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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Following Mata Hari

Jenny and I took a half-business all-pleasure trip to the Continent earlier in the year. This was during the build up to the World Cup, but before the cresting of the frenzy. It was difficult to escape the influence of the World Cup, but we tried...

Although it was not planned, we vaguely followed in the footsteps of Mata Hari, born Margaretha Zelle, after her emancipation from married life into the life of an exotic dancer, a courtesan, and a spy. Or, as Jenny put it, from one world of sex and lies until-death-do-us-part to another. But fortunately although we followed in some of her travels, we found a very different ending.

I hadn’t seen Jenny for almost two weeks before we met for this trip, so there was a fair amount of time spent catching up. Various Internet technologies allowed us to keep up with each other verbally and even visually, but that important physical component was beyond the grasp of available technology. Only moderated by our desire to keep our respective bodies in good condition and our light business meeting schedules, we usually spent twelve to fourteen hours a day in the hotel. Another way in which we were unwittingly emulating Mata Hari.

Margaretha Zelle was born in the Netherlands. After time in Java, she returned to Europe. Freeing herself from husband, family, and social conventions, Zelle was reborn at the age of 28 as Mata Hari in Paris, an self-made expert at the entirely contrived Javanese exotic dance.

In Paris Jenny and I spent most of our time in the museums and walking. A lasting memory is holding hands, people watching, talking of our living plans, surrounded by the scent of blossoms on Avenue Montaigne, on our way to a dinner at No. 50. Earlier, on the Left Bank, we had visited Musee du Quai Branly, which is either rule-breaking, man-machine-nature synthetic architectural genius or self-absorbed, plant-infested architectural masturbation. That evening was capped off at Le Cab bar.

Another memory, though odd, is our being approached by a small group of Chinese who were thrown out of the Louis Vuitton store. They wanted us to buy them some bags. Armed with diagrams and retail prices for a whole line of items, they actually handed me a wad of cash in the middle of the street to go buy two expensive items in the store while they proposed to wait out of sight around the corner. Briefly I wondered what would make them trust a stranger like myself to walk away and around the corner with several thousand Euro in cash? Were counterfeiters that desperate? Or did they need those presents for Auntie Wu that badly?

The 178 cm tall, exotic, multilingual, musically-talented Mata Hari reportedly became the most highly-paid courtesan in Europe at the age of 38, and a war time spy. While a courtesan, she reportedly tried to steal back her daughter in Amsterdam.

Jenny and I enjoyed the grand canals of Amsterdam, the diamond factories, the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum museums, and the allergy inducing De Hortus. We made an obligatory prowl of the De Wallen call girls, always an interesting sight and fodder for interesting discussion. Although there are similar places in other parts of the world, the tourist and native atmosphere mixture is something special. Amsterdam is a diverse and interesting city, but we probably spent way too much time in bed.

The Schiphol Airport deserves special mention: it is a very well done airport and even has a branch art museum inside. But the KLM lounge was not as amenable to hanky panky as my favorite: the Cathay Pacific lounge in Hong Kong. But we made do...

Although much of what is written about Mata Hari’s spying and double agent activities is apocryphal, or at best unreliable, if she did spy for the Germans it is likely it was under the direction of a German lover she met while performing in Berlin.

In Germany we rented an AMG CL65 Mercedes, spent a track day at the Porsche factory, and then made it to Berlin. My adrenaline moment was trying not to panic at Jenny’s driving a circa 500 horsepower SUV — she received her virgin driver’s license only this year. I picked up a bunch of tips in driving the Cayenne Turbo S model, as I will be driving the same model in Saudi Arabia later this year.

A notable experience was trying not to spill our food on the bed linens at the hyper-stylish Bungalow Club in Berlin — where you have dinner on dauntingly pure white beds. I found the place overly Euro-trendy in that uniquely German way, but it was an implementation of an idea I have advocated for some time — eating in communal beds. There are other places similar to this, for example one we tried in Bangkok last year. In both places we provided some unpaid but very rewarding entertainment for the other patrons.

Driving in fast cars and eating on publicly visible beds were interesting — though vastly different — mood setters. Both were exciting in their own way.

Mata Hari was recruited to spy on the Germans on behalf of France, either as a courtesan-spy, or as many believe, a double agent. Her first significant mission, which may or may not have ever actually consummated, was to Brussels.

No geek can mention Brussels without talking about the Atomium, a 100 meter tall shiny steel molecular model that towers over the city. Originally built for the Universal Exhibition in 1958, the Atomium reopened this year after extensive reconstruction; it’s quite nice. With escalators in the bond struts, and observation decks, activity areas and a restaurant in the atom balls, there is no other building quite like it, although I find it more impressive from the outside than the inside.

The Atomium also has a new chef at their restaurant. It is still experiencing a few growing pains, but lunch there was interesting enough to divert my attention from the frustration of working with EU bureaucrats.

Although Mata Hari never was reported to have visited Copenhagen, Jenny and I did. The weather was fantastic, and the waterway by our hotel was full of happy people, food, music, and scantily clad Scandinavians.

The memorable moment there was the view from the Golden Tower at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen; appreciating the wisdom of a beautiful city with virtually no high rise buildings and great design sense. Asian cities are comparatively ugly, having generally put progress ahead of architectural and cultural integrity. But then again, looking at the comparative economic growth rates, who can say if Europe is preserving culture for the betterment of their children or being stuck in the past to the detriment of their children?

It is possible that part of Mata Hari’s undoing was her capture in London, where she was accused of being a double agent for the Germans. Again, much is unclear about her spying activities, but it is known that Zelle was interrogated by Scotland Yard and eventually sent back to the Continent.

In London we prepared for our journey to New York by dining at Fat Duck, which I believe to be underrated for food despite being ranked in the top ten in London by Zagats. I cannot help but think that perhaps some diners find the creativity of the cuisine too difficult to appreciate. But geeks who like food must experience what Heston Blumenthal does by mixing flavors and technology.

Jenny and I left London for New York, and then to Vancouver, Canada, enjoying a week of magnificent weather on both coasts of America. The highlights were three catered outdoor picnics: in Central Park in New York; in Stanley Park in Vancouver; and BBQ ribs helicoptered atop a mountain in the Canadian Rockies.

We did watch a few World Cup games, at least parts of the games while I tried my best to distract her with the tools that God gave me. Then back home to Asia to complete the round-the-world trip.

Unfortunately Mata Hari was not able to escape her destiny in Europe. Desperate to use spying to finance a better life with a young Russian lover, Mata Hari was convicted of wartime treason and executed by firing squad in Paris at the age of 41. The International News Service reported that she was shot wearing stockings and a kimono under a fur-trimmed black cloak, a black hat with silk ribbons and bow, and black gloves. She met her destiny unblindfolded and fell with her face turned upwards toward a darkening sky.


Blogger Sophia said...

I've experienced the odd request for purchasing handbags in Paris as well. It's definitely a scam of some sort, but I can't quite figure out where the trick is.

7/04/2006 9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those Bag people purchase bags in Europe and bring them to Asia to resell them in private shops. They make money because the same products are much cheaper in European retail shops than the likes in Hong Kong/Tokyo. These people also get the VAT deduction at the airport, so even after the traveling expenses, the profit margin is there.

In places like Hong Kong, this is an organized kind of affair with "trip leaders" and "seniors" to report to. They are notorious in the boutiques in Paris and their names and faces are blacklisted. I guess that's why these desperate people ask strangers to it for them.

7/05/2006 12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I just read your entire blog and found it very entertaining, well written and... a bit sad.

It must be horrible to be intelligent and wealthy. To understand why most bitches are after you... Even revealing their names (advertising their services) on your blog, my god... In a way that must be great, but to be surrounded by "high class" gold-diggers all the time? That must make you a bit cynical?

7/25/2006 9:59 AM  
Blogger Sigmund said...

I'd stop short of saying it's horrible. It ain't so bad compared to the several alternatives. I could always choose to give away 100% of my money! ;-)

7/29/2006 10:09 PM  

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