New apartment construction in Umeå, Sweden; Bostaden, a for-profit company builds and operates almost half of the rental property in this city of 110,000.
I peeled out of D.C. in mid-afternoon on Monday, September 16, west to Chicago then across the Atlantic to London, then to Stockholm. This was first long trip in almost four months, and it took awhile to get in the groove; maybe it was partly the gloom from a dreary but engaging novel I was reading. We landed in Sweden 25 minutes late. Roared through immigration and customs, got some kronor (Sweden wisely opted not to use the Euro), and hopped on the 3:42 bus into the city. We ran into some serious traffic, so instead of a one-mile walk I opted for a 3-minute ride on the subway (for a stunning $5.50 single fare), and was at my hotel, a trendy place called the Hellsten, at 4:50. Wheeling the suitcase briskly down a back street in Sweden’s capital, I felt back in the travel groove. “I know how to do this,” I thought.
Arrived just in time – ten minutes later, I met my friend Anders Liljenberg, one of my early hosts at the nearby Stockholm School of Economics (where I would be teaching the next day) and now head of the school’s program in St. Petersburg, Russia. We yakked and got caught up in the hotel’s “Earth Bar,” with a tasty ale from Nils Oscar, a surviving small brewery in Nyköping, a provincial city south of the capital. It was good to see Anders again – it had been several years. I headed back to my room to work a bit. It was dinnertime, and I wanted to get out, but it was raining steadily and I was worn out, so I headed back to the hotel bar and ate a really savory elk burger, with roasted root vegetables, morel mushrooms, and sweet lingonberries (a Swedish favorite) that served as dessert.
Swedish sensibility: no bottled water at the hotel; my kind of place
Was up before seven on Wednesday, and soon tucking into many of my Swedish breakfast staples: herring, flatbread, hard-boiled egg, and plenty of seriously strong coffee – the locals know their caffeine. It had stopped raining, and was almost sunny, so I took a two hour stroll, east into the center, then across to Gamla Stan, the old town. Snapped a bunch of photos, mainly on the theme of the solidity of late 19th and early 20th Century Swedish architecture.
The first decades of the last century saw lots of decorated facades in Stockholm; this is a favorite.
Looking toward Södermalm from the inner harbor
Narrow street, old town (Gamla Stan)
Paused for daily prayers in the cathedral, the Storkyrka; admission was 40 kronor ($6) but prayer visits were free, so I greeted the young admissions clerk with “Good morning, I’m Lutheran and I’d like to pray.” He welcomed me in.
Store window showcasing Swedish design
At eleven, I checked out of the hotel and walked a couple of blocks to the Stockholm School of Economics, my eighth visit to one of Europe’s best B-schools. I sat down in the new atrium, built around some older buildings, and looked around: it was in many ways far different from the atrium at Tec de Monterrey in Chihuahua a week earlier, but much the same, too. At 12:30, I met a former SSE student, Peter Gabrielson, and we walked down the street for a coffee, then back to the school for a 1:15 lecture. My usual host, Hans Kjellberg, was at a conference, so Peter introduced me. It was a special experience; I had been a small mentor to Peter since meeting him in 2006, and I always encouraged him to pursue his dream of working in the airline business. SAS finally hired him three years ago, and he’s risen quickly. I felt so honored that he took time from a crazed-busy job to launch the talk.
The presentation on airline alliances went well; the class was bright and engaged. At 3:15, Peter dropped me at the airport bus stop, I rode back out to Arlanda, and flew north 300 miles to Umeå, for a meeting of Umeå University’s international advisory board; it was my 17th visit to this city almost at the Arctic Circle – a special place that was the first foreign school to invite me, way back in 1994. It was pouring rain when we landed. I hopped the airport bus into town, and soon was at the Uman, a very comfortable hotel built around a former medical clinic. Washed my face and headed a few blocks west for a savory kickoff dinner: local smoked salmon, a tender lamb shank from the island of Gotland, yum. The new B-school dean, Lars Hassell, hosted the dinner, and we had a chance to get acquainted.
A new addition to the baggage claim area in Umeå; the university’s crest features three reindeer
Was up early Thursday morning and down to breakfast and a pleasant 90-minute meeting with Oscar, the president of the student business association, HHUS. I would give a talk the next day that he couldn’t attend because he would be at a conference in Stockholm, and wanted the chance to meet. Then we headed up to the B-school, and into meetings that lasted most of the day. High point was lunch with Per, CEO of a forest-products cooperative called Norra; he told our table a lot of interesting things, including 1) timber production is the primary income source for only 8% of the co-op’s 16,000 owners; 2) their catchment area covers one-third of Sweden; 3) this far north, it takes 100 years to grow a marketable tree – and under Swedish law, it cannot be cut until it’s at least 90 years old; and 4) annual timber growth far exceeds (by volume) timber harvested – in a world full of rhetoric about sustainability, the Swedish forest truly is!
The meeting ended about four. Got 15 miles in on an exercise bike in the hotel gym, then ambled down the street to dinner. My seatmate was Ingrid Svensson, head of the statistics department, and a really nice person. I’m always delighted when I meet someone who was an exchange student in the U.S.; Ingrid spent a year in Oklahoma. Earlier, her family moved to Riverside, California (her dad was a visiting math prof), just before she started kindergarten; Ingrid and her sister spoke no English, and on the first day in the new neighborhood they asked mom what to say to the children down the street. Ingrid memorized “Can you come out,” and her sister mastered “And play?” Some nice moments that night with her, and with Tom, a fellow across the table who also had a lot of U.S. experience, and who we would meet again in two days.
Friday morning was a repeat, breakfast, then up the hill for meetings. The advisory board concluded at lunch, and I spent a couple of hours doing a little work and seeing a lot of old friends in the school. I wish I had more time there. At 3:15, Christian, an HHUS officer, and I ambled over to the e-Puben, the student pub that HHUS runs. It was time for a radical experiment: “drink and learn.” I found out ten days earlier that they “sold out” all 120 seats in less than a day, so the pressure was enormous! I walked in and the crowd was in high spirits. The place was packed. I delivered my basic talk on financial challenges in the business in about an hour, and the crowd stayed another hour (I encouraged them to get another beer or soda), asking lots of questions. Then students came up in small groups to chat.
It was great fun, but there was another commitment: the 50th anniversary of the Statistics Department began at 6:00. Earlier in the day, Katarina, the dean’s assistant, gave me keys to one of the schools new bikes for visitors. And a helmet. So I ambled over to the bicycle parking lot (such a nice concept!), adjusted the seat height, and took off for Savärgården, one of my favorite restaurants in Umeå. By the time I got there, I could hear the meeting room in silence except for a speaker, and I opted not to barge in on a special moment, instead riding back to the hotel.
I took off my suit, wrapped my torso in a towel, and headed to the hotel sauna. I needed to chill, or in this case heat up. The sauna at the Uman has always been a delight. Nearby is free beer, and it’s a great spot to relax. In no time I was in a T-t-S with a couple from the region, in town for a weekend regional meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Happily, there was no proselytizing (and I was surprised that both of them were drinking beer). It was a nice way to spend an hour. Headed back to my room, changed, and headed to the dining room – another swell thing about the hotel is a free light dinner. Asleep early.
When I rose at 6:30 Saturday morning it was clearing. The rain was gone. Hooray! I saddled up and rode the bike across the Umeå River to my favorite place, the skinny island of Bölesholmarna. It was just after seven, and the ever-fit Swedes were already out walking, many with their dogs. On the third or fourth circuit around the island (each is about 1.5 miles), I stopped to say hello to a West Highland terrier who looked a lot like our Henry (though this guy was plumper) and visit with his masters. Left the island, rode through the pleasant inner neighborhood of Teg, admiring comfortable, traditional Swedish homes, many barn red or ochre. Continued to the larger island of Ön. Back to the hotel, big smile. Breakfast, then at 9:30 the new dean, Lars, picked up Marian Geldner (a longtime advisory board member and prof at Warsaw School of Economics) and me, and we motored a few miles east to meet Tom Sarin, a senior guy at Komatsu Forest, the arm of the Japanese heavy-equipment giant that makes rigs for felling and moving timber – 500 to 800 machines per year. The Japanese bought a Swedish firm in 1994. Tom, an affable Finn with the ability to explain things clearly, was a great tour leader. I mentioned to him that I have loved to tour factories since I was a kid, and it was really exciting to be in the plant. We spent a couple of hours all over the shop floor; it was not really an assembly line, but it was fascinating. Tom explained that one harvester, which sell for $500K to $900K depending on size, replaces roughly 30 people with chainsaws. The harvester, packed with digital controls and technology, cuts the tree, removes the limbs, slices it to measure, and loads it. Way cool. They also make forwarders, which essentially grab trees and move them to roads for transport to mills.
Komatsu Forest machinery awaiting shipment
Cutting tools on a harvester
I asked Tom a lot of questions, and he had good answers to all. A good harvester operator makes about $65,000 a year, brisk. Komatsu has a 25% share of the Swedish market. Their main competitor is John Deere. Toward the end of the tour, I said to Tom, Lars, and Marian that seeing a plant is a fine reminder that despite all the focus on digital technology and virtual things, people still have to make physical things if we want to live well – to harvest the trees that make their way into paper (yes, we still need paper), construction lumber, furniture, and more. Our standard of living depends on more than bytes. And it was of course good to see people succeeding at manufacturing in a high-wage country. Brainpower has a lot to do with it.
After a light lunch from the supermarket, I got back on the bike at two and rode four miles downriver to visit Nils and Carolina Paulsson, and their sons Johan (almost 10), Petter (5), and Olle (heading toward 4). I first met them two years earlier, and I found them really interesting and really nice people. They had built their house themselves, in the traditional local farmhouse style.
Petter Paulson with a fresh treat from the garden
Some things had changed on the property. Earlier in the summer, Nils constructed a little building close to the river, a comfy single room with a big table and a couple of chairs. “I built it around the [four] big windows, which I got at a junk sale for 50 kronor [about $7.50] apiece. He pointed out the simple x-shaped candelabra above the table. “They sell for 1000 kronor ($150) in stores, but I built that one myself for 40 and two hours of my time.” On the dock was a little rowboat and a U.S.-made Evinrude outboard, which evinced a nice memory of our similarly-sized Johnson outboard motor that we used every summer on Greenwood Lake in northern Minnesota.
Before sitting down to dessert and coffee, we went for a little walk in the hamlet, Bergsboda. First stop was at next-door-neighbors Vivian and Jan, really nice people. Like Anders’ nephew (above), their son had been an exchange student in a small Minnesota town, Lester Prairie. We had a good yak and some laughs, and moved on, saying hello to a couple of others and pausing to admire small improvements to another neighbor’s ice-fishing hut. When we returned, Carolina had laid out Swedish apple pie (much like what we call apple crisp), ice cream, and strong coffee. We ate in the summer hut, with a lovely view of the river and clouds that can only be seen in the far-northern sky. We had a great yak. The boys peeled off (I remarked to Johan, whose English is getting way good, that it was nice that a visitor came, so that he and his brothers could have dessert before dinner!). At 4:30 I said goodbye, rode back, and hopped into the sauna.
Nils’ neighbor readies the portable (note skis) ice-fishing house
The view from the Paulsson’s summer hut
At six, the bells in the nearby Stadskyrka (the main church in town) pealed for the third or fourth time that day, sending forth – as I have written many times – “the sound of Europe.” They rang to mark another marriage. Twenty minutes later, I bicycled over to the Bishop’s Arms, an English-style pub that is a popular watering hole in Umeå, and met Dean Hassell, a Finn, and a Finnish journalist, Erpo Heinolainen. He was an interesting fellow, working for several years for Swedish Radio, writing and airing varied stories for the 700,000 Finnish-speaking Swedes. He grew up in Finland, in Sibelius’ home town of Hämeenlinna. We got pints of Swedish microbrew, and found a booth, where we camped for almost four hours, yakking across a host of topics. Finnish innovation and persistence (what they call sisu) were dominant themes – I have long admired these durable people, trampled on for so many years by so many neighbors, notably Russians and Swedes (at age 17, Lars’ father was wounded fighting the Russians in the late 1930s in Karelia). At one point I was not surprised to learn that a Finn, Matti Makonen, invented the SMS message; at the time, critics derided him: “Who will write when you can speak with someone?”
The relationship between core and periphery, a geographical concept that has long been of interest, also figured in our conversation, at different scales: Finland on the periphery of Europe, Umeå’s business school on the edge of Europe (a reality that has been good and bad), people living in remote parts of the local county, Västerbotten, compared to those in the “big city” of Umeå, and so on.
Marian Geldner joined us about nine. He offered some wonderful reminiscence of his experience as a summer construction worker in Helsinki in the late 1960s. He arrived from Gdansk (off a cargo ship, cheaper than the ferry) with US$5, a carton of American cigarettes, and a half-liter of 96% spirits with the label removed (because such grade of firewater was illegal in Finland). He figured those assets would see him through the first week, but at noon on day one he landed a job helping to build what has become a famous attraction and notable piece of modern Finnish architecture, the Temppeliaukio church, known in English as “the church in the rock.” His recall of how he managed to get an exit visa from Warsaw was further reminder of how the world has changed.
I was up early Sunday morning and down to breakfast with Marian, who was catching a morning flight. We yakked a bit more about his Helsinki experience, and parted. I hopped on the bike, riding west on the north bank of the river, about six miles upstream, then back down into town. At 11, I was in the Stadskyrka for Sunday worship; I had been many times before, and know that it would be a long session, but it was even longer than before, and I had to peel out before Communion, grab my suitcase, and zip over to the bus for the airport.
Upriver on Sunday morning
The flight to Stockholm was late, and I expected to miss my connection (I had fifteen minutes to change terminals, go through security screening, and get to the gate). But I made it onto the Swiss Air Lines flight to Zurich, landing about 5:30. I picked up my bag (which also made the connection), and walked to the airport railway station. In bizarre coincidence, my Swiss Federal Railways watch, a miniature version of the clocks on the train platforms, stopped working! Weird. Hopped on the train for St. Gallen, my 13th visit. I could not recall a day as nice: perfectly clear, and almost 70° F.
On the train ride, I mostly focused on the agricultural landscape, and at every turn was order and prosperity. A girl was tethering a mule, no doubt a pet. The corn was high, the pastures emerald. Beneath the overhang of a barn, wood weathered to a lovely mahogany, were big cylindrical bales of golden straw. Brown cattle grazed (the breed is simply called Braunvieh, (“brown cattle,” the most common breed in Switzerland). Firewood was stacked neatly, in anticipation of the approaching winter. In Wil, a combination grain elevator and high rise office building, stylized wheat sheaves painted on the walls. Further on, apple trees. It was the first full day of autumn, and this chunk of our earth looked beautiful, and giving.
Got to my hotel, unpacked, headed out to find dinner, but a lot of stuff is closed in Switzerland on Sundays, so I settled for a tuna sandwich and fruit, a picnic of sorts back in room 34. I finally slept hard, nine hours, and was, as my father used to say, “up and at ‘em,” at 7:00 Monday morning. Breakfast with The New York Times on my iPhone, good news of continuity in the German government, and a piece of local news that made me smile: the previous day, the Swiss overwhelmingly approved the continuation of mandatory military service. Why is that good news? To me, everyone should serve in some way, but more important, when everyone serves, national leaders are more circumspect about deploying forces – a point nicely made several years earlier by a young Swiss solider in Bern; he grew up in California, and noted the ease with which Bush and others sent young people to Iraq.
Many train stations and other public places post this annual listing noting the callup dates for the various entities of the Swiss military
Out the door and down Davidstrasse. Many things change slowly in the Old World, and I was not surprised to see that the Steiger office machines shop across from the hotel still featured an array of typewriters in the shop window. About $200 bought you a used electric machine from the ‘70s; I’m not sure anyone has been in the shop since I first saw it in 2011. Ambled on, to the wonderful baroque cathedral that I have long admired. The huge wooden angel, which regular readers know I note on each St. Gallen visit, was still there. I greeted her warmly and with thanks to God. Said my daily prayers and hiked up the hill to the university.
Close-up, Steiger’s office machine store
A small portion of the ceiling at the spectacular abbey church
Detail, recently-painted fresco opposite the abbey church
I needed to find the I.T. office to get a user ID for the campus wireless network. By magnetism or sheer accident, I found the office immediately, and a friendly young fellow fixed me up. When he returned with the credentials, he volunteered his recent experiences touring in the U.S. “This time I found the people really open,” he said, “and willing to admit that they had done some dumb things in the past.” I smiled at this first T-t-S of the Swiss visit; there would be more that day.
Interior, Institute Building, University of St. Gallen
At 12:15 I met two young hosts, Georg and Cansu, and Prof. Sven Reinecke. We walked to the classroom and I delivered a lecture on airline pricing. After class, Cansu bought me a sandwich and we yakked; she was the daughter of Turkish diplomats, and had lived all over. At three I walked back down the hill, took off my suit, and did a little work.
Just past four, I hopped on the Appenzeller Bahn, a local railway, and rode up into an alpine valley to the canton of Appenzell (I had been there on a cold and rainy day in December 2009, and the brilliant blue skies and warm temperature were just the opposite, a perfect day for a little excursion). Farmers were harvesting hay. To the south, the jagged peaks of the range called the Alpstein. At a little village called Hirschberg, I spotted a small herd of Brunvieh just across the tracks, so I hopped off. Crossed the railway and a road to snap some pictures and shoot a video for Dylan and Carson (entitled “Milk does not come from a bottle”). Their cowbells made a wonderful sound, maybe the sound of Switzerland.
Swiss dairy cattle at Hirschberg; milk does not come from a bottle!
The next train came in 15 minutes, and I arrived in Appenzell 5 minutes later. For a small place, it was still, in late September, crowded with visitors. The vibe in town reminded me a lot of Lucerne, another place wholly dependent on tourists. It was not welcoming. Maybe centuries of catering to strangers was the cause: as early as the late 18th century, wealthy summer tourists headed to Appenzellerland for baths in goats’ milk whey, thought to be therapeutic. Baaaaa!
Appenzell is well known for detailed designs on house facades
Used cowbells for sale, Appenzell
Then there’s the larger matter of how unhappy so many Swiss – tourists and the people who serve them – seem to be, despite their enormous affluence. A good friend who lived in Switzerland for several years calls it the “paradise paradox.” He wrote, “I was surprised how much misery people can create about minor details when everything else is working so perfectly.”
By about six I was ready to sit. Labor is expensive in Switzerland, but even so, I waited about 10 minutes in a chair at the front of the Hotel Appenzell for someone to sell me a beer. She didn’t smile, but she did get me a nice local weizenbier as well as the password for the hotel’s wifi, and in no time I was linked. At dinner time, I headed inside and was passed along to a very smiling young waitress who had worked in Portland, Oregon, for five months, and said she’d go back “in a minute.”
An older American couple sat down as I was halfway through my wonderful plate of veal sweetbreads, roasted potatoes, and vegetables. They told the young waitress they were from Washington, D.C. I did not engage at that moment, but as a I left the restaurant one of the best T-t-S moments in months happened. As I stood up, I wished them a good vacation, and said “if you ever get out to McLean, come see us.” Well, that was the trigger for a 20-minute exchange. They were in the early 80s, both three-time widows who reconnected at a high school reunion in Garden City, New York (another reminder of why you should always go to those gatherings). She had actually lived within a mile of us in McLean for 30 years. He had an accomplished career as a navy surgeon – including work with astronauts. On the honeymoon, they had been in France, including a stop to see the family of her second husband. It was all quite remarkable, and I may look them up when we’re back home.
I hopped on the 8:07 train back to St. Gallen, and was asleep before ten.
First stop Tuesday morning was Studer + Hänni, jewelers and watch sellers, to pick up my SBB wristwatch. I had dropped it after class the day before, making a little gamble that indeed it was only the battery that needed replacement. Hooray, that was the case, and for the equivalent of $20 I was on my way. Walked back up the hill to school, worked for a few hours, and at 12:45 met my other host, Prof. Winfried Ruigrok, an affable Dutchman, for what has become the traditional Tuesday lunch at Wienerberg, a small restaurant on the edge of the campus. It was still sunny and warm, and we sat outside. At 3:00 I met a new person, Andreas, who leads the university’s Centre for Aviation Competence; looks like another possible venue for lectures from next year onward. It was finally showtime, and I delivered the airline-alliances talk to about 45 Masters’ students from 4:15 to 6:00. I ambled down the hill, changed clothes, and walked across town to the Goldenen Leuen, a traditional bar and café owned by a microbrewer. After a big lunch, I only needed a few bites and a nice glass of dark beer. Walked back to the hotel at dusk.
As I have written before, the Swiss believe in taking care of their people and economy first, which results in a vibrant small- and medium-sized business sector; even a basic iron sewer grate is Swiss made. It simply wouldn’t occur to them to buy them from India or China.
Wednesday morning, and the Transport Geek needed a ride, so I bought a day ticket and hopped on the S12 tram, which ran through the eastern part of the downtown, then started climbing. In no time we were in cow country, tinkling cowbells. I got off at the stop called Schwarzer Bären, Black Bears (in Europe, the tiniest places still have names), and walked about a kilometer up a gentle grade. As I started walking, I heard a different kind of bell, looked up the slope adjacent to the tram tracks, and there were four black-and-white goats grazing. Nice! Doubled back into town, then up the hill (on the bus) to the university.
Pastureland is everywhere in Switzerland, green-carpet-like ground for grazing cattle, sheep, and . . .
Worked for a bit, and at noon decided to exercise my day ticket again, riding out to Teufen on the Appenzeller Bahn. There was a Migros supermarket 200 feet from the station, where I bought a tuna sandwich, potato salad, a banana, and some seriously good cherry buttermilk (in the U.S., buttermilk is unsweetened and unflavored). Picnic time in the shade of some evergreens, a nice repast. Hopped back on the train, into town, to my hotel, wash face, don necktie, and at 3:15 I delivered the last lecture of the trip to a highly diverse (28 nationalities) group of 40 full-time MBA students. They didn’t want to let me go – Neeraj, Kunthika, and eight or nine more stayed to ask questions. Finally at six I said goodbye, and walked back to the hotel.
Picnic time at Teufen
The 2014 Full-time MBA class at St. Gallen
Earlier in the day, I noticed an agreeable-looking little restaurant at Schwarzer Bären, so I consulted the online train timetable and walked a block to the station for the 13-minute ride up the hill. The cloud that covered Lake Constance in the morning had lifted, and the view was superb, as was the soft tinkling of cowbells from many directions. I walked into the restaurant and received a very warm welcome from Tom Staller, the ponytailed co-owner of the Schwarzer Bären. “Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut” worked well as an opener. He smiled and welcomed me in a little German and a little English. I tucked into a couple of beers and a big link of St. Galler sausage.
Was up early Thursday morning and on the 7:11 SBB train for Zurich airport, and the Silver Bird to New York Kennedy. On the flight, I watched, for the second time in a month, the movie “The Life of Pi.” It’s a memorable film on many levels – lush cinematography, fanciful story, and for some wonderful lines spoken by the protagonist, Piscine Molitor Patel, including this: “Faith is a house with many rooms . . . “ Amen to that. We landed JFK early. I cleared formalities but did not head for the flight to Washington, but back to Dallas/Fort Worth. Although I wrote a few weeks ago that I really miss Texas, and I do, I would have preferred to head to Virginia, but the American Airlines Credit Union was holding its annual board planning session, and I wanted to be there. We landed DFW at seven. Was asleep by 9:30.
Up and out the door Friday morning, over to an agreeable venue for the credit-union session, the Ballpark at Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers. It was great to see old friends on the CU board of directors, and we had a productive meeting. The Rangers took the field at 7:05 and I managed to stay awake for the first half, then found a ride back to the Holiday Inn with my long friend Brad Aspgren, and was again asleep before ten. Woke up at five the next morning, finished this blogpost, and flew home — a long but great trip.
And after I left, the Rangers scored, and beat the Angels 5-3.
Postscript: Linda and Robin picked me up at Dulles Airport at noon. The Costco warehouse store was sort of on the way home, so we detoured a bit. I sat down at the “cafe” just beyond the checkout area and marveled at the parade of humanity marching past, truly e Pluribus unum.
A little girl (with her grandma) sat down next to me, and in the last T-t-S of the trip I admired her shoes. She began to tell me the “flavors” of the little plastic balls on her footwear; “this one is grape, this one is watermelon,” and so on. I turned away and switched on my iPhone to check something. She leaned over and touched the camera button on the lock screen, then deftly tapped the “reverse view” and snapped a picture. This is Jessie: