To Europe, But First to a Birthday Party

Spring blooms in the Netherlands

Linda and I flew to Washington on Friday morning the 4th, headed up to Dylan’s third birthday party. Robin, Dylan, and Carson picked us up at Dulles, and in no time Nana and Pots (that’s us!) were helping with party prep. My role was hanger of crepe-paper streamers. Check and done, pink and purple across living- and dining-room ceilings. The party theme was ballet, and we had tutus for all, too (say that five times, quickly). At four, the girls began arriving (although Dylan has a number of male friends, the theme would have made it a bit awkward for them). It became a bit chaotic, but there were moms and a couple of dads on hand, plus us grandparents. Two teenage ballerinas arrived, and the tots were totally enthralled. Then it was time for pizza, then they were gone, and the clean-up crew (us) went to work. Dylan opened her presents and pretty much collapsed from fatigue, as did we. Here are some scenes:

Sister Carson (nearly 1) also enjoyed the party!

Was up at six Saturday morning, out on the folding bike that I keep at their house, a couple of miles on city streets, then onto the Washington and Old Dominion Trail (a former railroad right-of-way, described last November), east toward the city. I rode through backyards, across wetlands, through downtown Vienna, Virginia, and back. A good workout. At nine, Brett, Dylan, and I piled in the car and drove into Washington, to the National Air and Space Museum. I had not been there in several years, and it was fun to wander with Dylan, who, as I have mentioned, likes things that fly. High point of the morning was a concert in a museum gallery by a kids’ rock band called Rocknoceros. As soon as they started, kids jumped up and starting shaking and grooving. Dylan is sometimes shy, but she hopped up 15 minutes into the show. Big fun. Back home, short nap, more playtime with the tots, then out to dinner.

Dylan in front of the Wright Brothers' invention

Daddy and daughter enjoying Rocknoceros

It was such a joy to be there for Dylan’s birthday. I was reminded of the importance of “being there” a few days earlier, when I read a touching essay in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. The writer lost her grandma early, and she related her current thinking:

It’s with bitter sweetness that I watch my own three kids, 6, 5 and 1, glow in the presence of their grandparents. They can’t wait to call them with news of their latest achievement and they look forward to evenings when Grandma will tuck them in and Grandpa will tell them stories.

One day soon, this glow will be reserved for things other than grandparents – friends, driving, going out. Grandparents will become the people whom they obligingly kiss on the cheek and hug goodbye, whom they censor their tales around and who always ask them about school.

It won’t be until years later that they look back at their grandparents and remember those feelings they once had. Maybe it won’t be until they have children of their own and come face to face with their own mortality. Only then will they realize the short window available for grandparents.

Dylan's regard for maps is a joy for this scribe and geographer!

Was up again at six Sunday, but a pelting cold rain kept me from a bike ride. At ten, Brett drove me to the Metro, hopped it to National Airport, flew to Chicago, then on to Brussels. Had some nice T-t-S moments with my seatmate Erika, a Swedish lawyer turned businesswoman, working for Boston Power, a leader in lithium-ion batteries for a range of applications. Always a treat to sit next to a nice, and interesting, person.

Landed in Belgium at a bit after seven, on a sunny day. Zipped through the airport and onto a train into Brussels. I had 40 minutes until my connecting train to Rotterdam and on to Delft, so I took a little amble from the central station to the famous square called the Grand Place (or Grote Markt in Flemish). Took some photos and walked back, only to find that the 09:22 train was canceled. Waiting for the 10:22 train, had a nice T-t-S moment with a Dutch airline pilot now working for Delta and living in Greenville, South Carolina. A good fellow.

Grand Place / Grote Markt, Brussels

Above Grand Place

Arrived Delft at 12:30, and walked a kilometer north to the Aerospace Engineering Department of the Technical University Delft. It was my first visit to “TU,” and my first time speaking to aero engineering students. I met my host, a young Dutchman, Frank van der Zwan, and we zipped to the student cafeteria for a quick lunch, then into the classroom to speak to about 40 Master’s students about the challenges of the airline industry. At 3:40, I peeled off and headed to Rotterdam and across town to my hotel. It took awhile, and as soon as I got to my room I turned round and headed back to Delft for dinner (Frank and I agreed we should have planned the venue better, since he lived much closer to my hotel). I had not been into the historic center of Delft for several years, but I remembered my way from the train station to the Markt, the main square, where I met Frank in front of De Waag, a wonderful pub and restaurant in the historic weighing-house (knowing the mass of agricultural produce was a historically important town function). We had an exceptional fish dinner, and some really wonderful sweets for dessert, plus a couple of Grimbergen beers, brewed since 1128 in an abbey across the border in Belgium.

Dinner conversation ranged across a bunch of topics, including some recent innovations in Frank’s department, for example, the combined metal and plastic material that is the “skin” of the Airbus A380. Frank also knew quite a bit about Delft, historically a well-to-do trading and agricultural center, and the traditional seat of the House of Orange, the royal family of The Netherlands. It was a fine time, but by 8:15 I was ready for pajamas, so we walked back to the station and went separate ways.

Rotterdam skyline, from my hotel window; flattened by the Nazis in 1940, the rebuilt city profile looks like the New World.

Next morning I caught up on work, and at 11:00 met a new host at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, Bram van den Burgh. A young (Flemish) Belgian from Antwerp, he had been at the school only about 18 months, with research focused on consumer behavior. We grabbed a quick lunch and it was time to stand a deliver my talk on airline advertising to an audience of about 50 Master’s of Marketing students. Like a day earlier, I had the luxury of two hours, which was great.

Statue of Rotterdam scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) on the campus of the university that bears his name

After the talk, I answered several students’ career questions, walked back to the hotel, changed, and hopped on the Metro, riding to a suburban station and getting on the NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the national railway) for an ten-minute ride to Gouda, the city famous for cheese of the same name. It was the second sunny day in a row, as far as I could recall a first in nearly 40 years of traveling in Holland.

Parking lot, Gouda railway station; there's talk about energy conservation, and there's Dutch action!

I first visited Gouda in 2007, and new the basic layout of the historic center. Back then, I was recovering from broken ribs and a small pelvis fracture, and the walk from the station and around town was slightly painful. This time it was great, with bounce in step. I circled the large square, the Markt, admired the town hall and other buildings from the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century. Did a couple of zigzags down side streets and canals, snapped some pictures in the soft light of late afternoon. Here are a few scenes from that era:

I headed back to the main square for a beer at the Hotel van Zalm. The waiter brought me a dubbel, a dark sweet beer from Belgium; like the night before, it was brewed in an Abbey, in Affligen, and the monks had been working on the product even longer, since 1074. Nice. I would have been happy to linger in the old bar, but I had some calls to make, so headed back toward Rotterdam.

It was nearly dusk, but the diked fields glowed green. To the left of the tracks, white swans swam in the watery “lanes,” and to the right dozens of ewes, plump with lamb-children, munched the grass. The scene could have been from 1611, not 2011, and I was again reminded of my fondness for this kingdom, first visited four decades earlier on my first trip to Europe. It’s such a civil and humane place. On the train, I was reminded of a great article about the Netherlands from The New York Times in 2009; the U.S. author offered a sympathetic look at the Dutch welfare state, and explained its origins, as in this passage:

Water also played a part in the development of the welfare system. To get an authoritative primer on the Dutch social-welfare state, I sat down with Geert Mak, perhaps the country’s pre-eminent author, to whose books the Dutch themselves turn to understand their history. The Dutch call their collectivist mentality and way of politics-by-consensus the “polder model,” after the areas of low land systematically reclaimed from the sea. “People think of the polder model as a romantic idea” and assume its origins are more myth than fact, Mak told me. “But if you look at records of the Middle Ages, you see it was a real thing. Everyone had to deal with water. With a polder, the big problem is pumping the water. But in most cases your land lies in the middle of the country, so where are you going to pump it? To someone else’s land. And then they have to do the same thing, and their neighbor does, too. So what you see in the records are these extraordinarily complicated deals. All of this had to be done together.”

That last phrase, “all of this had to be done together,” stuck in my mind. The full article, well worth a read, is here:

I was tired and I needed to be up really early the next day, so grabbed dinner in the hotel and clocked out before 9:30.

The alarm went off at 4:45, out the door just after five. The revised plan dropped the €35 taxi ride to the airport in favor of a $2-equivalent zip on the Metro and bus. I had the vectors, and all was smooth until just after six, when things started wobbling badly. I followed the station signs for the bus to the airport, which was only about a mile west. Outside, a sign in Dutch said that the buses were not stopping there, but across the highway in the park-and-ride lot. That one was easy to translate. Across the road, the next temporary sign, below the permanent bus stop sign and handy schedule, was impossible to figure. I could only understand the date, December 2010, but I couldn’t figure anything else, and worried that the airport shuttle was suspended. The bus was to arrive at 6:07. At 6:15, 50 minutes before my flight, I had a mild panic, and set off west, but map-less, in the direction of the airport. I got about 200 meters when the shuttle bus came into view. Whew! Rotterdam airport is quite small (most of the play is 30 miles north at Amsterdam Schiphol), and I was at the gate by 6:30 and landed at London City Airport by 7:10. Maybe I shouldn’t try to be so thrifty, I thought.

Hopped on the Tube, changed onto a totally crammed train, and by 7:45 was gazing up at the north face of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Regular readers know that it is my “home” church in London, and it was so good to be directly beneath the dome that morning for Ash Wednesday services (I had last attended them there in 2005). There could be no better proof that Britain has become almost wholly secular than the fact that fewer than 50 people gathered for the 8:00 imposition of ashes and communion. There was no musical accompaniment, but we joined the bishop (who wore a crisp white miter and purple vestments) in the liturgy. We faithful “signed up” for 40 days of prayer, penitence, and service, which seemed to be to be a sensible thing to do.

I got back on the Tube and rode north quite a ways, past Hampstead Heath, to my hotel in the Golders Green district (thrift again: I wanted to save my hosts at the London School of Economics some pounds). Turned on the charm, hoping the front-desk clerk, wearing a “Trainee” badge, would check me in early. Nope, she proposed a £50 early check-in charge. Yow! I stowed my suitcase in the bag room, and headed back out.

To save some money, I did not stay in central London, but this scene across from the Holiday Inn Express in the Golders Green suburb was just not typical!

At 11, I met two hosts from the London Business School’s Marketing Club, Joyce and Christian, and delivered a 75-minute talk to MBA students (the Financial Times ranks LBS’s MBA program as #1 in the world). Gotta keep moving, I said, and after packing away a club-provided sandwich lunch, I headed back across town to King’s Cross station and onto the fast train to Cambridge – my second visit in less than two months.

Always good to be in that town that seems to hum with brain power. I headed to the Starbucks on Market Street for a large wake-up, worked my e-mail, and at 3:15 met a new host, Jochen Menges, a young prof who I first got to know three years earlier at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He and another colleague, Andreas Richter, organized a joint session of two classes in human-resource management, and from 4:00 to 6:00 I presented the second talk of the day. The group was small, and mainly undergraduates, but very engaged. Afterward, the two profs and a handful of students crossed the street to Brown’s for a couple of pints and a fun conversation; one of the youngsters, Alex, was on a yearlong exchange from MIT, and his perspectives on the UK, the university, and other stuff were really good. Ambled back to the station, bought a couple of sandwiches and a pint of skim milk for dinner, and hopped on the train. It was a long day.

First stop Thursday morning was a cup of coffee back at London Business School with Prof. Rajesh Chandy, who I’ve described in these pages. Rajesh always brims with ideas, and yakking with him is a joy. The next appointment was lunch at one, and just after settling in with a free wi-fi connection in the British Library (one of my favorite “corner offices”), I acted on a thought I had the day before: having read a number of books in recent months set in England during World War II (for example, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, a touching easy read by Alexander McCall Smith), I reckoned it would be cool – given my aviation interest – to see a British Spitfire fighter aircraft, the airplane that saved London and the United Kingdom from the Nazis.

So I hopped on the Tube and rode south to the Imperial War Museum, one of Britain’s best museums, across the Thames from Westminster (I was sure the museum had a Spitfire in their collection, but I Googled from the library to confirm). And there it was, hanging in the atrium. I snapped a couple of pictures from below, then walked to the second floor to be close to the machine. The facts on the interpretive plaque made it even more impressive: under 6,000 pounds, small fuel tank, big Rolls Royce Merlin engine. As I read the data, a young mother arrived with her pre-teen son and his friend. She told the boys that her grandfather flew them from factory to airfields, and I listened to her account, fascinated by the link to the defense of their island home.

Spitfire, the plane that saved Britain, Imperial War Museum

I didn’t have a lot of time, but enough to take a brisk walk through a temporary exhibit called “The Children’s War.” Some very touching photos, recorded oral histories, and artifacts. About 10 percent of the deaths from the Blitz were children under 12.

Bronze from the exhibit "The Children's War"; almost all of the rest of the art and photographs were hugely grim.

Walking away from the museum, I paused to look east, and spotted a new skyscraper going up on what looked like the South Bank; I had not seen it on either of my last two visits in late 2010. An older fellow stood nearby, and I asked him if he knew anything about it. Indeed he did, at least the rough outlines, and that launched the best Talking to Strangers episode in a while. Dick Pimm was 71, interested in aviation, and we talked for more than 20 minutes. He gave me the outlines of his life. I have become recently interested in what British people of his age can recall about the war years (indeed, after returning from the UK in January, I mentioned to Linda that I’d really like to collect such stories into a book), so I asked him. His eyes twinkled and he said two things were vivid: a German V1 rocket-bomb sailing over their house in Croydon, south of London, in 1944, and a few months later attending a concert of the famous Glenn Miller Orchestra from the U.S. “I can still remember that music,” he said, smiling. It was a lovely chat; how I enjoy those moments.

Dick Pimm, born 1940

I hopped on a red double-decker bus, rode across the Thames, and got off at Parliament Square. A bronze of a glowering Churchill stood across the street. I walked north and east, and in a nice coincidence, came upon a newly-erected memorial, to Sir Keith Park (1892-1975), a New Zealander who coordinated the defense of London in 1940. Thanks, Keith!

Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park

Traditional sign, in this case for tea and coffee merchants Justerini & Brooks, better known today as purveyors of wine and spirits

At 1:00, I met David Holmes, another long-time friend, for lunch at the posh Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall. A March lunch with David has become an annual delight. Now 76, and retired from British Airways and a longer career as a senior leader in the Ministry of Transport, he’s a prince of a fellow. The conversation and the meal lasted a couple of hours. We laughed, we got serious, and we enjoyed the time immensely. Enough fun, time for work, and at 4:00 I arrived at the London School of Economics, meeting for 15 minutes with a Dutch student (Arnoud, who introduced me to the people at the Technical University Delft) who sought advice on his thesis, then listening to a student presentation on American Airlines – it was the fourth or fifth time I had helped with the project. After the talk, my host Geoffrey Owen, his colleague David De Meza, and I repaired to the basement of Cooper’s Restaurant across the street to de-brief the presentation. I peeled off for the northern suburbs, grabbed a quick curry dinner near my hotel, and clocked out.

Met a couple of other friends on Friday morning and at lunch, then headed out to Heathrow. Worked in the Admirals Club for a couple of hours, then hopped on a flight to Chicago. I was glad to be heading home. But no: an hour west, we turned around, the captain first announcing a medical emergency, then after landing mentioning a risk from fumes coming from the rear cargo hold. Yikes! We got off the plane and waited at a locked gate area for an hour. American canceled the flight, and we all headed back through immigration and customs, then over to a nearby hotel. Some customers grumbled, but I thought my company handled the whole thing quite well.

I was lucky to get a nice seat the next morning on the nonstop to Dallas/Fort Worth. And I was even happier to be headed home. The last two overseas trips have been long and busy. I love to travel, but it was a blessing to hug MacKenzie at 3:15 that afternoon (she was the only one to hug – Linda was back in Virginia with the grandchildren). I was glad to be in our bungalow in Texas. That evening, I figured out one of the reasons why it was so good to be home: of the first 71 nights of the new year, I was away for 35.

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