Archives for posts with tag: Hungary

Always Ready For A New Business

Haresh Shah

chickenbiz2

Must have been early 1990 when landed on my desk is an impressive corporate brochure of Autraco Holdings based in Vienna, Austria. In the cover letter signed by its CEO Rolf Dolina, he expresses his desire to want to publish Playboy magazine in Czechoslovakia. But we are already in negotiations with Vladimír Tichý of the Gennex Corporation, the publishers of magazines, books, films and video that included the Czech language edition of ComputerWorld. That in itself wouldn’t have stopped me from entertaining another option, especially because the Autraco Holdings boasts of its wide reach in the former eastern European countries that include Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The countries where they are sole distributors of Memorex USA, Honda automobiles and Fuji films. Enclosed with the letter are some issues of the Czech language version of Germany’s Burda Moden, widely distributed and hugely popular women’s magazine – similar to the Simplicity patterns in the United States. The magazine he was publishing with Hana Wagenhofer – his Prague based business partner in several joint ventures. And it is mainly for Hanna that he is so keen on doing Playboy. It would give her a stronger presence on the Czech publishing scene.

From the look of it, the corporation seems to be financially healthy and thriving, with dozens of entities spread over ten European nations. Looks more like a department store of consumer products, up until then deprived to the communist block. Also included in their portfolio are Palmer’s and Elizabeth Arden fashion and beauty products. A far cry from really creating a high quality magazine. But I realize that for any successful entrepreneur like Rolf Dolina, everything is a “product”, as it is for our group President William Stokkan. I remember when International Publishing was absorbed by Bill’s Licensing and Merchandizing division, me often chiding him that magazines don’t have customers, they have readers. He would smirk and say, whatever! And yet, smart enough to know the difference.

For the businessmen aspiring to be publishers, the thinking must go; They can find some good translators, sign up with a printing company and distributors and voila! Other details are just logistics. That is, until they meet me do they realize that you can’t make a successful local edition of any magazine just by translating the content. Unlike other products, it doesn’t come pre-produced. That they really need to create it issue by an issue of their own, month after month, for which they need an entire editorial staff, advertising and distribution arms.

Ditto, the small independent publishers. Even though they do have some idea of what sort of infra-structure making of a magazine takes. And still they think soon as they put Playboy logo on the cover, it should fly off the newsstands like the pigeons off Piazza San Marcos in Venice. Suddenly it would become their flagship and above all they would be known as the publishers of the local edition of PlayboyHugh M. Hefner reincarnate of their countries.

Up until the opening up of the previously closed markets of the eastern Europe, Playboy had signed up with the major local publishers, some even larger corporations than PEI in Chicago. Once the agreement was signed, they would have a team devoted exclusively to Playboy, and one more title would be absorbed into their wider network of other publications. Not so with the emerging markets such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland – the first of the three viable eastern European markets. There are no established publishers for us to hook up with. There is no tradition of free journalism. The people with some professional knowledge of the media had emerged from the state’s propaganda machinery who worked within the stringent constraints of communism. The field is wide open to anyone who wants to explore. Suddenly there are small time hustlers with BIG ideas. Some of them, serious contenders, others without a clue.

And then there are the Western entrepreneurs – the expats returning home and some like Rolf Dolina, well established businessmen across the driving distances of the Eastern borders. Rolf is already doing business in several of those countries and is the go getter – the kind who grabs an opportunity when he sees one. And he knows how to make and cultivate contacts. He is a quick study and learns ropes incredibly fast. Never mind the product. In India, they would call him sub bunder ka vepari – the trader of every port. He is smart, shrewd and calculating, not to mention, charming. Making money is his passion and of many business cards he carries, the one of them is an illustration of the rooster just having settled his hen in the process of laying eggs, turning around and chasing another chick before she gets away. The tag line at the bottom says: always ready for a new business.

You can’t help but respect their daring and tenacity. Even so, the first thing I do is to try to dissuade them, because as Jorge Fontevecchia of Editorial Perfil in Argentina once put it: only to your enemies do you suggest publishing as a business. Another argument I make is that asking for Playboy’s hand is like wanting to marry a rich man’s totally spoiled daughter and it takes more than money to keep her in the style she is used and aspires to. I have gotten some laughs out of it, but you can’t dissuade someone who has hopelessly fallen in love with the idea.

In such cases I try my best to avoid meeting face-to-face with such prospects. What if I end up liking him or her? But when he sets his heart on something, Rolf is not that easily dissuaded and he is not the kind to give up that easily. After some months of fax correspondence Rolf seems to have understood that doing a serious magazine was a different ball game altogether. Not too long after, he calls my office in Chicago and casually mentions that he is in Florida, and wouldn’t mind flying to Chicago and talk with me personally. During his visit, we have a pleasant Indian lunch at my favorite of the time, Bombay Palace. Even though I had forgotten all about it, Rolf still fondly remembers that meal.

A month earlier, I had hosted the Czech team in Chicago and over that beautiful fall week sat down with them at my home around the dining table and taken them through the nuts and bolts of making of Playboy magazine – with as Ivan (Chocholouš) still remembers, Beethoven’s Symphony #9 playing in the background. Ivan couldn’t help but ask: whether there was any significance behind me playing that particular music? Not really. But it gave me an idea to use it as an example for what I was just then trying to communicate. I was taking them through the making of Playboy, page by page, and one of the things I always want to hammer into the minds of a new team is the concept of pacing.

To make it simple, you don’t place a cartoon behind a cartoon, non-fiction doesn’t follow another non-fiction, ditto the pictorials. You can’t have every illustration as a two page spread or a single page opening. The magazine, like a symphony has to have a certain rhythm which segues from one note to another. The fan of classical music, Ivan immediately understood it, something he still brings up in conversations. At the end of our weeklong orientation and the brain storming, we had agreed on the next steps. For them to go home and begin to put together the first few issues. I would take several trips to Prague and work with them and we would shoot for the early 1991 launch.

●●●

Well before the Berlin Wall crumbled on November 9, 1989, Hungary was already wiggling out of the tight ropes of the Soviet Union. Popping up were many young entrepreneurs and starting up private businesses. Among them, Dezsö Futász, the suave and dynamic publisher of the Hungarian edition of Scientific America and ComputerWorld.

Approached me on his behalf were the Hungarian expats and venture capitalists, John and Eva Breyer of Invent Corporation, based in Hillsborough, California. The breathtaking story of their escape across the border into Austria and on to the United States during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in itself would make for an incredible and thrilling love story. But for the time being, I would stick to the story of Playboy’s arrival in the eastern Europe.

After the initial exchange of information, my boss Bill and I met in my office with Eva and Dezsö in the early spring of 1989. Over the next several months we work on the details of launching of Playboy’s first edition behind the Iron Curtain. As we had just began to put together the pages of the first issue of the Hungarian edition, I remember how our entire team had put everything away and rushed over to the Kossuth Lajos tér to join the jubilant crowd gathered outside Hungary’s Parliament Building to witness the historic moment of Matyas Szuros, Hungary`s acting president declaring Hungary to be an independent nation.

It was Monday, October 23, 1989. Sixteen days ahead of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The exuberant crowd and the joy that rippled through us took me back forty two years to the night of August 15, 1947 to Bori Bunder in Bombay, and to the jubilant crowds celebrating India’s independence from the British. I still can feel the exhilaration and the thrill of that night. Seven years old, perched on the shoulders of an adult, I was surrounded by an euphoria with beating of the drums, screams of joy, chanting – the fireworks lighting up the sky and the Indo-Gothic façade of the Victoria Terminus lit up like a bride was something I still cherish like a distant dream that’s still well and alive in my memory. The Hungarian edition of Playboy launches on November 28, 1989, nineteen days after the people began to carry bits and pieces of the Berlin wall home as souvenirs.

It’s almost a year later that I am sitting with Rolf Dolina in Chicago’s Bombay Palace restaurant. It is clear to me that he is smitten with the idea of publishing a Playboy in the eastern Europe, where his businesses reign supreme. I tell Rolf about how far along we already were with the Czech edition. Nothing I could do.

But I am thinking, perhaps he can team up with Dezsö in Hungary. A whole year in publishing Playboy there, the economy and the weaning optimism of the country is setting in and the magazine is not doing as well as anticipated. Though it has already established itself as the class in itself against which others are measured. They are struggling. What the magazine needs is some infusion of cash and someone like Rolf’s expertise and the business acumen.

Over the next month or so I speak with Dezsö, Eva and Rolf, resulting in Dezsö, his partner Andras Toro, Rolf and I meeting in Budapest. Rolf is willing to land helping hand in Hungary, but his heart is still set on Czechoslovakia. Dezsö is connected with Vladimír Tichý in Prague through their common thread of ComputerWorld. The next day, Dezsö and I drive to Prague and meet with Vladimír and his right hand man Ivan Chocholouš. A day later, Rolf drives in from Vienna and the three of them reach an accord. Rolf gets to help Dezsö as well as gets to participate in Czechoslovakia. Eventually he would buy out Vladimír. Mission accomplished!

When we launch the Czechoslovakian edition on April 25, 1991, I am on the stage of Lucerna  Palace with Playmate Christy Thom (February 1991) by my side, announcing the arrival of the Czech Playboy. Standing on the side are: the publisher Vladimír Tichý and the co-publisher Hana Wagenhofer, while Rolf is hobnobbing in the crowd, feeling like a million dollars, smug and with a big smile on his face. Like the German Playmate Barbara Corser (July 1975) once said to me: Haresh, if you want something bad enough, you somehow manage to get it.

© Haresh Shah 2014

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

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Next Friday, December 12, 2014

THE ARABIAN NIGHT

Of the multitude of PR events sponsored by Playboy across the world, Playboy Germany’s 20th anniversary’s BIG BANG party sticks out the most in my memory. And then there was a low key event just a year before.

 

 And The Power Of The Power Before And After The Communism

Haresh Shah

hotelrubble

‘So what are some of the Czech specialties?’

‘We only have three.’

‘And they are?’

‘Pork, dumplings and cabbage. Dumplings, pork and cabbage and cabbage, dumplings and pork.’ Answers Ivan (Chocholouš) and breaks out in a big laugh.

‘And of course there is Svíčková…’ he continues. Which is not as common to come by.

Every time I return to Prague, my dilemma remains the same. What to eat? There are other things on the menu – klobasa? Breaded and fried chicken breasts?  Fried cheese? Fruit dumplings? But time and time again, Ivan will make me take the U turn and order Vepřo, Knedlo, Zelo. By now he knows my taste. More like my sensitivity to the fat contents and the toughness of the meat normally served by most of the local restaurants. Pork, dumplings and cabbage being the national dish, the chances are that in a good restaurant the cut they serve would be tender compared to the neighborhood hospodas.

This is the late spring of 1990. Mere seven months since the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most of the restaurants are still owned and operated by the State, where the quality level of the ingredients is far below the accepted standards of even the cheapest places across the border, say in Austria and Germany. I am having hard time with the fat-filled meat tough as leather. For someone who grew up in a staunch vegetarian family, in early days in the West, I would find even the tender most filet mignon a bit hard to swallow. What they served up in the Czech restaurants during those early days at the end of the communism, was not something I looked forward to.

I have similar problem in Hungary every time I visit Budapest. And would in Warsaw, Poland a couple of years later. Even though the Berlin wall didn’t fall until November of 1989, the Hungarians had already began to disregard the constraints of the communism almost a year before when the first inquiry from the couple of Hungarian born and now living in the States venture capitalist landed on my desk, expressing desire to launch a Hungarian edition of Playboy. John and Eva Bryer had somehow managed to escape to Austria and onto the United States following the Hungarian revolution of 1956, in the fashion of the cold war breath taking suspense story, making it good across the ocean. Now in their middle age, they brought us young and ambitious independent Hungarian publisher, Deszo Futasz, who had already been publishing the Hungarian edition of IMG’s Computer World magazine, which lead to Playboy licensing its first edition behind what was still considered to be the iron curtain.

On my first trip to Budapest in the spring of 1989, I was very much looking forward to the authentic Hungarian Goulash – a spicy paprika doused meat stew served on the bed of spätzle.Something I had loved when I lived and worked in Offenburg in Germany and something I frequently ordered at the Bahnhof Restaurant and at Engel where I would meet my Hungarian friend Sinaida for lunch. But when I ordered it in Budapest, it was nothing like what I remembered it to be. First of all, it wasn’t spicy at all. A bit watered down even and bland. The meat tough with rinds of fat around it. Something I just couldn’t stomach. Wiener Schnitzel contained pork instead of traditional tender veal. Even in better hotels and restaurants, it was tough going. As good a wine as Hungary makes, not up until later did I get to taste them. The saving grace in Czechoslovakia were their excellent beers like Pilsner Urquell, original Budweiser and the local Staropramen.

In the neighborhood restaurants, you’re greeted with small flimsy squares of disintegrating tissues that passed for napkins. Even McDonalds had better napkins, but unlike in the States, they were rationed to one with each order. Once I commented on them to Kirke’s Mirek Drozda, who along with his wife Mirka, runs a graphic arts studio-come stock photo agency.

‘Compared to what we used to have, this is luxury.’ Mirek says to me and then picking up his napkin proceeds to tear it at the folded creases and piles on the table the resulting four pieces.

‘This is what we got before the revolution!’ What could one say?

When I launched the first edition behind the former Iron Curtain country Hungary, as was my tradition, I had invited all European editors to attend the inauguration. We were all staying at Hilton up the hill on the Buda side of the Danube. Once it must have been a luxurious hotel and it still boasted five stars, but at a closer look you realize that the place has long been neglected and is in dire need of repair with peeling wall paints and battered and old cheap looking furniture. Sad remnants of the glory long past of the Austro-Hungarian empire of fin-de-siècle. When I get out of the shower and am getting ready, I realize that I have run out of my hand and body lotion and hope to buy some from the lobby shop downstairs.

Just then I hear a knock on my door. Standing outside in his pajamas is our German editor-in-chief Andreas Odenwald. He is holding in his hands a mangled and squeezed-out of-it-the-last-drop, a blue tube of Nivea moisturizing cream.

‘I need some cream.’ He says.

‘I do too, I’m afraid.’ I grab the empty plastic bottle from the bathroom, turn it upside down and squeeze it to the hollow sound. Not a drip. We break out laughing.

Having checked out the hotel kiosk and not finding any, Andreas and I venture out in search of Nivea. I still remember looks on our faces as we stood in the middle of the empty shelves of a drogerie. Forget about the imported Nivea, there wasn’t anything there that even came closer to a hand cream. Such an unnecessary bourgeois waste!

Little over a year later, I am in Prague. I split my stay between Forum ( now Hotel Corinthia) which is five star modern, prim an proper like any other international chain and then at U tři Pstrosu, a small boutique hotel on the Mala Strana.  It is certainty a charming little place. Followed by even a smaller and cozier jewel box of seven room B & B, U raka, near the Prague castle. It is owned by a husband and a wife team. He is a photographer and his wife, an artist. The main floor, which is also a large open hall, showcases both of their works. Quite impressive. The place is a walled enclave with well groomed small Japanese garden and even smaller detached structure by the huge main gate that serves as the reception, the breakfast room, the lounge and the kitchen. It’s a true B & B where they take your breakfast  orders the night before. The husband gets in his car every morning, drives to the closest German border and picks up fresh supply – mainly fresh fruits and other produce. My friend Susi from Munich has joined me, who’s crazy about fresh fruits, yogurts.

But in-between, probably at Ivan’s recommendation, I want to try out one of the communist era’s landmarks, Hotel Praha. When Ivan tells me that prior to the party bosses having decided to build themselves a concrete monument, the property was a vast and a beautiful park called Petschkova zahrada, loved and enjoyed by everyone. He remembers the park fondly and with a certain sense of sadness – the place he used to visit during his childhood. There were of course many protests against them razing their beloved park. But to no avail. As my good old Mom would have said: prudence doesn’t work against the power. Or as Joni Mitchell so aptly sums up in her song: They paved paradise, to put up a parking lot.

Built at the total cost of 800 million Czech crown, all of its 136 rooms have a view of the Prague Castle. Opened in 1981, at the height of the communist regime’s glory days, it was not opened to the public but was exclusively meant to accommodate the high ranking party officials as well as the foreign dignitaries and was the home to the Communist Chapter of Czechoslovakia. The Velvet Revolution of of 1989, caused the hotel to be taken over by the city administration and they ran the place up until the year 2000. Beyond that it would be taken over by the corporate giants Falcon Capital and turn it into a luxury hotel in an attempt to recapture the country’s most recent history and possibly the nostalgia.

So here I am, in January of 1991, residing in an impressive, albeit totally run down building. It has the reception area vast as an arena, looking dark and desolate because of the lack of anything to fill the space. Elsewhere it would have been a bustling lobby bar. The high ceilings make the space look even emptier. And the rounded palatial stairs leading down to the ballrooms and other conference halls, devoid of any human traffic are engulfed in the gloomy dimness. And then there is a swimming pool, with the vast body of water looking like a sinister black hole.

Ivan tells me that those stairs used to hold fashion shows, with the audience looking up and the models descending those stairs in their dainty little steps, stopping and taking their bows. Definitely the pride and joy of the communist regime, where they entertained foreign and local dignitaries and accommodated them in one of their rooms. I could certainly imagine the grandeur of the days past. Fortunately, I could see for myself, how awesome the place could have been, when years later in my post-Playboy days, working with Ivan at Mona, he would hold one of the company Christmas parties there with about a thousand guests and cornucopia of food and booze, music and dance. And what I remember the most is how elegant all the women looked in their long and glittery outfits. And how absolutely breathtaking it was to watch them descend one step at a time with their long dresses billowing so seductively. Especially, my co-creator in making of Esmeralda special, Alice Sedliská wrapped up in her floating green dress in the image of Leticia Calderon in the title role.

But let me take you back in time and in to my room. Having ridden into a sluggish ascending elevator and walk through dimly lit corridor, the room reminds me of my room at the Indian Student Hostel on Fitzroy Square in London. A single bunk like bed flush with the corner, a desk and a chair stacked against the right wall. I am not sure if there is an armchair of sorts. Fortunately, there is a full size window overlooking the garden and the Prague Castle, of which the hotel is so proud. My London room had a sink, but we had to use communal toilets and showers. My room at Praha is equipped with a bathroom of its own. Their breakfast buffet is meager even by the eastern European standards. It’s crying out for tender loving care and some well invested hard cash. Though it stands in the prestigious residential quarter of Prague 6, when you put it in perspective, it is tucked away in the remote corner, far away from the glitter and the glory of the city that calls itself Zlata Praha – the Golden Prague.

The irony of it all is: Thanks to the privatization of the place, up until a year ago, it had become one of the Prague’s alternative luxury hotels at $300+ a night rooms. Even Tom Cruise stayed there during the filming of Mission Impossible 4, and loved it. And just as the people of the country had began to accept it as a monument to its recent communist history, in early 2013, the hotel was abruptly closed down without explanation, leaving guests with reservations stranded and scrambling for rooms elsewhere. The new owner, Petr Kellner, of PPF, said to be the richest man of the country plans to demolish the hotel and put up in its place an upscale school to be named Open Gate. There has been protests against it, but once again – this time around, not only the power but also talking is the clanging cash.

© Haresh Shah 2014

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

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THE DUTCH TREAT

MY WINTER VALENTINE

THE TERROR OF TWO Cs

The Site

ABOUT

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Next Friday, February 14, 2013

 THE PEEPING TOMS

If  you’re lucky, it’s only once in a life time that you meet a person quite like Franz Hermann Gomfers, let alone call him your friend.  Here was the man, for whom everyday of his life was a Karneval. Yes, like in Rio. But he would argue it to be the one in Köln. It wouldn’t be fair to compare his parties to that Playboy mansion’s. FHG as we called him, had a style of his own.        

Haresh Shah

From Sleazy Sex Show To The Celebration Of Suave Saxophonist’s 50th

sax_coaster3b

When I was based in Munich, it wasn’t unusual for me to start my day with breakfast in Munich, have lunch in Essen and land in Paris just in time for dinner and the next evening have dinner in Milan. Georg Kührer of the printing house Girardet once observed: you hop on and off the plane more often than I do a bus. Amazing. But true. Even so, the eleven days I remember the most about my relentlessly on the go happened years later when I was living in Chicago. What to me is mind-boggling still, is the intensity of those days, being in constant motion and deprived of sleep. And I don’t even drink coffee, let alone take any other stimulants. I thrived on the natural adrenaline and the high I got from interacting with people.

I began my journey in Chicago on the afternoon of Thursday, October 15,1992, arriving in Budapest the next morning.  I loved the way the airlines wine and dine you in the front of the plane on their intercontinental flights. No phones ringing, nowhere you can escape. I am not for watching movies or doing any real work on planes. Reading yes. But mostly what I love the most is to really let my hair down, enjoy the treats, perhaps snooze a little bit and arrive at my destination, if not well slept, quite relaxed.

My weekend visit had a certain urgency about it. Our original publisher, Dezso Futasz  had decided to get off the rat race, but was conscientious enough to bring a group of people, headed by Geza Panczel of Interart Studio  to take over the Hungarian edition. All three parties had agreed on the terms of transfer, contingent upon me approving the new organization. So I plunged right into the process soon after checking into the hotel. Meeting after meeting after meeting and then dinner at one of the new partners’ home, is how the day went.  Just before the dinner, Dezso had bowed out, leaving me in the care of Geza and his associates. After dinner, the last thing I wanted to do on that night was to go out to Bangkok – a topless bar. Hoping I would catch up on sleep the night after. But no such luck. Instead I found myself sitting on the edge of the stage at the place called Caligula. Caligula was nothing like anything I had ever experienced before. It featured explicit live sex that contained lot of rubbing, slurpy oral sex and frequent copulation – all of that happening just a few feet away from your nose. I don’t know what they were thinking, but that in itself should have been a reason enough for me to disqualify them. If this was their image of Playboy, what would they do to the edition once they got their hot hands on the license to publish the magazine? Sexually oriented yes, but how could I possibly trust them to produce the lifestyle magazine of the highest editorial standards?

So it had to be Dezso pursuing me with a gentle pressure, Geza and his associates putting forth their best foot. In sharp contrast to our social outings, I was quite impressed by their current offices and the publishing activities, which mainly contained of fine arts and literary books. Their offices had more of a feeling of a somber English library than the one bustling with the young men about town.  They seemed serious contenders.  And how can you not like Geza? A low key intellectual who looked so much like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead  that I fully expected him to break out and begin singing  to lay me down, one last time. Plus, he took me home to his mother Idolka’s house for lunch next afternoon and then we had dinner at the restaurant owned by the group – the pizza joint called M*RXIM, with the A spelt with a red Russian star in defiance of the just fallen communism. The place was extremely popular with the young set.  Having been around in the former Iron Curtain countries good part of three years, I had observed that the sudden freedom had brought out the dormant entrepreneurship of their people and they were game for anything that would make money.

I wrapped up my visit to Budapest with an optimistic outlook.  More urgently waiting for me in Warsaw were my Polish publishers Beata Milewska and Tomasz Zieba. Only three weeks away from launching my third edition in the Eastern bloc. The content needed to be finalized,  plans for the launch revised and action plan put into place. This phase of launching of the new edition has always been the most exciting. With all that hard work behind us, now we had to make things happen. It was a feeling similar to that of an actor’s anxiety just before the curtain rises. Gave me a chance to get to know Beata a bit more. A dynamic young lady who would become one of the most successful publishers of Playboy family. Her partner in the venture, Tomasz accompanied me to Prague to pick up pointers from Ivan Chocholouš, the managing director of the Czech edition, who had very successfully launched  the magazine merely a year and a half earlier.

It’s already Friday, eight full days since I left Chicago, and not one single night I have had good eight hours sleep. And the real challenge of this trip still lies ahead of me. In order for me to succeed, the Murphy’s Law had to work to the perfection in the reverse order. Anything that can go right, will (must) go right.

Just imagine this: I depart Prague at 11:00 on Saturday and am scheduled to arrive in Frankfurt at 12:20.  I have forty minutes to connect to the flight to Hamburg. Having arrived from Czechoslovakia meant I would have to go through passport control and negotiate my way through the sprawling monster – that is Frankfurt International Airport – to get to the domestic departure. But I make it, just in the nick of time. I arrive in Hamburg at around 14:15. Since my baggage is checked in from a non-EU country, however perfunctory, it is still subject to the customs inspection.  I have the train to catch at 15:29 from Hamburg Altona to Westerland-Sylt. To make it across the city to the train station in just less than an hour in the afternoon traffic in itself is daunting. But I just can’t afford to think in those terms. Because I have promised my dear friend and fellow Scorpio, Andreas Odenwald – ex-editor-in-chief of the German edition, that I will be on the island of Sylt for his 50th birthday celebrations.  And so I am. I make every connection, tight as they were.  If that meant me sprinting from one plane to another, nervously rubbing my hands together while the cab sped along Hamburg streets, buying my ticket and making onboard the train just minutes before it slithers out of the platform. Arriving triumphantly in Westerland-Sylt on time at 18:17.

Andreas is waiting  for me on the platform. He gives me a hug: amigo! He says. Hotel Stadt Hamburg – where the shenanigans has already began – is only a short walk from the station.  I check in, park my suitcase in my room and come down for a quick beer and greet everyone who’s there. There are about fifteen to twenty guests occupying the dining room. Some of them I already know. Andreas’ life-long partner, Gudrun Thiel, Rainer Wörtmann and his wife Renate. And I see two very pretty ladies, they look quite familiar, but am not sure. They both smile at me and go, Eva Peters, Bettina von Beaust.  Of course. They must realize that my memory of them was from 1975, when both of them were ever so schlank, so their now Bottero-esque figures have me confused. But they seem comfortable in their evolution, which puts me at ease. There is no one else I recognize or remember, except in my agenda, there is a little note that says: meet Brigitte – interesting!  And like the saxophone aficionado – the birthday boy would have said: let the good times roll. And so they do. Between apèritif and digestif, the delicious home-made pasta with button mushrooms and wild duck in pepper crème sauce are washed down with appropriate wine pairings. And still waiting eagerly is the birthday cake with the colorful saxophone motif.

The clock is already ticking beyond 03:30 in the morning. I have the train to catch at 05:50 to take me back to Hamburg. Waiting for me at the station would be Michelle and Rüdiger, with whom I will have  breakfast before catching the Lufthansa flight at 10:45 to Frankfurt, connect with their Chicago bound flight at 13:00, and in the evening meet up with our visiting Dutch publisher, Meinard Carper and his advertising director, Auke Visser.

‘I guess, I can take a quick nap and a shower before catching that train.’ I say to no one in particular. By then all of us are wasted and more than ready to hit the sack. But nope! Leave it on Rainer.

‘It doesn’t make any sense to go to bed now. How about another bottle of champagne? And then we’ll walk you to the station.’

‘Warum nicht?’ I answer, as if on auto pilot. And I see a wide smile cross Rainer’s big square face, made it cuter by dimples on his shriveling cheeks and his small baby teeth. As if saying: That a boy! So we order another bottle. At around five thirty, I go upstairs to my room, pick up my suitcase, pay DM 230.- (approx. $115.-) for the room and whoever is still around, practically roll me back to the station and wave until the train slides out of the platform in the early morning fog.  One would think there would be nobody on the train that early on a Sunday morning. But there is a group of rambunctious youngsters. So I upgrade myself to the first class, slide doors shut, pull the curtains close and crash like a sand bag.

I have always loved trains at the night and the rhythm of their synchronized motion.  It lulls me to deep sleep almost right away. Relaxed, exhausted and deprived of  sleep all week long, I slip into a comfortable semi-coma. When I regain consciousness, all I sense is the total darkness and the pin drop silence. The train is stand still. Probably waiting its turn on the embankment, I think. Not even a peep, nor a sliver of light coming through.  Now I feel the train moving a little bit. And then I feel it stopping, suddenly. Following that, there is a loud thumping on the locked doors of my compartment.

Hamburg, Hamburg. End station. Bitte aussteigen.’ I am not sure, if this is real or it’s a dream. But the knocking continues, like the pounding of a heavy hammer. I spring up like  Jack in the Box. Disoriented no more, I slide the curtains and open the door.

‘Gott sei dank. Sie sind da. Hamburg. Aussteigen sie bitte.’  Seeing me well and alive, the conductor looks relieved. Frazzled, he tells me that if not for my friends on the platform, I would have ended up at the nearby train depot, nestled between half a dozen other idled trains. As I emerge from my car, Michelle flashes her sweet dimpled smile. They scurry me over to the airport right away. I check in first and then we sit in a café to have some breakfast.

No dramas or the time crunch with connecting in Frankfurt. We land in Chicago on time at around three in the afternoon. It is past four when I make it back home. I set the alarm and stretch out on my soothingly warm water bed. I am picking up Meinard and Auke for dinner at 19:30.  I feel energized as I walk to the garage. I put the key in the ignition of Nora Nissan,  as I call my car. The engine squawks, as if in excruciating pain and I hear the fan turning once or twice. And then the hood shudders sideways and pfffft. Sudden death!   

© Haresh Shah 2013

Illustration: Jordan Rutherford

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

Next Friday, March 29, 2013

THE STORY OF MY TUXEDO

Up until then I had successfully avoided having to buy my own tux. Cheap? Also. Cultural antipathy? Maybe. But mainly because I never saw any sense in owning something that I would wear less times through my entire life than I could count on my fingers. And I could always rent one if I must.