After a pleasant Thanksgiving weekend (well, still a lot of work, but much less chaos in the house), I did a couple of days of consulting work, and on Wednesday the 29th I departed for the last teaching trip of the year. Linda dropped me at the West Falls Church Metro, and I hopped on the train to National Airport, the short flight to JFK, and the Silver Bird to Milan. During dinner I watched (for the third time) the poignant Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s 1997 tragicomedy about an Italian-Jewish father and young son sent to a concentration camp. As it did before, it brought a flood of tears, as well as positive reflection on how much better Europe is today than 70 years ago — I was bound for Italy and Germany, and would seen see that “much better.”
We landed at 7:30 in light rain. I caught a fast bus direct to Lugano, bound for my fourth visit to the Università della Svizzera Italiana. At the Swiss border, the most thorough inspection in decades – 15 passengers off the minibus, several of them hauled into a private room for luggage search. Hopped the funicular from the train station above town to the center, on the lake of the same name, and walked a mile east to my hotel. I was a little worried about my feet and knees – they really took a beating in November, with all the loads and climbing – but they were working pretty well. Took a shower, suited up, and headed to USI and the student cafeteria, the Mensa, for a pasta lunch. In the Land of High Prices, a simple pasta meal with salad and drink was $17.
Worked my e-mail – the school has a wonderful, open wi-fi network – and prepped a bit for the talk, prep including a jolt of strong coffee at two o’clock. Met my host, Omar Merlo (he’s also my host at Imperial College, London, and Cambridge) just before three, and for two hours delivered a talk to about 30 Master’s students, an engaged group full of good questions. Omar dropped me at the hotel and I caught a 30-minute snooze, then did a bit of work. At 7:10 he picked me up and we motored to Canvetto Ponte di Valle, a rustic restaurant on the north edge of town with a range of food. We started with small plates of wild-boar ravioli, really good, then vacuumed an enormous bowl of fondue, so Swiss. Omar is a really fun guy, so we had lots of laughs. For dessert, three apple pancakes with vanilla and berry sauce. Yum!
Up at 5:20 Friday morning, down to the lobby, where I had a nice T-t-S exchange with Roberto, the kindly night porter. After checking out, he made me a fresh and strong cup of coffee then handed me my breakfast in a bag. I remarked at its heft, and he said, “Si, si, I made it big because you are Roberto and I am Roberto, too, and I noticed on your registration card that you had a birthday three days ago.” I told him my mind was still young, but my knees not so much. “You know what I do,” said Roberto, “I dance rock and roll for 20 to 30 minutes every day, and that keeps my knees in good shape.” Nice! I wished him Buon Natale and walked to the train station, caught the 6:35 bus back to Italy and Malpensa Airport, and hopped on Air Berlin to Düsseldorf. Spectacular views of snowy Alps along the way. DUS was fogged in, and the captain said we might need to divert to Cologne, but after more than a few turns in a holding pattern we were able to land. I missed my planned train to Münster, but was able to catch a faster one and arrived just a bit later than expected. Along the way, I cued an appropriate and favored travel tune, the Pat Metheny Group’s “Last Train Home,” which has a clickety-clack percussion and always sets the tone for a nice ride. North of Dortmund the sun came out briefly, shining on the pleasant farm landscape of Westphalia: half-timbered barns, sheep and cattle grazing, and small patches of forest. With the deer (hunting) stands at the edges of the wood, it looks a lot like parts of northern Wisconsin.
Walked from the train station to the Marketing Center at WWU, a big public university. It was my 12th visit. From 2:00 to 3:15 I gave a seminar to a trio of engaged Master’s students – a small but good “class.” Walked to the hotel, checked in, changed clothes, worked e-mails, and walked a few blocks north to buy another small wooden ornament from a wonderful small shop – we now have four or five little wooden angels at home.
At 5:30 I met the three young women again, and we walked a block to one of Münster’s several Christmas Markets for a couple of mugs of hot spiced wine, glühwein. My WWU host Manfred Krafft joined us, and he and set out for dinner, walking across town to the Gasthaus Altes Leve¸ in business since 1607. Advent is the season for grünkohl, kale chopped and slow cooked with diced potatoes. Also on the plate was a long smoked sausage. The food was great, but even better were the agreeable couple seated across from us, Stefania and Jaap, from the Netherlands. We had a great yak and a lot of laughs – Jaap was a seriously funny man. Stefania had worked at Amsterdam Airport for three U.S. airlines, TWA, US Airways, and Continental; at the end of dinner, Jaap handed me his business card, and it turned out he worked for Dutch air traffic control as the manager of airline liaison. It was a fun two hours.
I slept better the second night – not hard, but no toss-turn cycle. Tucked into a big breakfast buffet, walked to the train station, and hopped on a local train to Hamm, then the fast ICE to Berlin. More Advent tradition: as I had done every year since 2008, after Münster I met my young German friend Michael Beckmann. He and his son Niklas, now almost four, were waiting for me on the platform at the Hauptbahnhof; his wife Susan and almost-one-year-old daughter Annika were at home.
We headed west to the outer suburb of Gatow, to a former air base in what was the British sector of West Berlin, now the home of the Museum of Military History. Until recently it was called the Luftwaffe Museum, and indeed it is largely a collection of air force stuff. That it has a new, less threatening name, and that the location was poorly signposted (even the address on their website was wrong) says I lot – and I may be speculating here – about postwar German sensibilities. But we found it, parked the car, and ambled through a gate. Admission was free (maybe another symbolic act). It was cold and gloomy, but Michael, a fellow Transport Geek, and I enjoyed the collections very much. Along the runway was an impressive collection of Cold War stuff from both West and East Germany, and two former hangars had flying hardware all the way back to 1910. Interpretive panels were almost all in German, but an observant person could figure it all out. Niklas behaved very well, and we were there for almost two hours, well past dark at 52º North. Here’s a gallery of images from the museum:
Drove home to meet young Annika and greet Susan. It was good to be there, in a comfortable suburb north and west of the capital. We had a lovely and leisurely Saturday night. Onkel Rob read books (in German!) to Niklas, played with his Brio train set, and had other fun before tucking into a hearty quiche with leeks and bacon. Was asleep by 9:30, and horizontal for ten hours – pure therapy!
Sunday morning Niklas, Annika, Michael, and I went to the bakery for fresh bread rolls, on foot (Niklas on a no-pedals two wheeler, and Annika in a baby carriage). Had a wonderful breakfast with great cheeses and meats (and three kinds of liver sausage, a favorite). At ten we drove to a suburban railway station for a ride on a historic train. The steam locomotive that was to pull us was, unfortunately, kaput¸ but the 1920s-era passenger coaches were nicely restored. The line ran about 10 miles to Basdorf, in the former East Germany, where we ambled a few blocks to a Christmas market, really more like a small-town carnival. We enjoyed a couple of glühweins and hopped back on the train. Back home, we warmed up, had a cup of tea and some sweet bread called stollen. Read Niklas more books – mostly about fire fighters, feuerwehrleute, and their trucks and equipment – and at six we drove a few miles to Zur Krummen Linde¸ a great restaurant we had visited thrice before. They’ve been in business since 1761, so they know how to cook, and we had a great meal and one of my favorite beers, Märkischer Landmann, a very malty dark beer, brewed in nearby Potsdam.
The weekend was really lovely; as I’ve written before, staying with a family gives you a nice window on ordinary life overseas, and the simple experiences were joyful ones: reading Niklas books, drying dishes, helping with two young children, walking to the bakery. The other interesting thing, especially visible in Berlin, is that you’re never very far from the momentous events of the last century in Germany: the air force museum of course was a great window, but open eyes yielded other evidence, for example, the excursion train line was adjacent to the former Berlin Wall for several miles, and the townscape of Basdorf reflected East German attempts at contemporary architecture in the 1970s and ‘80s. William Faulkner was so right when he wrote, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
Monday morning, I hugged Susan, kissed the kids, and Michael drove me back to the main station. Bought Dylan and Carson a postcard, got some breakfast and a large Starbucks, and hopped on the 8:31 Intercity Express bound for Karlsruhe, on the other side of Germany – almost 500 miles southwest. The ride was pleasant, past the massive VW plant in Wolfsburg; south into the corner of Lower Saxony, hills dusted lightly with snow; across the northern part of Hessia; into an out of Frankfurt’s massive main station; south through the industrial city of Mannheim, and into Karlsruhe. At noon, I enjoyed lunch in the dining car – a treat I’ve enjoyed for almost 60 years.
We arrived Karlsruhe just after two. I bought a day ticket on the local public transport system, the KVV, and took two trams out to my lodging, a guest house on the campus of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany’s oldest technical university. The digs were two blocks from the spectacular palace, the home of dukes of Baden from 1715 until the end of World War I, and I wanted to take a couple of pictures before the light began to fade. It was a huge, cool building in a spectacular circular setting. Nearby was the Bundesfassungsgericht, Germany’s constitutional court; the building was under renovation, and visits were not possible. Along the south edge of the court property were some cool black and white photos depicting the importance of rights and freedoms.
Back at the guest house, I began to wrestle with Internet access: the wired network required me to configure the connection manually, something I had not done in awhile, and I struggled a bit. The guest house instructions were poor, but included a phone number of a university help desk, so I called them. The fellow was friendly, and suggested I walk to his office, just across the street. This was turning into a hoo-hah, but I headed out, he showed me how, I walked back, and got online. (A postscript: the next day the guest house charged me 53 cents for the phone call!) At about six I ambled through the drizzle to Vogelbräu, a brewpub a few blocks from campus that I found online. Enjoyed a couple of homemade beers and, for the third time in four days, grunkohl. Whew, that day passed quickly.
Tuesday morning I met two Ph.D. students, Sophie and Anja, who walked me to a marketing class. It was evident that the place was into science and engineering, because in front of buildings stood a massive ceramic insulator from high-voltage transmission line, an old steam locomotive, and similar stuff. My host, Martin Klarmann, who I had not met, was unfortunately ill, so I introduced myself to a class of about 40 undergrads and Master’s students, and plunged into my explanation of airline pricing. After class, we walked to the marketing department, I worked a bit, then the five Ph.D. students and I processed to lunch at the Titanic, a curiously named restaurant nearby (the menu cover showed the ship!). We had a lively discussion of their work and mine, and a nice plate of cannelloni. I said goodbye, walked to the train station, and took the train to Frankfurt Airport; I was bound for London and originally planned to stay a second night in Karlsruhe, but I could not get a train early enough to make a 7:20 a.m. flight.
Got to my airport hotel, worked a bit, then hopped on the train into town. I tracked down a restaurant, Adolf Wagner, on the internet; it specialized in apple wine, ebbelwei in the Hessian dialect. It’s an acquired taste. I had a couple of glasses and a nice plate of fried fish. Was asleep early and up early Wednesday morning for a 7:20 flight to London. Landed, zipped into town, and dropped my stuff at the Airbnb digs I found earlier, a really agreeable room in a flat belonging to Ben and Allan from Brisbane. Ben waited until I arrived to leave for work, which was much appreciated.
At 11:45 I met my longtime host at the London School of Economics, Sir Geoffrey Owen. We yakked a bit, then headed to lunch, followed by a lecture and an introduction to the team of four students who are researching the future of American Airlines. I’ve been teaching at the LSE since 2004, so the course is familiar, and Geoffrey is an interesting fellow, long established in UK commerce (he was editor of the Financial Times for many years).
Northern light was already fading at 3:30, but it was bright enough to head across town to the recently completed Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, commemorating the 55,573 airmen who died in bombers from 1939 to 1945. The British were slow to recognize the pivotal role these brave men played, partly the result of revisionist history and some guilt about what some saw as excesses toward the end of the war, such as the bombing of Dresden (did these folks pause to reflect on the hurt that the Nazis visited upon the British?). In any event, the memorial was moving; the focus was a larger-than-life sculpture of six airmen. It was less than a month after Remembrance Day (November 11), and there were still wreaths, small crosses with names of the dead, old photos, and reminiscences. Uncle Ken is still missed, 67 years later. The scene was a striking compression of time. It is a good thing that the British do not forget easily, perhaps because their relatively small island was so vulnerable. Nor should we Americans. Faulkner’s comment above certainly applies here, too: it’s not even past.
At 6:30, I met my young friend and mentee Scott Sage for a spicy dinner at an Indian restaurant in Camden. It was a good catch-up after almost seven months – in the interim he became engaged. It was a long day, and I was asleep by ten.
Teaching for the year was done, and I could have flown home, but I stayed on to visit a couple of friends on Thursday. After breakfast, I wandered through “my” neighborhood of Hoxton, young and very hip (my presence probably added 25% to the median age!); the shops on Pitfield Street were especially interesting, lots of artsy stuff, the kind of place that reminded me of friend John Crabtree telling me that Britain is by far #1 in the world in creative businesses, broadly defined.
Spent an enlightening hour with software entrepreneur Jonathan Nicol and his Labrador Paddy in the morning. Grabbed a slurpy lunch at Itsu, a noodle bar and headed to the department store John Lewis on Oxford Street in search of plush versions of Wenlock and Mandeville, the one-eyed mascots of the 2012 London Olympics that Dylan wanted; sadly, the stock had been moved to their store at Stratford that I visited six months earlier, and I didn’t have time to ride the Tube east. Outside the store, a sunny moment on a cloudy, blustery day: the Ebony steel band was playing to raise funds for the National Society to Prevent Cruelty to Children. There wasn’t a better cause, and on Oxford Street there wasn’t a better beat.
Rode across the Thames to Holly and Lil, a very fancy pet-accessories shop, and bought Henry the West Highland terrier a fancy collar identical (except in color) to the one I purchased for MacKenzie on the May trip. At 3:30 I met Mark O’Brien, a young entrepreneur in the inflight entertainment business that I met during my brief foray in that trade, and his business partner Matt. Enjoyed a couple of Guinnesses and a good chat, and headed home to Hoxton. High point of the day was listening to the London Underground platform dispatcher at the Old Street station; I heard her the day before, and she brought personality and fun to what often sounds like routine and monotone. I sought her out, and found her on the middle of the platform. It was between train departures, and she was speaking to a little boy. I introduced myself, told her I worked in public transport for all my life, and saluted her style. She responded with typical English modesty, but a big smile. At the ticket window upstairs a colleague of hers told me she worked for a time at Disneyland Paris. Perfect! What a difference people like her make. We need more of them.
Back on Haberdasher Street, I yakked with my hosts Ben and Allan, and went back out, into cold rain, for another fix of Indian food, returning to Camden and the reliable chain Masala Zone. Out the door Friday morning, back to Heathrow and a flight to JFK then on to Washington National, and the Metro to within four miles of home. MacKenzie and Henry, sporting his new collar, were on leash by 8:15.
On the flight across, some nice winter views of Atlantic Canada; here is the north shore of Cape Breton Island:
And a last image, a small portion of Matteo Pericoli’s “Skyline of the World,” at American Airlines’ JFK terminal; I played a small role in helping get the work purchased and posted (the honchos wanted to sell the space for advertising):