Monthly Archives: August 2011

Five Days in Chile

The old Chile: Conception Hill, Valparaiso

The new Chile: when completed, Santiago's Costanera Center will be Latin America's tallest -- and greenest -- skyscraper

After a successful time in Buenos Aires, I ambled out the hotel door at nine on Monday, August 8, down to the airport-bus terminal and out to the runways.  Flew LAN to Santiago, landing about one.  It was my tenth visit to Chile, so I knew the short route from the airport to Valparaiso, the port city 60 miles west on the Pacific.  Chile has an efficient and competitive intercity bus network, and I was there by 3:30.  Took a taxi up Conception Hill (Cerro Concepcion) to the Hotel Gervasoni, which I found on Expedia.  It looked old and atmospheric on line, and it was even cooler in reality, an 1870 mansion turned boutique hotel.  Checked in, cleaned up, and did some work.

The Hotel Gervasoni

The hotel living room, a really comfy place

At 5:30, in the room pictured above, I struck up a conversation with Ken Davis, an amiable fellow from Boston, touring South America with his wife and college-age son.  The latter two were napping, and he offered to uncork a bottle of Veramonte wine he bought earlier in the day in the Casablanca Valley.  We enjoyed a glass of Carmenere and a good yak.  About seven I took the 130-year-old Concepcion  funicular down from the hotel (the upper station was 200 feet from the hotel front door), dropping 240 feet in 30 seconds, and ambled a few feet to the historic Bar Inglés.  It was a possible dinner venue, and though it had wonderful old-school ambience, punctuated by an animated game of dominoes at the next table, the culinary vibe was not positive.  I nursed a beer, taking in the various tippling locals, paid up, and headed back up the funicular, then south to SaborColor, a hip place, for a plate of salmon ceviche followed by a congrio, the big eel I really enjoy.

Dominoes players, Bar Inglés

It was foggy on Tuesday morning, but it lifted by ten, and I zipped out for a bit of exploration.  The neighborhood around the hotel was even more funky and offbeat by day.  Pick some more adjectives: colorful, eclectic, bohemian, disorderly.  On the street behind the hotel was a scene I instantly recognized: they were filming a TV commercial.  I chatted briefly with a fellow to get the general picture, then moved on to admire the Lutheran Church at the other end of the street, which was getting a fresh coat of paint and some structural improvements.  My faith doesn’t have a “central office” like Rome (a good thing, for sure), but a sign did say that the world’s Lutherans were helping to pay for the renovations.  Ambled down the hill to the Reina Victoria funicular solely to ride back up.

Street art, Cerro Concepcion

After getting a good look around the ‘hood, I headed down to the area called Plan, the commercial center, where a huge protest march was forming.  The music and pot banging the night before was just a prelude.  This was huge, mainly comprised of trade unionists.  They looped around several blocks, and I moved on.

Valparaiso has lots of street dogs, and many of them look hungry, so when I spotted a small shop with bulk dog food, I ambled in, bought a pound (not nearly enough), and provided lunch to four pals.  It made me feel good and bad at the same time.  Dogs are so smart and so good – even three hungry ones did not fight each other for the last bits I had.

The Artilleria funicular, one of the city's longer rides

Are those automobiles attached with clothespins, hanging out to dry? Indeed they are, yet more evidence of the funkiness of Valparaiso; apologies for the poor photo quality, but I could only get a snap from the Metro, and I passed the art four times to get a sort-of workable image!

After riding up and down on one of the longer funiculars, I hopped on their new Metro and rode a few stops east to a beach restaurant where I enjoyed a good lunch on my last visit.  Here was the Pacific, but roughly on the same longitude as Boston (and straight east of Sydney).  I had a nice big slab of corvina and some French fries.  The table was outside, and I was positively freezing by the end of lunch.  I had another opportunity to watch gull flight (as in Norway, people were feeding them), studying their versions of rudder, flaps, and ailerons.  Got back on the Metro to do a bit more look-see, heading back toward the center.

Then it got interesting. The street in front of the national government buildings was barricaded, with a dozen police, locally known as Carabineros.  A block west – and not a long block – a water cannon was periodically dousing a crowd, and tear gas was being fired.

I snapped a picture and moved on, away from the ruckus, or so I thought.  I turned a corner at right angles to where the mob seemed to be, but kids were running toward me.  I headed quickly back to the Metro.  About 1000 feet from me was smoke from what was clearly a big fire.  I didn’t need to be closer.  The Metro was not running in the direction of my hotel.  Buses did not seem to be either.  So I set off on foot, west along the arterial that runs along the massive port.  I had hoped to be able to be far enough from the trouble, but soon I was way too close for comfort.  I was on the police side of the skirmishes, and at one point rocks were landing within 20 feet of me.  I crossed the tracks to get a bit more distance, and that helped, but trouble was still at hand.  I snapped pictures of fires in the street, a building with smashed windows, lots of disorder.  Adrenaline was flowing for about 15 minutes.

Broken windows after the riot

That day’s moment to thank my first Spanish teacher, Don Miguel (I’ve written about him on these pages many times, not least because he was, like the early purchase of road bicycles, one of the seeds of my enduring interest in travel), came when it looked like I was a block or two past any trouble, though I did not yet feel in the clear.  I came upon two older ladies, late 60s perhaps, walking toward me on the railway tracks.  They asked me what was happening.  I think Don Miguel whispered from on high, because I told them quite crisply about the situation behind me, enough to cause them to turn around.  I was glad to have retained just a little Español.

Ten minutes later, I was even happier to be right below the hotel.  The Concepcion funicular was closed for maintenance, so I followed the route of the taxi the day before, and was soon “home” – and really glad to be there.  I’m all in favor of peaceful protest, but Dr. King’s version of resistance is a better way.  Did a bit of work, headed out to a really good pasta and seafood dinner (a mother and a little girl about granddaughter Dylan’s age were banging pots outside the restaurant, continuing the protest), and was hard asleep at ten.

It was sunny Wednesday morning.  After breakfast I took a good walk around town, stopping to admire restoration of a fabulous Art Nouveau house, the 1916 Palacio Baburizza atop Cerro Alegre, the next hill west from the hotel.  Got on a conference call with colleagues at ten, packed up at eleven, caught an old trolleybus across town to the bus station at noon, and hopped on the fast bus back to the capital.

Palacio Baburizza

Rolling history: Valparaiso's wonderful old trolleybuses, and my ride from the hotel to the intercity bus station

Checked into a modern hotel in the Las Condes area; it was concrete and modern and the room was huge, but it lacked the soul of the place in Valparaiso.  After lunch from a nearby supermarket, I donned shorts and rode an exercise bike, hard, for 30 minutes.  Seldom had exercise felt so good.  Did some work and at six headed into the center.  Three Metro trains passed before there was one that I could squeeze onto, and just barely – Santiago is expanding its system, and with growth comes increased ridership (in nine recent visits, I could not remember such a rush-hour crowd).  I ambled down Calle Lastarria to the Sur Patagónico restobar, a terrific place I found by accident two years earlier.  It was still warm, and I sat outdoors, then moved inside to the rustic dining room, for a superb meal of steamed mussels followed by roast lamb, along with some great Chilean microbrews.  Yum!

Thursday morning, it was time to get back to work.  My longtime host at Universidad Católica, Andrés Ibañez, now dean of the business school, picked me up at 8:20 and we motored through morning rush to the suburban San Joaquin campus of the university.  From 10:00 to 11:20 I delivered a lecture on airline pricing to undergrad business students.  During the talk, protesters banging pans and drums marched past.  After the talk, I paused for daily prayers in the chapel, and took the Metro back to the hotel.

Worked the afternoon, grabbed a quick lunch, and at four I walked a few blocks to a very agreeable café and food market called Coquineria.  While waiting to meet some young friends, Constanza and Felipe Recart, I had a nice but too brief Talking to Strangers moment.  Below a fellow on the café patio were his two West Highland Terriers, and they looked a lot like the MacKenzie I was missing at that moment.  I asked him (in English I confess – should have practiced my Spanish) if his dogs were friendly, and he said yes.  I kneeled on the ground to pet them and make fast friends – the older licked my face like our Mac does.  I visited briefly with the man, long enough to learn that he had worked for Pan Am in its five last years, in passenger service at Los Angeles, and was on board for the Lockerbie disaster and the final day of a proud company.  He recalled it all clearly, with a distant gaze.

It had been four years since I last saw Constanza (known as Cota) and Felipe, and in that time they had gotten married, moved to Boulder, Colorado for Felipe’s MBA, and started a family (Simon Recart was due in two weeks), moved back to Chile six weeks earlier, and started a business.  Whew!  It was great to catch up with them.  I first met Cota seven years earlier, through American’s director for Chile.  Once again, so good to stay in touch.  At five I headed into the center and at six met 20 of Andrés’ MBA students, repeating the pricing lecture from the morning.  Grabbed a quick dinner back at Sur Patagónico, and took the Metro to the hotel.  A long, good day.  I opened the hotel windows before bed, and I shivered a bit through the night, but did not close them, for soon enough I’d be back in Texas heat.

It was too late to get to the airport after the evening lecture, so I spent the next day, a gorgeous spring day, wandering Santiago.  Nine annual visits offered a view of the city landscape not unlike time-lapse photography.  I kept saying “that building wasn’t there,” and in the booming skyline one sees the remarkable strength of the Chilean economy, growing about 5% per year, on copper exports to China, agriculture, and aquaculture.  There’s a palpable air of optimism and vigor in the air, and among the many Chileans I met.  It’s a place to admire.

Boomtown: Another skyscraper district that did not exist a few years ago

Something else to admire: many of Santiago's Metro stations are adorned with large works of art

My favorite Metro station: La Moneda, near the presidential palace, features huge oil paintings of a range of Chilean landscapes.

At 3:30, I hopped on the Metro one last time, then the bus to the airport, and flew home.  I had been in my own bed only 2 of the last 21 nights, so it was nice to be in Allen, Texas, even at 100° F.

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The 7th South American Business Forum, in Buenos Aires

Forum participant Milan Popovic (Serbia) in the Forum's Teamwork Exercise; you can learn a lot playing with plastic blocks!

On Thursday , August 4,  I abandoned the Texas heat (after only two days, home from Europe) and headed to winter in Argentina, down for my sixth annual appearance at the South American Business Forum (www.sabf.org.ar), organized by a committed and wonderful group of students at ITBA, the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology.  It’s an easy ride, across only two time zones.  Landed at 8:15 a.m. and in no time was zooming into the city and yakking about Argentine politics, the airline industry, and more with a volunteer, Josué Gil Deza, a great young guy.  We arrived at the forum venue only a few minutes late, and was immediately swept into the proceedings.  Some truly great presenters, best of which was an Argentine fellow who had spent his entire career as a prominent executive recruiter.  The session lasted until 7:30, and we then paraded to a restaurant for dinner.  I was asleep before 9:30.

Opening session of the forum

SABF trustees and visitor Claudio Aráoz during a lunchtime discussion

Longtime SABF organizer, friend, and dedicated carnivore Martín Siniawski mopping up leftover steak; as I have often observed, Argentina is a challenging place for vegans

Up early Saturday morning, work my e-mail, suit up, and head to ITBA.  First task was to moderate a student workshop.  I did not interact much with the students on day one, and more than caught up on day two – the informal one-on-ones or small-group chatter are as much fun as the formal sessions.  After a late lunch, I skipped out for a couple hours.  Wandered the shopping street, Calle Florida, bought Dylan and Carson a postcard (sending them a postcard from each city visited has now become rooted, and is well into its second year).

The Transport Geek needed a ride, so hopped on Line B of the subway, joyriding ten stops west and reversed course, then back to ITBA in time for the late-afternoon coffee break, when I met Matt, a seriously accomplished young Brazilian (second of the day actually), a MIT chemical-engineering major just back from a year working for a hedge fund in Shanghai.  Whoa!  One more workshop to attend, strictly as an observer, then a dinner of homemade pizza at the school, and more yakking with students.  Walked back to the hotel, changed clothes, and headed literally next door to the Buller Brewing Company, a brewpub, for a pint of their porter and some quiet time, mostly spent bringing this journal up to date.

Fellow passengers on the Buenos Aires subway

I went for a walk before the Sunday sessions began; here are a couple of snaps:

The train to nowhere, Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires; this new, little-used light rail line -- in a city hungry for public-transport modernization -- is an example of the patronage that has hampered Argentine public policy for decades.

Santiago Calatrava's brilliant Ponte Mujer, spanning a canal in the former port; in the background, the flashy part of the capital.

First thing Sunday morning was a fun teamwork exercise, playing with plastic Rasti building blocks (from Argentina) that were a lot like, but in many ways better than, Legos.  After lunch, we heard from a futurist, then it was my turn to stand and deliver – the team had asked me to deliver the concluding remarks.  After thanking the organizers and ITBA, and saluting the participants, I began:

As a student of economics, I often think about situations where supply and demand are not in balance, and the SABF is exactly such a situation, with respect to student comments and questions: after every speaker, the number of raised hands has exceeded available time.  Thus my objective for this closing is that you do most of the talking.

And after a short summary of the three days, lifting up some of the more memorable thoughts and ideas of a great lineup of speakers, we began a dialogue.  Some of the remarks were touching, all were thoughtful, and a few were genuinely funny – Henry, an energetic fellow from Hunan, China, said “Someone asked me if I missed spicy food, and I said no, because here you’ve got spicy food walking down the street!”  I was surprised and delighted at the number of students who judged the SABF to be transformative in some respect.  It really made me feel happy to be a helper.

After the closing, I was able to meet the parents of Matías Spanier, one of the forum co-directors, and it was a special moment, to be able to see them beaming with pride.  I chatted with two young South Africans I really enjoyed meeting, Sibusiso and Nangamso (earlier in the meeting, they made us laugh by teaching us the front-mouth click that is distinct to Xhosa, now one of South Africa’s official languages).  People wanted me to pose with them for pictures.  It was a sweet moment, one of those that validated my decision five years earlier to spend more time with students.

I was really glad that I stayed for all three days; in the past, I did not participate in the Sunday sessions, and the additional time enabled me to meet and spend time with more students.  I’m just Rob, but so many of them are really interested in asking about career and life, about engaging an open guy.  And I’m happy to oblige!

Although the forum was officially over, no one was leaving the ITBA building.  People just kept yakking and hugging and promising to stay in touch.  I finally peeled away, walked to the hotel, changed clothes, and at 8:30 met Martín, his girlfriend Valeria, and longtime SABF friend Juan Trouilh (the fellow who, back in 2005, first invited me to participate in the forum).  We took a cab to the Bar Británico, described in these pages last year, for a beer, a Milanesa (veal cutlet), and a debrief on the forum.  We declared victory, and it truly was a great conference.

Your scribe with SABF stalwarts Valeria Luna, Martín Siniawski, and Juan Trouilh

—————–

The SABF organizers, past and present, a truly talented lot; from many possible examples, I lift up Agustín Di Luciano, a budding young business professional who draws on his iPhone (using an app called Brushes):

One of Agustín's many iPhone works

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To Norway, By Ship

The Norwegian training ship Christian Radich at Stavanger

At ten on July 26, we hopped a cab from our London hotel to Waterloo station, and onto South West Trains to Southampton, then another cab down to the docks, and onto Cunard’s new Queen Elizabeth, for a one-week cruise to Norway.  This was the third vessel to bear that name.  Though the U.S. megacruise firm Carnival now owns the line, they maintain a reasonable modicum of authenticity and commitment to a long tradition.  We ambled around the ship all afternoon, and at five weighed anchor and sailed east, past the Isle of Wight, and out into the English Channel.

Time to weigh anchor; stevedore unroping the ship, Southampton

The Queen Elizabeth in Stavanger harbor

Wednesday was at sea, headed 600+ miles to our first port, the oil boomtown of Stavanger.  It was a relaxed day of exercise (great gym), reading, and bringing this journal up to date.

I was more than ready to get off the ship in Stavanger.  Linda was more relaxed, and she waved me along.  We anchored about a mile from downtown, because the Tall Ships were in port, part of a summer race from Ireland and Scotland to Szczecin in Poland.  So I hopped on an orange tender and got back on land ten minutes later, just after nine.

It took me a few minutes to get my bearings (the compass in the iPhone is handy), but once I oriented I set off for the center of town.  It looked just like all of this country looks: prosperous.  I walked past the 12th century cathedral, the Domkirke.  In the front and along the sides were hundreds of flowers and candles in memory of those massacred in Oslo six days earlier.  (Later in the day, I saw a solemn-looking working-class family, husband and wife in their early 30s, and kids about ten, walking toward the cathedral, each carrying a white rose.)

Stavanger Domkirke, Norway's oldest cathedral, completed about 1150

Memorials to the July 22 massacre in Oslo

I found an ATM at the Sparebank, withdrew 1,000 kroner, and ambled down to the long, skinny inlet that was the historic port, and that day teemed with Tall Ships from Russia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, UK, and elsewhere.  It was totally awesome.  Everyone, young sailors (the ships are either used for naval training, or for youth development), locals, tourists, were in high spirits, and the easy camaraderie and mixing stood in stark contrast to the xenophobia of the Oslo terrorist.  It was fun to watch the Dutch Eendracht docking, the marine equivalent of parallel parking.  Once roped, cheers from the crew met welcomes from Stavanger people, including a song from preschoolers in day-glo yellow vests.  I walked past the Norwegian Christian Radich, a well-known schooner that was purpose-built as a training ship in 1937.  The Nazis seized it in 1940; five years later, just before the end of the war, it was bombed in Flensburg, and sank.  It was restored in 1947.  The Russian Kruzhenstern, a four-masted naval training ship built 1926 in Bremerhaven, was open to visitors, so I climbed the gangplank for a look around.  Way cool.

Norwegian children welcoming the Tall Ships with song

Russian cadets posing on the Stavanger quay

Seal of the City of Stavanger

Detail on the prow of the Pelican London, a UK Tall Ship

Young Russian sailors aboard the Kruzhenstern

At noon I walked back to the tender dock to find Linda, and we ambled back to the center past these and other Tall Ships.  She wanted some pizza (two slices, a Pepsi, and a zero-alcohol beer ran to $32.67, which is why I had a huge breakfast; but the wi-fi was free, which was really nice after paying 40 cents a minute on the QE).  Walked up the hill and into the cathedral, which had an ornate pulpit and impressive vaulting.  Back down the hill.  Passed a small sound stage just as a Zydeco band started up; they sounded quite authentic, and turned out they were L’Angélus from Lafayette, Louisiana, heart of Cajun country.  Linda headed back to the ship, and I ambled a bit more, reboarding the Kruzhenstern to buy Jack a logo T-shirt (the enterprising Russians had a large souvenir table set up on deck!).

A fitting Stavanger totem (it held refined motor oil, not crude, but you get the picture!)

Back on board, I was a bit hungry, so headed to the cafeteria.  While eating a cookie, I spotted an older couple looking for a place to sit.  My table had three empty chairs, but they walked past, so I hopped up and invited them to join me, launching a lovely Talking to Strangers encounter with a couple of Scots now living with one of their sons in outer London.  The husband was 87, and like my father had served in the field artillery during World War II (thanking him for his service, he demurred, like so many vets, saying “well, I really didn’t do very much).  We talked about kids, jobs, and ended agreeing that too many companies had lost their moral compass.  It was a nice chat.

Slept in Friday morning, until seven a.m., up to the gym and onto the bike, then breakfast and out on deck to watch our arrival in for, up to the gym and onto the bike, then breakfast and out on deck to watch our arrival in Ålesund.  Most of the town that was built of wood burned in 1905, and the core was rebuilt almost exclusively in the Art Nouveau style, which results – even a century on – in a wonderfully cohesive and attractive townscape.  Buildings were built either of masonry painted in ochres, taupes, blues, greens, and even a couple of pinks, or of grey granite.  Solid.

Ålesund from an overlook above town

We docked and headed onto a tour bus.  We normally eschew shore excursions, but this one combined a look around town with a two-hour cruise on a smaller boat, up the steep-sided Hjørundfjord.  The young guide was abysmal, but the roll through town was sensational, and the view from an overlook 500 feet above even better.  We then motored about ten miles and hopped on the boat.  There was some low cloud, but also a few (well, very few) sunny patches.  It was about 50º F on the water and we felt chilly – a good feeling we’ll need to remember four days hence in Texas.

The fjord was sensational, with patches of snow on the steep green slopes, small farms with grazing sheep, barn-red houses in the Nordic style, altogether a serene landscape.  The boat returned us to Ålesund.  Linda went to our room.  I grabbed my laptop and headed back out, snapping some shots of the wonderful old buildings, then setting down to work in a bohemian café on a quiet side street.  The young barista, a nice fellow, said the wi-fi was a bit unstable, and invited me to try it out before buying a drink.  He was right, but it was steady enough to work my e-mail to zero and send some videos from my iPhone, so all was well.  Headed back to the ship.  A good day.

Ferry calling at a village on the Hjørundfjord; in this part of the world, those small ships are vital

Linda on board the small boat in the Hjørundfjord; she looked a lot like the locals!

New house with the traditional sod roof, near Ålesund

Art Nouveau commercial building, central Ålesund; save for a few truly awful contemporary buildings, the entire downtown was Art Nouveau

Saturday morning found us well inland but still in salt water, at the head of the Geirangerfjord, part of the Storfjord, or great fjord.  We were more than 75 miles from open sea.  The weather showed promise, a few patches of blue sky.  It was overcast all day, but it did not rain.  I again hopped off early for a walk around, or in the case of Geiranger, up.  Ambled up to the pleasant octagonal church, built 1842, and a bit farther along, then back down and onto the ship.

Multiple waterfalls, Geirangerfjord

Geirangerkirk

Grabbed a quick lunch and at one Linda and I went ashore and joined a group for a hike to Storsøeter, a tall waterfall about 1000 feet above sea level.  We zigzagged in the bus, around a dozen hairpin curves, to a parking place and began the walk.  Linda opted not to make the climb to the falls, which was on a quite steep and very muddy trail.  Storsøeter was magnificent, nearly 100 feet of drop, and you could walk down the side of the cliff and stand behind the water.  Way cool.  My creaky knees did fine, better on the climb than the descent.  On the way down I got much better at reading mud depth and finding rock footing, but my shoes were still brown.  We regrouped, had a waffle and a coffee, and rode the bus back down.  The cruise out of the fjord, entirely in daylight, was spectacular.  It was very narrow in most places, with waterfalls everywhere.  Truly stunning – and not surprising that the fjord was a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Trail sign above Geirangerfjord, color-coded by level of difficulty

Sheep grazing along the trail to the waterfall; the sound of her and other tinkling bells was lovely

Fellow hikers slogging down the trail

Sunday morning saw us docked in Bergen, Norway’s second-largest and Europe’s wettest city (I had been there once, on a rainy day in 1994).  But we again lucked out – no rain and indeed blue skies all afternoon.  I peeled off about nine and ambled toward the train station, admiring some solid old buildings that showed the city’s historic affluence – Bergen was the northwestern-most enclave of the Hanseatic League, a German invention of the 13th to 15th century, created to encourage trade and economic development.  And it worked, as those ideas always do!  (I later learned that Bergen had essentially the same status, called kontor, in the league as the smaller Steelyard that I had visited a week earlier in London.)

Oil-drilling ship, Bergen harbor

Traditional commercial houses on the Bryggen, central Bergen

I hopped on a suburban train, through a long tunnel to suburban Arna, then walking three miles to Garnes, where the Norwegian Railway Club ran a 1913 steam locomotive and antique cars about ten miles south to Midttun.  I actually reached Garnes by walking along the tracks (only used for the antique railway), something I had not done in years, at least for any distance; the view from the line is always different from that of the road, and I passed some interesting things, not least an old milk can and sign that read, in Norwegian, “Holm’s Station, 12.5 meters above sea level” – a reminder that the railway was the means to get farm produce to market in many parts of the world.

The view from the tracks, near Garnes

Sunday-morning enterprise: bee gathering nectar near Garnes

At Garnes, the Transport Geek was sweaty from the brisk walk but in a good state, and I bought a one-way ticket to Midttun (third class, the only standard that was offered!) and admired the club’s effort to create bygone ambience, for example in the newspapers and magazines (including a girlie publication!) hanging behind the (digital) cash register in the waiting room.  Snapped some pictures and hopped on the train.

 

 

 

Nicely-rendered old newsstand offerings, Garnes station

With a whistle and a bustle of steam we pulled out at 11:35, rolling back along the way I walked, then continuing south at a respectful pace.  It was a good ride.

At Midttun, I walked a block, caught a bus to Nesttun, then onto a brand-new light-rail line, the Bybanen, back into central Bergen.

Bergen's new light-rail line, the Bybanen; a nice contrast with the steam train

Inner Bergen neighborhood from the ship

Affluent Bergen exurbs; "affluent" is probably redundant in the Norwegian context!

One of many hungry gulls that chased the ship out of port

Met Linda, did a bit of shopping, and ambled back to the ship.  Thirty-six hours later we were back in Southampton, and ten hours after that were home,  in record-setting heat (110F/43C) in Dallas.

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Looking Back: The First Trip to Europe, 1971

The trip photos may have vanished, but I still have the ticket receipt!

I wanted to fly a 747 (a model just over a year old back then) on my first trip over, which meant departing from New York Kennedy — back then, Chicago was the closest European gateway.  I recall being really excited, and probably a bit too confident of my travel skills, having made my way the summer before through four countries in South America.  The 1971 trip was nearly three weeks, to Rome, Florence, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, and London – a quite conventional itinerary, save for a weekend zigzag behind the Iron Curtain.

It would be fun to illustrate this post with some scans of the hundred or so 35mm slides I took, but they disappeared in 1977 when Linda’s car was stolen in Chicago (not just the ’71 Europe trip, but slides from the ’72 visit to game parks in East Africa, plus a second visit to Europe).  For sure, I’d like to show you three scenes: a Swiss Guard at the Vatican, attired in the distinctively colorful uniform; a wizened old lady in a navy beret from a park in Prague; and two kids rowing a dinghy in an Amsterdam canal.  That I can visualize these in my mind’s eye provides a good reminder that when you travel, you need to record the scene in your brain at the same time you capture the (now digital) images in your camera.

Without photos, maybe the best way to recall that first trip is to compose a set of small vignettes in words.  About a white-hot summer afternoon in the Colosseum on arrival day; I could almost hear the roar of the lions.  About the next morning in St. Peter’s, a eureka moment: to savor Europe, you really needed to look up at ceilings; and into my mind came the idea – which I often remember – that it would be great to see Europe while lying on your back in a red coaster wagon (who would tow you remains a great question).

About how the Italians three decades on had forgotten Il Duce’s maxim about railway punctuality, causing my first encounter with cascading delay problems, but ending happily in Vienna and only about two hours behind schedule: in time for me to meet two Egyptian youths helpfully explaining (while holding his photo) that Mao Zedong was “president of all China.”  About sitting in the park in Prague, a rare and welcome hour away from the strictly regimented tour, but enough time to hear my benchmate curse “the Russian bastards” (his words, in my language) who invaded his country three years earlier.  About the tour bus driver who skillfully drove our broken coach home from Prague (clutch and brake systems were interwoven, and you couldn’t have both); we didn’t begrudge him the two shots of booze he downed after crossing into free Austria!

About, a day later, admiring the waves of Amsterdam commuters in front of the Concertgebouw at rush hour, waves of them coming away from the center, and all on bicycles.  About the pleasant bike ride across the Frisian island of Texel, north of Amsterdam, an empty place in one of the world’s most densely populated country.  About meeting my brother’s friend Paul Christiansen, who picked me up in Frankfurt (a one-day detour between Holland and England), driving his MGB at high speeds on the Autobahn, then along the Rhine for lunch high above the river.  About sleeping in a chicken coop on the outskirts of Oxford, because every room in the whole town was booked.  About eating the best pear ever in a street market in Calais (another side trip, by train and ferry from London.

It was not a perfect trip, and in hindsight I started to settle into some travel habits that took too long to undo, like too great a commitment to lowering costs, at the expense of some experiences that even back then were not costly.  But I did some things right, too, like mastery of public transport – buses in Rome, trams in Vienna, the London Underground; a commitment to learn at least a few tidbits of the local language; and an understanding that some really interesting experiences were to be had away from the big cities.

That I’ve been back dozens of times says something about the place.  Every visit there, even a quick business trip, has been a joy.

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First Stop, London

Dragon bearing the arms of the City of London, Leadenhall Market

 

On Saturday, July 23, Linda and I flew to London.  It was fitting we were bound for Europe, for it was the eve of the 40th anniversary of my first trip there.  Four decades and nearly 150 visits later, I still relish a visit to the Old World.  Before takeoff (we were sitting in some nice seats), we toasted Bette Holmes.  She was long-ago-friend Tim Holmes’ mother (you may recall Tim from this update in February 2010, and earlier posts), and her 1963 slideshow to our sixth-grade class of her and husband Mark’s trip by air to Europe was one of the many catalysts for my enduring interest in overseas travel.  Tim had e-mailed me a few days earlier, responding to a news item I sent, that included news of Bette’s death.  I promised Tim we’d toast Bette and her positive influence, and it was a pleasure to do so.

We landed at Heathrow about 10:30, hopped the train into central London, then a taxi across town to the City (financial district and historic core).  Checked into our hotel, the former Great Eastern Railway Hotel adjacent to Liverpool Street Station, now recycled as the Andaz, Hyatt’s hipster brand.

The Andaz Hotel, Liverpool Street

Interior of the Andaz, decidely not late Victorian!

The polychrome-brick late Victorian (designed by the same architect as the Houses of Parliament) was thoroughly contemporary inside, and we were barely hip enough to stay there (certainly we were the oldest guests!).  Showered and bathed, and while Linda napped I headed out for a walk.  It was a spectacular day, blue sky, 70º – which made it 30 degrees cooler than Texas.  Nice!

It was one of those “amazing what you can learn in 90 minutes” strolls.  London is a fascinating place for all kinds of reasons, not least the historical interpretation you find on plaques everywhere.

First stop, barely 200 feet from the hotel, was St. Botolph without Bishopsgate Church, where a sign told me that it had been a place of worship since Roman times, that the present church was built in 1729, and that it was damaged in Blitz, and by two IRA bombings in early 1990s.  I went in, not least to give thanks that it was here, offering sanctuary and a place for quiet prayer.  A block or so south was Leadenhall Market, since 1321.  The present market was erected 1881 by the Corporation.  The most interesting tidbit on the plaque was the story of Old Tom, a goose from the early 19th century who escaped slaughter through charm, and lived to be 38.  Honk!

St. Botolph's and its reflection

Next stop, 21 Lime Street, an archaeological site that straddled the second Roman forum, built 100-130 A.D. to house offices and courts.  It was the largest building north of the Alps, which reminded me that the Romans put high value on this far-flung part of their empire.  Down to St. Magnus the Martyr church, bells pealing loudly.  The sign mentioned that the current ones were new, a dozen cast in 2008-09 (heaviest one, 1400 kg., key of middle D), and that you were welcome to contact Dickon Love, the tower keeper, if you’d like the bells rung to mark a special occasion.  I was now at the Thames, ambling west to a place known from the 13th to the 19th centuries as the Steelyard, Der Stalhof, a German self-governing enclave of 400 Hanseatic merchants.  Amazing.  Heading back, I zipped in to hear a bit of an organ recital at St. Mary Abchurch, completed 1686, after the Great Fire, designed and rebuilt – like so many other parish churches – by the great Sir Christopher Wren.  A great walk.

 

The SwissRe building and a bell tower

 

The recently opened Heron Tower; the City of London is becoming increasingly vertical


After a quick nap and a bit of relaxing, Linda and I ambled north on Bishopsgate for a pint at a pub, then dinner at Canteen, one of my favorite London eateries, with wonderful English food.  Ambled back and clocked out.

Was up at 6:30 Monday morning, out the door for solo breakfast (Linda was dozing) from the Tesco supermarket across the street, consumed in the St. Botolph without Bishopsgate churchyard.  At eight, I met Fabio Scappaticci and Akanksha Hazari, two Cambridge MBA students with whom I had corresponded in the months since my January lectures there.  We caught up on their career progress and some other stuff.  Such fun to stay in touch with “my” students.  At ten, Linda and I hopped the Tube west to Green Park, and ambled south to Buckingham Palace.  The Queen spends two summer months in Scotland, and in that period the palace is open to visitors (we were there on the second day of the season).  The queues were long, but by 12:15 we were in the State Rooms, with a superb audio tour coming through headphones.

It was spectacular.  Ornate, of course, and filled with superb furnishings, sculpture, and paintings – Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto, and the like – but my eye went immediately to a couple of works by the Dutch master Jan Steen, whose interpretations of 17th century Dutch domestic life I began to admire on my 1971 first visit to Europe.  Steen’s eye was especially tuned to a bit of household chaos (the Dutch have a phrase to the effect that “your house looks like Jan Steen’s) and to carousing.  The painting “A Village Revel” thus caught my eye; it depicted exactly that – people tippling and carrying on.  Wonderful.

For many, the focus of the tour was Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, on view in the ballroom.  Not a lot of fellows interested, but I was, and it was really something to be able to see it up close.  We spent a bit more than an hour marveling, then walked outside for a simple lunch.  We agreed that one of the most remarkable things was the fact that the place was open to visitors, even for just 60+ days.  What a great thing.  After sandwiches and a cake, we walked along the garden, out the door, and back to the hotel.  Dinner that night was at the old-school J. Sheekey, a fish restaurant near Covent Garden, pricey but delicious.  Clocked out early again.

A small part of the rear of Buckingham Palace; unhappily, photography is prohibited indoors

A pond on the palace grounds, a remarkable rural scene in the middle of one of the world's largest cities

Tuesday morning, up at six, and finally able to do something on the list for more than a year: Barclay’s Bank and Transport for London (the public authority charged with mobility) have teamed up to offer literally hundreds of street “stations” where, with a credit card (or a subscription) you can rent a bicycle – and, if you like, return it to another location.  It’s free for up to 30 minutes, but I needed more exercise, so I kept it for 55 minutes, which still cost only a pound.  It was heavy, but had three gears and good brakes.  I found a less-busy street that was a bike route, and headed north through the Borough of Hackney, past public housing and rapidly gentrifying districts to Stoke Newington, then back, a total of about 10 miles.   The journey continues in a subsequent post . . .

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