Friday, May 25, 2012

Football Season Comes to a Close (Part II)

We came to this country huge fans of soccer leagues with names like Stoddert, not Barclays.  We leave believers.  I am a cliche:  The American who comes to Europe and falls in love with Soccer.

We are American sports fans.  We stay up all night to watch the Super Bowl.  We set our alarms at ungodly hours to watch our teams in playoff action. is the first thing we check in the morning to get the previous day's game scores.

But now there are new words, terms and names that are part of our daily lexicon.  Words that previously had no meaning.  A foreign language:  Chelsea, Bayern, Stoppage, Didier Drogba, Mancini, Tevez and Torres.

"Today we don't cry."

Those were the words of the players from Chelsea, which won the Champions League.

The words were similar in tone when Manchester City won the Premier League.

In European soccer there are many ways to win and many ways to lose.  Chelsea won the Champions League this past weekend making them the champions of European soccer.  However, you only make it into the European Champions League if you are one of the top four teams from England.  Chelsea was only the sixth best team, but by wining they guaranteed themselves a spot next year.  However, the team in fourth place, Tottenham gets bounced.

And I haven't even started explaining the confusing stuff.

Soccer enriches and defines the life of Englishmen. With a big game pending, I knew I could walk down any street, find any pub, join any crowd and be in the thick of football pain and pleasure.

What I will remember about my first season are the people and how they react to this, their most cherished pastime.

Wherever we travelled we tried to see a game and the memories of those places are some of the strongest.  The old men crying in Rome as they sang a love song to their team.  The cheers that rang through Old Trafford as Man U closed in on a victory.  The red nosed men at Stamford Bridge. 

Their stadiums have great old names.  Not unlike Wrigley Field, though it is still named after a consumer product, it harkens back to another era:  Old Trafford, the Boleyn Ground, Craven Cottage, Stadium of Light and Anfield.

And the sports pages write of nothing else.  Although understanding what they mean requires a local to explain: 

"Second half goals by Cisse and Mackie either side of a Joey Barton red card, had given ten-man QPR a shock lead."

I can explain that.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My Wife and the Lord

We live at the outer edges of London and so the Tube stop is busy with people going down in the morning and coming up in the afternoon.  And so on a Thursday I was surprised to see the queue going the wrong way.

Even the escalators were both coming up, only stairs for those going down.

The universe was in reverse.  Usually this means a problem with the trains.  It wasnt the train, it was the first day of Cricket season and we are just down the street from the home of Cricket, Lord's Cricket Grounds.
A place where they started playing cricket about the time America was founded.

Getting to Lords was on my list of things to do one day and so I followed the crowd, scalped a ticket and found myself in the midst of England against the West Indies.

The crowd is proper, all carrying baskets, wearing ties and hats, sports coats and salmon-colored pants.  The Test match will last through Sunday.
I watched for an hour or so, walked the grounds, saw the school children emulating their favorite players, amazed that a sport with such wide appeal is so foreign to me that I couldn't really follow the scoring.  

After a visit to the gift shop I headed back to the tube.  When I got home that evening I told my wife where I'd spent the first part of my morning.  

There are a number of reactions she could have had: "Maybe you shouldn't be playing hookey," or "Maybe if you worked more..." or some other retort that I would make had she told me she spent the day on a shopping spree.

But instead she said, "Why don't you do that more often?"

"Why don't I go to more Cricket matches?"

"I hope this is something we bring back to the States with us," she said.

Me too.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Beginning of the End

It starts with the invitation from a friend who asks us to a concert in September.  

Then the new issue of TimeOut Magazine arrives, advertising events that are too far in the future.  And we realize that soon the festivals and carnivals, events and every days will start happening in London, without us.  The things we looked forward to last year are still gonna happen next year, but it will be someone else’s Chocolate Festival at Borough Market, it will be their opening day of the Football season.

The final trips are being planned, the social engagements we’d been putting off get booked and the bucket list of items we needed to get done in London gets a re-write.

The real estate agent starts showing our house, we made an inventory of things we need to get rid of like the UK X-Box, the sheets that won’t fit on a bed at home, the trampoline in the back yard.  

There is un-opened roll of packing tape on the kitchen counter.

And the kids talk about their plans for a return visit.  And I wonder what it will be like when we come back.  Usually when you return to a vacation spot you want to do all your favorites:  That store you love, the restaurant you can't forget, the park that was so special.  But all the London things we'd come back for can’t be achieved in a day, recreated in a week or a month’s visit.  How do you replicate everyday living?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Two Seasons Come to a Close (Part I)

There is nothing like a child’s first love.  Not the one that breaks your heart once.  But the love that breaks your heart again and again your entire life.  In sports your first love is often the one that lasts.

He may not be able to get himself up on most school days without his mother and the promise of chocolate chip pancakes.  But he set his alarm and got himself out of bed at 2:30 in the morning for every hockey game the Washington Capitals played and watched until completion, whether that meant regulation or overtime, or double overtime, or triple.

All over England you can strike up conversation by asking which football club they follow.  And they always have one.  And when you ask why they answer that it was their father’s club.  Or their grandfather's or the place where their first house once stood.  “We’ve always been Arsenal fans,” they might say.  "My dad remembers the plane crash in 1958 and that's how he got stuck on United."

The previous evening my son went to bed with tears in his eyes after his team lost on a long day which ended well past 3:30 in the morning.  There was only pain in his heart.

The next afternoon we watched as the Manchester City fans wept in pain and then joy, the reverse for Manchester United.

The pain lasts and then fades and it's on to next season.

A few hours after the soccer season ended I was riding in a car with a Manchester United fan, whose team had been handed as heartbreaking a defeat as we’ve ever seen.  “Manchester City deserved it,” he said.  “I have to hand it to them.  They played the better football.”

That night I told my son I'd pick him up at eight o'clock the following evening.  

"Please don't say the word eight, dad.  It reminds me of Ovechkin and that the Caps lost."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Good Stumble

"Not all those who wander are lost"  Tolkien

We don't stumble anymore, we search.

We don't look for old books in old book stores, we search online and find them and have them sent to our house.  I've been looking for a book about a guy who took his family to Paris and wrote about it.  I'd been to a few book stores, unable to find it.  Then a few weeks later I was in an old book shop I'd been seeking out.  I found the store, but alas they didn't have a copy.  They could order it, but I said "no thanks."  I still had an hour before my next meeting so I ambled across the road and found another book store, one I'd never heard of, and there in the travel section was one copy of the book.  Pure delight.

People have been writing about walking and exploring in London since Pepys.  In a city like London anything can be an adventure, or a chore, depending on your perspective.  Virginia Woolf wrote one of her great essays about her adventure to buy a lead pencil as she went "street sauntering" "street rambling" and "street haunting."

For me London is meant to be explored and all the difficulties of city life (the trains, the delays, the jostling, the dirt, the noise, the rain, the mess) is all part of the adventure.  An adventure that must take place on foot.  We have hoofed it from Abbey Gardens to Golders Green, Whitehall to Westminster, from Hampstead to Hampshire, Ealing to Edgeware, from London Bridge to Leadenhall and Lime Street.  No matter the sector of the city, if there are sidewalks we walk it to learn it, to know it, to stumble upon it.

I set out part of every week to walk London and find something.  And it rarely disappoints, finding the great new places which existed, always hiding in plain sight.

One my best stumbles is the English Restaurant.

The English Restaurant is my single favorite place in London.  I go in the morning, they have dairy free cake and tea and banged-up chairs, and knotty tables and funny young people making coffee and a steady stream of world weary walking through.

How I Stumbled:

-One day I went to see "Dickens in London" an exhibit at the Museum of London.  
-After the exhibit I looked through the gift shop finding a book called “Quiet London” which listed quiet places within the city, including libraries, gardens and coffee shops.
-The next week I followed the book to the Bishopsgate Institute Library.  A nice old creaky, dusty library, just North of Liverpool Street.  
-Afterward I walked down a side street until I bumped into Old Spitalfields Market, a Victorian market hall which is now filled with what can only be described as rows and rows of vendors selling bric-a-brac.
-Later as I walked back to the office I bumped into a restaurant called the Grenadier, which of course required me to stop and take a picture.  

-Next to the Grenadier I saw a coffee shop called the English Restaurant.  

As soon as I stepped foot in the place it grabbed me by the throat and pulled me in.  The people kept me there.  A constant stream of clever playfulness permeates this tiny space which to me is everything English.

It's run by a couple who keeps everything, quintessentially English.  The food is well-bragged about, though I've never had a meal.  "You've got to try the kippers with mustard butter for breakfast," they tell me, but I get the bagel and lox.  "Then come back for dinner the venison casserole and pan-friend Guinea fowl with steak and onion pudding is out of this world," and all I ask for is another slice of dairy-free cake.

English food and English service are legendarily bad.  They take pride in this.  However, in my English Restaurant I found only love for the customer and the food.  Food that will never pass these lips.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Three Vs of Brighton

All of us are confined to a schedule, sometimes of our doing and sometimes not.  But there is a sense of strength, if that’s the right word, maybe it is freedom, that comes from being able to stand at a train station look up at the big board and know you can go anywhere the tracks will take you.   You have 24 hours and they are yours.

I chose Brighton.  Well, I really chose Liverpool, but the tracks were all messed up and a two hour ride was going to take me six.

Brighton did brighten my day, even in the cold and drizzle that has shrouded England for the past four weeks.

Brighton is one of those cities like Portland Maine or Seattle Washington that is heavy on the Three Vs:  Vinyl records, Vegan food and Vintage clothing.

A one hour, ten pound train from London takes you from the city to the seaside with stops throughout South London from Hassocks to Hayward's Heath, through Three Bridges, East Croyden, and Burgess Hill.  But Brighton has all the sights and smells of a beach.  Visually it looks like old-time Atlantic City with the Ferris wheel and the pier, the sound of gulls overhead and the smell of fish (and chips) all around. 

Brighton is on the south coast of Great Britain and like all things in this country has a long history going back to 1086.  It was a health resort kind of place even back in the day, then it went through some disrepair and is now back on the gentrification track with universities and high end stores.

But beyond the sea, the highlight is the visually magnificent Royal Pavilion.   And there are the North Laines, a shopping area like no other with bunches of zig zagging streets and hundreds of shops, none of which exist anywhere else on earth.  From records and turntables, vintage clothing and vintage cameras, from tattoos to typewriters, the streets, even on a rainy day are teeming with tourists and townies all looking for a bargain, a cup of tea and a piece of dairy/gluten free cake.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Awk Sauce

Awk Sauce is a phrase my children use to describe an awkward situation, often involving their parents.  Earlier this week I had a breakfast meeting near my daughter’s school at the end of Regent Street.  So I thought I’d take the occasion to pop by.

At the front desk I asked if she’s around and they wanted to know if this was a scheduled visit.  I told them no, that I was just in the neighborhood and thought it would be nice to see her in her natural habitat away from home.

“Oh, how nice, she’ll be so excited,” the office secretary told me.

So we climbed the three flights of stairs to her Spanish class and looking in I could see her big smile through the sliver of window.  She, however, had not seen me.

The secretary peeked in and asked for Natalie.  A chorus of “woo, woo” went up from her classmates, suggesting she was in trouble.

When she saw me the reaction was pure Awk Sauce: “Whaaat are you dooooing heeere?”

We stood outside the classroom and had our moment:

“I just wanted to see you since I was down the street.”
“Because I missed you.”
“Oh God Dad, really.”

We exchanged hugs and kisses and she was off.  My day was elevated, her day was, well interrupted.

Later that night I heard her re-telling the story to her sister.  “It was total Awk sauce.  When I got back into the class everyone asked if that was my dad.  I told them ‘No.’”