Saturday, December 10, 2011

Is this World War 3?

Have the recent events in Europe been World War 3 being played out?

Not being fought in the trenches or the seas or the skies, but perhaps in the financial markets.
Germany tried, twice, last century to conquer Europe and failed. Now, however, they seem to be on the verge of a victory.

With the economic turmoil facing Europe, not only is Germany destined to come out as the default "top dog" on the continent, but most of the region is looking for (and needs) leadership ... and it's to the Germans they look. It is the sole voice of the UK that is looking to stand against this and as a result they have now been sidelined and virtually ostracised in Europe. While Russia is comfortable to back Germany and Sarkozy is sidling up to Merkel, accepting something of a "lap dog" position whereas once he stood as an equal, this seems to be inevitable. With or without the survival of the Euro, there is only one economic powerhouse in Europe.

As in the previous World Wars, Great Britain has and will stand firm, but I am not sure that the United States will be there to back them this time. The USA will, naturally, put its own self interest first, and they cant afford to stand against the European trading block, no matter how it is structured or who leads it.

This impending German dominance may not necessarily be a bad thing. Often, too much democracy can be a bad thing, and in my opinion, it has been in the case of the Euro. Economic union requires strong leadership and direction. The Euro is on the precipice of a downfall because its management allowed for national self interest to supersede that of the whole. Strong leadership and tough decisions are required to make it work, and perhaps (hopefully) German leadership of the situation will see to that.

Europe has shown today that it is unable to operate successfully as a democratic union and German victory in Europe this time has come, not from their own aggressive acts, but from the active incompetence of their neighbouring countries. I think it's a good thing that Germany's time may have finally, unwittingly, come as this could see the beginning of the best ever era for Europe yet.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Nigeria is its people !

November brought me to Moscow, London, Lagos and Accra. It's usually a busy month as we start concluding the year gone by and prepare for the year to come.

My African trips always bring their own "excitement". I'm of course privileged to travel the world and see some of the "finer" places, but trips to this continent always bring their own charm.

To take Nigeria, it has the impression of a hostile place. Lagos, in particular, is a bustling city where crime (especially violent crime) is rife. One has to take the normal precautions for safety and a whole lot more. Drive at speed down the main express ways to stop car jackers cutting you off. Never stopping your car in the middle of the road for any reason for fear of attack or hijacking. Locking your doors and windows at home at night with bars and heavy chains and padlocks, and depending on where you live, simply avoiding going out at night. This is all a serious challenge, as one can feel they are living without some basic civil liberties. It's taken me a number of years of traveling there to get accustomed to this, and I still can't honestly say I am comfortable with it ... but behind all of this is a culture of amazing friendly and warm people. As usual, it is only the few who spoil it for the many. The vast majority of Nigerians I have come across (either personally met or have simply encountered in busy places) are amazingly friendly. Considering the challenges they face in their daily lives, by being in an economically poor and underdeveloped country, the people are joyful and apparently care free. They are unmistakably loud and warm and friendly and most notable for their wonderful "trade mark" laugh that captivates you.

This engagement and interaction with the local people brings a very different feeling of a trip to a country that is rarely considered as a desirable destination, but makes the whole experience worthwhile and memorable. The people of Nigeria make it their country anything but "poor and under developed".

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An amazing weekend on (and in) the sea!

Last weekend, we spent a memorable time on a dhow off the coast of Oman.

Our yellow dhow

There is so much to do in and around Dubai, but it's too infrequent that we actually "get up and go", so thanks to a friend who organized the whole trip, we got up and went!
It was a 2 hour drive to Dibba, a small fishing port on the border of Oman and the UAE. We arrived and collected our SCUBA gear and boarded our home for the next 2 days. It was basic, but had the essentials. 6 bedrooms (all sleeping 3 people and en suite bathrooms), an air conditioned "lounge" and a spacious and open top deck.

Everyone arrived by 8pm and we sat down for dinner at the same time as the boat set sail for the open waters.

It was a beautiful evening, certainly the most perfect time of the year to undertake such a trip. As we settled down and got to know each other, the kids went off to bed and I enjoyed a nice single malt as the Hajar Mountains faded into the night sky and the last of the phone signals dropped out to leave us alone with ourselves and totally relaxed.

As everyone slowly retired, one by one, I chose to sleep on deck. Perfect weather and a totally clear sky exposed the stars, clearer and brighter than I had ever seen them. With no city lights glowing to distract, the constellations were crystal clear. Spectacular!

I woke the next morning feeling very fresh. The rocking boat and sea breeze did their trick, and the first thing I saw was simply stunning. Waking at daylight, naturally, I saw that we were anchored in a bay and surrounded by cliffs and the most stunning rock formations I had ever seen. As the sun was rising in the sky, its glow highlighted some amazing orange shades. It was fantastic, and with everyone else still asleep, I could savor this moment in total silence.

The magnificent colours of nature, first thing in the morning

Slowly, as the rest of the boat woke up, the divers amongst us grabbed a light breakfast and then suited up for an early morning dive. I hadn't been diving in about 5 years, so I had some nerves, but as I kitted up, it all started to come back to me and my nervousness turned to excitement. And justifiably so … that first dive showed us a few eels and some magnificent Eagle Rays.

Being anchored in a quiet bay, the waters around our dhow were calm and serene. As I returned from my first dive, the kids told me of the adventures they had during that time, canoeing and snorkeling and exploring. Too tempted to resist myself, I went with my daughter on the canoe to have a closer look at the cliffs and the fascinating formations they were talking about. They are awe inspiring as you get up close, and the layers of rock that comprise them are a reflection of the history that built them. We came right up close and found a small cave, and as I tried to maneuver into it, we lost our stability and capsized! I smashed and cut my knee and ankle on some sharp shallow coral, and I looked out for Tia who was fortunately safe, but panicking. I focused on calming her down and getting her to relax and get a footing on some shallow rock before I thought about turning our canoe back over. Tia is a strong swimmer. She was brave and composed herself fast, and as we re-boarded our canoe, I realised the camera had fallen off my wrist. I thought about jumping down to salvage it, but a mixture of not wanting to leave Tia alone right now and the blood that was starting to flow quite freely from my ankle cuts encouraged me to return to the boat and come back later for the camera (it was an Olympus "Tough", so this was going to a thorough test of its claimed facets).

Back on board, we were straight to first aid to bandage up our wounds ... I had to bow out of the next dive, and instead rowed back to my earlier "crash site" with my wife ... the brave volunteer for the camera salvage operation. As the accident had occurred near a cave and in relatively shallow waters (maybe 2 meters), it was unlikely that the camera would have drifted much. So I pointed Reena to the spot where I felt it should have been, and after a couple of minutes searching, she spotted it. Under the water and wedged between 2 rocks, she made a valiant effort to go down and retrieve it, and on her third attempt, it was retrieved ... Intact, working and all pictures safe and sound!

Shaan exploring the shores

As the diving group returned from dive 2, we all got ready for lunch. On the various boats I have been on, I am always impressed with the quality of food that can be prepared in such limited size kitchens and with how much stock of ingredients can be crammed on board.

After our sumptuous meal, we kitted up and I went off for my second dive. This time the visibility was better and the marine life even more abundant. The highlight for me came as I came around a large rock and came face to face with a turtle. It was resting on the coral and must have been close to 2m in length, looking not to have a care in the world. As more of us gathered around, it lifted up easily and gracefully and glided off, passing just a few centimeters beyond my outstretched hand as it disappeared slowly into the distance. The whole experience would only have lasted less than a minute, too fast to get the cameras ready and take a picture, but it has cast a lasting mental impression on me of the beauty and serenity that can and does exist in pockets of this world.

Before dinner, we raised anchor and sailed back down south, in the direction of Dibba. Our aim was to find some new dive sites for the next day and a new calm bay to stop for the night. The scenery was simply stunning at dusk and with no phone signal, I was able to relax with my family around me and no pressure of work.

Everyone was tired by dinner. Most ate and went to bed, but a handful of us stayed up, and we enjoyed some Dalwhinnie whisky, 15 years old, that I had brought from my trip to Scotland in the summer. I slept on deck again that night and enjoyed star gazing again before I dozed off for another deep and peaceful sleep.

The next morning, I woke up with another stunning vista, Surrounded again by the mountains and their amazing colors, exaggerated as the sunrise illuminated the entire landscape around me.
Early morning, in my bed!

More stunning views on the morning of day 2
The same routine as the previous day, we had a light breakfast and then headed off for our "early" dive. A deeper site this time. As we rolled backwards off the boat into the water, I saw a steep wall of coral beneath the water, bright and full of colour. We descended down vertically heading towards the sea bed at 24m, but as we crossed 10 and them 15 meters, I felt a mounting pressure in my head. I tried to equalize the pressure and even loosened my mask, but it didn't help. As we reached 20m my headache got worse and I signaled to my buddy that I had a problem and decided to avoid any unnecessary risk and re-surfaced and went back to our dhow. It was a disappointment, and a worry, but at least I got more time with the kids again ... with more canoeing and snorkeling in some interesting new rocks and crevices, but this time with a lot more caution than the previous day.

Shaan exploring the mounatin crevices

Later that morning, I went back underwater. I stayed above 15m the whole time, but it was a disappointing last dive. I was pleased my headache didn't recur, and I could accept the strong current we had to battle against, but I was horrified with the amount of man made garbage there was on the sea bed. Bottles, cans and plastic bags littered the reefs. It was a tragic site. It had to have been the low point of this entire trip that was accentuated by perfect nature and idyllic surroundings ... All this spoiled by ignorant and selfish people who couldn't care less for the beauty and wellbeing of our environment.

Before the last dive

Back on board, we had our final lunch, which included some freshly caught lobster (sadly not by me). Then it was time to pack and enjoy the final 2 hour cruise back to Dibba. As we enjoyed these final views of the mountains, more boats came into view, the phone signals returned, our isolation ended and we eased ourselves back into "real life".

Our fresh lobster lunch

It was a truly excellent and totally relaxing weekend. Thank you to my friend Gilles for arranging it.

I just couldn't wait to get home and have a long hot shower!

Our first dive site

A Moray Eel

A couple of Eagle Rays, disappearing into the distance

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fawlty Towers - The 13th episode

We had a remarkably interesting and "different" dinner last week.

Tipped off by a friend, we bought 2 tickets for a dinner show in the theme of "Fawlty Towers".

We had the evening free, and we enjoy trying different things, so we went to this "show" with an open mind ... and we are so glad we did.

We were welcomed into a cocktail terrace for an aperitif and awaited the restaurant doors to open, but without warning, the “show" started.

A small man in a black trousers and a white jacket came out holding a serving tray and approaching all the guests. It was Manuel! He was carrying some peanuts in his tray and elegantly served us serviettes and strictly one peanut each! It's doesn't take a lot of imagination to know that Basil followed him out and started to correct him, and he was shortly followed by Sybil, in turn, correcting him!

These actors were great. They had an uncanny likeness to the original TV characters and they had the mannerisms, voices, accents and personal quirks of each down to a tee.

The trio ushered us into the dining room where we sat for dinner and what the organisers of the evening call "the 13th episode".

Throughout dinner, Manuel's antics were classic. Filling every glass in front of us with water (the water glass, the red wine glass and the white wine glass ... as he clearly had no idea what they were all for. He delivered our soup and then removed it swiftly when he realised he had another table to serve it to. He hid some main course dishes under the table when he found that he had brought too many out, and it went on and on ... it was hilarious!

Sybil played the straight role perfectly. Coordinating everything and chatting amongst the guests. A perfect hostess who carries the original donkey style laugh exactly as it was in the series.

And then there was Basil. What can I say? He sucked up to the posh guests and was unbelievably rude and abusive to those less polished. He made endless efforts to try and correct Manuel's mistakes and protect his own obvious errors from his ever nagging wife … including how he guided us all through a fire drill half way through dinner! He even rounded off a perfect evenings performance with the famous German walk.

This was a really entertaining and different night out. It's a shame it passed so quickly, but I applaud those who put it together and had the imagination to create it!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

CSI ... Michael Jackson !

I saw this morning that Dr Murray was found guilty of manslaughter against Michael Jackson.

Now I remember the unbelievable sadness following Michael Jacksons death 18 months ago, and it was a tragic day … we did lose one of the greatest artists this world has ever seen, but I think this farcical trial that has followed has been shameful.

Not because I don’t believe in justice. Justice should be served to whoever, wherever and whenever appropriate, but I don’t believe that international TV news is the appropriate place. For this doctor to have been put on trial in front of the worlds media in relation to this case, dare I say, the man didn’t stand a chance!

Now I haven’t watched any of the proceedings and nor am I a lawyer, but I am certain that anyone watching this “show” on TV will not be acquainted with all the facts and will be in no position to pass judgement, which is why it has made me unusually angry to see the celebrations that followed Dr. Murray’s guilty verdict.

Who are these people to be celebrating this mans fate? I understand they were passionate about Michael Jackson and therefore saddened, even devastated, by his loss … but I don’t believe it is their place to be cheering in the streets at a court verdict.

What would have happened had Dr. Murray been found innocent? No doubt there would be have been tears and anger at such a travesty? I don’t believe these people have a right to be involved in the judicial process to this extent, and the courtroom is no place for TV cameras, allowing for people to hear only half the story. With such a public trial, Dr. Murray was either going to be guilty and sent to jail, or be declared not-guilty by the court, but then, nevertheless, be presumed guilty by the watching world (and then live the rest of his life in a "virtual jail").

There were people being filmed as headline news on the BBC today crying with joy at the verdict delivered by the court. I cannot fathom the emotion that some people have shown today … I don’t think its right or appropriate and I abhor this “realty TV” life we are all starting to live in.

We all miss the King of Pop, but the issue of justice being served should have been an issue solely for the authorities involved, the Jackson family and Dr. Murrays family.

To the others, get a life !

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Zig Zaggers

I generally have a hard time dealing with crowds. I get claustrophobic and try to walk as quickly as possible to get out of the confined space created by so many bodies, but my big pet peeve is those people who walk slowly and aimlessly, zig zagging in front of me and then perhaps even just stop for no apparent reason at all.

In these situations, be it in shopping malls, airports, train stations or just busy streets, I am normally single minded in an effort to evacuate myself as fast as possible. I look ahead, find my path and walk with purpose ... finding the gaps and maneuvering without hesitation ... until I come across a zig zagger. Invariably these people are also dawdlers. I am sure it is not there fault and there is nothing deliberate in their actions to try and irritate me, but they irk me nonetheless.. I can't describe the frustration I feel after making good progress through a crowd and then I come across one of these guys. They walk slow and seemingly without aim or purpose, and as I plan my way past they move without explanation ... right into my path. I'll have to slow down and adjust my path accordingly, but then they do it again, and again, and again. I can be blocked behind one of these people for what seems like eternity, especially when I am in a rush to reach somewhere. They seem oblivious to my desire to try and pass being locked up in their own world. They drive me mad ... I guess the best term for this feeling would be foot rage! I just wish they would have some presence of mind and be aware of what is going on around them and walk in a straight line, at a consistent speed and most definitely out of my path.

Whenever I am in a crowd and do not have any urgency to get somewhere, I do try and remind myself of these people and push myself not to be one. I think I am successful, but if you ever see me dawdling or zig zagging somewhere, please come up to me and politely yell in my ear to get out of the way!

60,000 people at The Arsenal ... I can make an exception for this crowd!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Our future looks bright ...

Back from what seems like a very long trip, I'm home and feeling rather satisfied.
As we have been working hard to evolve our business away from developing and selling "me too" products, 2 weeks ago at the Hong Kong electronics fair, all 3 of our brands took a large step forward as each released a number of products that drew show stopping attendance.

Magic Box continued to draw the crowds with the revolutionary design trends it has been setting over the past 18 months, and it continues to get bolder with each new generation of product launch. However, this time we have added to design and also jumped to the "next level" in audio quality with our 3D sound on display and ready to hit the high street before Christmas

With stiff internal competition, Binatone, always the most "traditional" of our brands was not going to be left behind. Previewing their new CliQ range of small kitchen appliances which have been under development for the past 9 months, the initial reaction from all around was exceptional. Stunningly designed using unique materials and cosmetic finishes, the "Apple-esque" touches were hugely appreciated by onlookers from major markets on every continent. Scheduled for production in March, we have people lining up to get these on their shelves for retail sales as soon as possible.

It was especially pleasing to also see Freeplay, the newest addition to our group, be so warmly received, despite its more humble presence on our stand at the show. Freeplay has been in gestation for the past 12 months since we bought the business, and the Hong Kong trade fair was something of a "coming out" party for the business under our ownership. The brand was warmly welcomed back by it's historic loyal customers excitesd to see what we have been developing for the past 12 months. They weren't disappointed with what we had to show and there is plenty more to come from that stable in the coming months.

In closing, I want to give a big thank you to all those who were part of the show ... those in front and those behind the scenes. To those who "executed" and to those who made the whole slick presentation possible.

So now the next stage of work begins. These projects are passed on for production where we have to ensure we deliver products to the market on time and keep the quality of product and finish top notch. In parallel, the great creative minds we have behind our brands move on ... it's time to get to work on the new consumer dreams for 2013.

Friday, October 21, 2011

My first impressions of iOS 5

I switched from Blackberry to iPhone about 6 months ago for 2 main reasons.

1) Etisalat (my phone service provider in the UAE) was threatening to stop supporting corporate Blackberry servers not located in the UAE, and

2) I had a growing reliance on my iPad and it's apps, and I was starting to feel lost not having these with me when I didn't have my iPad.

So I migrated and was berated by those I had previously preached to about the weaknesses in iPhones (which I maintain were correct). These included ...

1) I still prefer the feel and accuracy of a "real" keyboard.

2) The email functionality on iPhone has been poor (just barely usable) especially because mails cannot be deleted or filed when you are offline!

3) Updates need to be done via a computer.

4) Not necessarily an iPhone weakness, but definitely THE Blackberry strength, was no BBM!

There are a few other pet peeves I have, but then to be fair, I had some of those on Blackberry and Android, so let's stay focused on these "big" points.

I was eagerly looking forward to the launch of iOS5 last week, hoping it will answer most of my issues. I did the upgrade yesterday and here is what I have found so far.

1) It appears as though the mail problem has been fixed. Finally I can work offline. The amount of time I spend on planes and use that time for clearing my inbox, this is the "killer update" for me.

2) A "tasks" program has been added that syncs with Outlook. Till now I have been using "Zero", a 3rd party app that is simple and works really well. On the new iPhone task program, you can't "hide" completed tasks, so it has synced my tasks (live and completed) for the past several YEARS ... I don't really need those!

3) The very mediocre calendar was supposed to have a couple of improvements which I haven't yet spotted. One of these was meant to be a week view!

4) I only upgraded yesterday (a week after iOS 5 was released) because I was in Asia last week and updates, till now, could not be managed without being plugged into the main partner computer.
I have not fully tested this yet, but according to my iPhone settings screen, it appears that you still need to be partnered with a particular computer to get everything syncing, but it will manage the syncing over wifi instead of with a cable. That's a huge improvement, but why need a specific host computer at all?

5) The notification center is hugely improved (well... there wasn't really one at all before). It is now similar to what you get on Android. Swipe one finger down from the top of the screen and you can see your "live" calendar appointments and todos and a variety of other pieces of information you might choose to put there.

6) Fast and direct access to the camera is now available with a shortcut (a double tap on the "home" button), so when you need to snap something fast, this is a great improvement to what we had before ... Turn on the phone, unlock the password, find the camera app and launch it.
Additionally, I like the fact there is a hardware button to press for pictures instead of the previous on screen soft button.

7) iMessage ... The jury is still out as I can't find people to test this with! This is integrated into the SMS/message program (not something separate like BBM), and the iPhone is supposed to recognize if your contact has iMessage and it will then use that platform to send the message instead of network SMS. Perhaps an interesting idea, but I think a clear separate program would have been better, or perhaps an integration with FaceTime. For now, I'm sticking to "What's App".

8) Newsstand is an interesting addition. A good idea for an app to hold all newspapers and magazines (and a fresh revenue source for Apple), but I'm not able to move that app into a folder!

9) The upgrade process itself took about 7 hours! I have been reading that Apple servers were overwhelmed by the demand for the upgrade, but it's been a week now and they really should be able to cope after that length of time... so I'm not sure if my long download experience was due to server overload (still) or if that's genuinely how long the upgrade should take (in which case they should warn you in advance to do this only when you can be without your phone for half a day), or I may have had too many torrents downloading simultaneously when also running the upgrade :)

Overall, some useful stuff, but there's a lot more to do. I remain hooked because of the apps I have across my iOS universe now, and the email improvement has dealt with my number one issue on the platform.

Some articles I have read this week talked about battery issues with iOS 5, and although it's been a short time for me, I was on my phone more than normal yesterday (experimenting) and didn't notice anything significant in this field.

So it seems a worthwhile upgrade, but I look forward to 5.1 to smooth out the wrinkles.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Good bye Steve Jobs

Many people accuse me of being an Apple hater. This is far from the truth.

In this moment of sadness, I have to confess of being an Apple envy-er.

I remain of the opinion that Apple products are far from perfect (they do crash, they don’t function as flawlessly as claimed and they do come up short against the competition on a number of fronts), but at the end of the day, they are beautiful products, loved by tens of millions and there is outstanding creativity behind what they do.

Apple, through Steve Jobs, have created an evangelical following for themselves. What a position to be in where millions of people wait up to watch a product launch speech and then rave and blog about it to the whole world. How can a company get such a following of passionate consumers that won’t have a bad word said about the products it makes, even when it clearly has flaws? Indeed I know people who run their own successful businesses and speak with more passion about Apple and its products than they do about their own businesses.

So this is my envy. It’s a dream for my business to have even a fraction of that following and loyalty from its customers and consumers.

Apple achieved this because of a truly brilliant person like Steve Jobs.

He had a dream to change the world with his passion, and he achieved that … genuinely. He took the time to understand consumers in a way that consumers don’t understand themselves and he led a generation of business leaders to think different!

At the end, my envy is better served as admiration.

Steve Jobs … you will be missed!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Behind the iron curtain!

A recent business trip to Berlin gave me a feeling of nostalgia as I remembered a visit I made 22 years earlier ... when the wall was still in place and Germany was still divided during the time of the cold war.

It was September 1989. I was a 19 year old student at the time doing a business degree on a 6 month work placement assignment. I had chosen to take my work experience placement in our family business and this involved a trip to Berlin for the bi-annual Funkausstellung electronics trade fair.

Always a fun event displaying the latest gadgets and technologies, this was a lot of glamour and a great experience for a naive and inexperienced 19 year old boy.

After enjoying the week working at the fair, there was a chance for a break on the weekend to see Berlin.

My cousin, Dino, was with me on this trip, so we decided to have some adventure together and see "The East". All we knew of the other side was what we had seen in spy and war movies. It was going to be grey and dangerous ... very exciting ... very "James Bond", and a chance not to be missed.

So off we went, asking our hotel doorman which way to go. For ease and convenience, he recommended to take the train to Friedrichstrasse and also gave us some pointers of what to do and see on "the other side".

Back in those days, there was still the Deutsch Mark in West Germany and the Ostmark was used in East Germany. They carried an official exchange rate of 1:1, but on the black market you could get a rate of 10:1. For a couple of teenagers, that was an interesting prospect, so we consulted our doorman for advice on how to avail of this arbitrage opportunity.

As if straight from a movie, he dipped his voice and told us in his thick German accent ...

"First go to Alexanderplatz. Under the TV Tower there are some stairs. Go there and wait. You will see some Vietnamese people. They will look at you, but don't worry! Go with them and they will change your money.".

So off we went, with 100DM each, excited for the adventure that lay ahead.

The train journey was fast and uneventful, and when we reached Friedrichstrasse, we crossed immigration and then reached a desk where we were asked to exchange 10DM. This was compulsory for all visitors as a tool for East Germany to collect hard currency. We dutifully did this and got 10 Ostmarks in return. So be it. We still had 90DM more for the Vietnamese people!

So we exited the station and immediately found a designer clothes shop. We went inside and browsed. We hadn't imagined to see the latest Boss and Armani collections in East Berlin. Fantastic. We were about to make our money go 10 times further ... we shall be back.

With a purpose, we headed on foot to Alexanderplatz. Easy to find from anywhere in Berlin as it houses the famous TV tower.

Seeing Berlin now and remembering back to those days, it is unrecognisable. Today, Alexanderplatz has numerous tourists wandering around. Sipping Lattes on the grass and shuttling up and down the tower to take on the views of one of Europe's most modern cities, but back in 1989, Alexanderplatz was a grey and emotionless place.

We headed straight to the stairs under the TV tower and it didn't take long for the Vietnamese people to find us. Indeed, as our doorman had told us, they were looking at us. To any observer, this had to look phenomenally suspicious, but to us, it was exciting...

Up some stairs, we went into a dark corridor away from the prying eyes of the authorities. In broken English, they asked us if we wanted to change some money. After verifying the rate, we gladly agreed and handed over whatever Deutsch Marks we had, and in return received 10 times as many Ostmarks. Happy as Larry, we left that dingey corridor, left Alexanderplatz and headed back to the clothes store. With hindsight, I suppose we should be glad we came out of there at all ... Being older and wiser now, I'm not sure you could get me back in that situation were it today.

It didn't take long to find the shop. Rummaging around, we grabbed suits, shirts, jeans and all other sorts of things that we were going to get for 90% discount. The shop was relatively empty, so there was no line at the cash desk. We laid down the clothes, received the bill and tried to pay. What was the problem? The cashier wasn't taking our money. She looked at us and seemed to be waiting for something. Figuring that we didn't know what her concern was, she told us. "We don't accept Ostmarks! Only Deutsch Mark". She went on to explain to us the concept of the "Dollar shops" in East Europe. Everything was available in the East (contrary to popular belief), but it was only available through the so called "Dollar shops" which were only open to foreigners and hard currency payments.

So what do we do now with our worthless riches? We now had pocketfuls of undervalued cash, and worse still, we couldn't change it back!

We kept our spirits up. It was a lovely sunny day and we had a chance to explore this city now. It was still early in the day and we had plenty of time. Our only rush to get back was for the massage we had booked back in our hotel at 6pm.

Walking aimlessly, we found a department store. It didn't look too bad. Well stocked with all sorts of regular items (albeit unbranded), we asked the first and most important question... did they accept Ostmarks? Of course they did. This was a regular store. So we went crazy. T-shirts, shirts, jeans and I even got a Lomo camera along with other things. We just grabbed whatever we could that was half decent to try and utilise this cash we had.

That was a relief. With our arms full of shopping, we now felt a little more justified in our earlier financial transaction, but we still had hundreds of Ostmark left.

Continuing our unguided wandering foot tour of the city, we came across a grand hotel. It was near enough lunchtime, and upon confirming that Ostmarks were acceptable, we settled down to a sumptuous meal. It was superb! Caviar and Champagne and, frankly, whatever else was expensive on the menu. Well fed and well rested, we asked for the bill and fought over who would pay. I don't think either of us had ever been so keen to pay for the other.

Coming up to 3pm, we wandered outside and had a plan to go to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border crossing. We could walk across it like we had seen in so many movies and proudly show our British passports and be allowed back to "freedom".

In front of the hotel, we were the only ones to stand in the taxi line, and we patiently waited ... and waited ... and waited, but no taxi's. What was going on? Eventually a local man approached us and asked if we were waiting for a taxi. Hearing our positive reply he announced to us "I am a taxi". His car was allegedly parked outside the hotel, so for the second time that day, we naively followed a total stranger.

We squeezed into his ageing Trabant and told him our destination. During our journey he explained that he was a private person who "moonlights" as a taxi driver, as there aren't many taxis (or cars for that matter) in the city.

Checkpoint Charlie wasn't far. Our taxi dropped us off and we were right by the wall. We could see parts of West Germany on the other side and a picture was necessary. I approached the wall as Dino stood with the camera ready... and out of seemingly nowhere, 2 guards appeared, armed, and abruptly warned me to step away from the wall. WOW! suddenly the impact of being in the East came home. This wasn't about Hollywood glamour and everything having a happy ending. This was serious. Millions of repressed people lived here behind this wall, many against their will. We suddenly felt a greater sense of urgency to leave. We approached the counter on the Eastern side of the checkpoint and handed over our passports.

"You came in from Friedrichstrasse" said the guard.

"Yes", I replied, not realising it wasn't a question.

"You came in from Friedrichstrasse, you have to leave from Friedrichstrasse!".

What? What were we going to do? How do we get back to Friedrichstrasse? It was miles away and we didn't have a car or taxi (and now we knew how hard it was going to be to get one) and maybe we were going to miss our massages!

We had no choice. We knew the train station was near Alexanderplatz, so we followed the roads leading to the TV tower to get us there.

An hour or so later, getting on to 5pm, we reached the point from which we entered East Berlin. With a great sigh of relief, sore feet and tired arms (from carrying our shopping) we entered the station.

The first point of contact in the station to exit the city is customs! An aggressive mannered officer addressed us in German. Obviously we couldn't understand him, but as we tried to explain this, he only became more irate! Luckily one of his nearby colleagues could speak English and took over the questioning.

We handed over our passports and he asked what we had in the bags.

"Shopping" was our joint reply.

"From where?" the officer asked.

We didn't know the name of the shop, but found a receipt in one of the bags and showed it to him.

He looked us up and down and then asked Dino to go with him to another desk and he left him there with another officer. The original officer came back to me and I could see they wanted to question us individually.

"How did you buy these goods?" I was asked, or perhaps interrogated.

"With money" came my rather stupid reply. My nerves were already starting to get the better of me. I could see where this was heading.

"Where did you get the money from?"

What was I supposed to say? Dino was within sight but out of earshot. We had no way to communicate or consult, and I could see that he was being asked the same questions.

"At a bank" I replied, knowing that any other answer was going to lead to trouble.

"Where is the receipt?" the officer asked back instantly.

"I didn't get one" I said, trying not to reveal any signs of fear.

"Which bank?"

"In Alexanderplatz". I had to hope there was a bank there.

"So where is the receipt" I was asked again.

"They didn't give me one" I was forced to repeat.

"Which bank?" the officer asked me again, and I knew I couldn't keep going in this circle... so I had to gamble.

"There were some people in Alexanderplatz and they told me they were a bank" came my very lame reply.

"That is illegal!"

That didn't bode well. Trying to be an innocent ignorant "child" was not going to work, and we were in East Berlin. This wasn't exactly a place known for leniency. This officer was looking at me with total disdain and I knew I was in trouble. I looked up to see how Dino was doing, but he wasn't there! Where had he gone?

"Come with me" I was ordered by the guard.

I followed him down a corridor, and this time I felt trepidation. We walked into a "room". It was about 3m x 3m, no windows and a solid door which closed behind me as I went in. This wasn't a "room". This was a cell!

What the hell was I going to do and where was Dino? Was the guard going to be back soon and was there still a chance to get back in time for my massage?

Time passed. Probably an hour or so, and the possibilities were starting to play havoc with my nerves. I finally realised that the massage was not only missed, but that I probably had a more serious issue to worry about. I was in a cell in East Berlin. We hadn't told anyone we were coming here and there were no mobile phones in those days. Back to the Hollywood stereotypical view of the place ... was I ever going to get out of here? I could easily "disappear" in this situation.

More time passed, no one came to see me, and as I grew increasingly worried,I was starting to get desperate for the toilet. I banged on the door to get someone's attention. The door unlocked with a frightening clank and then opened. A guard looked in.

"What?" I assume he said in German.

"Toilet" I said and made actions, hoping he would understand.

He pondered and then took me. I walked in front and he walked behind, with his AK47 in hand.

We reached a metal, bolted and chained door, which the guard unlocked and opened. It was a tiny, dirty, smelly toilet. He motioned me to go in... and he stood there. There was no chance for me to close the door, and worse, the guard had his gun pointing at me the whole time.

The human body is a curious thing. 2 minutes ago I wasn't going to be able to stop my bladder from bursting. Now, standing over a toilet with a loaded Kalashnikov in my back, I just couldn't go.

"Schnell" the guard shouted impatiently. What could I do? I just had to make myself go, and fast. Somehow I did, and with great physical and mental relief and I was directed back to my cell. It must have been close to 8pm now. Was I going to be here all night?

On the way back to my cell, I saw the officer who had imprisoned me, and I called to him.

"Sir, sir", hoping he would hear me and look, and hoping the guard in my back would not react too negatively.

I was in luck. The officer looked up and came to me. He took me to his office and I noticed all our shopping bags in his room in the corner. He asked me what money I had, and I pulled out a few small notes. He took them and wrote me a receipt, in German, of what I assume were the shopping items he had confiscated. The money, meanwhile, he took that and put it in his pocket!

He then handed me a train ticket and escorted me to the platform in time to catch the last train that day back to West Berlin. That was it. My ordeal over... But what about Dino?

"Thank you," I said to the officer (I was still on his turf) "but where is my friend?".

"you have no friend" was the last thing he said to me as he put me on the train.

What the hell did that mean?

Upon arriving to West Berlin, I made a beeline to the hotel and found Dino already there. He was on the train before mine. Thank god!

I look back on this now and understand that the officers saw 2 kids that they wanted to frighten and teach a lesson to, and I can say it worked. I don't think they had a sinister plan to kill us and bury us behind the iron curtain...

Safely back at home in London, It was just a few weeks later, on the evening of 9th November, that I got a phone call from Dino.

"Turn on the news" he said.

The wall was falling and I remember a bitter sweet feeling. The collapse has to be a good thing for the world, but I value my experience at the point in history. It was a shaping moment in my life... and has given me memorable story to recount.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gleneagles ... the golf!

So this was a dream come true. A chance to play at one of golf’s classic courses.

Gleneagles, a one hour drive from Edinburgh houses The Kings and The Queens course, each 92 years old, and alongside them the 15 year old PGA course.

On day 1 of our family trip I was up early for my 8.30 tee off on the Kings course. It's a magnificent setting, steeped in history and it's a daunting prospect to tee off on the first hole - it was going to be hugely embarrassing to scuff my first drive. Great golfers play here and was I going to show myself as worthy? Luckily, I kept my head on my shoulders and my driver in the bag and teed off with a 3 wood (which would be my practice for the next 35 holes as well) and I was off to a cracking start. A 200 yard drive straight down the middle of the fairway. I was ecstatic and relieved ... now I could get on with the game.

The course is truly unique. I have played some grand courses around the world, in Europe, the US, Asia and the Middle East, but this is set like no other I have seen. Modern courses are laid out and planned from the ground up. Consideration made for the construction of hills and water traps etc…, but the 2 old courses at Gleneagles are carved out of the Scottish Hills. The Kings in particular is ridiculously hilly, but has a landscape that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

the spectacular landscape

My approach toward the first green was fair, but a careless last chip saw me triple bogey. As my usual golf score is in the region of 110-115, double and triple bogeys are commonplace to me, but I strive to improve and had set myself a goal to be shooting under 100 by the end of this year this start did not bode well for me, although I consoled myself that this was likely to be the hardest golf course I would ever play.

So taking the pressure off myself, I teed up on the second hole and with a straight drive, a confident chip and a confident double putt, I was a on a par ... and perhaps a role.

The rest of the round just flew by. It was the first time I ever played by myself and with no pressure of time with players behind me or for any competition, I took each shot with care and precision, and played the course to my ability. I planned for a bogey on each hole instead of carelessly going for shots I was only ever going to be able to make 1 in 10 times.

I continued to double bogey a number of holes on the front nine, but was pleased with my play, and especially my short game, but a big turning point came on the 155 yard par 3 eighth hole. A wide green sitting atop a small hill and the green sloping aggressively from left to right, the course guide advises you to hit the right hand side of the green and let the ball role. It warns against missing the green totally because of the steep banks all around. I chose my club correctly and struck the ball beautifully as it sailed towards the green, and specifically, the right hand side of the green, but the wind picked up as it fell and was blown marginally to the edge. I watched in horror as my ball left the green and rolled on the bank. It started to roll and I let my eyes drop to the bottom where I saw a devastatingly placed deep bunker awaiting. But by some fortune, a clump of grass caught my ball just 10 yards down the slope. I was spared the worst and I had a chance. I played a clean chip and got my ball back on the green and left myself with a 20 yard downhill putt with a slight break. Remembering there was no pressure, I composed myself, looked at the line and gave the ball an ever so light tap. It rolled well, slowly but surely on the immaculate green and with decent momentum from the slope. As my ball approached the hole I was waiting for the break, which happened at the last moment. On its last legs, the ball reached the hole dropped in with a satisfying "plop". I had another par! I was elated. I had felt for the past 18 months my golf game had stagnated, and didn't know how to get myself to the next level, but this started to feel like the right progress.

The par 3 eighth hole on the Kings course

3 more pars and a bogey later, I came in with a total score of 101. I was so close. By far and away the most satisfying game of golf of my life ... from every angle. The best course, the most challenging and the most scenic, but also the most consistent and considered golf I had ever played.

So I hesitated to play another round. I didn't want to leave this place with a sour taste in my mouth by playing a lousy round. Why spoil a perfect memory? But I couldn't resist. With the PGA course closed for the Johnny Walker tournament, I booked a round on the Queens course. Less undulating than the Kings, but more narrow, I teed off at 8am on a rainy morning. I don't normally do rain golf, but I didn't want to lose this opportunity, and in addition, the serenity of playing these gorgeous old courses is so calming to the mind ... So off I went.

My consistency came through again with immediate effect. With a par and 3 bogeys on the front nine and exactly the same on the back nine, I was in for an even better round, even though the game was marred by that early rain and then a thick fog that reduced visibility to less than 100 yards at some point!

The visibility on the 12th on the Queens course

I continued to play my safe game (still no driver used at all) and my approach play was the best it has ever been and my putting was reassuringly reliable. I have a clear memory of my play at the sixth. A 407 yard mazy par 4. A modest drive needed a strong second to get me anywhere near the elevated green. I chose my club and hit a sweet shot perfectly between 2 bunkers at the foot of the hill which housed the green on top. A clean pitching wedge stroke carried my ball the required 50 feet to the back of the green and a long putt saw my ball stop a couple inches from the cup. It ended as bogey, but I was tremendously pleased with my play and course management.

The tee and rough crossing on the 18th hole of the Queens
Going against my instinct, I tallied up my score at the end of the front nine and started to keep score on the back nine after each hole (something I hadn't done on my earlier round on the Kings as I didn’t want to burden myself with any pressure), but as I knocked in 3 bogie's and 1 double bogey between the 14-17th holes, I was sitting 93 with just the last par 4 to play. Even a double bogey was going to be enough. I was overjoyed ... until I saw the tee for the 18th! A tee box on one side of a valley, the contents of which would be more suited to an African jungle than a golf course made this an intimidating drive. The shortest line across was 180 yards in a straight line. Easily achievable for me with a clean hit, and I had been hitting cleanly most of the day ... but it's the psychological aspect of hitting across chasms or vast bodies of water that throw off your concentration. I had to convince myself that this was same shot I had played hundreds of times on the driving range and all day today. I kept my head down and took a light swing, and the ball flew ... straight and true! I cleared the valley and landed just off the fairway. There were just 200 yards to go to finish the hole and the course. I kept my head and opted for a 5 iron with a plan to drop the ball 50 yards short of the green and leave myself an easy finish. My swing was good and the contact was clean, but I had misread a bunker trap in my path and landed myself in trouble. It took me 2 to get out, and then another shot to the green. I did my best to hole it in one last putt, but the distance was too far and with a total of 7 on this last hole, my round completed in exactly 100.

I can’t say I'm disappointed. It's still my best score ever and it was one of the most enjoyable rounds of golf I have ever played. From the vertical walls on the bunkers to the deep bracken filled roughs. From the sculptured fairways to the immaculate greens, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and one I hope I get to repeat again.

Beautifully sculpted fairways
Near vertical walls on the bunkers!

For now, I come away better and more confident than before and something crossed off my bucket list !