Long Walkabout, Part 2: Sweden

The Paulson House on the Umeå River, in the traditional Västerbotten style

It was time to get back to teaching.  Early on Friday the 16th, I ambled a couple of blocks to the Folkets Hus (“People’s House), a civic space, for a talk on the airline business to 30 members of the Umeå marketing association.  Had a good yak before the talk with a couple of people, including a well-experienced Ph.D. physicist who now owns a small local company that manufactures fitness equipment; in a previous career he worked for Raytheon and other defense contractors, and said he preferred his current work to “making things that blow up.”  Indeed.  After the talk, the president of the association, Nils Paulson, drove me up the hill to the university; along the way he told me a little about his six kids, three grown and three small, the latter from a second marriage, and invited me to visit two days hence.  His only daughter, Anna, plays soccer for the local pro team, as well as for the Swedish national team.

I joined the annual meeting of the Umeå Business School’s International Advisory Board, in progress.  Introduced myself, and off we went, filling the day with reviews, advice-giving, and some interesting banter.  To my right was a new guy, Guy Pfeffermann, a former World Bank executive now CEO of the Global Business School Network, a Washington-based NGO focused on linking B-schools in developed countries with those in emerging markets.  We had some good chats over the next three days.  Several times that day, I looked out of our glass meeting room at the northern sky, and my mind went back to 11 previous meetings of the board; my association with this school is a long one, and I’ve greatly enjoyed it.

At four, we went down the hill – me on the Dean Lars Lindbergh’s black bicycle (he lends it each time I visit) – to the university’s School of Architecture for a fascinating tour of its new building.  Professor Allan Greve, an enthusiastic and articulate Dane, showed us around.  He stressed that the school, the newest of five such faculties in Sweden, had “a different starting point,” emphasizing an artistic, rather than an engineering, approach.   Allan was fascinating, full of fresh perspective, so reflective of the Scandinavian impulse for cooperative and innovative solutions; it was my second great experience with an academic architect in 2011 (see earlier post about Cambridge in March).  Just before six we headed to dinner.

Professor Allan Greve, passionate about a new approach to architectural education

Architecture students' inexpensive solution to brightening the building and dampening noise

Architecture students in their space for work, study, and collaboration

Was up at dawn on Saturday morning and out the door, across the Umeå River and upstream to a familiar place, a small, skinny island called Bölesholmarna.  Each circuit around is 1.5 miles, and I did 6 before breakfast, finishing in a light rain.  It was nice, even comforting, to be back there (as I have written many times, as much as I enjoy new places, the circularity of my travels, like to that island, feels really good).  After breakfast I rode up the hill to school; I was well early for the ten o’clock start, and did a bit more cycling.  Riding through a well-designed public-housing district, in my head I began to compose a letter to Michelle Bachmann.  “Dear Michelle, I’m here in Sweden, in a place people like you love to criticize.  But the lights are on. The economy is growing.  People are not hungry.  Nor do they worry about getting sick and not having access to medical care . . .”  I stopped there, because it made me cranky, and the blue sky was not conducive to that!

New public housing near the university; a nonprofit company, Bostaden, manages nearly half of all rental housing in Umeå

After a morning session and lunch, the meeting ended.  I rode back to the hotel, changed clothes, and set out for a good ride up the river, along another cycling and walking trail that I knew well.

Remains of a hydroeletric plant on the Umeå River, built 1917 because World War I made coal too expensive for local industry

It was a fine workout, more than 30 miles for the day.  Grabbed a quick nap and at five ambled down the hall to the hotel’s sauna (bastu in Swedish), where I fell into a long conversation with an electrician and a nurse from Örnsköldsvik, a city 60 miles south.  They were on a quick getaway to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary.  We covered a lot of ground: family, electricity, home heating, caring for the elderly.  And of course I congratulated them.  Four members of the advisory board, the dean, and several colleagues gathered for a wonderful dinner (I was really eating well on that trip).  It was a full day.

Sunday was even fuller.  I ate breakfast with the new board member, Guy, yakking for a couple of hours, then chatted briefly with longtime board member Marian Geldner, about a possible spring 2012 visit to the Warsaw School of Economics.  At ten, I hugged Ali F., a young Iranian I met in Umeå in 2009; I’ve kept in touch with him as he has watched events unfold in his homeland.  Providing more detail might put him and his family at more risk than they already bear, but I was amazed that Sunday morning as I was two years earlier by his serenity in the face of uncertainty and threat.  He chatted for an hour about his possible futures.  He knew from e-mail that I was headed to high mass at the nearby city church, and I was touched that he asked, so respectfully, if he could accompany me.  “I’m a moderate Muslim,” he said simply.  We more or less kept up with the flow of the service, picking out every tenth word, me stumbling through the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer in Swedish.  Happily, God hears all voices.  The mass took a long time, and included a retirement ceremony for a woman priest.  Ali and I walked back to the hotel, he gave me a CD of Iranian music and read a poem to me in Farsi, and we said goodbye.  I prayed several times that morning, and in the days after, for him, his family, and his nation.

It was another sunny day, and I needed to stretch my legs, so I changed into bike shorts and zoomed off on the big black bike, up the hill and past the university to the Nydalasjön, a large lake on the edge of town.  Rode around it three times, on a path crowded with walkers, other cyclists, families out for a picnic, and more than a few elderly people in wheeled walkers – you gotta admire the Swedes’ commitment to staying active.  Rode back to the hotel for a drink of water, and noticed two missed calls on my iPhone.  It was Nils Paulson, the marketing-association head. “Where are you?” he asked.  I didn’t think his suggestion two days earlier that I visit Sunday afternoon constituted a firm invitation, but when he said “my wife has baked a cake and we have brewed fresh coffee,” I jumped back on the bike and rode five miles south, along the river, to their house.

The Paulsons; left to right Johan, Carolina, Olle, Dagny, Petter, and Nils

I was glad I did.  There was a Paulson family welcoming committee when I arrived: Nils, his smiling wife Carolina, Nils’ mother Dagny (nearly 87, and still riding her bike from town to their house), and sons Johan, nearly 8 (and already speaking good English), Petter, 3, and Olle 1.5.  Two days before, Nils noted with some pride that it was built in the local style, Västerbottens Gård.  What I did not know is that he and Carolina built it themselves.  Wow.  We visited a little in their front yard (Petter and Olle not really understanding what the guy on the bike was saying!), then went inside for a tour.  It was so cool, not only that they spent two years building, but it was faithful to 19th century ways – massive beams, bleached pine floors, old-fashioned wallpaper.  Well, okay, the kitchen held a massive Husqvarna refrigerator, but we are in the 21st century!

We walked out the back door to admire the view from the yard, which runs down to the river, then repaired to the kitchen for homemade chocolate and blueberry cake (wild berries), and some solid Swedish coffee.  It was a lovely visit, and we all agreed that when we travel, one of the best, but quite rare, experiences is to be able to see how people live.  I gave each boy a hug and a kiss (they made me feel lonesome for Dylan and Carson, who at that moment were with Linda, Robin, and Jack at Walt Disney World).  It was the high point of the day.  (In an e-mail sent the next day, Nils wrote that Petter told his kindergarten class that he was “really happy that Rob was visiting yesterday”!)

On the way home from visiting the Paulsons

At five I took another sauna, but did not stay as long because the bath was empty.  Took a quick nap, biked to a local pub for an $11 pint of pale ale from a Swedish microbrewer.  It was great beer, but eleven bucks!  (Mrs. Bachmann would not have been happy, either.)  Sipped the pint while reading the Sunday New York Times on my iPhone, then rode back for the free buffet dinner at the hotel – it was not fancy food, but it was really nice to be in control, and to load up on vegetables.

Was up early Monday morning, biked a few blocks across downtown to the Umeå railway station and onto the 6:46 Norrtåg train to Örnsköldsvik (where my Saturday sauna friends lived).  The ride was along the new Bothnia Line, the largest public-works project in Swedish history, north of $2 billion.  The line runs closer to the coast, and is shorter and faster than the old line it replaces.  We ran above 120 mph for most of the run, and the expense was clear from the many tunnels, bridges, and cuts – blasting through granite and volcanic rock is expensive.  The train reversed course at Örnsköldsvik and I was back at the hotel just after nine.

Botniabanan right-of-way, blasted through the rock

Norrtåg train at Umeå C station

Suited up and rode the bike up the hill to campus.  Did a bit of work, visited with old friends on the B-school faculty, and at noon delivered a lunch talk on career and life to 200 undergraduates.  I enjoy giving the talk – my “ten pieces of advice” (stuff like the need for work-life balance, to read the news every day, and so on) are obvious to me after a long time at work, but not to youngsters.  They gave me the kind of applause that made me feel like a rock star.  I bowed deeply.

At the end of the day, I spoke on leadership to members of the business school student association, the HHUS.  By seven I was plumb wore out – good thing the campus is above town and you can coast a lot of the way to the hotel.  It was raining steadily, and I used the brakes a lot (happily, I remembered to throw my rain jacket in the backpack that morning).  I took off my suit, ironed the creases the rain removed, put on jeans, and headed back out for a beer and dinner.

Was out the hotel door at eight Tuesday morning, rolling the suitcase and backpack.  I was pretty sure I could not load those two (total weight, more than 40 pounds) onto Lars’ bike, but lo and behold, the pack rode on my shoulders and the rolling luggage fit snugly in a metal box frame above the back wheel (the same one I occasionally whacked with my leg when getting off the bike, ouch).  In airline terms, the craft was way above MTOW, maximum takeoff weight, but it was quite stable, and I was able to keep good control at a slow speed, taking huge care to avoid bumps, other cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists – happily, the latter show great respect for those on bikes, and they kept even greater distance from me!  I rode back up the hill with a huge grin – it was one of those “we are young” moments.

At nine I met Anders, responsible for articles in the HHUS newspaper and on their website, for a 45-minute interview.  His brother Lars arrived with some serious cameras to snap some pictures, and we had a good session.  From ten ‘til almost noon, I delivered a lecture to three combined classes, then walked briskly across campus to catch the 12:06 bus to the airport and the 12:50 flight to Stockholm (nice to be in a small place, where each pre-flight task takes almost no time).  The very speedy train into the city had become really expensive – almost $40 for 25-mile one-way, so I opted for the $15 express bus.

At the central station, I hopped onto the subway (single ticket, $6.60!), rode one stop to the Gamla Stan, the old town, and walked two blocks to a rather unique hotel, the Mälardrottningen, which was actually a small ship once owned by Barbara Hutton, heiress of the Woolworth’s chain of dime stores.  She (the boat, not Barb) was anchored off Riddarholmen, one of Stockholm’s historic hearts, an absolutely superb location (I had booked the place months earlier, largely because it was one of the cheapest places in central Stockholm).  The kind front-desk clerk assigned me a larger cabin than I booked, much appreciated.  Unpacked, did some work, grabbed a quick sandwich.

My floating hotel, Stockholm harbor

View from the ship hotel

At 6:30, a young friend, Peter Gabrielson, who I first met five years earlier at the Stockholm School of Economics, picked me up in his zippy convertible.  We had kept in touch through the years.  Peter, whose mother still flies for SAS (and who I met in 2010 and described on these pages), really wanted to work in the airline business, and six months earlier he got his wish.  He was pumped about his post in SAS’ revenue-management department.  We drove across town to his apartment in the Östermalm district, quite close to the center.  As we walked up to his solid, century-old building, he told me he had lived there from birth until age 18.  How cool to be back!  The place was right across the street from Oscars Kyrka, where his dad was pastor.  We had a quick tot of champagne, then walked a block to a fish restaurant for dinner and a good yak about airlines and more.  It was a nice evening – we were planning for his mom to join us, but she had a 3 a.m. wake up the next morning, back into the skies.

Stockholm's distinctive town hall, from the ship hotel

Rose early Wednesday morning to do a bit of work, then bought another ticket for the Tunelbana (Metro) from a man wearing a shirt with the logo of the Hong Kong subway, the MTR.  I thought he was just wordly, but he explained that the latter now have a contract to manage Stockholm’s system.  Ah, globalization!  At 9:30, I met my Stockholm School of Economics host Hans Kjellberg, then delivered a two-hour lecture to a MBA class.  It was good to be there, an excellent school, after a hiatus of a few years.  As we had done in the past, after class we had an informal lunchtime chat with about 12 students.  Peeled off and headed back to the airport.

Frieze, Marketing Department, Stockholm School of Economics


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2 responses to “Long Walkabout, Part 2: Sweden

  1. We had a good, but I might add short, session. Whenever you’re in Umeå, just give me a shout and I’d love to arrange a more serious photo session. It was truly a pleasure to meet you, however short the encounter was.

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