Late on Sunday afternoon the 24th, I stepped onto an American 777 bound for London. Rolling down the runway at 150 mph I was grinning broadly. Flight is still a thrill. It is so cool. And all the more so on that ride, because an hour after takeoff, my “flying odometer” moved from 3,999,999 to 4 million miles. Regular readers know that I’ve tracked my flights since the first one in June 1966, and I knew I was approaching “four-mill.”
Before leaving home, I looked in my flight database to see when the odometer turned one, two, and three million:
One million, July 1991 (just over 25 years since first takeoff), a flight home from Toronto, after visiting American’s Canadian ad agency
Two million, July 1998 (the second million took 7 years), odometer turned over on final approach to St. John’s, Newfoundland, enroute to a fishing adventure in Labrador with son Jack and some pals from American and the now-deceased Canadian Airlines.
Three million, April 2005 (the third million also took 7 years), halfway across the Pacific, enroute to Tokyo, then to teach in Shanghai.
About 5.5 years to the next mark. When the flight-information display in the cabin showed 4350 miles to London – speeding along at 613 mph 35,000 feet above the earth – I smiled, hoisted my glass of London Pride beer, gave thanks to God, and reflected on my great good fortune. The airplane has meant, and continues to mean, so much to me. It has provided a meaningful career, enabled me to see more of the world that I ever could have imagined as a child, allowed Linda, Robin, and Jack to see quite a bit of it, and made much else possible – especially the overseas teaching, like the lectures at Imperial College London that I would present two days hence.
We landed at Heathrow Airport about eight, zipped through immigration and customs, and onto the Tube into the city. The ride has gotten a bit pokier, but was at the dumpy Grange Strathmore Hotel by 9:20 (my hosts at Imperial College have a contract with the threadbare place). The room was not ready, and I was headed to meet a colleague, so I found the gents’ in the basement, washed face, brushed teeth, combed what little hair remains, and dropped my suitcase. Hopped back on the Tube to Euston Station and a fast train north 50 miles to Milton Keynes, a pleasant and well-planned “new town.” At noon I met Martin Cunnison, a young entrepreneur and friend of a friend. He showed me some stuff he was working on and we yakked a bit about how I might help. Ate lunch at an agreeable old pub on the edge of town, he dropped me back at the railway.
On the train to Milton Keynes, my iPhone stopped working, so I used a payphone to call AT&T’s international support line. After a lot of to and fro (but with actual people, and in the U.S.), we determined that the problem was a the new 4.0 operating system I downloaded a couple of months earlier – and which had been giving me problems ever since, but none as large as the phone not roaming. After putting me on hold, Tony helpfully told me that I would need to get a new SIM card at AT&T. Well, that would not have been a problem if I were in the U.S., but I was 5,000 miles from the AT&T store where I got the phone.
On the train back to London I hit on the idea of visiting the Apple Store, and when I got back to Euston a helpful young railwayman provided directions to Mr. Jobs’ huge facility on Regent Street. One of their roaming geniuses tried to fix it, but could not. Happily, I have Truphone. A Skype-like app that enables very cheap calls if you have a wi-fi connection, and UK Starbucks all offer free wi-fi, so that would be the workaround in England, and indeed it worked fine. I was not thinking happy thoughts about Apple that afternoon, especially because they had recommended I upgrade the operating system, and once it’s changed you cannot revert to the older system that actually worked better. Sigh.
It was a fine blue-sky afternoon, and I ambled west on Regent Street, then two blocks south to Grosvenor Square. The statue of General Eisenhower on the north end of the U.S. Embassy grounds drew me like a magnet, and standing beneath the bronze I gave thanks for all that he accomplished. I emphatically did not give thanks for the fortifications around the embassy – as I wrote in the first quarter update, all the protection makes us look weak, not strong. It is just silly.
I ambled west to Park Lane, then south to the Hyde Park Corner Tube station, and back to Gloucester Road. My room was ready. Number 522 was a postage stamp, but no sense in whining about it, so I unpacked, took a shower, and felt better. At six I headed back out, stopping in front of a Starbucks to call Linda and work a bit of e-mail, then north for a pint at the Gloucester Arms pub, an agreeable local place. The young Polish woman behind the bar drew a pint of London Pride, and I brought this journal up to date. After slaking my thirst, I hopped on the Tube one stop to Masala Zone, a chain-but-still-great Indian restaurant, for a nice plate of many small dishes – a sampler. As on previous visits, I asked for a small bowl of chopped green chilies.
In the middle of Monday night, I awoke and hit on a plan for the next morning: visit the Apple Store as soon as it opened, and see if their “Genius Bar” technicians could fix my phone. Lauren the Genius was kind and genuinely helpful, but after two hours I left the store with a new phone with the same problem. Well, that wasn’t quite it – by getting the new phone, I had to re-download all the extra applications that the old phone had (why Apple does not back up those apps on your computer, like it does for their own stuff, is a question worth asking).
That’s when the headhurting began. Somehow their security software would not recognize the MasterCard that we have long used. And even though many apps are free, you had to revalidate the card on the new phone. Aieeeeeeeeeee! Neither Lauren the Genius nor any of her fellow Geniuses could sort that one out. As a practical matter, the Truphone app was gone, so my iPhone was no longer a phone. Aieeeeeeee, again. I was muttering out loud when I left the store, and youngsters gave me room. It was a classic case of Rob wanting so much to promptly fix things that he made them worse – although, dear reader, let us also cite Apple and AT&T for more than a few flaws.
I went back to my postage-stamp hotel room, suited up, and walked a few blocks to the Imperial College School of Business, where I met my host and friend Omar Merlo, a swell fellow. We grabbed a quick lunch and caught up with each other’s job and family life. From 2:15 until 4:00 I delivered my lecture on frequent flyer programs to an engaged and very diverse group of 80 MBA students. Lots of fun. Omar peeled off and I spent 20 minutes introducing myself to Imperial’s head of executive education. I changed out of my suit and headed back out into light rain.
The iPhone fiasco continued: thinking that the credit-card problem might have been Citibank’s doing, I tried calling them twice earlier, with Omar’s mobile phone, but got cut off both times. I needed to call Linda to ask her to call the bank, but didn’t want to pay the Hotel Dump the equivalent of six dollars for a really short chat. After exhausting my low-cost options but on principle unwilling to give the Dump any business, I walked into a small greengrocer, explained the jam, and offered to pay the young Pakistani clerk to use his phone. He handed me his mobile, I called both home and Linda’s mobile, and he refused to accept my offered coins. I shook his hand and wished God’s blessings upon him. How I love trusting souls.
I ambled back to the hotel, picked up my laptop and headed back to the pub for a pint of Guinness and free wi-fi. The credit card was still jammed, but I got some other work done, then headed to dinner at Canteen, a favorite eatery focused on locally-sourced and fresh ingredients. Had a plate of smoked haddock, mashed potatoes, and spinach, and a really good piece of carrot cake for dessert. Yum! Clocked out on a day with more than a few frustrations, but still a really great day.
Was up at 0:dark Wednesday morning, suit up, quart of yogurt at Tesco, and onto the Tube back to Heathrow. Checked in, grabbed a nice sandwich from Pret a Manger, and flew to Milan.
It’s always great to be in Italy, and I ambled through Malpensa Airport with a big smile. “These are my people,” I thought – well, at least 25% of me. I caught the Malpensa Express train to the suburb of Bovisa, and walked a few blocks onto the newer campus of the Politecnico, Milan’s great school for the applied sciences, which opened a business school about a decade ago. At one I met one of the deans, Raffaella Cagliano, to introduce myself and my B-school portfolio. We had a nice lunch and a good but fast yak, and I waved goodbye just before three.
The T-Geek had scoped out, online, a route to my next stop, Torino (Turin) that did not require a backtracking trip into central Milan, and the nearest station (different from the place where I arrived) was only a couple of blocks from the campus. But the train was at 3:09 and I didn’t have a ticket, so I had to hustle (hustling and my knees are a bad combination). But I got the ticket and was up on the platform with four minutes to spare.
Things got interesting at Fiera Rho, the station where I was to change from a suburban train to a mainline service. The facility was brand new, which was good, but the signage was not fully installed and it was not clear if they had a ticket counter staffed by people. After a couple of false starts (the ticket machine for the suburban train had instructions in four languages, but this one only spoke Italiano), I determined that I could in fact buy a ticket to Torino, but when I made my choice, one-way, second class, one adult, a red screen flashed “TARIFFA NON DISPONIBILE.” Dern (actually I used a different word). The train was due to arrive in two minutes when an idea flashed: take pictures of the screens on my iPhone (the camera worked!), and show them to the train conductor. I did it, dashed up and onto the train. Ten minutes into the journey I spoke clearly, but in Spanitalian, that the ticket machine was not working. She understood a little English and while writing out a ticket I showed her the screens for good measure. She smiled. I could never be a criminal!
The ride across the wide plains of the Po Valley was pleasant. The sky was really blue, something I have rarely seen in often hazy and smoggy Lombardy. Farmers were harvesting grain, herons swam in streams, all was well (except for way too much graffiti; and only in Italy does one still see spray-painted hammers and sickles!).
We arrived in Turin just after five. I had directions to my hotel, and was soon passing a pretty rough-looking bunch of people. But, hey, I hitchhiked through U.S. ghettoes, and I am fearless, so I pressed on. In a couple of blocks the neighborhood quickly changed to respectable, and I wheeled into the pleasant lobby of the Hotel Piemontese, where Giacomo the desk manager greeted folks in three languages. Room 126 was at least three times larger than the cell in London, and even though the hotel only claimed three stars rather than the Dump’s alleged four, it was way, way nicer. Free internet, too. Nice!
I changed clothes, worked a bit, and at six walked downstairs to the very cozy lobby, where a friendly combination doorman and barman offered a glass of wine. He recommended a Dolcetto d’Alba, and it was good advice indeed. The free canapés were a nice touch. This was posh. Even better, when I my iPhone connected to the Internet and the App Store I found that Apple had fixed the credit-card problem, and I could begin downloading about 20 apps. In between, I sent my brother (a huge fan of Italy and of their vino) 63rd birthday greetings.
At 7:30, my young friend Flavius Stan entered the lobby hugged me. It was great to see him – last time was 2003 when he married Francesca, from Torino. My connection to Flavius takes a bit of explaining. Briefly: The New York Times published his essay “The Night of Oranges” just before Christmas 1995. In it, Flavius tells the story of waiting in line for six hours in Timisoara, Romania, to buy fruit before Christmas in 1989, just after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end for the Romanian tyrant Ceausescu. A tiny slice from the close of the essay:
I get home and my father opens the door. He is amazed when he sees the oranges, and we decide to hide them until dinner. At dessert that night, I give my brother the present. Everyone is silent. They can’t believe it. My brother doesn’t touch them. Maybe they aren’t real. Maybe they are an illusion, like everything else these days. We have to tell him he can eat them before he has the courage to touch one of the oranges. I stare at my brother eating the oranges. They are my oranges. My parents are proud of me.
How could I not reach out to Flavius, who at that time was fortunate to have been invited to finish high school in a private school in New York City? I tracked him down, we got together for a meal, and we’ve been friends since, albeit at a distance. I am fortunate to know him. He has accomplished much in a short life, with much more ahead.
We walked several blocks to a simple trattoria enjoyed big bowls of mussels, and got caught up on life. Francesca, their daughter Emma, and he left New York in 2007 to be closer to family and the support it provides. We covered a lot of ground, but by ten I was really worn out.
Next morning I was out the door for a quick look around Torino, a city of roughly one million. You may remember NBC’s great introduction to the city during their telecast of the 2006 Winter Olympics. The center is compact, and I got a good look at the shopping district (elegant), the former royal palace, a spectacular baroque church of San Lorenzo, and the really unusual Mole Antonielliana, built as a synagogue in 1889. I even caught a ride on Turin’s new Metro, riding a few stops. Pure serendip: I surfaced opposite an absolute gem, a 1902 Art Nouveau house. Very cool.
Headed back to the hotel, suited up, and at 11 met Flavius and Francesca (she was working the night before in her online luxury goods brokerage; she had been a rising star at Prada before returning to Italy). We had a cup of high-test coffee; it was a sunny but cool morning, and we sat on the sidewalk outdoors. We had another really good chat, covering topics that only close friends discuss. They smiled and nodded when I told them my deep admiration for how deeply Italians care about their food. I ranted a bit about the U.S. where people are focused on quantity, and where “the system” focuses on making food cheaper and cheaper, and for what? For what? So people can buy more stuff they don’t need at Walmart?
At noon they walked me a few blocks and I hopped on Tram 4, headed south. On the way, Francesca stopped in front of Giordano, an old-school chocolatier with its beautiful wares in the front window, and said, “Rob, this is what you’re talking about.” She asked Flavius for his wallet, and a few minutes later emerged from the store with a present for me. Such sweet young people.
Next stop was ESCP Torino, the newest branch of the oldest French business school (besides Paris, other campuses are in Berlin, Madrid, and London). Flavius actually brokered an invitation to meet and lunch with the school’s director, Roberto Quaglia, a very energetic former consultant with Accenture and McKinsey. We instantly hit it off, and I very much hope that he invites me back – it looks like a very dynamic school. While learning about their programs, I tucked into a plate of pasta with octopus sauce, and it was really yummy.
I peeled off at two, and hopped the train back to the main station. I had a bit of time, so in addition to buying a postcard for Carson and Dylan, I lined up at the post office to buy a stamp (as I noted earlier, I am now sending them a card from every city I visit, though I usually cheat a bit and post them when I return). Ordinary experiences – like visiting the post – are to me a good window on places, and I enjoyed watching the to and fro at the counters. At 3:47, the Frecciarossa (“Red Arrow”), pulled out of Torino. We were in Milan in an hour, the arrow accelerating to 180 mph. The T-Geek enjoyed the ride.
Out of character: the Swiss Federal Railways train left Milano Centrale almost 20 minutes late. I celebrated our departure with a can of Heineken: la dolce vita! In character, the train was packed. I was headed to Lugano and to the Università della Svizzera Italiana – like 2009, this trip included two schools with Omar (who grew up in Lugano). We arrived Lugano 40 minutes late, at 6:50, which meant I had 10 minutes to meet him a block from the hotel. The station is above town, and there’s a funicular that “lands” a few feet from my hotel, but they only accepted Swiss currency. It would have taken more time to track down the ATM, so I walked down flight after flight of steps, down streets, down, down. Checked in, walked to the appointed meeting place, and Omar and Sandro arrived – they were also late, so it all worked perfectly.
In no time we were at my favorite Gallo di Oro (“golden rooster”) restaurant above the city. We had eaten there on both previous visits (Sandro joined us in 2009), and the place is just delightful. I repeated the starter of marinated octopus (second time that day, and a repeat from the visit the year before, but the main course was new, a hugely tender and large piece of rabbit. A glass of local (from Ticino) merlot, a dessert of pannacotta, and all was well. As in 2009, the three boys had a lot of laughs, and we had to work hard to keep the noise down!
After breakfast Friday morning (a couple from San Francisco were at the next table, and we talked friendly trash about each others’ baseball teams, which at home were battling in the World Series), I ambled down to the big lake at sunrise, then to the university. Omar e-mailed me that he was sick all night, so at 1:30 I introduced myself to about 25 Masters’ students, and delivered a talk on airline advertising. At 3:30, I trekked back up the hill to the train station, almost all on sloped sidewalks, not steps.
Unlike the day before, we departed right on time, headed north to Zurich. We still had almost two hours of daylight, which made for a beautiful ride through the Alps. The opening of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony fit the landscape perfectly: the trumpet notes were reminiscent of a Swiss alpine horn. Nice. About 40 minutes into the ride, we saw the first signs of the massive Gotthard Base Tunnel project, a new route under the Alps that will shorten travel times and that is the largest ($10.2 billion) infrastructure project ever undertaken in this country of impressive transport engineering. Indeed, three weeks earlier they had completed the 35.4-kilometer bore. I rode the train north on previous Lugano visits, but both were at night. The daytime scenery was superb, a remarkable mix of dramatic natural landscape and the work of generations of industrious mountain people, who had built prosperous lives in a rocky and mostly vertical milieu. We went through the relatively long and original Gotthard Tunnel (15 km., completed 1880), and on the other side the place names were German and the stream was flowing toward the north, not the Mediterranean.
We arrived Zurich a few minutes late, and I needed to hustle across to platform 15 and the German Railways’ ICE fast train north. It was Friday night and the train was packed, but I found a seat and chilled for an hour. When we arrived Basel, the train emptied and I headed to the dining car for a weissbier and a hearty bowl of cabbage stew – peasant food, like my ancestors in Brandenburg ate. Yum. I spent a couple of hours there, reading the day’s New York Times and a book on my iPhone. Ambled back to my seat, and in 20 minutes hopped off at Mannheim and onto a connecting train to Frankfurt Airport, arriving just after 11.
I got a little cranky when I rang the Ibis Airport Hotel and the fellow told me the “last bus” left at 11:10. What airport hotel (the bus actually serves two hotels, both in the Accor chain) stops a bus at 11? He suggested I take a taxi. “I don’t do taxis,” I replied, “what about public transportation.” There was the S-Bahn, the suburban trains, so I ambled back through the terminal, to the station, bought a ticket, and rode one stop west. I dimly recalled looking on a map and seeing that the hotel was more or less in the village of Kelsterbach, but a friendly older fellow directed me, in German, and said it was quite a ways. After walking about a kilometer, I asked some friendly ladies outside a bar, and in English they gave me further direction. It was a pretty long hike, but I am stubborn. I was not going to pay $25 in cab fare for a hotel that was only charging $85 a night, and where I was staying less than 8 hours! Head hit pillow at 12:15, for seven solid hours.
Up and back to the airport, this time on the free hotel shuttle, and flew home. Two items of note on an otherwise routine, pleasant flight. First, the flight attendants wear totally in Halloween mode (it was the day before). The galley crewmember wore a black witch’s hat, the purser had cat ears and a tail. After dessert, they reversed the customary trick or treating and came to us with candy. As granddaughter Dylan would say, “awwwww, so cuuuuute”!
Second, I watched the 2009 film “The Devil Wears Prada.” I suppose it’s what youngsters call a “chick flick,” but it caught my eye because Francesca Stan (from Torino, above) worked for Prada, and because fashion has caught the eye of generations on my mother’s side (the Italian side), including Robin. It’s a story about a bright young woman, a recent journalism graduate, who turns down a place at the Stanford law school to break into New York publishing, and lands a job as the assistant to a totally tyrannical editor of a fashion magazine (Meryl Streep in the role). The gloss and superficiality of fashion, and the editor’s bitchiness, reminded me of why I will always buy my clothes from L. L. Bean and Lands’ End!
I was glad to be home. MacKenzie was on the leash by four on Saturday afternoon.