Butcher, Baker, Builder
On the France-24 TV channel I just learned that Happy New Year wishes should never be offered before the New Year has actually begun. Doing so was rude (malpoli) and could bring bad luck! So here goes: bonne année a tous!
It was past midnight and the BTS closed. I had to take a taxi to get back to my condo in the Saphan Kwai area. The driver was of the chatty kind. Once past the inevitable setakit mai dee (the economy is bad) the new favorite topic now with these guys is Covid and all the troubles and hardship arising from the pandemic. I politely listened but did not join in the conversation. To listen, or reading about it daily, everywhere, and anytime I avoid the topic where I can. The reason why once again I dwell on my good old Phuket times box for today’s story.
They had been friends for many years. Hans the butcher, Ernst the baker & Paul the building entrepreneur. They were all independent traders in their own right and lived in a small town near the border with Germany. On Saturday evenings they met over beers or Most (fermented apple cider) and played cards. Last year they went on a week’s holidays together to Venice and hugely enjoyed it. Paul was the leader of the small group or as they jokingly called him, the boss man. Next year we’ll go to Thailand, he announced. The two craftsmen where enthusiastic with that suggestion but it posed a bit of a logistical challenge. In each of their respective businesses their presence was required. A few days absence could be tolerated but not 3 weeks as Paul had proposed. Where there is a will, there is a way, the boss man announced and, in the end, it was he who helped find suitable replacements that permitted the trio to undertake the holidays.
Although it started off an auspicious journey, they encountered a bit of bad luck on that first Thailand trip. The intercontinental flight arriving from London was unable to land in Zurich for refueling and pick-up additional passengers because of thick fog. It meant an extra night in a 5* hotel (not what they wanted) and arrive a day late in Thailand. Their somewhat sombre mood was not improved when packed into a 9-seater van carrying 12 or more people on arrival in Phuket. The hotel at Patong Beach at least was satisfactory and they spent the first evening around some excellent seafood at a beach restaurant under the stars and later a first sampling of the abundantly available eye-candy in the go-go bars. That uplifted their spirits all around.
No need to elaborate much on what they did during their stay in Phuket. Though they were good friends, they each had their own agenda. Hans spent much of the day on the beach reading Agatha Christie novels. Ernst joined him around lunchtime then moved over to the famed Christine Massage on Second Road late afternoon. Paul, not surprisingly, was most interested in sites, high-rise buildings, and another, seemingly precariously built édifice in his opinion on a slope. Once or twice they all went together to the island’s traditional excursions.
Paul, who as a young man had studied in a prestigious university in USA (I forget which one), instructed the two artisans that he would act as interpreter when on tours, outings, or shopping trips, and more importantly conducting tariff negotiations with bargirls or go-go dancers. That last service soon proved to be redundant when he realized that bargirls’ English ranged from very limited to non-existent. He gave new instructions on the breakfast table next morning; look at the shape of their behind and how they walk and appraise, then use hands, fingers and other easily interpreted gestures before committing to a place, length of time and price.
A few days before their departure from Phuket, Paul, on his own this day, felt he was being overcharged by the tuk-tuk driver taking him back to the hotel late at night. He lost his cool and during the ensuing argument and in anger lifted-up the back of the tuk-tuk and let it fall down heavily from maybe 20 or 30 cm above ground. The driver opened his cabin door and reappeared moments later with a gun pointed at him. Frightened Paul threw a 500 baht bill at him and ran.
Contacting the agency, the following year I was only slightly surprised when learning that while the trio was happy to spend their holidays in Thailand once again, they would not however return to that “taxi-shark and tuk-tuk mafia” infested island. Propositions + offers where requested for Hua-Hin and other destinations. In the end Pattaya was the choice. Hans & Ernst happily accepted the proposed flight and lodging arrangements. Paul joined the flight bookings but had made a private reservation in a studio by a local friend at the Condotel-B near the beach in Jomtien. It would remain his local abode for many a holiday to come. Many years later only I would learn the real reason for his lasting love-affair with Condotel & Jomtien beach.
In 2012 I learnt that Paul had booked their holidays announcing it would be his last visit to Thailand. That was intriguing. Being in Bangkok during their stay I decided to take the drive down to Pattaya. It was easy to find, at the end of Thep-Prasit Road the condo was situated almost on a private extension road a few hundred meters toward the beach. I found the group at the pool restaurant opposite the large condo. 12 years had passed since I last saw them in Phuket. They all looked great. Several bottles of beer around and Hans with the inevitable Agatha Christie paperback next to him. Technically they were not my clients any longer, but friends. And as such I had taken the drive down from Bangkok to meet with them.
What’s all that about this being your last Thai holiday, I asked? Did you follow the DSK affaire last year Paul replied? Sure, who hasn’t! Well, he’s the reason I will give up my Thai trips. Really, why? I was given an ultimatum, his answer.
For young readers, Dominique Strauss-Khan (DSK) was a former managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a prominent member of the French socialist Party. In fact, he had become the favorite contender in the upcoming presidential election in France. He was also a well-known and incorrigible philanderer. His latest sidestep in 2011 in New York assaulting & raping a maid in his presidential suit just before check-out and later arrested in-extremis in his first-class seat in the Air-France airliner bound for Paris just minutes before take-off. New York’s finest sent him for several days to Rikers Island prison. It cost him the job and all political ambition. The affair probably also gave a helping boost in the launching into permanent existence & gaining worldwide recognition of the #MeToo movement.
As for me, Paul continued, it was the trigger to an angry confrontation with my wife. Coping with the universally known “it’s me or her” conclusion. While I never reached the heights or perfection of DSK’s philandering, resisting slim, pretty, smiling Thai girls was beyond my moral strength. Eventually it ended in a more regular affaire these last few years here in Jomtien that I quite honestly much enjoyed. The above mentioned #MeToo movement that empowers woman through strength and numbers also ensured that a possible divorce could turn out extremely costly I was told by my counsellor. But that was not the only, not even the main reason I surrendered to the wife’s demand. A serious medical problem 2 years ago that necessitated a month-long hospitalization and many weeks of convalescence at home. It brought home my wife’s unwavering dedication to me and my cause. She stood by me, more so, nursed me back to health from day one all along those difficult weeks. Staying by her over a Thai fling (her words) was my only and sincere choice.
Hans had news to tell also. Over the years he had his butcher shop and production laboratory totally refurbished to compete with ever expanding supermarkets. The business was now equipped with the latest state of the art machinery and material. Two years ago, he turned it over to his grown son and retired. A proud father to leave Hans junior with a perfect tool in hand to assure a prosperous future. Then only months later he closed down the shop, sold everything to finance a second-hand Saurer truck that he transformed into a camper. Currently he is on an around the world tour with his wife.
Ernst faced similar professional competition but had more luck. Or rather excellent ideas that assured not only survival but consolidation and extension. He was helped by the optimal situation of the bakery shop in a busy street that was recently transformed into a pedestrian zone thus assuring lots on foot traffic in the town center. As a first step he added a tea-room or salon de thé with many fancy cakes and gâteaux on offer. His traditional early morning sales of crispy baked bread and croissants continued. Then his wife had an excellent idea. Why don’t you bake another badge of fresh bread in the late afternoon when there is lots of people around? He did and took it a step further. As soon as the freshly baked bakery products left the oven, doors to shop & tea-room were opened, and a newly installed sort of reversed ventilator or blower device propelled the flavors into the forecourt with often hundreds of people passing by at this time of day. Inhabitants of that region (Central Europe) know that people will not resist the scent of freshly baked products. In less than a few years Ernst was able to substantially increase the turnover of his beloved bakery.
A personal extra here: I spent part of my childhood in that particular small town. At that time there were 7 apparently flourishing bakeries there. Then the “big surface stores” took over and Ernst’s bakery is now the only one in town. I congratulated him.
The somewhat lacklustre news did not lessen the joy of having met again after so many years and we spent the remainder of the afternoon around the pool drinking beer. Later, our foursome on a nearby restaurant table for dinner followed by the obligatory prowl up Walking street and viewing, sampling some of the girls on offer in go-go bars. The guys had booked a studio for me at Condotel. Next morning, we met again for breakfast before my drive back to Bangkok. Hans & Ernst would definitely be back next year, they said, possibly even to Phuket again.
Not entirely convinced Paul’s decision was final after saying good-byes I asked him one last time. Are you really sure you don’t want to return next year? Absolutely, I’ve made up my mind, I’m sure and I’m a man of my word. Smiling he looked deep into my eyes saying you know what Americans say: A bird in the hand—, he paused, keeping hold of my hand. When the penny dropped, I concluded— is worth two in the bush.
I took the drive back to Bangkok on the busy highway.
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