Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Colisseum at Night, and Adventures in Pickpocketing.

April 15th - Terminal 5, Rome Airport to Hotel

We left Newcastle on time and made our second journey through Terminal 5. There was a bit of concern that we may have a long delay in security in the terminal, but once we landed, we headed through a few doors and suddenly there was one desk to check our tickets. Walk up the escalators, and there was the glory of Terminal 5. We found some snacks upstairs at Boots Pharmacy (which took us some time to get up to the second floor because apparently the escalators near there only wanted to go down), and then resumed our "Let's Watch the TV for our Gate" game from the previous week. At least we were able to sit down on some comfy chairs and watch a little TV.

The flight gate was posted, and soon enough we were off to Rome. I have to hand it to British Airways because they simply are efficient at getting people on and off planes. They actually had three check in points to get on the flight, which made getting to the plane easy. What was hard to understand was the desert playset near the gate for kids to play on, as they have foam cacti standing up, and some hills and mounds to climb. Apparently, the folks in Britain have never seen an actual desert to know that kids may not want to play with cacti. We also saw at least 2 different tour groups on our flight, as the members all had bright neck lanyards with their names on them and all of them reading very large maps of Rome. I saw this and kept thinking gee, why don't they just label themselves tourists right now??

The flight was uneventful, and the snack was even pretty good. I especially liked the milk and biscuit that BA gave you with the meal. I didn't realize that Rome's airport was so far out of town until we were near landing, and you saw a beach near one of the landing strips. We landed and soon wandered off to find the immigration station and collect our things. As we approached the line, we saw people getting grilled with questions. Seriously, the couple in front of us were there almost 7 minutes answering various questions about where they were staying, what they were doing. So girl asked me for my passport and she said, "Just follow me up." She walked up to the booth when it was our turn, said Hi and smiled really big, and flashed a bit of cleavage. I've never seen passports stamped so fast in my entire life. No questions, no comments, just stamp and go.

We collected the luggage and soon headed to catch the train to Rome. The airport at Rome is considerably louder than Heathrow, but I liked the fact that there were signs everywhere so you couldn't get too lost. We found the airport train station, paid for our tickets, and headed to the platform for the next train. Each airport train was an express into the downtown core, so there were no stops between to worry about. Once the train arrived, we hurried to find a spot to sit, stow our bags, and relax.

The train suddenly got filled up, and soon people were standing in the aisle, trying to find any available spot to stow their gear. The fact that it was very humid there didn't help things as the train went from nice and comfortable to stuffy and crowded. I was listening to the various conversation, trying to pick up a little Italian and it was a bit difficult with the background noise. Studying Spanish, I was expecting similar speech patterns and emphasis, but really it wasn't the same. However, the more intense conversations were loud and got louder as we moved along, so after a while, I was picking up words here and there. Rome is really spread out, reminding me a lot of Seattle to the north. There's also graffiti everywhere, and some of it is rather impressive. I could see some of these folks taking their work to a museum, it's that good. You also saw billboards everywhere, it was almost as if every open space needed to be filled with something.

We pulled into the station, and soon were off to find our hotel. We had planned a route before we left the train, so it wouldn't be necessary to pull out a map while walking. A few blocks down, take a left and keep walking. Well, the street the hotel was on actually had three names - Via Torino, Via Napoleon III and Via Principe Eugenio. It took us a few minutes and some great directional skills by girl to realize this as we tried to find our hotel because it was a lot farther than we thought. The hotel didn't have a sign on the outside, we were simply trying to find a specific address and then contact the innkeeper to let us in. We had already spoken to him by phone on the train, to notify him we were running late. His English was Ok, but a bit spotty during the call. We finally found the place, we were buzzed in and walked up a windy flight of stairs to Momi.

It's essentially a flat that has been subdivided into three hotel rooms, with a small kitchen common area and the innkeeper's room. Alessandro met us at the door, and led us to our room. As is custom there, you can view the room first before agreeing to stay there, so we looked around and it was very close to the pictures we'd seen online. Alessandro pointed out some of the features of the hotel, gave us a map with some great recommendations, and our muddled English and Italian meshed pretty well. We paid for the room, and settled in for a bit before heading out on exploration.

Girl had been to Rome before, so she knew the basic layout of things. After unpacking a bit and checking out the room, we ventured out for the Colosseum. Rome doesn't have many straight roads, so we moved back and forth until we hit a major road that started moving west. And then suddenly as the sun was starting to set a bit, I got a look at the Colosseum from afar. Girl looked at me and smiled, saying "Blew your mind, huh?" Yup, it wasn't anything like I expected, and even the pictures don't do it justice.

To think that people were at this point over 3000 years before you, and this thing is still standing is amazing to consider. It was truly wonderful to see, but then we encountered some of the local merchants there. Ok, merchant isn't the right word, but there are sidewalk vendors everywhere at the key sites trying to sell you little overpriced trinkets. I was warned to keep my hands in my pocket and wallet hidden, so I was prepared to face them with a strong NO and kept walking. We saw the Arch De Tito, and then headed up towards Via Cavour, which apparently has a lot of shops and restaurants about. We found a little market/deli a few blocks up, and decided to give it a try. The pizza looked great, and most of the customers were speaking Italian. My mangled attempt to ask for pizza in Italian was met with a smile and some simple English phrases. We grabbed some water, limoncello (lemon liquor), pizza, and headed back to our hotel. We did overshoot our road a bit, because as I also learned after the fact is that Rome puts their street signs on the side of buildings and Torino wasn't as well marked as we thought. As we settled in with our pizza at the room, it was still warm and very tasty. Just cheese, sauce, a bit of meat and bread, but somehow it just tastes better here. We looked about on TV for the weather for tomorrow, and went to bed ready to tackle things for the next day.

April 16th - Sights, Sights and More Sights

One of the rules about our hotel was breakfast was from 8 AM to 10 AM, and that you needed to leave the room at 10:30 AM for cleaning. Breakfasts in Italy consist of some fruit, pastries, and coffee, and our hotel had all of that included with the price. What I had noticed the previous night and girl had explained is that people eat breakfast, places are open for lunch, and then a lot of places close for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta, then reopen for dinner and stay open late. Loading up on food, we decide to hit some of the major sights of Rome in a walking path past the Colosseum, then up to the Pantheon and sights near there.

The Colosseum was even more impressive in the day, and the annoyance of the vendors was compounded by people asking me if I spoke English and wanted a tour. As much as we tried to walk in a straight line, it was difficult with piles of people standing about, cobblestones not being all that flat so you moved a bit back and forth, and the avoidance of people wanting money or to give you a tour. I got a little headache from all this attention, but following the simple rule of saying NO and using some Frogger moves, we negotiated through traffic and headed to the Pantheon.

To think this was the hub of commerce so many years ago was mind boggling, and it's as busy now as it was then. The only downside to the Pantheon was the McDonalds 50 yards from the entrance. Apparently, they have to be everywhere, and the crowd in the restaurant was mostly tourists looking for some familiar food. We went inside the Pantheon, and saw the chapel inside. Simply amazing stuff to see, especially the artwork around the altar. We sat for a bit and just gazed at the art. Soon it was off to Trevi Fountain, which was crazy busy with vendors and tourists, but it was a sight to behold. The water drops felt pretty good on a day that was getting pretty warm, and the statues near the water were dazzling. Then it was off to the Spanish Steps for some pictures and a bit of a rest but no climbing, and then finally to the Piazza Del Popolo. Each place was amazing to see, although the vendors were everywhere and simply annoying.

We sat at the Piazza for a bit to take in some sun and just chill. One thing we noticed about the Italians was that even on a very nice sunny day in the 80's, many of them were in jackets and scarves. We stood out a bit away from the natives because of this, but since we had maps hidden and my camera was in my pocket most of the time, we didn't look like traditional tourists. But since we stood out, we became a target for a female pickpocket. I was sitting next to girl when suddenly I saw another gal with a jacket and large bag sit to my left and then move close to me. I wondered what she was up to, and as I got up to move, I felt her hand touch my back right pocket on my jeans while she was putting on her jacket. She apologized for touching me, but I figured out she was looking for my wallet, which was conveniently hidden in my front pocket. However, if she wanted kleenex, hey, I was ready there. Girl and I had been fighting a bit of a cold leaving England, mostly from lack of sleep and feeling a bit dehydrated, so I was blowing my nose a lot in this drier climate. After the pickpocket failed at getting something from me, she immediately moved next to girl, and we got up and left to find food. I was impressed that I had foiled the pickpocket's attempt to get monies, mostly because I was paying attention. Well, at least at that point anyway.

Rome doesn't have a lot of public toilets, so it soon became an adventure to find a place to go, but we found a cafeteria that had public toilets after some searching. The food, however, looked horrible, so we instead went back to the same market from the previous night to try more of their wares. We found the most amazing sandwiches available, relatively cheaply, so we grabbed them on the run with some water, and headed back to our hotel. Overall, the day was about 7 miles of walking, but I thought we had broken it up pretty well with stops and such. I could tell that my feet were hurting a bit, and I could tell that girl's feet were starting to bug her too, as she found some band aids to take care of a few blisters. But hey, we saw some amazing stuff and this was only really day one in Rome. As we tried to find some TV that was remotely understandable, we ate and chilled. Apparently, Italians love game shows and American shows dubbed in Italian. I can now say that I've seen Walker Texas Ranger in Italian, and it makes a lot more sense in Italian than it ever did over here.

Next time - Seeing the Forum Up Close, and Visiting the Pope's House.

Monday, May 26, 2008

It's F***ing Cold Out Here, But These Guys are Really Nice, and Saying Goodbye to our time in Seaham.

April 14th - Seaham and around Sunderland.

Monday had always been a play it by ear day for us in our honeymoon travels up north, because nothing really was planned for that day. We had talked about taking the train to Scotland, going up into Sunderland and seeing more of the city, heading to the outlet mall for part of the day, or just chilling about in town. Gary had mentioned that because of the loss on Saturday there would probably be practice on Monday, and it might be fun to go check it out. We thought sure, but he did tell us that we'd get a chance to lie in for a bit.

The lie in lasted until about 9:00 AM when we were awaken by a knock at the door. Gary had called the hotel to tell us that practice was indeed on for the morning, and he'd be here about 10 AM for us to head up there. So we scrambled about to find some clothes and get dressed, and then Gary was indeed here at 10 AM to head up to the practice area.

If you drive through Sunderland and keep heading north until you are about the edge of Sunderland, there's the practice facility. Actually, it's in the town north of there, and it's a fairly nice area of fields with a large building right in the middle. We parked our car to the far north park of the area, and took some trails to meet up with the main field. While driving up there, the weather had gone from sunny with a little wind to clouds and a bit of a drizzle and wind like we have here on the eastside of Portland. I had dressed in my colors, jacket and scarf, and I could have used another layer as well. We walked past the main building on campus, where we saw a small pool and a couple of water jet pools for therapy. Apparently, they have a full clubhouse there, complete with a cafeteria, recreation room, large TV room, and other things for the guys to relax with after training to help the team chemistry.

As we walked closer to the field, we saw the players parking lot, and you could tell we were dealing with EPL players as there were BMWs, Audis, a few SUVs, but everything there was brand new and very sparkly. The players were on the far south field doing drills and playing a game called two touch, where you could touch the ball twice and then you had to pass or shoot. The keepers were off to a field on the left doing agility drills and passing drills. It seemed very efficient as coaches were barking orders and then players would follow the request quickly without any words. It was quiet except for the wind and the occasional comments from about 20 of us there. Gary had said if the weather was nice, there would be hundreds of folks there but not today.

After about an hour, the guys were done and started heading off the pitch. Gary had a autograph book and he borrowed my camera to get some pictures, and next thing I know, Michael Chopra was standing next to me as Gary shot a picture. As guys walked past us, Gary said we were on our honeymoon and could we get pictures. And many of the guys stopped and chatted with us for a bit while we got pictures. I found Kenwyn Jones hysterically funny, especially after we told him how far we'd came to see the match. Nyron was still slightly miffed at the penalty call from Saturday, but I saw determination from him to play well next week. Craig Gordon chatted with us for a bit, and wished us a good rest of our holiday. What was amazing is that as we chatted with them, they were very nice and thanked us for coming, especially after knowing the great distance we'd came. They signed a few shirts for some folks near us, but we were the only ones to get pictures with them. I felt really honored to have them talk with girl and I, and at that point, the sleepiness, wind, rain and cold didn't matter.

We wandered back to the car, and headed further north towards Cleadon and found an Italian restaurant near the practice area that many players visit. Gary had eaten there many times, and of course, knew the owner when we walked in. About 5 minutes after we were seated, one of the Sunderland players, Ross Wallace, came into eat with his family. We ate massive amounts of really good food, drank a little bit, warmed up from the cold, and generally filled up. We had also found our first copy of the Sunderland Echo, and on page 3, we found the article that was published about our trip. Overall, I was pleased at the pictures and most of the text, but the article did make it sound like I had convinced girl to blow off Rome for Sunderland, and really that wasn't the case. We decided to make a few stops on our trip, and Sunderland was our first destination to meet up with my friends that now are girl's friends as well. They showed us an amazing time, and I won't forget it ever.

We headed back to Seaham, where we got a few more copies of the Echo, and then set up plans for the afternoon and evening. Paul had dropped by to get us access to a computer at the Seaham library, and so we were able to check email, post on our board things we'd done, and generally get caught up on things back in Portland. The Chelsea -Wigan match was on later, so girl and I decided to head to the hotel to pack up and get prepared for our flight the next day, then come to Gary's later for the match.

Paul wandered back to town with us and soon we found a store for some treats on the plane flight. We found an amazing candy store in town (Somerfelds), and loaded up on lots of snacks that Paul sprung for. He also asked us about Tootsie Rolls, which have never been available there and he'd heard it was the most disgusting candy ever. We will have to make sure he tests this theory sometime. We packed our stuff, keeping with the one bag per person restriction. While you can have two bags going from the US to the UK, we could only have one bag up to Newcastle and to Rome, so we were doing some rather creative packing to get everything in. The gifts we got were all packed in clothes and scarves, and we got everything in our luggage.

After a final meal in the Harbour View, we headed down to watch the match at Gary's and have a few drinks. The match was actually pretty close, with Chelsea needing points to catch Manchester United in the title race. Chelsea got a goal in the second half, and seemed on their way to winning, but Wigan got a late goal in stoppage time to get a draw, and severely dent their title hopes. This would be something we'd have to keep an eye on. We decided to call it an early night, because Oddie, girl and I all had early flights on Tuesday, so we left Gary's to walk back to the hotel. We had said some goodbyes to the staff, and wandered up the stairs for a good night's rest. I was sad to see this part of our trip end, because it was amazing to see everyone again and be treated so well. But also knowing how much trouble Gary had gone through to do things for us, despite some medical issues he'd been dealing with. He was the very good host, and made our trip most amazing. Honestly, now that girl has experienced the northern hospitality, we will have to come back again to say hi. I mean, hey, we're members of the Scout Club!!

April 15th - Flight to Rome

We woke up on time, but honestly sleep wasn't all that good. I had a telemarketer call my cell phone at 3 AM to pitch some cell plan or something, and I politely told him to fuck off as it was 3 AM in England. The alarm rang at 5 AM, and we picked up our last things and hauled our bags downstairs. Gary and Oddie were waiting for us, and we filled his car and headed to the airport. We reminisced about things that occurred, but mostly, it was time to reflect at the whirlwind that was 5 days north.

We said goodbye to Gary and it was sad to finally say cheers. He had done so much for us, and all I could do was say thanks and see you very soon. I know that at some point he'll be back here or girl and I will head back to England, but the friends we've made up north are some of the most amazing folks about. We immediately headed to British Airways to check in for our flight to Rome, and had to wait for a few minutes before we could officially check in. After completing that and dropping off our bags, we whisked through security and found some snacks. Knowing that the waiting area for all flights was at one place, we waited for Oddie to check in and meet us there, but apparently he had some issues negotiating through the airport labyrinth. We did get to say goodbye to our newest friend, and we have an invite to come to Norway at some point, which might be a fun trip indeed.

As we settled into our seat, it was time to head back to Terminal 5 and then to our second leg of our trip, Rome. And I couldn't wait for what adventures awaited us in Italy.

Next time - The Colisseum at Night, and Adventures in Pickpocketing.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How Many More Stairs are there? And Do Vikings Always Smell this bad?

April 13 - York

I'm shocked we even made it up after all the alcohol we consumed. I did smell the burnt kit a little in the corner of the room, but in waking up, all I wanted to do was make my head stop hurting. It was about 9:00 AM and we were expecting Gary about 10 AM to head to York. I tried to gulp through some water and yogurt, and after a quick shower and girl getting ready, Gary and Oddie were at our door ready to go at 10. Gary didn't seem like he was hurting that bad, but it could have just been an act. We hopped in the car, and prepared for our journey south.

York UK is about an hour and a half south of Seaham, and has a unique history amongst British cities. Occupied through the ages by Romans, Saxons and Vikings, the city is home to a wealth of buildings, museums and medieval streets, even having a wall surround major portions of the city. As we head south of town, we pass by Middlesborough, which I didn't realize was this close to Sunderland. But yes, while Newcastle and Sunderland are bitter rivals, there is rivalry with the folks in Middlesborough as well. The sun is trying to poke out, but instead we are greeting with drizzle and clouds that get thicker as we head further south. The weather actually reminds me a lot of home, so I don't mind it at all.

We arrive in York about 11:30 and park near one of the wall sections just near the river Ouse and we walk near the banks. There is a water front, but even today, the water is fairly close to the top of sidewalk. Gary soon points out a pub near one of the bridges that is famous for being flooded every spring, sometimes even two to three times a year. We walk on top of one of the castle walls for a bit, then head to the National Railway Museum. Rail travel is huge in Britain, and this museum shows trains from various lines in Britain, Europe, and even Japan. I have always enjoyed riding the train, as it seems a very relaxed way to travel. Admittedly it's easier to set up train lines when your country is about the size of Oregon total, but it was fascinating to see them all. Even one of the trains the Queen used was showing there.

We then caught a mini-train from the museum into downtown York just near the York Minster. It's the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. The place is immense, full of statues, altars, and stained glass work almost 300 feet tall, and yet, it's quiet as people respect the sacred nature of the place. We took a self guided museum tour in the basement, learning about the history of the cathedral, and then wandered around more artwork that I'd seen up to this point. Our ticket also allowed us to climb to the top of the cathedral tower, so we thought why not? The allowed people up every half an hour, and said you must be in good shape to climb to the top.

Ok, to say the stairway was narrow was an understatement. It was a windy circular staircase with a diameter of about 4 feet and you could really only see about 5 to 10 feet ahead because of it being circular. And it is 280 steps to the top, with a bit of a break about half way up to walk along the top of the cathedral. I'm not entirely sure what force allowed us to climb to the top, but I've never seen 4 people so relieved to be at the top of anything than when we hit the final steps. You could see for miles, and that isn't an understatement. We saw their football ground, most of the wall stretching about the city, and thousands of homes and roads. Truly a breath taking sight, and I'm glad we made it up there. And yes, going down was a bit easier, but I was afraid of tripping while climbing down. Needless to say, my shoelaces were double knotted to avoid an issue.

We climbed to the bottom, and then headed into the main streets of York to see the shops. There was a lot of bustle about town, as the rain had let up a bit and the sun was actually out for a while. We decided to head more towards the Jorvik Viking center to see what that is all about. While walking towards there, one of the store fronts had a very freaky clown picture in the window. While I avoided most eye contact with it, girl saw it and in her attempt to avoid the offending picture, ran into a pole barrier near a crosswalk. It seemed to hurt her a bit, but she shook it off and we arrived at the Jorvik Center. York was occupied by Vikings for a while, and there's lots of their heritage left in town. The tour consisted of going into a room that looked like something from Forbidden Planet, seeing some video about time traveling to Viking times, and then being taken to a ride to show what York was like in viking times, showing the commerce, people, pets, and displaying the clothes, food, smells, and houses. Yes, folks, somehow they determined what Vikings smelled like and it's about as bad as Barnacle after a chili bender. But again, it was great to see the history of the town.

We headed towards our car since it was getting close to 5 PM, and we stopped for a quick bite at Greggs' before heading back to our car. Gary had said that Sundays they usually ordered out for Chinese, and so we were invited to stay for food and some telly when we got back. The trip back didn't seem all that long, but that could have been cause I slept through most of it. But feeling a bit more rested, we arrived at the house and ordered some Chinese food. It was actually really good and authentic, and for what we ordered it took about 15 minutes to arrive which was impressive. And I managed to eat a lot of food, which was necessary to soak up any remaining booze. After eating and some telly, Gary mentioned a pub near there that does karaoke on Sundays hosted by a friend of his. Our original plan was to be his guests at the karaoke night he hosts on Saturdays in town, but Robbie was here so we went with plan B. We headed up there after Paul had joined up for some singing.

Mind you, I have a rather terrible singing voice even with my mom being a trained singer. I just never inherited the singing gene, but girl on the other hand had some skills. She won a few singing awards back in her younger days, so she has some chops. We arrive and get a pint, and pore through the song book for choices. Gary's friend said he had more songs than what was in the book, so we perused and perused. Gary sang a few of his standards, and he has a very nice voice. Then, girl decided on a Tori Amos song, and really did a great job with it. Tori is an amazing artist, but some of her songs the notes are all over and girl kept up rather nicely. I, on the other hand, butchered I'm Too Sexy in a mumbly, chanting, German thing that was just not that good. But I didn't care cause I told myself I would sing and if it was bad so be it. Paul took on a difficult tune, but knocked it out of the park. The karaoke shut down at about 10:30 PM, so we were soon heading back towards Gary's house. The Monday plan was sort of up in the air at this time, not knowing if we were just going to hang out in town or see if Sunderland was practicing and go watch them. But as we left the house, Gary said that we could lie in for a bit, and to check in with him in the morning.

Girl and I stayed up for a bit watching TV and just talking about the events we'd seen so far, and up to this point, it was a truly amazing time. We'd managed to squeeze in a lot of things to do and see, but we wouldn't have changed it for anything. My head hit the pillow late, and I nodded off to thoughts about what our next adventure might be.

Next Time - It's Fucking Cold Out Here, But These Guys are Really Nice, and Saying Goodbye to our time in Seaham.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Match Day, Interview, Party with Robbie, and Destruction By Fire.

April 12th - Match Day

After drinking and dancing until very late, I knew getting up on Saturday would be a struggle, and when my cell phone alarm rang at 8:30 AM, I came face to face with reality. Either it was wake up and get a full english or doze off for a bit, get some rest and eat a bit later. We were told the previous night that a reporter from the Sunderland Echo wanted to talk with girl and I Saturday before the match, and that he'd be coming to our hotel to talk with us at 11:30 AM. So I turned off the phone, rolled over and slept for a bit longer. After waking up and showering, I headed to the store for some quick provisions while girl got ready. We ate a concoction of biscuits and Reese's Pieces that we invented (very peanut buttery and crunchy) and had some tea, and made our way downstairs with a few minutes to spare.

Gary and Oddie were waiting for us, and we got the details of our tickets, upper West Corner in second deck but you can see everything. Gary also said he hadn't heard from the reporter, but we'd give it a few until we needed to leave. At noon, we wandered out to the car as the reporter was a no show. But knowing deadlines, I had a feeling that we'd hear something. One of their photographers had gotten a few pictures during our reception, so we knew they were looking into our story. As Gary pulled out of the parking area, his cell phone rang and sure enough, it was the reporter. A few comments from Gary, and soon I was chatting with the guy. He asked me about the Timbers Army, why I'd drag my wife half way across the world for a football match, and how passionate are our fans. I gave him some great details about us, and then the question I fully expected him to ask - how does your wife feel about it? I said, she's a football fan so she doesn't mind at all, and said you can talk with her to verify. Girl chatted with him for a few moments, and then the phone was passed to Gary. Since they knew we were leaving on Tuesday, they would try to get the story in the Echo on Monday. A photographer would meet us at the match for some additional photos, and we should be good. So then we were off to the Stadium of Light.

It only took about 25 minutes to get there, and the Stadium is still a breath taking site. Built on some old coal mines in the area, you can see the structure for miles around. We arrived about 2 1/2 hours before game time, so we found a little food and wandered outside the stadium. The wind was a bit brisk, keeping the temperatures down and us in jackets, but the sun was trying to peak out a bit. We soon visited the stadium shop, and I purchased a few things for back home. We then watched as Gary went to the ticket office to collect his tickets for their upcoming match versus Newcastle, their fiercest rival the following week. He was happy to be one of 3,000 fans to get to travel up north for this match. We then went to the Supporters Bar inside the stadium to have a pint while waiting for the photographer. At 2 PM, the photographer showed up but said we couldn't take any shots in the stadium so we'd have to go back outside. So we bundled up and headed to the front gate to brave the elements. And soon enough, we were showing our scarves, wearing red and white, smiling while freezing our asses off for the pictures. Hey, they turned out well.

We then headed inside to our seats, placed a couple of bets on the final score, and settled in for the match. Sunderland did have the run of early play, but soon Man City was getting some shots on goal near halftime. The Black Cats were running circles about, getting good shots, but couldn't finish anything and the match went to the half scoreless. The second half started with more Cats fury, but no goals until a weak penalty call gave Man City a penalty kick and soon enough the first goal. The Cats tied it soon afterwards, but about 80 minutes in, one of the Man City strikers got loose and was running full speed at the keeper. He chipped it just outside his reach, and suddenly it was 2 to 1. A final frenzied rally by the Cats couldn't get the equalizer and the game ended with a Cats loss. While they were still above the relegation line, this result did mean the team needed to get some points in their next matches to secure their place. We headed home, sad for the loss, but buzzing a bit at the noise and atmosphere of the game. As we pulled into Seaham, we knew that our party bus was arriving at 7 Pm to take us to the night's event.

After dressing for the night, dinner downstairs and me redressing after a flying fork/spaghetti sauce stain on the shirt incident, we met our bus for one of the neighborhood centers for the concert. Admittedly, I was a bit stressed not only cause I wanted the night to go well for girl, but I'm not used to being the center of attention for this long. The spotlight is OK now and then, but after a few days of being the center of things, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. But I was determined to not let my hangup spoil the night. The bus arrived with Paul, Jackie, Gary and Oddie waiting, and it was pre-arranged to pick us up at 11:45 PM. The bar at the center closed at 11 Pm so we could get last drinks and have them done by the time our taxi would arrive. Unlike here in the states, you don't hail taxis on the street or call them right when you need them, but you rather pre-arrange return trips ahead of time or you wait at the club in a queue for taxis which could take a while.

The place was about half full when we arrived, and we moved up towards the front at a table for six. Paul, Gary and I headed for drinks, and soon this getting drink theme would dominate the night. The first act was going on stage about 8, the main act going on about 9:15 ish with a couple of raffles in between. Not a bad plan at all, and as I wandered about, I saw many familiar faces of townfolk that smiled and shook my hand. The friendly treatment was exactly what I needed to get me on track, and the alcohol soon took over from there.

The first entertainment was an Elvis impersonator from the area, who spoke in a British accent until he sang. The costume was good, and the falsetto notes of Elvis were impressive, but he didn't move at all on stage, and most of the songs he sung were the obscure songs that most casual fans wouldn't recall. But the pints and vodka were flowing so I was getting a good buzz. About 9:20 or so, a banner showing the main entertainment was unveiled and the main surprise was confirmed. But honestly, Girl is pretty smart and knew what was going on before then.

For the uninitiated, Robbie Williams is the biggest pop star that the U.S. has never heard of. He has many albums, performs all over Europe and is known all over the world except in the US where here he's the guy that makes weird videos. But he's a very good singer, and one of girl's favorites. The town was having a charity night with a Robbie impersonator to come to town, and when they found out one of Robbie's big fans was coming to visit, they arranged it to be on the Saturday we were there. And this guy was even approved by the star himself.

And I must say, he had an energy and a voice that woke everyone up, and the dance floor wasn't empty for the rest of the night. The floor did get a little scarce as folks got more drinks, but otherwise it was dancing. And since most of his music was very energetic and danceable, sitting wasn't an option. I had lost track of the number of drinks I'd had, starting with a gift of champagne, pints of beer, and vodka drinks. But then again, everyone in our group wasn't feeling much pain. The night was amazing as Girl got serenaded a few times, she sang to every one of his songs, and we just had an amazing night. 11:45 pm arrived and we finished our drinks. While riding home, Gary invited us back to his place for a night cap.

Paul, Oddie, Jackie, Gary, girl and I arrived about midnight and cracked open a few beers and chatted more about the night. One topic that did come up during our talks was an event that was supposed to happen at the reception the previous night but didn't. They had set up a dart board with a kit of one of the Timbers' bitter rivals, and we were supposed to throw darts at it. But we had forgotten to do this during the night, so the kit was rescued and we tried to figure out what to do with it. Beer makes any decision seem normal, so when the idea of burning it came up, nobody thought this was a bad idea.

Soon, we were outside with a lighter, scissors, lighter fluid, and a sense of destruction. The jersey was cut into a couple of chunks, soaked in fluid, and then lit. Surprisingly, it actually burned a lot faster than expected and soon enough the flaming kit was lying on Gary's patio still burning. Unfortunately, Gary's garden hose was also near there and the kit had landed on top of the hose. And it has started to melt around the hose. So at that point, it was time to put the fire out...and so....

I'm not sure why peeing on it sounded like such a good idea, or that I was the one that started this plan by dropping my pants, but soon enough, the fire was getting put out slowly and surely. Some water and more help later, the damage was somewhat cleaned up, we finished a few more pints, and then it was time to wander home. Iain was waiting up for us at the Harbour View, so we chatted for a bit with him about the night's events, and we walked upstairs for sleep. The next day was a drive to York for some sight seeing, and Gary was going to be there at 10 AM to head there. Well, maybe I won't still be drunk by the time he gets there, but I did have some nice memories of the night and the song Millennium stuck in my head as I lied down to sleep. My liver still hates me...

Next Time - How Many More Stairs are there? And Do Vikings Always Smell this bad?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Castles, Plopper, Crazy Busses, Reception...Oh My!!!

April 11th - Durham, Reception in Seaham

We woke up to the sun spilling into our room, and viewed the North Sea in all its splendor. And I got excited at my first chance at getting a full English. Ok, I'll admit the full English breakfast isn't for everyone and the first few times of having it tested my stomach a lot. The concept of beans for breakfast stumped me, but was told that putting it on toast was a good idea. Girl is full of amazing ideas. We got up early enough to eat, knowing that Gary and Oddie would be coming to the hotel around 10 AM to take us to Durham for the day.

Durham is the county seat there, and is about 10 to 15 thousand folks if I recall. It is about 15 miles from Seaham, and has a rather famous castle and cathedral there. We decided to head there for the day to see the sights, and then be back in time for the secret party that night. Plus, Oddie had interest in seeing the castle, so we thought it would be a good day trip. We walked over to Gary's house and got to see changes within Seaham since I'd been there last. The old Scout Club had been torn down and moved across the street as a new bus station was built there. A new mall and ASDA was built just south of the Scout Club, so there's plenty of shopping about, but the main downtown high street was still there and full of shops.

As we were driving to Durham, Gary told us numerous times to catch the 4 PM bus to Seaham so we'd be back in time for the night's festivities. He told us of the tours and where the castle generally was, but again, be on that 4 PM bus. He dropped us off near the town center, and soon we were on our way wandering about town. Our first stop was a large open market, much like Portland's Saturday market, full of various small shops. It was amazing to see meat shops next to jewelry tents, and a hat shop was next to that, as it was a large collection of random stuff under one room. We finally ran into a games and toy store, and that's where I found Plopper. Well, actually girl said, "Hey look, Simpsons Toys!!" and I looked over to see Plopper and do a happy dance.

Ok, I love the Simpsons and the movie was one of my many highlights from last year. And one of the characters was a pig that Homer named Plopper (after being called Spiderpig). I had purchased all of the Simpsons movie characters here in the States, but the Plopper and Homer was either too expensive here or they kept running out. And suddenly in Durham, it's staring me in the face for 12 pounds. It took less than 10 seconds for me to grab it and run to pay for it, and even the cashier found it ironic that she gets her toys from the States, and now one of them was going back there in my luggage.

We wandered off to the cathedral, and it was one of the most amazing churches I'd ever seen. Built in Norman times, it stood over 300 feet tall at some points, and had some of the most incredible detail on various columns and arches. It was built on the highest hill in town, next to the castle where the former governor of Durham lived. You could have sat about 10,000 people in here and still had plenty of room for service, but it was amazing how quiet it was. I lit a prayer candle for my mom, and we saw various alters and smaller gathering rooms. We missed the last morning tour for the castle, so we wandered into town for lunch to then come back for the castle tour in the afternoon before we needed to be back in Seaham.

And what a tour it was. The castle is now part of the University of Durham, and so students actually live in the castle while studying there. One of their students gave us the tour, as we wandered to meeting rooms, small art galleries, a small church in the castle, and our final stop of a chapel underground with only natural lighting from above. It was amazing to see pieces of history that were older than I could imagine, and it was worth the trip and then some. As we wandered back to town, we made a few stops and then headed to the bus terminal to head back to Seaham.

I don't recall buses coming into Seaham when I last visited, but I was amazed that this area had such a detailed bus system. I gathered a few snacks, and we watched with amusement people interact with the pay toilet. You pay 20 pence to use a full sized toilet, but apparently some people didn't get the concept. One gal held the door open for over 10 minutes for some reason, I think she wasn't sure it was clean, but after each use, you could hear water spraying about. Another man wanted to use the toilet but was shocked it cost money. "Why pay 20 pence, I could just piss on the wall over here for free?" Yup, everyone waiting for the bus heard that over and over again.

Our bus finally arrived a few moments late, and we were off as Seaham was the last stop on the trip. It was interesting to see sights of the country side, going past a few small towns (Houghton Le Spring and Murton) and seeing the neighborhoods. Everything in the country side looks the same, as all houses are the same color and near the same design. We were casually driving along for about a half an hour but then suddenly the bus moved a bit faster. Unknown to us, the driver was scheduled to switch at Seaham with his relief driver, and he was a bit late. So it became hanging on to your seat and whipping around corners. I'm not entirely sure why we didn't hit anything cause it seemed like something out of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride for a bit. As we finally pulled into the station, the driver apologized for the rough ride, and we were just happy to be on firm ground.

Because of the issues with the power shower, they had to replace our shower in our room so we were told before we left to check in and see where we could shower. The shower in our room was completely new, but it was still drying, so we were told to go to room 3 to get ready for the night. And as we walked it, we found our surprise. Lying on the bed was a white wedding dress for girl and a suit for me. We were asked to dress in these and be downstairs at 7:45 for our chariot to pick us up. Gary had asked for measurements before we left, and needless to say we hoped that the stuff could fit knowing our diets and lack of exercise lately, but everything did. But now the question was are we getting married again or is this a party or something? My suit was in Sunderland colors, with various SAFC crests on the cuffs and vest, and it was very nice with an English tie. And girl's dress was very nice and flowy as well.

We ate downstairs after showering, and then got ready in our wedding attire and made it downstairs right about on time. The Harbour View bar actually had a band playing, and one of the guys asked what we were doing. Our answer, "Not sure, just dressing up for a party here in town that is being thrown for us." At just before 8, a gentleman arrived and said I'm to take you to the party. And we walk out to the street with a nice Bentley sedan waiting for us. Ok, the driver was actually the mayor's driver and we are in his car being driven around Seaham to our party. We saw the outlet mall again, and an area that one of the major movie studios is building a large set at for filming, and then soon enough, we parked in front of the new Scout Club. A couple of guys were waiting with umbrellas, and soon we were whisked to a door and then entered to...

Cheers, popping fireworks, and thunderous applause. About 80 folks were there, as I saw various Timbers shirts, scarves, and Gary dresses like Timber Jim. At the head table, it was Oddie, Jackie (Gary's wife), the mayor, the town council, Maureen (a friend of SAFC that the TA had collected funds to help due to her cancer) and her daughter, Elaine from Shaw Trust, Iain and Maureen from the Harbour View, with two seats for us. Gary then explained the theme for the night to have a reception for girl and I, and to raise funds for charity. Maureen then spoke and thanked the TA for our generous donation taken in 2007 as she struggled with expenses while battling cancer, but she not only was feeling better but asked for our donation to go to other causes. So the Shaw Trust, a developmental school in the area to help mentally challenged folks, received our donation, and Elaine thanked us and the entire TA for our help. We also got some gifts from the town, and various cards and a notebook from the townsfolk with kind wishes. We were also made full members of the Scout Club, so we can visit there anytime and drink. I was overwhelmed at this outpouring of love and support for us, and girl finally got to see what it was like for us during our last trip to Seaham: good times, great friends, helping charity, and showing the love for each other bonded by football. And hey, meeting girl at a football match, it all made sense. Yes, I was smiling and near crying most of the night, but with tears of joy.

There were a couple of raffles, the first was delayed as I messed up the number machine. Apparently, I like to break stuff, but I felt better as the number machine was being temper mental most of the night. The beer relay was next, and even with me being penalized for spilling beer, my team won. I was given Paul on my team, and I let him pick the rest of the team versus Big Eddie, a guy we faced the last time in beer relay and we lost back in 2006, although our friend Nerd gained some respect in beating Eddie later in the night.

There was a second raffle for prizes, and so I bought 5 pounds worth of tickets, not sure what might happen. Most of the prizes were alcohol related, including some wine and other fine spirits. Well, when the first number popped up and it was ours, so a bottle of Grand Mariner was coming home with us. But then as if we were channeling Timber Howie, our numbers kept coming up. One of my favorite moments was after winning for the fourth or fifth time, I was pondering our next prize when Maureen chimed up, "You can pick the planter and give it to me." I looked and girl, and we both nodded in agreement. She was shocked when when we gave her this nice planter, but we also knew that she would take great care of it and we couldn't get in it our luggage. We also traded some bottles of booze for other stuff as we tried to keep our prizes minimal knowing how little space we had in our bags for Rome.

The baby beer bottle contest was next, as I sat out the fun there, and then it was time to dance to Aqualung, our first song from our wedding. We danced the night away to various tunes, drank a lot, and I gave Oddie a TA scarf for being such a friend of us and football. There are pictures of the fun at our website plus I had added some pics in my Seaham slide show. At about midnight, we decided to head back to our hotel, which meant another pint before bed as Iain had been waiting up for us.

It's still overwhelming to think about how a simple tour can lead to meeting folks that become part of your life in a significant way. The folks in Seaham are some of the best people I've ever met, and I just wanted to say thank you to everyone there for all of your love and support of me and my wife and the TA as a whole. I had a feeling Gary would top the 2006 tour, and boy was I right. Oh, and tomorrow is match day and another gathering with a special guest. I think my liver is now ready to boycott the trip, too bad it doesn't have a say in the matter.

Next Time - Match Day, Interview, Party with Robbie, and Destruction By Fire.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Adventures in Terminal 5 and Customs, and Pies in Newcastle

April 10th - London to Newcastle to Seaham

I don't recall when I was awoken from my attempted plane sleep. It could have been the blasts of cold air coming down on me from the console, it could have been the person in front of me that moved in their seat every 10 seconds, it could have been the flight attendants passing out food and pillows, or the announcement that everyone that wasn't a UK citizen needed to fill out an immigration form, but I was awake although very groggy and tired of sitting. I knew that things weren't right when in trying to complete my immigration form, I copied some of the information from girl's card. Ok, I copied almost everything, which wasn't that smart. I probably should have paid more attention to what I was doing, but after the adventure of leaving the country, I was too busy just being happy about making our flights.

I had visited the folks in Seaham before, back in 2006. The fans from Sunderland AFC came over to Portland in 2005 as part of an American tour, and they traveled about 400 or so fans. Portland was the last stop on the trip, and needless to say, we made quite an impression with them about our crazy passion, fervor for the game, and ability to drink. One of their super fans, Gary, invited us to visit on tour in 2006, and so 33 of us made the journey across the pond. For me, the trip was my first trip overseas but represented something more than that. My mom had died from cancer back in September 2005, and one thing she made me promise to do was to go on the trip because I was waffling about it. She said it would be one of those things you'll never forget, and she was right. The fans were amazing, and we had a very fun and crazy 6 day tour of Sunderland and Seaham. Our friends from Sunderland came back in 2007 to Portland, and at that point, I'd mentioned possibly coming over in 2008 as part of our honeymoon.

Many TA folks had talked about going, but after a few weeks, it turned out it was just me and girl. After trading plenty of emails and posts on our board, I had a feeling that there were many crazy plans at work, and turns out I was more right than I knew. Gary had been working on lots of events for us during our 5 days in Seaham, even arranging for us to stay in the same hotel that we stayed at in 2006 in the downtown area.

We touched down in London at about 9:30 AM local time in Terminal 3, and we headed off to immigration. Needless to say, my bad penmanship and scribbles didn't cause any issues as we informed them of our trek up north. Once we collected our bags, it was off to find some food. We found a nice eatery in the airport, and we had a tasty breakfast and strong English coffee. I may have been groggy in the AM, but after drinking this stuff, I was wired. Plus, we both ate the tomato included with the breakfast. Ok, I tried to eat it and made it through a small wedge. I negotiated a trade for mushrooms to get rid of my tomato. Our flight up north wasn't scheduled until 3:30 PM, so we had some time to sit about and wait. But knowing we had to check in for our flight 2 hours early, we didn't want to wait too long. So about noon, we wandered to catch the Underground to Terminal 5.

I'd heard stories about the Underground from girl during her stays in London, and our bathroom downstairs is done up like an Underground station, from the Tube map on the wall to the the camera in the upper left corner to a Underground station sign painted on the wall with the colors of the tube stops servicing it. We were able to travel to Terminal 5 for free, and so we headed off to catch the tube.

To say it's underground is an understatement. We took a few escalators to get to the station which was very far down in the ground and extremely quiet. You also heard a lot of announcements about minding the gap, which basically meant watch your step getting on and off the train because there is a slight gap between the train and the platform. A couple of brisk gusts of wind blew through the station, and then suddenly the train was there. Girl had said the trains were rather quiet, and it was another understatement. No conversations, no yelling, no noise, it was people sitting quietly with their luggage waiting for the station. If you take any form of public transportation in the States, it's as loud as a sporting event with random conversations, cell phone calls, and general mischief. Not here.

We pulled into our station, and took the escalators to Terminal 5. Terminal 5 is the world's largest terminal, apparently over 100 football pitches big. And yes, it's that big and somewhat barren. There's lots of space to just walk around in, although they did fill some areas with random modern art. I liked the flying books, but the orange telling me that it loved me was just plain creepy. Prior to our trip, Terminal 5 had opened the previous week to big press but lousy reviews. For the first few days, you couldn't check baggage at Terminal 5 because of technical problems, and then the following two days, luggage could be checked in but more than likely would end up somewhere than your destination city. Apparently the terminal was a complete mess for those days before we got there, but surprisingly, we saw a quiet large area with lots of people to help.

We checked into our Newcastle flight 2 1/2 hours early, but apparently you couldn't check bags until 2 hours ahead, so our wait was extended. Once our bags were able to join us, we ventured through Security. And I must say the Brits do security very well. We checked into a desk that took a photo of us, then we went through traditional security with x-rays. I spoke with a security officer who saw my Portland Timbers shirt and asked if it was a football team. When I said yes, he exclaimed he'd played in Rochester way back. When I said the Rhinos, he said, no the Lancers. Yes, NASL days. He remembered the Timbers from that time frame, and so we chatted for a few while girl was checking in.

Once we got through security, we headed to a large seating area and waited. Flights aren't assigned gates until about an hour before their departure, so everyone waits in a large area with lots of chairs and looks at various large TV screens. As gates are assigned, people get up and head to their gates, so you see folks constantly standing up. It's fun for people watching, but I admit it was distracting to sit and wait and stare at some big TV screen. And ok, I hadn't showered since Tuesday so I wasn't feeling all that fresh. We grabbed some sandwiches, sat around for what seemed like hours and hours, and then saw our gate assigned so we could move to another waiting area.

British Airways fed us again on the trip up North, which I think was my fourth or fifth meal, but considering I didn't know what time zone I was in, being hungry overruled the time of the day. We were supposed to meet Gary at our gate and then wait for his friend Oddie from Norway who was coming in to the same airport right after us. As we touched down, I felt a sense of relief that I didn't have to be in a plane for a few days. Gary met us, wearing his TA scarf, and told us we were heading directly to Seaham because Oddie's flight was delayed. In his car, he had two meat pies waiting for us. Being members of Row N in the TA, we hate clowns and love pies, so seeing pie waiting for us was very special. I ate mine rather quickly as apparently the sandwich didn't fill me up. The traffic wasn't too bad, and soon enough we were in Seaham at the Harbour View hotel.

We had stayed there in 2006, and nothing had really changed since the last time I was there. A pub and restaurant on the first floor, then stairs to the rooms above in the most narrow staircase I'd seen, the Harbour View is just very quaint and comfortable. We were put in room 7 overlooking the North Sea and the Seaham Cross, and when we walked upstairs, our door was decorated with pictures from our wedding. And of course, English beer in the room. Gary had some surgery a few days prior to our visit, and I could tell he was feeling it a bit, but being the gracious host, he let us get settled and showered and we wandered downstairs for a few pints. Well that was the plan, but there was some change in plan a bit.

For those of you that have never experienced power showers, they are quite common in England for areas where the water pressure isn't very good. The first time I'd seen them, it was weird taking a shower that made so much noise but they worked fairly well. I had a bit of difficulty remembering how they worked, but got it to work finally and I was cleaned up. Girl was going to shower after me and meet us downstairs, but the shower was having some issues as we couldn't get it to work. I went downstairs to get some help, and soon enough Iain was at our door.

Iain is the Harbour View owner, a right good Scot and a great guy who was one of our hosts back in 2006. He was happy to see me, and I explained the power shower issue, and he went right to work. After some tests and things, it was determined the shower might need to be replaced, so girl shuffled to another room to shower and then meet up with us. I don't know if I broke the fuse or just overloaded the circuits, but I felt bad at delaying her. She joined us a bit later, and we sat down to have a few pints with Gary and Paul. Paul lives in Seaham, and was part of both trips across the pond. He's an amazing guy as well, and one of the best drinkers I've ever met. Gary left us for a bit as Oddie's plane had arrived and he took the train from the airport to Seaham. Finally about 10 pm, we had all of our travelers, and Iain had joined our table wearing a special Portland Timbers kit we had signed for him for a few drinks. Gary told us a few times that we wouldn't forget the next few days. I had a feeling he was probably right, but for now, I was just happy to be there with my wife. We settled in about 12 AM and were going to head to Durham the next day for sight seeing until that evening, when our special surprise party was happening. As I faded off to sleep, I was just relieved to be there and tried to prepare myself for the next few days' adventures.

Next Time - Castles, Plopper, Crazy Busses, Reception...Oh My!!!

Monday, May 12, 2008

April 8th - 9th - The Journey Across The Pond

As mentioned in my previous post, my next few blog entries will be about my honeymoon trip to Seaham UK, Rome and London. All names have been changed to protect the innocent or stupid, and all events are as real as my Swiss cheese brain can remember.

Prologue - The Planning...

One of the many things I love about girl is that she plans things really well. I mean she's examined every possible choice and option, and makes sure that her choices are top notch. So when she agreed to be our travel agent for our honeymoon, I wasn't worried at all. She's traveled overseas many times, and even lived in England for 10 months back in 2002 and 2003 teaching. She's not intimidated at all about being over there, I know she thinks of England as her second home. With websites bookmarked and EPL schedules figured out, we decided to make Seaham our first stop, then Rome and finally London, leaving the States on April 9th and returning on April 30th. This allowed us maximum time in each spot for our funds, and worked well with the footy schedule as Sunderland was playing at home on April 12th and West Ham was at home the weekend of the 26th. We also avoided Easter travels, which is a big deal over there. So back in August 2007, our trip was put together. It was a marvel of planning, done before fuel prices had gone through the roof and after I had changed my legal name to my birth name. Now, all we had to do was wait...

April 8th - Last Minute Planning

Vacations are tough at my work, but knowing I was going to be gone for 3 1/2 weeks made it even worse. My work tends to pile up a bit while I'm out, so it's waiting for me when I get back, so I fully expected to be buried upon my return. However, I'd spent weeks telling co-workers and other employees that I was going to be gone in the hopes that anyone would listen. I think they were really ready for me to be gone on the 8th, and as my last meeting concluded, I was finally free. Ok, not free from responsibility but free from the work world for almost a month. It felt so liberating, but as I was driving home, my list of things to do for the trip filled my head, and whatever freedom I'd felt was replaced with a fear of how to get everything done before leaving.

I don't normally like to pack until the day before anyway, it keeps me from forgetting day to day things I use a lot, plus I tend not to overpack. I had a mental list of things to include in my luggage, and so I spent my afternoon printing important emails and balancing my checkbook before I left. I wanted to make sure I had real cash to use on the trip, and not the bank's funds which you have to pay loads back to use. We had tickets to that night's Trail Blazers - Lakers game to attend, and so I hurried to get my computer stuff done.

Part of our planning was to pack on Tuesday night and stay up as late as possible so that we'd be sleepy on our flight to London. American flight from Portland to Dallas to London then up to Newcastle, it sounded so good. And the news had been pretty quiet since American had grounded numerous flights the previous week to check for safety issues. We were also heading to Heathrow's famous Terminal 5, which spent its first few days in existence not processing any checked luggage and soon after sent people in one direction and their luggage in the opposite way. There had also been a threat of a strike by British Airways that was averted right before we left, so we felt as though that the problems were done with. We went to the game without a care in the world.

The Trail Blazers played amazingly, and knocked off the Lakers in a close, well fought battle. We even bought some shirts to take with us on the trip to show some Blazer pride. Girl and I had a lot of hope and optimism about our Trail Blazers, and we basked in the glory of a win against one of our hated rivals. We hurried off to Winco to pick up some snacks and last minute snack items, and then home to finish packing. The buzz of the Trail Blazer's win filled my head, as I had dreamed of them getting a .500 record and us going on a once in a lifetime trip.

The packing took a few hours as we finished some last second laundry, and I tried to find some nice stuff to throw in with casual travel wear. Knowing there was 3 weeks between leaving and coming home, it was hard to make some clothes choices, but I knew we had a washer in London so it was a matter of picking lots of different things, and trying to make sure you could stretch it out for 2 weeks. I packed a few nice shirts, dress shoes, cameras, magazines, casual shoes, Timbers gear, and it actually all fit in my suitcase. It was now almost 2 AM on Wednesday, and it was time to de-stress for a bit before bed...

April 9th - The Day of Many Airports

We love Fark, it's a beautiful website full of news stories of the weird, cat pictures with misspellings, and other assorted news of the stupid. As I sat at my computer to decompress from the packing, girl was checking fark and reading various stories. I was getting a bit tired, but knew the longer I could hold out, the better my sleep would be on the plane. We had talked about various stories and trip questions, and the clock soon showed 3 AM. As girl clicked on the Fark headlines, she saw a story about American Airlines and more goofiness in the air. The story out of a Hawaiian newspaper said that flights were being cancelled on April 9th for more safety checks.

Whatever piece and quiet we had was replaced with mad typings of URLs trying to confirm our flight. At this point, the American web site had our flight as on time but we didn't want to chance it. So we kept checking and checking...and checking by phone, by web, then by phone again. The panic set in about 3:35 AM when magically the American site had us booked through Dallas, but no way to get there from Portland as our flight was cancelled. I felt bad for girl because she had done so much planning for the trip, and it was a masterpiece of simplicity now in rubble with someone's decision to cancel flights. We knew that our schedule was fairly tight getting to Seaham with things planned for us there, so she got on the phone and waited...and waited...and waited.....

45 minutes later, she was talking with a woman at American. The hold times were crazy there, and this was before most travelers had any idea what was going on. After much discussion and planning, there was an alternative to get us to London - go to San Francisco on Alaska then fly to JFK in New York, but we would have to get to the airport now for a 6:45 AM flight. So instead of napping for a few hours, we were waking girl's mom to drive us to the airport, grabbing luggage, saying hasty goodbyes to our cats, and hoping we didn't forget anything.

We pulled into the airport a little after 5 AM, and it was off to the American counter. We wanted to confirm the reservations, and check our bags in. The queue was full of early morning travelers, who were now learning the information we found out about only a few hours earlier. Panicked folks were typing in laptops, talking on phones, doing anything to get out of Portland, but there wasn't much success for many. While waiting in line, we talked to a guy from KPAM radio about getting out of town, telling him we were on our honeymoon trying to get to London. I'm not sure if he talked to us because of girl's Trail Blazer shirt or if we looked frazzled more than most, but it was a fun chat way too early.

It took us about 45 minutes to get to the counter, and our reservations were there but we needed to go to the Alaska counter to check in. So a quick run over to the Alaska counter to wait in another queue, which only lasted about 20 minutes until we were talking to a woman. She got us checked in, our bags tagged for London, and got our minds at ease for about 30 seconds until she uttered the words..."Oh, my, you've been flagged for extra security. If you leave now, you can probably make your flight!!"

We've never moved so fast ever, getting my bag to TSA and then heading to security. We were moved to the extra special line, and we got put into large air chambers which took x-rays and puffed air to check us out. To add more to it, we had to give our backpacks to a TSA person who opened every pocket and compartment to check for substances. He did fail to tell us that we couldn't touch our stuff as we moved from station to station, which led to him rather tersely telling us to leave our stuff alone as he'd move it from station to station. I know some people are trying to do their jobs, but being yelled at and poked and prodded didn't make me feel any safer flying, but rather annoyed at being singled out especially since our change in itinerary wasn't our fault. We left security at 6:35 and ran to our gate in time to hear the Alaska person say "We are boarding our final group to San Francisco..." If we'd had been more than a couple of more minutes off, we would have been stuck in Portland.

As I sat down in the flight, whatever had happened previously didn't matter, because I felt the worst was behind us for now. Ok, I'm the eternal optimist, but I felt that we had dodged a bullet. The next thing I remember was being told to put my seat in an upright position as we were landing in San Francisco. I guess I snored a bit on the plane, but at least we were on schedule. As we landed in San Francisco, we breezed through security check there (a nice security gal there grew up in Portland, so she wished us a great trip) and got to chat with a Warriors fan who was happy we'd beat the Lakers the previous night. He was stuck in San Francisco trying to get to his destination on American, and we told him of our story, which led him to go find his phone. We checked in to our flight to New York, chowed some breakfast and then hopped aboard our next flight.

I do recall more of the flight to San Francisco, as the lunch wasn't that bad and the sun was going down as we landed in New York. We were concerned about having to change terminals in New York, but found out our London flight was only a few gates away, so we could transfer easily. However our seats were on the middle of the middle section, so we wanted to see if we could move to another area. The American employee checked us in, and we were able to get the two seats closest to the aisle in the middle section, with an open seat next to me. It wasn't perfect, but we were on the plane.

I also learned a lot about duty free goods, as I tried to buy some cigarettes for our Seaham hosts. Honestly, the goods may be cheap, but the rules behind them were so confusing that I wasn't sure what I could and couldn't buy. It could have been the fast talking guy at the duty free shop, but I wasn't able to buy anything. I know I wasn't on top of my game at all being sleep deprived and eating mostly airplane food for a day, but as we got on our plane to London, I felt a sense of relief that we were finally going to make it. I pulled the blanket over my shoulders and nodded off.

Next Installment - Adventures in Terminal 5 and Customs, and Pies in Newcastle

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Back in The States and Finally Got Pictures Done

I've only been back in the country a week, and feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders as I've been able to post some pictures. This isn't everything by any stretch of the means, but it's a good selection of the shots from our various points during our honeymoon.

Girl had started planning this since August of last year, checking out flights and coordinating dates based on EPL schedules, time off from work, cost, and weather. I am truly amazed at how much detail she went through to find the best deal and dates for us. We had talked about different places to go for the honeymoon, but settled on Seaham UK, Rome and London.

London is like a second home to girl, having lived there for almost a year teaching, and she knows her way about town. I had always wanted to see Rome, and she had been there so it was an easy thrown in for a few days. But Seaham? Well, in meeting up with traveling Sunderland fans in 2005 in the States and being shown the red carpet during a trip over there in 2006, we decided that if we were going to be close, we could stop in for a few days. Well, the red carpet certainly came out from the Sunderland fans again, and girl learned quickly about how they do things up north.

This blog will spend the next few weeks documenting each station, and highlights of the trip from each site, including the flight over and back which was an adventure of itself. While I wished I had a computer and could have blogged during the trip, I don't think it would have worked out so well in some areas, especially not knowing if we could get on the Internet, much less having my computer destroyed on the trip. Mind you, not having the Internet for weeks on holiday makes you appreciate having it when you can.

Enjoy the pictures, and be prepared to enjoy the stories of our 3 week odyssey across the pond. I guarantee you there will be some laughs, tears, head scratching moments, but overall it was the most amazing trip I've ever been on. And while honeymoons are really supposed to be that, I would have called this trip utterly amazing without the honeymoon part simply because of what we saw and how many wonderful, crazy things happened while we were there. While I appreciate home a great deal, I can see how the world around us works a bit better.

I don't have a schedule for those releases, so keep checking in for more information. Later!!

Pictures will be posted today in separate blog entries.