Was home for nine days, still with “itchy feet,” so on Sunday, May 19, I headed back to Europe. But slowly. It was routine from Washington to New York Kennedy. Hopped on the AirTrain at JFK and rode two stops to Terminal 5 and the “new” TWA Hotel, built around the 1962 modern terminal building by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen (same fellow who did the soaring Washington Dulles main terminal and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis). It was all way cool, like a museum.
While wandering around the hotel, a text popped up with news of a two-hour delay in my 7:25 flight to London Heathrow. That would still give me time to make a 10:35 flight to Stockholm, and on to Umeå, my 25th visit to the university up in the forest of northern Sweden. The 9:25 departure time rolled to 10:20, then 10:50, 11:20, 11:53. We pushed back about midnight, then nearby thunderstorms closed departures. We were finally aloft after 1:00.
Sprinted through Heathrow Terminal 3, bus to Terminal 2, security, hoops, then the SAS agent informed me that because the university bought me a cheap fare, I’d need to buy a new ticket, “Full Y”, about $600. I was sure the school would reimburse me, but I had a better idea: I told the agent that I was an airline employee, and asked her if there were seats on the 6:15 flight; she replied, “More than 20.” So in 10 minutes I not only had a $100 standby ticket (great to be an airline retiree!), but boarding passes for that flight, as well as the 300-mile hop to Umeå the next morning. Hotels are expensive in Stockholm, but I remembered that there was a retired Singapore Airlines 747-200 converted to a “hotel.” Better yet, it was now a youth hostel, and I’m a lifetime member of Hostelling International, so booked a tiny single for $100 – would be my second consecutive night on an airplane, which in 53 years of flight was a record. Trips, like life, can get messed up, but the key is speedy recovery. I was recovered!
At 5:00, it was time for a pint, so headed to the Heathrow Terminal 2 outpost of Fuller, Smith, and Turner, family brewers since 1829. Brought this update current, sipped a cold one, then bought a sandwich and chips for the flight to Stockholm, and hopped on a SAS A320 for Stockholm. Proof that I’m well familiar with parts of Sweden: on approach to Arlanda Airport, we flew right over a friend’s house near Uppsala, and I recognized the neighborhood from a mile above the earth. Zipped through immigration and customs, out the door to the stop for the shuttle bus to the 747 “hotel.” Was in my room in no time, compact but so cool – still with the overhead bins (mine had a placard for Row 33). Slept hard.
Up before six Tuesday morning, shower down the hall (it was a youth hostel!), nice breakfast in the nose of the plane, out the door, and onto a one-hour flight north to Umeå. When I landed, I was really only about 12 hours behind schedule, not bad! It took awhile to sort out which taxi had been booked for me, but we found it. The driver was friendly, and not Swedish – he had emigrated from Afghanistan a decade ago, first to Greece, then up north. I asked if he came with family. “My father was murdered, and my mother disappeared . . .” How does one respond? I reached over and held his arm, expressing sympathy. So sad. “Life goes on,” he said, adding that he’s happy now: “I have a Swedish girlfriend, and a nice dog.” We showed each other phone-pics of our dogs. He owned the taxi, and had another small business. Working hard, doing fine. But still.
Checked into the hotel (Kristina at the front desk recognized me instantly, and vice-versa), dropped my luggage, and hopped onto the rental bike that the HHUS, the student business association had rented for me (as they do every year). I was only two hours late for the first day of meetings of the school’s International Advisory Board. Soon it was lunchtime, and we ambled across campus to IKSU, the university’s huge sports complex, for a simple salad buffet. Umeå University is known across Sweden as a place for sports and the outdoors, and the facility was way cool. Walked back to afternoon meetings, then rode down the hill a couple of miles to the hotel.
It was a glorious spring day, sunny and warm, so I changed into shorts and zoomed off on the bike, across to an island in the river, Bölesholmarna, a favorite place (it’s been at the top of my blog home page for a number of years). Four circuits around the island, then back to the hotel. Showered, and at 6:15 met Mika from the school, and we rode back up the hill to the home of the current B-school dean, Sofia Lundberg. It’s always a special treat to be invited into someone’s home overseas, and fellow members of the advisory board and I had a splendid evening of conversation and wonderful food. But I was plumb wore out, so we coasted back down the hill and I was fast asleep.
Up at six on Wednesday, out the door for 12 miles on the bike before breakfast, then suited up and rode back to the university. Delivered a morning lecture to undergrads, then back down the hill for day two of board meetings. Managed a short ride before dinner, which was at Köksbaren, one of the city’s fancier restaurants, simple décor but elegant food, that evening my favorite Scandinavian fish, Arctic Char (röding in Swedish). A fabulous dinner, and fine conversation with fellow longtime board members Marian Geldner from Poland, Guy Pfeffermann from the U.S., and two Swedes. Funny moment: we were discussing animal welfare, and one of the Swedes noted that a woman in Umeå builds little shelters for homeless porcupines. The welfare state for prickly friends, why not?!
When we left the restaurant, the temperature was dropping, and we knew spring would not last. Indeed. Thursday morning, rainy, cold, windy. Tried the bike, but it was too unpleasant, even in long pants and a raincoat, so cranked out some miles on the hotel’s fitness bike. After breakfast, rode back up the hill to the university, worked the morning. At lunch, I had a short T-t-S with the cafeteria cashier, a young woman from Venezuela: a story not quite as grim as the taxi driver’s, but hard. Her mom, who she described as “a survivor,” was still there.
Rode “home” in mid-afternoon, took a needed nap, watched a Netflix movie on my iPhone, rode another ten miles on the fitness bike. At 5:30, I ventured back into the wet, on the bike a few miles to the Gröna Älgen, the Green Moose, a neighborhood bar I spotted on my last visit, September 2018. I sat down at the bar, and Baland, the owner, said “Hi, Professor.” I replied with his name. Nice! In between him drawing beer and mixing drinks, we covered several topics: his growing business, the shitmess in the Middle East (his Kurdish family emigrated to Sweden in 1990). Toward the end of my visit, he reminded me that he worked briefly as a journalist in Stockholm after finishing high school. “Sort of like Mikael Blomkvist,” I said (Blomkvist was a character in Steig Larsson’s trilogy about the “girl” Swedish hacker and activist Lisbeth Salander). He said, “Yes, exactly, he was fictional, but an inspiration.” So cool. Rode back to the hotel, ate a nice dinner (one of the hotel’s many comforts is a free dinner each evening, simple but fresh), and was asleep early.
Up at six Friday morning, breakfast, and rode a few blocks to the Folkets Hus, a city-owned meeting space. From eight to nine delivered a talk to about 100 people from the Umeå Marketing Association. My long local friend Nils Paulson invited me for a third time (previous visits in 2011 and ’14). After the talk, had a nice chat with Nils’ wife Carolina, who is studying to become a Lutheran priest, and son Johan, now 15, who is a bright kid and talented violinist. I wish I had time to visit their home to see their other two kids, Petter and Olle. The Paulsons are a wonderful window on Sweden.
Like a yo-yo, back up the hill to the university, and my “corner office” in the business school. Worked the morning, brought this journal up to date, and ate a quick salad lunch. At 2:45, I met Johan from HHUS, and set up in their student-run pub, the E-Pub, for the seventh annual “Drink and Learn.” The club likes the event because they fill the place (and sell a lot of beer); by 3:15 about 100 kids were packed in. All that blonde hair reminded me of being in a tavern in northern Minnesota. I delivered a talk on crisis management. Not everyone in the pub was listening by the end (a hazard, I suppose, of selling beer on Friday afternoon!), so we ended abruptly. Students came forward to ask questions, one bought me a shot of tequila, and I soon rode back down the hill.
Changed into a suit and tie, and at seven we walked a block to a dinner marking the 30th anniversary of the business school (as a marker of my long connection, I was also at the 10th and 20th). The dinner was long but fun, an opportunity to say hello to many Umeå friends, especially “old timers.” I sat next to the former vice-chancellor of the university, Ulla Blomkvist, who I had not seen in years, and hugged lots of others. A nice evening.
Six hours of sleep (not enough), up Saturday morning at 5:30. I could have snoozed a bit longer, but it had stopped raining, and I wanted one more circuit around that special island, Bölesholmarna. Back to the hotel, shower, breakfast, and onto an 8:00 flight back to Stockholm. I was excited, because I was bound for two days at the summer cabin of former AA colleague (and fellow Minnesotan) Don Langford and his wife Sooz. They built the cabin (called a stuga in Swedish), on Aspö, a small island in the Stockholm Archipelago, a decade earlier; for years we talked about a visit, and it was finally going to happen. Woo hoo!
Hopped on the airport bus into town, then walked across a bridge into the Gamla Stan, the old town. Took some photos and as I got to the end of Stora Nygatan (“Big New Street”) I was reminded of why it’s good to be an active observer when you travel: I was admiring – as I always do – architectural ornamentation in Stockholm, and spotted a plaque. It was in Swedish, but I got the gist: the French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes spent the last months of his life in the building. Cogito ergo suum!
Walked across another bridge and into the Slussen district, in the throes of a massive re-do of streets and buildings. Found the big Slussen bus stop, bought a ticket, and hopped on the 434 bus, motoring east for 45 minutes, through affluent, low-density suburbs, past small lakes and sea bays, to the small burg of Stavsnäs. I had an hour before the 1:15 ferry to Aspö, so ambled into a little bakery for a sandwich and a pastry. Had a lovely T-t-S that started when an older woman spoke to me in Swedish (I think she was commenting on the tasty free samples the bakery was offering); her 40-ish daughter jumped in, and we had a nice conversation. She had been an exchange student in a small town in Wisconsin, her brother was home visiting from Vermont. Always fun to talk to strangers. About 12:45, lots of folks began to arrive for the boat, many carting supplies to the dock, including lots of garden stuff: bags of topsoil (in most of Sweden, rock is always near the surface), flowers, even small trees, all to be hefted onto the vessel.
The ferry stopped a couple of times, but it still only took 31 minutes to reach Aspö. Don and Sooz were waiting at the dock. Hugs all around, and introductions to island neighbors who were also on the ferry. We walked about a half-mile to the cabin (the island has no roads). My digs were in an adjacent guest house. Dropped my stuff, relaxed for a bit, then Don and I took a good walk around the northern part of the island (it’s about a mile long and about one-third mile wide). The sun came out, and we sat on their deck and yakked and yakked. Had a drink, then tucked into baked salmon, rice, and salad, a lovely dinner. By nine I was plumb wore out. Slept hard, almost ten hours.
We had a leisurely start Sunday morning, coffee, cereal, flatbread, very Swedish simple breakfast. Don showed pictures (on his wide-screen TV) of the whole building process from 2008-09. Some people just write a check for a summer home, but Don, Sooz, and their son Grant (a teenager at the time) were part of the construction. That was way cool. They worked hard, really hard. If you want to see more, go to Don’s blog.
Don and I then went on a long walk to explore the rest of the island, up a hill to the top, across the rocky spine, stopped to chat with neighbors I met the day before. Back to the cabin for a bowl of soup. Took a nice nap. The day alternated between rain and sun; it cleared again about five, and the wind calmed, so I talked Don into a ride around the island in his small boat, about 12 minutes. Back to the cabin for some spirited rounds of the card game Uno, drinks, and a colossal dinner of steak and potatoes. So good. This was a good life, one that Don and Sooz earned through decades of slogging in the airline business, mostly for American (but the last three years with Virgin Atlantic in London).
Slept a long time Sunday night, too, up at seven, slow pace, repeat of the day before. At 9:30, we walked to the dock for the 9:55 ferry back to Stavsnäs. A few islanders were there, and we had a nice yak with an older couple, Lennart and Marie. Hugs and goodbyes and many thanks, and off I sailed. Lennart invited me to sit with them, and we chatted the whole ride. After I told him I was, like Don, an airline guy, the man, semi-retired, peppered me with questions about safety and accidents: the 737 MAX, of course, and many more. He jointly owned a machine-tool business in Cologne, Germany, and kept busy with other stuff. Another nice small window on Sweden. The Swedes live well, that was one of the main conclusions of the weekend!
A helpful MTR ticket agent (the MTR is Hong Kong’s public transit, and they now operate systems in other cities) sold me a senior stored value card, a good purchase for what I hope are many returns to Stockholm. It was already lunch time, so I zipped into the Coop supermarket in the main railway station, and was delighted to see a salad bar. I’m a huge vegetable eater at home, but when traveling I don’t get enough, so I loaded up, plus a hearty wholemeal baguette and, yes, a real Coca-Cola. Ambled out the door and onto a park bench for a picnic, something I’ve been doing in Europe for almost 50 years.
Refueled, I set off for a walk through a familiar part of the city. First stop was a hotel washroom (see above from three weeks earlier). My slight guilt about free-riding at the Radisson Blu Hotel was assuaged: for more than 30 years, my salesman father pumped a lot of money into the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis. Two or three times a year, he would rent what was called a “sample room” in the hotel, to show his lines of gloves and slippers; store buyers from across the Upper Midwest would come to him, reversing the usual travel.
Paused at Gustav-Adolfs Church for daily prayers, up the hill past the Stockholm School of Economics (I’d be back there in September), then south through Vasa Park (Vasaparken) to the airport bus stop at St. Eriksplan. Small setback: as the bus pulled away, I was still standing in the aisle, getting settled, and we lurched hard, bending (but not breaking) my wire eyeglass frames. Happily, I travel with a spare pair.
Flew to Amsterdam, arriving at 6:20. The plan was to sleep in a cool Airbnb on the Amstel River, halfway between the airport and the center. The host, Marga, emailed me Sunday that there would be a transport strike all day Tuesday, shutting rail, trams, buses, Metro. Yow! So Plan B was effected: get back to the airport before the strike began (estimated to be 3:00 AM), which required me to cancel the Airbnb. Being thrifty, I thought “Who needs a $200 hotel for six hours?” So I hopped on the train into the city, then Tram 14 to the Brouwerij t’Ij visited seven weeks earlier. Got there at 7:50, and the friendly barmaids informed me they were closing in 10 minutes. I smiled and said “Okay, I won’t stop you from clocking out.” One of them said, “You’re so nice,” and proceeded to draw me a second beer for free. “That’s why I love the Dutch,” said your scribe. They let me stay a bit past eight, but I ambled out, suitcase in tow, and onto Tram 7, then the Metro, and a short walk to another microbrewery, Troost. The place was relatively empty, and had fast wi-fi, so I found a stool in the corner of the place, facing a big courtyard garden, and did some work, with beer and dinner.
At 10:45, I ambled to the Metro, then the train back to the airport, and went searching for a nice bench. Alas, Schiphol is not equipped for bench surfing – way different from my last airport-bench overnights at Frankfurt and Chicago O’Hare. But a coffee shop was closed, and fellow surfers were claiming booths for their beds. I grabbed a bench, alas too short for legs to be flat, but workable; I slept really hard, most of it sitting up with my head on the table and a sweater as pillow. The police rousted us at 5:20, because the coffee shop was opening. That was fine, because the Business Class lounge opened at 6:00. Zipped in, cleaned up, changed clothes, worked a bit, and at 10:55 flew to Philadelphia, then on to Washington. It took awhile to go the last 120 miles, because of spring thunderstorms, but I got home safe and sound. And that was the end of the “spring semester” abroad.