On Not Going to the World Cup

For the first time since 2002 (when admittedly i did not pay so much attention), i am not going to the World Cup.  Notably, neither is the USMNT, but Russia is not a nice place they stole it, later other things, from us, and doesn’t deserve more of my tourist dollars.

In four years, i’m not going, either, because Qatar is not a nice place and they stole it from us and they do not deserve my tourist dollars.

In eight years, happily enough, i won’t have to go anywhere because it’s coming here.

Some words about the above:

A lot of ink’s been spilled about the USMNT fucking it up royally, but this relatively recent article best reflects my assessment of it (which is not of course the same as being most accurate, necessarily, but it’s very well-reported).   For me, Klinsmann always struck me as a button-masher with pretensions, someone who had success at the highest level (and obviously on-the-field) but could never communicate why.  And it grated on me as a lifelong defender that he never seemed to care about running out a good, or even consistent backline.  The best i could say about him is that he asked the right, provocative questions, but he’d also sold us on the idea that he had answers to them.  Arena, on the other hand, might well have succeeded if he took over earlier and the US did not dig such a large hole, but he shared a major problem with Klinsmann (hardly unique to either of them).  They both leaned on certain players as binkies no matter what kind of form they were in or where they fit on the field.  Really, neither of them actually got their best 11 on the field as often as they could have, which is an insane thing for us to have been accustomed to.

And that sucks for the tens of thousands of Americans who are still going to the World Cup, because it’s an amazing time, it really is, and it’s a damn shame that a big part of it they could have reasonably expected and planned around is going to be missing.  I feel sad for the people who aren’t going to get to sit in Gelsenkirchen and endure the taunting from an opponent who kicked your ass.  Worse for the people who never have the adventure of fording a river of sewage to get to the match in Recife in the 88th minute.  Worst for the people who won’t get to sing and shout madly for 90 minutes at altitude in Pretoria until that goal happens.  For the stories that are still numerous, amazing, indelible, i hope, but disconnected from the drama of the 31 other countries’ worth of frenemies butting heads.  It sucks that all they get to do is be a spectator.

Past Streams of Consciousness from Past World Cups:

Brazil [Photos]

South Africa [Photos]

Germany [Photos]

Notes from World Cup 2010 and South Africa

Originally posted with the nice people who presumably still run SoccerBlog.com, miraculously still up eight years later. Reposted here because i don’t want to lose it.

6/13/2010
hello there. my name is rob colonna from boston, massachusetts. i support the usa, new england revolution, and charlton athletic. in 2006, christian and shourin were kind enough to invite me to write about some of my adventures in germany, and after hearing that i was off to south africa, asked if i could do the same. hope it’s entertaining. (us/england match discussion is at the bottom, after some local color)
– i got up at 0600 on friday morning in boston and flew BOS-ATL-JNB, arriving at the latter at 1710 local (1100 the next day in boston). had an exit row on a 777, near the galley and bathroom, where people gathered to chat. there was enough room to practice charlie davies’ stanky leg dance over the fifteen-plus hour flight, and talk strategy with other people who would also be landing with three hours to get to rustenberg.
– the typically modern, glass-and-steel airport was filled with the periodic blasts of vuvuzelas. i missed a great shot of some wildly dressed locals blasting away from an upper-level walkway, because we were trying to figure out the fifa ticket machines. they work fairly well, and probably would have been no problem at all if there wasn’t such a hurry. it’s also easy to find them at local shopping malls, assuming you have a car. (if you don’t have a car, i don’t know how you’re planning to get around.)
– so, we were not entertaining the option of making the nice lady at our lovely guesthouse stay up until 2am. after checking in, we were down to about two hours before kickoff to make a roughly two-hour drive. but: we got directions from the proprietor of the house, and set off, hoping that the tom-tom app on my iphone would get us there.
– the r24 to rustenberg is a windy, narrow road with crumbling edges creeping into the lanes, sharp turns, and poor marking. people pass recklessly in oncoming lanes. it’s in the middle of nowhere, and while it was nice for this city boy to glimpse the milky way, it was a bit of a white-knuckle trip.
– all that being said, somehow we wound seeing the lights of royal bafokeng about five minutes after kickoff. great news! unfortunately, the stadium signage disappeared at a key moment. this was a good thing and a bad thing. on the one hand, we were totally stumbling around looking for parking that wasn’t sketchy looking. on the other hand, we actually found a dirt lot that would let us park really pretty close for 100R (it was actually 50R but they didn’t have change and i didn’t care). walking around the stadium was no more clearly marked than the surrounding roads or parking.
– i desperately wanted to walk in (nearly halftime) and find it still a match. every roar of the crowd made us nervous. we’d just punched our tickets and heard the sound that could only mean a goal. we saw england flags waving and our hearts sank, but then the american flags rose and the chants of “u.s.a” were heard. the announcer said dempsey’s name, and when we finally glimpsed the field and squeezed into our row that already had extra people getting cozy, we had a match.
– it was tense, but not terrifying, if i had to sum it up. england’s buildups were threatening, and i suspect the usa’s multiple nearly-in-on-net missed counters probably made the english fans feel the same way. maybe. rooney couldn’t ever be marked tight enough for us. cherundolo was a beast down the right, always finding an extra step to get the tackle just right. clark couldn’t hold the ball well enough, but made key stops. donovan and dempsey were most visible (remember we were only there for the second half) for their contributions on defense, which were timely. hustle back saw dempsey’s orange boot snatch the ball from rooney at the 18 at a nervous moment, for instance. gooch noticeably stepped it up in the last fifteen minutes, as if he could sense that more was needed of him. the extra time actually was a bit anticlimactic, if you can believe it; it actually felt under control, maybe even a chance to steal it, at that point. the steep, packed, usa supporters’ sections erupted at the final whistle.
– it was a great feeling to be able to applaud the whole team as they came over after the match. you really felt like you were helping to propel every throw in and corner in the attacking end, and it was nice to see they heard us.
– the english were mostly good sports. at halftime, there was a spirited discussion begun by a shocked “how the f*** can england not have a goalie?” out of an england supporter in the wrong section. nobody had an answer for him. lots of handshakes after the match amongst fans.
– i’ve got to be honest, especially after dealing with the efforts required to get parked for the upcoming matches at soccer city and ellis park, things have not been that smoothly organized here. royal bafokeng is simply not up to the standard needed for this event (we were keeping our own time in the stands, for goodness’ sake!). but that shouldn’t be a reflection on any of the thousands of volunteers, police, and private security, as well as any other citizens of south africa we’ve encountered. they’re all extremely friendly and cheerful and helpful.
– netherlands-denmark at soccer city tomorrow; hope to share more photos and other stuff later this week.

6/17/2010

hello again from freezing cold johannesburg.
– it’s pretty clear that the folks who are running things are learning as they go along. the parking and logistics situation at soccer city improved markedly between netherlands-denmark on monday and argentina-south korea today. for instance, they mowed the grass in the parking area–of course they mow the grass by lighting it on fire and now it’s a charred wasteland. the biggest improvement they could make is a boldface mention of the fact that you need to buy ticket for a park-and-walk lot or a park-and-ride lot for ellis park and soccer city, and that you need to buy this from a computicket outlet (online, pick it up in a local supermarket). once you figure this out, all that’s left is to leave for the match a good 2.5-3 hours early. going to an afternoon match is an all-day commitment.
– the empty seats everywhere are a bit disappointing, but the atmosphere in soccer city is certainly not lacking because of it. it’s a vast, covered stadium which does nothing to dissipate the noise of vuvuzelas, but still allows you (at least in person) the ability to hear singing and drums and yelling. on monday, the dutch were in predictably good voice, and today, there were two small but very well-organized south korean sections which drummed and chanted until the end of the match (as well as pulling off some great flag displays).
– the crowd roared today when maradona randomly side-footed a ball that came to the technical area. messi is not too bad either.
– vuvuzelas are as little as 30R, but are surprisingly hard to use. i have two already. i plan to give one to the small children of all of my friends, so that they will hate me forever.
– it’s unfortunate that so much about johannesburg is so decentralized. security concerns, whether or not they’re warranted, have you going from hotel/house, to car, to mall/restaurant/stadium, and it’s a rare treat to walk even a block, in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods like melville or newtown. it’s a huge switch from the fan-fest/city-center centric experience in germany. even so, we’ve met/talked with/had drinks with people from dozens of countries already, which is half the point of coming to the world cup. it’s an unstoppable social experience.
– both the locals and the americans we’ve run into love rooting for the underdog–even if it’s north korea.
– we were downtown last night cheering on bafana bafana at the fan fest, which for once was actually populated (see previous statement). the locals we’ve talked to apparently detest the cold, which explains some of this. the penalty/red card call took a lot of the starch out of them, which made us sad; we’d all like to see our hosts have as good a time as they’ve helped us have. even if many of them still prefer rugby.
– is it me (with a limited-commentary, live/foreign viewpoint on the matches), or have there been a ton of short corners, free kicks that don’t clear the first guy, etc., and can we blame the lack of scoring and underperforming of the superpowers on this? i will choose to until proven wrong. argentina-south korea at least delivered some truly high-quality scoring plays as opposed to the parade of mostly soft goals or o.g.’s that preceded.
– us vs. slovenia tomorrow–come on, usa!

6/22/2010

– let’s talk about the usa-slovenia match and get it over with. i was seated in the usa supporters’ section near the second half offensive end. it was utter bedlam after the equalizing goal; we all knew it was coming and it did not disappoint. beer flying, hugging strangers, jumping up and down. the third goal was almost a continuation of it, and upon catching a glimpse of the referee, i was trying to get people to stop celebrating and look at the field. by the time it had calmed down, it was practically too late to boo and swear. i think a lot of the hardcore supporters took it better than i did; it felt like the party we’d righteously earned had been stolen from us.
– practically everyone we ran into (still wearing assorted usa jerseys) for the next 48 hours would stop and tell us how screwed we got. practically the entire security staff at the stadium in durban wouldn’t let me through until they said as much, and barely patted me down.
– durban is a six hour drive from johannesburg, but couldn’t possibly feel more different. the walled-garden/gilt cage secured houses/malls/parking lots of johannesburg feel a bit stifling after a while. durban, on the other hand has miles of lively boardwalk along the beach, dotted with high-rise hotels. couple that with warm winter weather, drinking beer outside, and the fifa fan fest in the sand, on the beach, and it’s a great part of the world cup.
– beyond that, moses mabhida stadium is one of the most spectacular sporting facilities i’ve ever been to.
– i made a point after the netherlands-japan match on saturday of complimenting japanese fans we met on their team’s performance. their support against the netherlands was great, and they’ve been a fun team to watch.
– brazil-ivory coast at soccer city on sunday night did not quite live up to the billing on the field. it was, however, the first time my hearing felt threatened by the vuvuzelas. the brazilian fans do not take no for an answer when attempting to expand their party to fill the available space. the stewards were very patient in repeatedly removing the drum corps and dancers from the aisles.
– my internet connection here is slow and i’m not around to use it much so i haven’t kept up on news coverage. is anyone talking about the dust situation at soccer city? it’s surrounded by giant plateaus of old mine tailings, and empty lots of red dirt that blows around like mad and makes it hard to breathe on the 2km walk to the stadium. between the dust and the smoke (at any given time, i’d bet that there are 50 fires of various size burning brush or structures in the johannesburg area) and the altitude, soccer city may as well be the new azteca.
– leaving the country on thursday, usa-algeria on wednesday beforehand. looking for a happy plane flight home.

 

Notes from World Cup 2006 and Germany

Originally posted on Soccerblog.com, twelve years ago, but reposted here because it’s kind of amazing that i found them again.  i was young and naive about a lot of things, soccer being only one of them, and i hated capitalization even more.

09 june
frankfurt is a very modern-looking city, with a striking skyline quite atypical for europe. after getting here and checking in, i went immediately to the river area, where the first game between germany and costa rica was kicking off. they had giant video screens moored in the middle of the river, and people lined the shores and nearby bridges, taking it all in. there was much singing and shouting, but it was actually very mellow, and the police seemed primarily concerned with making sure people had a good time.
since germany won, there was much rejoicing about town. at one end of the zeil, a shopping area for pedestrians, people were forming a gauntlet of black, yellow, and red and demanding cars honk before allowing them to pass.
they have open-air grills in the street, a giant grate hanging over coals, covered with sausages. it smells amazing. beer is everywhere, also sold on the street. there are people wandering around with both beer and sausage, dressed in all the colors of the world. even paraguay was represented. oddly enough, the toughest jersey to find is the us jersey.
10 june
the english team is staying at my hotel. they’re being rather cautious about letting people in, as you might imagine. it took me an hour to get back into my hotel room after going for a run, because they blocked off the entrance so that becks and crew could get onto the bus without much hassle. there was a large crowd watching.
the train ride to the waldstadion was actually as fun as the match. on a lark, i got in the first-class compartment with the loudest, singingest bunch of drunk englishmen i could find. they had fun and cheered on mexico, too on behalf of a few mexican interlopers.
pretty much every one of their songs says the word ‘england’ er, ‘enger-land’ as many times as possible. they are also adept at changing the lyrics of the songs to suit the situation, such as ‘nice trousers’ to salute a german still on the platform who had a truly reprehensible pair of pants. this batch had no love for the germans, though, for the most part, and were frequently not very tactful about it, perhaps owing to history on-field and off. it was sweaty,
cramped, loud, and smelly (someone farted) and spectacularly fun. i wish i’d had my camera, which reminds me: whatever i’d read about not being allowed to bring cameras was clearly false. d’oh.
the match was actually relatively calm. the singing continued for most of it, but the fans were fairly calm up in the nosebleed seats. they even did ‘the wave’ which shocked me. everything was extremely well organized, and the stadium was so clean that i felt bad for leaving peanut shells on the floor. the match was entertaining, but had its rough edges. england profited from a gift goal early, and was making paraguay look fairly second-rate to start with, but as the game went on, they had trouble finishing plays, and seemed to always make one pass too many. in the second half, paraguay came out strong and played a better half, and the refereeing was decidedly one-sided against the english, making them have to hang on for that 1-nil win.
the english fans were, it seemed, pleased to have won, but hardly blown away by the performance.
i wore my charlton athletic jersey today. i have an england jersey somewhere, but i couldn’t find it before i left. at any rate, more than a few charlton supporters stopped me to shake hands. even after i explained that i’m an american who adopted them ’cause they were the first premiership match i went to, they were still happy to have met. nice folk indeed.
later that night:
the english fans are still at it. they’ve totally taken over the romer, the old-fashioned-looking, half-timbered house-lined city square. they’re mostly singing, dancing, but also occasionally throwing bottles, or kicking the ball around. lots of shirtless guys jumping around. it looks like the night the red sox won the world series, and all they did was win their first game. i am thoroughly impressed. either way, they’ve been at it there pretty much ever since the game let out; i walked by and gawked no fewer than three times. the polizei have been mostly good sports; they’ve got nasty-looking dogs, and riot gear, but they’re mostly letting the english run amok. even though they’re kicking balls around and windows are occasionally being broken, the police have more than once thrown the ball back to the fans, to great cheering. some of them seem kinda bemused by the rest, but the singing, the singing is unanimous, and it continues.
there’s a good crowd on the river tonight, too, watching argentina and cote d’ivoire, but it’s clearly not where the, uh, action is.
june 11th
it has been a quieter day in frankfurt thus far, although that’s not to really say it’s quiet. there is no game in the city, nor is the aftermath as significant. of course, the english are still here, many of them returning to the same bars that they’d taken over the night before, bursting into song again whenever they spot kindred fans. which is reasonably often. there are more mexican fans about today, too, but they’re more cordial than boisterous so far.
later in the day, the mexican fans are doing the driving around and honking thing following their win. there’s a more significant delegation of fans from iran here now, and they don’t seem to know their side lost, because they’re dancing wildly still, having fully taken over and densely packed a side street off of the zeil. their music is pretty good, too. the polizei don’t even have anybody watching them, and after all, why not–they probably don’t even drink, and they’re clearly having a blast anyway. the english, on the other hand, are still there in force, even if nothing compared to last night. they’re still encamped in the romer, a painted limousine parked in the middle of the square, and have fully taken over a bar’s outside tables on one side of the square. they’re playing the same game that some folks were playing in the hauptwache the night before, which is to say, take a ball, and kick it in the air as hard as you can. cheer when someone volleys it, boo when it’s missed. windows narrowly miss being broken. a ball got lost in the fountain in the center, which is fenced off; initially, the police seemed disinclined to let them retrieve it, but eventually relented (or, as likely, were too late to stop it), and a man got in there to get it, adding a nice cannonball dive before exiting the fountain. while most of the police had been pretty easygoing before, eventually this ball was confiscated. another was produced within moments, naturally.
12 june
it’s good to hear american voices on the train to koln (then to dusseldorf, and gelsenkirchen); hopefully we make a good showing for us soccer fans. according to my dad, their flight from jfk had the new york fire department’s soccer team on it, who were hitting some of the us games, and playing a few friendly matches with local clubs. gelsenkirchen is kind of tough to get to. rather than one large city, it’s in a cluster of other medium-sized ones, thus there are a lot of regional trains that one might ride on to get between them. these tend not to be very fast.
it was good, though, to see so many americans on board, and from all over the states, too, particularly considering this was still a pretty faraway place to be staying from the venue. a friendly but slightly crazy-looking german predicted a 2-0 victory for the us team. it was still a fairly long trip, and very hot (a thermometer in gelsenkirchen after the game, quite late in the evening, still read 29 celsius).
once the train reached gelsenkirchen, that’s where the fun began. as in, multiple entire trains full of people all attempted to pile on the platform to board a single tram car. they refer to it as a u-bahn because it is underground for 3 stops out of 10 or so. it was a long, chaotic wait. which i avoided, and was an early adopter of the bus alternative. which was packed, exceptionally sweaty, and slow, but steady. progress was so slow, in fact, that many disembarked to walk, realizing too late that it was a 7-km trip to the stadium. if you have tickets to a game in gelsenkirchen, allow some extra time to get there. it took about an hour and a half for me to get from the hauptbahnhof to the stadium.
after getting there, it was a chase to find the ticket pick-up. as in, if you get conditional tickets, go to the ‘stadium ticket center’, and do not settle for the ‘ticket service center’. the latter will not help you. in the case of gelsenkirchen, this is like a quarter-mile hike outside the stadium. by this time, myself, a czech, and four scotsmen have made the rounds of the wrong places, and are running like mad to the right place. eventually i get my ticket. section d, row 1, seat 1. hmm… sounds interesting.
i get in, 5 minutes late. i knew that the ticket was as good as it sounded when the usher arched his eyebrows at me. i must have been a sight, dripping sweat, unshaven, and entirely out of breath. it’s entirely possible i wound up on worldwide tv looking like that, since i was literally right behind the us bench…
…and in the middle of the biggest czech section, a field of red. they had pretty good chants going, honestly, not that i could understand any of it, but they were clearly organized so that there was something they could all stomp their feet to in every verse. they were shaking the place. or at least this half of it. a couple of nice americans i chatted with on the train back to dusseldorf sat on the opposite corner of the place, and said that they couldn’t even hear them from there. judging by shirt color and cheering activity (lack thereof, that is), it looked like the place was over half us supporters. impressive, considering that the czechs were a drive or a train trip away, mostly, and not a long plane flight, then a train trip. of course, the fact that you couldn’t hear the american fans wasn’t entirely their fault.
because the us team played mostly badly. for 25-30 minutes after the first czech goal, it was encouraging, ’cause they were really taking it to them, hustling to the ball, winning balls aggressively, and threatening repeatedly. you felt like it was a matter of time before they punched one in, particularly after the shot that struck the post. but it turned out that the czechs would put another one in first, and that pretty much ended the game. after that, the us team couldn’t connect cleanly on more than a couple passes in a row, for the most part. there were a couple of chances, even good ones, but you got the sense that those were flukes. by the last ten minutes, their frustration was plainly evident. it was just ugly at that point. the czechs plainly felt aggrieved by the officiating, but while it wasn’t perfect (there were a few situations where they were seemed to be allowing the players to make the calls for them, wrong calls), it was reasonably balanced. they really didn’t like seeing their players carted off the field hurt, and it was probably better that i didn’t understand some of what they were saying. the field seemed to be an issue, as a number of players were seen losing their footing, or tripping over lines on the field, or something.
the american fans were pretty frustrated by the game, and pretty quiet, too, on the way back. not that they were terribly loud on the way there, either, really, but it’s also not really their way. many chose to walk back most or part of the way, as did i, but i was told later that the wait for the tram wasn’t as endless as it seemed (see previous statements). there were pockets of people doing the math, figuring out whether or not to root for ghana to win, or to merely tie the italians, and what had to happen to advance. the figuring wasn’t terribly reassuring, to say the least.

Notes from London, Madrid, and Rome

17 February 2018, a bus near Bascombe Down, England

  • It’s striking as you walk down 50 rows to the back of a 747 and realize that the last 15 rows are the only normal ‘coach’ seats.  150 people in about 1/4 of the aircraft.  And 50 rich people get to lie flat in the rest of the plane.
  • It’s been almost exactly ten years since i’d been to England.  In that time, they’ve deprecated about £30 of the £50 of what i had lying around at home and brought back with me.  This isn’t the first time this has happened, either.  Lesson: spend it all.
  • Which of course is very easy in London, with the roughly $7 subway rides and all. On the other hand, last time i was here, a pound was closer to $2 than to $1.50, so thanks Brexit.
  • It’s interesting to visit places you’re very familiar with with people who are new to the whole experience. It affords you lots of time to sort of slack off on the touristing and just kinda soak and look for things you haven’t seen before.
  • On the other hand, a lot happened here in 10 years. For instance, they’ve decided to embrace the whole tall-building thing.  We tasked the teenager to find a thing to do for us, and she suggested we take our breakfast on the 31st floor of the Shard tower.  Hard to tell if it was her intention, but it is exactly the same type of thing that the awful rich people she watches on YouTube would do.  The difference is, we weren’t pretending to be blasé about it, and weren’t filming ourselves.  It was actually pretty great, and cost only a bit more than the elevator ride to the observation deck, but it was another reminder that rich people are the most foreign people of all.
  • Traveling with the in-laws means less walking and less Tube and more tour buses, but the upper decks of those buses are kinda great at dusk as the sun goes down and the light goes up.
  • Back home in Boston, we should feel pretty good about how accessible the T is compared with the Underground, which is pretty much a nightmare for people with canes, crutches, etc.  That’s about the only aspect we should be proud of, of course.  Amazing things are possible if you spend on infrastructure, Governor Baker.
  • I’ve come around on Hob Nobs, they’re a lot of good cookies for £1.
  • This isn’t the greatest airbnb to introduce the in-laws to, with lukewarm showers, funny beds and sheets, and other strangeness, but on the other hand that’s also kind of perfect.
  • The tour guide on this bus to Stonehenge and Bath is very well-read and scholarly, and thus is palpably disappointed in our inability to recognize the things she name-checks, and stay awake on a long, warm, bus ride.  If it were in her authority to give an exam, i’m pretty sure she would.  i’d pass, but only just.
  • Instead of single cans of terrible beer for dirt cheap, now you can buy single cans of pretty decent craft beers in your corner store for a reasonable price.  This too is progress.
  • It never ceases to amaze me that the world seems to love KFC, yet in all likelihood has no concept of the whole ‘Kentucky’ thing.

19 February 2018, Iberia 3715, late enroute from LGW to MAD

  • The selection of craft beer here is amazingly different from when i was here in 2008.  Back then, my brother had a printed list of places with traditional cask ales to go hunt down.  Today, small pubs tended to have 6-12 taps at least with vastly better selection, and many casks as well.  At one beer focused pub near where we were staying, the bartender ironically lamented that he would only drink one or two of what they had, noting he preferred Foster’s at a “proper boozer” at home in South London. For all that, most of what’s on offer is tasty, even if still gentler and less alcoholic than what we typically drink at home. And the atmosphere in a good pub is still pretty hard to beat.
  • A bad one, on the other hand… on Saturday night we got dinner in a pub near Victoria, which was still serving food as the full moon was surely turning people mad.  How else to explain the three bouncers patrolling the interior and the plastic pint glasses.
  • Even though we needed two of them at times, there were some journeys that were better accomplished via cab, given that the lengthy hikes and numerous stairs to change trains were taking their toll.  Over a couple days, i had to get used to the idea that unlike at home, you didn’t have to make things easier for your driver, or assume that they might not know what you were talking about. The Knowledge is very real indeed, and coupled with the general friendly, chatty demeanor and entirely reasonable prices, it makes you wonder if Uber and Lyft wouldn’t be so ascendant back home if the incumbent service didn’t suck so very much.
  • The main impression i got of Stonehenge (which was very cool, and the people who maintain it have done an excellent job of giving people a good experience of visiting it) is that every single person visiting would really wish they had a moment alone with it. Not even just for photos, more that your mental image of the place doesn’t include other people, so why do they persist in being there?
  • In 2000 when i first visited England, the London Eye was brand new, so was the Millennium Dome and the Jubilee Line; it’s hard to think of any of that as being around 20 years old at this point, but there’s all manner of rich stuff and wacky architecture, sprouted since.  Change feels glacial when you live in a place for that period of time, but when you let a decade elapse, it feels like a sudden difference.
  • Why is it that Londoners still can’t achieve any kind of consensus on what side of any passage, sidewalk, or path to walk on.  The Tube often has signage posted for this very reason, but it’s badly needed, like, everywhere.  Without the threat of an actual crash as on roads, everybody seemingly feels free to adopt their own convention, and it’s madness.
  • This plane is roasting, which is the typical punishment for wearing your heaviest clothes so as not to pack them. Iberia’s ‘Express’ service is just terrible, in that it closely replicates the experience of sitting in an obstructed view grandstand seat that punishes your knees on a hot day in July.  Somewhere in Florida, i’ll just make the assumption that the Sox are stinking it up right now.
  • After visiting the Roman baths in Bath, which were 8m below ground level, i find myself wondering more about just how ground level gets buried.  We’ve heard about this in a few places, after all.  In Seattle, for instance, it was a massive civil engineering project in frontier times.  And i’m sure that elsewhere there are old cities with more crap buried deeper underneath.  But i kinda wonder who makes the decision to bury rather than tear down.  Is it just that eight buildings worth of rubble sit under your feet and the road rises at the same pace?  Because it’s hard to picture someone ever burying my house.  Although they’ll have to at some point, i guess, unless they want it to be water.
  • Bath seems like a perfect little theme park for adults.  Charming streets, historical significance, beautiful scenery, shopping and eating, neatly contained in impeccably themed little neighborhoods.
  • The elder child is enjoying life in Spain, but may have had her opinion of beer permanently damaged because her friends all drink Mahou.  i think i’ve said it before, but i’m pretty sure it’s the worst European beer i’ve ever had.
  • News from home: Maybe 24hrs after we dropped her off, my mom already had the cat sitting there purring next to her.  This is decidedly different from the first week she lived with the girl and i, he says, fondly remembering extracting her from under the dishwasher.
  • London remains utterly inexhaustible; i sincerely regret not visiting more often, especially now that flights are cheaper.  The very day before we leave, there are already places we’d want to come back to and eat and see and walk and relax.  Maybe on a weekend where there’s a soccer match to watch, too.  Even riding the tour buses and boats as a mode of transportation was educational and informative, and a fun and different perspective from things i was used to seeing on foot.
  • Not that my better half isn’t looking at her step count and lamenting it, of course.
  • This was among the worst airbnbs we’d ever stayed at. Dirty sheets for the spare beds, trickling, 28.8k speed internet. scant, lukewarm shower water and creaky, thin mattresses. It photographed so well, and the reviews were positive, but oh well. In any event, there were two bathrooms, sleeping for six, no stairs, and in a central neighborhood, and four nights of three rooms in central London would have bankrupted us.

22 February 2018, Alitalia 61 over Spain

  • Well, we were concerned that visiting Madrid a second time in two years would leave us short of things to do for a couple days, but it did not turn out that way.
  • It is important, before commencing a trip, to obtain agreement that it shall be a No Hospital Trip.  Alas, i did not live up to quite the letter of that, and lo and behold, we have not gone to a hospital, but we have obtained a house call, and visited three pharmacies. We learned the Spanish terms for some very unexpected things indeed, and one of our party barely left the apartment for maybe an hour over the course of three days.
  • It was fortunate, then, that this was one of the nicest airbnbs we’ve stayed at, ever.  Big and comfortable, clean, with, unadvertised outdoor space.  Big, comfortable beds, a nice kitchen, and lots of room to spread out.  The upside of the modern, impersonal host, a vacation-rental service that just uses airbnb to fill days, it was a hotel-quality apartment for cheap.  The downside is, we left them lots of good supplies that they won’t even use, probably, because they aren’t even real people.
  • And the location; two blocks from Sol, a crosswalk and a passage from Plaza Mayor, around the corner from three famous places to eat.  It’s not always that we get to stay as centrally in another city as we live in our own.
  • Just like last time, we found Madrid to be terribly easy to walk around, and extremely pleasant, even in the mild winter.  The Buen Retiro park was full of people soaking up the warm sun on a late Tuesday afternoon, and the pond and colonnade there are a ridiculously nice place to sit.  A mediocre saxophonist and genial drunk guy dancing and selling beer (he asked me where i was from, and hearing ‘Estados Unidos’, started belting out, ‘Tromp! Tromp!’ and pointing at me while i protested) were ample entertainment until chased away by the ubiquitous police.
  • They really, really like junkfood in Spain and boy are they good at it.  Donuts, pastries, cakes, cookies, churros in chocolate, they’re available everywhere and dirt cheap.  The store-brand cookies and snack cakes are astonishingly good for as little as €0.70.
  • Not that the real food is any healthier, and even the tapas portions are formidable.  Patatas, croquetas, bread and cheese and meat, the staples, but also fried, breaded steak, roasted candied peppers, tiny dry-aged beef burritos.
  • None of this impresses the teenager, who has eaten sushi four times on this trip, and annihilated numerous of my aforementioned cookies, leaving the customary wrappers behind (or better still, just one cookie).
  • Her attention or lack of same to the wonders around us immediately fills me with sympathy/guilt for my parents’ situation on similar trips.  Were our brains elsewhere, were we wishing for stupid crap from home while being out somewhere amazing?  Were we straining at the leash wishing we could explore these places in our own way?  i know the answer to that is yes.  So it’s eye rolls and frustration (And mocking.  Always mocking.), but also realization that it’s normal.  And that hopefully she’ll be glad for a few of these dorky photos someday.

26 February 2018 TAP 837, Gate D6, Fiumicino Airport, Italy

  • We’re ticking through the last 60 minutes of our 2:55 connection time in Lisbon.  See above, we remain in Italy, where, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean, it has snowed about 2” during the five hours of sleep we got.  Suffice it to say, they are not accustomed to it.  The deicing is proceeding at a properly Italian pace, but insofar as the pilot is rummaging through the galley for snacks right now, i don’t think the runway is open yet.  Bom dia to us.
  • Oh look, right after i say that, we suddenly push back. Well, it wouldn’t be any fun if we’re decisively fucked.  Now we get to fight for our way home.

A short while later, enroute.

  • We knew we were in trouble when we got through check-in and security so easily, that there was no way we wouldn’t pay a price for that.
  • So, Rome. In 11 years since i last visited, a few things have changed for the better, but fundamentally, not too much is different.  For instance:
    • Even remembering back to my time in Italy in NROTC in 1996, i remember being shocked to spend the equivalent of $3 (in lira, at the time) on a can of Coke.  It’s possible to spend as much as €6 now in restaurants in tourist areas.  The worse news is, back then beer was cheaper than a soft drink, and now it’s at least the same cost. It’s still meh.
    • In 2007, when Suz and i went to Rome, it rained the entire trip, to the point where we were using the hotel hair dry to rehab our shoes for the next day (nb: there is no way for this not to smell bad, and it is never going to achieve dry).  We had ‘fond’ memories of ubiquitous pushy umbrella salesmen.  Fast forward to 2018, when it rained on us all but one morning, and the umbrella salesmen are unchanged.  As soon as they see you without one (this time, i had one, but twice the teenager left hers behind, so i gave mine up), they just descend on you, step into your path, and do their thing.  i think the best part of it is the way they interpose themselves between you and your destination, fan out their wares like the dinosaur in the Jeep in ‘Jurassic Park’, and look at you in disbelief when you decline their offer of ‘umbrelli’ (‘umbrelli!’).  Like, it’s obvious you’re getting wet, why on earth aren’t you buying this from me?
    • The sheer numbers of tourists, even in the off-season are staggering, still.  Shepherding a group through the mobs around the most popular spots is a challenge.  And let’s not forget their behavior, either; pushing and shoving, stopping the world for your elaborately posed photo, just as it was in Barcelona two years ago.  i don’t remember people blowing off the “silence” request in the Sistine Chapel back in 2007, though.  Maybe we’re all getting worse. Or maybe i shouldn’t talk.
  • On the bright side, eating well in Rome means eating well indeed.  Assuming you’re not somewhere with truly jacked up prices, and that you’re hungry, getting into the multi-course dinner mode can be fun. And the local food is heavy on the ricotta, pork, and veal, too.  Pork cheek in your carbonara (apparently this is most correct, and most typical) is a very good thing.
  • Considerably more of the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum were open and explorable than was the case eleven years ago.  It really changes your perspective on the Colosseum, for instance, to be down low and see the walls and stands so high above; it correlates it so much better with your experience of modern stadia that way.  And seeing the foundations and remains of the Forum area at ground level and then from above really helps you picture it so many years ago as a city recognizable in ways similar to your own; agglomerations of buildings piled on one another in disorganized, but functional ways, natural gathering places, streets, places grand and mundane.  It’s like one of those cheesy computer-rendered recreations from documentaries, but you’re making it up as you go along. It makes you want to learn more.  Also, to play Civ on the flight home; i’m coming for you, Gandhi.
  • While i had appreciated that there were pockets of other ruins outside the major sites, i don’t know if we really looked for them, before.  The other night as the girl and i had some time on our own and an urge to pad our steps, we sought out promising-looking dots on my map, and found really big, even spectacular old structures and pieces of things.  Just sitting there, or in some cases, improbably incorporated into modern structures.  Like, the first four floors are an arched, round wall of a Roman theater, and the fifth is someone’s apartment.  With lights on. Makes me wish i looked for that on airbnb.
  • In keeping with tradition, one of our days was rearranged by a large protest.  Against fascism, in this case, which manages to qualify as refreshing in this wonderful day and age.
  • In crowds, the pointy bits of everyone’s umbrella are right at my eye height.
  • After spending a decent amount of time looking at Catholic art, it dawned on me that it was all a lot more fun if you pictured the scenes as part of some sort of beer commercial.

    IMG_4292
    “I’m back! And I brought the Bud Light!”
  • Given that some of our party (not the teenager, whose opinions don’t count) didn’t have the appetite for walking that we do (and that the subway wasn’t much better), we got to take a lot of taxis.  Taxis in Rome are an adventure.  In the best case, they merely drive like maniacs, weaving through busy streets and circles, and accelerating at pedestrians in so many cobbled back streets until they absolutely have to stop.  Beyond that, they might push a high flat rate on you, not turn the meter on, or run up the meter by taking the scenic route.  i mean, i’ve had worse experiences in taxis, obviously, but it was enough to make us wary.
  • After seeing so many little smarts driving around Rome, i dearly missed my old little car (and wondered how they survived such crappy road surfaces, considering the damage mine took here).
  • It’s common to find ‘types’ of street vendors/crap salesmen/whatever in assorted places you go. A puzzling one was the large number of chatty bead salesman who introduce themselves by asking you if you’re from Africa. Mind, they’re very black, and the tourists are overwhelmingly Asian and pasty white, so it’s a bit baffling.  Other than that they’re the usual “hey nice to meet you here’s a gift, that’ll be €7” gag.
  • Do all Europeans have as little regard for their tap water at home as they do in restaurants?

27 February 2018, Home.  In closing:

  • We did indeed make it home.  At full speed, i ran across the airport in Lisbon to make sure they knew we were coming, but it turns out they were on the lookout for people from delayed flights like ours.  At work this morning, people had seen reports on the news of Europeans surprised by atypical snow, so apparently it was some kind of a big deal.
  • Number of postcards sent: 17
  • Trips on subways: 8
  • Trips in taxis: 11
  • Trips on a boat: 1
  • Pubs: 3
  • Tapas dishes: 18
  • Gelato: 2
  • Number of times the teenager contrived to eat sushi in countries that weren’t Japan: 4
  • This may be my beloved messenger bag’s last big trip, considering my better half’s very serious demands that i replace it.  Admittedly, Rome was too stern a test of its waning waterproofness, and there are massive rips in the outer fabric.  And it’s filthy.  But it’s been to five continents, dozens of countries, and a majority of the fifty states, been soaked by three oceans, gone to two World Cups, and logged thousands of miles by bike and on foot.
  • Photos.

Road Trips, Expected and Otherwise

This is long.  I don’t even know why, but it was fun to write.

Normally, the girl and i do not put a lot of mileage on our car.  Neither of us drive to work, and our routine activities don’t really add up to all that much.  So it’s been a fun month for the car in that we took two ~2000-mile trips up and down the eastern seaboard.  For reasons.

One of these was planned a long time ago, the new and improved summer version of my side of the family’s every-two-years Thanksgiving conclave.  A giant house with everything you could want, with the Outer Banks beaches as its backyard beckoned for a week of slacking off and drinking a ton of beer.  With enough beer, even i probably would like the beach more.

To North Carolina

We set off from Boston on a Friday afternoon and made fine time toward our halfway point in coastal Delaware.  Somewhere near the ironically named Walt Whitman service area on the New Jersey Turnpike, texts start flooding in.  About this.  First we figure we’ll just improvise, as it’s just a power outage.  Buy a lot of ice, plan on perspiring more and altering our grocery plans.  My mom, already in a motel for the night, stocked up on flashlights, because dealing with situations like this is her superpower.  A half-hour further down the road, and the text messages changed further.  Now it was an evacuation, destined to be a long one.  Now my mom’s working magic on her iPad, and suddenly several cars worth of us are all making a right turn and heading west.  As shown.

There’s no booking alternate accommodations on the beach in the summer for 14 people on zero notice, probably not for any amount of money.  Thus did we find ourselves still in North Carolina, but in the mountains of Asheville.  Specifically in a golf/aviation (yes, really) resort on top of a mountain.  So anyway, this is a change of plans, and we packed wrong for it, bought the wrong liquor for it, etc., but we are resourceful people.

Some things we learned:

  • Fuck golf resorts.  We rented a nice house in a nice, but not busy golf resort, with a clubhouse on top of the mountain with gobsmackingly nice views.  It even had a bar!  An empty bar with reasonably priced drinks!  Seemingly begging for well-behaved lushes like ourselves to exchange money for said drinks!  But they don’t take money, they start by asking for a $25 resort fee.  Per day.  Per adult.  Then you can pay for your drinks.  Perfectly engineered to keep the merely comfortable away from the actual 1%, ’cause while i can afford that, fuck you for asking.  Also golf, as typically practiced, is dumb and a waste of human effort.
  • There must be something in the water (or the tax breaks) in Asheville, as three different west coast breweries have branches in the area, as well as numerous homegrown ones.  So much cheap beer to drink in so many places.
  • The fact that there’s a US Forest Service-run natural rock waterslide that you can go play on for $2 is kind of amazing.
  • The Biltmore Estate is pretty cool (once we realized it was a thing you might go see in the area).  It is impressively large, but it’s telling that the thing that’s most often mentioned is how many rooms it has, it’s so impressively subdivided.  As the girl noted, it’s almost like it’s half mansion, half hotel.  And more than half park.
  • This part of North Carolina somehow has butterflies like we have mosquitoes.

To the Middle of Nowhere

After that (also, quality family time, including indoctrinating both my octogenarian great-aunt and my six-year-old nephew into playing ruthless games of Asshole), the girl had another quest for the ride home.  There’s a state park in northern Pennsylvania renowned for the darkest night skies east of the Mississippi, so she figured we should go chase the Milky Way.

One corollary to there being dark skies, which we quickly picked up upon, is remoteness.  Cherry Springs State Park is something like ninety minutes north of I-80.  About 20 minutes into that, we began to appreciate that there would be many closed gas stations between us and our destination, but maybe no open ones.  We backtracked and filled up, and were proven right.

This is well and truly Real America we’re driving through now; ‘towns’ that consist of six ramshackle houses, maybe three with any signs of life, but most with at least four cars (or what used to be cars).  Windy, narrow roads with no speed limit posted.  A burbling stream out our window.  Bugs pelting the windshield like driving through a snow squall.  Progressively smaller roads pointed further from civilization.

Finally we find it, and sure enough, it’s plenty full, with lots of people looking up.  Unfortunately they’re looking up at a full moon (which we knew about, and knew it would set later), and a persistent haze.  We pitched the tent in the dark easily enough, and sat and had a dinner of leftover Chips Ahoy and a beer.  After nearly half a dozen times taking the girl camping, i’ve still yet to actually do it well.  Maybe it pours rain, maybe it’s cold, or maybe we’re just half-assing it on the way somewhere else.  But i swear, you can get good at it, sleep well and warm, eat good food, and enjoy a fire all night.

So we get up several times through the night and look up.  Now there are a lot of stars, far more than we city dwellers are used to.  But we also know it’s not enough.  The just-set Moon is lighting the haze enough to hide a lot of the stars. It’s still nice, though.

The next day, it’s a further 90 minutes on back roads in the middle of nowhere until we get to I-86 in New York.  Through all this, i remain suspicious at Apple Maps’ decision making, but not once is she wrong.  More on this later.

To the Beach, For Real This Time

The girl was, to put it mildly, disappointed to have missed out on a week on the Outer Banks, as she does love the beach so.  Since we were already going to quest toward the totality of the eclipse, and this meant a lengthy drive in one or more directions, it made sense to at least rig it to stop somewhere near the water.  Thus:

As we drove south on Saturday morning, the girl was entertained in the car by play-by-play of Boston vs. Internet Nazis; even though it wasn’t a very close game, we regretted missing it.

So here’s where we started to appreciate, if not trust our telephone copilot.  Traffic bit us hard on this trip.  First, she routed us around a stopped bridge through scenic Chester, PA. Later, back roads in Delaware instead of the highways.  Sometimes it was a break-even, sometimes it was a huge savings, but we started to notice that if nothing else, these alternate routes were taking us places we maybe wouldn’t see otherwise.  Boring places, crappy places, beautiful places, but at the very least, parts of part of the country we wouldn’t have seen.  Considering how i lament road-tripping with no time to take side trips, having a computer there to generate advantageous detours really changes the experience.

In any event, we arrived at the Bay Bridge/Tunnel at sunset, which is a good time to arrive there.

So i hadn’t been back to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area since i was in NROTC as a college sophomore; i spent a month there in the summer of 1995 doing push-ups and learning about the Navy and the Marines.  Anyway, not a lot of time at the beach.  Which is nice, if you’re into beaches, but even nicer if you like seeing F-18s taking off constantly or SH-60s buzzing the coast.  The beach was just teeming with people, lounging immersed in the shallows at low tide on a hot day.  And even i like playing in the waves.

But time for business.  The eclipse being a rather fixed deadline, we needed to get within shouting distance of it that night.  This is where we started running into the fun of lane closures on weeknights on two-lane interstates.  Watching the arrival time tick up on the phone, and debating back-roads-at-night versus actual stopped traffic.

This is also where we tried Bojangles.  Listen, i am a Popeye’s devotee, having spent formative years in New Orleans, but there are people who will try to tell you Bojangles is better.  This is untrue.  Chicken’s different.  Spicier at first, maybe, and with a good flavor, but less crispy and not as much like crack.  The sides are quite good, but really my quarrel here is with the biscuits, my good sir.  i say, suh, these biscuits are not up to any comparison <slaps them with a glove>.

To the End of the World

Anyway, the following morning we get up and bounce early and start heading south.  Traffic is heavy, and frequently stopped, but not the sort of thing that will prevent us from getting to our destination.  But, as my wife the weather person reports, our intended destination of Columbia is due for 47% cloud cover.  90 minutes west, Greenville has 25%.  We ask the phone lady nicely, she refers us promptly to a narrow side road with no yellow line and no cars, and we set off west, confidently.  It wasn’t scenic, but it was easy.  We even stopped for gas and what, judging by the line, was the only convenience store with a bathroom for miles.  Maybe i made some rash decisions there.

Emerging from the woods, it turned out Greenville is a nice little college town.  We immediately take the girl to a cocktail bar with a roof deck (full, sadly) and drink a little.  Perusing the map a little showed two parks, one along the river and promising a waterfall.  And sure enough it’s just covered with people, some sitting in the water, others walking around, plenty of nerds with telescopes and shadowboxes, and high-end cameras.

This is the part where we stress heavily: There is no substitute for the actual totality of an eclipse.  

It’s impossible to describe sufficiently or do justice to with bad photos.  It looks like something you’ve seen before, but only in movies or science fiction.  Like some malevolent force has covered it over.  Or like the sun is the malevolent force just barely being held back, with the wispy, fingery corona spilling out.  It feels like a dark amusement park ride when someone accidentally turns the lights on, ironically, like some mechanism behind every day of your life has suddenly been exposed.  The two minutes passes quickly, and light spills out the other side like molten metal.

Staying in a Motel Would Be Too Easy

Now we had a day and a half to drive back to Boston, and obviously we wanted to make headway that afternoon.  The highways out of Greenville were clogged, so we got routed on surface roads, to suburban roads, to rural roads to get around them.  It wasn’t the massive gridlock that people thought might happen, but it was a big, significant movement of people the whole day.  We could tell because we were following this crazy backroads route with other cars from northern states (and in heavy traffic once we returned to the interstate, again, all people like us returning north).  Amusingly, we got within an hour of where we were in Asheville two weeks earlier.

So the plan was to camp the night in Shenandoah and close the loop by getting to see the Milky Way in the sky.  Conditions were perfect for it, but traffic meant that we reached Skyline Drive at midnight, with 25 miles to drive at 35mph, with presumed furry creatures waiting to jump in front of us at all times.  It was not awesome.

But the skies were perfect.  A nice band of the Milky Way (you know you’re looking at the right thing when you have to spend time deciding if it’s a cloud), and many orders of magnitude more stars than we get at home.  A trickle of shooting stars, even.  Getting up to take a leak at three in the morning becomes the greatest thing.

Other Stuff

  • Between the two trips we maybe ate at McDonald’s eight times, which is like, half a year’s worth for me.  It was glorious.  We also went to a Wendy’s, a Burger King, an Arby’s (not just for Jon Stewart), a Bojangles, a Dairy Queen.  No Chick-Fil-A or Hardees, obviously.
  • The girl continues to profess her love of Circle Ks, and their still-100% record on clean bathrooms.
  • Does anyone know why abandoned cars and road debris proliferate like mad as soon as you cross the Mason-Dixon line?
  • Similarly, why do people pull over into the left-side breakdown lane down there?  This is dangerous madness.
  • The further you get from Boston, the fewer Mini Countrymen you see.
  • The two trips were 4,300 miles in total.
  • There were actually very few Tr*mp stickers and signs out there in Real America.  Plenty of confederate flags, though.
  • In a line at a fast food restaurant, an older gentleman looks at the UHC logo on my Revs jersey and asks if i’m in the healthcare industry.  Polite conversation follows, we northerners squirm and wonder why.
  • After spending $28 in tolls in New Jersey alone, we again decided that Massachusetts needs to toll out-of-state-drivers better.
  • Related: Why does the rest of the country have better roads than the northeast?  Is it the snow, or is this an effect of them getting $1.37 back on their tax dollar and us getting $0.63?
  • Alas, i didn’t get to go to a megachurch this time.  Someday, though.

I know a place

The downside of having a hunger to see the world is that you do more than just see inert objects in foreign countries.  It’s visiting someone’s home; even the local-shunned tourist-trappy parts of someone’s home are still things they feel an ownership for, things they’re proud of on some level.  And you can’t visit someone’s home without getting to understand them a little, that’d just be rude.

So when i see a bomb go off on Istiklal street, i think of the disinterested people who served us crummy kebabs nearby, the bag-laden shoppers that are no different than the ones i’m used to on Newbury, and the cats in the Tunel station.

i think of that weird cafe in Brussels that seemed sketchy but fed us a nice dinner and the drunk bros that i sang along with at Anderlecht.  The smelly subway station even on a cool day.

i remember walking out the door and past the mediocre cafes and bakeries, the quotidien parade of shoppers, commuters, and schoolchildren in and around the attacked neighborhood in Paris.  The teenager that looked like he was ready to beat the hell out of one of his friends in the park.

It’s one thing to think about the postcards when you hear something bad happen in a place you’ve been.  Ironically, i’m most sad when i think about the shitty parts; the normal people that were rude to the dipshit tourist, the guy who sold me the overpriced bottle of Coke or the postal employee who snarled as i mangled her language.  People being shitty makes them more real to you, somehow, and the thought that these people are caught in tragedies is a good reminder of who’s truly an asshole.