Was home for three days, and on Monday, May 20, Linda drove me to the Metro, rode to National Airport then flew to New York Kennedy and on to Paris, arriving in cold, pelting rain. Changed terminals and stood by for the 8:00 AM Air France flight to Geneva. It departed full, so I waited for the 10:05 departure. I promised Dylan and Carson that I’d look for Madeleine and her dog Genevieve (children’s book characters); I didn’t see them, but I did spot this interesting looking fellow in traditional garb:
I was happy when the gate agent handed me a boarding pass to sit in the cabin-crew jumpseat in the rear of the 10:05 A320 to Switzerland. I boarded and introduced myself to the cabin crew, then sat down next to a Delta employee from Singapore. Just before departure, they told us there were open seats, so we didn’t get the adventure of riding in the galley. I slept for an hour, and awoke to light rain in Geneva.
I was bound for a business-aviation trade show my young friend Jonathan Nicol invited me to attend, which was conveniently at a convention center adjacent to the airport terminal. I needed to put on coat and tie; happily, a spotlessly clean and large men’s room presented itself, and in no time I looked legit. Ambled into the big Palexpo hall, got a conference badge and lanyard, and walked for blocks to Jonathan’s Stratajet stand to greet him and his colleagues.
The hall was filled with some familiar brands, like Rolls Royce, Boeing, and Rockwell Collins, firms that also sell to airlines, and lots of stuff that was new to me. It was an interesting place. The afternoon passed quickly; we stayed on to host some visitors for drinks at the stand, then hopped in taxis to go into the city.
Stratajet had arranged Airbnb accommodation for me in an entire small apartment quite close to the center, and Jonathan’s swell assistant Christina had picked up the key, so it took me no time to feel at home, in that case on the 6th (top) floor of a large building in a mixed-social-class neighborhood close to the center. The apartment was really nice – spotless (Switzerland, naturally!) and well equipped. But I didn’t have time to relax, because Jonathan was hosting a team dinner at a fondue restaurant, so I changed into casual clothes and zipped out the door in light rain.
Apart from an hour between airport and main train station in 2008, I had not been to Geneva for almost 20 years. It’s a lot more like France than the eastern, German part of Switzerland – not exactly dumpy, but far less pristine (graffiti on walls, for example) than Zurich and other cities on the other side of the confederation. Dinner was fun and filling, but by 11 I was exhausted. Walked home at a brisk pace and clocked out. Slept hard, no time-zone woe.
Up early the next morning, out the door by bus to the exhibition hall. The day passed quickly, but rather than going out with the Stratajet team, I opted to do some work in the apartment and grab a quick dinner. Well, okay, McDonald’s was not exactly a traditional repast; Switzerland is so expensive, and a simple meal at a neighborhood place was going to run 30 bucks, and on my dime. Did a lot of reading that evening, and got eight solid hours of sleep, meaning I was adjusted to European time (in recent years the time change had interrupted my cycle, but – knock on wood – may have grown out of it, based on happy experience the last two trips).
Back to the show for the last day. At 9:30, Jonathan was one of five panelists in a session on transformative IT in private aviation, an interesting discussion. Paddled back to the stand, yakked with a few more people, and at 1:45 said goodbye to the team. A small-world moment: on the way out of the building I ran into Chuck Evans, a colleague formerly at Bombardier in Toronto and now at Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth, Texas. Had a good discussion about their efforts to revive their core helicopter business, which Bell neglected as they focused resources on an aircraft that to me has never worked, the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey.
Flew EasyJet to London Gatwick at 3:50, walked a long way through the North Terminal, onto a shuttle, then to the Gatwick train platform. England was on high alert following the grisly terrorist attack on a soldier two days earlier, and as I waited for my train, two policemen brandishing automatic weapons (and I mean guns held high) ran past on the opposite platform, followed by four more officers and a black-and-white spotted sniffer dog. I immediately empathized with the hound, who jumped up on his handler for a cuddle before setting to work. They boarded a train and disappeared. Whoa! With that excitement done I cued British music on my iPhone: Elgar’s great “Nimrod,” one of 14 variations, his opus 36; then “Jerusalem,” an unofficial U.K. anthem. Then, as I boarded the train, Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” Ya gotta mix it up!
The Transport Geek had not been on the Gatwick-to-London route for a few years; for the decades when American landed at LGW, I became well familiar with this 28-mile run, and was comforted to see familiar sites: the Budget Motor Centre, still a bit tattered, in Horley; Wandsworth Common, where in 1990 we filmed scenes for an AA TV commercial; and the famous Battersea Power Station, decommissioned and awaiting redevelopment. Caught the Tube two stops west to South Kensington and found my hotel, the Regency. Washed my face, changed clothes, and walked briskly west on Old Brompton Road to The Blackbird, a favored pub in Earl’s Court. Gotta keep moving.
At 7:05 one of my favorite mentees, Fabio Scappaticci, came in, smiling. I’ve known Fabio for a couple of years, since his MBA at Cambridge, and have stayed in touch, trying to be helpful to his career. He’s a wonderful fellow with a varied background (aeronautical engineering to development assistance in the eastern Congo). We had a pint of my fave London Pride, then continued the discussion at Masala Zone, an Indian chain I had favored for its reliability. The banter remained good, but the food was just okay, and the chain has been scratched from the list. Said “Ciao,” to Fabio, and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
Up Friday morning, down to the hotel gym for a bike ride, worked in the room, and ambled over to Imperial College London. It’s an impressive institution, mainly focused on the sciences and engineering, and they do a superb job of explaining what they do, for example, a series of small temporary displays in the business-school lobby that summarized recent faculty research. Arriving early, I wandered into a connecting building that housed the mechanical engineering department. More displays of applied intelligence, including the front fan of a Rolls Royce Trent aircraft engine. The laboratory had large windows, and you could look down to an enormous lab floor. It was all about brain power, and when I began my lecture at 11:30 I remarked on the value of that resource, especially in nations like Britain and the USA.
After the talk, my host Omar Merlo (who would also host my talk at Cambridge three days hence) and I headed to the cafeteria for lunch and a laugh. Omar is a good-natured guy, and we get on well. I walked back to the hotel in the rain. The original plan was to meet another friend at 3:00, but he was tied up with business, so I worked the rest of the afternoon in the hotel room (pretty boring). At six I ambled around the corner to the Hereford Arms, an agreeable pub on Gloucester Road, for a pint, and fell into a delightful conversation with a couple from Yorkshire, down to visit their son. We yakked about simple things, the weather, house prices, family, but it was still a pleasure. I bid them goodbye, and headed to the Tube, east and south to Vauxhall on the south bank of the Thames, then south a half-mile into Lambeth and Hot Stuff, a simple, small Indian restaurant I first visited in September 2012 (an article years back in The New York Times pointed the way). I wanted another spicy meal, in part to offset the mediocre dinner the night before.
And I found it. Hot Stuff is a sensational place. The chalkboard menu listed weekend specials, and at the bottom it read “Extra Value Big Mac Meal, About 2 Miles That Way”; indeed this was about as far from corporate foodservice as you can get. Raj Dawood, owner, chef, and cheerleader, was on hand, and I reintroduced myself. “I remember you,” he said. We visited briefly, and he peeled back into the kitchen, then out among the tables, greeting diners, and doing all the things that make him an admirable entrepreneur. The dinner was superb and less expensive than Masala Zone.
I headed back to the Tube station, but instead of hopping on the train, I walked across the street, registered for 24 hours of access to the rental-bicycle network that Barclay’s Bank sponsors (hundreds of locations all over central London). Once registered, rides of 30 minutes or less are free, and I unlocked a sturdy cruiser and took off, north across the Thames then west along the north bank, following a wonderful dedicated bike lane, painted blue and labeled Cycle Superhighway CS-8. When that path turned south and crossed the river, I continued west on a busy street, then north toward my hotel. There were no available slots at the facility across from my hotel, nor the one a few blocks west, but fortunately the touch-screen on the second rental kiosk directed me to another location a few blocks north, where I dropped the bike (information on bikes and return slots is also available on a mobile app, way cool). Walked back to the hotel, smiling broadly.
Saturday was the first sunny day since leaving home. Woo hoo. I headed first to the gym for a brisk ride, then after breakfast out for a short, but real, ride. I took a Barclays bike a couple miles north through Kensington Gardens, returned it on Lancaster Gate, and walked a couple of blocks to the Peter Pan statue. It had been several years since I saw it – earlier in my visits of London, it was a frequent destination when running (something my knees no longer permit). It was good to see Peter, happy as ever. The park is crowded on a nice day, locals and tourists, dogs and horses, inline skaters and cyclists. Rode back to the hotel, picked up my suitcase, Tube to Euston (railway) Station. They wanted the equivalent of $13.65 to deposit my suitcase for a couple of hours, so I dragged it with me. Almost across the street was the Wellcome Collection, the museum and exhibit space. Their description says it all: “a free destination for the incurably curious”). As I wrote in 2012, Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) was born in Wisconsin and moved to Britain as an ambitious young pharmacist, to help found Burroughs Wellcome (now part of GlaxoSmithKline), one of the companies that industrialized British pharma. His fascination with material aspects of medicine and health – and his huge curiosity – propelled him to amass a collection of more than a million artifacts.
The museum has a permanent collection and fascinating temporary exhibits. I headed first to the latter, an art exhibit titled Souzou, which translates imperfectly from the Japanese as either creation or imagination. A description from the program: “The artists in this exhibition have been diagnosed with a variety of different cognitive, behavioral, and developmental disorders or mental illnesses, and are residents or day attendees of specialist care institutions.” Visitors were invited to consider how these artists interpret the world. Many had difficulty learning a challenging written language. I really liked Toshiko Yamanishi’s “Mother,” four drawings expressing love for her mom via movement and color, not words. Best of show was Shota Katsube’s collection of 300 little figures (1″ high) made solely of shiny twist ties – mainly people, but also a scorpion and a dragon. It was a hugely broadening experience.
A year earlier, I had visited “Medicine Man,” a thematically arranged sample from Wellcome’s vast collection, but with plenty of time before my train I returned to marvel at more stuff: surgical tools, amulets, even one of the bizarre drowning-revival appliances placed along the Thames in the 18th century (I will spare readers the detail, save to mention that the procedure involved the other end of our body). The exhibit nicely interpreted therapies and practices that have varied over time! Truly a remarkable place, strongly recommended next time you’re in London.
I grabbed a quick sandwich, hopped on the 2:54 train, and less than an hour later was in Milton Keynes, 50 miles north of London. Walked out of the station and soon a car horn heralded the arrival of the Cunnison family: my friend Martin, his swell wife Tara, their five-year-old twins Beatrice and Henrietta, and in the back of the Land Rover their seven-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, Phoebe. I worked with Martin for nearly two years on AURA, the inflight entertainment system we attempted – but failed – to develop. When Steve the angel investor wisely pulled the plug on it 14 months ago, I was a little cranky, but not with Martin, and we’ve kept in touch.
It was great to see Tara and the twins again. We headed for a forest park, so the twins could ride their bikes – they’ve just learned to ride without training wheels (called stabilizers in Britain). We had a nice walk in the warm afternoon sun, then headed home for a huge, and I mean really big, dinner: tuna tartare appetizer, beef Wellington, lots of vegetables, and apple and red currant crumble for dessert. We all ate together, and it felt so good for this traveler to be part of a family, if only for a few hours. After the meal, Martin explained and showed me his new venture, a wireless entertainment system that is now flying on a test aircraft and about to be offered for sale. And perhaps the high point: reading Beatrice and Henrietta a book I had brought from the U.S. (one of the Fancy Nancy series). Martin kindly drove me to the hotel. I was so glad that I visited; they’re true friends.
Sunday was again sunny, a lovely morning. After breakfast I walked about a mile to the suburban Milton Keynes bus station and hopped on the X5 to Cambridge. About a third of the way there, I struck up a conversation with my seatmate, Uui Igie, a mechanical engineer on the faculty of nearby Cranfield University, one of Britain’s specialized postgraduate institutions – oriented to engineering and applied science. Uyi (from Nigeria) specialized in gas turbines so when I explained that I had spent a lifetime “near” jet engines the conversation flowed. We mainly stayed on the topic of turbine power, and I learned a lot – his research focused on preventing degradation of industrial turbines (not aircraft engines) in harsh environments, for example the effects of salty air on offshore oil rigs. A nice T-t-S experience.
We arrived Cambridge at 11:30, and I said goodbye to Uyi. Strolling briskly north on St. Andrews Street, I wore a huge smile, outward expression of my joy: there are few experiences I value more than being in Cambridge and staying at Sidney Sussex College. The porter there gave me the key to room H11, “my room,” and in no time I was at home, bringing this journal up to date.
Went for a good walk mid-afternoon. Although I’ve been here many times, there’s always something new to see in Cambridge. Today it was some narrow lanes, cows grazing on common land along the river, and a nice rehearsal among the scaffolding at Great St. Mary’s Church.
At 6:15, the bells pealed above the chapel at Sidney Sussex College, marking the start of Evensong worship on Trinity Sunday. The new chaplain, the Rev. Paul Brice, the choir director David Skinner, and an all-male choir entered. High point of the service was an outstanding homily from Ruth Armstrong of the university’s Institute of Criminology. She had just earned her doctorate, and preached about her research on a faith-based program for newly-released inmates in Texas, and about what her experience meant to her own faith. As tradition specifies, after service we had drinks in the Old Library adjacent to the chapel. There I struck up a conversation with Sidney’s first-ever composer in residence, Eric Whitacre, a dynamic young guy who I later learned (from Googling) was quite accomplished – a Grammy award and tons of commissioned choral work. But as befit his rural Nevada roots, he seemed like just a regular guy, modest, funny, energetic. For a sample of his genius, take a look at this: http://youtu.be/D7o7BrlbaDs.
We headed to dinner at high table, where I met another interesting person, Jane Spencer, who was praelector and dean of the college, responsible for administrative aspects; specifically, Jane was rewriting the college’s statutes and ordinances, the governing documents. But we mostly yakked about children and the challenges of raising them. After dinner, port and cheese in nearby room, where I was able to get to know Ruth a bit better; she knew a lot about Texas, and in a truly small-world episode, was married to a fellow who was once a chef at the Mi Cocina (Mexican) restaurant a half-mile from our house in Richardson. Whoa! Luis now owns the Mexican restaurant in Cambridge. A cool guy, from Guanajuato. Also yakked briefly with Kirsten Dickens, the college’s admissions director. As always, really interesting people, substantive, and totally committed to the school.
After breakfast Monday morning (it was a Bank Holiday in England), I rented a bike and rode three miles west to the Cambridge American Cemetery, the only U.S. military cemetery in Britain. Linda and I visited it briefly in 2005 (and I visited the huge cemetery above Omaha Beach, Normandy, in ’07). It was Memorial Day, and their website noted an 11:00 ceremony, so I had to be there, in the final resting place of 3,812 brave souls, and another 5,127 names of those missing in action – most from the (naval) Battle of the Atlantic and the aerial bombing of Germany. The University of Cambridge donated the land and the American Battle Monuments Commission, a small federal agency, manages the cemetery.
I locked my bike and took a seat. It was a wonderful and emotional ceremony: national anthems, some short speeches, including a stirring one by Richard Klass, ABMC commissioner, who told stories of real people who came back and who did not come back. He noted that fully one-third of the airman did not return. The final tribute was a flyover by the Eagle Squadron, five World War II aircraft: a Boeing B-17 bomber, and Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, P-47 Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang. That these birds are still airworthy and going strong is itself remarkable. I thought about my dad and the tens of thousands of others from a bunch of nations who pulled together to push back dark forces of tyranny. God bless them all.
I rode back to town for a conference call, then zipped out on the rental bike for another ride in the sunshine, east along the River Cam, out to the village of Fen Ditton and back. At four I met one of Fabio’s Montreal friends, Louis-Philippe LaRocque, studying for his MBA at Cambridge. To say we bonded quickly would be an understatement: he had worked for Air Canada for several years as a lawyer, and we immediately agreed on lots of stuff. Just a great chat.
Returned to my room for a quick bit of work, then headed out for a last pint, at The Eagle, the storied pub I’ve often written about in these pages. It had been a few years since I went to the back of the pub, to the separate room known as the RAF Bar, which during World War II was a popular haunt for British, U.S., and other airmen. The ceiling is covered with squadron and other names, a tradition that dates to 1940, when, it is believed, a local RAF warrior jumped up on a chair, and with a cigarette lighter burned a first inscription. On Memorial Day 2013, seven decades later, I gaze up to see “199 SQDN,” “BERT’S BOYS,” and other notations. And again say thanks. Grabbed a plate of Singapore noodles at Dojo, and walked home. A big day.
On Tuesday it was time to stand and deliver the last lecture of my “spring term,” at Judge Business School. After what seemed like an unprecedented three days of full sun, it was raining steadily as I walked across Cambridge from college. Stopped, as I usually do, for daily prayers in St. Botolph’s, a small church that has been on Trumpington Street for almost 700 years (I learn something new each time I stop, and that day it was that Botolph is the patron saint of travelers). The talk in Omar’s branding class was not until late afternoon, so again as is custom, I set myself up in the school’s common room and worked the day away, pausing to meet Jochen Menges, one of my other Judge hosts, and Katia Damer, a psychology grad student who was, like Jochen, researching aspects of charismatic leadership. I helped her with an experiment somewhat similar to one of Jochen’s from late 2011: they recorded two versions of me speaking, one with lots of engagement, voice inflection, eye contact, and the like, the other with none of those things. An hour after that I presented a talk on airline advertising, and the term was over (no exams to assess – nice!).
I walked back to college, changed clothes, worked some e-mail, and headed back out in light rain to Loch Fyne, a seafood restaurant near the business school and site of the dinner Omar has for many years hosted for me and any MBA student that wants to join us. It’s a great tradition, and I’ve kept in touch with lots of dinner mates from previous years, like Fabio. Joining Omar and me that night were Louis-Philippe from the day before; a Korean married couple (both students) who had studied in the U.S.; a German woman; a fellow from Maine who had joined a U.S. Navy nuclear engineering program right out of high school; Candas, a Turkish lad who had just accepted a job with Amazon UK; an Italian from the same town (Lucca) as my maternal grandparents; and a Moroccan guy, Mohammed, good natured about his adventures with U.S. airport security. It was, as always, a fun evening. On the way home, I paused to browse in the window of Cambridge University Press on Kings Parade; the myriad book topics were a last splendid signal of the enormous brainpower at that university. I am so fortunate to be invited.
Was up well before six Wednesday morning, brisk walk to the railway station, fast train to London, Tube to Paddington, Heathrow Express train to the airport, and two flights home, the first on one of American’s splendid new 777-300s.