Friday, September 28, 2018

A life uncommon: part IV

I followed my bliss all the way to Paris on September 7, 2001, arriving with an overstuffed suitcase and a heart full of hopes, dreams, unavowed fears, and the inexplicable assurance that I was where I was meant to be. In honor of the 17th anniversary of that leap of faith, I have decided to write a short series of posts recounting the little-known tale of my love affair with France. 

Read part I here, part II here, and part III here.

The long and winding road

Business school it would be. Ever the perfectionist, I buckled down and gave the admissions process all I had. I asked a couple of alumni to hook me up with some advice; I read several books on culture générale, which is key to French exams of all stripes (realizing in the process that my education had some rather large holes in it); I bought a severe-looking suit and practiced my “business voice.” In the end, I wasnt accepted by one Grande Ecole—but by two. So I said a fond farewell to my boss, who had done everything in his power to help me gain admission, and went off to buy some cool French school supplies, including plenty of that liney lined paper (why ever does it have so many lines?), certain that this would finally be my big break.

I suppose disappointment was inevitable. My undergraduate years remained decidedly rose-tinted; there was little chance I could ever relive them. I had imagined that this elite French institution would be the equivalent of Harvard, that I’d be rubbing elbows with the intellectual aristocracy, that classes would be as fascinating as they were inspiring.... In short, I wanted graduate school to be more than a means to an end; I wanted it to be an end in itself. Alas, non. My classmates were indeed brilliant, but the reigning atmosphere was hardly scholarly. The first week, I stepped into the schools stately cobblestone courtyard only to be met with a scene worthy of a carnival. An inflatable fun house crowded the entrance; music blasted over loudspeakers; students in giant chicken costumes waddled about, distributing rolls of toilet paper. I feared that I’d unintentionally slipped into a parallel universe.

Unfortunately, that was only an introduction; the carefree attitude that reigned in the courtyard seemed to reign in the lecture hall as well. Students would meander into class oftentimes well past its start, strolling right beneath the professor’s nose without eliciting so much as a grumble. Many of those seated were hardly any better: some blatantly perused the morning newspapers; others texted sweet nothings on their phones; still others surfed the web on their newfangled laptops. Many didn’t show up at all. Yet the lecturer would continue lecturing, not seeming to care one iota. If anything, the lack of respect appeared to be mutual: one professor quite simply fell asleep during a series of (clearly unimportant) student presentations. I know that turnabout is fair play and all, but COME ON. What is actually happening here? I wondered, unable to shake the sense that somehow, somewhere, somebody had made a mistake.

In hindsight, it’s obvious that the mistake was mine. I embarked on the graduate school adventure believing that I had an open mind, when in truth I had a very fixed notion of what the experience should be like, and was profoundly disappointed when reality did not live up to my lofty expectations. That’s on me. But in my defense, I know what superior education looks like—and that wasn’t it. Anyway, things kept on keeping on for months, and then suddenly coursework was over. We took a whirlwind trip to India, zeroed in on a thesis topic, and poof! We were granted the right to brandish the school’s hallowed name and watch the internship offers roll in. By that point, I’d set my heart on going into wine and spirits marketing, but in light of all that I had witnessed that year, I was highly skeptical of the school’s reputation, however illustrious, being able to work its magic and land me an internship … until it worked its magic and landed me an internship—in marketing; in the wine industry. Mind. Blown.

As it turned out, I rather enjoyed wine marketing. Plus, the start-up I went to work for decided it rather liked me back and, heaven be praised, after proving my mettle as an intern, I was offered a full-time positionand along with it A NEW EMPLOYEE VISA! Betting everything on a business degree had actually paid off; I couldn’t believe it. My graduate school had not given me what I wanted, but ultimately, it gave me what I needed. Perhaps I had been too quick to criticize (I said perhaps). In any case, I ended up remaining in wine marketing for a little over three years. The company met a sad fate, but it taught me invaluable lessons about management, mismanagement, wine, and most importantly, copywriting. My boss—and I will forever be indebted to him for this—recognized a certain affinity I had for the written word, and often gave me copywriting projects. With time, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps I was meant to take up my pen and make a living out of it. Hmm.

Meanwhile, that other quest of mine, lamour, remained frustratingly out of reach. Then, in the autumn of 2007, just when I was beginning to think that the love of my life might actually literally be France, and was imagining what kinds of crazy hats I would wear as a spinster, it happened—I met someone. A human! Who liked me! And whom I liked back! I’d been single for 95% of my six and a half years in the so-called city of “love,” and then all of a sudden, here was this tall, handsome, French guy with beautiful eyes and really nice shoes, who was neither a sociopath nor dating someone else nor related to any of my bosses in any way. I pounced (and by that I mean I batted my lashes a lot and hoped for the best). And lo and behold, sparks flew. We moved in together the following year, were engaged a year and a half after that, and married in a picture perfect Franco-American ceremony in my hometown in the spring of 2011. What is it they say about good things coming to those who wait (and wait, and wait, and wait...)?

After jumping ship from the by then rapidly sinking wine company, I switched gears and joined a mid-sized design and communication agency. Over the next several years, I put my newly acquired managerial skills to the test—and realized I just didn’t have it in me to be a manager. In fact, I seemed to be singularly ill-suited to the entire open-plan paradigm. It was a sobering realization, but it was unavoidable. Much soul-searching ensued. And in the end, I came to the conclusion that while each stepping stone in my professional journey thus far had served a purpose, if I ever wanted to find the Holy Grail, I couldn’t simply take another step—I would have to take a leap. 

So I quit my day job, moved to the suburbs, opened a copywriting business, and had two children. 


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