I was home for four nights, long enough to get 175 tulip and daffodil bulbs planted and a bit of end-of-summer work. On Tuesday, November 5, I hopped the Metro and bus to Dulles Airport and flew Lufthansa’s big 747-8 nonstop to Frankfurt. It’s a convenient and fast way to Germany, and like my last ride on that jumbo, the plane was packed with tour groups. Seated around me were 30 Catholic parishioners from upstate New York, headed to Italy for two weeks, ending with a papal audience (or so they were promised). I chatted with a number of them, including seatmates Pat and Mary Lou, who had never been to Europe. It was another nice reminder of the power of the jet plane to broaden and improve our lives.
Landed FRA at 7:45. Spent an hour with T-Mobile Support, trying to fix a recurring (and frustrating) problem with international roaming on my iPhone, but got it working. Grabbed some breakfast at a now-favorite supermarket in the airport train station, then checked the train departure board. Mine was 40 minutes late (as noted in previous posts, the Deutsche Bahn is really struggling with punctuality), so I opted for an alternate route, to the downtown Frankfurt station, the Hauptbahnhof, then a train to Stuttgart. We were on a new (for me) line, through Darmstadt and south to Heidelberg, skirting low hills with vineyards on the lower slopes, autumn leaves in splendid gold and yellow. Lovely.
The train to Stuttgart was running only a few minutes late, but stopped abruptly a few kilometers from the destination. We sat long enough to I missed my connection, a local train south to Tübingen, where I would teach my crisis-management short course two days hence. I was cranky, and hungry. Took an alternate route, almost missing my connection in a place called Herrenberg, finally arriving Tübingen at 2:15. Grabbed some lunch (again at the REWE supermarket), and walked to my hotel, a lovely old place called the Hotel am Schloss (“the hotel at the castle”) atop a hill. I was glad to be “home,” for a five-night stay. Unpacked, did a bit of course prep, grabbed a quick nap, and at dusk took a nice walk around the old town, the Altstadt. Then enjoyed an early dinner at the Gasthaus Bären, a place visited a year earlier. Lively, friendly, and great food. I attempted to engage my young tablemate, but he was preoccupied with his little screen. Asleep by nine, a hard snooze, 9.5 hours, catching up from the night before on the 747.
Up Thursday morning, a day off. After breakfast, walked the town, including a nice stroll along the Neckar River. Smiled when I passed the youth hostel on the north bank, because I was active in the youth hosteling organization for many years (as a member and for more than a decade a member of the board of directors of the U.S. entity), and because the building had once been the local headquarters of the Hitler Youth.
At 11, met Monika, the assistant in the uni’s Marketing Department, for some last-minute course logistics (showtime was in 22 hours). I was getting an early sense that teaching an undergraduate course was going to be way different than my MBA electives at Georgetown. After a nice buffet breakfast in the hotel, I was not too hungry, so reverted to the supermarket for a prepared salad and two seeded rolls, munching happily in the hotel room, still captivated by the view from the window above my desk. At two, returned to Monika’s office to pick up some truly final stuff, and wandered the university a bit more, checking out the two classrooms we would use (one spartan and one well-equipped, the latter in the Neue Aula, built in the academic-classical style in 1846). Founded 1477, the school is a storied institution in Germany, with dozens of prominent alumni, including the astronomer Kepler; philosopher Hegel; Chancellor Kiesinger (third chancellor of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany); Nazi resister, Lutheran pastor, and long personal hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and many more.
Out the door in light rain Friday morning, down the hill and across to begin the compressed crisis management course. The 30 undergraduates – 20 Germans and 10 exchange students – were a bright lot, and surprisingly talkative. The chair of the Marketing Department, Dominik, and two assistants took me out for a quick Thai curry and a cup of cappuccino, then back to class until 5:30. I was plumb wore out. Walked home in the rain, and opted for dinner in the hotel (I had eaten there on prior visits to Tübingen). It was a wonderful meal, cream of pumpkin soup, followed by the Swabian version of ravioli – in that case pasta filled with salmon in a rich cream sauce. So good.
Up Saturday, back to class, time zipped by. The rain stopped and the sun came out, boding well for my Sunday off. Walked home, changed clothes, relaxed. Seven hours in the classroom is a lot. Walked across town for dinner at the Gastätte Loretto, a place I visited five months earlier. A foundation for people with a broad range of disabilities runs it, and it’s all about being inklusiv – the German word is almost identical to ours. On their website, they write, “Through your visit, you contribute to inclusion and recognize people with all their skills and strengths.” The place was busy but not full, and I was able to speak to the server entirely in German, always a good thing. When you see the staff bustling about, you wonder about their stories, their struggles. In every case, you’re glad they’ve found a work-home, a supportive environment. It was worth the walk on a cold night.
Slept in on Sunday, 7:15. Tucked into a big breakfast, then walked down the hill to Sunday worship at St. Georg. Three youngsters were being baptized (they wait until kids are older in Germany, and they were about two, seven, and nine), which made for a nice service. Walked back to the hotel, read a bit, then hopped on a bus north a few miles to Bebenhausen, a Cistercian monastery founded 1180. It waned after the Reformation, and was dissolved in 1648. In 1807, it became a palace for the royalty of Württemberg (who hung on well into the 20th Century). I hopped onto the noon palace tour in German, the leader helpfully offering a guide to the rooms in English. Much of the place had been renovated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was, as you’d expect, fancy. The monastery tour was self-guided, the rooms much older, reflecting Gothic and Romanesque styles. Way cool. It was damp and cold, and I was glad to get back to the hotel and warm up.
At four, I met one of the most interesting youngsters in a long time, Italo, an exchange student from Brazil. He had emailed me a week earlier, sad that my class was full (80 students applied for 30 places, and 10 were reserved for exchange students), and asked if we could somehow meet. Why not, I replied. Italo was a person you liked from the moment you met him. He understood that life, for most of us, doesn’t hand you opportunity, you have to find it and earn it. He grew up in a small city in the state of Sao Paulo, in a family of modest means, had been working since age 15. Before that, he and his brother – now a physician – earned merit scholarships to a Franciscan school. We covered a lot of ground in 90 minutes. I was totally impressed with his drive: he had been working two or three jobs since arriving: bartender, cook in a Chinese- owned Tex-Mex restaurant, mover. He was working two now, 36 hours a week: a white-collar gig with a genetic testing company, and still bartending. And studying full-time. He came to Tübingen with four students from his university, and on arrival decided that he needed to build a bigger community of Brazilian expats, so he created a website and now has 60+ Brasilieros from around the town. You got the clear sense that he could do anything and go anywhere. I meet a lot of students every year, and Italo was for sure someone I want to keep as a connection.
At seven I sat down to dinner in the Weinstube Forelle, a fish restaurant visited six months earlier. Tucked into a wonderful dinner of pumpkin soup, followed by baked trout, yum. Headed back to the hotel, prepped a bit for the last day of class, and clocked out.
Back to work Monday morning, day 3 of the 3-day class, another 7 hours. As I checked out of the hotel, the friendly fellow at the front desk asked me to wait a moment. And from out of the kitchen came Johanna, an always-smiling woman who I had spoken with many times during my stay, wanting to say goodbye. When I checked in, she walked me up to my room, and we chatted several times in between. In a small hotel, the staff do everything, so she cleaned my room one day, served me coffee, made change at the front desk. She was so sweet. I hugged her, pecked both cheeks, and promised to return. People like that make traveling a joy.
I rolled my suitcase and backpack across town to the Neue Aula, and room 236. The morning sped past. I wanted to eat lunch in the university mensa (student cafeteria), but they didn’t accept cash or credit cards, only a university prepaid card, so I peeled off. Spotted Tasty, a small place run by immigrants from, I guessed, Syria. Ordered a shwarma. It took a long time, and I was running low on time, so I ate half of the sandwich, and wrapped the other half for dinner on the train to Zürich, my next stop. Finished the lecture at 4:30, and sat for the final exam. Way formal, and written on paper, which meant I had to lug another two pounds in my backpack. Said goodbye to students, hopped on the bus to the train station, bought a little cabbage-and-carrot salad to supplement my leftovers, and some beer. Hopped on the local train to Horb, with a tight connection to Zürich. Arrived on time at 9:23, walked a couple of blocks to the #6 tram, up the hill to my next home, the Hotel Plattenhof, familiar from two visits in the past year. I was totally worn out.
Managed eight hours of Zzzz, barely, up early and out the door a few blocks to the historic main building of the University of Zürich. Met my host Nicolas (my long friend Jochen, chair of the organizational behavior department, was home sick), and presented a talk on leadership to grad students, short break, then the same talk to undergrads. It was a busy morning. But lots more to do. Jochen’s assistant Lissette, a fave, found me an office for an afternoon of grading the team projects and 30 exams from the crisis management course (I always get a bit crazed about getting that task done soon after the course ends). Walked back to the hotel, literally next door, changed out of coat and tie, and dug into work, head down. Finished the project grading and sent the results, grabbed a quick lunch at a nearby mensa, then spent three more hours reading and marking the final exams – something of a challenge, because unlike the U.S., where students now write tests on a laptop or tablet, these were handwritten, and some of the writing was hard to decipher. But I got it done, grades calculated and sent. Woo hoo!
Ambled back to the hotel, worked a bit, chilled, then headed to dinner at Rosengarten, a traditional Swiss place, tiny, a few blocks from the hotel. It was a neighborhood spot, and lots of diners knew each other. Always fun to be in a place like that. Tucked into zürigschnätzlets, super tender veal and veal kidneys, plus the fab Swiss version of hash browns, called rösti. Yum. Back in my room, I read for an hour, asleep way before ten.
Up before six Wednesday morning, did a bit of work in my room, ate breakfast, and walked down the hill with suitcase, headed to the railway station, with a pleasant stop for coffee with a young German friend, Tim, who I’ve known since 2004 (he was a Ph.D. student in Münster, Germany, back then). Tim is now CFO of a Swiss space company, Ruag, in the job about a year. We had a great chat about that new post, family relocation from Germany to Switzerland, and lots more. He’s a fine fellow. He sprinted to make his suburban train to work nearby, and I walked at a more leisurely pace to Track 6, and onto a train south to Arth, then on another train under the Alps (through the super-long Gotthard Base Tunnel, ) to Lugano, for my 11th visit to USI, Università della Svizzera Italiana, the university for the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino.
Class wasn’t until the next day, so I put the afternoon to good use, as a Transport Geek, and seizing a warm and sunny autumn day – rain was forecast for the next several days. Checked into the hotel, then zipped out, stopping at the Migros supermarket for “picnic” lunch, then up a funicular to the train station (which is above the city). North and west into the next valley, to Locarno, then back on the unfortunately-named FART (Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi) narrow-gauge railway up the Maggia Valley. I rode the train a year earlier, but on a gloomy and rainy day. The weather was stunning. I was able to ride a bit further, to the last stop before entering Italy. The normal round-trip fare would have been the equivalent of $38, but like the year before, on arrival the hotel gives you a pass for unlimited rides on public transport in Ticino for the duration of your stay. Woo hoo! It was a lovely afternoon.
Got back to the hotel about 6:15, worked a bit, relaxed, and headed out to dinner at 8. I spotted a pizza place online (the way-cool pizzeria I visited a year earlier was way across town, and I was tired), and headed there, but it was takeout only. New plan: back to the Hotel Pestalozzi, a simple place with fair prices: tucked into a salad, bratwurst, potatoes, green beans (like an autumn dinner on a Minnesota farm!), and a glass of local red wine, all for the equivalent of $26. And the waitress was sweet: after I had some trouble with Italiano, we switched to English. On the way out, a nice T-t-S with her about my Italian great-grandparents; where we lived; and some tourist advice for her, after she said “I want to visit America.” I hope she gets there.
Slept hard, really hard. Down to breakfast, and a wonderful exchange with Katia, the server. I stayed in a different hotel the year before, and it was nice to be back at City, a new place. Katia said she remembered me, gave me a big hug. We chatted only a little, because she was busy. Like Johanna at the hotel in Tübingen, she’s a total day-brightener. Zipped out the door, another 90 minutes as Transport Geek, up to the station and onto another little narrow-gauge railway, the Ferrovie Lugano Pontetresa, the FLP, running west to Ponte Tresa, a nice town on another arm of Lake Lugano. Didn’t get off in Ponte Trese, zipped back, changed into “teaching clothes” at the hotel, and headed to the university. Worked in the library for the rest of the morning.
At 12:45 met my longtime academic host in Lugano and London, Omar Merlo, for a quick (but big) lunch in the mensa, then it was time to stand and deliver for two hours, to an engaged group of 14 grad students, mostly from Italy. Walked back to the hotel, grabbed a quick nap (something rare on this, and on most trips to Europe). At 7:15, I walked a few blocks to a bus stop and hopped on a yellow Swiss Post bus; yet another admirable aspect of the Swiss transport network, these buses reach thousands of places beyond the railway network. From a mobility perspective, it is one integrated nation.
The bus climbed a big hill south of Lugano, and I got off at the second-to-last stop, Bellavista. It was up there to celebrate, for the second year in a row, Omar’s birthday. The other guests arrived soon after me: Omar’s dad Luigi and girlfriend Alida; his sister Adriana, husband Sandro, and kids Nicola (15) and Victoria (13). Like the previous year, Alida made an enormous and wonderful lasagna. We all had seconds, then salad, then birthday cake, all with wine and celebratory champagne. I felt truly like part of the family, the distant relative from America. Warm, lovely people. Luigi drove me down the hill to the hotel. It was late by my standards, nearly midnight. And I was really full.
Slept in, until seven, then down to breakfast, a little conversation with Katia, and out the door, up the hill on the bus, then onto trains to Milan. The plan was to meet long friends Massimo and Lucia Vesentini at the end of the day, then head up to their chalet in the Aosta Valley of the Italian Alps (Val d’Aosta, on the Italian side of the tallest Alpine peaks of France and Switzerland), so I had time. The derelict industrial landscape along the railway line, together with clouds and gloom, needed a counterpoint, so I put on my earbuds and cued sunny Italian composers Puccini and Vivaldi. Much better!
It was rainy and not swell for touring, but I had lined up a short meeting with a prof at Bocconi, one of Italy’s best B-school; so I headed to the campus, arriving about noon. Ate an Italian sandwich in a shop before I found the mensa (where I should have eaten), but it was a good place to work a bit, with a fast wi-fi connection.
Seeing students sitting down with trays of mensa food – always basic, filling stuff – made me hungry again, so I lined up for a bowl of lentil soup. While I was waiting to pay, a student asked me “Did you use to work for American Airlines?” Whoa! I replied yes, and he said he was in my lecture a year earlier at London School of Economics. This was the second time in less than two months that this happened, but the previous encounter in St. Gallen was just before lecture began. This time I asked Pierre-Louis (American father, French mother) if he wanted to join me for lunch, and we had a sensational chat. He was spending an entire year as an exchange student at Bocconi, and will return to the LSE next academic year to finish. Sort of like T-t-S, but more like TSW, totally small world!
At three I sat down with Sandro Castaldo, chair of Bocconi’s Marketing Department, for a brief chat about guest lecturing possibilities. It was a quick meeting. I left his office, walked a few blocks to the flashy new B-school campus, due to open in less than two weeks, then hopped on a seriously crowded tram across town. Walked the last half-mile to Via Hayez 19, home of Lucia and Massimo Vesentini, and their swell dog Lupetta (“little wolf” in Italian). I’ve known Massimo since 1991, not long after he became American Airlines’ sales manager for northern Italy. Lucia was working from home that day, so we chatted briefly.
Massimo got home from work about 5:15; we yakked for a bit, walked a few blocks to pick up their car, packed it up, installed a nervous Lupetta in the back of their SUV. The Vesentinis think that she fears confinement perhaps because she and her three siblings were found in a box inside a dumpster, abandoned; they travel by car a lot, and Lupetta hates it. We headed west into rush-hour traffic. It took an hour to get from slightly east of the center to the start of the superhighway, the Autostrada, an hour to get to the foot of the Aosta Valley north of Torino, and 35 minutes to climb up the Lys valley, across bridges and through tunnels and switchbacks, to their village of Gressoney-St. Jean. It was already serious winter at about 5000 feet of elevation; at least a meter of snow had fallen in the previous days. We left the narrow main road and climbed another 200 feet, on switchbacks, to their condominium, one of eight in a stone building that once belonged to the local baron. The inside was rustic and cozy – and still a little cool (the heat had been turned on the day before, but it takes awhile).
Unpacked the car and headed back down to the village for a late dinner. The place had the vibe of mountain resort towns everywhere: friendly, informal, with lots of young people in seriously good shape from climbing, skiing, biking. I had venison stew and polenta, a big meal. Lupetta sat beneath Massimo and Lucia, happily collecting tidbits offered. Massimo was concerned about snow overnight; the new Audi had four-wheel drive but no winter tires, so we parked it and walked up the little road. It was midnight when I climbed into the bunk bed in the little bedroom that once was their daughter Martina’s. Slept hard.
Up Saturday morning at eight, to mostly cloudy skies but a few patches of sun. Massimo and I walked Lupetta, up the slope to a little set of houses, a place called Rong. After a late breakfast, we set out on a long walk, into Gressoney to buy the daily paper, get another coffee (three for the equivalent of $4, way better than Starbucks!), and pick up some more supplies for dinner. Always fun to see commerce in small places. That valley and others adjacent are a linguistic intersection: for centuries, people have spoken French and German as well as Italian, as signs and place names showed. The German came from the Walser people, a linguistic minority whose origins were across today’s border in the Swiss canton of Valais; they spread south, west, and east between the 12th and 13th centuries.
We kept walking, across the village to the modest castle that belonged to Margherita, one of the last queens of Italy (and who loaned her name to the pizza, after enjoying it in Naples). Lupetta chased snowballs big and small, pinecones, and anything else we could throw. It was about 3:30 when we got back to the car. Lucia and Lupetta hiked up to the condo, and Massimo and I took a short drive to the head of the valley, about four miles north and west, climbing yet more. Turned around at Staffal, back down, then on foot to the condo, total distance on foot 8.7 miles. Nap time!
Massimo started a fire in the ceramic stove, and soon the condo was toasty, almost too warm. Lucia made dinner, osso bucco with sausage and rice. So good. And lots of good conversation. I’ve gotten to know them pretty well through the years, so there are seldom lulls. Asleep early.
It was snowing Sunday morning. Even for someone who spent 35 winters in Minnesota, a cold place, it was still hard to reckon with serious winter in the middle of November. After breakfast we made two trips down with stuff. Target departure time was 10:00, and we beat that by a minute. The snow was coming down hard, and we rolled down the valley at a safe speed. Massimo was a superb winter driver, and we didn’t slip once. Less than 15 miles later, we were in rain and it looked like autumn again. We got on the Autostrada, pedal to the metal back to Milano, then east to Bergamo airport for my flight to London and my last teaching gig the next day. We made it way quicker than we thought, arriving about 12:30 for my Ryanair flight at 2:25. Hugged the Vesentinis and Lupetta, had two pieces of pizza for lunch, and flew to Stansted Airport. As always, a great time in Italy. So nice to stay connected with long friends across the water.
Arrived London just before (early) sunset, onto the train, then the Underground, across the city to Omar and Carolyn Merlo’s house in Kew. Carolyn and their kids Sophie (almost 11) and Freddie (8) were away, but Omar and their now-huge golden retriever Mr. Waffles were home. Had a good yak, watched tennis on TV, had a quick dinner of fish and chips, and headed to bed.
Monday morning, time to get back to work, an afternoon gig at the London School of Economics. First business was to accompany Carolyn, Sophie, Freddie, and Mr. Waffles to the kids’ school. I’d done the walk many times, and a few parents and dogs were familiar. After saying goodbye to the kids, Carolyn and I took Waffles for a walk around a nearby park. I packed up, hugged goodbyes, and walked back to the Tube, then east into London. Met Dom, a young guy working in a start-up, for coffee and a good chat, ate lunch in the LSE mensa, and from 2:05 to 3:50 delivered a talk to undergraduates.
Several of them wanted to ask more questions after the lecture, and when I looked at my watch I thought “Yow, I need to go,” because my Eurostar train to Paris left in less than an hour. The station was only two stops by Tube, but the departing on that train is like an airport: security screening, two passport controls (UK and France). I made it with time to spare, but was a little stressed. The Eurostar is seriously fast, and we were at Gare du Nord in central Paris in under 140 minutes. Whoosh.
My next destination was dinner at Bouillon Julien, a restaurant I read about some months earlier in The New York Times. It was walking distance from the station, 15 minutes or so. When I arrived at 8:45, the place was hopping, but there was room for one, and in no time I was admiring the ornate interior, mostly unchanged since 1906 – “un véritable perle de l’art nouveau” as it said on the placemat. It was, as I said to the French woman in the next table, “like being in a museum, like being in Paris before two world wars, the Cold War, the internet”! She agreed.
I was not in a hurry, because my flight left the next morning, and I planned to spend six hours at the airport, not a hotel (many readers roll their eyes here, Rob’s idiosyncratic thrift). I opted to return via Paris to avoid, as I often do, the huge UK departure tax, now up to $280. So I had a leisurely dinner, first course of duck terrine, then salmon with grilled endive, and a splendid coconut pudding. Yum, yum, yum. The new owners’ have revived the original motto: Ici tout est beau, bon, pas cher – “here everything is beautiful, good, and inexpensive.” The three course meal with wine was less than $35.
Left the restaurant at 10:30, ambled back to the station. Then the France of some dysfunction kicked in: no suburban (RER) trains seemed to be headed to the airport – they normally run every 15 minutes. So I hopped on a train that went within four stops of the terminal, to get closer. At Aulnay sous Bois, waited on the platform for an hour. Still no trains to the airport, but one arrived that went closer – to the stop just before the airport. Hopped on that. An English-speaking worker on the platform said there was a bus in front of the station that would take us (by then about 20 people) to the airport. Well, sort of. We got to an airport bus station that was not close to the terminal, but, happily, there was one more bus. It was a 2.5 hour journey of less than 20 miles. Found an agreeable bench for a nap in Terminal 2A, and fell asleep, mostly.
The American Airlines Admirals Club opened at 6:30 Tuesday morning, and I was the first member in, straight to the shower. Cleaned up, ate some breakfast, and at 9:40 flew to New York JFK. Arrived early, zipped through, and hopped onto train, subway, and bus to LaGuardia Airport for a 3:00 flight. Was home by 5:00.