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 !

Monday, September 5, 2011

The amazing Gleneagles

Driving to Edinburgh airport in the pouring rain marks the end of an excellent 3 day break at Gleneagles in Scotland.

My daughter had been pushing for a trip to Scotland ever since she had a taste of Haggis several months ago. I saw the opportunity to play some great golf courses and indulge in some local whiskies, so was quick to agree and plan a family holiday.

So we booked the Gleneagles hotel, best known of course for its 100 year old golf courses, but we had a pleasant surprise to find there was much more as well. There was a huge range of activities for everyone in addition.

The resort is an hour’s drive from Edinburgh. We chose summer in the hope of good weather, but in Scotland there are no guarantees. Although we arrived on a beautiful afternoon, it was a touch chilly, but the sun was shining and the skies were dry.

After checking in to our rooms in the new wing of the hotel, we went straight to the Argocats for the kids to have a drive.

The rooms were beautifully laid out and well decorated. Comfortable and homely. A large soft bed and separate sitting are with a remote control operated open fire, and a spacious balcony that looks out on to Gleneagles’ expansive grounds.

Just some of the exceptional grounds at Gleneagles
Everything is on site (the site is very large), and walking from the hotel reception to the Argocat track, we passed the outdoor maze, croquet lawn and several tennis courts.

The Argo's were fantastic. Little 8 wheel trucks that can cross virtually any terrain. Reena and I sat military style in the back and the kids took turns to drive. Over steep hills and rough terrain, through trenches of water and over muddy banks, these things were aggressive and noisy, but great fun for the kids who picked up the knack of driving them very quickly and didn't take long to increase their speed.

An hour later, with sore bones and muscles, we stumbled out of the back of these vehicles and further explored the resort grounds, including the 4 restaurants, the indoor and outdoor swimming pools and the well spec’d kids club.

Dinner was at the golf club restaurant, and it was our first chance to sample the Haggis. My daughter took no time in ordering that, but the rest of the menu offered a good variety of casual international fare. The food came fast, and we accompanied that with a spectacular bottle of Chocolate Box Shiraz. The Haggis arrived and the challenge was set. It certainly looked better than I had expected and so I braved a taste ... and it was superb. It came with creamed potato and a thick sauce, and automatically it was a standard selection for each meal for the rest of the trip.

The next day I had a round of golf on the spectacular Kings course and Reena and the kids went for a bike ride (also through the golf courses). We met for lunch and had an archery lesson in the afternoon. Tia struggled because of the weight of the bow, but Shaan picked it up quickly and did well.

The day after we started in the morning with some fly fishing and caught our lunch (3 delicious rainbow trout), which the hotel chef obligingly cooked for us. The fishing grounds were astounding. Amazing beauty and in the middle of the hunting grounds with pheasant running around wild around us. We rounded of the day with an afternoon of clay pigeon shooting and a round of croquet!

The kids were adventurous and brave and were ready to try all the activities. Again, despite the weight of the weapons, both kids made a valiant effort and had some success in hitting targets.

We spent the early evening in the hotel pool which has a really nice steamingly hot outdoor section - a unique way to enjoy the fresh cool air outside.

My whisky palate was also catered for in-house in the hotel with a whisky shop that hosts some tastings. I learned the difference of the highlands and lowlands whiskies and those that are made with peat. I tasted a number of the single malts that go into Johnny Walker blends and again heard conflicting views on whether ice is allowed in whisky or not! 

That night, we dined in the hotels formal restaurant. Very elegant, excellent service and a mouth watering menu. Haggis "cigars", Venison Wellington and sublime Crepe Suzettes!

The last day was a chance for me to play golf on the Queens course in the early morning (on which there was some light rain on the front nine, before the weather cleared up again), and then I joined Reena and Tia on a bike ride, again around the golf courses, and Shaan went for a fencing lesson.

A farewell haggis meal was followed by a quick stop on the way to the airport for a tour at a nearby whisky distillery ... rounding off a thoroughly enjoyable and activity filled 3 days.

Whisky distilling

The venue, the hotel, the activities, the food and the service were all absolutely first class. There wasn't a moment we weren't occupied, and perhaps this could have been our only complaint ... not enough downtime to just savour our surroundings, but we will plan that in our schedule when we come back next year.