Mission Accidental

Mission Accidental image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: | posted May 06, 2010 17:49

Spy fantasy meets accidental tourist

This is based on a true story so names, identities and dates were changed to protect the identity of the innocent.

The roof top bar of the chic Berlin Radisson SAS Hotel was bathed in the blue corporate colors of our host, a proper complement to the cold light that is the environs of its Scandinavian designers. It was a fitting contrast to the baroque Berliner Dome that was just across the River Spree. Somewhere in the distance is the TV Tower in chic Alexander Platz, a plaza full of designer boutiques, designer restaurants, designer bars and designer chocolatiers. Getting up to the top was by a dramatic climb up in a 2-storey glass encased elevator [with a spiral staircase in the middle] of this 6-storey glass cylinder of an aquarium. More blue light filtered through as we, in turn, were being ogled by hundreds of tropical fish enjoying the one million liters of salt water surrounding us at precisely 26 degrees °Celsius. This scene was unimaginable twenty years ago in austere and spartan East Berlin.

After days of cloak and dagger meetings and cryptic exchanges, what was revealed to us was indeed rocket science. Now, the next and more difficult hurdle was for our conference hosts to prepare us for the intensive lectures the next day on this hitherto secret but revolutionary technology.


It was a grueling week of product testing in the Clark eco zone when I got my marching orders a month before. I was to go to a top secret conference of a German company in Berlin, a company that is the rival of another German company whose products I just finished testing. But before I get to Berlin, I was supposed to make contact with sources in a posh resort in Greece, then Munich, Leipzig and finally Berlin. It was the stuff of Frequent Flyer Ian Fleming novels and not for frequent flyer miles accumulating George Clooney as in "Up in the air". Out of the closet came the navy suit, sober ties and the uniform blue dress shirts, though no "JB" monogram.

Kuya in Dubai

Why Boss "M" chooses this route knowing that I would just be napping the long layover away on the sofas in the huge Emirates Business Class lounge in Dubai is beyond me. But then, I mustn't grumble even if the Islamic internet censors were blocking some German websites on the lounge PC's for unchaste exposure. Dubai's super-souk feels like home as Filipina sales ladies invariably address all shopping Asian males as "kuya!"

Club Med?

Connecting to Athens, the plane took on an entirely different crowd; predominantly Middle Eastern and East European. Landing at Athens' new airport, built by the massive fiscal deficit incurred hosting the Olympics, I was the odd man out. With an early winter less than a month away, Europeans were on their annual migration to points East or South to the Mediterranean. Because I came from the Orient, I had to skip the special courtesy hangar reserved by my hosts a distance from the main terminal. There, I would be seated, sipping champagne [Kristall or Krug?] attended by young hostesses while waiting for a dedicated Immigration officer to inspect my Schengen Visa.

Nevertheless, I was collected from the airport in a big BMW 7 series limousine and a familiar face. Still single, she goes by the code name "kick ass golfer". We quickly traded credentials as we were whisked in the Greek sunshine to our resort hotel.

Grand Resort Lagonissi

A leading luxury hotel done in the best jet set-meets BVLGARI style, smack in the Attica peninsula of Southern Greece, it would be the perfect setting for a SMERSH convention or a disguised lair of Blofeld. If Kostas Mantonanakis bugged our limo, the tycoon proprietor of the Grand Resort would not have approved. Banish John Barry's 007 theme song from my thoughts, and replace with ABBA songs from Mamma Mia, the movie, whose cast stayed in this same hotel.

Making an impression

After being whisked to my ultra-modern luxury beachside cottage by golf cart driven by the kind of Mediterranean young male who, if seen with older married and monied women, spells instant infidelity, I settle into getting used to all the push button amenities. There was barely time to stretch out on the balcony to listen to the waves froth on the pebble grains when it was time to get to the main building, to meet my 2nd contact, known as Max, the photographer. Who, in turn led me to a Swiss contact, whom I was supposed to impress as per instructions of KAG [kick ass golfer]. And impress him I did, over a Chinese dinner in a nautical themed restaurant with its own helipad, on the far side of the resort.

Champagne breakfast

The next day, I was up early for breakfast with KAG. An old waiter in starched whites mumbled something that sounded like Greek to me and motioned me to a table with a flute of champagne. Thank you, and never mind how it goes down with the eggs and bacon. The old gent reminded KAG and me of those Old Faithful waiters at Punta Baluarte when it was Don Enrique Zobel's private resort. Just like Lagonissi.

We had some driving to do, and surprise, surprise, this time in a BMW X-5. Traversing the coast of the cape south of Lagonissi, buffeted by unseasonal gale force winds which I could have sworn was the hot and dusty Khamsin, the X5 managed to cling on to the road as we cruised on the sea side boulevard. We turned into the rough and narrow back roads winding through century old olive groves and the odd isolated Greek Orthodox monastery where we took refuge. Proceeding further, our route took us to some rough stretches and gravel worn asphalt and numerous alpine hairpins.

We stopped on a promontory of a steep cliff to admire the Aegean Sea, but the Khamsin made it difficult for us to open the doors, so I parked leeward instead. If BMW did not offer power doors, parking with the wind behind you helps. We couldn't stand for long even as we tilted windward. The howling in our ears forced us to return to our car. After that, we took another one of the new EU funded E-PASS compliant expressways to return to the airport hangar where the product presentation with amusing morphing videos was going on. Interesting, it was merely a side show of what lies ahead in Berlin.

Olive and vine

A quick fusion lunch and some hands on product touch and feel, had us back on the road, this time with a better appreciation of our German host's products made in a subsidiary in North Carolina. KAG and I took in more Greek countryside and even more remote Greek Orthodox monasteries in between meandering groves and vineyards.


After a good night's sleep, KAG and I had a chance to do some exploring. We took a chauffeur driven BMW 7 limo to get us through Syntagma square, the scene of sporadic anti-government demonstrations. Lucky for us, it was quiet and we had a chance to get up to some world famous ruins, which was 90% refurbished.

High above the hills of Athina [Ateneo to those who studied in Loyola] stands the Acropolis. Or what's left of it. There are many other bigger and better preserved temples sprinkled around the Mediterranean areas of the faded Graeco-Roman empires, but the Acropolis in Athens is the most famous. And this is not mere spin. Rich in history, and the symbol of what other nation-states coveted about Athens, it was devastated, re-dedicated, re-formatted and rebuilt several times over. Only to be destroyed by another envious power. Yet even in its emaciated state, it still stands proud with its influence, lasting.

After a long walk downhill, we went for a quick moussaka lunch next to the main Cathedral of Athens where the Archbishop was saying Sunday mass. Quickly evading the Roma [gypsy] pan handlers, we deftly made it to Hotel d' Angleterre where our limo was to pick us up for our getaway to the airport. Next stop, Munich.


Renaissance Munich is a regular businessman's hotel in a regular business park. Snow was reported on the Bavarian Alps but down here its all rain and slippery pavement thanks to soaked autumn leaves. Warmed with Schnitzel, pomme frites and local beer, KAG and I met with an Indian contact who was gushing at his new assignment, again a mere sideshow from the main mission. Suitably tucked in, I got ready for another early start the next day. From here, I'll be piloting on my own.

The quiet of the surgically clean garage at the Hochbrück Industrial Park on a Monday morning was broken as I pressed the start/stop button of the BMW 335i, coming to life with the pleasantly gruff exhaust burble of a tuned BMW straight six. This will be my flight tool for the next few days and few thousand kilometers. Every German town can have its Hockbrück or Neustadt, but not every German "flies" a BMW, much less a 300hp twin turbo.

Flight plans by road

After clearing Germany's truck infested Autobahn feeder roads, I immediately opened up in the freezing rain. Just past the airport, I am again seeing signs that lead to Dachau, another reminder of those dark pages in the history of the 20th century. With winter tires and strong gusts banging from the trucks' bow wave 2 lanes to the side, the coupe sped merrily on its way with nary a twitch at a speed limited 260km/h, 200rpm short of 6,000rpm in 6th gear. At this speed, only the rubbing of the wipers could be heard as Nature's angry winds pummeled my coupe's front quarters. The occasional warnings of ice on viaducts spanning valleys alerted me to keep the heat up on the windshield. I soon settled to my "comfort" temp of 16°C while the world outside was 3°C ambient. Apparently, I just entered the great north German plain, known for its Baltic winds and gazillions of wind generating farms.

The future

If you want to know how the entire European continent would look in a matter of a few years look, this is it; meadows full of windmills, speed restricted multi-lane Autobahnen, electronic toll charges for toilet use, regional specialties or chain store hamburgers at the motorway stops, bottled water, warm lighting, espresso machines and cafeteria bridges spanning multi-brand petrol stations flanking the highway. The significance of Rasthof Frankenwald, where I warmed up with thick vegetable soup and brown bread, is not lost on me, as I leave the Lander of Bayern to enter into Thuringia. Typical of high speed driving, almost all the cars parked here have a thin layer of brake dust on the wheels, a sign of hard braking.

The Autobahn A9 had a mix of speed limited sections [for ecological "save the forest" and "mating season for insects" reasons] which came just as hammering flat out would have exhausted the Euro's in my wallet. After 440 plus km and 60 euros poorer at a tank refill in Sachsenpark, my coupe used far less super premium 100 octane than I expected. On long journeys like this, alternating speed limited zones with the glorious "Ende" diagonal slash disc, signifying total freedom from speed restrictions, keeps the pulse alert, the mind never bored and muscles uncannily relaxed. I could have sworn a 20 year old gym injury healed itself! No speed limits as therapy? Surely a model for the EU? Just as blanket unlimited speeds are indulgent, so are nationwide speed limits.

The Past

Two decades ago, this modern highway would not have existed, for just over the valley was a watchtower and a heavily mined border. This was the border of the German Democratic Republic [DDR]. In those heady weeks, I was on assignment near the Fulda Gap, where a massive Warsaw Pact armored pincer was supposed to punch through, having been one of the many scenarios why NATO was created. NATO's answer were neutron bomb armed tactical nuclear weapons; vaporizing every living thing while keeping metal and concrete infrastructure intact, doubtless, ready for the starting point of a new Germany. Hearing the euphoria over the radio, I sped to the nearest border crossing and saw unsmiling Grenzpolizei [East German border guards] haplessly letting the little Trabi's stream into the west.

Today, two Trabi replicas sit forlornly on the truck washing station of the Rasthof. There are only a few sections left of the old and narrow Nazi era Autobahnen in the ex-DDR which restricted travel of the "Auslander" from West Germany to West Berlin. I was more alert keeping safe distance on the 130km/h zones, lest I be caught by the proximity video cameras for tailgating.

Back in the DDR

I was about to get into the 'ol Wessie vs. Ossie [Wessie for West Germans, Ossie for East Germans] jokes with Manja, -ffenlichtkeitarbeit und Mitarbeiterkommunikation of the factory I was visiting in Leipzig, but the architectural execution of the central building floored [concrete] me. Done by a world famous Iraqi-born London-based design guru, who is a CBE, it took some inspiration from centuries old dreams of the cities of the future and combined them with a fresh homey-community like approach to clusters of offices. Several layers of criss crossed flyovers over the open plan office spaces, silently carry products bathed in corporate blue light, moving eerily from one end of the plant to another. The office spaces were like a cascade of terraces with roofless "homes" per employee station.

My host's billion Euro investment in the area has greatly improved the impoverished economy. Hiring a mix of very young and the over-40's, the plant is emblematic of Germany's falling birth rates and high labor costs. Jobs at the plant do not require any legacy or specialty experience and training is fresh. Several suppliers are on site and railway yards and highway links give graphic functional evidence of the "just-in-time" cost saving inventory method. There's plenty of space to expand as the built up area is only 30ha of the plant's 208ha property.


Leaving the clean and 21st century industrial park and the Sachsen park shopping mall, I head for the Leipzig Zentrum, city center. Leipzig, like Boston Mass. has its own "big dig" crosstown tunnel under construction. Like Boston, it too is a city born out of commerce. Through the tram guide-ways lined with horse chestnut trees, one can still see where rich burghers used to reside in once grand baroque mansions, converted to socialist housing, now abandoned and adorned with graffito. By now, I have settled into a routine of expecting autumnal dark at 1630hrs. I ended the night at the Marriot in a curiously American chain sports bar called "Champions", swallowing American food.

Restoring the East

Next day, a mid morning stroll through the Christmas wreath and candle decorated Zentrum of Leipzig, revealed condemned asbestos laden Communist era apartment blocks wrapped in large canvases of "kinder" [children] art. The flea market offered Christmas fir cuttings and wooden handicrafts while downtown architecture showed masterful blending of low rise pre-war styles with today's cleaner post modernism mimicking them. Lots of roadworks prevented me from visiting the Meißen ceramics factory near Dresden and parking by the Elbe river.

Moritzburg castle

Still, I was lucky to have a photo on the picturesque moat side of Moritzburg castle, once a hunting lodge of Saxon royalty. Back thru the forests, aglow in the orange filtered light of autumn leaves, I managed to exercise the cornering prowess of the 335i as I sped through empty one and half car wide twisting rural lanes through flat open fields. After barreling up Autobahn13, I went with the flow of the computer coordinated "green wave" traffic signals through the main avenues of the former East Berlin, catching a glimpse of what was left of the Wall, driving through wooded residential corners all the way to the hotel.

By the Quay on the River Spree

After our dramatic rooftop dinner, we conferees got up early at dawn, to ride a solar powered glass boat. Trudging along the River Spree, we passed by 2 icons of the old DDR; first was the old Congress Hall, now being torn down because of unhealthy amounts of asbestos. The other was a curio shop dedicated to "Ampelmann", the traffic signal caricature of an East German man wearing a hat, swinging his arms and stiff legging his feet on the green "walk" light, and arms spread straight out, as in a cross, as a red "don't walk" light. Which remains in all traffic lights in the former East Berlin.

Finally, the conference

The main event workshop-conference was in a beautifully restored brick factory by the River Spree. Hydrogen maybe the fuel of the distant future, but it has not lived down the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. Our hosts assured us of its feasibility by building safe mobile storage tanks, supra-insulated, to at least qualm all those fears about fires, crashes and the Hindenburg. Hydrogen's only combustion by-product is water and it is least energy intensive and CO2 minimized in its production. The Doctor-Engineers briefing us in the multi-chamber blue-lit workshop halls, gently reminded us that we have come a long way from the first years of energy propulsion when more than 100 years ago, gasoline was dispensed by pharmacies.

Mission accomplished

The last act for my mission was a mad, mid-morning 680km dash from Berlin to catch my homebound flight at Franz Josef Strauss airport, Munich. The weather this time favored pedal to the metal on the de-restricted zones of the Autobahnen while a good number of Polizei radar vans kept me alert on the restricted sections. I say goodbye to KAG as this is the last time I will see her single.

Two weeks on overseas mission is enough to make any frequent flyer homesick, something JB or Clooney never had expressed or never bothered with. Still, 007 may have all the girls and the glamor, but he never had a place he can call home.