Four days after returning from Thanksgiving in Virginia, I flew to Europe, landing in serious early winter in Frankfurt, snow and cold. And canceled flights, which meant that, flying standby, I did not get a seat on Lufthansa’s 9:45 departure to Leipzig. I headed back out to the ticket counter, checked in for the 1:20 flight, and headed to the Admirals Club to work my e-mail and relax in a nice space (in September, for the first time ever, I had to pay to renew our membership, but it’s worth every dime for times like that). When I was leaving the club, I said hello to a German fellow – I should know his name by now – who has worked in the club for more than two decades. He told me the sad news that the club is closing in 2011, when American combines its facilities with BA in the other terminal. It was a sad reminder that change brings trouble to good people.
Stood in a long line at the security checkpoint, a repeat of the morning. But there was good news at Gate A25, a seat for me on the 1:20 flight. Whoopee! It’s only 187 miles to Leipzig, a quick flight. As we approached, I had a nice T-t-S moment with a young Leipziger. Born in 1975, he was 14 when East Germany collapsed; he noted that he studied Russian from age 5 until the big change. Now he was an IT contractor, self employed, no trouble getting jobs. Happily, my checked suitcase appeared, I wheeled it toward the train station, bought a day ticket for the LVB, the local public-transport service, and rode a suburban train and a tram into town. It looked like Leipzig got about eight inches of snow. Removal was clearly not the city’s – nor property owners – strong suit, but I quickly got my Minnesota winter balance as I skidded (not rolled) my wheeled suitcase up Gräfestrasse to my hotel. The street was lined with big old houses from the 1900s to 1920s, including a couple of Art Nouveau beauties.
My hotel, two miles north of the center, was spartan, but clean, quiet, and cheap (at this time of year, all resources are allocated toward Christmas for the family, most of which Linda manages). The shower worked great, and being clean was good. But I needed to make up for lost time, so I dressed in the warmest clothing I had and headed back out, onto the streetcar into the city center. The Christmas markets, a German tradition, were in full swing in several places in the core, and the mood was festive. I headed into St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church, and I smiled broadly, not because as a Lutheran believer I felt perfectly at home, but more because a historic church is the best proof that one is the Old World. The building, built out from origins in the medieval era, had an unusual ceiling (18th century). On the way out, I picked up a brochure about the church and read it quickly. In addition to an architectural history, there was a moving narrative of the church’s substantial role in the 1989 collapse of the GDR. “Peace prayer” services, held every Monday evening, were a powerful force, one that the Stasi and other organs of the state could not combat. A GDR central committee member later said: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
I bought Dylan and Carson a postcard and ambled on to Thomaskirche, the more famous Lutheran church in Leipzig. It is really the mothership of Protestant music. Johann Sebastian Bach was cantor from 1723 until his death in 1750. Angels must have grabbed my feet, for I arrived just in time for the Motette, an hour of sacred music for women’s choir and organ. We enjoyed works by Mendelssohn, Mozart, modern sacred-music composers, and of course an organ prelude by Bach. We joined in two brief hymns and and prayer. Pastor Wolff delivered a brief homily. It was magic, pure serendipity.
Spiritually fortified and feeling splendid, it was time for dinner. I had my vectors to the Bayersischer Bahnhof, a microbrewery and restaurant in a former train station. The tables were all booked, but the kindly host showed me to a stool at the bar, a perfect spot to enjoy a couple of glasses of Gose, a local specialty that is top-fermented, slightly salty, rich in vitamins, and according to an advertisement from 1900, “nerve strengthening.”
I immediately liked the place on several levels – ambience, mix of patrons, and a splendid slogan, In vollen zügen geniessen – enjoy it in full. And I did, especially the huge portion of
Jägerschmaus, a goulash made from game, and three enormous dumplings made from day-old pretzels. It was the definition of heavy food, but was precisely what I needed. A barman and duty mamager asked if I was enjoying the meal. I responded by showing him a photo of my German great-grandmother Ottilie, which prompted nice chat. He seemed surprised I found the place. I told him that The New York Times had spotted it earlier in 2010.
After dinner, there was a true T-t-S moment, chatting with the fellow at the next stool, a young guy from Hanover, in Leipzig to earn a Master’s in clinical psychology. I showed him picture of Jack, studying for the same degree. The photo was taken a couple of months earlier, Jack standing next to the Minnesota Vikings mascot, which delighted the German lad, who plays American football. “I love the sport, but I’m bad at it.” Nice.
It was home about 9:30, and I was worn out. Walked across the street, hopped on the tram, and was asleep by 10:15. A great evening.
Slept hard until three, then up for two hours, then back dreaming until seven. Packed up, walked back to the tram, and headed to the Hauptbahnhof.Put my suitcase in a locker, had a quick breakfast, and headed into the center, retracing steps from the night before, back to St. Nikolai to take some pictures, then into Riquet, a traditional café in a wonderful Art Nouveau building. It was cold, and I needed both warmth and another cup of coffee. Restored, I ambled around the center, taking snaps of the old city hall, and the Thomaskirche.
Last stop was at the Runden Ecke (“round corners”), a building that was once to local headquarters of the East German domestic spies, the dreaded Stasi (you may recall that a year earlier we visited a former Stasi prison in East Berlin, and Gerhard, our tour leader, was a former inmate). The building had been recycled for more peaceful uses, including a small museum that told the story of the 1989 revolution. Leipzig was one of the centers of ferment, and the story, told in pictures, words, and a few artifacts, was moving; the collection included protest banners; mugshots and arrest reports of protesters (what brave souls they were, I thought); guitars used to accompany protest songs. Powerful stuff, proof of the compelling virtue of freedom.
The snow continued to slow down transport, and my train to Berlin was more than an hour late, but by three I was giving Michael and Susan Beckmann hugs outside the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, and a wave to their son Niklas, now nearly two, and the same happy and smiling tot I noted a year earlier. It was the third year in a row that we met, and we decided it had become a firm tradition.
As I have noted many times, one of my travel joys is to do or see ordinary things in foreign places, so I was delighted to accompany them to KaDaWe, the big department store on the Kufürstendamm, the main drag of the former West Berlin, where Niklas had a haircut appointment. The place was absolutely packed, prompting Michael to wonder about the deep recession. Niklas was a bit wiggly with the barber, and, aha, I pulled out my iPhone and began scrolling through pictures of Dylan, Carson, and MacKenzie. He was much taken with our tots, and the barber speedily finished his work.
We ambled around a packed Christmas Market, enjoyed a glühwein and some bread akin to, but much better than, fruitcake, and caught up on our lives. The yakking continued at Gasthof zur Krummen Linde, a traditional inn close to their house. Before we sat down, I enjoyed a wonderful and too brief T-t-S moment with Uli, a fellow who I learned had lived in Texas for a number of years. German people are friendly. Dinner was splendid, starting with a large glass of Märkischer Landmann, a really chewy dark beer I first tried a year earlier. But the main attraction was roast goose with dumplings, red cabbage, and grunkohl (chopped kale cooked with pork fat). So good. So good. We headed back to their flat, had another glass of glühwein, and clocked out. I was so tired that I cold barely pull the comforter over me.
It was snowing Sunday morning, more winter. We walked with Niklas to the local bakery for fresh bread, and returned to a large spread, including fresh weisswurst from a butcher near the home of Susan’s parents in Bavaria. Lots to be said for a really long breakfast.
In the early afternoon we bundled the lad into the station wagon and headed into the city, to the wonderful Technical Museum. First stop was at Michael’s office, a block from the museum; it’s totally fitting that the main office of Bombardier Transportation, a world leader in a range of railways and urban transport (where Herr Beckmann is VP-Strategy) is in the former headquarters of the Royal Prussian Railway Directorate.
We had a little more than two hours in the museum, but it was still wonderful. The two Transport Geeks were in heaven, wandering through a huge collection of railway hardware and exhibits tracing the history of German railways, which incidentally were celebrating their 175th anniversary.
A year earlier, we did not allow enough time to get to Tegel Airport, and we remedied that in 2010. I hugged Michael, kissed Niklas, and headed to the Swiss check-in desk. Luck was with me: I got the very last seat on flight 971 to Zurich, and it was one of the flight attendant jumpseats in the back of the Airbus A319. I introduced myself to the young woman in the rear, told her I knew how to operate the door, and we zoomed off. She disappeared to deliver the service, sandwiches and drinks, and I just wass thankful for being spared more standby stress. She was back in 30 minutes, and offered me a sandwich. There was a beer on the counter, and she offered that, too. I was sort of amazed, because I’m quite sure that in the U.S. the FAA frowns on tippling by jumpseat occupants, but I was happy to wash down my sandwich with an icy Heineken. Nice!
We circled for a bit, above freezing rain. Landed, walked briskly through the airport, and onto the 8:52 train to St. Gallen and my tenth visit to the university there. The third night in Europe was again bumpy (I am cranky about my loss of immunity from time changes, but there’s not much I can do about it). Out the door and up the hill to the business school, time to stand and deliver in Prof. Reinecke’s marketing class. After the talk, several students joined us in the Mensa, the student cafeteria, for a yak, and I headed back down the hill and into a needed nap.
Worked a bit, and headed out for a walk around town, looking at shop windows filled with Christmas wares. I paused for a long time in front of a music store, admiring not only a range of cool guitars, but also a small array of simple (and not made in China) instruments for children.
I took a seat for a 6:30 organ concert in the Klosterkirche, the wonderful cathedral attached to an old abbey (St. Gall, the city namesake, was an itinerant Irish monk). High above me in the sanctuary, an absolute Baroque masterpiece, was the wonderful carved angel that has welcomed me for more than a decade. She points upward, urging the faithful toward the higher ground, on earth and after. I do love her.
At 7:30, Lydia Ebersbach, who had been my student host for three or four years, a new doctoral student, and two others joined me at a large round table at Fondue Beizli. We had a lot of fun, and toasted Lydia on completion of her Ph.D. and securing a wonderful marketing job in Shanghai with the German appliance maker Miele. It was a nice evening.
The rain had stopped Tuesday morning, and I jumped on a local train down the hill to the Bodensee (Lake Contstance in English), to see a wonderful whimsical building designed by the imaginative Austrian Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Way cool. I wished that Dylan were with me, because of the color and fantasy of line.
Headed back to St. Gallen, suited up, met that day’s host, Winfried Ruigrok, for lunch, and spent the afternoon in his international management class. Hopped the bus down the hill, ate a quick bowl of soup and a dark beer at a favorite brewpub, and clocked out early. As Dylan would say, “I exhausted.”
Was up at five Wednesday morning, onto the 5:44 train back to the airport, and British Airways to London City Airport. There was low cloud in the south of England, so we were a bit late, but I was not in a hurry. Had a cheese sandwich at Pret a Manger to supplement the inflight ham sandwich, and a cup of strong coffee, and hopped on the train to Bank Station, below the Bank of England.
Rolled my suitcase west and a bit south, and at noon met my London School of Economics host Sir Geoffrey Owen. We had a nice but hurried lunch, and at one I delivered the last lecture of the year. As in previous years, I then held a 90-minute Q&A session with a team of ten students who were working on a strategy question (yet to be formulated) about American Airlines (other teams work on cases about Glaxo Smith Kline, the supermarket chain Tesco, BMW, and other big firms).
At 5:45, I met Scott Sage, a young pal – and friend of Robin’s for 20 years – who I have often described in these updates. Scott’s an interesting fellow, well informed and endlessly curious (a couple of powerful virtues), and we caught up since our last yak six months earlier in Texas. His pub choice, the nicely named Last Running Footman, was packed, and it took us more than 30 minutes to find a drinking place where we could sit down. It was a good time. He’s a sort of mentee, and I’m proud to serve. Based on an evening of excess 18 months earlier, we stipulated a two-pint limit, so we parted about eight. Ever thrifty, I had booked a Holiday Inn Express a few Tube stops north. The room was fine, but the internet was kaput. Dropped my stuff and walked a couple of blocks south on Finchley Road to Eriki, an Indian restaurant I found online. It was just okay – no Indian people dining, one of my reliable tests.
I slept hard. My iPhone alarm jolted me awake at seven. The HI-Express didn’t have working internet access, but they had a decent free breakfast. I spotted a Starbucks across Finchley Road, so crossed the busy street and worked my e-mail, hopped on the Tube to Kings Cross, then walked a block to Tony and Peter, the Greek Cypriot barbers that I have visited three or four times, most recently 18 months earlier. Tony was getting a new car battery, so Peter, who recognized me instantly, did the trimming, including a straight razor on my neck. We mostly yakked about our families, but also about the frigid weather, North Korea, and how much he likes Las Vegas. It was nice to reconnect.
Looking good, I pointed the suitcase south, walking about a mile and a half down Kings Cross and Farringdon roads, past where Robin lived in 2004 (the city, though vast, is familiar), to 25 Farringdon, site of the afternoon meeting. I had about an hour, and zipped into a very pleasant tea house with a door sticker promising free wi-fi (password: EarlGrey!). In the small stack of e-mails in my inbox was a note from geography friend Tom Harvey, replying to a message I sent him back in October – when I was on the terrace of the Wisconsin Union in Madison, I sent him the paragraphs from former advisor and mentor John Borchert’s autobiography, about his first teaching experience. His story from 1945 struck a chord the day after my last lecture of 2010. It ended simply: “The class applauded. And I was hooked.” My feelings, precisely.
I spent the afternoon visiting with Martin Cunnison, an ambitious young Brit who I had met in October, and some of his colleagues. His accounting firm kindly loaned us a conference room in a posh new building in the City, and supplied a nice lunch, too. The meeting ended about 3:30, and I ambled west on Holborn. I am lucky enough to be able to visit London often, but because there’s so much to see and do, at the end of a trip I always wonder what I’m missing. It seemed too late to head to a museum, so I hopped on the Tube, west, for a third consecutive pre-Christmas visit to The Old Packhorse, an agreeable pub in Chiswick owned by Fuller, Smith & Turner, my favorite London brewer (maybe it’s the mythical griffin on their logo; who knows?). I confess to breaking my no-drinking-‘til-five rule, but 4:45 seemed close enough. I bought a pint of their London Pride from the barman (like lots of them, from somewhere in Eastern Europe), pulled out my laptop, and brought this journal up to date.
I’ve often written about the comfort of circularity – in a world of change, returning to the same places is nice. So after leaving the pub I checked into a hotel near Heathrow Airport and made a third annual visit to Desi Flava, a very local Indian restaurant (I was the sole non-Asian patron) just east of the runways. The owner, from Hyderabad, recognized me with a waggle of his head, and I felt right at home.
After a very nice onion dosa (a rice and lentil pancake) came a lifetime first. I’ve been enjoying spicy food for nearly 50 years (since first introduced to Mexican TV dinners, if that counts), but in front of me that cold night was a dish too spicy to finish. Wasting food is abhorrent, but my mouth was on fire, and I worried that if when I left the café I turned toward the runways I would simply take off! So I headed east on Bath Road, a mile back to the hotel, clocked out, and flew home, finishing the last trip of 2010.