Archives for category: Dictatorship

And Forget Paris – Think Lyon

Haresh Shah

minitel

It’s five minutes before six, the closing time for Lyon’s Place Bellecour tourist office. I am standing across the counter from the friendly blonde – petite and pretty. And sweet. This is the third time since three that afternoon that I have returned to her in the remote hope that maybe, just maybe something would have opened up in the meanwhile and I still would be able to find one of the charming French B & B’s in or near the center of the old town. Based on my one and only overnight stay in Lyon years earlier, I stayed at one of its most charming boutique hotels, Hotel Cour des Loges.  I have a reason to believe that the city had to have similar but smaller and reasonably priced jewels tucked away in one of their obscure alleys.

I have arrived in Lyon by train from Avignon, with a back pack and a small carry on bag on wheels. I am doing south of France by train without any fixed timetable or an itinerary. Other than bit of a difficulty in Toulouse, I am lucky to have found nice places to crash at. Not cheap, neither expensive. My budget is between fifty and a hundred Euros a night. Seems like tonight I may have to settle for a four hundred Euro room at Sheraton. I am not looking forward to it. But what were my options? The closest the tourist office could offer me a room is 20 kilometers (about 13 miles) from the center. Certainly not what I want.

‘I am so sorry!’ The blonde says, so sweetly. Instead of being irritated, she is sympathetic. She really wants to help me. I give her my sad little boy look and get a friendly little giggle out of her.

‘I wish I could help you. But there is absolutely nothing available!’

‘Well, thanks so much for trying! I just will have to sleep on a Lyon’s sidewalk tonight!’ I make a poor me face to get another sweet smile out of her. Most reluctantly, I am about to turn around and slap down my credit card at Sheraton. The blonde is about to exit her computer screen. And then both of us hear a soft ping.

‘Wait a minute.’ She stops me in my track and busies herself tapping her keyboard.

‘An apartment has just become available, right across from Ponte Bonaparte. It’s on the sixth floor. No lift, but it has a panoramic view of old Lyon. € 95.- a night. No breakfast.’ She rattles off the screen. With my back pain, I am not too keen on having to climb six stories of stone stairs – but snap!

‘I’ll take it.’

It’s an easy walking distance. I walk across the bridge over Saône, turn right on rue Saint Jean and find # 70. Mrs. Breuihl – a woman in her early to mid-thirties escorts me to the apartment, she even helps me carry my bag. It’s a tri-level penthouse containing of a kitchen, a living room, a loft and a bedroom/bathroom suite. Soon as I enter it, I am in awe of it. I am in the heart of  vieux Lyon. I have managed to return to the city I had fallen in love with fifteen some years earlier, and had promised myself to someday come back to explore it at a leisurely pace.

Patrick Magaud and I had boarded France’s pride and joy, the high speed TGV in Paris that morning and I just had enough time to spare before I flew out to Munich that night. We meet with Bruno Bonnell of Europe Telematique for what I remember to be a simple but an exquisite meal at one of the city’s cozy bistros, Bonâme, now (La Bonâme de Bruno). What I remember the most of that lunch is their most delicious aperitif, a flute of champagne blended with a dash of peach liquor.

Patrick has brought me there to introduce me to Bruno and Christophe Sapet, his partner to talk the possibilities of creating Playboy service on the uniquely French phenomena called Minitel. This is 1989, and much as they try to explain to me the concept of creating a chat line under Playboy banner, goes over my head. From what I understood, Minitel was a crudely made boxy little computer like plastic device provided free of charge to its subscribers by the French Telecom. It wouldn’t be inconceivable to think that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak copied or were inspired by the Minitel for the earlier look of their Apple computers. It contained a small blue screen with blinking text and incorporated in it was a telephone. It is connected to what we now call the contents providers via a telephone line, sort of like earlier dial up connections. Minitel, when it was introduced years earlier, featured electronic yellow pages and the country wide telephone directories.

Over a period of time it mushroomed into a full fledge web like platform. Dialing the number 3615 connected you to today’s equivalent of the browser – an exclusive of the French Telecom. Through which you could access merchants, institutions, French Railroad and the post office and their respective products and services. Soon the porno peddlers jumped on the bandwagon with  a slew of erotic chat lines on which you can flirt with buxom and horny ladies – made up mainly of men and paid by the minutes for the amount of time spent on carousing. Those sites were collectively called Minitel Rose and the most popular of the Roses was Ulla.

Europe Telematique supposedly streamed more respectable sites. The proposal was to create a forum such as Playboy Advisor, which they felt would do well. It would also support the fledgling French edition. Of the time billed, French Telecom got to keep 50% of the revenue. Telematique would staff and create the content and manage the traffic. Of the 50% they got, they would share half of it with us, for allowing them to use the name Playboy. The danger obviously was that it could easily turn into a porn service. NO. Bruno guarantees me. There were already enough of them around. Playboy would be as classy as the magazine.

Though officially launched in 1982, the Minitel screens had beginning to pop up back in the late Seventies, almost twenty years before the World Wide Web made its debut. Unfortunately, the service never made it out of France and Belgium, and a trial run in Ireland before the Internet as we know today came thumping down the road. While I am in Lyon, not even understanding exactly how it all worked, I couldn’t help but feel that something incredible was happening within those little boxes with blinking screens.

After discussing the project back in Chicago, I return to Lyon several months later and visit the physical facilities of Europe Telematique. What I saw was little computers lined up on long rows of desks, occupied by very young men and women staring at the blue screens, the text in progress popping up on the terminal and like in call centers of today, one of the young Turks would get busy responding to them.  Soon there was Playboy chat line.

Now that I sit here and think of it, I feel like sort of a pioneer. Not that I can take credit for the idea or even the intimate knowledge of the process, but for trusting my instinct and the people and taking a chance on what would in not too far of a future become more common than  household phones. It didn’t generate vast amount of revenue for any of us, but there was enough coming in to justify its existence. The site must have been phased out on its own with the advent of Internet in the mid-Nineties. I wonder if anyone else other than me even remembers that there was such a thing as Playboy chatline on the French Minitel.

Minitel lived for more than thirty years until it no longer could compete with or justify its existence against now omnipresent World Wide Web. Yet, just the nostalgia of it had all of France feeling mixed emotions, simultaneously celebrating and mourning of its demise on June 30th 2012 – the day French Telecom pulled the plug and the remaining 800,000 terminals still in service went dark.

For me personally, agreeing to take that Paris-Lyon TGV ride of 400 kilometers (292 miles) to south east of Paris means – if not for Minitel, I would never have thought of going to Lyon. To call Lyon mini-Paris is to take something precious away from this most charming and exuberant of the French cities.

On that evening of the fall of 2008, when I had long forgotten Minitel and Europe Telematique, what has brought me back to Lyon is that certain indescribably magnetic pull and the deep impression left on me by the place. The sun has set and as I step out of rue Saint Jean 70, I find myself in the middle of an incredible bubbling of energy. The old town bustling with the cluster of restaurants, charming Bouchons famous for their down home cuisine Lyonnais. Narrow alleys and the passages featuring small shops and boutiques in animated and lively pedestrian zones.

But before letting myself disappear in the crowd, I take a long walk and marvel at the two parallel rivers flowing through the middle of the city and the strings of the lit up bridges connecting the different districts, all lined up symmetrically, gleaming in the confluence of the calm waters of  Saône and Rhône.

Hungry and tired, I return to the crowded little alleys and small squares of vieux Lyon swarming with the people, the sights and the sounds and all those little bistros and bouchons wafting delicious aromas of their house specialties. The sidewalk tables unfolded and the people squeezed together shoulder to shoulder. There is no chance of me being able to get into one of those exquisite but small and cramped eating establishments. But I do. Thanks to Mrs. Breulih’s recommendation, the kindly maître d’ Dominique at, curiously named Happy Friends Family (now Jérémy Galvan), and yet as provincial French as can be, welcomes and escorts me to a cozy table by the open kitchen, overlooking rest of the crowd. He even speaks English and describes every item on the menu and recommends what I may like. Satiated, I walk around and watch the crowds thinning out – the hubbub silently simmering.

Feeling a bit weary, I slowly climb back six stairs and up to the third level of my apartment. I am about to turn on the light – but wait! What I see through the large window by my bed is breathtaking. I see a huge globe of the dome of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière all lit up like suspended fireworks. I peer out of the window – take in the whole church exquisitely and artfully illuminated. Glowing with the warm hues of yellow and orange, I feel showered in the luminous gold. I know it’s some distance away up on the hill, and it still feels like I could touch it. I undress without moving my eyes from the dome and fling myself on the bed with my gaze fixed on the dome and fall asleep perhaps around the same time as the lights begin to flicker off.

© Haresh Shah 2015

Illustration: Jordan Rutherford

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

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Crushed Under The Brutal Boots Of The Fascist

Haresh Shah

pinochet2
Having launched in Germany, Italy and France, the next natural Western European country for us to explore should have been Spain. But as long as Generalissimo Francisco Franco was alive and ruled the land, there was no way in the hell anyone could even dream of publishing the local edition of Playboy. But almighty Franco had to die sooner or later. After all, he was already eighty years old when we launched in Germany. All we could do was to wait it out. Soon as Franco died in 1975, the wheels began to turn and we were approached by several interested Spanish publishers. Among them Editorial Zeta and Editorial Planeta. We launched the Spanish edition of Playboy with Planeta in November of 1978. Me ending up spending fair amount of time in the most charming city of Barcelona, which almost immediately usurped Munich and Amsterdam as being my two most loved cities on the European continent.

The fact that there were even interested and established publishers to partner with in itself was a big leap forward. You could almost feel the euphoria and can’t help but be carried away by the sudden snapping free of the tightly wound cords. But what you don’t see is the underlying fear and apprehension of the recent past, the anarchy of the fascism and that certain uncertain feeling that the beautiful dream could easily collapse like a house of cards. As I walked the streets of Barcelona, I could feel the big bald and angry face of Franco peering through every window, standing at every street corner. Fortunately, other than Franco’s ghost hovering over, King Juan Carlos I put the country on to the steady path of democracy.

A scant a year later, when Lee (Hall) first asked me to take a trip to Santiago, Chile, just having seen the stern faced images of then the absolute dictator of the country, Augusto Pinochet  was enough to put the fear of God in you. The House of Spirit by Jose Donoso and Pablo Neruda’s Memoires helped ease the fear, but not the assassination of Orlando Letelier, his car blown up in the broad daylight under Pinochet’s Operation Condor, while he was in exile in Washington, DC. And the ruthless coup d’état that overthrew and assassinated the first democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende.

I had not yet been to the Latin American countries that formed the tail of the continent referred to as the southern cone or cono sur. Of those, Argentina and Chile. The best way to get there is via Los Angeles. I think Braniff still flies there non-stop from LA to Santiago, Lee informs me. Which seemed odd, considering that in theory, from Chicago you should be able to fly directly down south. Now they do, but then that’s how it was.

It’s an overnight flight so I don’t have much time to think about my arrival and what may await at the airport. During the flight, I can’t help but notice the stark inequality between the have and the have not’s. I am traveling in the first and seated in the eighth  row, and believe there are a couple of rows still behind me. That’s almost twice as many first class seats as on most other routes. And each one of those seats are taken. This normally is not the case. While now almost all airlines offer the seats that stretch out into flat beds in their business and the first classes, at that time the seats offered were wider and tilted farther with a foot rest. Better than in back of the plane but not as comfortable and as good as being able to stretch out across an entire row of five seats with their arm rests flipped back, in the economy. The first class is packed solid not with the businessmen, but with the families including kaccha-baccha – kids and caboodle, making big ruckus. How am I supposed to even attempt to fall asleep?

So after dinner, I peek through the curtain in the back of the plane. The larger economy cabin is practically empty with many unoccupied rows. So I downgrade myself and claim one of the rows. I happily skip the breakfast for an extra hour of sleep.

Soon we’re landing in Santiago. I am fully prepared for the poker faced passport and immigration officers. What I am worried about the most are the issues of Playboy I am carrying in my baggage.

‘Don’t worry. Things have eased. Plus we’ll have “arranged” everything.’ They tell me.

It’s just a small airport – our large aircraft purring on the tarmac dwarfs the smattering of small regional and private flying machines. We step down the rolled-in stairs from the airplane’s open door. It’s summer in the southern hemisphere and outside it’s warm and sunny. It’s after one in the afternoon. Standing by the plane is Herman Valerius the General Manager for Empresa Editora Gabriela Mistral’s small publishing division. They are the contrary’s largest  printing company. I am welcomed like a visiting dignitary. Herman grabs my passport and the ticket and hands them over to the man standing next to him. Within minutes, he comes back with my passport duly stamped. My bags picked up and tucked into the back of the VW mini-bus waiting for us on the tarmac. And I am whisked away.

I am staying at the Sheraton. That night I am the guest of honor on the prime time variety entertainment TV show being broadcast live from the hotel’s poolside. I am not aware that the camera is focused on me until the host announces in Spanish and English: Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we have a very special guest in the audience, who has flown in this afternoon from Chicago. Please welcome Mr. Haresh Shah of one and the only Playboy magazine. Applause applause.

While I stand up and take a bow bathed in the glow of the flood light, I am not feeling that glow inside. Instead, what crosses my mind is that I am being beamed live and perhaps the mighty Augusto Pinochet himself is watching me standing there – and a sudden jolt of fear scurries through my nerve system. I imagine myself being put away in one of the torture chambers of the Pinochet machine for attempting to peddle pornography in his exclusive domain, never to be seen again, like thousands of desaparecidos – the disappeared ones. I have left behind at home, the woman who loves me and ten months old daughter.

But my fear is groundless. I spend very pleasant and productive eight days with the Chileans. We work on the first issue. I am treated to some of the best restaurants, bars and discotheques of the city. We would invariably end the evening at Red Pub, a cozy European style sidewalk café  owned and run by Herman and his wife Veronika.  I have a sumptuous dinner at La Estancia the second night of my stay with GM’s three owners: Juan Fernandez, Guillermo Tolosa and Rodolfo Letelier, and of course Herman. On the Saturday afternoon, we even take a quick ride to Viña del Mar for a bird’s eye view of their seaside wine region. It is during those few days that I get to know and begin to like and appreciate the Chilean wines.

By the time I leave Santiago, we have pretty much agreed on the contents and the layouts of the entire first issue – which is actually going to be just one shot test issue. Coffee table perfect bound book, printed on glossy heavier paper, containing the Playmates of the Years from 1969 through 1979, and it’s designed to be a Latin American product which would have an interview with Argentina’s star football coach Luis Menotti and include the works of the Chilean sculptor Juan Egenau Moore, Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, Bolivia’s Botero. The publication is scheduled for March 1980 to wait out the summer vacation in Chile and to give ourselves enough time to gather the material. I board the plane, feeling content and good about my trip. But the issue would be further delayed and  would not come out until more than a year later, in June 1981.

Whatever the reason, I guess they mainly wanted to wait out  the confirmation of the modest political liberation taking place which had helped boost Chile’s economy between 1976 to 1979. When the new constitution was announced in March 1981, did they feel more comfortable bringing out the magazine. Even so, Pinochet would remain in power until 1989 and therefore the ultimate law of the land. What finally nudged him out was the national referendum with 55% of population voting resounding NO to the 43% saying YES to his run for an extended term.

The first issue hand delivered to us by Herman Valerius and Rodolfo Letelier at Playboy International Publishing’s 1981 annual conference taking place at Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Proud as can be and glowing in their success of having sold out the first print run of 100,000 + copies within days. The second printing already ordered, they are there to justly join the expanding family of the world wide editions of Playboy.

Halfway through the conference, I have just introduced one of the editors to do his audio-visual presentation and have sat down, when I see my secretary Teresa (Velazquez) hurriedly coming down the aisle and scoot right next to me. I follow her out of the meeting room and into the lobby of the club. Standing there are Herman and Rodolfo, looking like as if they have been hit by a boulder.

‘Didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to you, but I am sorry, we have to return to Santiago immediately. There is an emergency regarding the reprint of Playboy. We will call  you as soon as we have dealt with the crisis.’ Says Herman while Rodolfo looks on nervously. Teresa has helped them re-book and the limo is waiting outside to take them to the O’Hare International Airport.

Two days later, I am told that while the plant awaited the distribution truck to pick up the second print run, instead a military truck shows up and hauls away the pallets of the freshly printed second run of the magazine. All 50,000 or so copies confiscated by the thugs of the regime. Playboy magazine’s Chilean edition, like its people disappears as suddenly as it had appeared and before it had a chance to grow. Nipped right in the bud.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Some years later when I saw Herman and Veronika on a visit to Chicago, he told me rest of the story. Not only did they confiscate the magazine, but also arrested and imprisoned the principal owner Juan Fernandez.

Following the referendum, Pinochet would step down as the President on March 11, 1990 when the democratically elected Patricio Aylwin took the office. Even so, Pinochet remained as the commander of the country’s armed forces until 1998 and beyond that become a senator-for-life. Later that year, while traveling in England, he was detained by the British authorities at the request of Spain and charged with the torture of Spanish citizens in Chile during his reign. When the British court ruled in 2000 that he was physically unfit to stand trial, he was allowed to go back to Chile just to be investigated by the Chilean authorities. He was stripped of his immunity from prosecution and was brought to trial for the human rights abuses in Chile. In 2002, Chilean Supreme Court upheld the British ruling that he was mentally incapable of defending himself. Disgraced, he died in 2006.

However, no one has since then dared bring out the Chilean edition of Playboy.

© Haresh Shah 2015

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

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TO OWN OR NOT

There are times when you run into little problems with big implications that you would have never even imagined in your wildest dreams. And so it was while putting together the first issue of Playboy in the Czech, I realized that they had Czehified the names of all the foreign females by adding the suffix – ová to their last names. The linguistic battle I had to fight more than once.