On Thursday, July 17, I flew to JFK and across to Heathrow for the first teaching of the fall term, a lecture at Imperial College London. I had other stuff arranged, but the schedule fell apart, and rather than cancel, I kept the promise to my professor-friend Omar Merlo. Landed at six, hopped on the Tube, and as I often do on arrival in England, I cued The Beatles on my iPhone. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Eight Days a Week,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and other faves flowed as we headed east on the Piccadilly Line.
I was only staying one night, and Carolina, the Airbnb host in Hammersmith (her house was great, very close to the Thames) where I stayed two months earlier, required a two-night minimum. So I booked with Melinda, simple digs that were also in Hammersmith (I like the neighborhood a lot), a block from the Tube. On arrival, the Pakistani shopkeeper next door who was supposed to have my key did not, but somehow linked up with a friendly fellow who did. This kind of small hassle would drive some travelers nuts; me, I just roll with it. My room was still occupied, but they let me drop my stuff. I washed my face, changed clothes, and headed out.
Because the schedule that day changed a lot, I had no plans, and last-minute meetings with several friends could not be arranged because they were traveling, so I reckoned a series of bike rides would be good, on the great London bikeshare network, my third experience in three months. It’s the most fun you can have for the equivalent of $3.15 a day!
I rode around Hammersmith and the next district west, Chiswick, to see the Griffin Brewery, of Fuller, Smith & Turner, makers of a favored beer. I then headed into the center. At 11:30, I found myself at the Imperial Business School, and opted to try to say hello to Mikhaela Gray, my administrative host. She met me at reception and we had a cold drink in the school café. And a great yak: she was from Singleton, a town in New South Wales north of Sydney. I mentioned I lived in Australia in 1981, and then the small world got smaller: she not only studied where I taught, the University of New England in northern NSW, but lived in the same college, Duval, where we did. We yakked about Edwina the college master, the town, and more. It was a lot of fun.
Hopped back on the bike, intent on showing up at the office of another friend. When I got to Stratajet’s offices in Mayfair, the name was not on the tenant list next to the doorbell. Time for lunch and a bit of Internet research, so I grabbed a tuna sandwich and ambled a block west to an agreeable small park, Brown Hart Gardens. Nourished, I found a Starbucks and loitered outside to pick up a free wi-fi signal, learning that Stratajet had moved a couple miles south, to 33 Greycoat Street near Victoria Station. Rang the doorbell and had to talk my way past a new employee who didn’t quite believe that I knew the team. But in no time I was chatting with founder Jonathan, Olivia the marketing chief, and their new CFO. Got a 15-minute update on the company (they’re getting close to going live with a service best described as Uber for private jets), hugged them, and got back on the bike. Rode along the river back toward Hammersmith. My room as ready, so I moved in and took a needed brief nap.
I did a bit of work. At about four I briefly met my host, Melinda, an ethnic Hungarian who grew up in the Transylvania region of Romania. We yakked a little about cultural oppression, and later that day she emailed me some testimony:
My grandparents’ generation were forced to give up their ethnicity, [the authorities] collected their Hungarian documents and Romanized their names . . . stealing in this way their personality; my parents never had Hungarian documents. Then my generation has got their Hungarian ethnicity and documents back in 2011, receiving apologies.
At 4:20, I put on long pants and headed back out on a bike, east a couple of miles to The Scarsdale Tavern, a very agreeable pub in the middle of a wealthy residential area. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and I was surprised to find an open table on the front terrace. At 5:15, I met another former AA colleague, Maria Sebastian, who now leads the sales team at Virgin Atlantic. Hadn’t seen her in years, and it was great to catch up. About an hour in, I zipped to the men’s room, and when I returned she was yakking with four guys from the next table, who turned out to be American Airlines pilots – the second small-world moment of the day! They actually were from US Airways, but we’re all American now. A great group, we yakked about flying, and more flying. Mike was proof of the magnetic force that draws and keeps people in the business – before landing at US Airways in the mid-1990s, he had flown for Provincetown-Boston Airlines ‘til they cratered, then Air Midwest, then landed with Eastern and flew big jets until they collapsed in 1991. He then flew for another small carrier, USA 3000, for a few years before signing on with US Airways. Whew. Loves-to-fly-can’t-imagine-doing-anything-else persistence.
At 7:30, Maria’s husband Bob arrived with their Sophia, 10, and Ava, 4; we didn’t have enough time to visit, because I had to peel off. Oops, dinner plans also got messed up, so rode back to Hammersmith and grabbed a curry at Sagar, a vegetarian restaurant on King Street (just okay, a bit pricey and not spicy enough, even with a little bowl of chopped green chilies). Back in the room, I worked a bit, then fell hard asleep about 9:45. Zzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Woke up at 3:40, flopped for about an hour, then fell asleep until 6. It was another gorgeous day, and I was determined to extract the maximum from the bikeshare, so put on shorts and rode on, south across the Hammersmith Bridge and into an agreeable district called Barnes, and rural green surrounded by city. It felt just like being in the English countryside, right down to the red foxes/ Crossed the Thames on the Putney Bridge, grabbed a big tub of yogurt, then another bike, and headed back to Hammersmith. Early-morning riding is much more peaceful than at mid-day, where you really need to keep your wits.
I exchanged bikes again and headed north, detouring through Ravenscourt Park, a nice swath of green just west of my Airbnb. People were walking their hounds – Brits love dogs – and a range of breeds were on display. Then east to Shepherds Bush and a needed jolt of coffee at Café Liz, a tiny place run by Italians. The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” was on the radio, a nice reminder of home, mixed with a twinge of loneliness. At nine, I met Ravi, a City University MBA candidate who found me through a fellow student who had been in my guest lecture seven months earlier. He bought breakfast (the Italians had learned to make the Full English Breakfast, and I enjoyed it) and I helped him frame his thesis, the last hurdle until graduation.
Ravi was pretty typical of the globalized student body who I am lucky to meet each year. He grew up in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. His grandparents emigrated there, and he’s now in London, and with a Spanish wife. All this mixing and movement, made possible by the jet airliner!
At 10:30, I walked back to the Airbnb, suited up, hopped the Tube to Imperial, met Mikhaela and Omar, recorded a few video snippets, presented a lecture, bowed to strong applause, and walked quickly south to the Tube and back to Heathrow.
As I have done several times in recent years, I avoided paying the UK’s ransom-like $250 departure tax, this time by flying to Dublin, which offered the additional opportunity of a couple of pints at one of my favorite pubs, Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street, with my longtime former Aer Lingus chum Maurice Coleman (Maurice deserves huge credit for introducing me to Mulligan’s).
Arrived at 7:20, hopped the shuttle bus to an airport hotel booked with AAdvantage miles (and not very many, might have been a mistake), changed clothes and in 10 minutes was back on the airport shuttle, then the 41 bus into central Dublin.
Was hugging Maurice by 9:20, and a Guinness in hand a few minutes later. Mulligan’s was way emptier than on weeknights, and Maurice and I had a padded bench facing the crowd. He’s a very literate and interesting soul, and conversation ranged, as always, across a bunch of topics: his recent swims in the sea near home (he goes year ‘round), his daughter’s budding career, a recent gruesome crime in Ireland (“In a secular society,” opined Maurice, “good and evil have lost their meanings”), mutual friends, and more. Mr. Coleman helpfully observed that the last express buses to the airport departed at midnight or one, but I was plumb wore out and caught the 11:00 trip on Route 41. Dublin buses all have free wi-fi (why can’t we do that?), so I caught up on email and sent Maurice a thank you for the pints.
There was time for one more interaction, on the shuttle from airport to hotel. Three generations of a family from Derry in the north were staying in my hotel after arriving late from a holiday in Brittany, near Nantes. Cieran was a couple of years younger than me, retired after 40 years at the DuPont plant in Derry (Kevlar, Lycra, other useful stuff). His wife Mary, daughter, son, and grandchildren Ella, 4, and Jimmy, 1, chimed in, too. A nice chat, it was. Walking up to my room, I thought about all that Cieran had seen in Northern Ireland in his lifetime, and gave thanks that things were; though far from tranquil, things were much better now than 30 or 40 years ago. A silent prayer for peace, and thanks to U.S. Senator George Mitchell and others who worked hard to help improve that tortured land.
Slept until eight on Sunday, then back to the airport and a flight to Philadelphia. Waiting for the connecting flight home, I had a long T-t-S chat with an Irish family coming to America for a three-week summer vacation (Washington, Orlando, Naples, Florida). I offered some sightseeing tips in the capital, we yakked a bit about the three kids’ schooling. And I had a shorter chat with Marcus, sitting on the floor of Concourse F strumming his mandolin. A guitarist for 20 years, sometimes paid, he know consults and speaks on health care, and plays a “homemade” instrument. We agreed that everyone should have some form of artistic expression. Some nice moments at Gate F-25.