Sofia, Bulgaria, a fascinating place
Arrived in Denmark on time at 9:45 on Sunday the 3rd, collected my bag, and met longtime pal Michael Beckmann and his son Niklas, now 8. For years, an Advent tradition was to meet them in Berlin, but earlier in 2017 they relocated to Copenhagen when Herr B. took a job heading fleet management at DSB, the Danish State Railways. Regular readers know we’re both Transport Geeks in extremis, so his new job fit.
And we had a T-Geek day planned: into the main station, then west to the island of Fyn and the city of Odense, best known as the home of Hans Christian Andersen. We were not headed to the land of the Ugly Duckling, but to the Danish Railway Museum. We ate an early lunch, zipped through a tunnel, and by 12:15 were in the museum, a very cool place full of awesome hardware, much of which you could climb on. We agreed that there was room for more interpretation – the explanation of the collection and its impact on society – but it was still cool enough to hold our interest, and that of a little boy, for three hours.
Splendid wooden roof in Copenhagen’s main station; and on a train, not a ship, to Odense
Above and below, scenes from the Danish Railway Museum
The last exhibits we visited were about the deluxe trains of the Wagons-Lits Company, and the extensive youth travel in the 1970s and ’80s enabled by InterRail, a pass for unlimited rides
We hopped on the train back to the capital, then out to the suburb of Tarnby and their new home. Wife Susan and daughter Annika, almost six, greeted us, the latter jumping into “Onkel Rob’s” arms at the station. We zipped home, and tucked into a wonderful dinner. Home cooking was so welcome: baked salmon, mashed potatoes, salad, beer. Wonderful. Yakked a bit, but was asleep before nine after a very long day.
Like the Swedes, the Danes love their flag, and the Beckmanns have joined the practice!
Up early, breakfast, out the door with the kids, onto the bus, dropping them at the German School in central Copenhagen, an institution founded in the 16th Century. Hopped on a suburban train west to Høhe Taastrup and a suburban office park where the DSB has its headquarters. I volunteered to give a short seminar on crisis management best practices, and we were pleased that the session was well attended. Ate a big, early lunch, walked back to the station, and hopped the train to the airport.
Enormous Lego blocks in the DSB offices, depicting the four Myers-Briggs personality traits
Scandinavia is well known for design, but Copenhagen Airport is a total mess: stairs to toilets, poorly signposted, just a wreck of a place. But my SAS flight to Frankfurt was a delight: punctual, friendly cabin crew, and a Benedictine monk, Brother Augustus, as my seatmate. His monastery is close to Koblenz, where I visit every winter, so I may zip up to see it; Augustus explained, “Benedictines are very friendly; you are welcome, and we have a guesthouse for visitors.” We talked a bit about Luther and the Reformation anniversary. Nice T-t-S moments.
Arrived FRA early, zipped through, waited a bit, and hopped on the Deutsche Bahn for my 6:00 PM gig at the University of Cologne. Though we left only 6 minutes late, we arrived Cologne 30 minutes late. I was cranky though not especially stressed. Hopped on two trams and was in front of a student business group, MTP, by 6:13, delivering my talk on leadership and effective management. A nice group, engaged, good questions. Afterwards, we walked back to the tram and into the Altstadt for a glass of glühwein, the hot spiced wine popular at Christmastime. The place was packed, so I only stayed for one, but managed to yak a bit with a number of students, including a lad who was an exchange student in suburban Minneapolis five years earlier, and who now visits his U.S. “family” every summer. So cool.
Hopped tram #9 one stop, west across the Rhine, checked in at the second youth hostel of the trip, but much nicer than the one in Lausanne, and busier. Changed clothes and walked less than 100 meters to Lommerzheim, a little bar and restaurant right across Siegestrasse from the hostel. I had stayed at the hostel several times, but had never visited the gastätte. The place was awesome: tiny, packed, convivial. I stood at the bar for some of the little (0.2 liter, about 6 ounces) Kolsch beers, tapped from a wooden keg. As is traditional in these parts, the server keeps count of your bill by stroke count with a soft pencil on a paper beer mat, in this case from the local Päffgen Brewery. The bartender was managing multiple bills, so asked each tippler his or her name when first served. I replied, “Heinz. Mein name ist Heinz”! It was nearly ten, and I didn’t want a huge meal, but the sauerkrauteintopf (sauerkraut stew cooked with ham hock) caught my eye. The bartender warned it was “a very big portion,” but I ate every bit. So good. I was smiling the entire time – this was pure travel serendipity.
I slept in Tuesday morning until seven, into the hostel breakfast room, packed with youngsters. The energy and noise were welcome. We are young, again. Packed up, walked across the Rhine, marveled at the Cologne Cathedral (Dom) next to the main station, and got on the 9:46 train to my fifth school of the trip, a fave, WWU (Westfälischen-Wilhelms Universität), the University of Münster – my 17th visit since 2003.
Cologne, 1945, from a photo exhibit on the north wall of the enormous cathedral (Dom)
Arrived just before noon and hopped on a bus for a short ride to my hotel. Alas, no check in until 3:00. I like Germany a lot, but sometimes German rigidity gets in the way of customer experience. There was no sense fighting the system, so I left my suitcase in the luggage room and headed to lunch. After many visits, I know the town well, so headed two blocks to Töddenhoek. Took a seat in the corner of the front bar and tucked into a bowl of linseneintopf, thick lentil soup with chunks of ham and sausage. Yum! Fortified, I walked across town to the university’s marketing department, to see my longtime host Manfred Krafft. Chatted briefly, then worked for a couple of hours.
Art and Culture Museum, Münster
Checked into the hotel, took a short nap, worked a bit more, and at 5:45 walked to a classroom and delivered a lecture to a course on direct marketing. My host for that class, Jonas Schmidt, invited me to dinner, and at 8:15 we met at Drübbelken, a rustic restaurant that I had never visited. The dinner was enormous: two slices of ham (called Kasseler) with roasted potatoes and a huge mound of grünkohl, cooked kale – one of my favorites dishes, German soul food. Whew, I was full. The conversation was equally fine. I had met Jonas briefly a year earlier, but didn’t know him. By the end of the evening I did. A fine young fellow, of solid character.
It was another short night: up before five, out the door to the bus, then the 6:01 ICE train south to Mannheim. I was bound for the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, one of Germany’s best schools. At Frankfurt Airport station, Jan Müllerschön met the train. I met Jan at the 2012 South American Business Forum in Buenos Aires. Back then, when I told him about my guest lecturing in Germany, he asked if I had ever visited his alma mater, KIT; I said no, and he said he would set to work securing an invitation, which materialized in record time. Jan somehow found out I was returning, and emailed me about coming along to hear me speak. I was honored, all the more because he was taking a vacation day. Germans get six weeks, but still! We had a nice yak on the train (he now works for the freight side of the Deutsche Bahn, DB Cargo).
At Karlsruhe, we hopped the tram to school and to the Marketing and Sales Research Group. Greeted some old friends, met my host Prof. Martin Klarmann, and from 11:30 to 1:00 delivered a lecture. We had an hour until the next one, at 2:00, and I doubted we could walk to a familiar Italian restaurant, order lunch, eat it, and get to the class on time. Lunch was speedy and a little rushed, but it was fun to yak with doctoral students. The 2:00 talk on airline revenue management was among the liveliest in my 28 years of guest lectures. An animated and forceful young woman who described herself as a “Post-Marxist” asked some good and provocative questions early in the talk; a bit later we sparred a bit about corporate honesty. Some of the other students seemed embarrassed, but I loved it!
New classroom building, KIT
I peeled off at 3:45, hopping on tram #1 east to the town of Durlach. Now a Karlsruhe suburb, it was once a freestanding town. A very old place, quaint, quintessentially Europe to this visitor. Checked into the Gasthaus Zum Ochsen, a half-timbered inn from the 16th Century (I had stayed there twice before). Worked a bit, and at six met Martin for a dinner in the inn’s very fancy (and pricey) French restaurant. A long and fun dinner: he is a superb conversationalist, knows tons about German business and politics, and almost as much about the situation in the U.S. – he’s better informed than me! Dinner was four courses: scallops, cod, venison, and a flaming apple pie for dessert. Whew.
When I got to my room, bad news hit. My 12th Grade English teacher, Mr. Jensen, had died. His wife Jinny called. He was a great teacher and adviser nearly 50 years ago, and we had stayed close through the years, emailing book recommendations and visiting when I was home in Minnesota. I remember getting the news of another death, that of Jack Sheppard, in another European hotel room on the same evening, December 6, 23 years earlier. Like then, I cried alone. Jinny wasn’t sure when the memorial service would be, but she was sure I’d be a eulogist, and that made me proud.
Durlach, a very pleasant old town, above and below
Was up early the next morning, out the door of the inn, to the Durlach station, and onto the first of three trains back north to Münster. It was déjà vu, just like two days earlier: lunchtime, room not ready. Dropped suitcase and headed to the Mensa for a salad, then to the Marketing Center for a quick chat with long host Manfred Krafft and a couple of others. Then by tradition I walked across town to a gift and toy store to buy two Christmas ornaments, small wooden angels handmade in the Erzgebirge, a mountainous region in Germany’s east. Back to the hotel, get a room key, work a bit. Met student hosts Julian, Charlotte, and Nora at six at Kruse Baimken, a small traditional restaurant. Had a second dinner with grünkohl (this time with a bratwurst) and good conversation, then from 8 to 11:30 did my now-traditional kaminabend (literally “chimney evening”) with 15 students, part of an elite group of undergrads. It’s always a pleasant experience.
Prinzipalmarkt, the main shopping street in Münster
National pride is a sensitive subject in Germany; I am thus trying to figure out if this janitor’s duster, with the design of the flag, is disrespectful!
Cologne-Bonn Airport is working hard to be friendly and humane, with a big kids’ play area, fussball tables, and more
Another short night, up about six and out the door, onto the train south to Hamm, then Cologne, then Cologne Airport. Was headed to my 30th and final school of the year, the American University in Bulgaria (AUB) in Sofia. I was really ready to go home, a bit tired, but promises must be kept. I started getting enthused when we descended into the Sofia Valley, with tall snowy peaks, the Rila Mountains, to the south (tallest in the Balkans, rising to almost 10,000 feet), and a lower range to the north. I would have otherwise hopped on the Metro from airport to town, but AUB had arranged a car. The driver was a young woman, recently retired at age 20 from the Bulgarian national gymnastics team. Friendly, but not talkative.
The Rila Mountains, on approach to Sofia
A former student, Kaloyan, met me at my hotel (a fancy Hilton) at five; when I landed I saw an email proposing a two-hour walking tour. We set off, and my attitude changed almost immediately. Kal, who had studied in the U.S. and was in a MBA class of mine at Cambridge, was both a wonderful fellow and a perfect tour guide, providing detail on architecture, city planning, the economy, and history of the capital of a relatively small (7.2 million) country. We walked briskly north along the main shopping street, then through the government quarter, and on to churches and cultural institutions. Now I was fired up about a new place!
A former bath house (top), now an art gallery, and National Theatre
L to R: St. George Church, the residence of the Turkish ambassador, and St. Alexandar Nevski Cathedral
He dropped me at a Metro station and peeled off for his company Christmas party. I retraced my steps to a little café called Rainbow Factory on a side street in a pleasant neighborhood sprinkled with embassies. The place was full but not crowded, almost all youngsters in their 20s, but welcoming to an older guy with a smile. I had a local craft beer, worked my email a bit, and read the Wikipedia article about Bulgaria. A long a tortured history, one of those places where one neighboring power or another tromps its boots over the locals (not unlike, say Finland or Hungary); most notable were the almost 500 years of Ottoman rule, which finally ended in the late 1870s. Retraced my steps toward the center in search of dinner (I failed to do the customary advance research, nor to ask Kal for recos), but spotted a pleasant, simple restaurant on a side street. Looked in the window, diners having a good time, so in I went. I kind young woman found me a table, and I tucked into a Bulgarian salad and grilled squid with garlic. Yum! Walked back to the hotel.
A universal scene: youngsters with screens, Sofia Metro
Up early Saturday morning, finally time for some exercise in the hotel gym, a tonic 10 miles on a bike, then ironed my suit, breakfast, and out the door (my class was not until 12:30). Bought a day ticket for public transport, equivalent of $2.50. Headed back into the center, walking around on a sunny morning. Except for the former East Germany (which is a special case, for sure), last time in Eastern Europe was a decade earlier, in Poland. It was clear that Bulgaria had in the 27 years since the collapse of Communism developed substantially. Per capita GDP was nowhere near the richer parts of Europe, but a market economy was clearly thriving, and a consumer society emerging. Bulgaria has been in the European Union since 2007, and signs of EU regional support were everywhere, especially on public transport and roads.
Learning to write in Cyrillic: “No new towels, thank you.”
View from my hotel roon, Saturday morning
Main shopping street and (below) downtown scenes
Hopped the #94 bus up the hill to AUB. The main campus is in Blagoevgrad, a town south of the city, but they had a building in the southern suburbs, the Elieff Center, with three floors of classrooms and a small auditorium. My talk on crisis management to a weekend EMBA program went well; students were almost all Bulgarian. During question time, a long-haired fellow, cranky-looking, asked me how we manage the global crisis that is Donald Trump. Whew, good question, for which there was no answer! That was a first.
In contrast to Germany, national pride, in the form of the flag and national colors, is celebrated!
I hopped on the bus down the hill, changed clothes, and resumed my role as a tourist. Wandered past a mosque and around the Serdika archaeological ruins that were discovered when tunneling for a new Metro line. Then east on a tram, into ordinary neighborhoods, and a nice walk through a big park, Zaimov, on a warm and sunny Saturday. The place was full of people – Sofia had a lot of parks, and they were popular day and night. Parks are always a good thing. Walked west again to the big churches of St. Alexandar Nevski (looking old but finished in 1905), and St. Sophia (old, 6th Century). Orthodox churches tend to be dark inside and thus a little gloomy, but the icons and paintings are always fascinating. I had some pizza at the school, but needed a little snack, so hopped the Metro back toward my hotel and bought a big yeast pastry stuffed with chopped pickles and ham, the equivalent of a dollar. Took a quick nap, and set out for the evening, bound for a Kanaal, a craft-beer bar Kal recommended, easy to reach via a direct bus to within a block. Halfway there, a young woman with a West Highland terrier boarded. Our Henry’s Bulgarian cousin. We both got off at the same stop, and I showed her a pic of Henry on my iPhone, prompting a nice T-t-S and a little nuzzle with the dog.
Archaeological ruins, Serdika Metro Station
Artifacts from the 2nd Century AD, when the place was Roman and called Serdika
Mosque, downtown Sofia, an artifact of 500 years of Ottoman domination
Soviet-era Lada automobile, still on the road
At the thermal spring, central Sofia
Kanaal was awesome. Dizzying array of beer (including stock from the South Carolina microbrewery I favor when we’re on summer vacation at the beach). I insisted on drinking local, and enjoyed a couple of Bulgarian IPAs, as well as chats with the very-friendly staff, and the owner, Lyubomir (what a name: it means “love and peace”). He said it was a bit tough getting Bulgarians to care about their beer, and to pay more for it. I hopped on the tram back to the center, then the Metro north to a restaurant I found online. Alas, they were full, and because it was already after nine, I headed back to the hotel and tucked into a nice bowl of spaghetti in the bar.
St. Alexandar Nevski, and St. Sophia
The distinctive Orthodox iconography
Elegant early 20th Century apartment
Anti-Russian souvenirs (left), and church door handle
Sunday morning, back to the gym, huge breakfast, out the door. It was sunny and warm the day before, but snowed about three inches overnight, and footing was slick in places. But my Minnesota winter balance returned, and off I went. The Transport Geek needed to see the railway station (Kal later explained that the company was still state-owned and very inefficient), but it was underwhelming, so I turned around. Rode to the end of the M2 Metro line to a shopping mall, for a firsthand look at Bulgarian consumerism. The Metro day ticket, paper with a simple stripe code, had to be revalidated by the ticket seller at every station, but there was no ticket seller where I was to board. So I asked the first English speaker I found if I could “tailgate” him through the sliding-door barrier. Sure, he said, and that launched a wonderful T-t-S with a young Italian, finishing his sixth and last year of medicine locally. We chatted about medical education (more flexibility and more clinical opportunity in Bulgaria than Italy), his likely continued study of psychiatry, my work, and more. Just a delightful moment.
View from the hotel Sunday morning
Paradise Center mall
Suited up, retraced my steps and bus back to AUB. Delivered a second lecture on airline revenue management, shook some hands, and said goodbye. Done teaching for the year. Thirty schools visited, including eight new ones. By the numbers, about 2,300 students and more than 150 classroom hours – a new hours record.
Back to the hotel, into blue jeans and warmer clothes. The sun had come out, but it was still in the 20s F. Back to the center for another amble, this time visiting a round church in the middle of the courtyard of a government building. St. George, the oldest in Sofia, was originally built by the Romans in the 4th Century. During the weekend, the Cyrillic alphabet occasionally challenged, but street, Metro, and lots of commercial signs were also in English.
Former Soviet-style headquarters of the Communist Party of Bulgaria, now parliament offices
At 3:45 I returned to Kanaal and had a nice chat with owner Lyubomir and a friendly woman bartender. Kal arrived at four for my promised “free beer” and a wonderful chat about his career, and especially his early life. In high school, he earned a scholarship from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation to study in the U.S., and he spent a year at Fountain Valley boarding school near Colorado Springs. Among his achievements: rodeo competition! He returned to the small university city east of Sofia (his parents were a university I.T. professor and a high-school teacher) finished high school, and almost by accident got a full ride at Colorado College, also in Colorado Springs. After graduation he took a job with Ernst & Young in New York, and worked some other jobs. He returned to work at home, which after being away for many years “was like color TV after watching black and white.” In 2010, he enrolled at Cambridge, where I met him the first time. We agreed that his story of transformation was testament to the positive power of Soros’ philanthropy in his native Eastern Europe – AUBG is also a beneficiary, in the form of many student scholarships. We hugged goodbye at six. Although he recommended a good local restaurant, I was tired, and for the second night in a row broke my rule of not dining in a hotel, tucked into a nice chicken sandwich, and clocked out at 8:45.
“наздраве,” Cheers, to Kaloyan Kapralov, a great fellow and true Bulgarian
Early to bed, early to rise: up at four for the second time in a week, into a taxi to the airport, and a Ryanair flight to Rome’s other airport, Ciampino. The zip across to the larger Leonardo da Vinci would be tight, and I was a little stressed when we arrived 10 minutes late. But I had carry-on, the airport was small and empty, and I was able to hop on a local bus to the train station, then a commuter train into Rome’s main station.
I made it! A welcome sight, the 8:20 regional train to central Rome
On the short ride (standing on a packed train), I spotted aqueducts near Cappannelle; curious, I Googled: they were ruins of the Aqueduct of Quintili built in 151 AD to feed the pool and spa of two rich brothers. Hopped the 8:50 airport express to da Vinci. Hurry up and wait: my Silver Bird to Philadelphia was 40 minutes late, but I was glad to be heading home. On the way, I watched a grim movie, “Dunkirk,” about that awful moment early in World War II when 300,000 British troops were stranded in a beach town across the channel from home, and were essentially sitting ducks. It was a reminder that despite its challenges, European integration is a really good thing.
In case you were wondering: in 17 days I rode 108 different public transport vehicles: 5 jets, 29 trains, 32 subways, 13 trams, and 25 buses. Mobility is such a blessing.