On Saturday, May 10, Linda dropped me at the West Falls Church station, and I hopped on the Metro to Washington National, flew to Kennedy and on to Milano, landing early Sunday morning. Hopped on the train into the city. It was great to be in Italy, origin of 25% of my DNA, and for the first time in spring for many years. Along the way were green wheat fields, fishermen crowded around a tiny stocked pond, ancient church spires punctuating the horizon. The conductor kept saying “Mamma mia” into his mobile phone.
At Cadorna station, I got some Euros and a 48-hour public transit pass, hopped on the subway, and got off at the station below Milan’s spectacular Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, completed in 1386. Ascending the stairs, a corner of the church came into view and then it was all there, towering above me. I ambled around to the front, to admire the façade, and particularly the ornate iron doors. From there I walked next door to the Galleria, the famous 19th Century covered shopping area, already teeming with visitors. Then across to the park adjacent to La Scala, the opera house. Wandered a bit more, then caught Metro and one of the funky old streetcars out to my Airbnb accommodations, about 1.5 miles from the center on Viale Romagna.
Met my host Alba at noon. She was very friendly and welcoming. Her spotlessly clean apartment was large, on the 5th floor of an old building, but completely renovated inside (well, except no elevator, which made check in and check out fairly aerobic!). We chatted for 20 minutes and I got the outlines of her life: Iranian father, Italian mother, grew up in both places, now an industrial design student at the Politecnico, the nearby technica university. I provided a similar summary, then changed clothes and headed out.
Milan has a great bike-share system with a model similar to Paris – you can buy a one-day subscription on the Internet, then to rent a bike all you do is punch in a user number and password – facile, as Italians say. I was on two wheels in no time, riding north through the Politecnico campus, then into the center, back on foot for awhile, then onto the bike south to the campus of SDA Bocconi, a business school where I once taught. Rode around a small nearby park, then back across town to Alba’s. Time for a very short nap, absolutely tonic.
I chose her place partly because it was only a few blocks from the apartment of Massimo and Lucia Vesentini, and at 6:30 he biked over to “my house.” Massimo and I go back to 1991, when he was sales manager for American in northern Italy and I got myself invited on the westbound inaugural flight to Chicago, mirroring, in a far faster and more comfortable way the route of maternal great-grandparents Enrico and Cesira Frediani, who emigrated from Tuscany in the 1880s.
We walked a few blocks west to a neighborhood bar very near their apartment for a couple of beers and a good catch-up on our lives. I hadn’t seen him for six years, and it was fun to yak. He lived in suburban Washington as a teenager, when his father was a visiting math professor at the University of Maryland.
Among the many things Massimo told me that night was that his maternal grandfather was an Italian Jew and was able to escape to Switzerland after Mussolini enacted anti-Semitic laws. His grandma stayed in the flat the Massimo and Lucia have lived for 25+ years. Massimo’s mother, a little girl at the time, was spirited to a convent in the mountains. But some of Massimo’s kin were not so lucky, and perished in Auschwitz. Whew.
We walked to their house, and soon were tucking into Sunday dinner that Lucia prepared. True Italian style, first course of pasta with pesto, secondi of roast pork. And a Mothers’ Day cake for dessert (unhappily, their daughter Martina, a grad student in psychology, was not with us). By ten I was almost drooling, so Massimo drove me back in his zippy little Smart car. A long, good day.
Was up before six Monday morning, out the door and onto the #91 bus to the main train station, then south to Genoa, the port from which Columbus – and perhaps my great-grandparents Enrico and Cesira – sailed. It was a nice ride on a sunny morning, crossing the broad north Italian plain, the Alps in the distance, and fields of red poppies close to the tracks. The maize (corn) was about a foot high, and some farmers had already cut a first crop of hay. Traversed the wide Po River on a high bridge, then past rice paddies (see below), through the coastal mountain range (lots of tunnels), and into Genoa.
I was seriously hungry, so after buying a public-transit day ticket the first stop was a supermarket for a big tub of yogurt, then down Via del Lagaccio to a little bakery (transaction conducted entirely in Italian, pointed fingers, and a big smile for the nonna behind the counter. Found a nice bench and enjoyed an al fresco breakfast and the joy of an ordinary landscape: it was a modest neighborhood, people chatting with each other, laughing, walking their dogs, taking their kids to school. Hopped on a bus back into the center; my seatmate made the sign of the cross as the bus passed a parish church, San Giuseppe al Lagaccio.
From the train station, I headed east on foot. First stop was the Palazzo Reale, a former family residence turned museum, but it was closed. Then into an ornate but somewhat tattered old building of the University of Genoa, where I connected to free wi-fi via the awesome Eduroam network (that comes to me thanks to my adjunct status at Georgetown; God bless the Jesuits, again). Continued east to the splendid Via Garibaldi, a showcase of Genoa’s former wealth. Columbus started it all: the city was one of the first to exploit the new world and other realms, growing rich on trade. A plaque declared that the 16th Century was il Secolo dei Genovesi. I dipped into the Palazzo Lomellino, another stunning family house, from 1563.
Next stop was the cathedral of San Lorenzo, built 1200-1225. A lovely façade, and beautiful inside. Wandered a bit more, then tried to figure out how to get to the sea – not the port, but some pretty coastal villages that Massimo called the Ligurian Riviera (Liguria is the province). The handy Genoa map downloaded onto my iPhone showed a town called Nervi east of the city, and from a knot of bus lines departing from Brignole, Genoa’s other main railway station. With mostly luck, I found a bus headed to Nervi. It took an inland route, but I noticed a coast road that ran back to Genova, and was sure that a bus plied it. And I was right: the #15 ran every 10 minutes or so, and I hopped on and off several times, stopping to gaze at the azure Mediterranean, lovely little towns, and on the western horizon the still-snowy Alpi Maritimi. It was stunning. Massimo recommended a place called Bocadesse, and I hopped off the #15 there, walking a few blocks south to the sea, and hoping to find an agreeable place for lunch. But the two or three I passed all looked formulaic, so I got back on the bus and wound my way back to the old quarter and a recommended small restaurant called Ombre Rosso on the Vico Indoratori, another of the narrow alleys in the old center. On one of the small front windows I spotted a sticker that declared “Make Food Not War” – a promising sign. The young staff was friendly and very welcoming, and I tucked into a splendid lunch: a first course of pasta with pesto (second day in a row, but I never tire of it), second course of grilled tuna, one piece rolled in poppy seeds, the other in sesame. Plus two “red beers,” and a lot of crusty bread. Yum!
I retraced my steps west. When my feet tired, I hopped on a bus crowded with students, and quite a few elderly, many of whom were standing while the youths sat. On that short ride, I truly wished I could speak Italian, so I could call the guy sitting beneath me a miserable, selfish sack of manure. I seriously considered saying it in English. I was just enraged, and wanted to slap him.
Back at the station, I looked at my watch and made some quick calculations: unhappily, I forgot about heading into the nearby hills on one of several old funiculars, but it was too late to get to the closest one, and be back in time for the 5:10 train back to Milano. So I sat on the platform in the sun, hopped on the train, and was back in the metropolis just before seven. Massimo texted me earlier, suggesting a pizza at a favorite place, a pie in the traditional Naples style, which many purists regard as the highest form. I met him at the station, and we zoomed on his 1200cc BMW rocket a mile or so to eat at Piccola Ischia. Whew! No need to head for thrill rides this summer after a quick ride on that rocket.
We continued the yak from the night before, a fine conversation and some good laughs. He’s a great fellow. We would have stayed longer, but he had a mandolin lesson at nine, and I was pretty tired. He dropped me at Viale Romagna 25, hugged me, and zoomed off. That was a fine day.
Woke at 5:45, out the door on the same path as the day before, bus to Stazione Centrale, and onto the 7:10 train north to Lugano in Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, and to my fifth visit to the small university there. At 9:40 I met my host Omar Merlo (who also hosts me in MBA programs at Imperial Business School, London, and Cambridge), and from 10 to 12 delivered a talk on airline advertising to a very engaged group of 70. We grabbed a quick lunch, Omar headed back to London (we missed the traditional caloric dinner, because he had to get home).
I rolled my suitcase south to the Hotel Lido, right on Lake Lugano. The kindly clerk upgraded me to a lake-view room, and the scene from my balcony was truly stunning. It was another gorgeous spring day, and Lugano has a limited (and surprisingly cumbersome to use) bike-sharing system. With some effort and human intervention, I managed to pry a two-wheeler loose by about 3:00 and set off. Like most share systems, access is free if you keep the bike for less than 30 minutes, so I did a series of five or six one-ways, rambling south to the suburb of Paradiso (it was pretty nice, but not paradise), then south to the village of Melide, then back. A good workout.
Wednesday, I was up before dawn for the third day in a row, out the door with a bag of breakfast from the hotel, and across Lugano to the train station, which is about 200 feet above the center. I had exchanged all my Swiss Francs the night before, and didn’t have change for the handy funicular, so I hoofed it up the hill, good morning exercise. Hopped on the bus to Malpensa Airport (40 miles southwest; paid with Euros), breezing down the autostrada. Flew Ryanair to London, a nice flight on a clear day: good views of flooded rice fields, the Alps, Paris from way above, the white cliffs of Dover, straight over Heathrow airport and down into Stansted, northeast of the city, and very close to Cambridge, my destination.
Hopped on the train for the 30-minute ride north; approaching town I spotted, beside the tracks, a five-foot metal double helix, a model of the DNA that Cambridge scientists Watson and Crick identified several decades ago. Way cool! Was in my favorite overseas university town at noon, onto the bus into the center, and a short walk to my customary digs in Sidney Sussex College. Dropped my stuff, grabbed a sandwich at the supermarket across the street, and ambled a mile to Judge Business School, the 18th visit there. Ate and started working, pausing at two to visit with a young Judge colleague, Jochen Menges. I normally arrive Sidney on Sunday nights and head to Evensong in the chapel, but Wednesdays also offer an opportunity to hear their superb choir, for Latin Vespers at 6:45 (even the Scripture reading was in Latin). Met my longtime University of Wisconsin host Jan Heide, who had been on sabbatical at Judge since February, and we headed to the college’s “new parlor” for sherry before processing into the dining hall for formal dinner. The crowd of dignitaries and invited guests was huge, and a dozen of us headed to seat below high table.
As is always the case, I sat with interesting people. On my right was Stuart, a former journalist and, like me, a quasi-academic. He had a good story, but I was especially interested in his father’s work; he was a contemporary of Sir Frank Whittle, the Cambridge man who invented the jet aircraft engine, and had a great deal of experience with gas turbines. On my left was Henry Dawson, husband of former Sidney master Dame Sandra Dawson. I had met Henry briefly a decade back, but learned much more about him at dinner. He grew up in Kenya, and had some fascinating stories about his life and that of his pioneer-farming father.
Breakfast Thursday yielded one of the best T-t-S episodes in a long while. Bryan Taylor was the only person at high table in the dining hall, and he proved to be fascinating. Born in Liverpool in 1935, he had a varied life and career, and was now a wine expert, in Cambridge to offer a wine tasting to college chefs and others (“I just hope to cover my costs”). He had lived on a canal boat for four years, and was now living in a small village in the former coal country of south Wales. As an interesting aside, his brother Derek was for many years the Beatles’ PR man. Bryan was an expressive fellow (“breezy” was his term), and tears came to his eyes when he recounted the day his mother took him, at age six, from their suburban home to the heart of Liverpool to see the devastation from a Nazi bombing. It was a remarkable conversation.
As is customary, on the way to school I paused to window shop at the bookshop of Cambridge University Press, and for the first time noticed a plaque above the windows, noting that they had printed books across the street since 1583 (just a century after Gutenberg invented modern printing), and that the store was the oldest continuously operating bookshop in England. Next stop was St. Botolph’s parish church on Trumpington Street, a regular spot for daily prayer. Walked south and spent 45 minutes with Sidney fellow in architecture Michael Ramage in his office. I met Michael three years earlier at dinner, and he was kind to take time to update me on his work, which focuses broadly on sustainable materials in building – for example, making bricks and tiles from earth and a little cement. He and colleagues had just secured a major grant to further their research. He showed me projects from Rwanda, Tanzania, Oslo, and suburban Chicago, where they had just finished an interior fitting for an investment firm. Fascinating stuff.
I worked the afternoon in the Judge common room, and from six to seven delivered a talk on the airline business to MBA students, then listened to a fascinating presentation from the former marketing director of EasyJet, one of the world’s most successful low-cost airlines. At eight, we repaired to Brown’s, a restaurant next door for wine and nibbles, and lots more conversation with students, the usual bright and diverse lot. I did miss the traditional dinner with students at Loch Fyne, a fish restaurant near the school, but we still had fun and good chatter. One of the things I admire about Judge is the huge diversity of experience. Emblematic was a former captain in the U.S. Air Force, who spent five years tending nuclear missiles in Colorado and Wyoming.
By 9:30 the group faded away, and I still had not visited either of my two fave pubs in Cambridge, so I nipped into The Eagle on Bene’t Street for a half-pint of Greene King IPA. As I have often written, this pub hosted lots of Cambridge luminaries through the centuries; next to the bar they were selling T-shirts to raise funds for cancer research; the shirts carried clever phrases like “Two pints of bitter and a double helix, please.” Even the pubs hum with brainpower.
Slept in on Friday, 7:15, enjoyed a full English breakfast at Sidney, walked to the train station, and hopped on the 10:01 train west to Birmingham. Gilly, a brown hound, sat below me for part of the journey, and it was nice to stroke his chin, for I missed Henry and MacKenzie.
Arrived Birmingham at 12:40 and walked a few blocks to the offices of Wragge & Company and met senior partner and long chum Andrew Manning-Cox, and a old friend of his, Dick Elsden. We walked a couple of blocks to lunch and a good yak. Dick looks after UK government affairs for Caterpillar.
At about 2:15, we hopped in Andrew’s old-school Land Rover and headed the south. The original plan was to head east to the Dame Daphne, the canal boat that belongs to Andrew and other Birmingham pal John Crabtree, but we moved to Plan B, which was to head south to Malvern and attend the art exhibition of Andrew’s older daughter Octavia. She’s a student at Malvern St. James, a girls’ public (meaning private) school, built in a former spa hotel in Malvern. The motorway was seriously clogged, so we arrived a bit late. It was a great show. Octavia’s work is in textiles, and she showed some very clever dress designs and other work, and we admired the other girls’ considerable talent. Met the headmistress and a couple of teachers. It was my first time in such a school, and it was very interesting indeed.
The motorway traffic earlier prompted Andrew to suggest a Plan C, which was not to head to the boat after the art show, but stay overnight at their house, and I immediately agreed. Next stop was (co-ed) Malvern College, nearby, where younger daughter Verity studies. A boys’ cricket match was in progress with a school from Wales, and we watched for a few minutes, wedged Verity into the car (which was packed with stuff we were bringing to the boat), and motored home, to Winthill, a lovely house (built 1927) and grounds, with great views of the Malvern Hills to the south. Took a bracing swim in their pool, then ambled down the hill to watch Verity practice dressage, in this case jumping. Both girls have horses kept on premises.
Next step was to motor to Malvern to pick up Indian takeaway. The family admired my penchant for spice and chilies, and we had a fun dinner with lots of laughs. It was great to be with a family, and Plan C was clearly the right choice.
Up at 6:30 Saturday morning and down to the kitchen to bring this journal up to date, then out the door, north on the M5 motorway, then east to the hamlet of Lapworth and the Dame Daphne, moored at the intersection of two canals. We loaded up and got underway, south on the same canal we floated three years earlier, the Stratford-upon-Avon (built 1793-1816). Our literal third mate, John Crabtree, would not join us until the end of the day, and I soon discovered that the deckhand works hard on a two-man crew. In fact, I barely rode the boat at all, because I was the lock handler.
We were descending, so the drill, easily mastered, was as follows:
1. If the lock were full, simply open the gate (weighing 2400 to 5500 pounds), by pushing a long lever. Some gates were well balanced and moved fairly easily, some not, and one or two I simply could not budge by myself.
2. If the dock were empty, ensure that the downstream drains were closed, then open the upper drains and fill the lock.
3. Andrew steers the Dame in.
4. Close the upper gate.
5. Open the lower paddles.
6. Open the lower gate, then close it after the boat cleared.
We cleared about five locks, then moored for lunch, provisions we bought on the way. Fortified, we resumed; about two locks down, we yanked Andrew’s bike off the roof before it hit the bottom of a bridge, then, duh, I was able to bicycle from lock to lock. We cleared more, found a turning basin just below the hamlet of Preston Bagot, and headed north, up five locks to Lowsonford (for a total of 21 locks that day), where John joined us. We jumped in his big BMW and motored back to Preston Bagot and a long and caloric meal at The Crab Mill, a gastropub we’ve visited before. At dusk, we walked two miles up the towpath. By the time we reached the Dame I was totally nackered, as they say in Britain. We folded out beds (I slept on the dining benches, which converted to a comfy bed, table dropped for additional support). Zzzzzzzzzzz.
Andrew wanted to get an early start, because he had stuff to do, so after a good breakfast we were underway. It was much easier with three, John on the tiller and Andrew and I alternating lock duty. We were back at the junction before ten, unloaded, cleaned up the Dame, and said goodbye to Andrew. John and I headed back to his village, Crowle, where the annual village football (soccer) tournament was in full swing at the local park. Lots of matches for players of all ages, food booths, rides, other stuff. John’s wife Diana and several colleagues were staffing a food booth, selling cakes and sweets, coffee and tea in aid of Sense, a UK charity serving people both blind and deaf (John is chairman). Their kids were there, Jamie, 15, Robbie, 14, and Jessica, nearly 9, all happy to see Rob, hugs all around. We hung out for a bit, then headed back to the house for a much-needed shower. The afternoon passed nicely (even got a nap), and at six we dismantled the stand, folded and stowed tables, and headed home to count the proceeds (more than £1000!) and relax in their splendid back yard. For the eighth day in a row it was perfect spring weather.
After the other volunteers departed, we had a light dinner and I was asleep before ten. It was a splendid weekend, and the high points were the ordinary experiences with two families. It is a blessing to know people overseas well enough that they invite you into their homes and share themselves fully. Just awesome.
Was up to see the Crabtree kids off to school and yak a bit more with John (who at age 64.8 is still seriously busy with work and voluntary activity). I’ve been to The White House (their place) many times, and I know my way around the kitchen, so I fixed a cup of tea and reached into the cereal drawer opposite the sink. When I opened the fridge, I noticed details on a school exchange with students from Germany. I scanned the itinerary, and I chuckled when I got to the last sentence on the last day, when host families said goodbye and the bus departed for Heathrow; the guidance: “No overt crying.” Ya gotta love the Brits!
At 9:30, Diana and I drove into Worcester, returned borrowed tables and other stuff at Jessica’s school, and she dropped me at the Shrub Hill station. On the way, we continued our discussion of UK education. At least in the private system, it seems more rigorous than our public schools, and May is clearly a stress-filled month, because a lot of exams are either underway or about to start. Gave Diana a kiss and hug, bought a ticket to Birmingham, and hopped on the 10:52 local – and the start of a novel return to the United States. The UK imposes a huge tax on departing passengers (about $250 if you’re headed to the U.S.), so I decided to avoid the tax by departing from Dublin, 150 miles west. There are cheap flights on Aer Lingus from Birmingham to Dublin, but I opted for slow movement, the train 165 miles west to Holyhead in far northwest Wales, and a ferry crossing.
I had the afternoon to explore central Birmingham. First step was to drop my suitcase. As the train rolled into the station, I spotted a Holiday Inn Express a block away, and reckoned that if I invoked my exalted gold loyalty status – and as I noted recently, the HIE holding company, IHG, does take care of loyal customers – they might store my bag for free, saving some quids. Indeed, Dylan at the front desk took care of it, and off I went, ambling a few blocks to a highly-regarded Indian restaurant, Asha (I actually walked first to the Hen and Chickens, a nearby pub that served Indian food, but the kitchen did not open until late afternoon).
Asha turned out to be a great choice. It was a quite fancy place, but they had a wonderful and huge lunch special. As I did three nights earlier, I asked for chopped green chilies (explaining my Texas fondness for peppers), and this time I ate them all, along with a very savory chicken curry. Birmingham has tons of cultural diversity (on the train, I saw two mosques on either side of the tracks as we traversed the neighborhood called Jewellery Quarter), and on the street I saw lots of small groups of multiple races, always a good sign.
Next stop was the brand-new Library of Birmingham, a huge place, and filled with patrons of all ages and cultures. Another good sign. Outside, it was a bold design; inside was equally dramatic yet very functional. It was, simply, one of the best public spaces I have seen in a long time. I spent an hour in the place, relaxing, reading, pulling books off the shelves. As I left, I noticed that the building was opened on 3 September 2013 by Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani girl who the Taliban tried to assassinate in October 2012 because she dared to get an education (she received medical care in Birmingham).
I paused for a bit in the Cathedral of St. Philip (the bishop is a dear friend of the Crabtrees, so I passed my business card to one of the vergers, with a greeting on the blank side), then walked east to the redeveloped and expanded campus of Aston University. Ambled around a bit, then poked around downtown some more. The city has an agreeable feel, a nice mix of wonderful red-brick Victorian buildings and a lot of gleaming new structures.
At 5:30, I headed into the ornate Old Joint Stock, an 1864 heritage building that was originally a library, then a bank, and now a pub owned by Fuller, Smith & Turner, my favorite large English brewer. Time for a pint and a bit of work on this update. An hour later I moved down Colmore Row to a Starbucks for a smoothie and both free wi-fi and free electricity (I suspected that the train would not have power sockets at the seats, and I wanted to make sure that laptop and iPhone (how I read books and, every day, The New York Times) were well-charged. Starbucks closed at 7:30, and I then walked a few blocks south to the train station, bought a light dinner for the train ride, and hopped on the 8:23 to Shrewsbury. That train was pretty speedy, but the connecting train took more than three hours to get to the shores of the Irish Sea. We stopped at places with curious names like Y Waun Chirk and Rhyl – we were in Wales, land of a curious language. We rolled into Holyhead at 12:50.
Those of you who think of me as a totally thrifty traveler, perhaps excessively so, will be pleased to know that I booked a double cabin with window for the 190-minute crossing, and was well asleep on Deck 10 before we left port. Slept hard, woke at 5:21, clambered off and onto a taxi, then a bus to Dublin Airport and a flight to JFK, then home to Washington.