Travel in the New Year began late, nearly the end of January. So I was pretty excited when I hopped on the short flight from Washington National up to JFK, and then onto the big Silver Bird across the ocean to London. Arrived Heathrow just after six on Sunday morning, headed to the American Airlines arrivals lounge and tucked into a smaller variant of what I call the English-heart-attack-breakfast. Hopped on the train into town and the Bakerloo Line west a few miles to Kensal Green and my billet, at the home of Caroline and Scott Sage. Regular readers may recall that I’ve known Scott since he was in daughter Robin’s kindergarten class in 1988. I had not stayed with them for almost two years and it was good to be back. I chatted with them briefly, played with their cute and lively 16-month-old Eva Rose, then walked through light mist to St. Martin’s Church for Sunday service.
The Rev. Graham Noyce greeted me at the front door and introduced me to a parishioner. We chatted briefly, and I took a seat in a nearly empty sanctuary. Happily, by ten o’clock (when a youngster pulled on the ropes to ring the call to worship on the tower bells), the church was more than half full, a mixed congregation, reflecting a rapidly changing neighborhood: about a third of the worshipers were black people from the Caribbean or Africa, the remainder mainly young families. As in the rest of Europe, church attendance has waned in Britain, and it was nice to see young faithful. After a basic service (and some totally unfamiliar hymns), we remained for coffee, tea, and fellowship, and I met a number of people, including a fellow American, Lucy, who teaches at the Royal College of Art.
I headed home, then peeled back out (Scott and Caroline had friends over for brunch, and I didn’t want to be in the way), bound for Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery, a great museum that I had only visited once before, in 2009. All sorts of people, famous ones, are there. Kings, queens, princes, and princesses, of course, but also scientists, artists, inventors, musicians. Mr. Boots, founder of the drugstore chain, was there, as was Dr. Jenner, who discovered the cure for smallpox; James Watt, who invented the steam engine; Field Marshal Montgomery, hero of World War II; and many more. A wonderful window on the sweep of British life and achievement. I ambled across St. Martin’s Square for a tuna sandwich and mango smoothie, enjoying a late lunch while listening to a busker who had talent. The phrase “we are young,” memorable title of a short film I saw nearly 50 years ago, popped into my head, because at moments like that (and, gladly, they are frequent) I did feel young and quite alive.
Refreshed, I ambled a mile across to Piccadilly Circus, thronged with tourists, hopped on the Tube, and went home. After a tonic, 45-minute nap, I had a long and nice chat with Caroline while she was feeding Eva, then preparing dinner. She’s got a very successful recruitment business, Kea, and we yakked about that and many other topics. Then we tucked into a superb Sunday dinner, chicken, roast vegetables, yum! Worked a bit of email, made it to 9:00, and said goodnight.
Monday morning, first day of February, time to stand and deliver. Put on coat and tie, hopped on the Tube, and headed to Imperial College London and the Imperial Business School. A few butterflies flitted in my stomach, for after six weeks away from the classroom I was feeling a little out of practice. At ten we were in the large auditorium of the Royal Geographical Society (nice for a geographer to hold forth there, but it was only because the large halls at Imperial were all booked). The insects inside me calmed and I delivered a two-hour talk to Master’s of Marketing students. Said goodbye to host Omar Merlo, walked down Kensington Road, jumped on a red bus and rode west to Notting Hill, a posh neighborhood.
At 1:00 I met Sir Geoffrey Owen, a colleague for 15 years and my former host at the London School of Economics. He’s in his ninth decade and still rolling forward. We chatted about his forthcoming book on the UK biotechnology industry, some politics (I tried hard to skirt the U.S. follies), some life. And tucked into a nice lunch at Polpo (“octopus” in Italian; before ordering, I asked Geoffrey if he wanted to “share some octopus,” but he declined). Next stop, Euston railway station, then a fast train 50 miles northwest to Milton Keynes, then the C1 bus a few miles north to Cranfield University, site of specialized programs in aviation, ranging from aeronautical engineering to airline management.
The C1 zigzagged through an endless, monotonous suburb. Visual balm soon appeared: just as we entered rural England, the sun came out, and on the right side a verdant winter pasture filled with blackface (Suffolk is the breed) sheep, thick with fleece. A Norman church appeared, all part of the wonderful country landscape. Hopped off at the uni, met my new host Pere, a Catalan and fellow geographer, and delivered a talk from 6:00 to 7:30. Pere had arranged a “taxi” back to Milton Keynes station, actually a university car service, and I had a nice, chat-filled ride with driver Gary, friendly and talkative – not quite Talking to Strangers, but pretty close. He had traveled a lot in the U.S. – skied at Lake Tahoe three times – and really liked my homeland. Hopped on an earlier train, and was home by 9:30, in time for a short chat with Scott. It was a long day.
By Tuesday morning Eva had become comfy with me, which was good because I was the babysitter for about 40 minutes until their day nanny Carrie arrived. We had a lot of fun reading books, and rolling and chasing balls. But I was reminded that looking after toddlers is hard work (full disclosure: I did not change what smelled like a really big poop, leaving that to Carrie’s experienced hands). I grabbed my suitcase, said goodbye to Eva and Carrie, and walked around the corner to the #18 bus east into the center, a handy ride that eliminated the walk to the Tube station. Grabbed a bit more breakfast, a big tub of yogurt, then a large coffee.
While waiting for the bus to Stansted Airport and my flight to Germany I watched the unhappy end to a fracas in front of a fancy townhouse on Dorset Square. A volatile young English fellow, Michael, got into some sort of skirmish with two prosperous newcomers from the Levant; it was unclear how it started, but after the kid called the two “immigrants,” they proceed to beat him up (though not badly). Then the police – at one time 10 officers were on the scene, causing a passerby to say “overpolicing” – arrested the young man. I overheard chunks of his account, and was not precisely sure justice was unfolding. By the end, Michael was pounding on the inside wall of the paddy wagon, and I was on the bus to the airport. Real life in the big city.
In my lectures, I often speak proudly about the democratization of air travel over the course of my career. At Stansted, you see it, and it looks great – hundreds of people who can now afford to fly, or fly more often. While waiting in the security line, I chatted with a young woman from Dublin, returning home to see her family, but only for a day. “God bless Ryanair,” I told her, and she agreed. And you see it onboard too: excited new passengers at both windows on my row filmed the takeoff with their smartphones. It all made me smile.
We landed at Baden-Baden, near Karlsruhe, at 4:20 (the Ryanair ticket, booked early, cost an astonishing sum, $17.50). It looked like a former Cold War air base, and reading Wikipedia later I confirmed my guess: the French built in in 1951-52, then handed it to the Canadians, the RCAF base operational until 1994. Hopped on a bus north to the train station at Rastatt (the bus rolled briefly down Torontostrasse, see above!). Early on, two nice vignettes of Green Germany: solar panels on every other south-facing house roof in the burg of Hügelsheim; and on the Rastatt train platform a man harvesting aluminum cans from the recycling bin (I handed him mine, for which he thanked me effusively. Got on a regional train to Karlsruhe, a French TGV to Stuttgart (zipping for 10 minutes at 150 mph), and another regional train south to Reutlingen.
Met my host Oliver Götz at the station, dropped stuff at the hotel, and headed out for some Swabian dinner. We had a nice yak and would have stayed longer, but I had some pressing business to conduct by phone and email, work-work and work related to the sale of our current house (more on that soon). Head hit pillow at 12:40, way, way late for this grandfather. The mattress in the (barely) three-star hotel was squeaky and too soft, but I was too tired to notice much.
Slept in! ‘Til 7:30! Tucked into breakfast, then walked 1.5 miles to the ESB Business School at Reutlingen University, my second visit there in five months. At ten I gave a recorded interview with two students and a PR manager for the school, met Oliver for lunch at one, and from three to five delivered a talk on airline sales strategy. During a break Kevin introduced himself and told me his dad was born in Minneapolis, and graduated from Southwest High School, not far from where I grew up. Small world, we agreed.
I took a bus back to the hotel, and worked a bit, until the hotel wi-fi went down (it was not a fancy place, which was fine, but wi-fi has become a bit like running water – ya gotta have it). Walked across town to a wonderful brewpub, Barfüsser, for some homemade beer and an enormous dinner of roast pork, a bread-dumpling nearly the size of a basketball, and German cole slaw. The wi-fi was still kaput (a great word, German, but much used in parts of the U.S, too). Clocked out early, but slept fitfully, because I was expecting some important emails, which appeared sporadically through the night.
Up early Thursday morning, out the door, and onto a train to Stuttgart. I had a rare 45 minutes before getting on the next train, so took a walk around the station, site of a massive redevelopment effort (a few of the big holes looked unchanged since I saw them 14 months earlier). Got on the 9:37 headed north. February 4 was the first day of Carnival, and true to form three revelers in costume sat opposite me and popped beers before we departed Stuttgart. At Heidelberg, a Minion, a Captain, and a Bedouin boarded coach 8 (the Minion sat across from me). I got off at Mainz, urging the revelers to party hard, put my suitcase and backpack in a locker, and began walking east in steady rain. By tradition, the season begins at 11:11 on Thursday morning, but clearly lots of people started at breakfast.
First stop was the magnificent red-sandstone cathedral, the Dom, begun in 975. A block east was the reason for the stopover: the Gutenberg Museum, marking the achievements of Mainz’s most famous son, inventor of movable type. I arrived in time for a demonstration of a copy of his printing plate and press; the show was in German, but I got the picture, and ended with a three-color page from his first work, the Bible. Of the 180 original Gutenberg bibles printed 1452-55, 49 have survived.
The interpretive panels were mostly in German, and as an old museum hand (Science Museum of Minnesota, 1979-83) I thought they could have told the story better, but there were some cool lessons. One: he started with the Bible, but others who took up his invention quickly broadened the scope. Two: the spread of information on the printed page eroded the absolute authority of the Church – Luther had Epistles printed in Wittenberg a decade after his break with the Catholic Church. The museum also told the story, somewhat irregularly, of the evolution of publishing since 1452. A very cool place.
Walked briskly back to the station in heavier rain, grabbed my bag and a lunch, and got on a train north on the west bank of the Rhine to Koblenz. I was facing backward and on the side away from the river, so was not at close as I’d like to one of my favorite European landscapes. I’ve often written in these pages about the steep slopes and storybook villages that line the river, and even on a bleak day the valley is lovely. Walked through a cold rain (which only slightly dampened the revelry) to the Hotel Trierer Hof, long a favorite (not least because of a 2009 snafu: hewing to the European tradition of leaving your big key and fob at the reception, I was locked out of my nearby small hotel when I returned from dinner, and the family-owned Trierer Hof took me in, and even gave me a special rate).
Worked a bit, then took a much-needed nap. The Altes Brauhaus, established 1689, my chosen dinner destination, was in nightclub mode (dark except for ultraviolet and party lights), and was clearly not a place for a repast. Next try, Mein Koblenz, visited the year before, was closed for all of Karneval. The rain had stopped, making reconnaissance in the Altstadt, the old town, easier. I spotted the Hotel Kornpforte, looked in the window, and said “this is it,” simply because the diners’ average age was about mine. We’re too old for hard partying!
The dining room emptied, but a table of five older ladies, in their 70s and maybe 80s remained. I wondered: in 1945 were they hungry? Cold? I wanted to ask them, but of course I could not. Instead, I enjoyed a couple of beers and tucked into a salad, pair of sausages, and an enormous pile of fried potatoes.
Slept nine hours, tonic, suited up, and hopped on the #8 bus across the Rhine and downstream to Vallendar and my 11th visit to one of Europe’s best business schools, WHU / Otto Beisheim School of Management (Otto the benefactor founded a hugely successful retail chain, Metro). At 8:45 I met my host and long friend Jochen Menges for a coffee in the village, the walked up the hill to campus. I peeled off to do some work, then delivered two lectures to undergraduates. In between, I had a nice Italian lunch with Heidi Hoffmann, a WHU program head and another long friend. The restaurant owner, a native of Italy, visited briefly with us, and I spoke a few words of Italian and showed him the picture of my great-grandparents Enrico and Cesira.
At five Jochen dropped me at the hotel. Changed clothes, caught up on email and headed out for dinner. Happily, the Altes Brauhaus was back to gemütlich (cozy), and I took a stool by the window to watch the scene, and a schwarzer (black) beer. It was nice to be back, and I spent a happy couple of hours people-watching, and enjoying another filling German dinner. Was asleep by ten, up at six, onto a fast train to Frankfurt Airport, and home via Charlotte.
On the flight across the ocean, I watched the engrossing and sad film “Spotlight,” about the heroic and persistent Boston Globe journalists who uncovered the horrific story of the scores of Catholic priests who sexually abused more than 1,000 children, and of the church cover-up. The movie reminded me of the power of a free press, which took my mind back two days to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, for it was Johaness’ invention that made possible newspapers, and thus (as I wrote above) a means to challenge authority. And I thought of all the men and women who fought to preserve that right to challenge, and our other freedoms. We must never forget what they have given us.