On Thursday, April 9, I hopped the Metro and bus to Dulles Airport and onto a British Airways Airbus A380, the double-decked behemoth. What a beast! It was roughly twice as long as the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Even in deepest economy class (seat 70B), it was comfortable and remarkably quiet. I actually had an exit row aisle seat, which helped a lot. It was a way-quick flight to London Heathrow, pretty much sleepless, but relaxing. Landed at dawn, hopped on the express train to Paddington, and in less than 10 minutes’ walk was in a superbly located Airbnb and yakking happily with the four residents: host Stephanie, English-Colombian (mostly the latter); Stefan, Dutch-Mexican; Ruben, Dutch; and Maria, Colombian. All four were grad students, renting a quite fancy flat in a block of red-brick Victorian buildings on a quiet street north of the station. We had a cup of coffee and a good yak in the kitchen about their studies, my teaching, and more.
I took a shower, put on a necktie, and headed south to Paddington Green and a bike from the wonderful bike-share service (formerly under Barclays Bank sponsorship, now flying the red-and-white Santander banner). For under $3 a day, you get access to bikes all over central London, no charge for the first 30 minutes. Headed east a mile to London Business School via a Tesco supermarket for breakfast provisions. Needed to stretch my legs a bit more, so circled Regent’s Park (about three miles), waving to the giraffes you could see from Outer Circle.
It was a sunny day, and I worked a bit in their courtyard, put my head down for 20 minutes (one of the security staff asked if I was okay!), and at 12:20 met my new LBS host Oded Koenigsberg. I’ve only met him twice, but have taken a real shine to him – way-smart, funny, articulate, practical. For example, he sends his three kids to state schools rather than private ones. I like him a lot. We grabbed a spicy Thai lunch at the adjacent pub the school owns, and from 2:15 to 3:45 it was my turn, stand and deliver to a class of 70 EMBA students from all over (LBS may be the most international place I teach). Talk went well, and the loud applause at the end was much appreciated (I was a little apprehensive about articulacy given lack of sleep, but the coffee helped a lot!).
Rode back to the flat, which was then quiet, took a short nap, changed clothes, and hopped on the #18 bus west on Harrow Road, to Caroline and Scott Sage’s house. They were around the corner at the Parlour gastropub, along with new daughter Eva Rose (six months old) and their part-time nanny. The ladies all peeled off, and Scott and I enjoyed some pints and a delicious dinner. Jessie, the head chef who Scott knows well, appeared a couple of times, once bringing a bowl of pigeon talons (needless to say, they source creatively). We walked back to the house, I visited briefly with Caroline, and headed back on the bus, plumb wore out.
Slept really hard, up at six, did a bit of work, and at eight headed out. The plan was a full day on the shared bikes, exchanging them every 25 minutes or so, roaming across the perimeter of the hire stations (there are more than 10,000 bikes at over 700 stations). I had a bit of breakfast at a Pret a Manger near Regent’s Park, and started riding. It rained for about 15 minutes, prompting a return to Pret for another coffee, but it soon cleared. I needed a bit more breakfast, so grabbed two yogurts. While eating them along Park Road, I had the first Talking to Strangers moment of the trip. A woman about my age walked past with a whippet-like dog, and I said hello. She responded to be careful with my yogurt because her pooch might take a lick. We laughed, and I told her I already missed our two terriers. Daisy Belle, a rescue dog from Ireland and named for her owner’s Iowa-born grandmother, got to lick the empty tubs of yogurt. The woman, whose name I did not learn, was a Michigan, transplanted to London since 1969. It was a nice visit.
Under blue skies, I headed east and north, through Camden Town. First sightseeing stop was the St. Pancras Old Church, a good place to finish my daily prayers. It has been a Christian place of worship since the 4th Century, and claims to be the oldest such site in London. I continued on, zigzagging to stations in Islington, Hackney, Bow. After tracking east, I turned south not far from the site of the 2012 Olympics, down to Canary Wharf, the glob of high-rises east of the city. Paused for a picnic lunch on a park bench (salmon salad sandwich, chips, yogurt), but rather than pursuing the original plan, to cross the Thames and heading across the southern perimeter of docking stations, I headed west, through Whitechapel and the City, then along the north bank of the river, past Trafalgar Square, and St. James Park to Grosvenor Square.
It had been awhile since I saluted General Eisenhower, or at least a bronze of him in ordinary uniform that stands in front of the U.S. Embassy. On the back of the pedestal stands the first part of his Order of the Day for June 6, 1944:
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Those words brought tears to my eyes, and joy at the triumph, hard won. I was less than joyful, however, at the fortifications that have turned our embassy into a virtual moated castle. As I have written in these pages, fear is not the image the United States should project. I think General Eisenhower would be dismayed.
I rode back to Paddington Green and parked the bike, sore in the saddle. Walked north to the flat, visited briefly with Stephanie, and took a quick nap. I wanted a pint, but in a historic pub; a little quick research online pointed me to the Star in the posh Belgravia neighborhood west of Victoria Station. I took the Tube there.
It was a good place, perfect for a pint, but I was hungry, and wanted to visit my friend Raj Dawood’s Hot Stuff curry place across the Thames in Lambeth. Consulting the bike-share app on my iPhone, I saw it would be easier, quicker, and cheaper to get another bike, so in no time I was sailing east and south, and soon tucking into a spicy vegetable karahi. It was not quite dark after dinner, so I rode back across to Sloane Square, then onto the Tube home. A total of 36 miles on the two-wheeler. Back at the flat, only Stefan was home, eating dinner. We yakked a bit, I showered, and was asleep before ten.
Up at 5:00, out the door, onto the 5:25 Heathrow Express and the 7:05 SAS flight to Stockholm (via the least organized, most bungling security screening I had encountered in years). I read the Sunday New York Times on my iPhone. I was sorry to read the obituary of Ivan Doig, a Montana native and superb chronicler, through many novels, of life in the American West. To honor his superb literature, I cued some music reminiscent of the region, including Basil Poledouris’ wonderful theme from Lonesome Dove. I missed the opportunity to make contact with Mr. Doig; my brother Jim learned of a personal connection to the family: the author grew up partly in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, where my Uncle Harold was the deputy sheriff.
Hopped on the 11:30 rocket north to Umeå and my 20th visit to Umeå University in 21 years. As we descended through cloud, I saw no signs of spring. Although I’ve visited many times, I always spot interesting new stuff, and as the bus to town rolled away from the terminal I noticed airport covered parking for bicycles. Totally Swedish!
Walked from Vasaplan west about a mile to my new digs. In previous years, when I taught for a week or more the school put me up at a rather plain place, the aptly-named OK Hotell. When we set the dates for the spring 2015 residence, I consulted Airbnb, and booked an entire studio apartment for way less than the OK. My host, Matilda, left the key, and I got in and got settled. Marcus, one of my student friends, had kindly dropped one of the bikes the business school provides to visitors at a nearby convenience store, where I fetched the key. As usually happens, the tires needed a lot of air, so I rode east to the bike store I’ve known for years, filled up, and headed back to the flat.
Matilda, actually Dr. Matilda, was at the flat to welcome me and point out a few things. She’s a psychiatrist at the big university hospital, and we had a nice, but brief visit (she returned a couple of hours later to deliver Pumpkin, a very furry cat who would be my companion – no extra charge!). The OK provides breakfast, but obviously Airbnb does not, so I headed to the ICA Supermarket for provisions: seeded rolls, local cheese (Västerbottenost), yogurt, juice, milk, muesli, and, of course, herring. Ya gotta have herring at Swedish breakfast!
I intended to bike for the rest of the afternoon, but the clouds had turned to rain. I managed about 30 minutes, across the Umeå River to Bölesholmarna, a small island in the river, and a favorite place in all the world. But the trail was wet and quite muddy, so I headed back across the river on pavement, and west until I was sopped. Back to the flat, time for a nap and warm up (it was 39°), then, by formula, to the Bishops Arms, a cozy, English-style pub for a couple of beers and dinner (the barmaid described the weather as “Edgar Allan Poe-like,” quite well put).
That night, it turned out that I should have been the one to impose the extra charge for the cat. When I turned out the lights about 9:30, Pumpkin started meowing loudly, about every five to eight minutes. I texted Matilda at about 11, but her lack of response suggested that she, unlike me, was well asleep. The yammering continued, stopping only for about three hours, two to five. It was not a good night; I was cranky and baggy-eyed Monday morning. Luckily, I had no lectures that day. The good news was use of a whole kitchen and a great bath, so after some herring, cheese, and bread and a good wash, I headed east to the university, about two miles.
When Matilda got the message, she knew immediately that the cat was in heat, said she was going to give her some meds this afternoon, and that all would be calm down. I appreciated her forthright, very Swedish manner, and planned on getting a good night’s sleep. At school, I settled into a familiar study desk in a common area, and actually managed to get some work done. At five, I rode down the hill, changed clothes, and headed out for a ride. It was not raining, but the west wind was howling, gusting to about 40 mph. Rode across the river for a spicy dinner at a Thai restaurant, and settled in at home, looking forward to a good sleep.
Like clockwork, after the sun went down the meows began again. She wanted a man-cat! I texted Matilda, and told her that the whole situation was untenable. She really stepped up, booking and paying for a room in a new, hip-but-modest downtown hotel, the U&ME (a play on the city’s airport code, UME), and even insisted on driving me, or rather my suitcase, over to the hotel. I rode the school’s bicycle. Just another part of being on the road overseas, as I’ve been for 44 years now.
Tuesday morning, I was “up and at ’em,” as my father used to say. Spent a productive day, and from three to five delivered a seminar to the incoming officers of the student business association, HHUS. It was a small group, with lots of interaction. At five, I sped down the hill, changed clothes, zipped to the florist, then downriver to dinner with my friends Nils and Carolina Paulsson and their three boys, Johann, Petter, and Olle. The prospect of a home-cooked dinner (Carolina is an accomplished cook who won a Swedish cookbook competition) was huge, and I was drooling in anticipation. There was still a bit of snow on the riverside bike path, and I nearly crashed a block from their house, on two inches of slush.
As I have written before, Nils is a way-cool, multitalented fellow, and the big news were plans for a summer cottage about 15 miles south, not far from the sea. Nils pointed out the window at some freshly planed boards; I was not surprised that the wood for the cottage came from the newly-bought land – he felled the timber and was preparing all the lumber himself. I am in awe of his skills. He is The Man! Also new at the Paulssons: a German shorthaired pointer puppy, Egil.
Dinner was wonderful: chopped beef simmered in a cream sauce, boiled potatoes, cucumbers pickled in ättika (basically vinegar on steroids), salad. The meat came from nearby, they knew the farmer and almost knew the animal, a cross of the sturdy French breeds Charolais and Limousin. I wanted to yak with them a bit more, but really wanted to ride home before it got dark, so said goodbye about 8:20 and pedaled upriver.
Wednesday was the first really full day, a noontime seminar sponsored by tourism promotion groups from the city (Umeå) and county (Västerbotten), about 30 people. It went really well. Rode back up the hill to the university, grabbed a quick lunch, and delivered a two-hour lecture to an entrepreneurship class. Unlike the day before, there was zero interaction, which was a bit frustrating (Erik, the prof, explained the next day that it wasn’t “just me,” but an odd dynamic in the class). Had a nice bike ride around Bölesholmarna, a superb dinner of Arctic char at Lotta’s Krog and Pub, a Umeå fave. Thursday it was rinse, repeat, a full day of lectures. High point was dinner at the Allstar sports bar, big-screen TVs showing the third game of the Swedish Hockey League finals – hockey night in Sweden. The defending champs, from the nearby small city (32,000) of Skellefteå, had a rough time against the Växjö Lakers. But it was still a lot of fun.
A nice surprise Friday: the dean of the business school, Lars Hassel, a swell guy, had returned early from an EU-sponsored visit to Baikal State University in Siberia (six time zones east). After an all-morning lecture on air cargo and a noontime seminar sponsored by HHUS, Lars and I headed for lunch and a good catch-up. I’ve met five or six deans at Umeå over the last two decades, and Lars has been at the top of the charts. Unhappily, his three-year term was up, and we yakked a lot about what would happen next. We drove back to school, I did a bit of work. It had finally cleared off and warmed up, so I changed clothes and took a last ride, on the path upriver. The late-afternoon light was superb. Grabbed a light dinner at Lotta’s and turned out the lights on a good week.
I was up early and out the door, excited to be bound for Copenhagen, my first visit to the Danish capital in 39 years. Flew to Stockholm, then CPH, arriving about 11. Jumped on the Metro for a short ride into the city, and by noon was at my Airbnb digs in the Christianshavn neighborhood, a great central location. Met my host Jesper, changed clothes, chatted a bit (he was an old lefty, commenting “we must continue to fight imperialism!”). Walked a mile or so to Baisikeli, a bike rental service that donates all profits to various African development projects (baisikeli is the Swahili word for, you guessed it, bicycle). I rented a jaunty, bright red bike, heavy but with superb gears and brakes.
Although it had been nearly four decades, I immediately felt oriented, remembering the basic layout of the center. First stop was town hall square, where I parked and headed for lunch. The place was teeming with locals and tourists. Refreshed, I jumped back on the bike and rode around the center awhile, then back across the harbor to Christianshavn, then up to see den lille havfrue, Hans Christian Andersen’s famous Little Mermaid rendered in bronze. It was time for a bit more sustenance, so I grabbed a Danish hot dog. The Danes know their wieners, and the relatively small country is one of the largest pork producers in the world. Headed across neighborhoods north of downtown, past the university, around pleasant small lakes.
But what most caught my eye that afternoon were a set of about 10 quiet streets in the Østerbro neighborhood, lined with row houses that looked to be about 120-140 years old. Each street ran for about a quarter-mile, and halfway in every one of them narrowed to an area where kids could play safely, right in the street – there were sandboxes and small playgrounds, hopscotch squares painted on the pavement. That day I had already seen cool examples of Danish urban planning, but this was the zenith. Toward the end of my weaving back and forth, I paused and asked a fellow about my age about the neighborhood. It was a nice T-t-S exchange. The area is called “Potato Rows,” two stories why: one, from the air the streets look like a potato field; two, before the building, the place was a potato field. He told me that he had lived there three decades, that it was originally a working-class area, which meant, he said, that three families would live in each house, one per floor, 18 people. “Four people now,” he smiled, and we discussed the declining birthrate in Western Europe. I asked about prices, and he said the equivalent of $1 million. Not working class!
I continued on, back across the harbor, then returned the bike and ambled home, stopping for an ale at a friendly beer bar at the east end of Langebro. It was a mixed group, guys at the bar rolling dice from a cup, students yakking, a couple of bikers outside. Danes are a friendly lot: plenty of eye contact and plenty of smiles. Bartender curious about my home, what I was doing there, etc. I was sorry I was not staying longer.
Headed back to my room, where Jesper’s wife Mette invited me to have a hamburger cooked by her 10-year-old son and his friend (“Good to learn early,” I said). I washed my face and headed out again, right across the street to the a pub called the Cafe Rabes Have. You don’t find those places when you stay in a hotel. Hyggelig is the Danish word for “cozy,” and it was that. And friendly; I had a nice chat with the owners. And a Christianshavn Pale Ale, from the Amager Brewery, a few miles from where I was sitting. A patron got up and said “Sorry for the crazy people,” which began a brief T-t-S. Denmark is so different from Sweden. A few minutes later, a fellow asked where I was from. “Virginia,” I answered. “Interesting,” he said, “are you against Negroes and Homos?” I think he was baiting me, but I smiled and calmly replied, “Indeed not.”
I walked a couple of blocks for a Thai meal at a simple takeaway restaurant, and at dusk headed home, admiring the mix of new walkup apartments and condos and older buildings, some from the 18th Century. As noted above the Danes totally get urban planning.
Was up well before six on Sunday morning, tiptoeing around the flat, and out the door to the Metro and a nonstop flight northwest 420 miles to Bergen, Norway, my last stop, headed to the Norwegian School of Economics, NHH, the most elite business school in the kingdom. Clear weather the whole flight, with awesome views, especially of the mountains in Norway and the dramatic approach over small fjords to Bergen. Hopped onto the airport bus to downtown, then north a few blocks to Bergen Cathedral and the 11 o’clock Lutheran service. It felt like Minnesota!
Working the hymns in Norwegian, I got most of the vowels and consonants, but was only tripped up by the little O with the slash through it, this one: Ø. After church, in the best Lutheran tradition, there were coffee, cookies, and small cakes in the back of the sanctuary, and I visited briefly with a few people, one of whom help me pronounce the Ø. I practiced a few times, and the friendly young woman declared that I was on my way to learning Norwegian!
I then had one of the most wonderful Talking-to-Strangers moments in a long time. It almost didn’t happen. As I was walking out of the church, I heard a small voice ask “Are you from the States?” It was Mary from Missoula, Montana, traveling around Scandinavia. One thing led to another, and I learned she was staying in hostels, and had been hostelling for years. I mentioned I had been on the board of AYH, the U.S. hostelling organization, and she said she had been an AYH trip leader from 1973 to 1992. Sure, we had friends in common from way back, including the late Bill Nelson, one of the greatest forces for understanding through travel that I ever met. The mention of his name brought a tear to my eye. He lives on!
After a good yak with Mary, I carried my suitcase up the hill, towing it when possible. Bergen is hilly, and my Airbnb digs at Tordenskjold gate 8 were 160 feet higher (I looked it up on Google Earth). But the trek was worth it, because greeting me was Mindor Nykrem, possibly the most welcoming and accommodating host in my 20+ stays with Airbnb. He showed me my bedroom (actually his teenage son’s room, rented during the two weeks the lad stays with his mother across town), a large and comfy place. I changed clothes, yakked with Mindor, and headed down the hill on his mountain bike (arranged in an earlier email exchange, totally cool). First stop was lunch at a 7-Eleven and an introduction to Norway the Expensive. Indeed, eating lunch in front of the shop, the image was that the entire country was like the affluent suburb, Edina, where I grew up – the whole nation is so wealthy.
Fortified, I rode around the harbor, Bergen was the westernmost outpost of the Hanseatic League, a commercial and common-defense confederation from the 13th to 17th centuries – sort of an old-days EU and NATO rolled together. Though technically not a member, like Hamburg, Bremen or Stockholm, Bergen was a foreign “trading post” of the league. The Hanseatic cities remain distinctive in outlook – early adapters of globalization, if you will. Not much landscape evidence (Bergen suffered a massive fire in 1476), but the vibe is there.
Rode west several miles – and up a couple of serious hills (hooray for low gears on the bike) – to the NHH. It was a compact but ultramodern campus, with the most scenic setting of any of the 80 B-schools I’ve visited. Headed back to town, around the center, then back up the hill to Mindor’s house. Nap time, first in days, so tonic! Mindor recommended dinner at Pingvinen (the Penguin), a downtown gastropub, and it was great: a friendly vibe, comfortable older furnishings, an impressively large beer menu, and Norwegian home cooking. I had a microbrewed IPA, bowl of wild garlic and potato soup (the barman told me that the chef had picked the garlic himself, clearly one of the first plants to sprout up in spring), and a plate of plukkfisk, hearty fish stew topped with rustic bacon. A huge portion. Yum! Walked back up the hill, read a bit, and turned out the light.
I bounded out of the green house early on Monday morning, another sunny, lovely day. As usually happens when you leave an Airbnb place, I totally felt like a local, bounding down the hill to the harbor, and onto the #4 bus west to the NHH (the equivalent of $6.50 for 3 miles!). At 8:15, I met Tor Andreassen, a colleague I had not seen for many years, and we had a cup of coffee and a catch-up chat (he moved to NHH two years ago from a school in Oslo). Tor kindly provided an office for the morning, and I got a lot done. At noon, I met a handful of kids from Global Economic Perspectives, a student organization that was hosting a conference on leadership at the end of the afternoon. We had lunch, then did a bit of rehearsing. Had a nice yak with one of the other three speakers, Commander Roar Espevik of the Royal Norwegian Navy; it was a nice alternate perspective on defense matters.
The conference went well, with good questions from bright students. At seven we queued for sushi, and I had a good chat with a young Iranian in the line, and at table with students from Germany, Australia, Austria, and Peru. The best exchange was with two Chinese students, Masters’ candidates, who worked the previous two summers in souvenir shops in downtown Bergen. We were laughing about how cruise-ship tourists and others reacted when the clerk at the cash register was not blue-eyed and blonde! A marvelous vignette of globalization and further proof of the awesome influence of the jet airplane. After a quick beer downtown, I ambled up the hill and clocked out. A long day.
Up early Tuesday morning, back to school and a breakfast talk organized by another student group (there seemed to be a lot of them!), where I was joined by the CEO of the school, Nina Skage. Her talk, mine, and the questions all focused on career and finding a job. Like me, Nina had a lot of corporate experience (and she left Norway at 19 to study at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, which was a nice coincidence), and our advice was practical. I took an immediate liking to her no-nonsense style.
At 1:15, I delivered the last talk of the trip, on crisis management, to a third student group, CEMS, part of a mostly European B-school network. Turi, the organizer, set up a little light lunch afterward, in a corridor, and I chatted with some students, then hopped on the bus back to the center and up the hill to the green house. Mindor was cleaning the other guest room, and we yakked for a bit. I changed clothes and headed out of town on his bike, mostly along a pleasant bike path on a former railway line, south to Lagunen, about 17 miles round trip. Halfway out, it started raining lightly, and I stressed about getting soaked (the Norwegian cyclists all were wearing Gore-Tex!), but by the time I was back in Bergen, the sun was shining.
Mindor recommended a couple of places for the evening, beer at the Barista Bar, and dinner at a little Thai spot, both very close to home, so I ambled down the hill (sore knees! sore knees!) to the Barista. Mindor told me about the owner, Mai, and there she was, holding court from a corner of the eclectically decorated saloon. A large woman, heavily tattooed, with wild hair, plus a smile and a nice welcome when I mentioned I was lodging with Mindor. I sat on a stool in the front window, alternately watching the scene on Øvregatan and the inner bar, with lively varied music as the backdrop. Enjoyed a nice Norwegian microbrew, from the tiny Kinn brewery on an island an hour north. Headed a block east to Rabab Thai for a red curry with mixed seafood. I like Scandinavian cooking, but a refrain from a song I heard on Garrison Keillor’s radio show years ago bounced around in my head: “No jalapeños grow in Sweden,” nor in Norway. I asked the Thai waitress to hot it up, explaining that I was not Norwegian!
Slept hard. Did a bit of work before breakfast, and ay eight joined Mindor and a pleasant young fellow from Seoul for breakfast. A week before arriving, Mindor offered to serve breakfast for a bargain price of 50 kroner (about $6.50), so I ate with him two mornings, and it was a nice spread: homemade multigrain sourdough and flatbread, salami made from lamb (Mindor grew up on a small farm, and told a nice story about herding the flocks down from the mountains each September), cheese, juice, the wonderful “caviar” paste made from fish eggs (common in Sweden, too), and plenty of solid Norske coffee. It was a lovely, relaxed meal, we three exchanging mostly small talk. I was sorry to say goodbye to Mindor, easily the best Airbnb host I’ve had.
I walked down the hill, wheeling my suitcase down gentler slopes, and to the closest stop for the airport bus. While waiting for the 9:30 trip, a young Norwegian said “Hello, Rob.” He had been in the conference audience two days earlier and complimented me. It was a variant on T-t-S – he was not a complete stranger. We had a nice chat about his first year at NHH. I asked what he was doing this summer. He said he was working in his hometown, Kristiansand on the south coast, and he seemed reluctant to provide detail. But I’m good at evocation, and with a couple more questions he said he was going to be working with his hands. “Nothing wrong with honest labor,” I said, slapping his back. He seemed surprised. The bus pulled up and we said goodbye. I flew to Heathrow, and back to Washington, arriving at sundown. A great trip.