Saturday, July 31, 2010

Last week around Paris

It was an action packed week; getting my stuff packed up and cramming in as many local attractions as possible before I leave this wonderful place. Fortunately, there were a few of my classmates lingering in the Paris area to come along for the fun.
First stop: Parc Asterix. The French equivalent of Disneyland, based on a comic book hero who fearlessly defends his village from the Romans.

While the symbols in the park may not have triggered the same reaction as I had walking through EuroDisney, I have to say that the rides were much more exciting; more rollercoasters, shorter line ups, and those swingy chairs that seem to have been removed from all of the major theme parks! Good times.
I love living like a kid.
And, with the summer weather being simply awesome, we had a perfect opportunity to watch the sunset while having a picnic on the Pont des Arts. 
If you are in Paris in the summer, this is absolutely something that you must do. BYOB (bring your own baguette). Did you know that the Eifel tower sparkels at night?  
And, finally, following through on a birthday present from some friends, I took an aerial tour of the area using some fancy flying machine powered by what looks like a giant fan.
Lucky for me, they are harvesting right now, so there was a lot to see.
It seemed very fitting to finish with a new perspective on the place that I've been living, just as my neighbor farmers move from one season to the next, and as a new 'season' begins for me.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Business Lessons from France

A friend of mine once asked me to "explain how studying business in one of the world's slowest economies is going to make [me] a better business leader?". Good question.

In fact, I used to wonder why people love France so much. Strangers seem less friendly. Everything takes more time (opening a bank account, getting a phone, ordering a coffee). You have to pay to use the rundown public washrooms. Something is always on strike (especially when you need to get somewhere). Stores are closed most of the time (the 8-to-8 convenience store isn't even open from 8-to-8!). Internet access less reliable than in many developing countries. Traffic in Paris is enough to make one give up driving. And don't get me started on Charles De Gaulle airport. 

Despite its challenges, I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to go to school in France. I was drawn here because i) I wanted to work on my french, ii) I love cycling, and iii) I wanted to test my theory that I could actually survive on a diet of wine and cheese. That I only succeeded in exploring that third point during the past five months does not mean my time here has been a waste. Quite the opposite. In fact, I have learned to find joy in all of the things that I thought I hated about France. And some real business lessons have come out of that.

Sometimes, old is good. I love that the french do not needlessly toss aside 'old' stuff when something 'better' comes along. Living in a 16th century castle, I learned to embrace the coldness of the stone floors (good for storing wine and escaping the summer heat). Though the lack of cell phone reception or wifi through the stone walls was frustrating at first, I learned to enjoy the freedom of living in whatever moment was passing. I learned to embrace the hand held shower head ('embrace' may be a poor choice of words; let's just say that it saved time and water). Without an appreciation for 'old', this place could have been dozed a long time ago. I say that 'old' is worth something.

Success in business is possible without sacrificing lifestyle. I love that french people are religious about lifestyle. Once I figured out which three hours of the day he was open, I learned to love the elusive old man baker (and his dough caked finger nails) down the street. The scarcity of his availability made me anticipate my visits to the bakery. The sound that the crust made when you tore off a piece of a warm baguette. He was a master of his craft and he knew it. He didn't need to wreck is life with 'normal working hours'. Once people (like me) got a taste of what he was cooking, they would plan their day around getting to his shop when it was open. 

Anything can be an art. I love the pride that french people take in their work. Even the jobs that we classify as 'unskilled' labour in Canada are turned into an art in France (servers being a fine example). It's not what you do that matters, but how you do it. What this means is that your good or service can be worth as much as you choose to make it worth. 

Defending one's values is worth the effort. I love that french people act on their values. When I was stranded in Barcelona because of the train strikes in france, I admit that I was not so enthusiastic about the propensity of the french to strike. But, seriously, wouldn't you prefer six weeks of vacation a year? Wouldn't you like to leave work in time to get some fresh ingredients on the way home and make a delicious dinner? Why are the french the only ones (in the developed world) who live for what they believe in? I totally respect that. I hear people complain about the North American rat race and, yet, we are all complicit in it. Good on the french for speaking up and preserving what is important to them. It's worth it.

My basic conclusion after five months in France is that how we measure the value of things in North America is off. I'm a finance and economics person. I like numbers. And, for much of my life, I was convinced that I could measure everything worth anything in terms of dollars. I'm not sure anymore. I cannot justify my MBA pursuit in traditional financial terms, but I wouldn't change what I have done. There are things in life and business that are worth a whole lot and that I can't measure in numbers. There is value in defending ideals, in taking pride in one's work, in a balanced lifestyle, and in the 'old' ways. Understanding this will make me a better business leader. 

And these are some of the best lessons that I learned studying business in one of the worlds slowest economies!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Uneymoon

In the almost four years that I have kept this blog, I have shared perspectives about almost every aspect of my life. A big exception has been my relationship with Erik.

I place a high value on my privacy. Considering that there may be no more public forum than the internet, the fact that I keep a blog may seem at odds with this statement. But, keeping a blog allows me to choose what I share, and what I keep private. For those things that I choose to share, writing in this way allows me to i) preserve a memory, and ii) develop a deeper perspective on the subject. Of course, I could keep a diary, but I lack the discipline to do so without an audience (hi, mom). It's kind of like how I could work out at home, but I only work out at the gym.

That I choose not to write about and reflect on all parts of my life is really my own loss. But, maybe it's not too late to try.

It was September 1990; grade 7 science class. Mr. Roberts was explaining the science behind lightning. Interesting and relevant science, no? We were all paying attention, though most of us were a bit dumbfounded. Then, a kid at the back, a skateboarder with ear-length, peroxided hair, raises his hand. And, he asks a question that the teacher can't answer! The guy was cute, and smart. I was hooked.

He didn't know who I was for a long time, but I was friends with his girlfriend and that was good enough for me. For a while.

My chance came six years later. First year of university. I was studying biology and was completely lost in life. I hadn't seen or talked to Erik for three years. A lot had happened in those three years; but, somehow, the sight of him brought back all of my childlike optimism about the future. My life changed track at that moment. For the better.

Erik introduced me to bikes, which has become a passion and one of the most positive influences in my life. He inspired me to reach for higher standards by example. He taught me to be (more) organized. He challenged my perceptions about my own limitations. He was an amazing partner in adventure. He encouraged me to carry on when I struggled with the pressures of work. He introduced me to the idea of business school when I was determined to move on to something new.

But, after almost 14 years, this chapter has come to a close. I can choose to look at it as a tragedy or as a blessing. It's probably both. I am extraordinarily grateful for the impact that Erik has had on the direction and quality of my life. I passed through my 20's completely free of the drama of hook ups and break ups, and of douchebags and dirtbags.

As much as Erik helped me to become fiercely independent, I'm crazy with anxiety about how to deal with his absence in the role as my significant other. But, I am extremely fortunate that he will not be gone from my life completely. In fact, he came all of the way to France so that we could spend some quality time together to close the relationship. Our uneymoon. I consider the fact that we can have an enjoyable vacation together to be a testament to the quality of our relationship.

We may not grow old together in the sense way that we had once envisioned, but I know that we will still grow old together as the best of friends.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Wow! Bilbao

How come nobody told me about this place? One of the prettiest euro cities I've seen. If I ever take some time to really learn Spanish, I'm doing it in Bilbao.

Walking along the river is like walking through an architectural trade book. 
 Modern and heritage buildings coexisting harmoniously.
Even the bridges are a form of art in this city.
 And the bike paths.
 The Guggenheim here is even better than the one in NYC, surrounded by static and dynamic structural art.
And, best of all, it's not stuffed with people. A really nice city for walking and searching for inspiration. Wow. Bilbao.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Red, White and Ew

From San Sebastian, we headed to Pamplona for the last two days of San Fermin; a week long event that is known for its running of the bulls. The streets of Pamplona are stuffed with pedestrians wearing red and white; a level of participation that would make even the Calgary Stampede look lame. Kids, geriatrics, dogs - everyone wears red and white. 

We managed to pick up some tickets to the last bull fight of the week from a scalper outside of the stadium. While the event is typically marked by a high level of etiquette, on the last day it is a complete free for all (don't bring your designer clothes!).
The sangria was being consumed in unimaginable quantities. To offer some perspective, this was our neighbour, drinking his out of a snorkel. But that was just the beginning. These same guys had pump action waterguns filled with sangria; we were sitting for all of 15 minutes before a civil war broke loose and we were soaked.
At some point, someone brought out a few tupperware containers of seafood. Who brings seafood to a sporting event? When it is 40 degrees out?
I've seen the old octopus on the ice trick at the hockey game, but this is a whole new level of disgustingness. Disgustingness, and hilarity. Yes, that's a shrimp behind his ear.
Lest I leave the impression that that was the only action taking place in the forum. Below, the matadors took on about six different bulls. An interesting sight to see, for the sake of understanding what actually happens at a bull fight, but something that I don't need to do again.
For all of the grace and beauty that defines the start of a 'fight', there's nothing graceful or beautiful about how it ends. It's shameful to take away an animals dignity in this way and shocking that this still takes place with such regularity in the modern world.
And when the fight was over, we headed out on the town. In keeping with tradition, we celebrated all night, until the running of the bulls in the morning. Getting a good spot to watch means waiting a while before the running starts.
Because, eventually, all points of visibility become blocked with other spectators. 
Until, for a brief few minutes, we watch a crowd of totally insane people dodge bulls. For all of the attention that this event gets on global television, the mayhem lasts a fleeting few minutes and comprises only a fraction of the excitement of San Fermin.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Campiones, Campiones; Ole, Ole, Ole!

With school done and most people gone from Fontainebleau, it was time to find fun somewhere else. So, a few of us headed west to Spain to hang out at various family holiday homes (oh man, it's great to have friends in all places!), and take in the World Cup final.

It's hard to imagine that any place in Spain would not be totally geared up for the game...except, that is, Basque country. And, as our first stop was San Sebastian, that is where we took in the game. My friends advised that I would be wise to change out of my red shirt until we were in a private area to view the game. Despite the success of the Spanish this year, it seems that the Basque are still not willing to acknowledge an association.
Finding a bar that would show the game was even a challenge, but we eventually crammed ourselves into a sardine can of a bar (there were definitely some fire code violations happening in there). We 'disrobed' to reveal our red and watched with enthusiasm aside the closet die hard spaniards bursting with national pride.
And what an exciting game it was; with extra time to build the anticipation. Every time there was a break, the bar tender passed around a sculpture of a buddha for us all to rub for good luck. Eventually, it worked.
Then the celebrating began.
And people forgot about hiding their pride and spilled into the streets with fireworks and chanting. A complete transformation of the quiet Basque town into a raging spanish celebration. 
Incredibly touching. Turned out San Sebastian wasn't a bad place to take in the game afterall!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Everything is temporary; so let's go jumping

My world is about to change. Again. Whether I'm ready or not, the rug is about to be pulled out from under me. I've spent the last year learning to cope with change and uncertainty. So, bring it on. I'm not scared. In fact, this time I'm going to take the rug out from under my own feet!
How? skydiving!

In preparation of leaving the last year behind, of having the rug pulled out from under us, a few of us dragged ourselves out of bed this morning (on an hour and a half of 'sleep') to jump out of an airplane.
For many of us (including me), this was a first experience. The enthusiasm ran high. 
And for good reason.  It feels good to be on top of the world. It feels good to let go. It feels good to be uncomfortable.
I used to hate uncertainty. But, you know, I've come to embrace it. Whatever I'm leaving behind here, I know that I have some amazing things to go home to - some that are known and some that are not.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Last Call

In some ways, it feels as though I have lived an entire decade in the last 11 months. In other ways, it feels as though it was just yesterday that I stepped off the plane at Changi airport, overwhelmed by the feeling that 'holy shit I live in Asia now!'.

And, now we are graduating. That means last call for spending time with many of the friends that I've made; last call for precious school time memories. I have savoured every moment of this year, and yet I am still hungry for more. New countries (26, in fact), new friends, new perspectives. How can a graduation ceremony do it justice?

Well, the one of the great things about having two full campuses is that we have a chance to graduate at both locations, if we so choose. And, I did.
Flying first from Athens to Singapore, it was nice to go back to where it all began. When I left Singapore, I felt that I had really got my fill (an island that is 34 degrees and humid could be endless fun, unless you love to bike). But, returning felt so good; Singapore is really an amazing place to live and get around. And this place is changing so fast; it's hard to believe what has been done in the four months since I left.
I arrived in time to say a few words to some great friends in Singy; some of whom I have not seen since December. From the looks of it, my comments were highly engaging (I think the Dean, sitting in the middle, is sleeping). I guess that I wont be on the public speaking circuit anytime soon!
We had time for a few drinks on the town before heading to the airport for the overnight flight to Paris.
The ceremony in Fontainebleau the next day was much larger; more students, more families, and a LOT more champagne.
We finished the night with a private party at a restored Abbey in the countryside (geez I'm going to miss being outside at night without a jacket). A lot of nooks and crannies to explore. Not your usual party. But then, this hasn't been your usual year. So, I guess it is fitting for the last call.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mykonos Madness

When our class selected (ironically, by democracy) to go to Mykonos Greece for the Grad trip, I had nightmares of Cancun and Palma Mallorca and party destinations like that; devoid of culture and character. News articles were circulated about how the island has become a destination for alternative tourism and how that has permeated the nightlife on the rock.
But, Mykonos has been wonderful. Yes, there is party central, which we have come to know well; however, to my surprise, there are also signs of life outside of the tourist industry.
Our adventure began with a pre-sunset visit to the Acropolis in Athens. Situated on a hill in the middle of the sprawling city, the ancient structure somehow still seems to fit the landscape. Our Athens experience was brief and we were quickly off to Mykonos by ferry early the next morning.

We wasted no time finding the nightlife; indeed as exciting as the reputation would suggest. But, by day, the island has a lot to offer, and we were among the few to head out to see it.
So, while many of our friends were passing the day on the sand under the cancer rays, I rented an ATV with some others and we explored the island. ATVs are a popular way to get around - and every now and then you'll find one doubled up with two shirtless, tanned and buffed out dudes in tow.
Armed with a New York Times '36 Hours In' article, we hit every corner of the island in search of the finest cuisine and sights. Despite the wide readership of the NYT, the suggested destinations were surprisingly unspoiled.
And, in a small restaurant off the beaten path, I ate the most spectacular octopus I've ever had.
We worked off lunch going up to an old lighthouse overlooking miles of ocean. Breathtaking.
And played around in the sun. While everyone was nursing hangovers, we discovered the magic of Mykonos by day.

Though there were more than 300 of us that came out to celebrate graduation here, my time in Mykonos will stand out as some very special days with my closest friends from INSEAD. I guess that all good things must come to an end.

Friday, July 2, 2010


I've come to know my classmates fairly well, having lived together, studied together and traveled together for the better part of 10 months.

Yet, I'm still learning the hidden talents of my colleagues every day. Our recent Cabaret in Fontainebleau was an excellent opportunity to do just that. Imagine a group of talented singers writing and singing their own material (good stuff starts 55 seconds in).

and then there were the cultural dances (imagine the possibilities in a class that has 83 nationalities represented!)
the men in tights (more oversubscribed than the google IPO - men will take any excuse to dress up as a woman)
and the nerds (me...and the rest of my student council) in a Star Wars inspired skit. Even a year abroad cannot shake the nerd out of me!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nights in the Forest

A slight contrast to the likes of Le Queen, we enjoyed one of our last evenings around here with a sunset hike among the boulders...

and a quiet evening and campfire in the forest.
Gotta love the built in camera on the blackberry and the mac; preserving memories when the camera gets left at home!