Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Nothing Good Can Come From This

I love soccer a lot, but I do also pay attention to other sports. Since I am commissioner of a fantasy football league, I do follow the NFL. My grandmother is a huge Denver Broncos fan, and one of the big family things is that you don't call my grandmother when the Broncos are playing. I learned to follow the teams closely, and bonded with her over the love of a team. Now that I'm older, I find the passion for soccer easy to understand for the true fans, but I also stay close to my roots in gridball.

Mind you, it's harder and harder now that the NFL is essentially a year around entity, with events and news happening all the time. The draft used to be an afterthought, now networks devote hours of coverage towards teams and their picks. I don't keep track of things as closely as I once did, mostly because of being busy and having other sports that keep my interest as well. But I know when big things happen, and right now, the biggest story in the NFL is in Green Bay.

Unless you've been under a rock for the past few months, you've probably heard about the controversy between the Packers and Brett Favre, their MVP quarterback. Favre is an 18 year veteran, and one of the most entertaining players to ever suit up. Not only does he have talent and personality, he has a gunslinger mentality to try anything at any given time, and doesn't stop trying until the game is done. He's managed to remain healthy for most of his career, won a Super Bowl, and dealt with personal and family tragedies in losing his dad and dealing with an addiction to pain killers. He's a player that is easy to root for on the field, but right now, he's embroiled in a high stakes game of chicken with the Packers.

A high level overview of what happened so far is Favre and the Packers lost in the NFC Championship game, and Favre decided to take time off to decide his future. When pressed about the situation in March, Favre said he's done and would likely retire, which led to a huge spectacle of a press conference. Some people have said they expected him to come back, but it certainly seemed real that he was done after all the emotion and tears. Sure enough, rumours of a return started weeks afterwards, and Favre even contacted the team to see about coming back. The Packers were willing to welcome him back, but instead Favre changed his mind and stayed retired. The draft happened, and the Packers drafted two quarterbacks and prepared to move on without number 4. Until the past month or so when Favre started talking about coming back, and the Packers said thanks but no thanks at one point and then Ok but you'll be the backup at another point. There's even been accusations of tampering by other teams as Favre is still under contract, and today, Favre finally started the reinstatement process by sending a letter to unretire. The Packers have asked Favre not to come to training camp, as they explore the options to make him happy.

What's interesting here is that nobody comes out looking good in this situation at all. The Packers, in trying to be accommodating, waited as long as they could before resorting to plan B and letting the current backup take over. I can't blame them for wanting to pick a direction and stick with it, but they've also had differing takes on what is going on in their world about Farve, from welcoming him back to telling him to stay away to saying we won't trade him. Let's face it, number 4 is the face of the franchise right now and has led them to many glorious moments over the years, and nothing would cheese off the cheeseheads more than seeing Favre win somewhere else and the Packers stumble. The Packers are in a no win situation, trying to appease their franchise guy as best as they can while being true to their plan B and moving forward. And right now, going back on their word and allowing Favre to come back and start sends the message that the current guys aren't good enough to win, plus why pay a guy $12 million to be a back up?

Favre isn't without his faults here, as he's gone back and forth on his plans many times. I equate him to many athletes I've met over the years that are single minded in their approach to the game. They eat, sleep, drink, and think about their sport no matter what, and many of the other details of their lives are left to handlers. All they want to do is play, and right now, Favre wants to play, and he's certainly proven that he's capable even being 38 as he was a top tier quarterback last year. But his commitment has been a bit erratic over the months, going from I'd done to I'm interested but only to play here to I want to come back.

It would be nice if everyone could just chalk up the mess to shenanigans and just start over like nothing happened. But life doesn't work that way, and now both sides are playing the game to see who flinches first. Favre wants to play, but only if he's the starter or for a team that could be a winner, and I think he's entitled to be consulted about trade places. The Packers deserve to put the best team on the field, and bringing Favre back could be the piece that gets them to the playoffs, but it sends a terrible message to the quarterbacks in camp that they aren't good enough to win right now if he's made the starter or allowed to compete for the job outright. People would question the decision, especially with the hardball tactics that have been done the past few weeks. I can imagine the Packers just want this mess to all go away so they can concentrate at the business of playing football and being a competitive team. The 5000 pound gorilla in the room (or in this case, not with the team) just isn't going away until there is a resolution here, and right now, there doesn't seem to be anything likely soon.

I can imagine it's tough to be an athlete at the top of your game for so many years, and then realize that you can't play forever and there's a time when it's Ok to hang the cleats up. Favre thought the time for that was now a few months ago, but now says he felt pressured to make a decision and he went with his gut which told him to retire. When you are an instinctual player, I can imagine this decision making works, especially if you have to make a quick decision. And it's not like people can't have second thoughts, as many a player has left the game only to return for various reasons. Glory and reputation don't get as damaged now in the era of players coming and going from teams like they did way back when, so even seeing Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform doesn't tarnish what he did in his career.

And the longer this situation goes on, the worse the distraction for everyone involved. We've gone beyond simple answers here, and somebody's ego needs to take a bullet here to save face for everyone. In my mind, the ego that needs to step back is the Packers, who need to find a trade partner that works and just let Favre play somewhere else. If you are truly moving forward to a new page, then let the quarterbacks you have take the ball and let Favre play. It will be tough to watch, especially if Aaron Rodgers falters and Favre plays very well, but in the end, it will be easier than telling Favre he can't play anymore or he can play but as a backup. I know he's under contract, but letting him waste away just make the organization look bad. I get the fact that Favre waffled and there's some hurt feelings here, but it's only going to get worse until you say goodbye and let him go. Which honestly is one of the hardest things to do ever, because goodbyes are hard, sometimes permanent and sometimes painful. But nothing good comes from hanging on too tightly, either..

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Being a True Sports Fan

I haven't had to think much about blog topics lately, because it's been recapping my wedding and honeymoon. With the final installment in the books, though, it's time to get back to doing what we do around here. Sometimes my blog ideas come from headlines or things I hear or read about, others are more organic and the idea strikes me while I'm eating, at the gym, or at work doing whatever it is I get paid to do for a living. Some ideas die a painful death, as I attempt to flesh them out and it proves to be as much fun to write about as having your teeth cleaned. Others change shape and form, and become something much different, while a select few get posted up as is to see if they can truly take a life of their own. Today's idea actually started on the Soccer City USA board but it took on some life while I was at the gym working out -- what qualifies a true fan of a team?

You could do scientific analysis, research on the web, watch TV for months, and come up with a huge list of things, and probably have a huge thread of discourse about what constitutes a great fan of a team. You might be able to get a group to agree to some key points, but I think coming to a consensus would be near impossible. And the list would probably become too cumbersome to review, and then it dies due to boredom. I've thought about all of the criteria, and really, I think you can boil the question down to one --- do you love your team enough to stay with them no matter what?

I'm willing to discount a lot of things to boil it to one question. Some folks say you can't be a true fan unless you've seen the games live, and I tend to agree that live sports are a much different experience than watching on TV. TV can be extremely informative with analysis, informational sharing, picture angles, and instant replay, but it can also be an extremely passive experience. There's something about hearing the sounds of the fans live, smelling the snacks in the stands, braving the elements and standing for your team with 50,000 of your closest friends. But most major sports don't lend themselves to average fans.

If you reviewed the cost to go to a game for most major sports and take a family of four, most game experiences cost around $200 for tickets, snacks, programs, and souvenirs. Granted, if you are without family, the costs are less but they can still add up as most major sport tickets start at $10 to $15 per game for the farthest/highest seats in the place. If you have the money, the experience can be enhanced with a suite or box, or seats closer to the game, but many people I know couldn't afford to do that all the time. Teams cater to the corporate and rich set, with amenities in the stadium boxes that put my old apartment to shame. The reality is that in a competitive market, teams need to maximize revenues, and while die hard fans buy tickets and other gear, a team can't support itself simply on those incomes. Teams need to gain corporate monies and group funds, plus find revenue sources from concessions, naming rights, marketing operations, etc.

Sports is a business, and teams that don't make money soon find themselves out of business, and I get that. It does bother me, though, that you see more fans that are there more for the luxury box and less for the experience. The more passionate fans are seated farther and farther from the action, thus ensuring a rather passive fan experience where the only noise is canned in sound effects and cheers led by stunt teams or dancers. While that may work for some fans, others can't deal with the reality and so just stay away because they can't afford it. But why must teams charge so much for everything? Well, to remain competitive, teams must spend money on players, halftime shows, dancers, pyrotechnics, jumbotrons, and other bells and whistles. Fans demand a true complete experience for their hard earned money, and so teams need to do more and more to grab people's attention.

Hey, we have 200 channel cable systems and the world wide web at a touch. Communcation and answers are available in an instant, so people aren't as willing to wait for things to transpire. You also have a sports marketplace that is cluttered with leagues and teams, playing in all sorts of competitions for titles, it's hard to keep track of it all sometimes. And with most leagues now adopting an almost year around approach with events, some fans have either specialized in one league only, or only pay attention to leagues casually to try and keep up. Sports doesn't have off time anymore, as you can find information anywhere, anytime, about anyone.

So with all of that, you might think it's easy to stay focused on your team, but honestly, it can have the opposite affect. Some fans suffer from informational overload, trying to keep up on rumours, web sites, magazines, and papers throughout the world. Bloggers spend hours posting opinions, based on small tidbits of information they've gleaned from the web or a paper, and soon even outlandish rumours take on a life of their own. Seriously, being a professional athlete now can be hard to deal with, from the intense scrutiny all the time, invasions into personal lives, and the general ups and downs of a season.

So with all of that, why truly stick with a team or a player? I mean, hey, some folks can just randomly pick a team to follow and go from there. There's no need for personal investment, you can just buy a hat and bingo, you are a fan. And in the world of the Internet, allegiances can be changes as often as socks, as fans drop teams and add them like candy. Some sports writers have blamed fantasy sports for this phenomenon, as people can be their own general manager, and just trade and add players on their own whim, so it takes the fun out of being a fan. For me, fantasy sports allows me the chance to view teams I might not ordinarily watch so I get a better picture of all of the teams. It doesn't change how I feel about my teams, but I can say that I've at least heard of this person.

But in my opinion, what makes sticking with a team so hard is that this requires you to be there during the ups and downs which are inevitable in a sports season. Let's face it, it's easy to love a team that wins dozens of titles and their players are well known worldwide. Try loving a team that lost more games than anybody a few years ago, the same team whose player conduct was so bad, the league gave the team a nickname of the Jail Blazers. Try loving a footy team that has had great records and players over the years, but hasn't come close to winning a title while their chief rival has 4 titles and is moving to MLS next year, even if I don't think they deserve it. Try loving your team when they are getting pounded in the Super Bowl again, and you know you can't call your grandmother because she's be too upset at the result.

It takes a true investment of character to say you'll love your team no matter what, including wearing your colors anytime. I wore my Denver Broncos jersey to school after each Super Bowl dismantling, even though I knew I'd be ridiculed by the other kids. I wore Timbers colors after each playoff loss, knowing in my heart we were better than our opponents but we just didn't pull it off. It's easy to jump on the bandwagon, like many people did when the Red Sox finally broke their long standing curse to win 2 World Series in the past few years. I heard many of them say, it's about time and oh, this is great, while knowing that there were fans like my friends Obi and S3K who sat through 1986 and wanted to cry after the ball got away from Bill Buckner. But they were back the next season, because they understood that being a true fan doesn't mean turning away when things are bad.

It's not easy having this approach, and I can't even say I've been able to do it always. The Trail Blazers of 2001 - 2004 were a hard team to love with their attitude and antics, but I simply did it because that's the choice I made. And with some teams and players, it's harder than others. It's hard to believe when players get caught breaking the law, doing drugs, cheating on their spouses, or just doing things they shouldn't. It's hard to remember that these people are human, just like us, but we expect them to somehow be different because they wear a uniform and perform in front of thousands. Being cynical is easy, because you hear as much bad stuff about players than you do good things in the press. But being cynical deprives people of the ability to see both sides of a situation, which is vital to truly being a good fan. You have to be able to weigh the good with the bad, otherwise, the experience is tainted. That's why in many cases sports call in shows turn into a bitch fest about their team, as people tend to only focus on the bad or what's wrong because it's safer to do it in a collective environment. What's hard is to stand up and say, this is my team and I support them no matter what.

My hope is that everyone gets a chance to truly find a team to love like that, because it can be a truly rewarding experience as long as you remember that for every good, there will be bad so hang on for the ride. And when one of my teams is able to break through and win a title, I can say that the ride will have been worth it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Flight Home and Travel Epilogue

April 30th - Flight Home

I've never been a fan of mornings, and so being up at 4 AM was no exception. We wanted to ensure that we would be sleeping on the flight, so tried to stay up as late as possible the preceding night. We ate a bit of breakfast, made some sandwiches for the flight, did a lot of last minute things about the flat, and by a little after 5 AM, we were off walking to Tower Hill.

When they talk about luggage being under your control, I have never understood that statement more as I was dragging two bags along. My green suitcase had a bum wheel, and the other bag was a little shorter than the suitcase, so my arms and back were getting tugged about. Plus, with a backpack on, I was fairly weighed down. But all we needed to do was get to the train station, and then we had a long ride out to Heathrow.

A cab watched us tinker with our bags, and was hoping for an early morning fare, but we passed it by, and I made a vow that we would get our bags to Tower Hill no matter what. After a few minutes walk and some moments of profanity, we finally got to our Tube stop and were dragging our bags below. As with our trip into town, we'd switch at Hammersmith to the Picadilly line to then get us to the airport. The train wasn't terribly crowded, and so we were able to find seats relatively easily. Once we got to Hammersmith, we switched trains and finding seats was a bit more difficult as it was part of the commute time and there were lots of travelers on the train. We found a spot and stood near our bags, and off we went. I was trying not to fall on my ass but did have a pretty good wobble after we left a station as I unlocked my legs for a second.

We pulled into Heathrow about two hours from leaving the flat, and we immediately grabbed our bags and headed up to check in. Seriously, while I enjoyed traveling, I was really not going to miss any airports for a bit. We found the American check in and waited in line for about 45 minutes as we queued about. Lots of people were flying today, and so we waited patiently for our turn. We finally got to a person who chatted with us a bit about the trip, confirmed our flights to Dallas then Portland, and then suddenly looked at the scale when my green bag was on it and said, "Your bag is too heavy." Eeek, this wasn't something I'd planned for, even with my bag running near the top allowable weight since I left Portland. She gave me an option to find some stuff in the green bag and move it to my backpack, so I'm feverishly grabbing stuff and putting it on the scale while girl and her chatted. We finally reached the right weight, and so I loaded the things into the other wheeled bag, and we wandered to the gate.

A bit of lunch time eating sandwiches, and getting some water and juice in the terminal, we sat about and waited for our flight and entertained ourselves with the Times. The previous night, Man United had won their way into the UEFA Cup final so there was plenty of stuff to read about. We waited about an hour until the flight gate was assigned, and off we went. After walking for a bit and making a bathroom stop, we got into our gate and checked in but weren't selected for any additional security. We had gone through security without too much issue, and here in London, many times they do extra checks at the gate and we avoided a problem. This didn't prevent other problems, though, including a lot of Americans clogging the only walkway to the gate because they didn't want to sit down in the lounge. The American personnel had to ask at least 5 times for people to find a seat, but things still piled up. It was also interesting to watch people make excuses for things in their luggage with the additional screening. I felt pretty safe after all this, and soon we were wandering into the plane getting ready for takeoff and departure.

We left on time, and were soon off across the Atlantic. There was a bit of TV on initially to keep folks entertained, but in a move that I loved, the pilots asked all the passengers to close their windows and they would turn out all the lights to allow folks to sleep in an attempt to avoid jet lag. It was a brilliant move, and I was happy to not see the same episode of Old Christine for the eight time. We slept for what seemed like ever, and then we were awoken to complete our immigration and customs forms for Dallas. Since I'd done this before and had all my receipts, I tried to be as exact as I could, trying to keep below the $800 allowable limit. I came very close to it, but just under. I filled out the form for both of the bags I was dragging, so my form was a bit fuller than girl's. We landed in Dallas about 2 PM central time, and were soon off to make the long walk to immigration.

And yes, it's a long freaking walk. It seems like forever to get to the station, but we finally got there and got to go to the shorter US citizens line. We waited about 20 minutes, talked with our guy for about 2 minutes, he stamped our stuff and off we went. Nothing like some smooth sailing, especially when we got downstairs and I was offered a free cart to haul our luggage. I politely took the cart, and we waited for our luggage which arrived very quickly. We then passed through customs, I handed my card to them and we were off to additional check in. Once we got into luggage claim, the employee knew exactly where our bags needed to go. Ok, both girl and I were in Trail Blazers gear, so he immediately said "Portland to the right." We wandered up the stairs to go through security for the last time.

And on a scale of security experiences, it wasn't the best but it was still Ok. My backpack was causing some issues with the scanners, so I had to be pulled aside to answer questions about what was in there. I was asked if I had any electronic devices, and I said Yes, that's about what is in there. The security guy had some issues finding the compartments in the pack, and when I attempted to help him, I got politely scolded to not touch my bag. I was finally cleared after a few minutes, and we wandered off to catch the train to our terminal. Dallas - Fort Worth Airport has 5 terminals and you have to catch trains between them, so we got to see Dallas off in the distance with its smog while we found our terminal.

We ate a quick bite at Wendy's after doing some exploration about the terminal for other restaurant options, and deciding that Taco Bell sounded good but exploding insides on a plane would be a bad thing. We soon wandered to our gate, and were happy to see Portlanders about. They were very casual about lines, kept quiet and followed instructions very well. I think Portlanders and Brits have a lot in common. We finally got on our last plane for this trip, and were soon off to Portland.

My mind wandered to the fun things we'd done and seen, and the lessons I'd learned, and I was just getting happier to be close to home. While I love traveling, it makes me appreciate home more when I return. And watching the landscape get more green and mountainous as we flew west, I knew we were getting home. I didn't even feel the touchdown, but we arrived on time in Portland, knowing that girl's mom would be waiting for us. We soon deplaned and wandered through the airport that started it all. It seemed a bit more relaxed that what it was 3 weeks earlier.

We went to baggage claim, and since they didn't offer free luggage carts here, we would have to haul them ourselves. However, girl's mom was on time and driving the Row N mobile. I almost didn't recognize it as she pulled up, but I was happy to see her. We chatted with her about the trip, and then got home about 6 pm. The cats didn't seem too interested in us at first until we brought luggage in, and then it was time for all sorts of smells. They finally warmed up to us after a bit, and soon we were unpacking and sharing stories. I was so happy to be home, I ran to Burgerville to get some food, and we just relaxed for the night. I was actually working from home tomorrow to get caught up on emails from work, so basically I didn't get much time to hit the ground running after the trip. But as I sat there and thought about the trip, I realized that this was one of the most impressive vacations I'd ever take and I got to share it with the woman of my dreams. While we'll make other trips over there, it won't be the same as the first time..


It's now 3 months later, and we just now got some of the wedding stuff sorted tonight, and still have a handful of cards for gifts to do. So if you haven't received your card yet or noticed the check you wrote us isn't cashed yet, I'm sorry but we are a bit behind. Essentially, we got back and were thrown into work, Timbers season, planning a camping trip for June, a trip to Vancouver in early June, and a bus trip to Shittle. Oh, and both of us got new jobs after we returned, as girl will be working on grant writing and I am now a business analyst for one of the bank's major databases. It's funny to think that after all of the things we'd experienced, there would be more change thrown it.

And admittedly, it was tough to adjust to some things when we got back. I was sad we missed Timber Jim's retirement, but Timber Joey has been an extremely capable mascot. Shittle bus trip was amazing, although it was very crowded and running out of beer sucked. There were a lot of new faces in the TA when we returned, and yes, that did require us to stake out our seats early now for matches. Some guys found our row rather comfortable, but at the same time, the row has great significance for girl and myself. Once girl explained our situation, we were good to go and haven't had an issue since. With the new energy there's new people who take time to learn about what happens in a match, so there's been some education but it's also been nice to meet some new folks as well.

We've also made trips to Vancouver BC and Cape Lookout since we got back, so you could say that we really have been keeping busy. But I can't think of a better person to do it with, and I can't wait for what the future holds. Hopefully, it's Timbers goals, monies for us, and good will for our family and friends.

Thanks for reading about our trip, and so now things return to normal around here. I may take a bit of time off now that I've finished the trip blog, but then again, the writing bug might strike me sooner than you think. Catch you all on the flip side.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Next Time - Shopping English Style, and The Most Obnoxious Store I've Ever Been In

April 28th - Chafford Hundred/Lakeside Mall

It's roughly two days remaining in London, and we have a lot of things we'd like to do yet, but it's now deciding what will fit within our remaining time. We got up reasonably early, ate a bit, and then discussed ideas for the daytime. I had wanted to do a little shopping for some clothes, and since we found out there was a very large Tesco near a shopping place girl was familiar with, we decided to make Monday shopping day at the mall. We would then wander into town for Tuesday to pick up any last minute items, and then pack for our flight home.

Going out to Chafford Hundred required another train trip out east, which I wasn't opposed to at all. Traveling by train is a lot easier over here, because the trains are bigger and they run all the time. As much as they have roads and infrastructure here, England also paid a lot of attention to building alternate transport, such as buses, water boats, and trains. We left in the mid afternoon to take the train out east to Chafford Hundred to visit their very large mall, and then make a side trip to Tesco for some things. The train took hardly anytime at all, and since the trips ran approximately 20 minutes apart, there was always a train coming or going.

We wandered over the pedestrian bridge to Lakeside Mall and once inside, it's a pretty typical mall. Outside of the different shops, you probably wouldn't notice any difference to any American shopping place. We decided to check out the Lillywhite's outlet, which had become a home away from home for the TA during our trip up to Seaham, then check on any clothes stuff for girl and myself that would be fashionable and stuff we don't have here in the US. The Lillywhite's was very similar to Seaham, things stuffed where ever you could find space, and random things thrown about. I found a nice England kit for cheap, but not much else that said buy me. We found a Boots book store, where girl bought a few Harry Potter editions she didn't have, and a light snack, and then we headed off for clothes.

Debenhams reminds me a lot of a Meier and Frank or Nordstrom's here at home, as we wandered through the front entrance. We wandered to an area with jackets and slacks, and nothing struck us as buys. I looked about and found a sale rack, which had a couple of buys that might work, but so far the shopping had been disappointing until we looked over and found the dress shirts. Then, girl went to work. One of her goals was to get me a pink shirt and ties that matched, and sure enough, she found two shirts and ties to match. Plus, there were a couple of other nice colors as well (I'm currently wearing the purpleberry shirt as I write this), and we found ties for all of them. And at only 88 pounds, it wasn't a terrible deal either. We did look about for some things girl might like, but nothing struck her fancy.

Downstairs, they had a West Ham store similar to the stadium, so of course, I had to peek in. I found a couple of nice things, including a nice tie rack, and so I bought a bit more. We finally wandered to Sports World on the other side of the mall to see about kits and such, but they didn't have a whole lot of things unless you were a Chelsea fan. Since we weren't, it was time to wander out of the mall and find Tesco.

It wasn't quite the walking adventure of Canary Wharf, but it took us a bit to find the pathway from the mall to Tesco, but once we got ourselves oriented, we walked past the manmade lake to the Tesco across the way. And this was a super huge location, about as large as Wincos here in town. Tesco is basically like a Fred Meyer, but they have cheaper things and vodka to die for, as part of my traveling part from our 2006 trip would remember. We decided to walk as many of the aisles as we could, and find what we could keeping in mind we didn't want to haul too much stuff to the train.

Wandered through some of the games and toy section, my resolve to keep the buying down didn't last when I found a version of the remote controlled dalek that Pete had from yesterday's dinner. Of course it was coming home with me, along with a sonic screwdriver. Then, we searched some of the clothes but found nothing, and then it was wandering the food. And boy, do they have a lot of it. Tesco's vegetarian selections are very good and tasty, but we found dessert stuff and some breakfast things, plus some things to leave in the flat for future use since we'd used a lot of the tea and condiments left there. We filled about 6 grocery bags of random stuff, including a bit of alcohol and an elderflower cordial fizzy drink that was amazingly refreshing. Just add some of the liquid to water, and it makes a light, refreshing drink. Some other cool desserts were also packed for the ride home, and now it meant hauling this stuff to the train station. It didn't take too long to walk over there, but by the time we made it there, we were exhausted from hauling. With about 15 minutes before our train was to arrive, we got some drinks and watched the sun set into the nighttime. The colors were amazingly clear and crisp, and so I was happily taking some photos while we waited. The train arrived, and within 35 minutes, we were back at the Fenchurch Station and walking back to our flat.

It was eating time, so we snacked and ate and drank, and settled in for another bad night of TV and relaxing. And I must say I liked the shirts I bought very much, and it was touching to see girl go through so much trouble to see me dressed nice. And hey, I got a dalek for my trouble as well, so not a bad day all the way around....

April 29th - Knightsbridge, Tottenham Court Road, Girl's Birthday

It's girl's birthday, and she's in one of her favorite places in the world. However, it's also our last day in London, so there wasn't much time for celebration at least in the morning. We got up, cleaned a bit about the flat, and then headed off to inner London to see the sights. Our plan was to not stay out too late, so we could come back, eat dinner, pack up our stuff, and then clean the flat in time for checkout in the morning. We wanted to avoid a cleaning fee, so it was imperative to clean the place very well. And with trash day on Wednesday, we could get a lot of stuff disposed of quite easily.

We wandered into Tower Hill Station to catch the Tube to South Kensington, then up to Knightsbridge, as girl wanted to show me the world of Harrod's. Not really sure what I'm getting myself into, I said sure let's go. I knew this was a rather posh store, but that was about it until we got off the train, went up the stairs and wandered inside. And it was then I saw what was truly one of the most remarkable but disturbing things I've seen. We wandered into the men's section to find suits for about 1500 pounds, or shirts for 300 pounds. We then veered into the jewelry section, where the cheapest thing we found was about 1200 pounds, and then to the perfume area, where any brand of stuff you could think of had a display. As we wandered from section to section, it was like watching the old show Life Styles of the Rich and Famous but up a few notches. Nobody was buying anything except in the gift shop and food courts, where you could actually afford things. We then visited one of two tapestry rooms, next to the grand piano area. While I love the whole concept of capitalism and free market, opulence and waste is something I despise, so this whole store was a bit of a struggle for me. But at least we saw a 30000 pound chandelier with a sold sign on it. I suppose if I could afford something like this, it might be a nice touch, but it's the frugal part of me that finds a lot of what was there a waste.

After the sensory overload there, we then made our way north toward the Virgin Megastore, which girl spent a lot of time in getting music sheet books, posters and some of her rare albums and CDs. We wandered through Oxford Circus near many of the theatres in town, and some rather nice looking restaurants. Once we found Tottenham Court Road, we looked about to find the store and found what looked like a rather large record store but had the name Zavvi's on the front. It was after wandering in that girl realized that this was actually the Virgin Megastore, just renamed and completely stripped down. We decided to shop anyway because she wanted some specific albums and posters, so we were off. I found a couple of rare CDs, and she completed her Robbie Williams collection with two CDs she didn't have, plus some old vinyl. We paid for our purchase, and then decided to head back to the flat.

A couple of train stops, and we were back at Tower Hill. The Tube was extremely packed this afternoon, with tourists and commuters, but it was similar to taking the MAX to a Trail Blazer game. We stopped by Waitrose for some final household items, and then it was cooking and drinking time. I ate the last of the Quavers I had, and drank some cider while we ate random foods. We had also found a special dessert at Waitrose that came in glass dishes, which closely resembled the gelatto dish that I accidentally destroyed here that she got from Rome. So she ate a lot of dessert rather enjoyably, and we got to packing and cleaning. I was pleased that I was getting all of my stuff into a home in my luggage, even being able to offer girl some space in my second bag. And they both felt a bit lighter, but boy, we have a lot of stuff packed in here. Once the packing was about done, it was cleaning and vacuuming everything. This involved doing dishes, deep cleaning the shower, vacuuming the rug, and cleaning up the sink and stove. We wanted to get as much done as we could not to keep Arthur up with noise, so we focused on louder activities to get them out of the way.

Packing and cleaning kept us busy for a while, but knowing we had an intercontinental flight in the morning, we wanted to stay up as much as possible knowing that at 4 AM we needed to be up and moving to make sandwiches for the trip, eat breakfast, and do any last minute things needed before we needed to catch the Tube to Heathrow. Our flight was at 10:30 AM, but we wanted to be there early to check in, get through security, and not be completely rushed.

Finally around 2 AM, we found some NBA action on one of the BBC stations which became our fall asleep program. I suppose even we couldn't find enough dirty TV to watch, but as I dozed off that night, I couldn't believe that within 24 hours, we would be back home and our oddessy was done.

Next Time - Flight Home and Travel Epilogue

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Upton Park Experience, and Dinner in Basildon

April 26th - Match Day in West Ham

We again lied in after being up a little late watching TV but allowing time for recovery as well. We had probably pushed things a bit more than expected, so girl was feeling a bit exhausted. But today was a big day, as we were going to see West Ham take on Newcastle. In following the Hammers for years, they tend to be a bit unpredictable in terms of play and injuries. You never know who might be injured at any given time and it's hard to predict which team will show up to play, as they tend to win games they probably shouldn't and lose games they should be killing in. In some respects, it's like following our own local team, the Timbers.

We were told up north that people in London don't dress for match day or chat as much as they do. I wasn't sure if it was just playing down other fans or what, but the crowd on the tube was very large. It was a 3 Pm kickoff, so we left our flat just after noon to head out east. We saw a few Newcastle fans boarding trains as well, and once we got on the tube, I finally felt like it was match day. There were dozens of folks in various kits and polos with the Hammers' colors, and when we reached the Upton Park station, it was a near mass exodus. We wandered up the platform stairs, and were soon on Green Street walking towards the park.

The atmosphere was decidedly festive, with balloons in claret and blue adoring every storefront in the area. There were also food carts and vendors peddling various footy gear around the area, and as we walked along, we saw Upton Park on our left, and it was a very glorious sight. The front facade of the stadium is like a castle, and it towers over two large parking areas. We were amazed at how similar this was to PGE Park, as a stadium essentially surrounded by shops and homes. Our plan of attack for the afternoon was to retrieve our tickets, visit the pro shop, check in to our hotel, watch the match, and then partake in the evening activities. Our tickets hadn't arrived by the time we left the states, so we left our address in London with girl's mom to express mail the tickets if they had arrived. Since they hadn't, we took our acknowledgement email to the ticket window to get it taken care of.

And we were soon treated to one difference about West Ham. The tickets are actually scanned into one of their fan club ID cards, so we were given two fan cards to get into the game. I had already received mine, but girl wasn't so lucky. Since this took no time at all, we wandered into the pro shop to see what we could by. And that turned out to be a bad idea for my wallet, as we found kits, scarves, stickers, coasters, and polo shirts to wear. They were also offering free personalization of the kits that day, so both girl and I left our kits to have names added for pick up after the match. We then wandered off to the main desk to figure out the hotel thing.

Upton Park offers the chance to stay there as a real hotel, including after match night. However, you can't check into your rooms on match day until 8 Pm because of the time it takes to set them up. We checked in with the desk to find out that we had a reservation but that it hadn't been paid for yet. This was a wedding gift from our amazing friends of the Rose City Irons, so I was a little confused as to what was going on, but figured it would take a phone call or text to our friend Wookie to clear up. We were able to leave our bags there for check in later, and were told to be back here at 6:30 for our stadium tour, then check in was at 8 and dinner was later on that night. So we left our bags, and wandered around the park for a bit. I was trying to find a Homer Simpson West Ham scarf like my friend Jamie has, but we didn't find one. We wandered up to our seats, grabbed a quick lunch, and then headed to our seats in the Bobby Moore end at the top row. This arrangement allowed us to stand if we wanted to...

The stadium was full of color and noise almost 20 minutes before kickoff and it got louder as the Newcastle fans filed in. It was amazing to see the back and forth chanting, and when the Hammers fans broke into I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles right before the match, it sent goosebumps down my arms and spine. I have only had a few sports moments that hit me like this, including a couple of Broncos Super Bowl wins and some great Trail Blazer and Timber wins, but I was truly overwhelmed by the moment and the game hadn't even started yet.

The game itself was a back and forth affair, as the Hammers put in two quick goals only to concede a couple to Newcastle before the first half was over. The second half was a lot of pushing men forward, but no real close shots or defensive breakdowns. While the Hammers were safe from relegation, Newcastle was still fighting to stay clear. The noise ebbed and flowed but it was constant singing and chanting for 90 minutes, with scarves flying about and clapping abound. While both teams played very well, neither deserved to lose so it was sort of fitting that they shared a point in a 2 - all draw. I had been texting my friend S3K back in the States, who was watching Sunderland play so we were kept apprised of things elsewhere while here. The game had ended with me taking a few pictures, and then wandering out to the street level. We found our way back to the sport shop to pick up our kits, and then had about an hour to sit about for the tour.

One of the things we'd been asked to do was to film the tour, so we had packed a video camera to document the event. I went back to the hotel desk to retrieve it, and sure enough, it was done in a matter of moments despite there being dozens of bags in storage. Needless to say, having a green backpack with Timbers stuff on it makes it easy to find. We started our tour on time, and wandered through the locker rooms, the luxury boxes, and on the pitch itself. It's a truly nice park, and something to behold up close. And we were soaking it in as much as we could. The tour took about an hour, and soon we were back in the lobby next to a pub. It was only about 7:30 pm so we ordered a drink before check in. Wookie had texted me back about the hotel, and I told him that while we had reservations, they didn't have any record of anything being paid yet. He texted back to say he'd take care of it, and so we checked into our room at 8 and wandered up to our room.

The hotel was actually turning stadium boxes into hotel rooms, so our stadium box was owned by a construction firm during the day. The sliding glass doors were locked, so you could only look out on the pitch, you couldn't go outside into the stadium. We got ourselves dressed up (I was a bit casual the first time but got myself dressed nicely), and headed to one of the main restaurants for a sit down dinner. And it was very elegant, and in courses. We had a salad, choice of chicken, fish or vegetable pasta, and some dessert to die for, sticky toffee. West Ham also had labeled wines available for purchase, so we split a bottle of wine. It was an extremely filling meal, and it was nice to truly have a nice sit down experience during our trip. It did amaze me that some folks weren't dressed up for dinner, as we were one of the few couples or parties that dressed nice for dinner.

After this, we could have headed to the pub for more drinks, but we decided to retire to our rooms and sleep in a bit. It was cool to look out the window and see a football pitch. I can imagine this is what heaven looks like.

April 27th - Upton Park, Basildon

We woke up about 8:30 AM, and I felt refreshed, although girl was feeling a bit under the weather. Today was the day we were heading to one of her former student's house for dinner, so I showered and headed to get some breakfast while she slept in a bit. We had to check out by 11 AM, so I hurried about to get down and eat. It took a few minutes to find the breakfast eatery, but after some wandering, I found it and sat down to a great English buffet breakfast. There was plenty to eat, and I was able to get a bit of toast for girl before I left. I saw a few familiar faces from our tour last night, but I hurried through breakfast and then wandered down to see how girl was doing. She was feeling a bit better, and having some toast helped a bit. But we also needed to get checked out, head back to our flat, then train out to Basildon for dinner.

As we checked out, we were told the bill was sorted already, so we were good to go. I like that Wookie guy, and soon we were on the tube back to our flat. After dropping our stuff off and relaxing a bit, we were soon on the train out to Basildon. There was a bit of a train detour so we were taking a route to the south, and then bussing into Basildon, but we made it there by 2 Pm and were met by Phillippa and Mandy, her mum. Phillippa was a student of girl's a few years ago when she taught their class at the local school. She was the sixth teacher they had that year, and bonded with them over footy and the town. It was hard for her to leave this group, but then again, if that hadn't have happened, we may never have met. Phillippa and Mandy picked us up at the train station, and soon we were at their house in time for some relaxation and a Sunday roast.

Pete, Mandy's husband was there, and so was Phillippa's brother and Bessie, their dog. Bessie is quite a nice dog, but really is one of the most excitable animals I've ever met. She was excited to see new people, and because of this she didn't mind terribly much at all. This included following girl and I around every time we wandered about the flat. We talked a bit with Mandy and Pete about our trip, the town in general, things going on in the area, and generally just sat down and relaxed. Plus, I had never participated in the Sunday roast thing, so it was nice to be a part of sitting about and eating massive quantities. And we ate, and ate, and had dessert. It was fun to see the interaction amongst the family, as Mandy and Pete were very good parents and Phillipa was a very bright, engaging young girl. I could tell that she missed girl a lot, as probably did many of her former students. We found out that one in particular had been skipping classes and generally had been in trouble, which was sad to hear because he was one of girl's project kids and she had really worked hard on him to take studies seriously. We watched a bit of television, and then Pete pulled out a remote controlled dalek and chased Bessie around the house with it. Ahh, being in the land of Doctor Who, I loved the fact of having a remote controlled toy like that.

The night got away from us, as we were watching an episode of deadliest catch, and then Pete and Phillippa were to drop us off at the train station. They ended up taking us into Upminster, which was about a half an hour down the way, but it saved us a bit of time and jumping about stations. Phillippa was given one of the Cider Girl's official scarves upon leaving, and while it was great to see her, I know girl was sad the visit was so short. She mentioned to me on the train that Phillippa might come for a visit sometime soon, which I didn't have a problem with. It would be nice to show her a part of the world that most people there don't get to see. I could also tell that the former student's issues were bothering girl a bit as well, as it was sad to think that he felt education wasn't important.

But the area we were in is a bit poor and most of the people here don't have a steady trade, and many of the women sell themselves to make money. Many of girl's former students didn't know their dads, or saw very little of their moms either, so she became a surrogate mother to them helping them with day to day things. It was great to see this part of her past, as Basildon seems like a nice little town, but very different from places I'd been to. We ended up getting home, and decided to watch a little telly and drink a bit. So far, Arthur has kept his TV very soft, so apparently we are being very good guests and not bugging him too terribly. And at this point, we still have over two full days in London until we return to the states. The trip has been amazing, and we are now in the home stretch.

Next Time - Shopping English Style, and The Most Obnoxious Store I've Ever Been In

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Lesson in the Rain, And Fun on the English Beach.

April 24th - Canary Wharf

One of the things we had wanted to do while over here was visit a Tesco. It was girl's favorite grocery store while she lived here, and I made every attempt to find one during my trip there in 2006, including taking our group on a wild run about Manchester. We had located the closest location to our flat to be a Tesco express in Canary Wharf, which was right in the middle of the banking district. Figuring this would be about an hour way each way, we figured it was a good use of our time and a great way to get exercise. We soon ventured out to Wapping to find the Thames going in the other direction, then cut over to Canary Wharf.

The clouds were present, but it was actually a nice day as we walked along the river, through some of the smaller neighborhoods east of our flat, and hitting the river trail when we could. The wind was blowing a bit at times, but overall, it was actually pleasant outside. We actually had made good time to get to Tesco, and we prepared for the trip with our backpacks in tow.

The name express probably should have clued us in, but essentially the market was about a third of the size of a regular Tesco, and it didn't have a lot of the stuff a bigger store would have. This provided some disappointment for girl, as she was looking for some specific vegetarian dishes and desserts. I was also a bit out of sorts, trying to avoid being run over by the business folks who came in, grabbed things, and scurried off. It was extremely busy, and people weren't exactly following etiquette or queues, either. But we managed to find enough things for purchase, and soon we were back on our way to our flat. The clouds were thickening up a bit, and the wind was starting to pick up a bit, indicating a thunder storm was coming in. Rather than find the Tube, we decided to rough it and walk back.

The rain wasn't too bad initially, but to avoid the wind, we tried to find side streets near the river that would keep us in the right direction. We were on task and moving forward until we got to a sign that pointed us more north to get to Wapping. Admittedly, we both followed the sign and didn't question it at all. But, after a few minutes and the rain suddenly coming down in buckets, it was apparent we were going a bit out of our way. All the while, girl was focusing on direction, and like my experience in Tesco, I tried to stay out of her way and be quiet.

After some crossbacks, a few viewings on the map, and getting ourselves oriented right, we were finally on the right path, but girl was very frustrated at me for not being more present. We talked about it at the flat, and I could sense that I'd done something very wrong. In my desire to not be a distraction, I walked near her or behind her, and generally let her take the lead. I wanted to show her my confidence in what she was doing, but in my actions, I made her feel like I didn't care and wasn't an active participant in trying to get us home. I had even daydreamed a bit about us living there while we were walking, and so I wasn't completely paying attention to the issue. Not the best thing to admit, but what I learned from this was that being more attentive and active is a better thing. I wasn't trying to cause an issue, just simply let her find the way because she has excellent direction skills. But in taking the hands off approach, she took it worse than I realized. However, we talked it through, and I felt better about things. I never intend on making her feel uncomfortable, but apparently I had done a good job here.

After the walking and being in the rain, we decided to stay put for the night, and eat some of the Tesco food. After our adventure, it took us about 4 to 5 hours to make the round trip, which should have taken 2 to 3 at most. Plus, we were both exhausted, and girl was dealing with the effects of more walking, her feet still healing a bit from Rome, and the issues caused from her pole accident in York. Physically, she was hurting a bit, and I felt bad for her. Here we were in London, too exhausted to do anything, but it was probably a good thing to rest up knowing what more we had in store. We found some TV to watch, including a show called Sexcetera, which had a feature about Portland and the Porcelin Twins. Ok, how weird is it to be in England and see our hometown on TV?

April 25th - Southend

We slept in a bit on Friday, mostly to get back on track after yesterday's debacle. Of the things we wanted to do on our remaining days, it was head to Chafford Hundred for some shopping, Greenwich to see the prime meridian, Virgin Megastore in Oxford Circus, and out to Basildon to see girl's old school and friends. We knew that Sunday was going to be the day we'd meet up with one of her old students, and so Friday was going to be either shopping or seeing sights. We ended up lying in to the afternoon, eating late, but in hindsight, it was nice because we wanted to get our spirits back in sorts.

We ended up leaving the flat and deciding to head to Southend, on the coast of England on the east. Girl had spent a lot of time there while living in Basildon, and I could see why. We caught the train eastbound, and 45 minutes later, we were near the beach. Or the English version anyway. The downtown portion was up on a hill, and you walked down a short road to reach the beach, I suppose you could say the downtown was cliffside. In any event, it reminded me a lot of Seaside or Cannon Beach, OR, as the boardwalk near the beach was full of arcades and snack shops.

We stopped in one to try and win a Homer Simpson plushie, but the claw machine was not being very nice. We also wandered over to the bowling alley to play more claw games, and use the loo. Then, we found another arcade that had the coin operated machines. You put a coin in a slot to drop it on a bigger pile of coins while the game has a metal plate moving back and forth. The object was to cause the pile of coins to drop in a slot, and maybe catch a prize in the process. Girl was a master of this machine, as she cleaned out the prized on one two-pence machine. I did a little bowling, and played more claw machines to try and get Simpsons stuff. But in the end, all we won were two Steven Gerrard phone clips, a bear figurine holding a whip, and a lot of candy from the candy crains.

What was amazing about this part of the trip was to see a place that girl held in a special place in her heart. She spent a lot of time here with her friends, and so it was special to now take me there to show me this great place. We also got to walk on the sand for a bit. Southend also has the world's longest pier, and one thing girl wanted to do while she lived here was to walk the pier. Unfortunately due to the events from the previous day, we didn't walk the pier either, but instead focused on games.

We had considered going shopping in Chafford Hundred that evening, but ended up staying in the arcades until past 9. We wandered back into town to catch our train, and about an hour later, we were back in London. Our train was full of young adults, drinking alcohol and having a small party on board. Yes, at the time we were there, liquor was allowed on the train. So many people traveling about would grab a six pack or 2 liter of cider and drink up on the journey home. Needless to say, it was a bit louder on the train that night, but still fun to watch. The people watching was great, as most of the lads were trying to hit on any fit bird they could.

We wanted to get home and eat something and rest up, knowing that tomorrow was our experience at Upton Park. We wanted to make sure that we were ready to enjoy the game plus the special present our friends back here had got for us. We were actually staying at Upton Park tomorrow night after the game, getting a stadium tour, dinner and then breakfast in the morning. And girl was going to get to watch her beloved Hammers, who I've adopted as well because they are a great team and they have great connections to our area.

We ended up eating a late meal, watching a little TV, and then going to sleep about midnight. I could still hear the arcade sounds in my ears, smelling the candy and snack food in the air. But what the past two days taught me was amazing. I learned to be a better husband, and got to share in some memories that were very important to girl. And I created memories of my own in my struggles to beat the claw machines. But just you wait, cause I'm coming back and next time, it's personal.

Next Time - Upton Park Experience, and Dinner in Basildon