The Philippines was a professional landmark for me. Until then I always had a nine-to-five job, rushing to an office early each day and returning home late to lick my wounds. In Manila, I decided to be a consultant, devoting three days to teaching and advising in a management institute, two days to consulting for a development bank, and the remaining day to writing and lecturing.
My work entailed contact with a German foundation and I met its chief, Lyssa Schmidt. Lyssa was swarthy and statuesque, with dazzling eyes, shoulder-length hair and a slow, sly smile. What I found most striking was her style of talking. She had been a public prosecutor in Berlin for many years, and her legal career had left her with a streak for the precise turn of phrase. Yet she was new to spoken English and the exact word she wanted wouldn’t readily come to her tongue. So she spaced herself curiously: one moment her words would gush out in a torrent, and the next moment she turned deliberate, turning out each word with polish and precision that would be a diamond-cutter’s envy. I simply loved to be with her and hear her talk.
We had to work together on a project. I spent the previous night assembling data from diverse sources and hammering out the draft of a project proposal. I thought we could have a running start with the realistic outline I had created for a first discussion. I began our meeting the next morning by setting out the criteria for decisions on the project. Lyssa agreed readily. Our work had begun well.
When she finished, I told her frankly that I had worked with several capable and experienced groups on such projects, but had rarely seen such a penetrating analysis. It was a veritable tour de force, and I had gained a new clarity about my own proposal. I intended to create a second and better draft, and would welcome an equally deft analysis.
That was the beginning. We collaborated on a number of projects, and we became close friends in the process. I learned to identify the slowly emerging suggestion of a smile when she agreed with an idea and the gentle but impatient shake of her locks when she didn’t. I learned to drive at what I considered a painfully slow speed when she sat by my side, as I wove my way through Manila’s crowded streets. I learned not to ask but always order Pinot Noir, irrespective of whatever we ordered for entré. She was a delight to work with and be with.
She left Manila for Germany about the time I too left for the US. In a month I received the shattering news that her convertible was crushed by a truck on the autobahn. Her life hung by a thread for several weeks. She recovered, only to remain in a hospital bed for months. In Europe for a conference a year later, I hesitantly called her, not knowing whether she was mobile. When she said she was out of the hospital, I flew to Berlin to meet her.
Without disengaging herself, she said, in her typical unhurried, deliberate English, “I thought you had given up on me. Did you?”