Sunday, January 25, 2004

Come shine down

Today is gorgeous—sunshine streaming in through the kitchen window, steam rising off the Seine, brilliant blue skies and joggers out in fine form along the country roads. However, seeing as how I slept away 80% of the working day yesterday and have already had my 15 minutes of introspection in nature this weekend, I am sadly resigned to the fact that I will forgo the call of brisk sunshine and grassy fields for my finance textbook.

This Friday night, after a long week of sleepy catch-up with classes, I went out to dinner at a local Thai/Chinese/Japanese restaurant in Fontainebleau with some ex-investment bankers. Perhaps should have known better, but was drawn into a four-hour-long bitch session about the evils and idiosyncrasies of that particular experience. Had some yummy food and a fairly good time, but upon further consideration have decided that bitch-sessions do not add to the quality of my or anyone else’s life. Will attempt to minimize said bitching in the future.

Then, at half-past midnight, we started on our way to Chateau de Malesherbes, where the British party was going on. My ride graciously lent me his class tie for the evening, seeing as how I had nothing particularly British to wear. After just a small detour, we arrived at 1:00 and stayed until the last song was played. True to form, I remember having just two drinks and dancing with all manner of strange men (and women), then being conned into another drink and somehow staggering out the door at 4:00 or so. Yes, always the cheap date. Caught a ride home with I.—we discussed Norah Jones and New York and beaches and the self, and then I was scraping open my courtyard gate and then blissfully swimming in my sheets at a bit after 5:00. Can’t say I’m sure I didn’t drunk-dial New York, but then what are boyfriends in other time zones for?

Slept on and off until my head didn’t feel cottony anymore—which meant until 3:00pm the next day. Glorious, with the sun breaking out over the gravel and warming up my arms as I stretched out from under the blankets. Took a leisurely shower, and decided that since this was the first sunny day I’d seen, that it would be a shame to spend the remainder of it inside, no matter how much work I was supposed to do. Thus set out downhill toward the river with notebook and pencil in tow, humming "oh mr.sun, sun, mr. golden sun . . . " Met narry a person or car along the way, was accompanied only by the rich dank smell of forest and the trickling of little rivulets after the morning rain. When I got to the river, the sun was already starting to orange and dip in the horizon, so I put the sketchpad aside and just looked around me, drinking in the scene as well as I could. There are moments when I’d rather do anything but be by myself. Then there are moments of quality, like this one, where being alone affirms your sense of existence in a way that other people never do. The sun reached out, copper and then pink over the swift, flat current, and a duck floated by facing exactly the wrong direction, totally unaware of its progress butt first toward the sunset while it busied itself ducking its beak for food. I admired the asymmetry of a bare grove of bushes, and felt thankful that I lived in a world where perfect symmetry almost but does not ever really exist—isn’t it comforting, that no matter how well we theorize, in order to know the whole picture we still have to see?

Then I pulled myself out of the reverie and started trudging back, nosing through the bare yellow arms of the weeping willows that stand sentry alongside the Seine and back up the hill through the fields. Ate dinner with the housemates, one of whom had her sister and Father visiting. After dinner we played a board game based on cards and then watched the cats chase a laser beam across the room while drinking wine and eating smelly cheese. Ah, country living. Got very little statistics done, but felt like perhaps my peace of mind was worth it.

Back to last week, which is somewhat of a blur. Wednesday night was Chinese New Year’s Eve, and was invited to Chateau Tavers to congregate and partake in all things Chinese. At some point, Imagine about forty Chinese people speaking very loudly and quickly in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese in the kitchen alone, with dumplings to make from scratch (down to the dumpling skins themselves), and just one rolling pin in the whole place. Disaster—I got there at 7:30, and we didn’t have the first batch until about 11:30. I was chased out of the kitchen at somepoint because my dumpling wrappers were deemed sub-par-- too thick and not really round. But of course all was merry and there was much flowing of Tsingtao, and at midnight we counted down at the top of our lungs (in Mandarin), then sang happy birthday (in Mandarin and then in Cantonese) to Jody, one of the few white fellows there, because he happened to live at Tavers and it was his birthday.

This led of course to being terribly underprepared for classes the next day (as usual, at 8:30am). Matters only got progressively worse, however, as on Thursday I went to a special dinner for my Ethics class that paired 14 CEOs from around the world with 14 MBAs to discuss generation-gap issues. I sat next to an Irish senior VP of a telecom company and the CEO of the fourth-largest employee placement firm in the world, based in Holland. They were surprisingly nice and surprisingly interested, although after walking out J. and I agreed that perhaps they were just pretending and had been woefully bored all evening with these poor MBAs who had all of one-tenth of their own experience in life. The conversation jumped, lightning quick, from the nobility of providing jobs around the world to the dollar worth of one company and the only half-joking prospect of a buyout by another member of the table, who was a Saudi Arabian fellow in finance. Being a CEO is not so bad, but it sure takes over who you are.

And in the midst of all these dinners and parties, where’s the work? Ah, it’s tricky, my friends. Snuck in here and there in waking moments between classes, whilst dozing off on library sofas, before suddenly waking up to find myself on my couch at 4:30 in the morning . . . Regimented I am not, but then again, I am having a pretty good time, and perhaps that is the more important goal. After all, life is short, and who knows when the next sunny day will come? Carpe diem . . .

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

If at first . . .

Eh, spent ten minutes this morning looking for my car keys, couldn’t find them, took the spare set, only to find the little culprits snuggled smugly in my backpack after I got to school. Also think I perhaps threw away my INSEAD ID badge last night while prepping for our dinner party. What can you do? Some things just don’t change.

I apologize for the long hiatus (or at least it feels long, since so much is crammed into each day here). Since last we internetted, I have (in no particular order) broken my dryer, bought baguettes from the patisserie for Sunday brunch, attended an Austin Powers party, visited the Chinatown in Paris (13th arrondissement), spent 2 hours trying to figure out CDG airport, decided to audit an ethics class, hosted a dinner party for 15 wherein there was much wining, dining, and singing of songs to the piano (!), made arrangements to teach a salsa class, and blissfully, received an extended visit from the love of my life.

And that’s all in one week, right?

The dryer broke because I forgot to latch it properly, so of course a minute after I start the thing, it starts banging and literally bouncing around with the force of the broken latch hitting the sides and top. Brilliant me, in the process of trying to fix it, I lose the entire latch piece down into the bowels of the machine, never to be retrieved. This morning I spoke on the phone with the man whose number Monsieur had left for “problems with large appliances.” He asked me something (I think it was, which appliance is broken?), and I replied, “Uh . . . le machine de sechesse? Secheur? Pas le lavage, mais l’autre.” (yikes, I apologize to all proper French speakers). I think he’s going to visit today, but then again he could just as well have said, “Tant pis lady, you’re insane and I’m not setting foot near your place.” We’ll just have to see.

I’m getting much better at directions! My housemates sent me on bread duty to the boulangerie in town on Sunday morning (the place closes at noon, and after that there’s nary a crumb to be bought in all the region. Perhaps there’s a baker’s union.). I made it there no problem (by now I understand that “go straight” literally means “snake to the right and left as much as possible while following the nearly invisible white lines), and came rushing back with the blustery wind behind and my fresh baguettes, croissants, and tartlettes in hand. Gorgeous.

The Austin Powers party on Saturday was held at Tavers, another chateau in the area housing a bunch of students. After pre-party drinks and socializing at home, we made it there around midnight and left at 2:00 because we were exhausted. I must say, though, that in spite of the antediluvian bathroom with no light and the glow of sweat condensation clinging to the walls as the colored strobe cut the room, the peanuts were excellent, as was the music and many of the (ahem) creative costumes. Then again, it’s always nicer to go dancing when you have a partner, and the boyfriend was here for the party. Perhaps I’ll develop a less benevolent attitude toward the men here as time goes on, but so far, no harassment, just a little friendly innuendo, which never harmed anyone.

As for Chinatown . . . oof, but that was far too ambitious. I repeat my original oath, once broken—never again shall I drive in Paris. It’s horrible, and frightening, and simply impossible to do without getting lost, frustrated, and almost killed. The good news is that I did eventually get through to Tang Freres, the big (really, really big) Chinese hypermarche in the area. Picked up all the basics—pea pod shoots, pork fuzz, wonton wrappers, pickled bamboo, chives. Mmm . . . and just thinking about the bakery next door is making me hungry again. They had these wonderful dim sum-like foods with meat and veggies folded in rice flour shells of all kinds. The bad news is it took hours and hours and hours and hours to both find our way there and to park and to worm our way through the same area a kajillion times. Word to the wise—if you ever need to go, take the metro and bring a cart. The strangest little reverses here in France—like, the carts are free at the airports, but they cost money to use at the grocery stores.

And speaking of airports, I tried driving to Charles de Gaulle without knowing what the terminals were going to be pointed out by signs that did not read “terminal” in any way. Enough said.

Oh, and school. Did a little bit of that, too, in the last week. I didn’t take any of the exemption exams offered in the first week because I was sure I needed a good refresher of the basics, even in finance and economics and the like—the specter of the psych undergrad degree will haunt me forever. But to my dismay, one of the most charismatic professors that I’ve ever met (Henri-Claude de Bettignies), a small man with an almost ridiculous French accent prone to jumping into seats next to students when he gets excited who splits his time between Stanford BS and INSEAD, was teaching an elective called “Ethical Dilemmas” which was only open to those with an exemption in P1. Never one to be reasonable and admit that perhaps there is a reason why they want you to keep to the curriculum, I looked into auditing the class. So far it’s been wonderful—reminds me of section meetings for moral reasoning class at Harvard. Last time we discussed the issue of exporting industrial waste to third world countries, and today we’re talking Enron. I wonder if all this discussion and introspection will actually make me a more ethical person, in terms of an action retrospective on my entire life. Perhaps it will just give me a lot of namby-pamby with which to double-talk all my decisions, even to myself. Eh, but there are times when utilitarianism is a hard master to justify.

Ah, and the dinner party last night! Like I said earlier, my house has a tradition of hosting Monday dinner events where we all invite an assortment of characters and mingle and make merry and try to extend the weekend. This was my first experience in trying to cook for 20 people. I must say, I’d give myself a C overall. The food was perhaps a B or B+, but it didn’t come out on the table until 10:00pm, due to classes ending at 7:00 and my lack of foresight in delegation of tasks. People’s bellies were full of pate, bread and brie before they got to the wonton soup or the quiche and sautéed spinach. Next time, I will be more organized. But then again next time doesn’t come for another month—thank goodness! But the evening ended capitally, with much out-of-tune roaring to the house Songbook, accompanied by one of our visitors, who was a wiz on the piano. I highly recommend a group rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to get your guests in the mood, and we ended not a little self-winkingly on “We are the World” before we all broke into giggles.

But yes, onward to another week. I’ve now wasted an hour trying to relive the last. Both Finance and accounting homework due today and we’re scheduled to get together and talk in an hour. Tomorrow night’s the Chinese New Year dinner and have to get tickets for the British Week party on Friday and Thursday I might look up this Korean kid who apparently has a bit of training in Ballroom dance (his favorite is also the Viennese Waltz!) so we can give some salsa lessons.

Oh, right, and as to the romantic weekend visit? It was wonderful, and that’s about as much of my business as you can probably bear, so au revoir mes amis, a bientot!

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

It’s amazing what a dry article from the American Economic Review in 1945 will do in terms of sluicing my creative juices. Suddenly I feel the urgent need to wax poetic instead of doing my work. Anywho, folks, yours truly is feeling exceedingly soggy, even after three hours of sitting in the toasty INSEAD library. The rain started pouring last night and didn’t really let up through the day. Of course, with my record of supreme foresight and practicality, I left my umbrella at home. Classes were far less rough today (8:30am to 11:45 with a 15 min break) than yesterday (8:30am to 1:30pm with two 15 min breaks). After class, I decided to hop a ride to the bank, since a friend was driving. Reminder to self—never again attempt anything, particularly banking, when it rains. Both French banking and French rain are utterly miserable on their own, and conflating the two is just asking for extreme punishment. As you can probably tell, I didn’t get much done. At least my bank was open (my friend’s bank was closed for their 1hr45min lunch break), but of course, the account that I opened last Tuesday is not yet accessible and I have neither bank card, checkbook, nor access to any money in the account. But of course, this is France—I really shouldn’t expect anything in less than 10 business days, madame!

So, since rent calls, I sucked up the mordant exchange rate and withdrew cash from an ATM (dehors, of course—why make it easy?) while slowly getting drenched as the machine beeped and complained. Slight brightening of prospects afterwards as we walked into a patisserie and I bit into a wonderful juicy tasty little Quiche Lorraine (these people know their pastries), then a Malgache (very dense chocolate ganache cake with the consistency of tiramisu). Yum. But then, back to school—in the process of walking across the street, I got soaked again and stepped into a puddle just deep enough to fill my shoes. Lovely. Now I’ve just been twisting my brain on Finance class homework trying to remember how to configure all those NPV cashflows we took for granted at work. Just goes to show that just because you do something doesn’t mean you understand it. But pride forbids me from consulting the text.

Last night was our first Monday night dinner party (a tradition at the house where I live). There were about 15 people in all, and it was a lovely evening full of pate, bread, wine, cheese, haricots verts, cats, and random conversations. Classic, and just what I wanted from this year—pity that I can’t just scoop those hours out of my day, such that when I stagger back to my room at 2am (we didn’t even clear the table—apparently the maid always takes care of it), I’m not far too tired to even consider homework. But not to fear, there’s always the phone alarm at 6:30. Who needs sleep? Not INSEAD, for sure.

Sunday night was fairly uneventful (a sedate dinner party somewhere I can’t remember), but Saturday was the first big dance at a Chateau near campus. The place had a bouncer, coat check, deejays, bartenders, the works. And it wasn’t a few people in the middle of the room, bopping and then stopping every now and then. The place transformed into a strobe-lit fog-filled sweat-steaming club, I swear, and I alternated between plunging into the hysteria and dancing my little heart out and coming up for air and hors d’oevres and conversations about Kant or ballroom. Music was excellent, as was the ancient stone balcony on which to cool off outside with a view of the sparse lights on the countryside. A bit unreal, it all was. I didn’t get there until 12:30, and left at 3:30 with the place still bouncing on its venerable foundations.

All in all, INSEAD so far has been both exhilarating and exhausting. I’m so busy I haven’t been home before 11:00pm until last night. And yet, there are these pockets of free time during the day when I suddenly feel shy or antisocial. So many people to meet, but I just veg out in front of a computer terminal again, checking and rechecking my junk mail so I don’t have to think or talk or learn any more new names and histories. Psychological equivalent of eating too much ice cream and getting brain freeze, I think. Tomorrow class doesn’t start until 10:00am—welcome reprieve, I feel like I’ve been bequeathed a gift.

Sigh. Back to trying to keep up with work. Good news is there’s lots of leftover green beans at home for dinner tonight. I’m craving my Chinese vegetables, which aren’t available unless I drive to the Paris markets, but in the meantime, I can eat green beans to my heart’s content at practically every meal.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Busy Busy

Yikes, but life has been busy. My car is still not fixed, but I called Peugeot and apparently all I have to do is bring it to the Fontainebleau Peugeot dealer, who will fix it for no charge since the thing is covered. I drove to Paris yesterday for a scholarship interview with this guy at L’Oreal—driving was an absolute nightmare! I gave myself two hours’ lead time (it’s a 1 hour trip) and was 45 minutes late because of getting lost on these teeny tiny cobblestone streets with no way to stop and ask for directions. Oy vey. But as always, my luck came through, and my interviewer (a Frenchman with lazy hair and piercing eyes) was 50 minutes late! He apologized profusely, but I don’t think he believed me when I said I really didn’t mind.

Of course, I got lost again trying to get back to Fontainebleau—was stuck on the Paris Peripherique (this road that goes all the way around Paris and has a ton of exits going in) and only by a miracle did I make it out (there’s an interieur and an exterieur—and it’s nearly impossible to get from one to the other without gunning for your life across five or six lanes of deadly French traffic). Add this to my inability to drive, and you’ve got quite a honking mess on your hands. I missed my French exam because of the interview, but the good news is the interview itself went quite well. At some point I lost track of what he was saying with his curly French accent (I swear I have this strange cognitive aphasia when it comes to understanding English that is not nearly perfectly enunciated in the American style), and just had to nod knowingly and say, “Yes, of course, mm-hm,” when he would stop and ask me for my opinion. But we got along pretty well—he ranted about Bush, I agreed. I talked about Asian mothers’ obsessions with cosmetics and crazy trends, he agreed. We got along pretty well.

Anywho, other stuff. I met my “group” with consists of me (a female Asian American banker), a Swedish engineer, a French systems guy, an Indian dude who worked in Finland, a Korean McKinsey girl, and an Australian IBM consultant type who used to be a lawyer. Our first case (which was just practice, not graded) was due this morning, but I completely missed our meeting to work on it because I was stuck in traffic the whole time. Yikes. Talk about getting off to a strained start. But it was strange how in the very first meeting, I was pigeonholed as “the banker” and assigned to crunch all the numbers. Can you imagine! I felt silly, because I’m not even that good at numbers. I am very impressed by the consultants (McKinsey and Nokia)—they’re both terribly organized when it comes to work process and guiding us through our discussions. Didn’t get home until after midnight, though, because first I went to the American welcome party to mix a bit. I passed up the Chinese welcome dinner, but shouldn’t have—got pizza delivery instead of good Chinese food. Shucks.

Sheesh, I feel like I haven’t had time to breathe, hardly. Classes started at 8:30 today and went until 7:00—or 1900 as they say here. The second one was this module about morality . . . put a bunch of business people in a room and it’s amazing what they come up with. Today a bunch of people justified bribe-giving, falsification of accounts, and corporate endorsement of prostitution. Fun fun fun. I wrote down in my notes, “Kant, categorical imperative,” when the teacher briefly discussed utilitarianism and relativism, but decided that if I raised my hand and discussed it, I’d just look pompous and nobody would be interested anyway. Then the teacher went to the board and talked about Kant and the categorical imperative and it was a revelation to the class. I kicked myself for that one.

Alright, alright, I’m late to another meeting, after which I have some dinner, after which I have a party for a club, after which I have to go clubbing to get into the clubbing club. Just another day . . . . and 8:30 outward bound tomorrow morning.

Going to be a very, very sleepless year!

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Oopsies (written Mon Jan 5)
Guess what?

Yep, I've already lost my passenger side mirror. Sigh. I suppose it was le destin. Or perhaps it's that longtime lack of depth perception that caused me to misjudge the tininess of my tiny peugeot as I swerved to avoid oncoming traffic at the same time as downshifting (takes me far too many tries to get the car from stopped to first, so I just slow down as little as possible). BAM! There goes the mirror. It looked so sad dangling and banging against the door, so I was forced to get out and rip the whole thing off. Better absent than unsightly. Sigh, how to call Peugeot and explain that I've already banged up my nice new car, only three days after receiving it? Thank Dieu for all-inclusive insurance.

But you'll be happy to know that I am safe and sound, in possession of my stafford loan cheques (I feel suddenly . . . so rich! Don't worry, the shopping malls of Paris are not yet accessible with my lack
of driving ability). I've registered, although I need to come back tomorrow morning to get a cell phone and bank account and health insurance. Eh, the details. A nice Chilean has latched onto me (we met across the pieton crosswalk-- he looked like a lost puppy and I guess I looked like I knew what I was doing, even though I'd just lost part of my car).

What to do about le diner? Perhaps Ill just hang around on campus. Eh, driving back in the country fog . . . well, it's an adventure, non? Le Monsieur (my landlord) showed me the great gas tanks underneath the house, which need to be filled again soon. Heat is goot. Anywho, will write more later. Hopefully you are all safe, warm, happy, and possessed of all your
mirrors. Seven years' bad luck for me . . . in addition to living at Numero 13 Rue du Buissons!
First day (written Sat Jan 3)

I am een Fhance, safe and zound!
Anywho, this fellow named P. found me at CDG airport (advertised on INSEAD's online chatroom for someone who knew how to drive my car) and together we picked up my cute little peugeot (dark blue and zippy). We made our way to INSEAD and my country house, getting lost only once-- not too bad. It's absolutely freezing here, 1 degree Centigrade. P did two years in the Peace Corps Panama building aqueducts and teaching kids-- seems like a nifty guy. My house is pretty far away from school--- 15 minutes by car. But it's AWESOME! You have to get out and open these big white gates, then drive into a little courtyard with a stone fountain in the middle. There were geese to greet us as well as some chickens with these funny brown and white speckled plumage and crests around their heads that made them look like racoon chickens. My room is wallpapered all in pink flowers, even the ceiling-- the whole house smells ancient, of rock foundations and old wood furniture. They have nothing stocked in the kitchen except for ice cream and booze--- lots and lots of booze. They have about seven wine bottle openers but no sugar or butter. My roommates won't be back until March (they're doing a semester in Singapore), so I have this echoing mansion to myself for a few months. The rest of the compound will liven up on the 5th, I'm assuming, when school starts.
We drove into town last night for a dinner of sandwiches (jambon) at the brasserie. My French sucks, but it's better than P's, so I got to do the ordering. When going back to town, we got lost for 3 HOURS on the country roads. I had to get out of the car and stumble through asking for directions 7 TIMES. Oof. When we finally got home at 9:30 local time, we crashed. It was freezing cold and the heat seems too weak against the cavernous hallways and rooms, but boy were those sheets and comforter soft! French down-- it's wonderful. We both slept until 3pm today . . . 17 hours! Strange. Now we're in town again, looking for a supermarket so we can buy
sugar and butter and milk to make instant crepes, but it's already dark again. The school isn't officially open, but in the cafeteria there are these computer stands with net access-- that's where I am now.
Tomorrow the plan is not to sleep quite so late and to practice driving stick some more. I drove all the way into town today and only stalled once (at the entrance to a carrefour, or roundabout, with an impatient motorcyclist behind me). Maybe I will try to start a bank account tomorrow.