Remote Year Ohana Month 4: Part 2 – Paris

Spending a couple of days in Paris after the INSEAD reunion made me realize how much I love and miss this city. Paris to me represents something far greater than the city itself – beauty, love, romance, history, art, food, wine, culture, family, a way of life – all elements that I hold dear to my heart. No wonder as we were driving into the city, seeing the Eiffel Tower along the Seine river, my heart was filled with indescribable joy, affection, and longing, like reuniting with an old friend.

My first time in Paris was with my parents when we were living in Germany. I was 11 years old and it was one of those 2-3 day bus tours. It was my first time sightseeing in a big European city and I fell in love with it right away. My favorite was the boat ride along the Seine river. I loved the movement, the water, seeing so many stunning buildings, and feeling the bond with my parents. The photo that comes to mind when I think about that boat ride is the one of my dad and me with wind in our hair and Notre-Dame in the background. It was the first time that I had seen that kind of beauty in any structure and it completely mesmerized me. It was as if a new part of me has been awakened that wasn’t part of my Chinese body, maybe something from a previous life? I’ve always wondered when or how my fascination with the French culture, art, food and wine began, and now I know, from that first trip to Paris 25 years ago.

France as a country and Paris as a city will always be my first love. Perhaps that is why when I first heard about INSEAD in 2006 from a then French boyfriend my intuition told me immediately that I needed to go. I had never been so determined about anything. I spent countless weekends studying for the GMAT, resisting lots of temptations from friends and colleagues to go out, writing and re-writing the application essays, getting the reference letters. The last step was an interview with an alum from the school. I was nervous and excited at the same time. The interviewer picked a Starbucks as the interview location in one of the beaches in Orange County, I don’t remember which one now but I do remember it was at 9am on a Sunday morning. I debated for a long time what to wear and decided to be safe and went with my conservative work outfit of a long-sleeved blouse, pencil skirt, and black pumps.

That morning, the Starbucks was filled with fit and healthy-looking people from OC who looked like they had just come from a run, a bike ride, or a surf. What a cool looking crowd and what an awesome life style they are living I thought. My interviewer walked in looking just like the rest, completely relaxed in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I felt a bit out of place with my work outfit and high heels, but I’d like to think he appreciated my effort to look professional. To my pleasant surprise, the interview was way more relaxed than I imagined and I probably asked him more questions than he asked me. The question I remember most vividly was, “Will you contribute to the community as an alum?” I was surprised and ecstatic, I thought if he is already asking me about what I’ll do after I graduate maybe I will really get in!

I still remember the moment when I found out that I got into INSEAD. It was June 2007, I was traveling in Italy with my good friend Joanne on my first extended international trip without parents. We were sitting in an internet café in Florence (yes, we still had to go to internet cafes to check e-mails back then), and I was absolutely over the moon. At the same time, my intuition or maybe my inner confident self had already known it was going to happen. Come to think of it, that has been the case for me so far – anything I’ve ever really wanted in life I have received. How fortunate am I? Which also makes me wonder, if I haven’t gotten something that I think I want, could it be because I don’t really want it? Or I don’t want it badly enough? Or maybe I’m not ready for it yet?

Now back to my 2 days in Paris. I stayed in the tiniest little apartment in the attic in Arrondissement 7. The bed was a mattress on the floor because anything taller than that would be too high for the ceiling and if I didn’t walk in the middle of the room I would hit my head. Despite these quirks or maybe because of them, I found it so charming and endearing and loved my stay there. I had a view of the Eiffel Tower and was able to walk to everywhere. There was even a bakery with the best Croissant aux Amandes down the street.

I have a very special relationship with Croissant aux Amandes. I had it for the first time in the café that my best friends – Marija, Priti, Sophie – and I went to at INSEAD and have been in love with it ever since. Any city where I can find a good version of this pastry becomes just that much more special for me. Having a bakery with good Croissant aux Amandes down the street absolutely made my time in Paris and gave me the feeling that I actually lived there. I thought, how amazing would it be to live in Paris for a while?

My first night in Paris, I had an amazing dinner with Priti at the Restaurant at Hotel Costes. Priti and I seem to close off our weekends together in nice restaurants in big European cities. Priti is my fabulous, witty, and wise friend from INSEAD who is also an extraordinary business woman. We hadn’t seen each other for 9 years when we met at Sophie’s wedding in Stockholm 6 months ago, but it was as if time hadn’t passed. I can always rely on Priti to bring me to the most gorgeous places that I would’ve never known on my own. The last time she brought me to a beautiful place like this was in London 6 months ago, when I missed my flight back to Singapore after we spent a weekend together at Sophie’s wedding. In fact, that lunch with Priti and my missed flight were determining factors that pushed me to finally make my decision to come to Remote Year.

It was an 8-month long process with a lot happening and tons of internal transformation. When I first found out about Remote Year in April 2017 I was amazed. I had been contemplating to take extended time off to travel for at least three years, but I was never able to pull the trigger because the thought of traveling and not working was too much to swallow for my risk-averse self, plus I actually liked my job and I like working. Now here is a program that allows me to do two things I love the most – work and travel? Almost like my gut reaction about INSEAD, my intuition said this is exactly what I’d been looking for and I had to do it. However, the rest of the decision wasn’t so effortless like INSEAD.

Following that initial intuition I filled in the round 1 application that same afternoon and got accepted a few days later. Just as that was happening though, I started dating someone, and thought, well if I want this relationship to have a real chance of working out I can’t be going around the world. Now looking back that was just my self-limiting belief, who said you can’t make a relationship work if one person is traveling around the world? Or it was an excuse I needed to tell myself so I didn’t have to deal with this big scary thing that was in fact my dream. When the relationship ended 6 months later, I told myself, here is my chance to pursue my dream again! I picked up the application and got through the 2nd and 3rd round. Now that the dream became real, somehow I managed to find thousands of reasons why it was not a good idea anymore. Such as:

  • I am too old for this. It’s probably for Americans in their 20s who haven’t traveled very much.
  • I’ve already traveled plenty on my own, why would I need to do it in a group?
  • This feels similar to INSEAD, except I did that 10 years ago! And I got a degree out of it, what am I going to get out of this?
  • Why would I still want to do something like this 10 years later when all my friends are married with kids? Am I going nuts?
  • Why would I give up this great life in Singapore and an apartment I love and travel out of a suitcase with a bunch of strangers? What do I with all my stuff??
  • I like working in my company and I like the people. If I quit now and coaching doesn’t work out, I may never find a job or company as good as what I have now ever again!

And the list goes on. All this time that I was contemplating about Remote Year, I also started Co-Active coaching training. We had lots of dyad and triad coaching sessions and the topic that I got coached on the most was my dilemma about Remote Year and a debate about a role in Shanghai. I would’ve never turned down the role in Shanghai and would’ve never come on Remote Year if I hadn’t gone through coaching. Through these sessions and working with my own Co-Active coach I learned to confront my fears, or ,Saboteurs, which are voices in my head, similar to those statements above, that keep me safe and that don’t allow me to live the life that I really want to live but rather a life that I think I “should” live. Through the months of training and coaching, I came head to head with these Saboteurs. I also got to understand who I truly am and what I really want. I got to meet my Captain, Wonder Woman – my real inner self that is full of courage, wisdom, certainty, clarity, and compassion – as well as the crew members who help my captain to steer me towards my life purpose and to live a life according to my own values.

As life-changing as Co-Active coaching was, my Saboteurs still won the morning that I went to the airport in London. The funny thing about saboteurs is that they are really strong and persistent. After all, they’ve been with us and protecting us all our lives. That morning I thought I had the perfect plan. I would come back to Singapore, and perhaps my company would have bought into my idea of establishing an internal coaching function, which was the new career direction I really wanted to take, and everything would be perfect. Then, things weren’t so perfect anymore because I didn’t get on that flight. Normally I would have been upset at someone or myself, but this time the stress and anxiety went away quickly and I started accepting it, even laughing about it, and asking what is the universe trying to tell me? I thought perhaps I’m not meant to go back to Singapore; perhaps I’m meant to have one last lunch with Priti who had missed her flight the night before. What are the chances that we both missed our flights?!

So here we were, two good friends sitting in Nobu in the middle of London, both not supposed to have been there if our original plan had worked out. We talked about how funny this happened and reminisced over our time at INSEAD 10 years ago. Priti said, “I always thought you’d become a sommelier.” “Really?” I said. “I haven’t thought about that for so long!” The last time that idea came into my head was in our P2 strategy class in April 2008, the professor asked me what was my dream job and I said sommelier. I loved wine back then, and still do, and back then I was taking lots of wine classes and going wine tasting around France every chance I got. Priti thought I would have taken that up at some point, but my rational side must’ve thought it was too impractical and better kept as a hobby than a profession. Then Priti said, “What if you came to London and worked in a restaurant as a sommelier for 6 months?! I think you’ll have so much fun!”

Huh… that got me thinking. Could I do that? The free-spirited side of me or perhaps my captain said “Yes! That would be so much fun!” But the rational and probably the saboteur side of me said, “How can I? I don’t have a sommelier license. Why would any restaurant want to hire me?” But Priti’s comment put a thought in my head, perhaps I need to do something “reckless”, as in anything that is not the norm or that is not what society expects of me. Perhaps now the universe was telling me that going back to Singapore to my comfortable corporate job was not what I was meant to do in the next little while.

Coming back to the airport, something else unexpected happened. I got an e-mail from Remote Year, even though I had already told them a month earlier that I wasn’t going to do it. This time it was a new person telling me about a few new itineraries that got launched and asking me to take a look. Here I am in the middle of Gatwick in London, where I should’ve left hours ago if I had followed plan, having just heard from one of my best friends that maybe I should pursue my long-forgotten unpractical dream, and getting an e-mail from a company that I thought could be my dream-come-true but that I had already turned down. It felt as if the universe was taking charge and knocking down my Saboteurs and letting my Captain take charge. I could hear her say: “I’m not meant to go back to Singapore. I’m meant to follow my intuition. I’m meant to get out of my comfort zone. I’m meant to do Remote Year.”

I still consider missing my flight that morning one of the luckiest things that has ever happened to me. Because fast forward 6 months later, I am living my dream life. That is why I often tell myself that I am so lucky, the universe always looks out for me and gives me exactly what I need at every moment. Now whenever something seemingly bad happens, I tell myself “Don’t sweat it. This could turn out to be the best thing that’ll ever happen to me.” More than ever now I believe everything happens for a reason. Something good will come out of anything, as long as we have patience, curiosity, and open-mindedness, and even if not there is always something to be learned.

Day 2 in Paris, I met up with a couple of other classmates. As big of a city as Paris is, we bumped into two more classmates in a restaurant and another two while walking around the city. What are the chances! It was as if the universe was saying, you haven’t gotten enough of this magical INSEAD weekend, and here is some more 🙂

When I left the next morning after grabbing my last two Croissant aux Amandes, I couldn’t erase the big smile off my face. My heart was completely full and overflowing. Au revoir Paris! I will miss you dearly but you can be sure that I’ll be back!

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