, and that spells a logical nightmare.

The trip started off rather miserably after an interesting evening (for some) at the Endgame party (an INSEAD tradition where the ladies each get to choose a boy by secret invitation . . . you use your imagination as to how the evening proceeds). I was tired, cranky, and didn’t want to write my business plan. Spent the flight and first night in Cairo tapping away trying to fit triangles in round holes and blow up weak assumptions into convincing (or at least coherent) arguments. In the end, my partner blew up at me and said, “It’s 8 in the morning, we’re leaving for the pyramids, I came on this trip to hang out with my friends in the last days of INSEAD, let’s not quibble about the quality of this thing—we will graduate even if we turn it in as is.” I went in the bathroom, looked myself in the eye, and pricked a shameful little hole in that balloon of arrogant integrity that I was clutching behind my back. He was right, I was wrong, but I’m still a bit sore about it—perhaps its no revelation that I am at heart a nerdy little thing, but it sure hurts to turn in shitty work.

At any rate, life went on. That morning improved as I ticked one item off my life-list. I’ve now seen the pyramids! Having those amazing aliens of stone suddenly appear out of the blue mist in the bus window literally brought tears to my eyes. How can and could people as soft and little as us make these things? Complete and unapologetic and solemn, they seemed to echo the sadness and pride of their history. I ran in my sandals and felt the wind in my hair, and I was a little girl reading about world wonders in a picture book, imagining myself five thousand years ago standing in the sun and looking up like I was that day, feeling like I could be anybody, anybody, and my time would always be too short for all the life was bursting out of my heart. I sat on a rock and sketched and sketched, but the pyramids were too big, my pencils too small. Groups of Egyptian schoolchildren kept touching me and asking with wide smiling faces, “Soura? Soura?” which means picture, picture. I guess Chinese girls are pretty exotic for that part of the world.

The sunlight in Sharm was lovely, as were the stars in the desert (a religious experience in themselves) during a break from Quad biking through the sand with Bedouin headscarves wrapped around our faces. But the wind was incessant, the jellyfish too friendly during snorkelling (my right arm and right arse cheek are spotted with angry red welts, ick), and the water salty enough to make you gag. I’d recommend going when it was just a bit warmer than December. Socially, it was odd because we were rather spread out over the resort, and people clumped in small groups with relatively little overlap—a result of bad communication and laziness, I suppose. There is a fatal sense of denouement in the air, a resignation that every appointment made is just another step toward the end.

Eh, but I’m getting ahead of myself. No time to be sad yet, why waste time on sadness when there are still memories to be made? Never say never, right? Graduations tomorrow, folks, and after that who knows. Today’s my last night at the Chateau. I think I’ll spend it watching cartoons and eating Chinese takeout.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Best Therapy

When I walked up to the check-out and volleyed my burgeoning shopping bag onto the counter, the guy smirked and asked, “shopping day, is it?”

Okay, so what if I occasionally use shopping as a substitute for self-actualization? Dude, buying stuff makes me feel good. Trying on the newest little sports shorts and side-tie tanks (which I know they had twenty years ago too) makes me feel good. Prancing around in hot pink vinyl heels with silver zippers makes me feel good. Buying ten more panties in impractical colors makes me feel good, goddamnit!

Shopping as therapy. It works, but only about as well as ECT. You suddenly feel miraculously better about your life, like you actually have purpose and talent and vision and worth . . . but the effects are rather ephemeral. Well, nothing’s perfect, I suppose. For me, there seems to be an inverse correlation between amount of money spent and amount of self-worth gained. Still, the benefits are immediate and noticeable, even if the shopping is limited to something as small as a thong. Like ECT, though, shopping has its long-lasting negative effects, only noticed later when the credit card bill comes in.

So the purchases for today: five pairs of shorts, four tank tops, two skirts, two bras, six panties, one pair of shoes (but those were a gift). But this is only the second time I’ve gone a little nuts at the mall since I’ve been in Singapore, so all in all, I’m rather proud of myself (although my shoe collection has grown by five pairs—I can’t help it, I can’t resist anything pink or white with a bow!).

Ugh. But seriously, it’s time to set my nose to the grindstone and finish off these last assignments before I blast back to France on Wednesday. I cannot wait to see everyone again! In terms of travel, Singapore has been absolutely amazing. But in terms of feeling at home . . . well, maybe you always count what you knew first as home. Our chilly chateau with the grand entrance, barren square patch of grass in the left courtyard and high-ceilinged cloistered rooms is the closest thing I have right now to a home base. I’ve discovered that I’m a provincial little girl at heart, and I get homesick easily.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Shanghai baby

I remember a vivid picture from my childhood, sitting on the damp packed dirt of our courtyard in Shanghai, with my grandfather who was shooting the shit with his (even then) grizzled buddies, all of them trying to circulate the hot humid air using old straw fans as I picked at the brick-lined flowerbeds and listened to the crickets chirping, as close as your skin. And I remember looking up to see a velvet indigo sky blanketed by a cobweb of white stars, the kind of night sky that makes you believe all the crazy stories your grandpa will spin about how they got up there.

Who knows if the memory was real, or if it is a construction of my over-romanticized mind. At any rate, it is not real any more.

Shanghai these last six days has been a fun, exhilarating, frustrating, disappointing, sobering, and most of all confusing experience. There is no sky or stars to be found in Shanghai any longer. Modernization untempered by environmental regulation has created a thick cloud of gray that obscures the horizon and varnishes the glare of month-old skyscrapers. I was a bit sad to find all of the filth that I remembered, with none of the charm. Only borrowed architecture (albeit they are certainly tall, posh, and well copied) and an almost artificial frenzy of development development development.

I arrived and went to Grandma’s for lunch. My grandparents are much shorter and slower than the last time I saw them (a few years ago). Funny how they thought my Chinese had drastically improved (I don’t tend to use it when I’m in English-speaking countries). The first night was spent at an expat party (I got turkey and cranberry and yams on Thanksgiving!), making eyes at western boys and hearing ideas for the next themed costume party. Like INSEAD all over again.

On Friday the weather turned bitter cold and I (surprise!) missed my flight to Beijing on Friday night in the midst of a crazy interview/network/coffee meeting schedule (lesson: you cannot find a cab in Shanghai at rush hour. You just cannot). We sipped lovely homemade cosmos in our little island on Zhao Jia Bang Rd (D and I stayed with two nice boys- friends of a friend from INSEAD) and made ourselves so sloshed and warm that we culdn't make our lazy way out to the clubs until 2:30am . . . Whoever told me that Shanghai is like NYC is wrong. Perhaps this is my New York snobbery speaking, but nothing is like NYC. The club (Lot 16) was dead—just one little group dancing (although this girl was hot! Great dancer). D unexpectedly ran into a cousin of hers (didn’t even know that he was in Shanghai! Small circles, as we came t learn). We went to another club (Park 97), one full of expensive drinks, red d├ęcor, and nasty businessmen tickling artificially giggling Chinese women. The only gig in town, apparently. Stayed until 5, and then tottered home to sleep for an hour before my make-up flight.

Went to Beijing, hung out with mommy over the weekend. It’s always frightening and comforting to have a heart to heart with a person who knows me better than I know myself. She told me that I was too idealistic and rigid in my notions to adapt to China, and that I would one day regret my stubborn impulsiveness, my crazy life-changes born on a whim. Of course I am, and of course I will. But doesn’t mean I’ll listen.

Came back to Shanghai, had more lunches, interviews, Chinese food . . . ran around barely escaping death by insane cab and more insane bicycle. Left my French SIM card at one of the seedy local cellphone reseller stands (not discovered until I was back in Singapore, of course). Shopping, shopping. In Chinese "Tao jia huan jia" means to bargain. I got the feeling from the expats that life was a blast. I go the feeling from the local professionals that life for expats was a blast, but that they didn’t last long and the revolving door was slowly revolving them out of competitiveness. A bit of animosity, at the very least, to mitigate the rampant opportunity. If I went back, I’d be stuck smack in the middle of these two groups—I look like one but think and talk like the other. If it looks like duck . . . but what if it can’t quack? Ah, well. To say nothing of the low-ball scare tactics they use at interviews to start a salary discussion. (Coming from I-banking in NYC to marketing in China, of course I’m prepared to take a paycut. But a >90% paycut? That is . . . you fill in the expletive).

Ah, and so our trip came to an end. I left behind my SIM card and my toothbrush, and I think I left a bit of my childhood too. Dammit, I don’t have much of that left, you know. We said goodbye over a dinner of all-you-can-eat-and-drink sushi, hopped a cab that we’d bargained down to 100RMB, and started the long sleepy journey back to school. School-what a hollow sounding term, like the reverberation of a piggy bank with very few coins left. Only seven more days until I fly back to Fonty. Only seven more days to party hardy here in Sing (don’t think I can afford Bali this weekend, what with all the graduation trip costs, so will be a good girl and do my work). Oh, but look at the time! It’s time to go, drafts of Lethe and dancing floors await . . .

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Day in the Life

Yikes! I feel like INSEAD is this huge funnel that I’ve been coasting down in lazy circles, but all of a sudden now I can see the hole at the bottom beneath my toes and am starting to corkscrew faster and faster toward the end.

Oy vey. Went and did some “field research” today for my Business Plan Workshop class—my business idea is to start something like Coco de Mer in Singapore, which like much of the world, truly has a dearth of proper, woman-friendly places to buy pleasure accoutrements. It was fun trying to track down all these places, but a little intimidating to look around and wonder if I could really do it myself.

Tried mangostines for the first time—sweet mushy white bunches of pulp (garlic-like shape) interred within a sinfully juicy purple skin.

Then went to a session with a career counselor to figure out why all these companies in Shanghai who seemed to love me before I knew anything about them suddenly turn a cold shoulder as soon as I actually get interested. She was the most useless thing I’ve ever encountered. Uh. Honestly, this woman was one of those who smile like a cartoon character and then expect you to come back with a chipper “yes! Of course!” about twice before she’ll stop staring at you with her goofy expectant eyes. Oh, I’m being most uncharitable. Probably I just don’t like her reminding me that I have some ways ahead of me before I land the perfect job, and that I’m disorganized as all hell, and that I don’t really know what I want (besides to be fabulous and sip lychee martinis by the beach and add to my shoe collection). But I do think a career counselor at a top tier business school whose specialization is industry jobs in Asia should be able to answer my question of whether my salary indications were in or out of range for a company that recruits many MBAs every year.

Then went to the Chinese embassy to pick up my passport and visa, and got soaked in the monsoon rains that swept over Singapore today. Trailed my sopping sorry arse home in a freezing cab to change into something decent.

Went to meet up with a headhunter for investment banks in Asia, and did what I hate almost most in the world—pretended to be what I wasn’t. You know that song with the lyrics, “How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand?” Dude, how many lies do you have to tell to yourself before you get to the point where you can just act yourself, and still get where you want, and still feel that you are always, perfectly okay? In this world, it could take awhile. Maybe forever. That’s why Thoreau and Dickinson and Kant took off into the woods, I bet, so that they didn’t have that problem any more. We’ll see. The counselor says it’s good to have a backup industry (mine is derivatives sales and trading, but honestly I’d worry for my soul).

Rushed back to school to attend a focus group for a friend’s Market Research project, ate a cup-o-soup, then found partner for Business Plan Workshop to write up financial assumptions, due at midnight.

Sorted out insurance issues with Peugeot by long distance. Yep—my cute little Peugeot that’s been the site of so many little adventures? Totaled, wrecked, ruined, through a barrier and on its side and rolled over twice and banged up beyond recognition. Can’t be sad about that though because I’m just happy that my very good friend who had the keys was unhurt. The kind of unlikely miracle that seems to happen every day to these crazy INSEAD kids.

Nerd, nerd, nerded it out until I sent off the paper at 12:00, and am now here diddling away my time on yearbook instead of the million and one productive things I could be doing (or the one fun and unproductive one of going out drinking tonight).

I miss France, I think. I miss New York too. And I miss the prospect of a broad expanse of more INSEAD in front of me.

Monday, November 22, 2004

A little bit Sad

Doc, I’ve got the blues. It’s the end of term and papers papers papers are piling up on my to-do list. The Christmas tinsel and the snowy pictures in the malls, the end of November with no Thanksgiving celebration, the prospect of not needing to book any more flight returns to France for yet another period . . . soon it’ll be January, and it will have been one full year since I’ve started this whacky journey. I waste so much of my time wallowing inside my own head, lowing like a mournful cow, pining away for the life that’s passing me even before it passes. I suppose I should take my own advice and live life in the present, but it’s hard to when your future is such a haze, isn’t it? So much easier just to fall into the nostalgia trap.

Don’t know if it’s practical to arrange a Bali trip for the week after next, since I’m taking out an entire week of class in order to go to Shanghai for this job-hunting trip. Once back in France on the 8th, it’s time to attend a flurry of last parties, hop on a plane for Sharm, Egypt for our 5-day class graduation trip, then back to France for the grad ceremony in Versailles. It’s such a lavish, exotic life that I’m a bit ashamed, honestly—I’ve done nothing to deserve this kind of treatment, and I certainly have no right to be feeling as sad and dowdy as I do. But sad and dowdy I feel today, and even my white dress with the bright flowers and big poufy skirt is not helping.

It’s strange, isn’t it, how happiness can fall apart the moment you’re satisfied with how nice it is, and try to arrange it and store it on a shelf in a pretty little box? In entrepreneurship, they call this managing growth. In my life, I think I’ll call it managing the passage of time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Oy vey, I am so tired! Woke up this morning feeling terribly queasy-- the ground rocking under my feet every time I tried to stand up. Much safer to lie down on bed, yes yes. That's what you get for banging down Irish Carbombs (a shotglass of Bailey's dropped into a large glass of Guiness, chugged quickly before the chemical reaction solidifies the whole thing), then singing Karaoke at the top of your lungs until 5 in the morning.

But I guess I deserve little sympathy. I ought to go to sleep now, only I have no idea when I have class tomorrow. The reason is that I've lost my precious purple folder that's sustained me through all of INSEAD (the best little folder in the world, with six pockets and a bendy flap, given to me by NYU Stern). I've tried calling Attica (club where I left the thing behind a pillow), but their listing is their fax number, and I've been too lazy to actually visit. It's been a week, what are the chances?

Somebody asked me why I never wrote about schoolwork. Honestly, it's not because I want to hide it-- it's because I never do any. My weekdays, exclusive of those days I miss class in order to vacation, consist of a very similar pattern-- I go to school, check email, attend class and fall asleep briefly, check email for hours in order to while away some hours before it's time to dine and socialize. I really get very little done nowadays. There was an assignment due tonight for one of my classes by midnight. After checking email and getting nothing done until 6pm, I met up with a college friend who was in town for a quick layover, then went to meet a friend of a friend's for chili crab (so spicy and messy! But delicious.), then got home by 10:30 to read the assignment. Got a thank-you acknowledgement from the Prof at midnight exactly. Buyer beware when coming to the Singapore campus-- they don't call this the Club Med campus for nothing. It's impossible to motivate yourself to do anything but plan vacations!

This weekend was spent snorkeling in Phuket with the sparkling aquamarine water lapping at the beach just outside our villa's balcony. A goofy fish zoomed into my shoulder just as I was wondering how they could all move so quickly without ever colliding. I guess there's always a clumsy one. I saw more stars than I have ever seen in my life. Orion actually came to life! I could see every part of him! Did you know that Orion is anatomically correct? The boy is quite impressive, with three stars to his . . . uh, name! These things you learn in Southeast Asia.

Ate the most divine Thai food (best dish was Woon Sen Gu Teow, some clear glass noodle dish that's making my mouth water right now), and slurped a meltingly sweet mango after coming to a secluded beach on our little fishing boat. Little crabs scuttling out of their tiny holes, sun sucking at the moisture on my face, sand as fine as powder, and water as clear as truth. As close to paradise as I can remember, except that I had to pretend that I had a special someone walking the shore with me. Good thing my imagination's pretty strong-- I had a most romantic time with myself.

The nightlife in Phuket left a bit to be desired, though. Was the seediest thing I'd ever seen. The one nightclub, Banana, was blanketed entirely by prostitutes. There were more prostitutes crawing over that place than there are glass figurines on sale in Venice. At one point I felt tired, and sat down, studiously avoiding eye contact with anyone while stealthily trying to observe all the business deals taking place (so blatant!). Noticed a portly old man and his buddy who kept edging closer, checking me out, clearly unsure but eager. I ducked my head down. He coughed, then said, "Tired?" Dude, I've been sitting down with my eyes closed trying to wait out this bad techno for fifteen minutes, don't I look tired? "Yes." He coughs again, "Do you speak English?" I pause, wonder what about me could possibly be encouraging when I'm lying here like a limp potato and there are so many obviously willing gyrating working girls around. "I'm from the USA."

"OH!" He laughs nervously, "Well, I guess you do speak English then."

I just give him a withering look, but I guess that's not enough.

"So, do you live here?"

"I am on vacation."

Then, thankfully, one of my friends came upstairs and saved me from more ignominy. The next night we attended a Ping Pong show. Saw a girl smoke a cigarette with her nether regions, while another shot darts at moving balloons. I was impressed by their muscle control, absolutely depressed by the nastiness and run-down cynicism of everything about that establishment. Not at all titillating, just kind of gross, and very sad. I didn't finish my drink.

Okay folks, it's time for bed.

p.s. I haven't the energy to give a blow-by-blow of Cabaret, which was last week. But it was tremendous, and dealing with the ever-building technical problems as the stage manager behind the curtain was an adrenaline rush I hope not to experience again soon (I did, however, have the best seat in the house when it came to the Men's rugby Full Monty act-- perhaps the only seat with an unforeseen vantage point!).