Autumn Leaves in Bourron Marlotte

The Autumnal forest has been one of the most beautiful experiences in Bourron Marlotte. Driving past trees I thought I recognised, day in and out on my drive to and from school. These days, the same trees wearing their fall collection – stunning shades of yellow, orange, red, brown, rust and tiny bits of green for the ones that don’t want to give up the summer.

Yesterday was a moment. One that I featured in my imaginations exactly a year ago. Life in France. Lunch by the river. A walk in the woods. I finally made it to Dan and Sophie’s gorgeous new place overlooking the Seine. Quaint wooden floors and beams, warm couches, beautiful wine, roast chicken and sweet potato with a bunch of writers and friends from INSEAD with whom I don’t need to pretend. Sparkling conversation. Moist, rich chocolate cake. Warm apple crumble. Deep cups of coffee. A pair of wellies, layers of wrapping and a stroll by the river and almost accidentally into the forest. We passed a bunch of letter boxes on the way. Cluttered and clustered around each other. A broken bridge romantically detached from the shore. Leaves on the ground turning from yellow, then orange and red to black in the last days of autumn. Dusk descending on the village. Speeding trains on tracks that follow the river, noticeable only because of a million miniature lit windows rushing past. Birds circling the skies signalling the end.

They say it is harder to write when you don’t want to face the truth. Letters and words stare back at you forcing you to confront exactly what you don’t want to. Its been a tumultuous few weeks, months even. Since my last post in July, I have spent days and nights in flights and hotels travelling around India for Amphenol, meeting some fascinating manufacturing businesses, walking through fields and factories in the middle of no where and completing my internship. I watched Rekha get married in Lyon – a moving and reassuring experience. I sailed on the English seas in stormy weather with the dream team. Returned to INSEAD with new luggage. Spent September and October falling in and out of love with people and things around me, said some teary goodbyes to old friends leaving for Singapore and settled into my final two months.

The last few weeks at INSEAD are proving to be an incredibly strange experience. Some of us have mentally checked out, others are hanging on – hoping the next party, the next dinner, the next evening out will bring life and love to their doorstep. The campus feels bare and empty. I am thankful for the five friends who keep me going, a reminder that true, strong bonds have been forged. There seems to be a certain satisfaction in throwing myself into work and real life to come. Transitions are never easy but this seems to be the best way to do it. I am faced with the paradox of choice, the luxury of having to pick and choose my next steps forward mixed with the heady confidence of knowing what I want and the courage that I will get there. And while it is unnerving, it is a phase in my life I will remember.

My true love this period has been my new house in Bourron Marlotte. An old, 18th century stone house with well laid out interiors, a dining table that accommodates 12 people but brings together 20 on a busy evening. A kitchen with a flaming gas stove on which we have steamed, roasted, pan fried, basted, burnt our lives away. Incredibly interesting housemates – warm, open hearted people who make a very good substitute family – bringing in a warm baguette on a Sunday morning or folding away tea towels after a long night out. 72 Rue Murger houses some well preserved memories of a 30th birthday party in the summer with jugs of Pimms and a Jazz band, saturday afternoons on the couch on the porch, waiting for hangovers to slide away as the last rays of the summer sun warm our toes. Conversations with various people that I will remember for a long time to come. The comfort of company and everything else that I missed in Montigny.

As I fix my stares on an old crumbling grey stone wall with flaming red and burnt orange leaves clinging on to the withered branches, fearful that the last gusts of the November wind will inevitably sweep it away and onto a bonfire pile – I am conscious that I have a printing business to run and a financial forecast that calls.

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9th July 2010

On Friday afternoon I felt mildly offended that when I asked my only friend and organisational life line in Pune, the HR head at Amphenol, to join me for lunch at the canteen, a different experience awaited me at the end of the corridor.

Usually (or atleast the two times I have been to the general cafeteria), we climb a set of stairs and end up eating with anyone in a blue shirt or a blue salwar kameez. This time however, we stayed on the ground floor and a door swung open paving the way for what was called the Executive Dining Room! She thought I had avoided the cafe because I couldn’t bring myself to eat the food for spice or hygiene reasons. I explained myself but it didn’t work. Out came the special china and special cutlery just for me, and yes it was an embarrassing experience being served a three course meal with a “western”dessert!

I thought about it for a while and wondered if I was denying myself the truth. Was I really avoiding the canteen because they didn’t use plastic gloves while serving up the rotis or because the towel in the washroom looked like a cosy warm home to a thousand germs? Had I really been softened by the West?

I have to admit the answer is probably yes. And here is how I came up with my conclusion. My check-list to see if you have been firangi-fied. It is not exhaustive and additions are welcome.

a) You carry loo-roll in your hand bag, just in case (confident that no Indian loo will understand the purpose or meaning of toilet roll)

b) You start looking for fresh lettuce in the market, hoping to carry a salad for lunch (I mean really!)

c) The train station from where you embarked on all your summer holidays as a child has now becomes an impossible place to navigate and you dread the experience.

d) You don’t step off a bus to buy food from the indian street stalls when on a long distance bus journey. (Yes I didn’t buy any chikki or batata vadas in Lonavala, instead I sat on the bus and read the India Today.)

e) You start believing that a 6 hour journey is long, painful and one to be avoided if possible. (Clearly I seem to have forgotten the overnight, 8 hour train rides to Madras or even the 48 hour train journeys to Delhi.)

f) You are disappointed when you don’t see a taxi-rank outside the train station. (Er… why? Its central Bombay where the ruling theme is chaos!)

g) You traipse out of the house with your neat little shopping bag and completely the wrong clothes attracting some very unwanted attention.

h) This one is my favourite – you carry sunscreen to India! (Don’t remember that bottle when I was growing up in 40 degrees and spending my summers cycling around the block unprotected!)

If you have any additions, please feel free to drop me a line. I suspect there are a few more Firangi-fied people at INSEAD!

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Roman sandals, cable assemblies and solitude in Pune

Its sad how much I am looking forward to tomorrow – the Insead alum meet at the Four Seasons in Bombay. Its not for obvious reasons like “I really want to go to Bombay” or “Oh god I miss INSEAD”. Its far more basic.

I am craving company that looks and sounds like myself. While my experience over the last three days has been challenging and exciting, I find wearing a salwar kameez 24/7 and making jokes about my roman sandals replicating ‘cable assembly systems’ slightly unfulfilling.

So much so that when I spoke to an INSEAD alum in my organisation this morning about an extremely formal and sensitive acquisition opportunity, I forced myself to finish the conversation with – “Once we finish with this business transaction, why don’t we have dinner in Pune, I need a drink”!

Felt like a total firang rushing around shopping for cheap kurtas and investing in ‘MTR’ pre-packed food (but what to do, life is like that wonly). It is also fuelled by the fact that my only company through the evenings is the telly with 147 channels on Indian entertainment, Indian sport and 120 news channels. So even though I live next door to the Osho ashram, the German Bakery and other wonderful touristy spots in Pune – I am yet to have a conversation with one like myself. I wish someone would crawl out of the woodwork and take me for a long dark coffee. Yes, I have written to the handful of alumni I could find on the website.

No, I am not complaining. I wouldn’t trade my experience in for anything else. However, it feels like penance – flipping from window to window on the internet, looking for connector websites that carry the information that I am desperately seeking. I am clearly NOT a data junkie and therefore clearly NOT cut out to be a consultant. Its the fun stuff that will come 2 weeks from now that I am really looking forward to. The tip toeing around management, the long and sometimes painful courting game (through the acquisition process), the informal (ofcourse not) dinner conversation about valuations, the manic DD process and the submission of a rationale. Few more days and I will get there – Bombay first, then factories in Chennai and Bangalore (including one in Kanjeevaram believe it or not!) and then back to Pune for some hard courting!

Overheard in my office: Drum length is that wooden drum isn’t it? It comes cadmium coated. He has issues with rubber or plating? 20 kilometres eh? But why?

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Blue uniforms, Godrej and Kitply

Monday 5th July 2010 – Today’s experience was surreal. I was in an office filled with men in blue shirts, women in synthetic blue salwar kameezes, lunch in an “office canteen” – steel plates and tumblers, canteen style food. There is definitely a sense of old world socialism in this place as employees at all levels march around in their uniforms, the sense of travelling back in time however is strong. Painted blue walls, musty rooms filled with Godrej, Kitply and calendars from the local newspapers. Central Bank of India? Maybe. But its something else it brings back and I cant quite place the nostalgia. Appu’s father on his Bajaj scooter going to the BHEL factory on the outskirts of Bangalore? Doordarshan – thats it! Musty offices, steel fastened lunch boxes, men in uniform! Anyway, I ought to embrace it quickly as it is going to be my life for the next 7 weeks. Not surprising that a French student has come to study the art of Lean Management from my temporary employer. AL.’s style is certainly lean and the experience truly humbling!

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Bombay Dreams – 4th July 2010

Who would have thought I’d be typing my next entry, nearly three months later rattling around in a taxi making its way through Bombay surburbs and on its way to Pune. Its 1am on a Sunday night and Bombay is beautiful as ever. On the eve of a nationwide strike against rising sugar and rice prices, the traffic flows would fool anyone to believe it your typical Saturday evening rush hour. Weaving through families on two wheelers and boys on bikes makes me think about the bubble I have temporarily left behind.

Apologies to those bothering to read, the intensely emotional INSEAD experience sometimes makes writing harder, especially when you don’t want to admit some of the stuff it forces you to think about.

So in a very little nutshell – The experience hasn’t let me down so far, I whinge occasionally but the luxury of just being there allows you to complain about profs, quality of coffee and lack of internet occasionally. I seem to have found a nice comfortable equilibrium with the right friends, right work mates, right courses, a challenging internship and a nice new house + housemates to look forward to. T and I are still together after surviving a slightly rocky patch. I’ve wrapped up my little rustic cottage and traded it in for a converted modern French house with some cool flatmates. And as Arnab puts it, I’ve stopped drinking the ‘Kool Aid’! What a relief.

My life a few weeks before I left, was nicely starting to bind together like well beaten cake batter, the sailing trip, a beautiful evening on the banks of the Seine listening to Paco de Lucia till midnight, a trip to Monet’s house in Giverny and a day at the seaside with a picnic and great company, not to forget a couple of great dinners and a fantastic night out at Favella Chic.

After a manic few days of dashing off last minute assignments and squeezing in final goodbyes to people I wont see in Singapore, I dragged my suitcase off to CDG and into Bombay. And here I am making my way to AL. to begin on a two month M&A internship. A long drive through the Western Ghats (mountains) awaits me – wish me luck!

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Things they don’t tell you about INSEAD

Its hard to believe its only been 20 odd days since my last post. A lot has happened since – the end of P1, the Singapore Switch (or atleast bidding rounds), a few national weeks, the dreaded exams and the start of P2. Oh and a measly few days they call a ‘break’. My head feels like it has been put through a wringer and squeezed dry and fortunately for me, the experience continues. I think I have started P2 feeling much more prepared for the eight weeks of chaos that lie ahead and I have gathered survival skills that would have made life a lot simpler had I known:

The importance of your first few weeks – critical, crucial even in the social sphere. You are swamped with information and by people and it takes a while for your system to get used to it but don’t let that stop you from spending the time and the effort to make your friends. Its a loose word – ‘friends’, I barely manage to say hello and catch a quick cup of coffee with them sometimes but they are important. Take the time, go out for that extra pint at 11am even if your warm house and thick books beckon, set aside funds for the holidays organised by various people, visit new places. Cliques start forming pretty quickly and breaking in becomes much harder the later you leave it. Couples and families have different priorities but if you are single, be prepared to work much harder!

Choose where you want to live very carefully. Try the shared accomodation/chateau if you can. There is a trade off between the beautiful rustic cottage and the overcrowded house and social schedule – make sure you know what is it.

However much you invest in building your social circle during your first few weeks, for godsake keep your wits about you. Its amazing how you think you can breeze through the course like you did at university until you discover why Insead is known for being one of the best schools – its a packed syllabus. You may be a poet or an engineer but very basic things like listening in class, taking notes, organising your course pack, making a note of open book vs close book exams helps. Scribble down everything you know you are never going to remember and although you may never manage to do it, try and skim through the pre-reading – I have discovered the painful way that it is not optional. Its tempting to spend your coffee breaks staring into space trying to recover from one class and adjusting your brain for the next but productivity is pretty key to the experience.

As much as it is a make-believe world surrounded by a beautiful forest, INSEAD has people from the real world swanning around. Imagine these people as little business cards moving around in your card holder 10 years from now. What they say about networking at INSEAD is incredibly true and creating an impression matters. Don’t forget that there are some incredibly impressive people at school who will share a desk with you and getting to know them and allowing them to get to know you is important, even in the first eight weeks. Less said the better but safe to say my experience of applying for consultancy internships has taught me a lot!

If you are a career changer, don’t make the mistake of believing that your year out, age 30, is a productive alternative to taking a break and travelling around the world. It is not. Its hard work especially for those who don’t quite know what they want to do. INSEAD opens up a lot of doors but you need to know which ones you want to knock on. So when the MBA team send you a prep email asking you to spend some time on introspection – don’t laugh it off. I would have been better off had a narrowed my list of career choices ahead of starting in January. The school allows you the amazing opportunity of trying out what you don’t know and making mistakes in a safe environment, but make sure you spend your time on making the right mistakes

Don’t underestimate the clubs. It took a while for the meetings to begin and for the various presidents to lay out plans for the year ahead, however waiting for the club to get its act together is generally not the best way to tap into what could be a huge resource. The clubs have strong links to the outside world and if you have well defined area of interest, find out more before you catch that flight to Paris.

C’est tout. I’ve tried not to be cynical but my writing clearly does not disguise the fact that it is a lot of hard work, atleast initially!

On a lighter note, given I thought I would scrape through, I managed to pass my P1 exams with a half decent grade!

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Goodbye Nikos and Bearden

Writing this makes me feel fresh, naive, over-eager and enthusiastic about the Insead experience but I am not going to let that stop me.

We had our last class with our Prices and Markets professor – a dry, sarcastic, witty Economics professor who in his spare time consults for the European Competition Commission. In his words, as a parting piece of advice he says in a pronounced greek accents: 2 things, 1) you are cleverer, richer and better looking than most people in the world (ok some of you) but you will not stay in this position unless you work at it 2) don’t be too full of yourself.

This is the man while attempting to explain a 2X2 pay off matrix to us, used a football analogy and said in his distant voice ‘Imagine the World Cup finals in a few months where two of the best football teams meet in the final – Brazil and … Greece!’

He has taught me to look at the world through supply and demand curves and for that I am eternally grateful.

Neil Bearden’s final act before curtains was his rap performance, only for E9. He also gave us a parting piece of paper – stats jokes and clever lines you can use at a dinner party, talking about Nietzsche (Convictions are more dangerous than lies), T-distributions, George Soros and Confidence Intervals at the Singapore train station. He deserved the standing ovation he received as he walked out of class. His very first claim in class was that he would change the way we think about the world and he has not failed.

I am not a point estimate person, I can speak in confidence intervals and regression models are truly beautiful – if you cant appreciate a good fit, you are missing out on something!

God knows what next week will hold for us but P1 was worth every single cent of the EUR 51,000.

Thank you INSEAD.

Back to working on changing the standard error to suit my performance next week.

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