Encore – Chapter Nine – From Beard to Tail


Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. While Day As have been spent travelling and having fun, Day Bs are about improving his career…

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Chapter 9: From Beard to Tail

 

I looked at the little screen that popped up on my windshield as I backed into Thierry’s driveway. He had invited the full BNP Marketing team and other BNP colleagues to a barbecue at his place. He lived in Biot, a small town spread across three different hills, in a compound called Domaine des Clausonnes. As I drove up into the Domaine, I couldn’t help but notice that every single house had an incredible view of the surroundings. Thierry was even more well off than I had thought. I was gaining new respect for the position of Regional Marketing Manager.

The view came with a drawback however. Every single road and driveway was a tight slope climbing up or down a narrow curve, and I was now trying to reverse my brand new car on a 30-degree slope without scratching it on the spiky stoned walls that jutted out on either side.

It was a Day B, so for once I needed to be careful. A scratch on my car wouldn’t simply disappear the next day. Given what it had cost me, I was terrified to imagine the price of a new paint job.

I had thought long and hard about the type of car to get to replace the battered old Clio I owned. As much as I would have loved another Ferrari, it would simply have raised too many questions. But I had enjoyed the driving experience so much that I didn’t want to compromise on the pleasure of my commute by settling for a run-of-the-mill Renault either.

I finally decided to trade in Italian ostentatiousness for German engineering and went for a Mercedes. The best part of the Mercedes was simply that it was incredibly hard for the untrained eye to understand how much the car actually cost. For amateurs, aside from the famous and flashy Class S, it was difficult to distinguish between a Class A, Class C and Class E series, even though a basic Class E was easily double the price of a pimped out Class A.

I didn’t hesitate for a second and went for the Class E. When asked to choose the model, I opted for the Cabriolet version with retractable roof. Even in the coldest months of winter, the temperatures in the South of France rarely dropped under 5 degrees Celsius, and blue skies were the norm. Nothing made driving more enjoyable here than doing so without a roof and feeling the salty wind blow the hair out of your face. That alone set me back 48,850 euros.

But I was just getting started. I upgraded the motor from a four cylinder 135 kW to an 8-cylinder V8 with 300 kW. I didn’t actually understand what that would translate to in real life, but I wanted a powerful car. I wanted to feel that gentle thrum that transformed into a scream of speed with the press of a pedal. I figured more was better, even if it did increase the price to 83,550 euros. It was the perfect example of how low-key Mercedes cars could be – the price had doubled, but from the exterior, it looked absolutely the same.

I added on three main packs. The first, “Fascination Pack”, made every single movable part of the car electrically controlled, provided heated and cooled seats, and added leather finishes to the interior for an extra 5,450 euros. The second, AMG Plus, I had to look up on Google to understand. AMG was a company founded in 1967 by ex-Mercedes engineers, whose sole purpose was to boost the performance of the car by higher use of carbon fiber, more aggressive and aerodynamic looks, and better performance, be it for handling, acceleration and stability. I didn’t fully get what exactly the 3,550 euro pack would be adding either, but I wanted it. Check.

The last pack was my favorite, and had only been launched by Mercedes four months ago. It was the AR pack, short for Augmented Reality. It essentially meant that the entire windshield was one giant see-through screen. If I activated the GPS, it overlaid arrows on the actual road showing me where to go and where to turn. The entire entertainment system could be loaded up in the left corner of the windshield, letting me switch through songs or browse through my phone contacts to select whom to call without taking my eyes off the road. On especially sunny days, I could increase the opacity by simple gesture or voice commands. And when I needed to back up the car, it conveniently opened three live video pop-ups at the top of the screen showing views from the back and sides cameras. All for only 12,550 euros.

The entire car had cost me over 100,000 euros, but I didn’t regret the decision for a second, even if it had knocked off more than 10% of the funds in my current account. Just looking forward to my amazing drive to work made me wake up on Day B mornings with a giant smile on my face. My only real regret was that it had taken three weeks to be delivered from Germany, and I hadn’t been able to use it for my Day A road trips. I was more than making up for that now.

I parked my silver beauty next to Thierry’s Citroën, and closed the roof before stepping out of the car and locking it. Although the car didn’t betray its real value, I still had had to come up with an excuse for how I ended up with a Mercedes, especially on my more than mediocre salary. For my family and friends, the answer was simple: this was a company car to reward me for two years of incredible work. For Thierry and my colleagues, I said it was a gift from my grandfather. To all, I said the retail value was around 30,000 euros, which was high but not excessively so. The lie worked like a charm.

Thierry lived in a two-story pinkish sandstone house with a red terracotta tile roof, and burgundy wooden shutters typical of the South. I knocked on the heavy wooden door, and Thierry opened with a smile. From behind his legs peeked out a pair of inquisitive blue eyes framed by falling golden locks. Alina, his daughter.

“Hey Leo,” said Thierry, “Great that you could make it! Come on in!”

He reached out to take my shoulder and gave me a bise. The rules of the bise were a complex matter. When meeting a woman, the bise was de rigueur, the classic and expected way to say hello. When meeting a man however, one would go for a handshake, unless it was a close friend or a family member, in which case a bise showed the esteem and affection you had for the person.

The complexity didn’t stop there however. In most of France, including Paris, Lyon and the South, one only did two bises, an air kiss on each side. However, other regions, such as around Marseille, did three, and the center of France had certain areas where people went for four. Nothing made an introduction more awkward than having to stare at a person while they hung in empty air with pursed lips. Except perhaps being that person. Whatever the case, I was happy I was used to a two-bise system, which minimized my embarrassment at the expense of others’.

“I brought a bottle of wine,” I said to Thierry, handing him a bottle of rosé I had picked up at a supermarket on the way, “And I got something for you!” I added, squatting down and handing a wrapped gift to Alina. She tightly hugged her father’s legs and cowered further behind him.

Thierry laughed. “What do we say Alina?” he asked.

She gingerly stepped out and took the box in her tiny hands. “Thank you,” she murmured, and ran away with gift in hand.

“Sorry,” said Thierry, “She’s shy.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, following him into his house, “I told you my mom is a pre-school teacher right? I’m used to little kids.”

“You really didn’t have to,” said Thierry, as we walked into his living room where Alina was opening the present on a small glass table.

“I know. But I figured I might as well. Sucking up to the boss, you know…”

Thierry laughed.

“So what’s that?” he asked Alina as she tore away the wrapping paper.

“I don’t know,” she said, “What is it?”

“It’s a microscope honey,” said Thierry, looking at the box, “You can use it to look at little things like bugs and plants and see them much bigger!”

Alina grinned and said “Ewwww…” at the mention of bugs. With a quick thank you to me she ran outside, microscope box in hand, calling out to her mom.

“I thought I’d opt for a more educational gift…” I said to Thierry, letting it hang.

“It’s a great gift. Thanks,” he said, “And we’ll talk about your raise later ok?” he added with a laugh. “Come on, let’s go outside, everybody’s almost here.”

We walked out onto his patio through the big sliding glass door in his living room. The patio was made of large square white stone tiles, which extended out for 5 meters before spreading around his perfectly clear blue pool. He’d obviously gotten the bromine mix right.

Beyond it was his garden, with neatly trimmed grass, and a smattering of olive trees. A row of two-meter tall hedges lined his property and gave him some privacy.

He had set up a whole range of chips, drinks and plastic plates and glasses on a big wooden outdoor table, around which 10 or so of my co-workers now stood gathered. Off to the side, smoke rose from the grill where he was cooking. From the smell alone I could tell it was merguez, the spicy red sausages that were the main staple of Southern barbecues.

I greeted each of my colleagues individually, Sandra from HR, with whom I had had my first interview, Joel from Accounting, four of my direct colleagues and the others that I would usually only smile to as I passed them in the hall. Conversation revolved mostly around how great the weather was, which was somehow always the default topic, even in a place where it only rained 60 days a year. My colleagues were friendly, but not overly so, and I could detect in their movements and tone just a hint of jealousy.

It had been a month and a half since I had lived a day twice for the first time. Although at first I thought days spent at the office were a complete and utter bore compared to the incredible things I was doing in Day As, that perception had rapidly changed. I had actually begun to welcome work as a nice distraction from the rest of my life. For starters, I had realized that counting both Day As and Day Bs, my typical week was 14 days long. Of those 14, only 5 needed to be spent in the office. Which meant that on average, my workweek was 2 days and a half. How could I complain?

I had also figured out hacks to take full advantage of the Day A/B dynamic, even without coming in on Day As. For the past month, Thierry had tasked me with a competitive intelligence project. As high-end as it might sound, it basically involved me looking into what other banks were doing in terms of marketing in the South of France, and analyzing what was working and what wasn’t. Piggy banks in main visuals: omnipresent but cliché and vomit inducing. Using teenage YouTube celebrities: innovative but immediately called out as pathetic online pandering. Personalized bankcards where younger users could upload a picture of their choice: a resounding success. Thierry was hoping that for the next campaign, we would be able to come in with a list of what the best practices were, and set the tone as to who would be leading the efforts, us or Paris.

We would meet up every three days to discuss my findings and how I was structuring them in the presentation. I would therefore work on it for two Day Bs, then send it to him by e-mail on the following Day A, right before leaving for the airport. I would add that I was sick and ask that he send me feedback by e-mail so that I could make sure to get it done for the next day. When I received the feedback later that day on my phone, I would memorize it as accurately as I could. The next morning, on Day B, I would come in early and change the presentation according to the feedback I remembered. By the time I showed it to Thierry, who had no memory of ever seeing my presentation before, it was perfect. He usually just went through it, told me it was brilliant, and to keep at it.

I could tell that for Thierry, I was fast shifting from the youngest person on the team to his protégé. The initiative I had shown during the Alicante meeting had made him see me in a different light, and the power conferred to me by the Day A/B dynamic ensured that I only delivered the best possible work. But for every degree that I rose in his esteem, so did the jealousy of my colleagues, all of whom were older than me.

I took a piece of bread, spread out tapenade, thick brown olive paste, on it, and took a bite, looking around.

Thierry had shifted from manager to perfect host. Gone were the black suit and red power tie, and in was the family man garb. He sported a bright blue Ralph Lauren polo, a pair of khaki-colored cargo shorts, and an apron that had obviously been offered to him as a joke, with the printed image of a buff muscular body. He laughed with everyone, arranged the merguez and lamb chops in paper plates and made a show of bringing them out to the ‘oooh’s and ‘aaah’s of the guests.

Barbecues in the South were definitely popular during the summer, but ones with colleagues at a person’s home were a rarer occurrence. The same quality that made Thierry a good boss was at work here. His colleagues were like family, not just people whose presence he had to tolerate to get the job done. As I sat talking with Sandra from HR, I spotted him with Alina propped up against his shoulder. He was showing her how to grill sausages, and she squealed with delight every time one popped and sizzled. He was a family man. It was fun to see him this way. It explained why I felt he didn’t show enough drive and ambition in his work at BNP.

His wife, Adrienne, was quite the surprise. From what I knew, she had stopped working to take care of Alina. I had somehow expected her to be a demure housewife, kind and caring but living in the shadow of her husband. Instead, she was gleaming, shining bright as she rotated between her husband’s guests and Alina. With a glass of chilled orange juice in hand, she beamed perfect smiles and laughed gracefully at every joke. She was dressed in a simple white sundress, with the same long golden curls as her daughter tumbling down to her shoulders. I was impressed. Thierry was a lucky guy.

As Sandra, the colleague I was talking to, left in search of more food, Adrienne sat down next to me in one of the plastic chairs they had set out under the shade of a striped white and pink awning.

“You’re Leo right?” she asked with a hint of a smile.

“Yup, that’s me,” I said, “I work for your husband.”

“I know,” she said with a grin and sparkling emerald green eyes, “He can’t seem to shut up about you.”

“Really?” I asked, a bit taken aback.

“He says you’re the most talented young man he’s ever had the chance to work with, and he’s lucky to have you,” she continued.

“Well, I guess he hasn’t figured out I’m the one stealing all his pens then,” I joked, and Adrienne laughed, “But seriously, I’m the one who’s lucky to have a good boss.”

“Humble and a smartass,” said Adrienne, “I see why he likes you.”

Alina came up at that moment and tugged at her mother’s dress until she had to excuse herself. She walked away in search of cake for her daughter.

I stood up to get more food, and continued to socialize. Eventually, guests started to peel off one by one. It was nearing seven p.m., and although the sun wouldn’t officially set for another hour, it had already started to fall behind the hill facing Thierry’s patio. When only three guests remained, including myself, I decided it was time to go. I went up to say bye to Thierry.

“Can you hang around a bit longer?” he asked, “If you don’t have any plans, I’d like to have a quick chat with you before you leave.”

I nodded, surprised, and went back to the table to fetch myself a few more olives and some chips. I said bye to the remaining two guests as they left. As soon as he shut the door behind the last one, Thierry came back out and dragged two of the white plastic chairs to the edge of the pool. I sat down in one. Behind us, I could hear Adrienne cleaning up and bringing what remained of the food into their kitchen.

“Can you have another drink and still drive?” he asked. Drinking and driving rules were extremely strict in the South. More than a glass every two hours was enough to lose half the points on one’s driver’s license. Three glasses or more, and it was straight to jail, lose your license, and do not collect $200. Thankfully, I had only had a single glass of wine when I arrived, so I nodded assent.

“Yeah I would love a beer,” I answered.

“A beer?” he laughed, “How about no? Wait here, I’ll be right back.”

He came back with two glasses, in which sloshed around an amber liquid and a giant ball of ice. He handed me one, and I held it out in front of me, impressed at how heavy and hefty the glass was. I swirled the liquid around, looking at it.

“I know you like your beers,” said Thierry, “But I’d like to think that this is a special occasion and it deserves a special drink.” He nodded towards the glass. “This is Hibiki whiskey, from Japan, one of my favorites.”

I took a sip. It was cool and refreshing, with just an edge of a bite as the alcohol touched my tongue. Thierry sat down and stared off across his pool at the lights turning on one by one in Biot.

“I just wanted to thank you for the great work you’ve been doing over the past two months,” he said, and raised his glass so we could cheer. I obliged.

“Thanks for your guidance,” I answered.

“Haha, cut the shit,” he laughed, “So, I need to tell you. I heard from Alicante two days ago. He’s sending us to Paris in two weeks to give a presentation to the HQ’s Marketing team. They’re going to be preparing the back-to-school Marketing campaign for September and he wants to make sure we brief them on how different the South is so we have something more tailored.”

“This is big,” I said, “He’s really trying to put us out there?”

“Well that’s thanks to you and your baby dolphins. He loved you and you made me look really good. This could be your shot,” he paused, “Our shot.”

We sat in silence for a while. I sipped at the whiskey and looked up at the sky. The cyan blue was slowly turning to a rosy orange above the hill, lighting up the two fluffy clouds that floated above us.

“What do you want to achieve at BNP?” Thierry asked suddenly.

“Umm…” I hesitated, not expecting the question, “I haven’t really thought about it. I want to go as high as I can go I guess. Probably not staying in the South for my entire life, go up to Paris and climb the ranks. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” Thierry answered, “Play this right and that will definitely happen. You’re bright, and if we make the right impression with the Paris HQ, I can see us becoming far more than just regional managers.”

That surprised me. I had thought that Thierry was perfectly content with his position.

“Can I ask what you’re aiming for in BNP?” I asked him after a few moments of silence.

Thierry pondered his response. He swirled the whiskey inside his glass, clinking the ice cube against the sides. A cicada started to chirp down the hill.

“We just learned that Adrienne is pregnant with our second,” he said finally.

“That’s great!” I answered with genuine happiness and enthusiasm, “Congratulations!”

Thierry answered in a tone that betrayed a more measured reaction to the news. Something was off.

“It is, and I truly am happy. But…” he paused for a few seconds, “I’ll be forty in three years. When Alina was born, my career took the back seat. There was nothing more important to me than her. I’d do anything for her. For my family.”

“But I wasn’t always like that,” he continued, “When I got out of HEC I was so driven. I was going to climb the ranks and stop at nothing until I reached the top.”

I hadn’t known that Thierry had graduated from HEC. It was France’s top business school, consistently ranked as the best school on the continent, with only an 8% admission rate. I had missed it by a long shot. Recently, I had wondered what would have happened if the Day A/B dynamic had appeared when I was passing the entrance exams. Doing the tests in Day A, checking the answers at night, and redoing them in Day B sounded like a student’s wildest fantasy. Even with that though, I wasn’t sure I would have managed to get in. I had newfound respect for Thierry.

“Life catches you with unexpected surprises I guess,” continued Thierry, “One day you wake up and you think: Fuck. I have fifteen years left until I finish paying for this house, and even then I won’t be any richer because property taxes are going to kick in and then some. A second kid on the way is going to be expensive. And I have absolutely no faith in our retirement system. By the time I retire, there’ll either be nothing left in the pot for me or I’ll have fifteen years added on.”

I said nothing. Just like in Italy. I was beginning to learn that keeping my silence was sometimes the best thing for a conversation.

“I want to make an impact. I’m reconnecting with the ambition I had lost. And it’s thanks to you. So that’s what I want to really thank you for. For giving that back to me.”

He sipped from his glass.

“And of course I want to make sure that you and I are on the same page,” he added.

I couldn’t believe it. It was a side of Thierry I had never seen before. He was perfectly aligned with my vision. There was determination and ambition in his voice and his posture. I had management on my side, and the amazing advantage of the A/B dynamic. This was exactly what I needed if I wanted to climb the ranks.

“Absolutely,” I said, “I’m with you 100%. Let’s do this. Let’s nail the Paris meeting.”

He sipped from his glass again. We silently stared into space for a few minutes, enjoying the sound of more and more cicadas waking up in the dusk and adding their own voices to the song that was building up.

“To the top,” Thierry concluded, “Let’s do it. Together.”

We clinked our glasses and finished our drinks in one gulp.

 

~ End of Chapter 9 ~

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