Archives for category: Loneliness

As Long As There Is Hope

Haresh Shah

plantlife2

Up until then it was the coldest winter I had ever experienced. In January 1984, the temperatures in Chicago area dipped as low as -40 to -50 degrees and chilling wind went through your bones like a sharp spear of an arrow. Nasim (Yar Khan) had come to visit from Germany. I had brought for him some extra warm clothes to the airport, because even from the arrival hall to the garage would have him frozen if not wrapped up in some additional layers over his heavy winter clothes from Europe. Even though the furnace was running twenty four hours a day, the heat generated just wasn’t enough to keep our rickety old house comfortably warm.  The windows were all frozen and from the inside looking out, what you saw was your mirror image.  Carolyn and I took turns waking up every few hours through the night and brave the elements – heavily bundled up and ran across the 50 feet (15.2 meters) backyard to the garage and start both of our cars and run them for fifteen to twenty minutes to make sure none of the mechanism cracked and that they would run the next morning.  Even so, there was always a danger of one of them breaking down in the middle of nowhere, in which case, it would have been absolutely devastating trying to escape anywhere.

They constantly told us all day and all night long, please don’t drive unless you must. Stay home, and try to keep as warm as possible.  It was not beyond reason that our good old antique furnace could just give up at any moment. But it marched on. Except the water in the radiator in my study froze and a hairline crack appeared through the thick metal casing.

And yet, you can’t stop living.  We bunched up in the newer of the two cars, Rosy Renault and drove some thirty miles to South Holland from Evanston to have dinner with Denise and the Abbott clan. It was hairy on the way back. The car was making all sorts of clanging noises  that we had never heard before.  The gear shift was behaving a bit funny, but we had already reached the cruising speed and inside the car was relatively warm. We all held our breaths, probably each one of us praying in our own way that the car would stand up to the brutal cold and the wind chill, and would get us all home safe.  It did.

All huddled together in the living room in front of the roaring fire place, I broke out a bottle of Rémy  Martin  and we somehow managed to keep ourselves warm. That was also the winter I remember sitting in an elegant restaurant in Paris with my camel hair top coat on and the warm leather gloves, because it was so fucking cold. And that was the winter when during the weekend, my favorite, so lovingly planted by Carolyn inside a beautiful maroon ceramic pot for which she had hand macraméd the plant hanger in the matching color – the  Wandering Jew or the plant name of Zebrina Pendula, hanging by the window in my office had over the weekend frozen to death. It made me sad, but looking at it, nothing I could do. I took it off the hook on the ceiling and discarded it by the garbage can.

Unbeknown to me, my secretary Teresa Velazquez had somehow salvaged a few twigs that too were frozen, but must not have looked all that dead to her. She put them in a jar filled with water by her desk and nurtured them with the tender loving care. Miraculously, in a few months those twigs had healed and grown and sprouted. She transplanted them back into its original pot, and I had my plant back hanging by the window, healthier and of the fuller head than ever. I took it home when I left the company, and was still around fourteen years later, up until I left to live in Prague.  Now I’m trying to think who did I give it to?  It’s probably still prospering somewhere.

I would think of it a dozen years later sitting in my apartment in Prague. The very first week that I had moved into my well furnished and amply lit attic apartment with the high ceilings and slanted skylights on Přícná 7, I had bought four potted plants to give the place some homey feeling. Over the six years, the big palm tree had grown into the greenest and the tallest, almost touching the ceiling. I gave it to my friend Jana (Dvořáčková) when I moved back to Chicago in 2006. When I talked to her earlier this week, she told me that it’s still well and alive and towering over everything in her apartment.

There were also two smaller variety of the palm. One I had placed by the window in the living room and the other in my bedroom. One in the living room too has grown by leaps and bounds – not so the one in the bedroom. It looked sick. I moved it also to the living room by the window. It got even sicker. Every so often when I looked at it and its fading luster and the falling leaves, it seemed less and less likely to survive much longer. I even had the owner of the nearby plant and flower shop from whom I had originally bought them come and look at it and followed his suggestions. I  changed the location, given it plant vitamin and watered it religiously. Nothing was working. I said to myself, no use keeping it around anymore, the time has come to get rid of it. When Anjuli was visiting some months earlier, we together looked at it and she too agreed that sometimes you have to let go. The only reason it remained in the house was procrastination. It remained in the living room, in the clear view in the broad daylight, and yet, I didn’t “see” it.  Almost forgotten about it.

And then suddenly, a couple of months later my eyes fell upon it. The plant as I knew was dead.  It had shed all the leaves over the period of those months. The branches looked dry and brittle and old.  And yet, as if by a miracle, I noticed at the bottom near the soil, the new leaves were sprouting like starbursts from the same old branches. There was one spurt first, then there were two, and now there were seven, some sprouting even from underneath the soil. And they look healthy, light translucent green with thin delicate red trim to every leaf. Incredible!

Why was I thinking of it that morning?

Because I had been feeling quite lonely. By then I had been living in Prague for almost eight years. Professionally speaking, my post – Playboy years of living and working in the Czech Republic had been good. Socially, not so. It didn’t help that I had now chosen not to continue to work nine to five. Because as much as I enjoyed being alone, I was and am a people person. I need interaction. Without a regular job, there was practically none. Unfortunately, I did not have a single friend with whom I could do things or hang out with on a regular basis. I saw people sporadically, mainly when they would have time and not necessarily when I needed them. Also, I was sort of lost as to what should be my next step and where should I go from there. This all got  me down, especially the loneliness. There were times when I didn’t see anyone for several days – except for waiters and waitresses and shop keepers. This depressed me to no end.

I’m basically a positive person, quite optimistic. My theme song is the recently deceased Austrian singer Udo Jürgen’s Immer immer wieder geht die Sonne auf – always, always again rises the sun. And the Fleetwood Mac hit, Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.  I’m good at giving people and also to myself pep talk. Whenever I feel down and out, I prop myself up. Pat myself on the back.  Tell myself, it will be better.  Something positive will happen.  Soon! Soon when?  Wasn’t eight years more than enough time?

Perhaps time had come for me to move on and away. I would never have friends and the people close to me the way I did in other countries I had lived in. This of course was quite depressing. It was getting harder and harder to pump myself up, to refuel and crank up the motor.

That morning, like many others, I woke up feeling somewhat to quite depressed.  And when it got me down too far, I thought of the dead Wandering Jew in my office and then looked at the sprouting leaves of the baby palm in my apartment. I knew, you never give up, because ironically, as the Czech saying goes: naděje umírá poslední – hope dies last.

© Haresh Shah 2015

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

You May Also Like

WHO’S EVER SEEN GOD

PORK CABBAGE AND DUMPLINGS

WHAT TIME IS IT?

UNLOVED IN THE LANDS OF L’AMOUR L’AMORE

Next Friday, January 16, 2015

THE TRAVELING AGENT EXTRAORDINAIRE

I wonder if anyone even remembers or has a concept of what a traveling agent is? That how easier it was to book a ticket and take care of all your traveling needs just by picking up the phone and calling your agent? A profile of Satya Dev – the one who walked the extra mile so that you can put your feet up on the desk top and read the newspaper.

Haresh Shah

My Not So Intimate Encounters With Italy And France

bestfoodwinewomen

The first time I landed in the land of Ciao Bella and O sole mio, they dumped our baggage on the tarmac next to the aircraft, barely said sorry and told us we would have to carry it to the terminal ourselves – that the ground personnel had just decided to go on a strike. A bit different story when I first arrived at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. I am met at the airport by Gerrit Huig and the editorial assistant Ann Scharffenberger. They talk me into and I unwittingly agree to drive us through the city in our rented little Citroën. Though I had taken lessons in driving a car with manual transmission, this is my first time trying it out without an instructor sitting next to me. I haven’t yet gotten the knack of synchronizing the gears with the accelerator and the breaks. The car would shudder, stall and come to an abrupt stop in the middle of swirling rush hour traffic. Happens several times on the Arc de Triumph round-about. I get furious faces, obscene yelling  that I don’t understand, French version of the finger and then silly mocking giggles from my two passengers. But I somehow manage to survive both welcomes. Not exactly j’taime.  

Now years later, I wonder whether my first flights into Milan and Paris were symbolic of my not so close relationships with the romance lands. I can’t even remember how I was welcomed when I first flew into Rome years later. Quite in contrast to the recent Lufthansa ad proclaiming: Seduced by Paris. Inspired by Rome. And I can see why. What is there not to love about the countries with the history so rich, the languages so sweet and sexy, so languid and full of l’amore and l’amour. And yet, no matter how many trips I would end up taking to the either over the next two decades, they never warmed up to me. Likewise, as natural as I am with learning languages, as hard and long as I have tried to learn the Italian and the French, they both have eluded me.

And so have the people. Beyond the business, people just went home. Of course there were some  dinners and a bit of socializing now and then, but by and far when I think of the huge amount of time I spent in Milan, Paris and Rome, what I remember the most are the evenings when I often found myself sitting in elegant restaurants all by myself, slowly savoring their delicious Euro-Mediterranean cuisine, sipping on their exquisite wines and contemplating life. In Paris, when I finally managed to get Annick Geile, the editor-in-chief of the French edition out to lunch, while we have hardly set down at our outdoor table, she turns her wrist to look at her watch, and as if talking to herself, whispers: my days are divided in segments of twenty minutes. The message was as clear as can be. Though I wondered how many segments I was allotted, I totally ignored her utterance as if I didn’t even hear it.

While I still lived in Munich, I couldn’t wait to return back to my home town every weekend, catching that around eight o’clock flight back. How could you be in one of the three most alluring cities in the world and not want to spend weekends there? Especially if you have to be back first thing Monday morning, and you’re staying in some of the most exclusive hotels and every penny you spend is paid for?

Because, after you have seen all of the historical monuments; passed through Duomo umpteen times, admired the glamour of the Scala, climbed up and down the Spanish Steps, sprawled St. Peter’s Square in Vatican, have been in awe of the Coliseum and have crossed the river Tiber in Rome and paid your tribute to the Notre-Dame, smirked back at Mona Lisa in Louvre, looked down at the breathtaking view of the city of light from the top of the Eiffel Tower and gawked and wished at the shop windows along Champs Elysees and have sat in enough cafes and restaurants all by yourself, you are done with them. For who I am, I can barely begin to relate to the places without meaningful connection to their people.

Not that I didn’t try to connect, but then you learn that like love and friendship, people either click or they don’t. And the sad truth remains, we just didn’t.

Ironically, my most memorable weekend in Italy remains to be the rain drenched and bone cold long Easter weekend I spend with Rainer and Renate (Wörtmann)in their newly acquired Mill House in Tuscany’s Pontremoli. Not Rome, nor Milan.

My memories of Paris are not that dismal. Walking around by yourself in Paris is a different kind of experience. Even with no other human being walking next to you, the city itself accompanies you wherever you choose to walk, especially the left banks of Seine and along the cafes of Boulevard Saint Germain, conjuring up the lives of some of my favorite authors. Françoise Sagan, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. And then Earnest Hemingway, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller.  Just thinking of them you could while away a snifter or two of excellent French Cognac or the cooling tall glasses of Pastis. They all come alive at every step in Paris. But in Rome and Milan? Nah! The only one I could think of is Alberto Moravia and his The Woman of Rome. Probably also because I have had a pleasure of shaking hands with him after a speech by him in the courthouse gardens of the University of Bombay.

In the backdrop of my non-relational acquaintance with Milan and Rome, the two cities I least looked forward returning to, it was then quite amazing for me to hear the following story almost twenty years after my last trip to Italy.

It was two years ago when Jan (Heemskerk) came on a visit to Chicago, we got together with some Playboy old-timers to reminisce the shared déjà vu.  Among them, Arthur Kretchmer, the recently retired editorial director of the US Playboy. As much as I respected the man the super editor, Arthur and I at the very best had mostly perfunctory professional relationship. But Jan and him got along really well and so we meet Arthur at his favorite restaurant The Indian Garden on Chicago’s Devon Avenue – a stretch of which is also named Gandhi Marg. With Arthur, it’s mostly him talking and you listening. And so it was during the lunch. Just his very presence intimidated me, creating an atmosphere of speak only when spoken to. So it were Jan and Arthur conversing with me pushed in the background. But somewhere along the line, I got to interject and now having acquired distance of time, I confessed, I was always intimidated by you.

‘You should have been.’ He answered and even though I would have liked to know precisely why, I left it at that. But then Arthur decides to smooth things over and asks me: Do you remember Mario in Rome?

Of course I do. In Italy, Playboy’s  trajectory included three different publishers. We started out with Rizzoli in Milano. Some years later, the magazine was moved to another legendary Italian publishing family, Mondadori. Or more precisely, to the independent Georgio Mondadori, who had split from his family to go solo. When that relationship didn’t quite work out, the magazine was licensed to Edizioni Lancio SPA, in Rome. Also family owned – albeit much smaller. Lancio specialized in photo novellas that were and probably still are extremely popular all over the world. Curiously, in India, those novellas were distributed by my uncle Jaisukh’s Wilco Publishing Company, which is where I had first started learning the ropes of the publishing, when a teenager.

Lancio proclaimed the re-launch to be Nuova Edizione Italiana. The new Playboy in Italy had a semblance of small editorial team under the mild mannered aging journalist, Alvaro Zerboni, but it was the company’s president Michele Mercurio who wielded the total control over the pages of the magazine. From the very first meeting it became clear to me that Lancio was not the right kind of publishers for our beloved bambino. The years that I was subjected to work with them, we constantly collided over what direction the edition should take. As diplomatic as I would try to be, we never came around to see eye to eye, thus creating a constant tension between Rome and Chicago. Being able to develop any sort of personal rapport never even came into the play.

Even so, I was accorded a certain protocol like status. Always being picked up from the airport and brought back in the company Mercedes Benz sedan by Mario. Picked up from the hotel and whenever needed brought back also in the Benz. Mario barely spoke any English, but I was trying hard to learn the Italian. So other than the editor in chief Alvaro Zerboni, my real human face of Rome was Mario, a very pleasant, ever smiling of the angular round face, very white of the skin and of a stocky built, he played the role that of the executive chauffer, a messenger and a sort of unofficial PR person for his employers. Mario for one, had high curiosity level and the fact that he spoke no English and I spoke only rudimentary Italian never inhibited him from asking me questions and manage somehow to wrangle out answers from me in my odd mélange of Italian, Spanish and English. He was interested in me. He was interested in the mystic of India. He was charming and sweet in the way Italians can be and somehow felt close to me. I liked him and he liked me. But that was the extent of it. The rule was that his schedule was determined by Michele’s executive secretary Christina Schlogel and had to have her command for him to ferry me around, he often took it upon himself to pick me up or bring me to the airport even over the weekends. For which he did get into the trouble with Christina for a couple of times. But he sloughed it off with a hearty laugh.

‘Of course I know Mario,’ I answered Arthur.

‘You know, he really liked you?’

‘Yah, probably he was the only one, other than of course poor Alvaro.’

To that Arthur begins to tell the following story. Which he would repeat a year and a half later in an email before answering my queries for the blog entry Perfectly Unbound.

But even before that, I have a little ‘playboy story’ for you. The 2nd or 3rd time that Patricia and I were in Italy in the early ’90’s — so ’93 (probably 1994) would be my guess — I met Don and Louisa Stuart as well as the Mercurio’s. For a reason I no longer remember, I ended up being driven somewhere in the Lancio Mercedes 300E by their driver.

I spoke a small amount of Italian. He spoke no English. As we rode along, he asked me some questions that I stumbled through. When he figured out that I was with Playboy, the next question he asked was if I knew Haresh Shah.

I said yes. He rattled off a bunch of Italian that I didn’t get, but ended on a partial sentence that I understood to the effect that Haresh Shah was a wonderful man.

I did my best to acknowledge your wonderfulness in Italian when he said, in hesitant English, “When Haresh come… the best food, the best wine, the best girls.” He waved his hand in the air, and didn’t say another word.

Good old Mario. He really did like me:). Who am I to argue with his perception of me? Thanks Mario. True or false, it even impressed Arthur and he remembered to tell it to me almost twenty years later.

© Haresh Shah 2014

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

You May Also Like

MY INTIMATE ENCOUNTER WITH EROTIC OYSTERS

THE DUTCH TREAT

THE TERROR OF TWO Cs

THE STRANDED BRIDE

DINING WITH THE STARS

Net Friday, November 21, 2014

THE NAIL THAT STUCK OUT

Deru kui wa utareru, literally means: The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down! This aptly defines the psychology of the group in the Japanese society. To be different is to be hammered down. In the society where individuality has no place, I knowingly decided to commit the ultimate social faux pas, at the risk of alienating my Japanese hosts.