At 10:55 on the last day of January, Linda dropped me at the Metro. I was headed to my first teaching stint in Europe, via an afternoon lecture to EMBA students at George Washington University. The classroom was not on campus, but a mile northwest at the Four Seasons Hotel. Posh! As is always the case, these older MBA students (my tablemate at lunch was nearly my age) were a talkative lot, and the presentation was a lot of fun. I hung out after class to yak with a few students, from Lebanon, Libya, and Oscar, an officer in the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
Hopped back on the Metro to National Airport and flew US Airways to Charlotte, then onto a very nice Airbus A330 to Frankfurt. Out of the way, but a good fit for the day’s schedule.
Landed at 11, crossed the airport and hopped on the train north to Koblenz, headed to my first appearance at the private German business school WHU in five years. I hadn’t been along the Rhine since then, but it still looked familiar – I thought back to all the times I had traversed the valley, all the way back to my first trip to Europe in 1971. That prompted a musing about how many gigabytes of travel memories were stored in my head. Lots.
On the train, I cued German composers: Haydn, then Holst, then my Lutheran comrade, Bach. Then I played “Deutschlandleid,” the German national anthem; I often do that on arrival, to imagine the place in 1945, in ruins, people hungry, sick, homeless, and cold, then fast-forward to what the German people have accomplished in 70 years. As I always note when describing the Middle Rhine Valley it’s pretty close to a fairy-tale landscape, with the steep slopes rising from the water, impossibly tilted vineyards, castles atop the hills, and picturesque villages below. Way cool, even on a gloomy winter day. I recorded a video on my iPhone and queued it to send.
At Koblenz I hopped off the train and ambled east to my hotel, the charmless Mercure. Perhaps as counterweight to its anonymous and dull modernism (built 1986), on the walk I marveled at early 20th Century adornments on Markenbildschenweg and Mainzstrasse, and snapped some pictures of lovely architectural detail:
I ate a sandwich bought at the station, donned shorts and a tee, and pounded out 22 miles on the fitness bike in the basement gym. Took a shower, and just before dark headed out in light rain, north to the Deutsches Eck, literally the German Corner, where the Moselle River meets the Rhine, a national landmark dominated by an enormous bronze statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I erected 1897; a U.S. artillery shell damaged it in 1945, and in 1993 local benefactors paid to recreate the statue in 1993 (not everyone wanted to remember Willy I!). During the Cold War the corner became a monument to German unity, and since reunification, the flags of the 16 German states and the national banner fly, as do EU and U.S. flags. I had seen the Star-Spangled Banner there before, but never noticed the small plaque on the pole that reads “we remember 11 September 2001 and our friends in the USA.” “Friends forever,” I said, and ambled briskly, because the rain was getting heavier.
In ten minutes I was in the cozy confined of the Altes Brauhaus, since 1689, a long favorite for beer and dinner (it was a bit early, but I was hungry). I was able to ask for three beers and several plates of food all in German, which made me feel good. The place was much emptier than it usually is on weekdays, but the folks there, mainly older ones, were having fun.
I walked back to the hotel, read a bit, and fell asleep at nine. Woke up at 1:30 and switched on the Super Bowl, seeing both teams score touchdowns in the last two minutes of the first half, score tied at 14. I had zero interest in the halftime show, so set the iPhone timer for 30 minutes. I heard it signal me to get up, but I did not. At four I awoke, switched on the TV to see New England players dancing around, said ugh, and fell hard asleep.
Up early down to the gym, then breakfast, and out the door, walking a block to the bus stop and onto the #8 bus to Vallendar, a village across the Rhine that’s home to WHU. It was good to be back. At 9:15 I met my young friend Jochen Menges; we first met at St. Gallen when he was a Ph.D. student, I taught in classes at his first post, Cambridge, and last year he became chair of the leadership group at WHU. Delivered two lectures on leadership to big – and very engaged – classes of undergraduates. In between, a splendid lunch with Heidi Heidrun, who runs the MBA program at the school; she’s been a long friend, so it was good to reconnect after some years.
Jochen dropped me at the hotel and peeled off for Cologne Airport and a flight back to England (he hasn’t moved his family yet). I worked a bit, then ambled back to the Altes Brauhaus for a beer, and dinner at Mein Koblenz, a relatively new restaurant on Jesuitengasse, serving updated German comfort food, including the very best Himmel und Erde (heaven and earth) I’ve ever eaten. The dish, a regional specialty combines blood sausage, mashed potatoes, onions, and apples. Mein Koblenz served it sizzling in a metal pan, with a braised peach instead of an apple, and it was seriously good.
Back at the hotel I worked a bit more. Lights out at 10, but as usually now happens on the second night in Europe, I slept less well. No matter, still down to the gym at 6:15 for 15 miles on the fitness bike. Hopped on the train back to Frankfurt Airport and onto British Airways to London, arriving not at Heathrow, but at London City Airport, just east of the center. We approached from the east, pivoting around the new tall building nicknamed the Shard.
I hopped on the Docklands Light Railway, which provided great views of the rapidly changing East London landscape. A venerable English firm, Tate & Lyle, are still making golden syrup next to an open lot (likely a former factory site) next to a huge new housing project that fronted the north bank of the Thames. Tons of additional residential construction; demand seems limitless.
I changed trains, exchanged some leftover money for pounds and ambled north in Covent Garden to a big lunch at Masala Zone, a reliable Indian chain restaurant. I needed some spice, and I got it. Time to get to work, and I strode a few blocks east to the London School of Economics and a new host, Catherine Thomas, a young strategy professor. We had a quick brief before class, walked a block to a wonderful old lecture hall, and I delivered my talk on airline revenue management.
Next stop was the office of Stratajet, a start-up (I’ve helped modestly for a few years) that’s best described as the Uber of business aviation. Jonathan Nicol, a major in the British Army, is the brains behind it, and in no time I was shaking his hand and that of Paddington, his black Labrador. Said hello to Alex and some other staffers, and Jonathan and I headed across Oxford Street to a pub, The Spread Eagle, for a catch-up and a couple of pints. Things are taking off at Stratajet, pun intended, all good.
Last stop that day were my Airbnb digs, just north of the center in Kentish Town. I knew the neighborhood a bit from decades earlier. I chose the room for its three-minute proximity to a Tube station. Razvan, a young Romanian, welcomed me warmly. He was a tekkie, so the place was well wired, including a smart TV in my room. Yakked with Raz, ate a sandwich, and clocked out, because Wednesday would be another full day.
Up at 5:50, out the door, two Tube stops south to Euston Station, and onto the 7:13 train 50 miles north to Milton Keynes. It was clear and cold up there, with little wisps of snow on the ground. Hopped on the bus through town and north to Cranfield University, a relatively small and new school with a well-regarded focus on aviation: engineering, safety investigation, and management were all specialties. At 9:15, I met Keith Mason, director of the latter program. We grabbed a quick coffee and walked across campus (past the airfield and apron with a Boeing 737 and some other expensive hardware) for my first lecture there. Lots of good questions. I seldom teach in such specialized programs, so the queries were really well informed and way more nuanced than at “normal” B-schools.
Keith and I ate lunch with two young faculty and another visitor, yakking animatedly about the business in a way only T-Geeks could. Keith then drove me back to the Milton Keynes station, and I hopped on the train south to London, arriving 2:30. My next gig was at 6:30, but rather than heading to Airbnb I walked two blocks east to the British Library, a favorite and comfortable place to work. As it often is, the library was packed, but I squeezed in between students from China and Greece, and got to work. Very productive several hours.
At 6:30 I was at London Business School for the 11th time, keeping a long tradition alive by speaking with 30 members of the school’s Marketing Club. I delivered my “what American did after 9/11” talk, lots of good questions, and some painful memories. Peeled off at 8:15, east a couple miles to St. Pancras Station, not for a train but for a pint, just one, with two former MBA students from Cambridge, Tim and Fabio. We’ve stayed connected to several years, and it’s a joy to track their careers and young families.
Although Thursday was to be a relatively quieter day, opportunity to meet a new fellow arose the day before, and I was out the door at 8:15. First stop, McDonald’s for a large coffee and a nice T-t-S with the store manager, a friendly Greek guy who with a bit of encouragement discoursed on ancient Greek history. Whoa! Hopped onto the train a few miles to West Hampstead and a quick chat with a really interesting publisher. Worked the rest of the morning at a Pret a Manger near Trafalgar Square. Hewing to tradition stretching back nearly a decade, at noon I met my dear friend David Holmes for lunch at the Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall. As regular readers know, David was for many years a senior public servant in the UK Department of Transport (head of the transport policy unit, for example), followed by a stint at British Airways, where I met him 20 years back. We processed to the ornate Great Gallery, tucked into a splendid lunch of halibut and even better conversation. Lunch with David is a high point of every winter visit to London.
Next stop, and last classroom gig, was back to London Business School and a first appearance in Prof. Oded Koenigsberg’s MBA pricing class in late afternoon. While he did his hour I ambled a few blocks to buy two jars of Coleman’s English Mustard, my traditional souvenir (each time I spread it on a ham sandwich I think of good times across the water!). When class was finished, we zipped over to the LBS’ pub, The Windsor Castle (it was my 11th visit to the school, but I had never been there). I was pressed for time, but we had a quick pint and I peeled off for the Tube, riding east to Liverpool Street Station.
If you’re U.S.-bound, the UK airline departure tax, called an air passenger duty, now runs to $230, which really makes it more of a ransom; this traveler is on a campaign to avoid, not evade, the levy. I did it in May, returning home via Dublin, and this time Amsterdam made sense. As in May, I would reach Dutch shores via ship, which meant a short train ride from London to the Port of Harwich. Grabbed two sandwiches and two beers (a light dinner, given the large midday repast), and hopped on the 8:00 train.
The Stena Hollandica was a splendid, nearly-new ship that was fitted nearly to the standard of a cruise ship. Really nice. I found my cabin, unpacked a bit, and explored the vessel. Just before heaving anchor, on deck 12 I had a nice T-t-S chat – second of the day – with a fellow. He was English but grew up in the Netherlands and considered himself Dutch. Was back in England (his parents relocated after retirement) because his father died. As I usually do in such circumstances, I expressed condolences, and then immediately asked if he had a good life. Indeed, the man replied, and we carried on for 20 minutes or so as the ferry slipped out of the harbor.
I slept well, the ship pitching lightly in the North Sea. Up at 6:30, shower, tucked into a huge buffet breakfast (at €15, about $17, it was not cheap, so I really filled up!), and wheeled my bag off the boat and into the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a place I had not visited for nearly five years. The crossing “package” included the rail fares in both countries, even better a day ticket for unlimited travel on the Nederlandse Spoorwegen. I hopped on the 8:26 train toward Rotterdam. A few kilometers east of the port I spotted the first locks, evidence of the water engineering that has helped build the “Low Countries” for a millennium. Indeed, the need to manage water collectively (if you pump out your land, where do you dump it?) has shaped Dutch culture for centuries toward an enlightened sense of cooperation. There’s a lot to like about the nation.
Changed trains at Schiedam, and was in the center of The Hague by 9:35. Through 44 years of European travel, I had been to Holland a number of times, but never to the seat of government, and the urban fabric of The Hague was immediately interesting, a fascinating combination of boldly styled high-rise office buildings and traditional Dutch architecture. Walking out of the station, a fine little T-t-S with a woman walking two Welsh terriers. “Are they related,” I asked, and she replied they were half brothers. In no time the smaller of the two was chomping softly on my hand, and I was telling her how much I missed our terriers – but would be home the next day.
I was bound for the Mauritshuis, one of the greatest repositories of 17th Century Dutch painting, and was excited about the visit. But it was not easy. When I got to the museum, the outside guard said I could not bring my suitcase in, so I had to walk back to the train station, where the digitally-controlled lockers were down (something to be said for the old mechanical approach, I muttered, along with some profanity). I walked to a hotel nearby, offered to pay to leave the bag, but they said no. Time for charm and a bold approach, I reckoned, and stepped into a dry-cleaning shop. “Sure,” the Dutch owner said, “no problem,” just leave it in the corner. They didn’t want my Euros.
An hour later, I had downloaded the Mauritshuis app on my iPhone and was marveling at the wonderful art. More than 40 years ago, I read Kenneth Clark’s book Civilisation, a survey of art and life in the West, and the chapter on the Dutch Golden Age particularly caught my eye (I had visited the Netherlands a couple of years earlier, 1971, on my very first trip to Europe). The chapter title, “The Light of Experience,” was apt, because the painters of the period – Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals, Steen, and others, captured light like no one else. Rubens’ painting “Old Woman and Boy with Candles” was the first one with magic light. The glow on their faces was remarkable.
The museum was busy but not crowded. A Kindergarten class sat in front of a Rubens and Brueghel collaboration, entertained by a docent or teacher with a puppet. I moved along, turned a corner and there she was, Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” She was looking at me, and, I thought, sharing my delight that she is still with us, 350 years after Vermeer created her, through wars and trauma. She triggered tears, gladness that I could see her and that she has endured wars and lots of trouble:
Opposite her in the same room was Vermeer’s famous urban landscape, described by the museum as the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age, “View of Delft.” I smiled when I saw it. In 2006, I had taken a photograph in exactly the same spot where he painted it, and the landscape was little changed. The next day, the photo vanished, as did the camera and the briefcase that held it, on a NS train from Rotterdam to Schiphol Airport. It was nice to see the original! Elsewhere in the museum were several works by Jan Steen, who depicted varied humanity in splendid ways. Jacob van Ruysdael’s “River View with Church and Ferry” was another reminder of Dutch skill in conquering the water. Coorte’s still life of apricots that literally glowed was further proof of these artists’ mastery of light. I could go on gushing, but you get the picture! Just a splendid place, and on my way out I thanked two older docents for the opportunity to visit.
I left the museum, headed south through the adjacent Binnenhof, a complex of old government buildings and courtyards, then along a residential street and back to the station (pausing to pick up my suitcase giving thanks again). Grabbed a Starbucks and answered some emails, then hopped on the train north to Amsterdam. Walked a couple of miles from Lelylaan station to my Airbnb home on Balboastraat and met Deirdre, one of my hosts. She was an interesting young woman, just finishing her studies to be a midwife – most Dutch mothers give birth at home, a good thing. After a quick yak, I took a tonic 20-minute power nap. Ahhhhh!
At five I hopped on the nearby #13 tram and rode into the center. I had not been in the old city for almost 20 years, but I immediately recalled the geometry of canals and streets (well, okay, the map on my iPhone helped, too!). Wandered up and down the Singelgracht (canal), and at six met Jan Meurer, an ex-KLM executive and friend of Rick Dow, at Café Hoppe, one of the city’s many famous “brown cafes.” It was the end of the work week, and the place was hopping, but we found a place to sit down and get acquainted. Jan and I immediately hit it off. He suggested we have another drink in the very posh Hotel De L’Europ, followed by a light dinner and more chatter. We got to know each other very well in a few hours, and I really hope we see each other again.
Was up at 6:45 Saturday morning and out the door on a sturdy red Dutch one-speed bike, compliments of Yahav, Deirdre’s partner. It was still dark when I headed toward the center (only about two miles). I spent a couple of delightful hours cruising up and down canals, major and minor: Singelgracht and Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht, past skinny bell-gabled houses, brown cafés, and houseboats that were more like houses. The pavement was a bit slick, so I treaded carefully, 12 miles more or less. The ride ended with breakfast at the Buongiorno espresso bar near my digs. Locked the bike securely, changed clothes, headed to the airport, and flew home on US Airways to Philadelphia and a hop down to D.C. A great trip!