I was home from Omaha less than two days. Hopped on a flight to Philadelphia at two on Sunday afternoon, November 4, then across the ocean to Switzerland, bound for my debut in the business school of the University of Zürich. Landed at eight on Monday morning, grabbed a big tub of yogurt (I slept through breakfast on the Silver Bird), and climbed on the #10 tram for the university. Happily, the small Hotel Plattenhof was 1) right by the school and 2) had a room ready for early check-in (larger Swiss hotels are less accommodating; this place had a friendly and flexible vibe from the beginning). I took a shower, put on jeans, and headed into the center for a short walk-around.
At noon, I met Rev. Paul Brice, pastor of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, a little outpost of England in the middle of Zürich. I’ve known Paul for about a decade, back to when he was chaplain at Sidney Sussex College, my digs at the University of Cambridge. Paul showed me around the church, originally built by the Swiss Reformed Church for services at an adjacent cemetery. We walked down the hill to an Indian restaurant for a buffet lunch and good conversation. Said good-bye and looked around town a bit more (I had hoped for a short ride on one of the ferries that play the Lake of Zürich, but they run infrequently in fall and winter). Back to the hotel, worked a bit, short nap, worked some more, and at eight met my young, longtime colleague Jochen Menges, who has just taken the chair of leadership and human resource management at UZH. We ate at Oberhof, 100 feet from the hotel, in a building that dated to 1293. Had a schnitzel and potatoes, a good base for a long sleep.
Up early Tuesday, time to stand and deliver, two back-to-back lectures to Jochen’s undergraduate and Masters students. At 12:15 we parted, I headed back to change out of my suit, then to a nearby Mensa (student cafeteria) for lunch. Fortified, I walked down the hill, into the Grossmünster, the city’s largest Protestant church, and up 180 steps to nearly the top of one of the two towers. Great views, though it had clouded up a bit. Spent another couple of hours joyriding on the city’s superb public transit system (especially the dense network of trams), using my 24-hour ticket. Worked a bit, short nap.
At 6:30 I met two of Jochen’s assistants, Nicolas, a Swiss postdoc, and Leonie, a German Ph.D. student. We hopped the #6 tram into the city and tucked into a big dinner and some good conversation. Said goodbye, rode the streetcar back to the hotel, and clocked out. It was Election Day in the U.S. (I voted a month early), and I was determined not to check results until 6 a.m. Wednesday. And it worked, though as often happens on the second night in Europe, I kept waking up.
The train to my next teaching gig, at USI in Lugano, Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, was not until 1:30, so after breakfast I zipped downtown and walked along the Limmat River and through the Altstadt (old town). Was able to snap a quick, though poorly composed picture of the reception hall of the main police station, designed by Alberto Giacometti, before an officious woman waved me away (in fairness, posted signs said the hall was closed for renovations). Hopped on a funicular up to ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, walked a bit of the campus, then next door to the university. UZH is proud of the fact that it was the first university in Europe to be founded by the state rather than a monarch or the church, and proud of some notable alumni, like Albert Einstein. At 11, I met Martin Natter, marketing chair in the UZH business school. In all my guest teaching I’ve never had a meeting like that: within 15 minutes he had invited me to give a lecture in February 2019, set the date, agreed on terms, done!
Ambled a few hundred feet from the B-school to my hotel, checked out, hopped the #6 tram downtown, bought lunch, had a little picnic in the sun in front of the Swiss National Museum, and got the train south. As I wrote in 2018, the Swiss have finished a $9 billion, 35.5-mile tunnel through the Alps (the Gotthard Base Tunnel), which made the trip way faster than before. North of the mountains, it was sunny and you said “Danke” to the SBB conductor; south it was rainy and the word was “Grazie.”
Was in Lugano by 3:50, onto a bus and to the Hotel Lido. For several years, I stayed at a newer hotel much closer to the campus of Università della Svizzera Italiana, but was back at this four-stars-but-worn hotel. Happily, they had a fitness bike, slightly broken, and I cranked out some miles. Cooled off, then ambled a block to a new restaurant, Neapolis, featuring Naples-style pizza. The website made it look promising, and I especially liked the owner’s comments, pushing back on unfair social-media reviews, plus this gem:
We want to highlight that our production involves original ingredients, manual processing, care of cooking, firming times, hours used exclusively for the product and subtracted from other working processes, all which go far beyond the time and cost of buying an industrial and / or frozen product. We regret that “occasional” clients omit such realities, artisanal and contractual, and they criticize the cost. Therefore, clearing any doubts, we invite the “critics of Sunday” to reflect well before pointing out and remembering, as a pure example, that there are people who want to have Louis Vuitton bags, others … supermarket bags, so the use is the same and everyone is free to have, in fact, to eat what he chooses.
When I sat down at my table, I was feeling a little lonely. The couple next to me was chatting with their children via FaceTime on their iPhone. I thought of my traveling-salesman dad, who ate dinner alone for decades, in Appleton, Wisconsin, Devils Lake, North Dakota, and hundreds of other Upper Midwest towns, then I thought of what he often said to me when I was in a bad mood: “Snap out of it.” So I did. The pizza was great, and my server was a friendly young guy, half Swiss and half Italian. A little T-t-S with him after the meal, showing him pictures of my Italian great-grandparents and other kin. Asleep at 9:30, finally a long, hard sleep.
When I checked into the hotel the day before, the clerk gave me a Ticino Card, good for unlimited public transport on all modes, throughout the canton. Free mobility excites the Transport Geek, and because I was not teaching until afternoon, I mapped out a morning excursion, north and west to Locarno on Lake Maggiore, then up the Melezza Valley on a narrow-gauge railway known locally as FART (Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinese). It doesn’t translate well, but it was an awesome ride, west and up and up and up, lots of curves. The train to Locarno was 5 minutes late (very un-Swiss!), so I missed an earlier train and thus had to shorten the ride up the valley, getting off at Verdasio. It was remote. Three days earlier, when I got off the #10 tram in central Zürich, I said aloud, as I often do, “Well Butch, this is it; this is Bolivia,” words spoken by Robert Redford, a/k/a The Sundance Kid, in the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” when they disembarked in some remote town in that country (they headed south to rob banks). But when I got off the FART train in Verdasio, that statement really had currency! I was back at USI in time for lunch in the Mensa.
Met my host and long friend Omar Merlo (we first met at Cambridge, and I’ve followed him to several, schools, mainly Imperial College London, where he is full-time), and delivered a talk to a dozen grad students. Headed back to the hotel, rode the bike, worked a bit, and at 6:30 took a local bus into downtown, then a Postbus (the Swiss postal service, 180 degrees different from the USPS, runs a network of buses all over rural Switzerland) up the hill to Omar’s place.
He grew up in Lugano and he owns a small flat in the village of Carona. His father and sister still live in Lugano, an Omar invited me to an early birthday party at the flat. When I arrived the welcome was like I was part of the family: hugs and kisses from father Luigi and his partner Alida; sister Adriana, husband Sandro (who I had met several times before), and daughters Victoria (12) and Nicola (14). The banter at the dinner table, and the laughing, were nonstop, moving easily between English and Italian. Luigi and Alida did not speak English, so Omar translated – we also discovered that both grandfathers spoke rudimentary Spanish, so we occasionally conversed that way. The main course was Alida’s wonderful lasagna, then a special almond-cream birthday cake for Omar. It was a special evening – so wonderful for a visitor to be invited into a home when traveling abroad.
Slept hard again, up Friday morning and out the door, onto a regional train south 50 miles to Milan. Walked a kilometer to the Pasticceria San Gregorio, and at 10:20 met longtime (since 1991) friend and former American Airlines colleague Massimo Vesentini. We only had about an hour, so we talked fast, updating on families, work, and a little about the state of the world. He accompanied me back to Stazione Centrale, hugged, and went back to work.
I hopped on the 12:05 fast train east to Vicenza, ultimately headed for the Brenta Valley, where my late brother Jim and wife Pam vacationed for many years, bicycling up smaller valleys and around the villages of the Veneto region. In my backpack were the last of Jim’s ashes, and I wanted to consign them to the ancestral (well, 25% at least) homeland of which he was most proud. Our dear Giacomo loved Italy and all things Italian. A few months before he died, we agreed that we needed to do a cycling trip back to the Veneto, and that journey would include a visit to Pinarello, maker of some of the world’s best bicycles (I’ve owned a red one since 2011). Once I committed to take his ashes, I wrote a paper letter to Fausto Pinarello (son of founder Giovanni, who started building bikes at age 15), told him that story, and that I bought my Pinarello on Jim’s recommendation. Three months passed with no reply, and I gave up on the prospect. Then just three weeks earlier an email arrived, Alice sending a nice invitation.
So at Vicenza I jumped on a local train east to Treviso, then into a taxi to the factory, arriving about 3:45. Alice was the receptionist, and she called Andrea, a young marketing manager, who led me around the showroom, then into the production area. It was fascinating. They build bikes in three small plants, and this one, attached to their main office, was only for the serious high-end machines, the ones the best pros use. We saw the paint shop, decal-application room, and the assembly area. It was hand-crafting at its best. As a souvenir, I got a Pinarello water bottle. Shook Andrea’s and Alice’s hands, thanked them profusely in Italian, and hopped back in a taxi.
Back on the train, one change, arriving in Bassano del Grappa (yes, it’s the place that gives the simple brandy its name) at 6:10. Short walk to my modest hotel, wash face, and at 7:00 I met Walter, one of the Italian friends that Jim and Pam made on their trips. Walter, 39, was a wonderful guy, spoke great English (he had worked in England), always smiling. We headed to L’Antica de Abbazia, a pizza restaurant in a former Benedictine abbey. We had a great meal and got to know each other a bit.
Next stop was his Aunt Elsa’s bar in the village of Pove del Grappa, a few miles north of Bassano, which was where the Brittons stayed (sadly, the hotel they always used had closed). They actually met Walter through Elsa – every day after their bike ride they would stop at her Bar Romanelle for an orange juice or soft drink before heading back to the hotel. Elsa was away when we arrived, eating her dinner. While waiting for her at a table outside, an “opposite T-t-S” happened. A pretty young woman kept staring at me. Finally she walked over and, apologizing profusely for interrupting, said “I love your accent; where are you from?”, which launched a chat about the U.S., including, alas, politics. Soon Elsa was back behind that bar, at age 71 still working hard. We had a chat with Walter translating, and met her daughter Eva and grandson (“Gabri Blu,” who at age 10 was already one of Italy’s best hip-hop dancers; go figure!). I was plumb wore out, and Walter looked tired, too, so we motored back to Bassano and parted with hugs. It was a long day.
I woke in the middle of the night with a start: where were Jim’s ashes? I knew I packed them, but where? Rummaged through my backpack and suitcase, and, aha, they were exactly where I put them a week earlier. Up at seven, breakfast, and out the door. As in northern Minnesota in August, I wanted to dispatch Jim to the earth, air, and water. Earth first, at the base of still-blooming roses at the northeast gate of the (walled) old town. Then into the air along the wall of the ancient Ezzelini Castle, and finally into the Brenta River from the historic Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), designed my Andrea Palladio, Italy’s most famous 16th Century architect. Every deposit violated Italian law (so Massimo informed me weeks earlier), which requires that all human remains be buried in a cemetery, but, well, ya gotta do what ya gotta do!
With the day’s main task finished, prayers said, and tears shed, I ambled around Bassano for a couple of hours, through the old town. Two highlights. One, the Saturday open-air market with beautiful local fruits and vegetables. My eye landed on peeled whole garlics, then immediately a memory from 60 years ago: the smell of garlic sautéing in olive oil in my grandmother’s kitchen in Chicago. Two, climbed to the top of the ancient city tower, Torre Civico, for great views in all directions. In the tower were a series of interpretive panels in several languages that explained Bassano’s evolution in great detail; most salient was that the river was truly the lifeblood of the town: abundant water for drinking and bathing; for crops and watering livestock; for shipping (south to Venice and the rest of the world); and for power, for example to spin silk thread. Scenes from Bassano:
Ambled back to the hotel grabbed my suitcase, and got on the 11:25 slow, slow train up the Brenta Valley, over a pass, and down into the Adige Valley to the City of Trento. As we went north and west, house architecture looked less Italian and more Alpine, with steeper gables to handle the weight of snow; and ecclesiastical architecture tended away from Romanesque toward Austrian-Baroque. Also notable: lots of fruit cultivation: grapes, apples, apricots, pears. I had an hour between trains, so I found picnic fixings at a supermarket, then ate lunch in a pleasant park with fountains, ponds, and ducks. Last ride was 35 minutes north to Bolzano, in the autonomous province of South Tyrol. This is complicated: there’s another autonomous province to the south, Trentino, and together they made up the autonomous region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. Yes, it’s Italy, but about 40 years ago the national government in Rome transferred most legislative and administrative powers to the two provinces; and taxing authority, which means the region keeps 90% and remits only 10% to the national treasury in Rome. The whole setup reflects historical forces going back centuries, and a lot of to and fro following World War I and World War II. In South Tyrol, 62% of the population have German as a first language, 25% Italian, 5% Ladin (an ancient tongue spoken in remote valleys, not unlike Romansch in Switzerland), and the remainder are the languages of immigrants. You can read more in Wikipedia!
Walked a few blocks from the station to my Airbnb, met the host’s son, Andrea, 23, and settled into a nice big room in a large flat. My host, Simona (she was in India), had taken great care to decorate the guest room. It was beautiful, and the bed beckoned, for a short nap. Andrea showed me his bike out on the street and gave me the lock key for riding the next day. I hoped for no rain, because some two-wheel touring would be great. Out the door before six, literally steps to my dinner venue next door, a brewpub called Batzen. Settled in on a stool at the bar, had a couple of beers and a nice plate of meat and potatoes. Sitting on a bar stool and paying attention to customer interaction, I learned a bit about the dynamics of language and power (my bartender was a neutral party, a young immigrant from Albania!). Walked next door, called home, and was asleep by ten. Hard sleep, dreamland.
Up at seven, looked outside, cloudy but no rain, so pedaled off for a quick ride around town, south then west, then back. Stopped for a double espresso at the little Bar Luce by the Talvera River, which joins the Adige in Bolzano. Back to the house, light breakfast with bread and jam (rolls from dinner the night before, squirreled away, jam from the fridge). Back out on the bike, across the river to the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, which I found on the Internet. The locals, whether German- or Italian-speaking, are largely Catholic (and overtly so, judging by all the roadside shrines). It was Armistice Day, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the Great War, “the war to end all wars,” and it seemed to be a good day to give thanks and supplication. (Although Italy changed sides in 1914 and joined the Allies, the region’s historic ties to Austria, and thus the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made it likely that a century earlier a lot of locals were “on the other side.”)
I emailed the pastor, Rev. Jäger, the week before to confirm that worship was at 10:00, and he confirmed. I arrived early and he welcomed me warmly. The congregation was small, perhaps 25 people. Wonderful organist, I got through the hymns (easier auf Deutsch than Swedish weeks earlier), and sang the last, familiar one with special vigor, Martin Luther’s “Ein Feste Burg” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”). As I experienced at German Lutheran worship in 2002 and 2016, communion is truly communal, the group gathering in a semicircle at the altar. It was a good place to be that morning.
Back on the bike, zipping downriver several miles, then back to the train station for lunch fixings (almost everything is closed Sundays), then back to the Airbnb. Tucked into a big sandwich, chips, and a Coke, then back out, short coast to the bottom station of the Ritten Seilbahn (cable car). Bought a regional day ticket for €15, and hopped on. Up, up, and away. I hadn’t been on a big aerial tramway for years, and it was way fun, sort of like flying. At the top, Soprabolzano (or Oberbozen in German), I hopped on a little narrow-gauge train east to the end of the line, then on foot, up to see a geological curiosity, “earth pyramids,” reddish-brown spires formed by deposition and erosion. Alas, as I descended toward them a thick fog set in, and I saw nothing (as I got back to the little train station, the fog lifted, sigh). Back on the train, back down on the tram, on the bike home and a short nap.
At 5:30, I headed next door to Batzen, back on a bar stool for beer and dinner. High point was a glass of their Habanero Pils, yes, spiced with hot peppers. ¡Arriba! Back home, re-packed by bag, starting reading a novel on my iPhone, then Zzzzzzzzz.
Woke before six Monday morning, out the door to the station and onto the 7:32 train north to Innsbruck, Austria. In no time all Italian-style buildings disappeared, and I was decidedly in Central Europe. We went through a tunnel below Brenner Pass, into Austria, and downhill to Innsbruck, last visited in 1973 when I was briefly a tour manager across the border in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Most people with an hour between trains would hang in the station, but I kept moving, out for a 40-minute walk through the center to the famous Goldenes Dachl (Gold Roof, below), a landmark built in 1500 for a royal wedding.
Back to the Bahnhof and onto the 10:40 to Munich. Coasted east, down the Inn Valley, then across into Germany. As soon as we crossed the border the solar panels appeared – the Germans so understand solar and renewable energy, what insight! It was a little too early for lunch (11:30), but the train arrived Munich at 12:25 and it had a dining car, irresistible to this traveler who grew up riding trains with rolling restaurants, so I headed in for a small plate of meat dumplings and sauerkraut. Not great, but the ambience was superb – the scene along the tracks was the Alpine version of the “storybook” landscape that I have often described along the middle Rhine Valley north of Mainz: this is the Europe that non-Europeans imagine it to be!
Hopped on the 12:47 train west to Plochingen, through Augsburg and past the huge church spire in Ulm that I climbed two years earlier, then onto a connecting train south to the historic university of town of Tübingen. As the crow flies, from Bolzano it was only 165 miles, but it took nearly the whole day to get over and around mountains and hills. I was teaching the next day at the European School of Business (ESB) in Reutlingen, 9 miles away, but Tübingen is a more interesting and historic place. Hopped on the bus, stopped at the supermarket for breakfast supplies for the next days (brief T-t-S at the bakery with a young immigrant with family in the U.S.), and up the hill to Sandra’s and Tom’s Airbnb, my second visit. They were away, but left directions to the hidden key, and I was in. Unpacked, connected to Wi-Fi, did a bit of work. Headed into the center at six, back to a cozy restaurant for a plate of bratwurst and fried potatoes. Back home, asleep by 9:30 – I really didn’t do anything hard that day, but was totally worn out. Way deep sleep, dreamland, tonic!
Up at seven to shave off four days of whiskers and don a necktie – time to stand and deliver (in the afternoon). Had a nice, brief catch-up chat with Sandra before she headed to the gym (Tom was in Detroit), a couple of cups of coffee, and out the door. Did some errands, worked a bit, brought this journal up to date, and at noon met Professor Dominik Papies, Marketing Chair at Tübingen University. We had a good discussion and a nice lunch at a fancy restaurant, and by the end of the meal it looked very much like I landed another teaching venue at a storied university. Dominik was a young guy, clearly up and coming; among other things, I learned he had been an exchange student at Eagan High School in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, not far from where I grew up.
Took the train 9 miles east to Reutlingen, then the bus up to ESB, the European School of Business at Reutlingen, my seventh visit there. Met my host Oliver Götz, and from 3:30 to 5:00 delivered a talk on airline selling to 40 undergraduates. Oliver and I then hopped in his car and motored back to Tübingen, parked in a ramp just outside the old town, and walked to a new restaurant, Gasthaus Bären, specializing in Swabian tapas (Swabia is the historic region that rambles across two modern German states). The latter two words turned out to be oxymoronic – traditional Swabian cooking is hearty, and the eight small, shared dishes turned out to be a huge meal. Burp!
Oliver dropped me at the Airbnb, I chatted briefly with Sandra, and was asleep before nine, because I was up at 4:30 Wednesday morning, out the door, and onto a bus to Stuttgart Airport, 25 miles north. I was stressed, because the bus arrived 59 minutes before my flight departed. But I was at the gate 14 minutes after the bus dropped me, stress relieved. Flew Eurowings to London, landing Heathrow at 8:20, fairly short queue (under 20 minutes) at immigration, then onto the Picadilly (Tube) Line into town. As always, once on the train I cued The Beatles, English genius at its best. Off the train at South Kensington, and seriously in need of coffee (I had a light picnic breakfast on the bus to the airport, but no coffee). Headed into Pret a Manger for two coffees and a Danish, and life was way better. Walked a half-mile north to Imperial College London and worked the rest of the morning.
From 1:00 to 2:00, delivered a webinar to alumni of the business school at the University of Hull, in Yorkshire (I’ve started doing webinars organized by an enterprising woman, Jane, who I met in Düsseldorf in 2017). Grabbed a quick lunch from the cleverly-named Pie Minister, a sort of indoor food truck in the Imperial student union. The server, a smiling African immigrant, heard me say I was hungry and added another scoop of mashed potatoes and a ladle of gravy. Time to deliver again, a two-hour seminar for about 150 Masters marketing students. By 5:30, I was worn out. Walked back to the Tube, then west to Kew and a night with Omar and Carolyn and their kids. No humans were home when I got there, but Mr. Waffles, their more-than-spunky golden retriever welcomed me with games of fetch and tug of war.
Changed clothes, and walked a couple of blocks to the agreed dinner venue, the Kew Gardens pub. Sadly, the kitchen was closed. Omar arrived and we opted for dinner at Pizza Express in the Kew village, a serviceable chain and a fave of their kids, Sophie and Freddie. They and Carolyn arrived, and in no time we were jabbering as old friends do. Pizza, pasta, beer, and then a welcome sleep – had been up since 3:30 UK time.
Up early, more fun with Waffles, quick breakfast, then out the door with Carolyn, walking the kids a few blocks to school. Hugs to all, then onto the Tube into Central London. Quick coffee with a young colleague, then onto a sharebike a couple of miles to the London School of Economics. Last gig of the trip. Omar was teaching a intro to marketing course to undergrads, and I was guest. Finished that at two, ambled a couple of blocks to Masala Zone, a curry chain, for a spicy lunch. Then one more stop before it got dark, onto the Tube east to the Olympic Park, site of the 2008 summer games.
No games that day, instead a solemn event. Four days earlier, I marked the centenary of the end of World War I in a church. Now I was walking toward and around “Shrouds of the Somme,” an enormous art project consisting of 72,396 small (about 18” long) figures wrapped in white shrouds and arrayed in a grassy field in the park – one for each of the British and Commonwealth forces that died in the bloodiest battle in British military history. When I came upon the scene, I wept, as did many others. Over loudspeakers, a volunteer read names, ages, and the military unit of each. Further along, a separate display, one shroud for each day of the war, and a small sign showing the death toll of that day. I counted the tallies for Christmas, normally a day of peace: 1914, 147; 1915, 208; 1916, 269; and 1917, 281. Then I thought of my great-uncle Maurice, who died a month before the war ended. I didn’t know the day, so I Googled his name, and learned that he died of shrapnel wounds while eating lunch on October 11, 1918. This was all so grim.
I bought a program when I entered the site, and read the story of the artist, Rob Heard. Imagine my surprise when I saw him standing by the exit, chatting as visitors left. Of course I had to thank him. We had a nice exchange. Despite his fame, he was quiet, unassuming, kind. I told him about Maurice, and showed him his picture on my iPhone. As I left, thanking him again, I told him that one of the many things I admired about the British was that they were good at remembering. “Yes, he said softly, “yes, we are.”
Headed back to town, picked up my suitcase and backpack (left at my friend’s office), worked in his lobby a bit, walked a couple of blocks to Liverpool Street Station, then onto the 7:00 train to Harwich, then the ferry across the North Sea to Hoek van Holland. This was the fifth time I’ve returned from Britain via the Netherlands, to avoid the $250 (and soon to rise again) departure tax, and have a little adventure along the way (the whole package by boat, trains and breakfast included, is $125). Was in my cabin and fast asleep by 9:45.
Up at 6:30, big breakfast, down the gangway, onto a bus, then a train, then another bus (the Dutch were repairing a piece of a major rail artery, which caused some disruption). Along the way, glimpses of the orderly and dense Dutch countryside, intersected by canals and ditches – they do know their water! Arrived Schiphol Airport at 10:25, in time for a coffee and chat with ex-KLM executive and friend Jan Meurer. We had a good yak and some laughs, taking turns showing pictures on our smartphones. Jan peeled off at 11:30 and I flew home via Philadelphia.