5th January, 2016… Arrival at 42, Rue de France, Fontainebleau

As Cyl’s Renault Megane rolls off into the resilient winter dawn, I feel a sour mix of gratitude and despair. His job is done and very effectively so. The cab ride from Paris to Fontainebleau had taken just over an hour. I arrive 15 minutes too early for the meeting with my new landlord, Jeremy; 30 minutes too early as I am soon to learn. Turns out African time is not so African after all. Less than I can say for the weather. A goading gust of cold January wind reminds me to fly my coat lapels, slap on my flat cap and check the time; 6:48 am. 7 am feels like forever away. I shoot a quick text to Jeremy and seek refuge by my luggage stack. Another 11 minutes to mull over my choices.

In this cold, I don’t regret picking a suit over t-shirt and jeans. I had been torn between the casual techy laid back look and the more formal decks of a Canary Wharf rookie. Three years spent in coveralls and safety boots, combined with my fiancee’s admonition to look like I meant business, outweighed comfort and … well, just comfort. I miss her now. I can already imagine my weekend ventures North to Paris, where she has been in fashion school for over a year. The 3,000 miles that had separated us for 15 months have now shrunk to 43. On the romantic front, I feel quite certain of a great year ahead.

However, I am still not sure what to expect of INSEAD. From a distance, it seemed like everything I had hoped for; reputable, quick, diverse, cool and relatively affordable. On paper, INSEAD won my heart by a landslide. Now, I feel unsure how much disillusionment I need to brace myself for. I have no doubts academics would trump my previous experience; this Dothraki1 has crossed the narrow sea to experience the Wide Wide West. My worries are more on relationships. While I had great multicultural, international experience at work until now, the social dynamics on a drilling rig bear little similarity to the clean coiffed corporate settings of a business school. What if my group members turn out to be jerks? What if I am the jerk? Or my social faux pas drown my reputation on the first day of school? The good listener in me picks up on the still small voice telling me it would all be alright.

As if in confirmation, church bells ring somewhere to the south. It’s 7am. Come on, Jeremy! I scan the buildings to reaffirm that I was at number 42. Finally breaking through, the first photons of daylight reveal chars underneath the cracked paint of the building before me. Unsettling. I spot a laminated A4 sign in French. Amongst the words I can comprehend, “INCENDIE”. Fire? What? I suddenly start to wish away the reality that this was number 42. Have I been scammed? Maybe Bonapart2 apartments were too cheap to be true after all. But wait… this is the West. There has to be an explanation. There almost always is. In the movies at least? I whip out my phone to text my landlord; if only Google could translate calls. Two characters before send, my phone rings. Talk of the Jeremy. In the best English he could muster, he apologizes for being late. When further bilingual conversation proves impossible, he sends a text explaining he would arrive in 5 minutes. Great! 5 minutes after we were due to meet. I demand an explanation for “Incendie”. He assures me not to worry. I worry… till he pulls up 10 minutes later.

He is nice. Charming almost. He tr-explains3 that the front entrance to the building had recently been gutted by fire and leads me in through the back alley. More than I appreciate his help with my bags, I am glad to be out of the cold. Three doors in and two flights up, he shows me around the 20 square meter apartment; my home for the next year. Still in awe of the space-management skills of the French, I miss most of the introductory statements. I ask him for directions to campus and he offers me a ride. Excellent! We depart at 8:40.

Cozy in Jeremy’s Benz, my imagination kicks back in gear. “INSEAD was the best year of my life.” I have heard this so often through my interviews and fact-finding, thinking otherwise feels blasphemous. As we cruise down Route de l’Ermitage, Jeremy points out INSEAD’s real Estate to the right. Modern, bright and set back from the perimeter, it contrasts sharply with the rest of the ancient forest town. My rising spirit halts as Jeremy pulls up in front of the Pleissis du Mornay. 8:50 am. Intake registration and reception should be in full swing by now. In my guts, it’s the first day of school all over again. But he is not my daddy. I thank him profusely and head toward the storm. My heart beats too fast for the cold to matter anymore. The glass doors to the main reception slide open before me. Deep breath; silent prayer. Step one.

I have no idea where the upper gallery is. Too excited to read the signs. I track the rumble of voices and the squeak of a few wet shoes; up the cream marble stairs and into a kaleidoscope of faces. One moves my way and smiles as he extends his hand. “Hi! I’m Vij.” His excitement is infectious. I smile and introduce myself. I’m from Nigeria. He’s from Mauritius. Cool! I’ve never met anyone from Mauritius. I know where Mauritius is. Off the South East coast of Africa. No. Not Madagascar. I almost blurt it out loud. Familiarity. Traction. We exchange pleasantries for two minutes and move on to other people. With each new exchange, I drown deeper in an ocean of names and information. Sophie; French. Pablo; Colombian. Peter; Chinese. Marco; Italian. It’s hard to keep up; but it feels good. Roller coaster! I feel small. I feel better. Cool people. Really cool people. Down to earth, but excited. Inviting but inquisitive. Dressed more causally than I had expected. Now I regret my choice of a suit; but not the decision to come here. I soak in the cloud of colours and accents floating around me. I could not have upped my expectations enough for this. The whole world has shrunk to the 300 people around me. All at once, I feel big yet I feel small. In this crowd of unique individuals, I felt integrated yet distinct. Hard to describe… only one word comes close; Beauty!

1 Dothraki – Horse-riding tribe from the “Game of Thrones” TV show

2 Bonapart – Online apartment rental platform.

3 Tr-explains  – Translates + Explains