On Friday, November 3, I was bound for a week of teaching in Germany. Walked several blocks to catch the #721 bus that would take me to the Metro, then west to Dulles Airport. It didn’t show. Luckily, a taxi was at hand, and was on the Metro, then the bus, then out to the big airport with plenty of time before my British Airways flight departed. Flew to London on a 747, an airplane that is soon to disappear from the skies after almost 50 years of flight (United Airlines in the USA retired its last, and Delta soon will). It was a great ride: plane was packed (I was in economy), but the BA cabin crew were spectacular. After dinner, I stood up to use the washroom, and gazed around the back section of the plane: it was a perfect vignette of the power of flight to improve our lives. Every person had a story; next to me were German high-school students returning from a two-week exchange in Charlottesville. “Did you have a good experience?” I asked. “We loved it. All of it.” And I thought (as I often do) “Rob, you spent a career in the right business.” Watched two movies, barely slept, but it’s a fast flight to Heathrow.
Changing planes, I spotted lots of people wearing Remembrance poppies, in anticipation of November 11. I asked a Pakistani cleaner if he knew where in the airport I might buy one; he took his off and handed it to me. Nice! Short flight to Frankfurt, and was in Germany by 11. Hopped on the Deutsche Bahn ICE (fast train) for my destination, Leipzig, and Germany’s oldest business school, once the Handelshochschule Leipzig, now the HHL Graduate School of Management. I was hungry, and it was time for a reminds-me-of-childhood treat, lunch in the dining car, called Bordrestaurant in Germany. But no, because it was in the other part of a two-part train, and two locomotives were back to back, so you couldn’t get there from here.
At the main station in Frankfurt, a German fellow sat down across from me. In no time we were yakking. Ebbi was from Thuringia (in the former East Germany). He learned his English from a former British Army officer who married a woman from his village. The Brit and his frau now live in New Zealand, and Ebbi waxed enthusiastic about his many visits there. He has a sister in Winnipeg that he often visits. A good job with a gas-storage tank company makes possible all the travel (he had been on every continent, including Antarctica). Toward the end of the chat, I mentioned that his home state of Thuringia was in the former East Germany (GDR). “Yes,” he replied, “and it was not so bad then. We had everything we have now. Except travel. We could not travel.” “Well,” I said, “you’ve clearly made up for that!” It was a great T-t-S.
I arrived Leipzig at 4:30, walked just a couple of blocks to the Marriott (unaccustomed to such posh digs!), checked in, and made fast for the hotel gym. Cranked out 15 miles. That stint had been in the plan for weeks and it was totally the best thing to do, to refresh after a long ride. Showered, put on jeans, and ambled south on Nikolaistrasse, past the University of Leipzig, to the Bayerische Bahnhof, a former train station turned microbrewery in restaurant. I visited on my first, very brief visit to Leipzig in 2010, and was glad to be back in a place with the splendid slogan, In vollen zügen geniessen – enjoy it in full. And I did! First order of business was a large glass of Gose, a local specialty that’s top-fermented, slightly salty, rich in vitamins, and according to an advertisement from 1900, “nerve strengthening.” Had a nice dinner of zander, a lake fish I really enjoy. Hopped a local train back to the hotel and got a tonic 10 hours of sleep.
Tucked into a big breakfast (morning spreads in nice European hotels are awesome), out the door, and onto a Nextbike (shared system), west to the school where I would be teaching half of a marketing-basics course for five days – it was good to know in advance how to get there. Next stop, and the main event of the morning, Sunday worship at the (Lutheran) Thomaskirche, the place where J.S. Bach was music director from 1723 until his death in 1750. It was just five days after the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, when Martin Luther began his protest again Catholic goofiness by nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the Schlosskirche in nearby Wittenberg . There’s apparently some debate about whether he actually hammered them up, but no matter: he was ready to protest, and what he did on October 31, 1517, changed the world. The church was still celebrating, in this case by welcoming the chorale of Valparaiso University, a Lutheran liberal-arts college in northern Indiana. It was celestial, marvelous. Singing German hymns) is always a good way to practice my pronunciation. And the third was in English, written by the former choir director at St. Olaf College, Linda’s alma mater. It was a full worship, nearly two hours.
Hopped back on a Nextbike, but mechanical troubles slowed me down; the chain came off, resulting in black hands. Parked it and set off for a walk around the center. The built environment was as I remembered from 2010. The architecture clearly showed that Leipzig was a prosperous city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nice little signs and photos attached to lightpoles documented the city’s important role in ending the oppressive East German regime in 1989.
Grabbed a sandwich, back to the hotel room, light lunch and nap, then down to the gym. Showered and headed out the door, but not before a wonderful T-t-S with Professor Hutchinson of the aerospace engineering faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. It began in the elevator with my comment about his University of Utah sweatshirt. He knew a lot about satellite remote sensing. I mentioned by geography background, and we dove deeper. My head was spinning from stuff he worked on, such as the ability to detect the depth of groundwater from space. Whoa! Hopped onto tram 12 to the Gohlis neighborhood and Ohne Bedenken (roughly “No Worries,” a good name for a tavern). The place opened in 1905, though clearly it has seen many changes through 112 years! This place was old school, a neighborhood bar, just a wonderful vibe. Like the night before, homemade Gose and a nice “Sunday dinner” of pork, fried potatoes, and red cabbage. Yum.
Monday morning, out the door by Nextbike to the school. Nadine, an assistant, welcomed me and set me up in a really nice office. I had the morning free. Lunch with doctoral students in the Mensa (student cafeteria), then time to stand and deliver to the Blue Group, first of two sets of new MBA students. Hugely diverse – a combined 68 students from 30 nations! The format for the week was a trio of three-hour lectures to each of the two groups. Day one got off to a good start. Ate dinner that night in Auerbachs Keller, a venerable place (main dining room opened 1914) that had the appearance of coasting on its laurels. Lots of tourists. They brought me an English menu but when I asked for a large dark beer in credible German, I surprised the dour waiter. Food was good. But when the bill arrived, they said “no credit cards.” I was almost out of cash, so had to walk several blocks to an ATM. Not happy. And to add insult to injury, they had cleared my table and took away a half-full glass of beer. But in the modern era you can get even: I drilled them in a review on the TripAdvisor website.
Days two and three went past in a blur; six hours of teaching per day is a lot of work. The days were nicely punctuated with a swell dinner (back at the Bayerischer Bahnhof) with my host Manfred Kirchgeorg. A swell fellow, he earned his Ph.D. in Münster, another one of my lecturing venues, and had been at HHL since the mid-1990s. The school had an interesting story: founded in 1898, obviously swirled through plenty of change under the Nazis and the Commies, and was re-established in the 1990s after the collapse of the East. Wednesday night I needed spice, and Binh, a student from Vietnam, recommended a great Vietnamese place two blocks from the hotel.
I had the day off on Thursday, woo hoo! There were a bunch of possibilities, made possible by a sort of Eurailpass just for the state of Saxony: unlimited travel the whole day for about 30 bucks. Ate a big breakfast and hopped on the train north to Wittenberg, where Luther lived and worked.
I wanted to see the famous door, and a bit more. Walking into the old town, it was clear that they had prettied things up in anticipation of the 500th anniversary – as well as the overall improvements in infrastructure that the federal government has been making since reunification (it didn’t look this shiny when East German creeps like Walter Ulbricht ran things). Jack and I visited in 1999, and even then it was much less polished. I paused briefly at Lutherhaus, the former monastery where he lived and worked for many years, then on to the famous church and the door. The bell tower was open (just above the inscription Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord,” a hymn Luther wrote about 1527) that wrapped around the circular tower. So I paid 3€ and climbed several hundred steps for a view of town. Check and done, stopped to buy a little pin that said “Protestant seit (since) 1517,” and hopped back on the train for Leipzig.
At that point, I could have headed east for a very fast look around Dresden, or to the World Dog Show 2017, staged at the Leipzig Messe, the big fair facility on the edge of town. I thought that Henry and MacKenzie would lean toward the latter, so hopped off the train at the Messe station, onto a tram, and in no time was in the vast facility. It was day one of the show, and it was teeming, mostly with German breeds, including many that are (to me at least) unknown in the U.S. It was a fun afternoon, but you had to pay attention to the floor: it was clear that the competing dogs get something like stage fright jitters, frequently peeeing and squatting, and owners not always cleaning up. Ewww.
Back to the hotel, the gym, then a return to Ohne Bedenken for beer and a dinner of roast duck. The place was hopping, much busier than four nights earlier, including a lot of Bohemian folk, heavily tattoed, and many sporting stretched circular earlobes (according to Wikipedia: “Tribes in various countries in Africa, Eurasia, America and other lands have practiced the ritual of ear stretching for cultural, religious and traditional purposes.”). Waiting for the tram back home, I had a nice T-t-S with the owner of an English Setter; like me, both woman and dog had been at the show that afternoon.
Friday morning, out the door on the bike for the last three hours of teaching. At lunch, and for four more hours, I met one-on-one with students who wanted to talk about career, nine youngsters all told, from China, Taiwan, Sudan, India, Kenya, Chile. Some had clear ideas of a future job, other had no idea. So I offered some tips and ideas, and lots of encouragement. That was all good, but I was happy to say Auf Wiedersehen at five, hop on the tram home to the hotel, and finish a week of hard work.
After a ride in the gym, a shower, and a sandwich in the hotel room, I walked through heavy rain to the Gewandhaus, Leipzig’s famous concert hall. Months earlier, I checked the website, and while the orchestra was touring Japan, visiting ensembles performed. That night was what in America we call a “pops concert,” the visiting Brandenburg State Orchestra of Frankfurt (the smaller Frankfurt, southeast of Berlin) performing scores from famous films. It was really fun, from Alfred Newman’s opening fanfare for 20th Century Fox (you know the one!) to John Williams’ theme from “Star Wars.” I had a seat in the front row, just fabulous.
Below the huge pipe organ was Latin I did not recognize, res severa verum gaudium: true joy is a serious thing. Indeed. Before the concert began, Manfred found me, and introduced me to his wife and a number of marketing colleagues from across Germany, who were in town for a meeting. We met at intermission for a glass of sparkling wine. The penultimate work was Williams’ main theme from “Schindler’s List,” another fine datapoint for Germany’s will not to deny the past. I kept trying to think of an analogy from back home; would it be the Kansas City Symphony playing a Lakota song of death? Would they include that in a pops program? Nope. At the end of the piece, I looked at the woman sitting two chairs to my right. She had gray hair, and it looked as if she had been born about the time that World War II ended. She was wiping away tears.
Manfred invited me for a post-concert drink at a fancy hotel, but I was plumb wore out, and a soft bed was so welcome.
No work on Saturday, but was still up early, down to the gym, then a nice big breakfast. Last stop in Leipzig was to see at least one stolperstein (literally “stumbling stone”), the small brass memorials on sidewalks that mark the former homes of Jewish families the Nazis sent to death. I rode a Nextbike a mile to Alexanderstrasse 46, where the Prinz family lived with their five kids. The family fled to Brussels in 1939, where two more children were born. All nine were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. It was the morning after the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and candles had been placed next to the markers. Never forget.
Packed my bags, answered a few emails, and at 11:29 hopped on the train to Frankfurt. Happily, the dining car was working smoothly, and I enjoyed a big bowl of lentil soup and a beer while we sped west through gently rolling countryside in Saxony, Thuringia, and Hesse. Without looking at a map showing state boundaries, it’s always interesting to look out a German train window and try to tell from the landscape if you are in the former East Germany. On that ride, I happened to glance out near a place called Gerstungen and spotted a couple of Soviet-era searchlights. The border was a dangerous place from 1945 to 1989.
Got a local train to Wiesbaden, a historic spa town that I enjoyed on my only prior visit, in 2014. I needed an overnight locale close to Frankfurt airport, but don’t like airport hotels, so it seemed a good choice. Like my visit three years earlier, it was raining steadily on arrival. My price-is-right-for-one-night hotel was a mile from the station, and the walk was damp, but the room was great value for $65.
I was a little unhinged on arrival, I think because when you stay in one place for a week, you get settled. A quick nap helped. Read a bit, and did some online scouting of restaurants. Bingo! The Ratskeller (restaurant in the basement of the town hall) was only three blocks away, so I set off in light rain at 5:30. I’m glad I did: it was a cool place, already busy, but I found a table and got a dark beer and – for a second consecutive Saturday – a plate of zander, this time with broccoli and potato cakes. So yummy. Was asleep by 8:30, because the alarm was set for 4:20!
Woke 20 minutes early at 4:00, out the door, and onto the 4:41 suburban train to Frankfurt Airport. Bought a large Starbucks and woke up, then flew to London Heathrow. Grabbed some yogurt and a sweet bun for breakfast, then hopped on the Heathrow Express to the center, then two Tube rides, and by 10 I was in St. Paul’s Cathedral for Remembrance Sunday services. It was a touching event, done in the grand ceremonial style for which the Brits are well known. Lots of officers (and a prince!) in fancy uniforms with plumes and color, and plenty of regular soldiers, sailors, and flyers in ordinary uniforms. We remembered the sacrifice of all who gave their lives. For the second day, the commandment: never forget. I looked heavenward, up beyond Sir Christopher Wren’s soaring dome, and thanked my father.
Hopped the Tube to Victoria Station and met a couple of young friends with a cool start-up idea, then back across the center to King’s Cross Station and a fast train north to Cambridge, my 23rd visit to that storied place. As the train approached the city – and the low hum of brainpower could almost be heard – I was struck by the growth of a suburban office park, clear evidence of the spreading effect of university knowledge. I was in my customary digs at Sidney Sussex College by 3:45, and down for a much-needed nap.
I almost always arrange my Cambridge arrivals for Sunday afternoon, to join Evensong in the college chapel at six, then, by tradition, a glass of wine in the Old Library, then processing with senior members into the dining hall and a seat at high table. I’ve done this lots of times, but every time is so special. The definition of Old School! To my left was David Skinner, a California native who leads the choir and who I know fairly well; to my right was Massimo Beber, known here as Max, an Italian economist from Milan. We three had a lively discussion through dinner, and also got to know a recent graduate, a young Dutch guy who sat across from us, and his girlfriend, from the Russian Far East. As is customary, after the meal (and two-word grace, in Latin, Benedictus benedicat), we processed to a paneled room for port, fruit, and cheese, and more conversation. Nick, who had graduated in geography in the mid-1970s and is now the college bursar (CFO), had some wonderful stories about his multinational career with Unilever, including colorful tales from Zimbabwe and Mexico.
After a “heart attack” English breakfast Monday morning, I walked across town to the business school. No teaching that day, so I sat in the common room and caught up on stuff (last week was so busy). At 12:30, I ate lunch with Jaideep Prabhu, a marketing professor; we had not met, and it was good to make contact with more faculty. Mid-afternoon I ambled back to college, and took a nice nap. Ahhhhh. Worked a bit more, then headed to the Pickerel, one of the older pubs in town, for a pint, then met friend Jochen Menges and his colleague Raphael Silberzahn for dinner. A good meal, lots of conversation.
Up Tuesday morning, left college, and wheeled my suitcase across Cambridge, back to the business school, pausing, as I do most visits, for prayers at St. Botolph’s, a parish church since the 14th Century. Worked for a few hours in the common room, and from 11 to 12:20 delivered a lecture on leadership to 30 masters students. Offered them the opportunity to come yak with me that afternoon back in the common room, and at 1:30 Levi from Antwerp arrived. We had a great chat about career – he’s finishing a first degree in law and has applied to LLM programs at Harvard, Columbia, and Penn. Whew!
I changed clothes. One more stop before heading to the train station. Time for a pint at the venerable Eagle, perhaps Cambridge’s most storied pub; all manner of famous alumni tippled there, and it was a favored watering hole for RAF, RCAF, USAAC, and other Allied flyers during World War II. Refreshed, I hopped on the bus for the train station, bought dinner fixings for the train, and hopped on for Ipswich, Manningtree, and Harwich. As I had done three times previously, I crossed the North Sea to fly home from Amsterdam, avoiding the UK’s confiscatory ($260) departure tax.
Walked onto the Stena Hollandica ferry, more like a cruise ship, found my inside cabin, and promptly fell asleep. Up at 6:30, big breakfast, then down the modern equivalent of a gangplank, onto the bus and train to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Last order of business in Europe was coffee with good friend Jan Meurer, like me retired from the airline business, but still keeping busy. We had a great yak for an hour, then I jumped on the Silver Bird for Philadelphia. By total coincidence, daughter Robin was also changing planes there, returning from business in Germany — talk about two mobile people! She was one row ahead of me on the flight to Washington. Home by nine, dogs happy to see us both.
Postscript: in December 2016 at the big Lutheran church in Ulm, Germany, I bought the Playmobil (toy brand) version of Martin Luther; he’s been on our kitchen table ever since, a reminder of the importance of faith: