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November 15, 2012

Bonfires and Barbecues

Text by Nasrin Modak. Photographs by Ritam Banerjee.

Over a hearty meal of fresh salad and sausages, Pune-based Peter Honegg, the man at the helm of Mercedes in India and his animated wife Daniela speak to Verve of their almost two decades of expat expeditions

There is a barber’s chair in one corner and a dentist’s in the other. Upstairs is a Mah-jong table. A melange of Asian and European elements adds to the drama of this nearly century-old Pune home with white walls where some of the city’s who’s who have dwelled in the past. The swaying white net curtains give it more character and so does the blue Jaipur tablecloth, the traditional treasure chest, the colonial-style fan, the candelabra and the bamboo blinds. Each piece is a memoir of the many places the couple has travelled to.

Inside, the room is filled with the aroma of herbs and baking; outside, on the perfectly manicured lawns too, there are elements from all over Asia. Like the Indonesian Garuda. Their Indian and Indonesian dogs, duly trained by the lady of the house are following commands in German. The house exudes peace. “The old trees fit us,” says Peter Honegg, former CEO of Mercedes India, from under his large curled, white moustache.

In the last 18 years, Peter and his wife Daniela have lived in six countries. Four in Iran, the next four in Singapore, two in Hong Kong, another two in China and the last four in Malaysia before finally heading to India two years ago. “Iran was good, Singapore was perfect as the kids were small, Hong Kong was vibrant, China wasn’t my favourite and Malaysia was interesting,” observes Peter who admits that earlier he had never been fascinated by Asia. “I’d rather be in Africa or South America; that’s my idea of exotic. But as you begin to get closer to Asia, you see its facets and history and acknowledge the variety it has to offer. Before you know it, you are addicted to it,” says Peter.

In India, “Do minute means two days or something,” says Peter who believes that much like Europe, India isn’t just one country but a group of 25-30 countries under one artificial umbrella. “Punjab is different from Kerala or Bengal – the habits, culture, people are so different from each other. There is no one India,” says Peter who doesn’t get to see much of the country except when Mercedes launches a new car in a different city. “Short trips of three or four days to places like Kerala, Goa, Jodhpur, Chandigarh amongst others haven’t allowed me to look beyond the surface of these places. It’s a disadvantage; I’d like to know more,” he says. No matter where he travels for work within the country, Peter is fond of Pune and its weather. “The only shortcoming of the city is a lack of international food and a good nightlife. Mumbai has both but I don’t think I could enjoy the city. Everyone lives in haste there. The good part is, I have lost 10 kilos in a year here,” laughs Peter.

The Honeggs like to invite a mix of people to their Koregaon Park residence for an afternoon or evening of interesting food and chatter. “There are quite a few European companies in Pune and we often meet expats from Germany, France, UK, Sweden and locals at the Pune Golf Club. There is a regular table for Germans on Fridays so I am assuming we are large in numbers here. We’ve made friends with a lot of them and we invite them over when we are entertaining,” says Daniela who had visited India 11 years ago to attend the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. “It happens once in 144 years, I had to come for it. It was special,” she adds.

“I warned my husband of the chaos he may face at Delhi airport with unattended luggage piling up in boxes. I told him to be careful as he may trip and fall but when I came here, I was in for a surprise. Everything had turned so modern. It was a big change,” smiles Daniela who played the flute when she was young and like her husband loves Indian pizza and chicken tikka. “I love the mutton, lentils and most importantly, curd. We don’t get curd any longer in Germany, it’s all so mechanised. I was raised on a farm and the curd here reminds me of my youth,” he says.

When their daughter was 15 years old, she wanted to go back to Germany. She pursued bio-chemistry and wants to do her Phd now. She looks after her 90-year-old maternal grandfather there. Their son is 21 and is currently interning in Melbourne. “He is international in his outlook and is not used to German habits as he didn’t live there for long. He too regrets not living in India with us,” says Daniela.

Daniela’s mornings start with yoga, Bollywood dancing or swimming. She plays golf but what she loves the most is training her dogs, gardening and shopping for interesting ingredients. “I love cooking. I started with cookbooks but now I have come up with my own permutations and combinations. The one time I started the rule of ‘who cooks does the pots and pans’, Peter gave up,” laughs Daniela.

“I love barbecues and making paella on an open fire. We invite friends over and one of them chops onions, another slices bell peppers and someone else grates vegetables. It’s more about coming together, drinking wine and interacting. You have to be in a good mood to do that. I learnt that from my grandfather,” says Peter who usually has bigger parties that include barbecues, food and drinks in his plush, trimmed garden by the swimming pool, with his European friends often competing with his Indian group in an impromptu singing competition. “The Europeans win hands down,” says Peter.

More private parties are held inside the house with white asparagus and German sausages along with Haselnussgeist, a special German spirit that’s extremely strong and a favourite. “It’s all about dining and discussions with very special food and special people. Once a week, we hold a bonfire party as well. Weekends are for golf. And while he has the best Mercedes cars at his disposal, he cannot drive any in India. Company policy restricts him. “Being chauffer-driven is not the same. Some stretches in India are so fascinating, I wish I could drive here,” says Peter.

The couple who met 28 years ago has come a long way. “We met at a friend’s party and both of us were drunk,” laughs Peter. They got to know each other and travelled together to Morocco, and then they got married. All his friends from Germany have moved within a radius of 19 kms from the village where he grew up; some have never stepped out of Germany. Peter wanted to start a retail store in Heidelberg in Germany where he could sell clothes and leather from Turkey. He didn’t have enough capital so he started as a Mercedes salesman when he was 22. He was a third generation employee of the company. For that young lad from a small village in Germany to reach this far in his career is an achievement indeed.

Holding a property brochure of a retreat house in Mallorca in the South of Spain, Peter fondly talks of his retirement dreams of making paella on the beach or enjoying seafood at a beachfront restaurant. “The Spaniards are a lot like Indians – pleasant and friendly, warm and welcoming. They open their house and hearts to people,” he says dreamily.

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