Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Less than two weeks later, the day after my 64th birthday, Linda drove me to the Metro and I departed for National Airport, JFK, and London Heathrow, landing just before dawn on the First Sunday in Advent. Worked a bit in the arrivals lounge, then hopped on the Piccadilly Line for central London. By long tradition, I cued my playlist of 14 Beatles’ faves, including “When I’m 64,” a fitting tune downloaded two days earlier.
A glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the north
For the third consecutive year, I headed to the sung Eucharist service for the First Sunday of Advent at St. Paul’s Cathedral. When I came out of the Tube station a few hundred yards north of Wren’s spectacular church the bells were pealing full tilt, what I have long described as “the sound of Europe.” I paused to snap a picture and record the bells, then headed in for worship at 11:30. Bag inspection was now the norm, and in my case it was backpack and suitcase. I chatted briefly with one of the virgers (ushers), who had friends in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, not far from our house. The welcome there is genuine.
I took my place directly beneath the enormous dome. Soon the celebrants and choir processed in, and we the space swelled with “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel.” The sermon was plain, asking us to embrace “divine discontent and active hope” – to not be satisfied with what is wrong on earth, and to work to change it for the better. The cathedral website said service was 60 minutes, so I booked a train to Cambridge at 12:57; the service leaflet said 75, so I had to grab my bag and sneak out immediately after communion, back onto the Central Line to Liverpool Street, and onto a slow local (but cheap!). A mile south of Cambridge I spotted Elena The’s superb silver sculpture of the DNA double helix, discovered here. I was back, for the 21st time, to teach at that storied university.
Hopped on the bus into the center, and walked a few blocks to my lodging at Sidney Sussex College. The porter gave me the keys to guest room C03, by now my accustomed digs, a big comfortable suite. Worked a bit, grabbed a light lunch from the Sainsbury’s supermarket across the street, got cash and a toothbrush (my traveler had somehow fallen from my toilet kit), and grabbed a quick nap.
Sidney Sussex College
Again for the third year in a row, just before six I headed into the college chapel for Advent choral service. I had the good fortune to be seated next to a young woman with a stellar voice (which likely balanced out my noise), and we again began with “Veni Emmanuel.” Rejoice, rejoice. The choir, directed by now-friend David Skinner, was superb, celestial. After the service, by tradition we headed to the Old Library for sherry. I chatted with Victoria, wife of the college master, and we then processed to High Table. It was a small group. I sat next to my host, David, and across from my chapel seatmate, who turned out to be Dr. Ceri Owen, a fellow in music at Sidney. We three chatted happily through dinner, mostly about music stuff. David grew up in Fresno, California, and gave us a summary about how he got from the Central Valley to one of the most revered universities in the world. A nice story.
Monday was mostly a day off. After breakfast in the college dining hall, I walked to the train station, and got on the 11:04 train back to London Liverpool Street. I cued Neil Young on my iPhone. Back 45 years ago, he was one of my friend Mark Miller’s favorites, and my task that morning was to write a eulogy for Mark, who died three days earlier. I got the shocking news the night of my birthday, made worse by the reality that I could almost certainly not attend his memorial service. But I could write words of praise, to be read by our mutual and stalwart friend, Chris Mac Phail. After Neil, I listened to another of Mark’s faves, Buffalo Springfield. By the time we were on the outskirts of London, I had the outlines of parting words. And tears in my eyes, the mourn for a fine and funny person gone way too soon. Rest in peace, Mark.
Bermondsey Street, with the new “Shard” high-rise in the background
At Holly and Lil: Sue with friends
I got the Tube south to London Bridge and had a late lunch with a couple of new friends in the publishing business. We were in The Garrison on Bermondsey Street, a place I had visited before, next door to Holly and Lil, custom makers of dog collars and other accessories (I bought Henry and Mackenzie sparkly Christmas bandannas).
Hopped back on the Tube west to the fancy Belgravia neighborhood not far from Victoria Station, worked my email at a Pret a Manger, then ambled a few blocks east to the Duke of Wellington tavern. A longtime American Airlines pal, Don Langford, appeared at 6:30, we had a quick beer, and walked less than a block to his new rental house. Don left American with 25 years under his belt at the time of the merger, and expected to fully retire. But the airline business is a pernicious addiction, and another former AAer, Craig Kreeger, now leads Virgin Atlantic Airways, and hired Don as CEO.
Don’s wife Sooz and their swell Welsh corgi Ollie greeted us, and we sat down in the kitchen for a good yak, followed by a wonderful dinner of lasagna and salad. If a) I weren’t so tired, and b) I was staying in London, not Cambridge, I would have stayed and yakked, but I said goodbye about 9:15, walked to Victoria, caught the Tube north, and the fast train up to Cambridge, arriving well past bedtime. Regular readers know I almost never take taxis, but I needed to rest my feet, so hopped a cab back to college and a somewhat fitful sleep.
The new roof at King’s Cross Station
After breakfast Tuesday I ambled across town to Judge Business School, worked the morning, and at 1:00 met host Andreas Richter for lunch next door at Brown’s. From two to four I delivered a talk on airline HR management to a very bright group of third-year engineering students – one of those rare times I’m not actually teaching in business school. I met a few members of the class before we started, asking “what flavor of engineering are you” and what an ideal job would be. One guy told me his dream was to work for the European Space Agency, ESA. “You want to be a rocket scientist?” I asked. Yes, he replied, absolutely. After the talk, a couple of students walked back to college with me, pelting questions, which is always fun. Did a bit of work, caught a too-short nap, and at six met another Judge colleague Paul Tracey, for a pint at The Pickerel, one of Cambridge’s oldest pubs. We had a quick yak, and planned to have dinner, but I had to get back to my room for a quick call, so peeled off.
Judge Business School, in the former Addenbrooke’s Hospital
After the call and a bit more work, I walked to The Eagle, one of my fave pubs, a place favored by the likes of Newton, Watson, and Crick. Had a nice plate of cod and plenty of needed vegetables. Back to college and into the first deep sleep since leaving home. Tonic!
A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin, and perhaps Pooh, foyer, The Eagle
A traditional photo opp: the window at the Cambridge University Press bookshop; they do a nice job fashioning the printed page into art, in this case with scissors.
The previous two breakfasts were a bit lonely, but Wednesday morning Alison joined the head table. She is a moral philosopher at St. John’s College, Oxford, and was a seriously interesting person. In my early visits to the college head table, I always felt a little “less than” when I met someone like that, but soon learned that I could hold my own, ask good questions, and engage. We had a fine discussion centered around her research on the difference between knowing and understanding, using recent U.S. military interventions as a case. Fascinating stuff. Oh, yeah, we also covered some mundane matters, like her leaving her six-month-old for the first time. On the way out of the dining hall I stopped to say hello and thank you to Stephen Mather, the head chef at college. We had a nice, brief yak. Always important to thank the people who feed you – and feed you well!
The last oranges, garden, Sidney Sussex College
Walked again to the train station, and before getting on the 10:30 train to Stansted Airport, I noticed some nice new promo ads for the city:
Flew Ryanair to Dortmund, back in my favorite Germany. We arrived early, enabling a nice walk a mile or so to Holzwickede station and a train ride into town. The Transport Geek had figured out that a little walking on both ends would get me to my hotel faster and cheaper than the airport bus to the main station and a U-Bahn ride. I got off the S-Bahn at the station adjacent to the yellow-and-black stadium of Borussia Dortmund, a major force in the German football Bundesliga (top league) and a major source of civic pride. Walked another mile to the Arcadia Grand Hotel, a quite fancy place. Checked in, worked a bit, grabbed a quick nap.
At 6:30, Professor Hartmut Holzmüller, host for my first visit to the Technical University of Dortmund, pulled up. We hit it off instantly, largely I think because of his familiarity with and fondness for the U.S. We headed to the Christmas Market downtown, had a glass of glühwein, the hot spiced wine favored in December. Walked the market, then the downtown, quickly getting into the detail I find fascinating: Hartmut explained that the city has long been a stronghold of the social democratic party, the SPD, historically because of the huge working class that worked the mines and steel mills that long fueled German prosperity. After World War II bombing, the SPD leaders, on the left side of a left party, chose not to rebuild the historical buildings (“too bourgeois”), so the center is rather charmless.
That said, we found a gemütlich (cozy) restaurant, rustic in a new structure, and I tucked into my first plate of grünkohl. Kale is a craze in the U.S., but here it’s almost always cooked, and served with sausage. Yum. We covered a lot of topics, two of which reinforce Hartmut’s links to the U.S. One, he’s active in a Lion’s Club, and they would be working three days hence in the Christmas market, selling glühwein, a major source of funds for the club. Two, his youngest daughter is now an exchange in suburban Dallas, not far from a bunch of friends. Back to the hotel, and to sleep.
Up early the next morning, down to the hotel gym for some biking, then breakfast, and on foot with suitcase, three miles west to the university. It was a sunny day, and warm. Met the marketing department, worked a bit, and headed to lunch with Hartmut and a postdoctoral helper. After lunch we hopped in Hartmut’s car for a quick zip around a new and hugely successful technology park adjacent to the school – another of the “honeypot” clusters that, although now common near universities, are not always a winner. But this place now had 12,000 workers, 80 percent with university degrees, and Dortmund was well into a transition from industrial to post-industrial.
Kleingärten, Dortmund. Allotment gardens (as the British call them) are common in and on the edge of German cities; some four million Germans use these gardens, which typically have a small cabin, some quite elaborate
From 2:15 to 3:45 I lectured to a large class, almost all from Dortmund or elsewhere in the multicity Ruhr area, the Ruhrgebiet. Then it got a bit crazy. Andreas had his mom’s tricked-out Audi A7, but all that German performance couldn’t get us through three traffic bottlenecks and to the main train station, the Hauptbahnhof. I made my train with six minutes to spare: I needed to be on the 4:27 to Hannover, because I was due in Kassel, an hour south of Hannover, at 8:00. Unhappily, the connecting train south was 20 minutes late, but thanks to my Kassel host and dear friend Patrick Rath, who picked me up at the station, stopped briefly at my Airbnb digs, and zoomed to the university, we started the talk at 8:10. Hooray!
After the talk, a group of students and I walked to Lohmann, the old pub we visited a year earlier. I had a light dinner and a beer, hopped on a tram, and headed “home” to Weyrauchstrasse 5, head hitting pillow at 12:30, way late. I had hoped to get up early Friday morning to visit briefly with my Airbnb host Renate, a really nice woman, but I didn’t make that. Was out the door about nine, walking in cold rain to the tram, then the station for coffee and a yummy raisin sweet roll. Patrick Rath arrived at 10:30, and we hopped on the fast train to Frankfurt, bound again for the Siegfried Vögeler Institute in Königstein, an affluent small town northwest of the big city. My gig was that night, my now-annual after-dinner talk to students in a contract EMBA program for Deutsche Post DHL, the privatized German postal service and logistics provider. Like the year before, we sat in the dining car for a late breakfast and conversation, but unlike 2014 the train was late, so we missed the suburban train connection. I was starting to lose faith in the Deutsche Bahn. We finally got to Königstein about two; happily, Patrick called ahead and Heiko the chef has set aside two plates of lunch for us, an outstanding tafelspitz, tender boiled beef and vegetables. Yum!
My Airbnb ‘hood, Weyrauchstrasse, Kassel
Worked a bit, met some faculty, took a nap, and at seven met the eight EMBA students, a nice group. We tucked into Heiko’s outstanding Christmas duck with dumplings, red cabbage, and roast chestnuts. So good. I spoke for about 45 minutes, answered some questions, and excused myself. Back in my room, I thought my late friend Mark. His memorial service was to begin in an hour in Minneapolis, and I wanted to be there. Lots of the funny things he said through the years bounced around in my brain that week, and one well fit European travel. A couple of decades ago, Mark took his family to Europe, to tour and to visit his sister Judy, who was living in Geneva. At land borders, the words for the customs service appear in at least German and French, and the joke of their trip was “Who is this guy Douane Zoll?” Rest in peace, Mark
After my dinner speech; host Patrick Rath is at left
Siegfried Vögeler Institute
Was up at a reasonable hour Saturday morning, Patrick and I on foot to the Königstein station, back into Frankfurt, where he peeled off and I hopped on the fast ICE to Berlin. In no time I was hugging my friend Michael Beckmann at the Hauptbahnhof. For the seventh consecutive year, I was in Germany’s capital for some fun with his family. Michael works for Bombadier, the plane and train maker. He works on the latter, we are both Transport Geeks, and thus the first order of business was a short ride on the new yellow trams Bombardier builds for Berlin, then a ride on the S-Bahn (suburban train) back to Brandenburg Gate.
Roof, Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof
The plan was to meet another T-Geek, Tobias Hundhausen, a classmate of Michael’s, but Tobias’ flight from Düsseldorf was late and Air Berlin lost his suitcase, so we two had a coffee at the old-school Café Einstein on Unter den Linden, the storied street that runs east from the gate. Days are short in Europe in December, so it was dark when we left the café. Brandenburg Gate was splendidly lit, lovely. We stopped for 30 minutes in a storefront memorial/museum for Willy Brandt, the fourth chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (1966-72 check). Brandt had an interesting varied life, and the exhibits told the story well. He did much to defuse Cold War tension, and the exhibits reminded me of a thought that recurred since arriving in Germany three days earlier: Western Europe suffered through two world wars, then got no break, heading immediately into the Cold War. On a wall in the memorial was a memorable Brandt quote: “My real success was in having contributed to the fact that in the world in which we live the name of our country and the concept of peace can again be mentioned in the same breath.”
At the Brandt memorial: his ID card for the Nüremburg trials
Atonement: Brandt at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, December 1970
That idea of peace starkly contrasted with the scene in front of the French Embassy just west, fence and gates festooned with hundreds of bouquets in memory of those massacred three weeks earlier. Moving west, we passed the German Parliament, the Bundestag, and I was immediately struck by the lack of police and security apparatus, so different from our capitol. Why doesn’t Washington get #notafraid?
Bouquets outside the French Embassy
We drove north to the Beckmann house in the pleasant suburb of Glienecke, and there were hugs and kisses for wife Susan, and for son Niklas, six, and Annika, almost four. “Onkel Rob, Onkel Rob” they cried. It was a nice moment. We practiced a bit of English (both kids have a private teacher who gives weekly lessons), singing “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes.” By tradition, we headed to dinner at Zur Krummen Linde (“the crooked linden tree”), an agreeable restaurant in business since 1731. Unlike previous years when the kids were smaller and less patient, we stayed two hours, tucking into huge plates. The kids colored happily, ate well. Annika told her mom that she needed to go kacka, and Susan reminded her that the polite toilet words were kleine geschäft und grosse geschäft – little business and big business!
Niklas and Annika cleaning shoes the night before St. Nicholas would put candy and treats in them!
The view from the Beckmann’s kitchen window
. . . And their street, pleasant and quiet
Nine hours of sleep felt really good, followed by a traditional long Advent Sunday breakfast, cheeses and meats, homemade jams, coffee, and great conversation. Before noon, we saddled up and headed out – by tradition, there’s always an outing, usually with a transport element, but this time we drove south to the city of Brandenburg, not to be confused with the state of the same name that surrounds Berlin. Brandenburg city was in the former East Germany and we were headed to the town’s Industriemuseum, which here was a century-old steel mill. We headed first for the introductory interpretive area, and learned in video and printed word about the company, which had several owners during its 80-year run – for roughly its last half it was a state company of the GDR. We were almost the only visitors, and the husband and wife who staffed it both worked in the mill for the last decades of operation. They were attached to it!
The Beckmanns at the steel mill
Then we donned hard hats and walked through the mill. It was almost spooky, because it all looked the same as it did the day it closed in 1993 – like the workers punched out and never returned. Unlike a similar place in the scared-of-lawsuits U.S., you could pretty much walk anywhere you liked. Of course, like most museums and historic centers, it was stage-managed, but gently. Thanks to a 1966 visit with pal Chris Mac Phail to the Youngstown Sheet and Tube mill near Gary, Indiana, I was conversant with the steelmaking process, so I readily understood all the big chunks of the mill. The mill ran a scrap process, so instead of charging the furnace with iron, coke, and limestone, they recycled steel, melting it, creating 300 different types. It was truly a remarkable place, all the more so because of my long interest in industrial process – how stuff gets made.
Views of steelmaking
The mill newspaper (“Red Steel”), published 12 hours before the Berlin Wall came down
Millworkers of yore; the plant even had a rock band (note name was in English!)
We drove into town, and in the urban landscape were abundant and obvious clues to substantial Federal investment, likely responsive to the mill closing (since reunification, the Federal Republic has spent more than one trillion dollars in an effort to bring the former East Germany toward parity with the success of the West). We parked the car and headed to Christmas market, for a glühwein, grünkohl, and a new treat, langos, a sort of Hungarian pizza. High point was watching the delight on Niklas’ and Annika’s faces as they sat in little trucks and cars on a kiddie ride. I remarked to Susan that it brought a fond memory of Sunday trips to Queen Anne Kiddieland in the 1950s. We made it home fast, tucked into a light dinner, and clocked out.
Town Hall, Rathaus, Brandenburg an der Havel (begun 1450)
St. Peter and Paul Church, Brandenburg, begun 1165
Splendid 19th Century commercial building, Brandenburg
St. Nicholas, on his feast day, Brandenburg Christmas Market
After hugs and auf wiedersehen, early Monday Michael dropped me at the S-Bahn stop in Frohnau, near their house, and I rode into Berlin. Dropped my suitcase at the Hauptbahnhof and headed east to Prenzlauer Berg, an interesting Bohemian neighborhood that well reflects how the former mayor described much of the city: “poor but sexy.” Bought a coffee and sweet roll, and sat on a bench, watching the mid-morning scene on a busy street. While eating, another of Mark Miller’s lines came into sharp focus, again perfectly fitting: when he was learning German in high school, one of the first phrases to memorize was one he often subsequently repeated, more or less as nonsense to fill a void. “Kommt doch alles zu dem grüne eule,” he would chirp, “Everyone come to the Green Owl,” which presumably was a café. He was still very much with me.
When I was nearly finished, a stressed-looking young man approached me, speaking in German. We quickly switched to English, to fix his problem: he needed to quickly get to some sort of exam at Fröbelstrasse 17. I told him we’d find it, whipped out my iPhone, got the map, searched, stood up, and pointed: it’s that yellow building across the street! A nice T-t-S moment. Always good to be of service.
Finding a stranger’s way
I hopped a yellow tram down to Alexanderstrasse, one of the former East Berlin’s main avenues, then to Alexanderplatz. The observant visitor sees lots of ironic scenes with the new next to the old former East, and I smiled broadly when I spotted a Starbucks immediately below one of the GDR’s crowning achievements, the Fernsehturm, completed 1969, one of those icons that the fink dictator Walter Ulbricht wanted to use to show people that state socialism really worked. I wandered over to St. Nikolai Church, oldest in Berlin (13th Century), past excavation for a new subway line, and north. I paused at Rosenstrasse, where my eye caught a set of poster panels attached to light poles. This had been one of the centers of the Jewish community, and among the detail I found the 27 February 1943 deportation orders for Rosenstrasse 158: Natalie Schmul, born 1894; Ernst Löwenstein, born 1880; and Hilde Aronson, born 1899. Their cries still echo.
Alexanderstrasse, looking much like it did when it was a showplace for East German modernity
The former East Berlin TV tower and spire of St. Marienkirche
St. Nikolai, oldest church in Berlin
Street scene adjacent to St. Nikolai
Classic East German modern architecture
What would Walter Ulbricht, the former East German boss, think of a skateboard shop?
Depotation record, Rosenstrasse 158
Yet more construction in Berlin
Sign marking the Federal offices of the center for documentation of the Stasi, the former East German secret police; modern Germany is good at remembering.
I zipped back to the Hauptbahnhof, fetched my suitcase and backpack from a locker, and jumped on the ICE fast train west. Enjoyed my third meal in the Deutsche Bahn dining car (an experience that always harkens fond childhood memories – meals on trains enroute to grandparents in Chicago). Changed trains at Hamm and at 3:30 met my Airbnb host at the station in Münster – it was my 15th visit to the big university there, and my third time to stay with Svenja Visser. She kindly rode her bike from work to give me the key. Hopped the bus to her nice flat, worked a bit, and took a quick nap.
The power plant at the main Volkwagen factory, Wolfsburg
Views of my Airbnb house, outside and in
I walked across town. At the back end of the Dom, the cathedral, I heard faint sounds of what seemed like choir practice. Stepped around to the front and in. Not choir practice, but evening mass, the faithful singing Communion prayers. A nice sound. At six, I ambled into Töddenhoek, a traditional restaurant I had seen on previous visit but never visited. Doctoral students Julian, Sina, and Nora met me for dinner, and we then walked south to my traditional Kaminegespräch, literally “chimney talk,” with 15 undergrads and masters students. I was honored that my Münster host, Manfred Krafft, attended, and touched when Nora told me during question time that she had carried my “Ten Pieces of Advice for Graduating Students” in her notebook for two years. She asked me “How do you get all that stuff done?” Manfred drove me back to my Airbnb home, and I was soon under a cozy flannel-covered eiderdown. Ahhhhh. It was clear that Airbnb income was helping Svenja buy new stuff for the flat, and the cozy bedding was just one example. Nice!
Was up before first light Tuesday, worked a bit, then walked across town to the Marketing Institute, stopping at a Stadtbäckerei (City Bakery) for a pastry and coffee. Michael, a new employee, fixed me up with an office on the top floor. Worked the morning. As is the custom, Manfred a handful of doctoral students, and I walked a few blocks to the university Mensa, the student cafeteria that has been a favored place since the first visits to Europe in the early 1970s. I had a yummy whole trout, boiled potatoes, and salad, yum. German efficiency reigned: once lunch was consumed, we headed back to work. I left the institute at three, by tradition heading to Mackenbrock, a toy and gift store, to buy two tiny guardian angel Christmas ornaments, schutzengelen, handmade in Erzgebirge, a region in the former GDR well known for Christmas handcrafts.
The historic main building of the university
Town Hall, Rathaus, Münster
Back home, I grabbed a short nap, yakked briefly with Svenja’s roommate, suited up, and headed back to the university, following the small Aa River, which runs through the center of Münster (the name always makes me smile, AA, like American Airlines). From 6:00 to 7:30 I delivered the last lecture of the year to a big direct-marketing class. I was on, and as always the applause at the end made me feel like a rock star. By the numbers, 2015 saw me in 28 schools, more than 2,200 students, 133 hours in the classroom. I was done for the year, and there’s always a bit of letdown, but it was temporary. I headed to the gasthaus at the Pinkus Müller brewery, where the vibe is always friendly. And the sound track was splendid: old-time Rock and Roll, Hip-hop, R&B, Glenn Miller. After a couple of beers at the bar, I sat at table and ordered auf Deutsch, which always makes me happy. I tipped my imaginary cap to Herr Bjorby, the Norwegian who taught me 10 weeks of German in 1973.
The Pinkus Müller Brewery
I was up early Wednesday morning, out the door, onto the bus to the train station, grabbed a pastry and a large cup of coffee and climbed onto an Austrian Railways (ÖBB) train bound for Innsbruck. That sounded good, but I was only headed 45 miles south to Duisberg, then a short ride to Düsseldorf Airport. Checked in, flew to London, landing a bit early, and onto the Heathrow Express into town. Two Tube rides got me to West Hampstead, a big lunch at a Vietnamese place, then around the corner to a quick seminar at Ink, a travel publishing company.
Spotted in the British Airways inflight magazine: a historic BOAC Christmas card, which nicely captures the airplane’s role at holiday-time
After the talk, I worked in an Ink conference room for two hours, catching up, then back to Paddington Station. It was time for a pint, and I found a glass of London Pride in the back of the station. I had an assignment due the next day, so I tippled and scribbled, undistracted by the ebb and flow of commuters and holiday-party celebrants. Bought a couple of sandwiches and another beer and hopped on the Great Western Railway to Worcester. Arrived about 10:45 and in no time was hugging my longtime (almost 35 years) English pal John Crabtree. Regular readers know I trek out from London to see John and his family every year or two. Head hit pillow. Zzzzzzzzzz.
Up the next morning and down to the kitchen to hug his kids James, nearly 17, Robbie, 15, and Jessica, 10, as well as their mum Diana. They are like family. Ate breakfast, and yakked with the kids and Diana until she assumed the role of school bus driver, motoring the kids into Kings, in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral. I stayed behind, opened my laptop, and set to work. Squiggly, their new kitten, jumped up on the table to help.
Jessica Crabtree warming herself on the kitchen range
About 11, Diana and I hopped in the car and drove a few miles to the next village, Broughton Hackett, to the little post office in a small grocery. Those places are dying all across Britain, so it was grand to be inside – bustling that day with folk mailing holiday parcels and cards. We then headed a block north to The Oak, a refined pub, for lunch with ten women from Diana’s Pilates class (which also was in the village). I was there as the token male (at class earlier, one of the ladies asked Diana, “is he fit?”), and had a grand time meeting and yakking with gals my age or older (Diana was by far the youngest).
In the queue at the post office, Broughton Hackett
After a nap and a run into Worcester on the “school bus,” John, Diana, and I headed into Birmingham, 40 miles north, in John’s speedy BMW. We were bound for a Birmingham Royal Ballet performance of “The Nutcracker” at the Hippodrome, the city’s performing arts center. John is Chairman of the Hippodrome, and he told me it was the busiest theater in the nation, with more than 600,000 patrons last year. His service to the theatre is just one of many civic and volunteer commitments he keeps. He is a tireless contributor to the betterment of the city and the West Midlands region.
We got into town quickly, and had time to see some redevelopment in the core, including, at last, the re-do of the New Street railway station, which now is an impressive mash-up of a shopping mall and a transport hub. Very well done, with a soaring ceiling reminiscent of Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at New York JFK. We walked back to the Hippodrome and invited guests shortly arrived, an impressive group of local movers and shakers: the newly elected head of the city council, a prominent architect, head of a law firm, general manager of the new John Lewis department store, and the new CEO of the Hippodrome. Players, and genuinely nice people, too. The ballet was superb, Tchaikovsky’s music familiar.
Birmingham New Street station
Was up early Friday, back to the kitchen, and out the door on Diana’s school bus. After dropping the kids, she dropped me at the station and I hopped on the train into Birmingham, then out to the airport. Flew to Dublin; as on previous UK visits, I was determined not to pay the huge departure tax, and returning via Ireland afforded an opportunity to again see my chum Maurice. When we were downing pints in July, I proposed a December swim in the Irish Sea. Mr. Coleman swims year ‘round, and he liked the idea. He picked me up at the airport, dropped my stuff at an Airbnb not far from the runway, and we headed to Forty Foot, the swimming venue about 10 minutes from his house in Sandycove, a pleasant suburb not far from the old port of Dun Laoghaire. Stripped down to nylon shorts, and in I dove. Mind you, I didn’t swim to Liverpool, but paddled a bit in the 43° F water, then hopped out. Check, and done. Earned some stripes there!
Detail, cast-iron waiting room, Worcester Shrub Hill station
Scenes from the swim!
Next stop was the James Joyce Museum in an early-19th Century military tower a block from the Forty Foot. Had a quick look at Jimmy’s spartan digs, admired the view from the parapet, and headed to Maurice’s local, The Fitzgerald. Had a pint, dropped the car, and hopped on the Dart train for central Dublin and – where else – Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street. As I’ve written before, it is one of the best drinking places on the globe, totally Irish, meaning people are gabbing nonstop, smiling, laughing, and having fun. The place was packed, but we wedged in. Next stop was an adequate restaurant in Temple Bar, the biggest entertainment district, where, naturally, we fell into conversation with the two women at the next table. Ireland is like that. Maurice suggested another pint, but I was plumb wore out, so I hopped on the #16 bus out to Santry.
The River Liffey
Irish still life, Mulligan’s
My Airbnb hosts Conor and Elizabeth returned shortly after me, and we had a nice gab. Conor was an actor and part-time therapist; Elizabeth was a fashion designer for the mass-market retailer Primark. Really lovely young Irish folk. Slept hard.
Up early again, out the door in pelting rain, three blocks to the bus stop. Marie arrived shortly after me, an older woman who seemed a bit down on her luck. She had no umbrella, and told me her hands were so cold. “Here, take my gloves,” I said, adding that I would be home later that day and a new pair were waiting for me. She was grateful. Hopped on American Airlines to Philadelphia, then the short flight back to D.C., and had MacKenzie and Henry on leash by 6:30. A fine trip across the sea.