BELOW THE LINE
By JOSE ABETO ZAIDE
In the old liturgical calendar, today, Monday, the sixth of January was the Feast of the Three Kings. And an old man recalls a gift of the Magi.
My last act as our ambassador to Austria in 1999 was to host a lunch in Vienna on May 1 to bring together the Philippine business delegation, led by Al Yuchengco and José P. Magno, with Austrian businessmen led by Dr. Egon Winkler, deputy secretary general of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber. After that lunch, my wife Victoria and I caught the Lufthansa flight to slip into Berlin without pomp or circumstance. German protocol does not wait on envoys arriving on a holiday.
We were received at Tegel airport by the Chargéd’Affaires Consul Manuel Comia and our honorary Consul Manfred Schnell. I should have bargained for more perquisites on the cross-posting with our Secretary of Foreign Affairs Domingo Siazon Jr.. But at least I got permission to forward my household directly to the Embassy Residence in Berlin.
There was a catch: Our chancery still remained in Bonn. Despite seven years planning, when push came to shove, we had no budget for our Embassy’s transfer from Bonn (a Small Town in Germany according to John Le Carré) to Berlin.
For the next six months, I lived in Berlin and worked in Bonn – commuting the 600-kilometer distance on weekends. The pundit Joe Guevara quipped that the Philippine government was so poor that the ambassador lived in Berlin and worked in Bonn…with conjugal visitation rights to Berlin!
My wife Victoria aka Meng and I established the Embassy Residence at Richard Rodgers’ Daimler-Chrysler Building at fashionable Potsdammer Platz. We joined four apartments on the 6th floor into one residence. (One additional apartment is on the 5th floor with a high-ceiling loft that exited at the 6th floor). We would have the tallest Christmas tree from the 5th reaching to the 6th floor.
Our Residence of 525 sq. meters encompassed three balconies, seven bedrooms, and four kitchens. (Quarreling couples could be accommodated not only with separate bedrooms but even separate apartments.) The large hallway connecting the four apartments was a bonus. We controlled the main entrance on the 6th floor, so we had an entire corridor as our dance floor for our New Year and rock-and-roll events.
For our annual budget for the Chancery, I was fortunate that my predecessor Ambassador Romeo Arguelles had recommended rental at DM36 per square meter. When Consul Comia found a building for DM19/sq.m. at Hamburgerstrasse/Uhlandstrasse, we acquired the two wings of the entire floor for a total of 700 sq.ms., with basement parking for six cars. We negotiated three months’ rent free, and used the savings to buy computers and office and residence fixtures.
The consular section had a receiving area of 300 sq.ms. where we could hold small concerts (we had a soprano of the Berlin Staats Oper, Andion Fernandez, and several other Filipinos in e-music in Berlin), and painting exhibits (Gus Albor, Manny Baldemor, et alia). Our architect son Paolo designed the office divisions (but the rest of his plans were beyond my budget). We were able to save a pair of two exposed huge water drainage pipes, because the artist Pierre Patricio simulated them into bamboos covering his illustrated Malakas at Maganda.
Furnishing the chancery was a challenge. For the longest time, we were working on cardboard boxes and some makeshift tables. Until Meng sourced from Deutschebank German quality steel desks for our office, acquired for a song. On our word of honor that DFA would approve new desks and chairs, a high-end furniture store lent us beautiful Poltrona leather armchairs.
Good news would be followed by bad: The week before Christmas, the desks were delivered. Two weeks later, the furniture shop served notice to reposses the executive chairs because we could not pay for them. (Imagine an executive leather chair carried by workmen with a resisting ambassador glued to it?)
Ende gut, alles gut. (Translation: All’s well that ends well.) Aweek later, our money arrived, and the shop returned our executive chairs.
We were also able to afford a pair of Poltrona Frau leather chairs with svelte armrests (a red and a blue) and a yellow leather Chesterfield sofa (completing the Philippine tricolors). Four years later, I would see the same Poltrona sofa in Paris with a tag price of a slightly-used small car.
On putting the country’s best foot forward, it was nice, occasionally, tobe able to live beyond means. FEEDBACK: [email protected]