By José Abeto Zaide
“Mr. Zaide, I see your are from Hamburg… What is the Reeperbahn?” Ambassador Joe Ira Plana, our assistant secretary for legal affairs, fired off the first question at our foreign service officers exam, even before my rump could settle on the seat.
“Mr. Ambassador,what you ask is an exercise in diplomacy. The Reeperbahn is ‘The World’s Hottest Mile’. It is where sailors and tourists go for entertainment.” I answered, guardedly.
He didn’t let me off lightly, and pressed on: “Have you ever been there..?”
“I was there on my first week in Hamburg, Sir. My Consul General, Minister Cecilio Espejo, took us there together with visiting VIPS. It is a place to visit in Hamburg, much as you would visit the Eiffel Tower if you were in Paris.”
We were 18 who passed the written part of the FSO exams; and we would be grilled by the Inquisition. After parrying Ambassador Plana’s minefield questioning, the rest of the FSO oral exams was a waltz. The panel would serve, and I would volley.
Hamburg was my first foreign posting; where I began as foot soldier and made the officers’ grade. As a junior vice consul, I did passport and visa service and assistance to nationals. Of the latter, I must have done all the spiritual and temporal acts of mercy…except to clothe the naked. (Remember, the Reeperbahn?)
Fast-forward to today. Much high water had passed and ebbed at the Elbe River when Meng and I returned many decades after to visit Hamburg last week. Our son Jamil booked us on the train from Frankfurt to Hamburg. We took the platform nr. 8 which said that the next train was our ICE 938 to Hamburg, waited for it to check in at clockwork precision, and climbed the wagon to our reserved seats nrs. 33 and 35. Later a lady passenger asked about the seats, but my wife Meng showed her our ticket and seat reservations.
The train had started off when the lady returned, again claiming our seats. She said that this train was going to Vienna. (Could the trainload of passengers all be wrong, and just Meng and me, right?) Whether it was our gastarbiter Deutsch or our regressive auditory facility, we missed the announcement that the train to Hamburg would be 12 minutes late and another train to Vienna was loading on platform Nr. 8 instead.
The conductor advised us to get off at the first stop Hanau, where we could board another train to Fulda, where we would get off to catch the next ICE train to Hamburg. We texted our host, who would wait another 1 and 1/2 hours at the train station because of our mistake.
En route Hamburg, Edith Platzek pointed out the seniors’ home at a busy town intersection, commenting wisely that the din of motor traffic would not bother the residents, who would probably be universally hard of hearing. On the bucolic drive to Jersbek at the outskirts of Hamburg, we were treated to see for the first time a herd of reindeer crossing.
Edith was as young as we were when we all lived in the Haus mit tausend betten (the giant condominium with a thousand beds) in Norderstedt. Our children were about the same ages. Her husband, our friend Peter Platzek, passed away two years earlier. We visited the Ruheforst (Peaceful Forest), where Peter was laid to rest. One chooses a spot next to an oak tree, on which only the name and date of entry to this world and the exit to the nether were affixed. There are a few such burial grounds in Germany; perhaps from affinity to Druids or tree dwellers? Imagine being interred in an orchard of mango trees. (But would you bite of the fruit?)
Edith and Peter were foster parents to our second daughter, Ningning, who moved over for her abitur. (Our older daughter Luisa Kochel, we loaned earlier to Bernard and Heidi Simon in Berlin.)
Two couples would miss the next evening’s dinner. Bernard Simon’s nose bleed kept him and Heidi away; likewise, we missed Peter Iwan and Helga Iwan because he was unwell. Except for Peter Platzek whom we had lost, the men seem to wear out faster than their wives. But we made up lost time to renew acquaintance with our in-laws, Gerd and Krista Hilpert (their son Martin and our daughter Ning). Edith served a perfect curry dish. To add to the exchanges of stories which get better in the re-telling, I had for everyone my book ‘Champagne on Beer Bottle Pocketbook.”
Day 2. And 3. We spent two mornings with Feng and Ernie Evangelista. At subway U2, we saw colorfully dressed merry-makers who were celebrating Schlagmove (nostalgia for German 50s and 60s top hits). After our first curry wurst since arriving in Germany, we watched Hamburg’s annual ironman test of endurance (marathon, swimming, and bike). The 4th floor of the dining Hall of the refurbished Alsterhaus was the perfect perch to view the triathlon. The high end department store carries signature name brands on the ground floor which would rival the KADeWe in Berlin.
The Alster Lake is man-made. In medieval times, a dam turned the Alster river into a water reservoir to power the mills operating on its banks. This shaped the face of central Hamburg, which now has two lakes – the Außenalster (Outer Alster) and the Binnenalster (Inner Alster). From its spring outside Hamburg, the Alster flows into the Elbe river just south of the city center. Outer Alster Lake is 160 ha; Inner Alster Lake is another 20 ha. Hamburgers (the locals, not the sandwiches) sail their boats within the city; and they ice-skate when the lake freezes in winter. (While we are exercised in reclaiming land from Manila Bay for a privileged few to earn real estate, Hamburg made land into water for everyone’s R & R.)
By 3:30 p.m. we waited at Klosterstern, Nr. 13 Jungfrauenthal (Valley of the Virgins?), the address of our former Philippine Consulate General Hamburg. As austerity measure, DFA closed our Hamburg outpost when our embassy transferred to Berlin. (Our former consulate general is now a doctor’s clinic.)
We were fetched by Chit and Peter Maak for an early dinner at Alte Katte, their favorite resto. We passed up on the best-seller matjes (soused herring) and settled for sole; Chit and Peter had eel. The dishes were not exceptionally memorable, but the view of the canal with the grazing sheep balancing on the steep sides and an occasional boat coming from the Elbe was the prize.
Chit, née Carmencita Hernandez, was a law graduate invited by our Undersecretary Manuel Collantes to join DFA. I remember her monicker was “Miss Automatic” (“May Mustang na, Ma-atik pa”). At end of her tour of duty, she succumbed to Peter and the trophy of their union is a daughter Cleo, whom the couple dote on.
We would miss Edith’s three-star breakfast table.We telephoned Bernard and Heidi; but the story-telling isn’t the same without the body English and when you aren’t sharing a table.
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