Italy, Italian Switzerland, England

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Interior arcade, Torino

Some 12 hours after Election Day ended, I hopped in a taxi for the short ride to the Metro station.  After greeting the driver, I said with a smile, “We’re not going to talk about what happened last night!”  But he wanted to talk about it, so we did.  He was from Ethiopia, had been in the U.S. seven years, and voted for the first time the day before.  I congratulated him on citizenship and on voting.  We agreed that Mr. Trump would need to get along better with, well, with just about everyone.  When he handed me my suitcase and backpack, I shook his hand, looked him in the eye, and said again “I want you to know how welcome you are in this country.”  No doubt this would be the first of many conversations in the coming week, for I was headed to Europe, to teach in Switzerland and England.  Flew to JFK, and at 5:45 hopped on the Silver Bird for one of my ancestral homelands, Italy.  Landed at Malpensa Airport near Milan at before eight, zipped through formalities and got on the 8:35 bus to Torino, 85 miles southwest.  I was teaching the next day in Lugano, Switzerland, and wanted an interesting place to visit for a day.

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The Italian Alps at dawn

Much of northern Italy is flat, great farmland with fine soil, good rains, and sun.  The spring wheat had been harvested, stubble golden in the morning sun.  We crossed a tributary of the mighty River Po, and I spotted a grey heron and swan.  To the west, the Western range of the Alps came into view, gradually through the smog that frequently covers northern Italy.  We arrived right on time, and rolled my suitcase from the bus stop to the main train station, about a mile east.

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Musicians at the “play me” piano in the main train station (Porta Nuova); a fine welcome to Italy, a land of culture!

The basic urban landscape was as I remember it, five- and six-story apartment buildings on tree-lined streets, commercial buildings with arcades covering the sidewalks, and visible prosperity – not riches, but comfort.  I took an immediate liking to the place.   Here and there were elliptical markers telling the story of a building in three languages.  I dropped my suitcase at the station; the clerk was typical of the friendliness of Italy, and we had a nice short chat.  I zigged and zagged around the station in search of a public-transit day ticket, and finally found one at a newsstand.  Hopped on the #1 Metro line south to Lingotto and the enormous former Fiat plant, now converted to mixed use – retail, hotels, cinema, and a nice museum funded by the Agnelli family, Fiat’s historic owners.

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Skyscrapers poke out in several districts in Torino, but much of the cityscape looks like the foreground: solid four- and five-story buildings.  Below, splendid detail that speaks to the city’s long affluence.

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The historic (1923) Fiat factory in Lingotto

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In the Fiat parking lot: Jeeps are now part of the lineup!

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The spiral driveway to the rooftop test track

By sheer serendipity, across from the north end of the factory was the original Eataly, a fine-food market and eateries in the former Carpano vermouth factory (Antonio Carpano invented vermouth in Torino in 1786).  I always assumed that the Eataly Mario Batalli opened in New York in 2009 was the first, but no.  Wandered the halls, admiring the non-industrial food about which Italians have long cared, and now celebrate in the Slow Food movement.  At one, I hugged a long friend, Matteo Pericoli, who I first met in 2007, when I convinced American Airlines to hire him to produce a huge mural, “Skyline of the World,” above the check-in counters of AA’s new terminal at JFK.  Trained as an architect, Matteo does a bunch of things, and I’ve stayed connected for nearly a decade.  We had pizza and pasta at Eataly, then walked back across to the old Fiat plant to admire the interior spiral driveway that led to a test track on the roof.  All way cool.  Walking back to the Metro, past the historic Fiat head office, Matteo mentioned that when he telephoned to arrange to deliver a drawing that the company commissioned several years earlier, the person asked “What kind of car do you drive?” After some back and forth, the Fiat rep matter-of-factly said that only Fiat products were permitted on the property.

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Matteo Pericoli

Hopped on the Metro back to the center, and began a walk.  Matteo grew up in Milano of parents from the Marches, a region on Italy’s Adriatic coast, and he said he never thought of Milan as home, but really liked Torino.  I knew it was long a center of manufacturing, not just Fiat but other companies, and Matteo provided good detail on a place that has been a center of Italian innovation for a long time, all the way back to kings and queens of Savoy (Savoia), who encouraged creativity.  Lots of stuff was invented there, and not just vermouth.  Not all the innovators endured.  Olivetti, for example, was a leader in office machines, but lost its way at the start of the digital revolution.  We talked about the city as we walked.  Matteo met a couple of people he knew along the way, which made me think the place was a small town, not a city of a million.  Had a fun chat with Pablo (not Paolo, he explained, long story), who grew up in Dallas of parents from Lucca, the same place from which my maternal grandparents emigrated.  “We’re cousins,” I said, and gave him a hug!  We stopped for a mid-afternoon espresso at a little place across from where they used to live, and I chatted with the young owner about the election.  Matteo lived in New York for many years, and was well versed in the results.

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A new best friend from the neighborhood coffee shop

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My Lucchese cousin Pablo

Matteo had a subscription for the local bikeshare service, and at 4:10 we grabbed one of the yellow bikes for me (he had his own), crossed the River Po, and rode two miles to his daughter Nadia’s school to say hello to her and spouse Holly, both of whom I met in 2007 in Jackson Heights, Queens.  Had a quick chat before Holly drove Nadia to ballet class, then got back on the bikes, riding upstream to the Parco Valentino, one of many large parks in the city.  Circled the recreated medieval village built for a World’s Fair in 1884, past one of the Savoy castles, and headed back into the center just as it was getting dark.

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The River Po downstream from central Torino

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Castello de Valentino

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Medieval village replica, Parco Valentino

Docked the yellow bike and ambled a few blocks to a comfy old coffee shop for a hot chocolate, another Turin invention, but far different from what Americans call the drink.  Dark, less sweet, chocolatey, and almost like thin pudding.  Yum!  Matteo and I parted with a long hug, and I walked back to the railway station.  A fine day.  Got the 7:10 Frecciarossa (red arrow) fast train to Milan, zipping east at 184 mph, then onto the train north to Lugano.  Arrived 9:40, walked down the hill to the hotel, called home, worked email, and collapsed.  Even by my standards it would have been hard to cram more into one day, especially the day of arrival in Europe.

Slept until 7:30, whew, big breakfast, worked a bit more, walked Lugano, a place now well familiar, stopping to say hello to a friend at the Università de Svizzera Italiana, the host institution.  Just after 11, I paused to remember and to give thanks for all who served their nations to preserve freedom.  I watched a couple of videos, and thought about the how recent U.S. policy differs from Switzerland, where military service remains compulsory, where every Swiss man has to serve, where defense has not been offloaded to the poor and working class.  I have long admired the Swiss approach.

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On the campus of the Universita de Svizzera Italiana

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At noon, I met my paesano Prof. Omar Merlo, frequently mentioned in these pages, for lunch at a Neapolitan restaurant, pasta in tomato sauce with tuna chunks, a nice slice of cake, and a cappuccino.  From 1:45 to 3:30, it was time to stand and deliver to his Masters of Marketing class, a small group.  After class, met his dad, a smiling 73-year-old; Omar translated a little of my story, starting with the happy fact that 25% of my DNA is Italian, and some about my maternal great-grandparents, who emigrated to Chicago in 1885.  We promised to get together for dinner on my next visit to Lugano.  Went back to the hotel, worked a bit, took a nap, and headed out to dinner.  In a city where an ordinary meal can cost the equivalent of $50, I stumbled onto the pleasant and simple dining room in the Hotel Pestalozzi (a nice aside: Pestalozzi was a Swiss education reformer, said to be responsible for the elimination of illiteracy in the 19th Century).  I was able to conduct the table transaction in Italian, which made me smile, and I enjoyed a nice bowl of vegetable soup, grilled salmon and vegetables, and a beer for under 25 bucks.  I love value!

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The view from my USI classroom

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Made in Switzerland: as I frequently note in this journal, it simply would not occur to the Swiss to buy manhole covers or hotel hair dryers from China. This is a compelling cultural value at which free-trade economists scoff, but which has built and today maintains much of their remarkable prosperity.

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Lugano just before sunrise

Up early Saturday morning, nice hotel breakfast, then walked up the hill to the train station and the 8:33 local to Milano.  Arrived 9:50, and soon after was giving my longtime friend Massimo Vesentini a big hug.  Massimo was American’s sales manager for northern Italy in the 1990s; I met him the day before the inaugural flight from Milan to Chicago in May 1991.  We hopped in wife Lucia’s fancy company car and started chattering like magpies.  After about 30 minutes of driving south, I asked “where are we going?”  The answer was the Oltrepó, the land beyond the Po (river), a hilly wine-producing district in the province of Pavia.  Massimo wanted to stock up for the winter for Lucia and him, and for his parents and in-laws in Pisa.  We stopped for a coffee, then headed to the first winery, a coop that Massimo explained sold decent but not fancy wine.  We tasted a bit, my favorite being Bonarda, a frizzante (slightly bubbly) and fruity red wine, and he bought three cases.  Next stop was La Fracce, a fancier winery six miles west.  We sampled a bit, bought two cases, and set off for lunch.

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At the coop winery: bring your own container, and red table wine is as low at $1.25 a liter!

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Signor Vesentini stocking up for the winter

Massimo know the district well.  His great-grandmother lived in a village ten miles away, across the Po, and he had spent a lot of time there as a kid.  So he knew that Signor Colombi had a nice restaurant in Montù Beccaria, and that was our next stop.  A huge lunch: antipasti of various smoked meats homemade by the owner, easily in his mid-80s; main course of linguine topped with truffles (pricey and, for my palate, overrated, but still a savory dish); a nice sort of pudding cake, and coffee.  After paying the bill, Mr. Colombi insisted we have a small tot of grappa.   Fortified, we set off for the last vineyard and bought two more cases.  We crossed the wide Po, made a U-turn, and parked close to the water, and walked to the bank.  It’s a big river.  We then headed back to Milano, Massimo pointing out his great-grandma’s old house in the village of Costa de Nobili.

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Antipasti at Colombi; Massimo was certain that Mr. C. was still curing these meats himself

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Vineyards near Montù Beccaria

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Downstream and upstream, River Po

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Harvest time in the Po Valley (Alps in the background)

Arrived back in his neighborhood just after five, and met my Airbnb hosts Sandra and Beppe, less than a block from Massimo.  Found my room upstairs at Via Plinio 43, and had an hour yak with them, two architecture students writing a joint master’s thesis that was due in 18 days.  I was honored they made time, given the deadline.  Beppe was Italian but grew up in Capetown.  Sandra was from Novi Sad in Serbia.  The recent elections of course came up, as did other topics.  I repaired to my room to work email, grabbed a short nap, and at eight met Massimo, Lucia, and their cute little dog Lupetta (rescued two years earlier from a dumpster, where some unspeakable human-turds dumped her and three siblings).

We walked to Piccola Ischia, a great pizza place.  Their daughter Martina joined us – I had not seen her since 2001, and she’s now a Ph.D. psychologist and very interesting young woman.  We had a great dinner.  Martina peeled off with friends, we walked back to the apartment that had been in the family since it was built in the early 1930s.  We had a final yak and shot of limoncello, said goodbye to Lucia, and walked downstairs to the garage to fetch Massimo’s bike for a ride the next morning.

Up just before first light, out the door, whee!  Rode across the city to Castello Szforzesco, around the perimeter of Sempione Park five times, then back by way of La Scala (opera house), the original Galleria, and the massive cathedral.  Met Massimo to return the bike, grabbed a cup of coffee at the little bakery across from their apartment, and walked back to the Airbnb.  Took a shower and, as she promised, Sandra was making Serbian pancakes, what we think of as crepes, in the kitchen.

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The Vesentinis’ apartment building

She offered me a coffee and we started just a wonderful conversation, across so many topics.  Two stand out.  She told me that as a teenager she was the #2 ranked junior tennis player in Serbia, had already landed a company sponsorship, headed for greatness, then seriously injured her knee, ending her playing career.  We agreed that many injured athletes lose themselves.  “I didn’t want to become a social case at 25,” she said, “so I went back to school.”

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Aleksandra (Sandra), the best Airbnb host to date!

And Sandra talked about what it means to be a Serbian in the world, in the wake of the troubles between that state and neighbors following the breakup of Yugoslavia 25 years ago.  I told her I could relate: when I traveled at her age, young Americans carried the stigma of the Vietnam war, assassinations, and more, and I often bore the brunt of things I did not like and did not make.  We agreed that being open and broad-minded was the best way.  I could have chatted for hours, but Sandra needed to get back to thesis-writing (Beppe stayed up until four and was still sound asleep), and I needed to get to Bergamo Airport for my flight to London Stansted and the annual teaching gig at Cambridge, so I hugged her, grabbed my stuff, and departed.  I have stayed in more than 20 Airbnbs since the first visit more than 4½ years earlier, and have never had a better experience.

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Winged horses above the railway station entrance

I walked a mile to Stazione Centrale, and hopped on the bus to Bergamo, Milan’s hub for low-cost carriers (I was flying Ryanair).  Went through security, found a quiet place to sit (it’s a remarkably comfortable and well-designed terminal), and brought this journal up to date, aided by an instrumental version of Puccini’s “O mio Babbino caro,” one of Italy’s greatest tunes, and some short works by Vivaldi.  Flew to London Stansted, hopped on the train for the short ride to Cambridge, and was in “my” guest room at Sidney Sussex College in time to shave, put on a tie, and head to Evensong in the chapel.  As always, the choir, led my long friend David Skinner, was celestial, followed by a fine homily from a young guest preacher, Rev. Bob Evans of Peterhouse College.

By long tradition, after service we repaired to the Old Library for a quick drink, your scribe yakking with Emily, a second-year choir member, mathematics major, sunny personality.   Then it was time to process to high table in the dining hall.  There were only six of us, with Professor Christopher Page presiding.  I’ve known Chris for some years, a good fellow, an expert in medieval music and literature.  Brett Gray, new Sidney chaplain and fellow Yank, Bob Evans, his French wife, David Skinner, and I had a fine meal and a good yak, with rather a lot of discussion of the U.S. election, but also forays into the hygiene of the Vikings, raisin production, Calvinism (one-third of the table were ordained Anglican priests!), and sundry other topics.  After dinner we headed to the paneled Knox Shaw Room to roam across more topics: the end of liberal democracy, college finances, and competitive rowing.  Every time I’ve joined these august groups I’ve worried a bit about my ability to hold my own, and every time I say goodnight I conclude that indeed I can.  Before retiring for the night, I again signed my name in the red guest book in the suite, and noted that since July there were visitors from Greece, Australia, Argentina, Spain, France, Belgium, Czech Republic, Myanmar, Germany, Wales, and of course England.  What a place!

Was up and out the door at eight for a big English breakfast in the dining hall.  Was ready to leave when an Israeli biochemist, Dr. Tony Futerman, and his wife and son joined the table.  We had a nice chat.  He was an expert in Gaucher’s disease, an inherited malady in Ashkenazi Jews.  He and his wife had just become grandparents.  And his son, who just graduated from high school, was to begin his compulsory military service (2.8 years) in a week’s time, working in combat intelligence.  Always interesting people in the Sidney dining hall.

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The view from my room at Sidney Sussex

I ambled across town, pausing for daily prayers in St. Botolph’s, a small 13th Century parish church, then into Judge Business School to work.  I got a lot done, and by mid-afternoon it was time to clock out.  Walked across the River Cam and into Sidgwick Site, a newer part of the campus, then back to college for a nap.  Crossed the river again, had a pint at The Pickerel and a spicy dinner at a small Indian restaurant.  Done for the day.

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12th Century Round Church in moonlight

Had another fine conversation at breakfast Tuesday morning, with Nicholas Smith, a professional singer and teacher, and mountaineer.  He remembered me from a previous visit, me not so much. We mostly yakked about his singing and climbing – a lot of experience in both, including ascent of lots of the tallest peaks in the Alps.  He teaches voice at Sidney Sussex.

Walked across town to the school, worked the morning.  At 11, on the way back from the washroom, I spotted a slide on the screen in one of the big lecture halls, which led to an “ambush-introduction” to a prof who teaches organizational behavior classes, a guy I’ve wanted to meet for awhile, and the subsequent discussion might lead to another invitation to my favorite teaching venue.

At 12:45 I met my host, Andreas Richter, for lunch, then walked across the street to present my fifth or sixth talk to his “HR for Engineers” class in Cambridge’s revered Department of Engineering, a place humming with brainpower.  We walked back over to the business school, parted, and at 4:15 I met another colleague, Paul Tracey, for a brief yak.

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Given his ingrate behavior of late, the markdowns on this book at the Cambridge University Press shop seemed appropriate . . .

My Cambridge visits always include a stop in the venerable pub The Eagle, so before heading to the railway station I detoured for a glass of IPA.  Then through light rain a mile or so to the train, stopping to pick up a sandwich and salad for lunch on board.  As I have done many times, rather than flying from London and paying the confiscatory ($240) departure tax, I opted to fly west from Amsterdam (where the tax to leave is $26), so headed across Suffolk to the port of Harwich for the Stena Line ferry to Hoek van Holland near Rotterdam.

At Cambridge station, I re-downloaded to my iPhone one of my favorite novels, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith.  Set in Suffolk mostly during World War II, it tells the story of a young widow, La, who forms a village orchestra to build morale.  But it is so much more, and I re-read most of it on the train ride and on the flight home the next day.  Smith is a gifted observer of the human condition, and parts of the book brought tears to my eyes.

At Harwich I boarded the Stena Britannica, a nearly new ferry almost as fancy as a cruise ship.  I last rode her almost two years earlier.  Splurged on an outside cabin with a large porthole.  There was free wi-fi in public areas, so worked my email to zero, walked out on the sundeck in lashing rain, and went to bed.  The ride was smooth, almost motionless.

Up Wednesday morning the 16th, big breakfast, then off the ship into more rain, and onto the efficient Dutch railways east to Schiedam, then north to Schiphol Airport.  My ex-KLM friend Jan Meurer was waiting for me at the meeting point (the clever Dutch designed a huge red-and-white checkered cube as a visible and easy-to-remember rendezvous point).  We had a cup of coffee and a good chat.  He peeled off at 11, I checked in for the flight to Philadelphia, and zipped back to the U.S.

But there was one more stop, so I waved as we flew over Washington, enroute to Charlotte for a lunchtime speech the next day.  Landed early, and for the second time in a week told the immigrant taxi driver, a Pakistani, that he was welcome in our country.  Early in the ride, he said, “We are hard workers, sir.  We only want the chance to work.”

Checked into a hotel on the south end of downtown.  I needed a ride on a fitness bike in the gym, but forgot shorts, so rolled up pajama bottoms to my thighs and pedaled 16 miles.  Lights out at nine, up before six, down to breakfast, then out the door to pick up a bike from Charlotte’s bikeshare system.  Found one at a station opposite the jail, paid $8 on my debit card, and in no time was coasting south on 4th Street.  By pure chance, travel serendipity, I spotted the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, and coasted south.  Most bikeshares are set up for short rides, 30 minutes max, so earlier I set the handy iPhone app, called Spotcycle, to Charlotte, to get real-time location and availability (so cool).  I always heard Charlotte was a nice place to live, and zigzagging on the greenway confirmed it.  Really lovely.  Rode around a bit more, then into downtown, and a nice side-by-side T-t-S with Shannon Binn, head of Sustain Charlotte, an advocacy organization.  Always good to meet committed young people.

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The new Mecklenburg County Courthouse featured a series of panels with our ideals.  We’ve still got work to do.

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Charlotte skyline and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway

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New-to-look-old streetcar, Gold Line

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Captain James Jack of the Charlotte militia, who in May 1775 rode 600 miles north to Philadelphia to deliver documents expressing Charlotteans’ desire for liberty.

Returned the bike at ten, and walked back to the hotel, pausing for a brief engagement with a young black man, who opened with “What did you do with that bike you just had?” and closed by offering his hand and wishing me a blessed day.  If each of us could each day have just one interaction like that, we would have a better world.

Showered and walked several blocks to the Dilworth Neighborhood Grill, site of my talk to the local chapter of the American Advertising Federation.  Longtime readers of this journal know that last decade I did a ton of these talks, mostly in Texas and neighboring states (and had spoken to the Charlotte group once before, in 2009).  Met my hosts Alex and Jonathan, visited with some friendly locals, and delivered a short talk on crisis management.  Garrett, a billboard salesman, kindly offered to drive me to the airport, and we had a good yak along the way.  Flew home, a fine trip.

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Your scribe by the River Po (thanks, Massimo, for the great day and the pic)

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