On December 1, I flew to Frankfurt for the last teaching trip of the year, and my 150th journey to Europe. I raised a glass to my good fortune, to the blessing of mobility, to widened Old World horizons for 40 years. Landed in Germany, ambled across the airport to the train station (stopping outside Starbucks to pick up a free wi-fi signal), and onto the 9:43 ICE (really speedy) train to Düsseldorf, then onto a slower one to Münster. It was my 2nd trip of 2011 and 11th to that pleasant old university town. So I know my way around, and was at the hotel in no time. My performance wasn’t until six, so I headed out for lunch, then to buy Robin and the girls a small handmade Christmas ornament from a little workshop in the former East Germany (this made four I’ve gotten at a nice little shop in Münster). Normal conditions in early Deccember are what North Germans call schmudelwetter¸ which translates roughly to awful, wet, cold, windy, but the sun was out and it was lovely. The town has a bunch of the traditional Christmas markets, and attracts thousands of tourists in Advent, so it was busy. The afternoon light was really good, and I snapped some pictures, then headed back to the hotel for a short nap and shower.
At five I met my longtime host, the great Manfred Krafft, one of Germany’s leading marketing professors and a good friend. We yakked a bit, I spent 40 minutes offering some advice to one of his Ph.D. students, and at six I conducted an informal talk on career and life to undergrad students who are members of an honors program called Circle of Excellence in Marketing. After the talk we visited one of the markets for a glass of glühwein (hot spiced wine) and a bit more talk, including a splendid chat with Sophia, who had been an au pair in White Plains, New York, and who really liked the U.S. Am always happy to meet people like that, who can see and enjoy the best of our country.
Manfred and I then peeled off for dinner. The plan was to return to my favorite eatery in town the Altes Leve (open 404 years, so they know their way around the kitchen), but it was packed, so we repaired to a Spanish place for a tasty plate of paella. Long live the European Union! Was asleep by 10:30.
But up around two. I must have jinxed my sleep pattern by telling Manfred that I seemed to be over the time-zone woes that had been afflicting me in recent years. Flopped around for a couple of hours, then back to Z-land until seven. Big breakfast, out the door in pelting rain, to the train station and onto a packed local train to Hamm, then an ICE fast one east to Berlin, also crowded. In fact, I didn’t get a seat; ever resourceful, I plopped onto the floor in the carpeted entry area and read The New York Times on my iPhone. At Bielefeld, 25 minutes east, I got a seat, and did some work. On my last trip on that line, in 2009, I slept through Wolfsburg, the Volkswagen headquarters, but was wide awake that day, to marvel at their huge presence: many big factory buildings, an office building a mile long, a power plant emblazoned with the VW logo, the Volkswagen Arena.
As I rode through the former East Germany, listening to local composers (Handel, Haydn, Mahler), I read The Warmth of Other Suns, a wonderful books that chronicles the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North between 1915 and 1975; the book is filled with awful inhumanity (more in the South than the North, but plenty there, too), and as I looked out the window I thought about the inhumanity in that land, too – 50 years of woe, first the Nazis, then the Soviets, then the Stasi, the awful secret police described in a posts from December 2009 and December 2010.
We arrived in Berlin’s shiny new main station, the Hauptbahnhof¸ at 1:10. I bought a day ticket on Berlin’s awesome transit system, the BVG, and hopped on an S-Bahn train up to my hotel, a Holiday Inn I booked online, relatively way cheap. So I didn’t expect much, but it was a really nice place, and a superb location, a block from S-Bahn and U-Bahn (subway) stations. Washed my face, unpacked a bit, and headed out, first destination the Berlin Wall Memorial not far away.
My friend Michael Beckmann (who I would see the following day) and I made a flying visit to the memorial in 2008, but I had more time on this visit. The weather was just awful, but that really fit the gloomy story of the Berlin Wall from its beginnings in 1961. As I have written, those days scared the hell out of me back then, at age ten, and the emotions of a half-century ago are still with me. That’s why I cried when I saw a black-and-white picture of an older lady crying because she could not attend a wedding of family who were now across the wall in the West. Just heart-rending. I walked into a small chapel, built on the site of the 1894 Church of the Reconciliation. It had long been a thorn in the side of the East Germans, so they blew it up just four years before the wall fell in 1989. There was a superb “documentation center” that included a database of dozens of people who were killed trying to escape. I focused on several of the (few) women who were profiled. The interpretive panels outside and in were full of grim facts, but some happy ones too: nearly 200,000 people escaped through secret tunnels and by other means. People need to be free.
I headed back to the Friedrichstrasse train station, and to an adjacent museum call the “Palace of Tears,” which chronicled the sadness both of those who were permitted to leave the GDR legally (about 400,000) and those who escaped. Very well done. It was already dark, so I hopped on the U-Bahn and headed south. If you Google “microbreweries in Berlin,” you might end up at BKK, the Bier-Kombinat Kreuzberg, a cool little bar in the fairly rough working-class district (discarded mattresses on the sidewalk, police sirens, ambulance around the corner) of Kreuzberg, in the former West Berlin, southeast of the center.
Walking in, the regulars stared hard. Who was the American guy in the green raincoat? It reminded me of a visit fellow geographers Tom Baerwald, Tom Harvey, and I made to a bar in the Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati in April 1980. We walked in, and two dozen black faces stared at me. Three decades later, the faces were white, but the effect was the same. What to do? Turn around? We didn’t in 1980 and I didn’t that night. I ambled to the end of the bar, where a friendly young woman welcomed me and drew samples of three of their homemade brews. All were nice, but I settled on an IPA made with organic barley and took my place on a chair that once was in a movie theater, and turned my attention to the focus of everyone in the bar: the Bundesliga (top pro league) soccer match between FC Bayern from Munich and Bremen. The second half was just underway when I arrived, and it was 1-0 Bayern. Unlike the rest of the bar, I chose to cheer for the underdogs, for the team from the north, but the Bayern club was far better, and the match ended 4-1. It was fun to watch, and fun to be there.
An hour later, I thanked the bartender, said Auf Wiedersehen, and headed out. At the nearby U-Bahn station I called Linda from the platform, then fell into my first TtS of the trip with Yves, about 20, a third-generation Berliner. We had a nice chat on the train, and both got off at the Warschauerstrasse station. I headed back toward the center, then north on the U2 subway line. Enroute, I tried to discreetly snap a photo of two fare-checkers (almost all transit systems in Germany use the honor system) who were writing up an offender (who, with identity details captured, had already left the train). But one of the checkers, a young woman, spotted me, and asked me, in German, to delete the pictures. I moved across the aisle, sat next to her, and showed her as I dumped each of the iPhone snaps. I got off at the next station, and it occurred to me that the cheater got lighter treatment than I did!
It was a short walk to the small restaurant called Zum Schusterjungen at Danzigerstrasse 9, in the former East Berlin. The kindly owner or manager offered me a table for an hour, but I replied that I’d like to spend a bit more time, so I took a seat at the bar, just by the entrance, ordered a Märkischer Landmann, a dark and chewy beer with the distinct taste of a German (soft) pretzel. My perch was much like one eight months earlier at a similar place, Anno 1905, in Hamburg. The place filled up, mainly with younger people – singles, families with young kids, and only a couple of tourists. You learn a lot sitting at the bar and watching the bartender: for example, some Berliners like a combination of Coke and Fanta, which they call Spezial.
Time for dinner, and in serviceable German I order gänsekeule (leg of goose), grünkohl, und klöpse, dumplings. Oh my, that was good. After dinner, I hopped the M10 tram to Nordbahnhof station and an exhibit on “ghost stations” and border stations; during the 28 years of the Berlin Wall, two U-Bahn and one S-Bahn line ran from the west through the east, and back into the west, which prompted the East Germans to close stations in “their” territory (the ghost stations). The GDR made West Berlin pay dearly for the privilege of transecting East Berlin, some eight million Deutschmarks (about $3 million at the time) to operate the one S-Bahn line. The West paid, but their citizens boycotted those lines under the rallying cry “Not a single pfennig (cent) for Ulbricht [the East German dictator]!” The exhibit panels were, like those at the Wall memorial earlier in the day, well done and somewhat personal, telling, for example, the story of Dieter Wendt, an East Berlin S-Bahn employee, who planned and executed a daring escape with his family in March 1980. People need to be free.
I slept better Saturday night, but still woke up about 5:30. And I then did something I had not done in a long time. Ten or twenty years ago, when I had less free time on business trips, I would get up really early to have a look at a town. It helped if it was spring through fall, with morning light. But the late sunrise in Berlin afforded a great opportunity: to photograph the icon of Berlin, Brandenburg Gate, in full night lighting. So I drank a couple of cups of hotel-room instant coffee and peeled onto the S-Bahn at 6:50, a straight shot to the center. And I got a great picture of the gate, and of the Bundestag (Parliament) a couple of blocks north. The city was deserted, but was most remarkable was how open it was. No barricades, no overarching police presence.
I headed back to the hotel, read for a bit, and at 8:36 hopped on the S-Bahn out of the city, riding north to suburban Hermsdorff and onto the #107 bus, which dropped me a couple of blocks from Michael and Susan Beckmann’s new house. Visiting them the first weekend of December has become a tradition (in its fourth year), but Susan was full with child, five days overdue, and her mom was up to help, which was why I stayed in the Holiday Inn the night before.
It was great to see them, and to meet Eleanor. Their young son Niklas jumped into my arms when he saw me – we tried to figure out whether he remembered me from the year before. We had a leisurely and filling breakfast, with whole-grain breads, interesting cheeses, and some seriously good liverwurst (the Germans invented the stuff!). Caught up on news from our families. At 1:00, Niklas took a nap and Susan and her mom headed to the doctor to make sure all was well with the little girl who seemed to prefer the warm and dark inside. Michael and I yakked the afternoon away. At five I hugged Susan, and Eleanor, Michael, Niklas, and I headed to Tegel Airport (Michael tore ligaments in his ankle a month earlier, and could not drive). Happily, I had not trouble getting on the Swiss flight to Zurich (a year earlier, I was in the cabin-crew jumpseat in the back of the jet), zipped through the seriously-efficient ZRH, and onto the 8:52 train to St. Gallen, and a lecture the next morning at the 25th school of 2011. Got to my hotel room at ten, clocked out, and finally slept hard.
Up Monday morning and out into the cold rain; first stop, daily prayers at the magnificent baroque Stiftskirche (built 1755-1766) attached to the monastery that was an early anchor in this small city in far-northeast Switzerland. First gaze, up to the ceiling above the altar to see the beautiful angel who has offered protective wings since I first saw her in November 2001 (two months after September 11 and just a day after American lost an Airbus A300 on takeoff from Kennedy). She makes me smile and give thanks every time I see her.
It was my 11th visit to the B-school at the University of St. Gallen, and I normally walk a mile or so up a hill to campus, but a cold rain was falling, so I hopped on the bus. At nine I met my new host Benjamin Berghaus, a pleasant German Ph.D. student. We yakked for a while, then he, my academic host Sven Reinecke, and I processed to a master’s in marketing class, where I delivered a talk on airline pricing. I was rather more animated than usual, which I ascribed to a bit too much strong Swiss coffee, and it was hard to see how the young, mainly Swiss, audience was receiving my words. But at the end, the applause was loud, and I concluded that I had delivered the goods.
At noon, Sven, Ben, and I headed to the Mensa, the student cafeteria, for a big lunch, then back to their offices, where I worked until 4:30. The weather had cleared and cooled off, and the walk down the hill felt good. Bought Carson and Dylan a postcard (the third of the trip, with two more to go), fetched my suitcase at the hotel, got a can of local Schützengarten beer, and hopped on the 5:48 train back to Zurich.
But not the airport this time. I was bound for London, but earlier in the autumn the plan after St. Gallen was to teach in the Netherlands, then across to the UK, so I booked a single room on the CityNightLine train from Zurich to Rotterdam. I did not focus on the fare rules, and when plans changed, I discovered that the ticket was 100% nonrefundable. So the journey to London was an adventure. First the overnight train, then a flight from Cologne to London. The worry was a fairly close connection in Cologne – less than 90 minutes from getting off the train to scheduled flight departure. But let’s take things in sequence . . .
I arrived Zurich about seven. The weather was nice and I had almost two hours before the sleeper train, so I went for a walk along the Limmat River, took a couple of nice snaps, and headed back to the Hauptbahnhof. At 8:20 I found bed 22 on car 177, and settled in. I mentioned my tight connection to the train steward, and I think I overloaded him with information, because I told him I had a contingency plan: if the train was running late I would get off at 3:39 a.m. at Frankfurt Airport, rather than 5:42 in Cologne. After he caught up with my planning, he hit on a good idea: decision time would be 3:40. Made sense to me. He also said we’d be in good shape if we departed Mannheim at 3:04.
The restaurant car beckoned, but I put on my pajamas, brushed teeth, and was asleep before we were out of the Zurich suburbs. Woke up at Mannheim, and was delighted that we departed two minutes ahead of schedule. Things were working. Indeed, we were right on time into Cologne, a quick S-Bahn ride to the airport, zipped through the airport and onto the flight to London. It was a breeze.
At Stansted Airport I copped the first tangible benefits of turning 60, when I bought a UK Senior Railcard, which gives 1/3 off most train tickets just for being a geezer. How cool is that? Hopped on the Stansted Express train (new cars with free wi-fi), and was in central London a little after nine, and enjoying a coffee with a former AA colleague, Matthew Hall, at 9:45. Matthew headed back to work – he’s the chief commercial officer at the close-in London City Airport – and I took the Tube across town, west to the district called Hammersmith.
Checked into a small hotel, the Seraphine, and walked another half-mile west to Factorydesign, the industrial-design firm that is doing splendid work for AURA. They were hosting a team meeting; the core group was there, save for our friend Tina, and we had Colin and Ian, two fellows from our Scotland-based development team, plus Peter Tennent, a new friend from Factorydesign. It was a good meeting, mainly technical and engineering stuff, which exercised my mind and helped me learn.
After six, we headed down King Street, the main drag in Hammersmith. I had not been there before, and it was interesting, mainly for its great diversity (magnified, no doubt, from a day in the mostly monocultural Switzerland). We repaired to the Stonemason’s Arms, a gastropub just down the street from the hotel, for some pints, some laughs, and a good dinner. A bit after nine, I peeled off, plumb wore out.
Wednesday morning was bright and cold. After breakfast I went for a good walk, south to the Thames, across the fine old Hammersmith Bridge, green and gold, downstream a bit, then back to the hotel. Some scenes form a pleasant amble:
I then headed back toward to center, across the river again, and to 103 Bermondsey Street, to a shop called Holly & Lil, that makes beautiful (albeit pricey) dog collars. I wanted to get MacKenzie a Christmas present, but, alas, they didn’t open on time, and after 15 minutes I got tired of waiting. Headed north and at 11:20 I met Geoffrey Owen, my longtime host at the London School of Economics. We yakked a bit in his office, then headed across the urban campus to meet 2011-12 American Airlines team (Geoffrey teaches a class in management strategy, focused on cases from a handful of companies, including BMW, Glaxo Smith Kline, and Akzo Nobel). The team, a diverse group from China, India, Germany, Lebanon, Korea, and Turkey, asked questions for an hour in an effort to define a topic to research. At one, we headed back across campus and I delivered an hour lecture to the entire class.
Lunch with Geoffrey would have been good, but I said goodbye and headed north a mile to St. Pancras station and met my boss Martin Cunnison. I grabbed a sandwich and drink, and we hopped on the train to Luton Airport, where his zippy Mini Cooper was parked. We headed east to a meeting in Biggleswade, which ran long. We were running out of time: it was 5:40, I was due in Cambridge (40 miles away) at 7:30, and I still had to complete by far the most important task of the day: to read two Christmas books to Martin’s twin daughters, Beatrice and Henrietta. Martin devised a brilliant plan: head back to their house, visit briefly, pile the kids and wife Tara in their bigger car, and we’d have story time as we sped north to Cambridge. The Chief rang Tara (a totally flexible mom) and the deal was done. So it was that I read The Polar Express (long a favorite) and Fancy Nancy’s Splendiferous Christmas (I read them a Fancy Nancy book when I visited seven months earlier) en route. It all worked splendidly, and at 7:39 I gave everyone kisses and hugs in front of the Eagle pub, my tippling home in Cambridge (Isaac Newton liked it, too).
Ambled inside to meet Paul Tracey, a research partner of my Wisconsin host Jan Heide and Simon Bell, my original host at Cambridge’s Judge Business School. Paul suggested I wheel my suitcase a few blocks to my usual and splendid digs, Sidney Sussex College. It was good to be back. Checked in, changed clothes quickly, and was back at the Eagle with a pint of Old Speckled Hen Ale before eight. Paul and I got to know each other a bit, then headed to dinner at a Thai restaurant. A really interesting fellow, he had just begin a two-year, mid-career fellowship, studying social entrepreneurship in a real-world setting of a depressed town east of Cambridge.
At breakfast in the college dining hall Thursday morning, I had a couple of nice Talking to Strangers encounters, one with a mother and daughter, the latter interviewing for admission to Sidney Sussex in the autumn of 2012 (she was nervous, and I counseled relaxation!); the other, longer chat was with Rini, a young Indian woman in Cambridge to look at a Ph.D. program in chemistry. She moved to the U.S. after her Master’s, working in San Francisco and State College, Pennsylvania, and was currently in a lab at Columbia in New York – and not liking the city very much. Rini asked if she could attend one of my afternoon lectures; I replied that it would be an honor for me, and sent a quick text to my host, Jochen, who telegraphed back a thumbs up.
After a splendid and caloric English breakfast (sausage, bacon, baked beans, hash browns, but no eggs) I walked across town to the B-school, pausing at St. Botolph’s, a small 14th Century church, for daily prayers. I worked for a couple of hours, then met Jochen to start the briefing on the afternoon lectures. My task was a little larger than normal: as part of his research on emotional components of leadership and management, I was to present the same lecture, “Why Is It So Hard for Airlines to Make Money?”, in two different ways, one “charismatic,” and the other not. The first would be easy, it would be my normal mode of delivery. The second would be hard: I was to remain behind the lectern, not inflect my voice, make no eye contact, tell no stories – in short, be boring. I really wanted to do good: I had a role in Jochen’s research, which would in a couple of years determine if the university granted tenure. A lot riding on it. Session one went well. I doubted my performance in session two, which included rebooting the PC toward the end (“keep calm, hands on the wheel, stay on script,” whispered the voice inside), but Jochen was delighted. After the second group of 40 completed their questionnaires (and collected their £10), they were invited to stay for a Q&A, when I finally could shed my costume and return to being the Real Rob. Whew, that was a relief! After questions in the lecture theater, we repaired to the school’s common room for more conversation. The University of Cambridge has become a very diverse place, and the kids firing questions at me were from Singapore, China, Malaysia, Germany, and the U.S. Great fun.
I peeled off after six. It was windy and pelting rain, the hardest rain of the week (that day winds of up to 80 mph were howling in Scotland, so I guess it was not too bad). Splish, splash through puddles – drainage in a town nearly a century old was not always the best – and back to the Eagle for a quick pint, then back to Sidney to wash my face. At seven, I met Jochen and we walked a few blocks north and east to Jesus College, founded 1496. He arranged an invitation for me to attend a dinner to thank corporate participants in an MBA project. I had some doubts about fitting in, but there were warm welcomes from the start, as well as opportunities to do some networking – as I have written, the school is my favorite overseas teaching venue, it’s Numero Uno, and I’d like for more people there to know me. Setting for the dinner was the Upper Hall, a marvelous room that dates to the founding of the college. The art was contemporary, but above us was a ceiling with massive crossbeams, carved at the intersections. Way cool. We enjoyed a huge dinner and great conversation – seated across from me was a MBA student I met on my first Cambridge visit in 2011, who worked on a project at Air Asia, the hugely successful low-cost airline based in Kuala Lumpur. Great discussion in our corner of the room. After a fine meal I peeled off, got a bit of sleep, took the train to London and out to Heathrow, and flew home. The 150th trip to Europe, though super busy, was a great success.