We’ve got Granit Xhaka

Or, at least we still did by the end of the last match of the season, which took place Sunday under sunny skies. By the time I get off this plane, I would not be surprised to hear about his plans to move on. But I hope not.

The mood at The Emirates could have been anything after the way we capitulated the Premier League title. I didn’t expect it to be quite that cheerful. But extremely cheerful it was. 

With regard to our time in London, after we visited the Troubles exhibit at the War Museum, we also visited the exhibit about video war games. Like all the exhibits, it was excellent. I am predisposed to think negatively of video games like many people of “my generation,” but there were plenty of things about the exhibit that gave me, lo these many years later, a grudging appreciation of what a video game provides a participant that cannot be replicated in a book or a movie. And though I do not love that war is replicated in video games, I have to agree with the exhibit: we have long simulated war in play.

We also took a tour of the London Opera House. We have stopped in before when there were no tours, but it’s way more interesting to hear about the history of the Opera House with a very enthusiastic guide and see behind the scenes. While we were touring, a rehearsal was in session and it was cool to hear the performers working on the show. I especially enjoyed hearing about how the sets are created and controlled, and how they evolved over time to become particularly flexible and easy to shift to support a production. And made a note of how awesome it would be some sunny day to have a drink in the Opera café overlooking the Covent Garden market.

After that, we walked over to the Albert & Victoria Museum. I cannot in good conscience give any review. We were exhausted and unable to appreciate it. We decided to find the most significant 10 works, but quit well before that. Another time….

Sunday morning we got up and went to the Mattins service at St. Paul’s cathedral, across the street from our hotel, the Lost Property. It was something else to be in a service like that, in a building like that. The service was mostly choral music. The acoustics of the cathedral are not made for understanding the lyrics, but they are perfect for making you feel like you are experiencing something incredibly special.

The match was later than usual, so we hit up the Princess of Shoreditch for Sunday roast at lunch time instead of dinner. Delicious as always. Then we walked to the match. Long walk. 

I’ve mentioned the Arsenal player Granit Xhaka in previous blogs. For many years after he arrived in 2016 he picked up a lot of red and yellow cards. I remember Arsene Wenger saying, as a means of explanation, he really doesn’t know how to tackle. When you are a top professional, not being able to perform an activity essential to your job is probably not a thing you want your manager to notice about you.

Still, he’s been a starter for the entire time he’s been with the team, usually playing the entire 90 minutes, and has been remarkably healthy for a Gunner. I can’t think of many times he’s been out for injury. 

While he has always seemed to have enjoyed the trust of the Arsenal manager, across three of them no less, and has been a leader among the players, he has not been a fan favorite. There was just always a sense that we could do better. And frustrations with the cards and defensive mistakes. 

All of this culminated in the situation I described in He’s sleeping on the couch now, where as captain of our team he was encouraged/booed off the pitch by fans and responded, let’s say, not well. 

After that event, he was stripped of the captaincy by then-manager Unai Emery and was seemingly on his way out of the team. He said his bags were literally packed and ready to be shipped when our current manager, Mikel Arteta, convinced him not to leave. 

His path to redemption has been nothing short of outrageous.

Because of his early propensity to get carded for fouls, fans now feel a sense of shared defensiveness when he gets a card. It’s started to feel like his reputation and not his actions have caused unfairness by referees. In fact, when someone on another team gets away with a minor foul, everyone–not just our fans–will ask, “Now, if that had been Granit Xhaka, would it have been a yellow card?” 

Fans also started to get a grudging appreciation of his mastery of the dark arts, especially his ability to draw fouls just when we need them. He has this one patented move where he falls with the ball magically between his arms once he hits the deck. It is for sure going to be called a foul by the opponent or a handball by Xhaka. It gets called a foul by the referee every time. My husband says to to hapless, alleged fouler on the TV, “You’ve been Xhakaed.” And Xhaka is now able to get into an argument on the field with an opponent and take it all the way to the edge of the line, when in the past he might have come unhinged and well over the line.

Most importantly, Xhaka has become a critical part of how Arsenal play now. He is much more mobile and involved offensively. His passing is significantly improved and critical to the success of the team. He’s scored goals.

As a result, he’s become a serious fan favorite. Last year, after so many years in the team, he was endowed by the fans with his own song. 

We’ve got (clap clap) Granit Xhaka

We’ve got (clap clap) Granit Xhaka

When interviewed, he’s been open about how much that means to him. 

Everyone talks about how much he changed to be able to win support from the fans that he never had, but I would argue it’s equally true that the change is about the fans. We are able to take the occasional bad with the mostly good, and have appreciation for what our team, including Xhaka, delivers.

He stayed when it was hard, and we fans stayed when it was hard. We worked through our respective stuff and came out better–for ourselves and each other.

It’s clear: Not only have we got Granit Xhaka, we finally “get” Granit Xhaka.

Unfortunately, he’s out of contract soon and, rumor has it, wants to live elsewhere for family reasons. Or, alternate rumor, wants a longer contract than Arsenal are willing to give him at his age. Rumors aside, there are probably many reasons. In any case, it was believed that Sunday’s match was his last one in an Arsenal jersey. 

He had a marvelous day Sunday. Not only did he score the first two goals, he was fervently sung throughout the match. He was taken out of the match with about 15 minutes remaining, and the cheering and singing of support was deafening. In contrast with St. Paul’s Cathedral it is easily possible to understand the lyrics sung in the Emirates. He even got a new song on Sunday when he was substituted. Well, new lyrics to a common tune.

We want you to stay
We want you to stay
Granit Xhaka
We want you to stay

Oh yeah, there were 3 other Arsenal goals. The match ended 5-0.

We end the season with remorse for what we failed to do, but with happiness for what we achieved and optimism for the future.

I’m already scheming about tickets next season.

They will be in short supply.

Peace Sandwich

After a great few days in Dublin, we took the train to Belfast. We arrived late in the afternoon, dropped our stuff off at our hotel, The Europa, and hurried out on the Titanic walk over to the Titanic museum. 

Belfast is in the Northern Republic of Ireland, a different country than Ireland, and part of the UK. Why am I telling you something you probably learned in third grade? Because I myself forgot that. The biggest difference I noticed right away is that in Dublin, every sign is displayed in Irish and English. That is not true in Belfast. I made the incorrect assumption that the people of Northern Ireland were comfortable being part of the UK. The truth is significantly more complicated.

Because it was late in the day when we arrived, the Titanic Museum was fairly empty. We had a few hours to explore before it would close, just enough time to take it in. Ireland of the late 1800s and early 1900s, like many European countries was experiencing industrialization, with many people transitioning to life in city centers, and migration both to and from the country influencing products in development. Belfast was (and still is) the home of a large ship manufacturer, Harland + Wolff. In the early 1900s the company build a number of luxury ships, including the Titanic. 

The company spent two years building the hull of the ship, at which point it was moved into water, where all the finishes and mechanics were added. That took another two years. When the ship was finished in time for its planned maiden voyage, many of the employees involved in the project were rewarded with trips on that voyage. The ship set sail for Southampton, where it picked up the actual passengers on their way to New York. We all know the rest of the story. The ship hit an iceberg within a few days of setting out and sunk within hours, killing more that 1,500 people. Belfast was devastated by the loss of a ship that had been so carefully worked on by many of its citizens so soon after they proudly sent it on its way, and by the many lost citizens who had been on board.

Because the ship was built after the advent of photography, the museum includes photos of progress from the start of the project, plans, and recreations of both the ship building environment and the ship itself, including life-sized models of sleeping quarters. It also includes a recreation of the sinking, what was learned about the cause and the great loss of life during the sinking, and efforts to locate the ship many years after it sunk.

The exhibit was excellent. I learned a lot, and the exhibit also struck an important understanding of the emotional toll. Kind of a dark, sad day.

The next day, we registered for a bus tour of Giants Causeway, a place I have always wanted to visit. Using touring companies is often a great and inexpensive way to get to more remote locations while traveling. We searched using Viator and ended up on a bus run by Paddywagon Tours.

On the way to Giants Causeway we stopped and walked at the Dark Hedges, a road lined with Beech trees. As the only person on earth who never saw Game of Thrones, I take it on faith from our guide that the Dark Hedges appear in Season 2.

That was followed by a visit to an ancient castle, Dunluce Castle, where we walked among the ruins above a wild sea.

Finally, we had a few hours at the main event, Giants Causeway. As we walked from the parking lot down a steep hill, I started to fear that, while beautiful, it was nothing like the pictures I had seen that made me wanted to go for so many years. When we really got to the site, that fear was hugely unfounded. It was beautiful and, as my husband said, like a playground for grownups. We spent a long time climbing on the rocks, and a long time watching the waves crash on the rocks, just enjoying a sunny day above a craggy sea. I always feel so peaceful near the sea, even a wild one.

On our final day in Belfast, we took one of the Black Cab Tours called Politics & Murals, basically a private tour by a cab driver to sites associated with the Troubles. Our particular driver had been active in one of the splinter groups associated with Catholics. He told us our hotel, The Europa, had been one of the most bombed hotels in Europe, all due to the Troubles. It had been bombed more than 30 times times. He took us to various sites in the city where killings took place and where “Peace walls” still exist today. Although he assured us that things were changing, I realized how naïve I’d been about the peace that actually is in place. It is true that people are not being killed daily by feuding factions in Belfast. But that peace is still clearly uneasy. For example, it is still the case that the Peace wall gates are closed every evening to keep Catholics and Protestants separate from each other. My husband asked the guide if he had any friends that were Protestant. He hemmed and hawed a bit and said there are Protestants with whom he is acquainted, but in the back of his mind he could not forget about Catholic people he had known who had built trust with Protestants and were betrayed.

Our driver seemed to think that it was only a matter of time before demographics would be changed enough for Northern Ireland to vote itself out of the UK. But does that mean a unified Ireland? Our driver did not think so. There are a lot of mines to avoid in this particular field.

The tour was excellent and thought-provoking, but it was hard to stop thinking about the futility of avoiding conflict, not just in Northern Ireland, but everywhere. On the surface, the Belfast conflict is between Protestants and Catholics, but I could not detect much about the conflict that has specifically to do with religious differences. In the United States of the present, what was being described was not so different from gang warfare. You could see how issues and misunderstandings could take this even further. A group lives in some poverty which feels to be influenced by discrimination. People struggle to reach agreement about how to tackle the problem, with varying levels of violence involved. Opposition is dehumanized. Rumors are rampant. We kill for rumors because some part of us can believe them to be close enough to truth. We kill for actual vengeance against killings of our own. Things escalate quickly. And solutions come hard, over many years. Or maybe never come, not completely.

We returned to England the same day. Once we got to London, we saw that the Imperial War Museum we had visited in the past had an exhibit starting on The Troubles, so we headed over to learn more in the morning. In this exhibit, a very careful attempt was made to provide balanced coverage of the Troubles, for Catholics, Protestants, and the British. From all angles, it tried to look at how it started, why it continued, how it stopped. A very good exhibit, although we came to no happier conclusions. 

On our way into the exhibit, we overheard a fellow attendee telling someone that he was from Belfast. After we finished the exhibit I excused myself to find the rest rooms. When I returned, my husband was deep in conversation with the guy who had said he was from Belfast. I’ve told you how my husband just meets people wherever we go. This guy looked like a business executive you’d meet at a friend’s cocktail party. Turned out he was one of the IRA participants interviewed for the exhibit. He’d been jailed twice during the Troubles and was incarcerated for many years, ultimately having been released as a part of the agreement that ended the conflict. My husband asked him if he’d ever bombed The Europa hotel, and he laughed a bit. He said everyone bombed The Europa. 

And this is the thing. We were talking to someone who seemed to be a perfectly reasonable guy. This perfectly reasonable guy at some point of his life concluded that there was only one, probably violent, way to solve the problems he and his people faced. Are we all this guy?

Touring with James Joyce

It was cheaper to fly into London and then to Dublin, and we had a very long layover. In an effort to have a quick adventure in London, we investigated checking our luggage early but were rebuffed by Aer Lingus. In the end, we took it with us and took the Piccadilly line to Gloucester Road. We had a coffee and pastry from Gail’s Bakery and then lunch at a pub we’ve visited before, the Heredsford Arms. Yes, dessert first, then main. Life is unpredictable. The blueberry and custard brioche was worthy of that order. Then back to Heathrow. 

We were in Dublin for four nights total. How we organized our time was very much focused on something important to my husband. As a young person he became acquainted, and ultimately obsessed, with the Irish writer, James Joyce. His Masters studies were focused on Joyce and his Masters thesis was about “The Dead,” a short story in Dubliners.

When our youngest child was born almost 22 years ago, we foolishly went to the hospital for a scheduled c section with a too-long list of possible boy’s names and a too-long list of possible girls’ names. After our son’s birth, we were able to throw out one list, but the remaining list had not settled a serious family political issue. My husband had been named for his father, and there was some desire and some pressure to follow suit with our son. (Meanwhile, our 3-1/2 year old daughter told everyone the baby’s name was “Trickely Thomas.”) Looking at our newborn son, we decided he most looked like a James. This was not the multi-generation family name that would have brought the happiest family resolution, but we went forward with it. My mother-in-law had come into town to care for our daughter during the week of the birth. I don’t know whether she really believed this or was simply making peace, but she told the family our son was named after James Joyce. Everyone knew how much my husband loved James Joyce. It was accepted. 

James Joyce grew up in Dublin in the late 19th century and though he left Ireland early in life, most of his works were set in Dublin. When he wrote Ulysses, he told an interviewer that it had been his intention for anyone to be able to visually reconstruct Dublin simply by reading his book. His wishes were granted for the people who are able to undergo the effort required to read it, but it is entirely possible that the writing of this celebrated book did truly preserve for the rest of us parts of Dublin that may not have survived. For example, 100 years later, it is still possible to visit a cafe mentioned in the book and buy a Gorgonzola sandwich, just as one of the characters in the book did. 

A few months before we left for this trip I tried to read Ulysses, about two men living one day in Dublin. I couldn’t get past the first page. So you get the picture. We were in Dublin, one of us loving James Joyce and understanding Dublin through his literature and one of us knowing very little about him.

Using James Joyce to guide our journey was still a great way to tackle Dublin. We started at the James Joyce Centre associated with Trinity College, where we took a wonderful walking tour to see some of the sites important to James Joyce, the emerging writer, and to plot points in his books. I would guess I was one of the few people on the tour who was not a Joyce lover and what I loved best was seeing my husband with “his people,” including our excellent guide, Josh, who grew up in Buffalo, NY and fell in love with James Joyce and Dublin so much he never left.We also visited a Martello tower along the coast that Joyce lived in for a few days and where he set a scene in Ulysses. My husband was quickly adopted by the volunteer tour guide, Nile, clearly a Joyce fanatic, while I enjoyed the beautiful scenery and watching people swim and laugh in a pool in what looked like a very cold sea—something people had long enjoyed doing, even during the time Joyce found himself there. We also visited the Museum of Literature Ireland, which has a great exhibit on Joyce.

We visited every James Joyce site we could find on the map we had received at the James Joyce Centre by the time we left Dublin. As my husband was taking a picture at one of the sites, he said, wistfully, “I just wish there was someone I could share these pictures with.” The person in his life who had loved James Joyce as much as my husband, Professor James Frakes at Lehigh University, passed away many years ago. 

I dedicate these pictures of my experience touring Dublin through the lens of James Joyce to the people in our lives who become captivated by something or someone, changed by it, guided by it. We may not ourselves understand that something or someone, but we can honor it, and love them even more for it.

With no regard for James Joyce at all, we also visited Howth where we hiked along the Cliff walk, visited the Guinness factory which concludes with a pint in a rooftop bar, strolled in St. Stephen’s Green, and visited the General Post Office Museum focused on the Easter uprising of 1916. Highly recommend all four.

Ticket > Golden Ticket > Ticket

When last I left you, Arsenal had just beaten Tottenham at home. I had already paid standard price for the tickets for the last match of the season, Arsenal v. Wolves. As you know, this is my thing. Whenever I can buy tickets for the last match of the season, I do. It matters not who Arsenal will play that day. The point is that the Premier League trophy is handed out just after the last home match for the winner. If Arsenal happen to be that winner, my hopefulness will be rewarded. It has never before happened.

Even if not, there is a different reward. The match will for sure be played on a fully predictable date at a fully predictable time. That’s because all matches on the last day of the season are played at the same time, to mitigate the kind of boring matches that could occur when two teams playing each other realize they both only need a tie to avoid relegation or finish in spots that guarantee European competition next year. Being able to predict the day and timing of the match makes it possible to make early travel plans and not have to wait until Sky announces the TV schedule to be sure of when the match will be played.

Last match of the season or no, things I know can stop a match from being played:

  • Bomb threat at the stadium
  • Global pandemic
  • Death of the monarch
  • Tube strike

Looking at that list, it seems silly to say that the last match of the season is predictable at all. All the things in the list have happened recently and have stopped matches. Even last matches. The only variable removed from the equation is Sky. And the intentions of the Premier League.

Still, I felt good enough about things that we not only planned travel to London, my husband and I added a week of travel in Ireland before the match.

What I could not have predicted: how close we came to picking up that trophy. Arsenal stayed in first place until nearly the end of April, with Man City getting stronger and stronger and Arsenal becoming shakier and shakier. What used to be our traditional slump in November is now, two seasons running, a slump the last month of the season. It’s mostly injury-based. We don’t have the squad depth of the expensively-, and allegedly rule-floutingly-, constructed Man City. No one does. Our two best players were obtained from Manchester City during the summer because they are not good enough to play for Manchester City. It must be said that we did have a team available that still could have challenged better by the end. We fell apart mentally, not just physically.

While Arsenal were still looking great, tickets for the last match became more and more scarce and more and more valuable. There was a rumor that tickets were becoming available for resale for that last match at a price of more than £20,000 apiece. I’m curious if anyone took that bait. 

I would not have dreamed of parting with my tickets. 

They are worth considerably less today. While we’ve been in Dublin, Manchester City celebrated their 5th Premier League title in 6 years. I would have loved to avoid seeing them celebrating but we were having dinner in a pub in Dublin that was showing it on TV. We muttered darkly amongst ourselves while drinking the requisite, equally dark, Guinness. 

Wisdom from the side of a pub in Dublin, which we encountered after watching Arsenal lose against Nottingham Forest, effectively handing the title to Manchester City.

It’s been a marvelous year of rebirth for the Arsenal. We had exciting matches with beautiful play. I watched them from my home, from the Emirates, and from bars in Detroit, Rochester, and Dublin. We qualified for the Champions League for the first time in years. We celebrated St. Totteringham’s day, alsofor the first time in years. We will finish the League in second place for the first time since 2016. Whether we win or not on the last day. Whether I attend or not. 

I will attend. I can’t wait.

At the end, Spurs went over to thank their fan. . .

. . . for by the time the whistle blew, there was approximately one Tottenham fan remaining in the stands. 

What. A. Day.

We left the Somerset house and made our way over to the Covent Garden tube station. We had a bit of time so we walked through Covent Garden, enjoying the sun and the market. Not much was going on by this time, it was far too early, but it was still fun to look at the shops and restaurants and market. 

Normally, we take the Piccadilly line all the way to the Arsenal stop. The other option, sometimes, is Holloway Road, which allows you to enter the stadium complex from the opposite side. We always think of the Arsenal Tube stop as part of the required game day experience, but in reality, the Holloway Road stop is often closed on match days and not really an option. It was an option yesterday, maybe because we arrived with more than 90 minutes to spare. There were plenty of people who had the same idea. 

We used part of our time to stop into the Armoury and look at the merch. In the interim since our last visit I had decided that the pink jersey was not for me; rather, the black one was. However, the lingering Pandemic/Russia invasion supply chain crisis had a few things to say about that; there were actually no jerseys available in any color but red, anywhere near my size. Probably for the best. We departed merch-less.

We left the shop and wandered over to Highbury, which is just a few blocks away. The old Arsenal stadium has been turned into townhomes and the pitch is a park in the middle. The entrances were well guarded on Saturday. There have been times when we were able to sneak in, but that was not going to happen without a fight this time.

We took a few pictures and went over to Gillespie Road to pick up some barbecue for lunch. Then we went back and circled the stadium, picking up as much good luck as possible. By the time we went inside, I had chased down Gunnersaurus, the ridiculous Arsenal mascot, and got a photo bomb-like picture with “him,” posed with Statue Tony Adams, rubbed Statue Thierry Henry’s head, and touched Statue Dennis Bergkamp’s right knee before entering the stadium. 

The fans were up for the match; it was a party atmosphere, even more than what we experienced for the past few matches. I suppose this was not surprising considering we were playing our arch rivals, Tottenham. I’ve never been to a match against Tottenham. It happens to be the favorite match of the person who shares the season tickets that allows us to attend. When we were here for the last set of matches, we asked him why he wasn’t attending the Tottenham game this year. He admitted that we had his daughter to thank. She was getting married in Greece right at about kickoff. He told us it was a hard match to miss; whatever the atmosphere was normally like, for the North London Derby, it was 20% more.

I’d say that was about so.

There have been a few beer-related changes at the Emirates recently. One of the changes: Arsenal no longer has a contract with Carlsberg for beer. Instead, it’s with the much preferred Camden Town brewery. Second: there is a beer-only concession line to more quickly serve the fans who want only that. (Many.) And finally, the beer is served in “London is Red” themed reusable glasses. Signs all over the Emirates, including in the restrooms, remind us that these cups can be reused up to 100 times if deposited in the correct bins.

We learned this week from this article that the Emirates has the Premier League’s most expensive beer. We didn’t think twice about it and had the Camden Hells Lager in the upper concourse while watching fans arrive across the Ken Friar bridge and listening to a live brass band of fans, with the other fans joining in to sing. There were so many people crammed into the area I could only reliably see the top of the tuba. But it was gloriously loud.

At last we piled into Block 98, for the newly obligatory and much-loved singing of “North London Forever” and kickoff. Although Tottenham is near the top of the league, Arsenal looked great from the time the whistle blew. Dynamic, tricky, beautiful and fast. Meanwhile, Tottenham had parked a big bus in front of its goal, waiting for a counterattack. They did get a few balls off to a waiting Tottenham player and there were some nervy moments, but the first goal was to the Arsenal. Thomas Partey took a beautiful shot from distance. I’ve seen him take a lot shots far from the goal before, but never have I see him take a shot from distance that I knew was going in from the moment he struck it. It curved perfectly to the top right corner where Hugo Loris, Spur’s keeper, was never going to save it. “One nil to the Arsenal” was ringing out all over the stadium.

Before the half was over, Spurs managed to move the ball into the box and our Gabriel fouled Spur’s newly-acquired player, Richarlison. I was so sure Harry Kane’s penalty kick was going in that I considered making better use of my time by visiting the ladies’ room. However, there were so few women in the stands, I had no doubt I would be the first one in after half time. I visited in nearly complete privacy only a bit later with things level at 1 apiece. 

Arsenal continued dominating after half time and Jesus scored a scrappy, ugly goal that nonetheless put us at 2-1, when Loris spilled a shot from Saka. Shortly after that, Spur’s Emerson Royal put in a bad foul on our Gabi Martinelli. Referee Anthony Taylor took his time walking over to the site of the crime, and when he arrived, reached for his back pocket. The red card he produced stood up to VAR scrutiny, and Tottenham was down to 10 players for the remaining 30 minutes. Now I know Tottenham is probably capable of producing a moment to make us sweat and you probably know that, too, but apparently no one ever told Tottenham’s manager, Antonio Conte. He pretty much capitulated by replacing 4 starting players. Only Harry Kane remained among players likely to score. And yes, he probably could still have done some damage. 

Except he did not.

Instead, our Granit Xhaka was fed a ball inside the box and he put up a beauty of a shot away from anywhere Loris was going to be able to get. 3-1 with 20 minutes to go and very little to worry about. In the stadium we enjoyed the last few minutes with songs, which if I am being honest were more focused on taunting Tottenham than celebrating our win. We sang “You’ll always be shit” to the team that has finished above us for at least the past five years. The Tottenham section became a ghost town as their fans dribbled out of the stadium.

We remain at the top of the league.

After hanging around cheering our boys, we spilled out of the stadium into the beautiful Fall day and marched with our compatriots, singing and chanting, to Holloway Road. My husband and I got on a bus and headed toward Hampstead Heath, the beautiful, big park not far from Islington. 

We enjoyed walking past ponds and through fields and groves of trees, and taking in the famous, beautiful sight of the city from the highest point. 

On our way to the tube station on the other side of the park we passed a lovely pub with outdoor seating called The Garden Gate, where we made an impromptu visit for beer and dinner while enjoying being outside. A lovely ending to a successful North London Derby.

My first, but hopefully not my only.

In the airport this morning I read an article on ESPN.com that provided updated statistics from FiveThirtyEight about the chances of any one team winning the Premier League. According to them, Arsenal’s chances to win the Premier League are only 10%. Manchester City, last year’s winner and, let’s face it, the winner for at least half of the last 10 years is credited with a 71% chance.

These are not the kind of statistics that make you feel confident of a big, happy ending to come. And, statistics or no, I can see with my own eyes that we have a ways to go to catch a team as good as Manchester City. Except for a couple of tied matches, they are destroying everything in their path.

However, that hasn’t stopped me from signing on for the last match of the season. No matter how unlikely the chances, if we get the trophy on the final day, I will be there.

Art–to enjoy, eat and ponder

We woke up in London on Saturday morning after a long flight, a nap, a late, delicious lunch and an Old Fashioned at the fabulous Indian restaurant Dishoom, a drenching rain, a cup of tea, and a decent night’s sleep. We found ourselves again at the CitizenM, this time in Shoreditch. Again, not because we love it so much, but hotels were in short supply this weekend at our price point. 

In fact, we had to go well above our price point even to stay at the CitizenM. The London Marathon was on Sunday and the supply of hotels had been eaten up by the healthy and driven folk who engage in such things.

As you may recall, Shoreditch is a slightly gritty neighborhood known for its nightlife and street art. I love the street art, but it is hard not to notice a more commercial leaning in the art since the last time we visited this area. It seems that businesses are now hiring artists to paint their exteriors rather than the random artist showing up in the dead of night to make his or her mark. And maybe these new ones are not just normal artists. This morning (now Sunday) I encountered a group of people next to a truck in front of some street art that appeared to be under some renovation. The people were wearing neon work vests with the words “Global Street Art” on them. I can only hope this is a way that the artists among us are able to engage in their life’s work and earn a good living. Something about it felt a little disappointing. 

Photo: WholeArsed

Still, I loved looking at all of the street art, even the commercial kind, as we were out and about. This turned out to be quite a lot as the CitizenM in Shoreditch is not really close to the Tube. Every time we turned a corner we saw some new art to enjoy.

I mentioned a good night’s sleep. That was actually only me. My husband arose far too early and spent his time reading the news and researching where we might be able to attain an early-ish breakfast. The match against Tottenham was very early, 12:30 p.m., perhaps to minimize the amount of alcohol to be consumed by fans beforehand. Most of the breakfast to be had nearby was available at 11 a.m., not going to cut it on a day we were determined to be at the stadium early. We ended up selecting the Savoy Kitchen, a lovely but small cafe that started serving breakfast at 8 a.m. The yogurt bowl and porridge were works of art themselves, and hit the spot.

Art and poem by Grada Kilomba

We hopped on a bus to head over to an art installation at the Somerset House courtyard. The installation was created by Portuguese artist Grada Kilomba, and represents the shape of a ship, like those that carried millions of Africans against their will and humanity into Western enslavement.

The memorial was constructed of charred blocks, in which a poem also created by the artist was inscribed in gold, line by line, in some of the blocks.

It was a moving display, made more so by the glistening of the blocks and the shadow cast under the morning sun. The shadow of our history continues to darken our present.

We left just as the the courtyard of the Somerset House was coming to new life with other visitors.

Slodgey victory over Villains

Arsenal played Aston Villa Wednesday evening. Funnily (to me), they are referred to as “Villains.” Aston Villa was the team Arsenal played on the last day of the the 2016 season that we were lucky enough to attend. They had already been relegated by the time of the match, and what most of that team had to play for was the opportunity to be picked up by an alternate team remaining in the Premier League. Although Aston Villa put up an early fight in that match, Arsenal beat them handily in the end. That happened to be the last time Mikel Arteta (our current manager) played in before he retired. He was instrumental in the last goal scored, although it ultimately when down as an own goal.

Aston Villa won promotion back to the Premier League a few seasons ago. Although they sat in relegation territory after the first 4 matches this year, they had played some relatively tough teams and came away with 1 tie and 3 very narrow losses. Although they seem to be struggling to score goals, they have equally been doing a good job of keeping goals out of their own net.

We met a fellow Arsenal fan friend for dinner before the match and walked to the stadium afterward. Fun to walk among all those fans. Looking at the fellow walkers, it was abundantly clear that the 2022 merchandise is very, very popular. At first I was not a very big fan of the home jersey (it has a collar, which seems strange, a bit nerdish and not fearsome). It’s been growing on me. And the 3rd, pink jersey…..when I first saw it I was all “no way, what were they thinking?” And after two matches played in it, and seeing many local fans in it, I am all “where can I buy this?” 

 I do know exactly where I can buy it. However, Security was super tight Wednesday and I was lucky to be in my seat in time for kickoff. Some other time. I see that Arsenal have started touting a new green and yellow warmup top this week. It’s pretty sweet. Who knows what they will convince me of by the time I’m back?

Aston Villa came in and did what a team like that should strategically do: slow things down, destroy rhythm, and be very, very physical. It was very similar to the last match on Saturday against Fulham, and quite successful. 

That does not, however, make it easy to watch. I was hoping for a match that would make me feel quickly secure and then enjoy a bunch of pretty goals. Instead we worked hard to get the first goal about 30 minutes in. Gabriel Jesus scored a scrappy goal following a rebounded shot by Granit Xhaka. And then, we struggled to make anything else happen. The refereeing was universally terrible, which made the physicality of the match concerning for the future. Arsenal already have injury trouble among defensive midfielders.

Into the second half, the Villains managed a goal on a corner kick. The kicker, Douglas Luiz, put it in the net himself, a rare phenomena, aided by what looked like interference by a teammate on our keeper, Aaron Ramsdale. The referee did not see it that way, nor did VAR. Fortunately, it ended up not being a talking point at all because Arsenal managed to squeak in a second goal about 10 minutes later. Gabriel Martinelli, who had a very good match, put up a tricky, high shot that the Aston Villa keeper couldn’t handle.

The last minutes of the match were as nervy as could be. I was a wreck.

Although I felt happy with the outcome by Thursday morning, at the final whistle on Wednesday night all I felt was relief.

The atmosphere in the stadium was again great. Despite being nervous as hell, it was so good to be among a truly supportive crowd.

Arsenal now face a run of tough matches, many of them away from home. We didn’t have any luck on the transfer deadline day bringing in defensive midfielders. We tried for–of all people–the very Douglas Luiz who scored that corner kick. (If you can’t beat ’em?) Aston Villa was not interested in selling.

Today, Aston Villa applied a very similar strategy for Man City as for Arsenal and managed to come away with a 1-1 tie. In addition to being useful for Aston Villa, the tie was useful for Arsenal, as Man City is currently in second place after 6 matches.

Here’s hoping Arsenal can win pretty again. But mostly, here’s hoping we can keep winning.

Magic TOOTbus

The first time I came to London was for business. At the end of a planned meeting, there were exactly three hours available to see the city. That time, I opted for a hop on, hop off bus. It was a good way to see a lot of the city, albeit only at a surface level. It made me realize that there was much more to see and do and that London would be a great destination for a longer vacation. That is partly what inspired us to take a Christmas trip with our kids in 2012. When we ask our kids about their favorite all-time Christmas memories, one of them usually brings up that trip.

Since then, although my husband and I have sometimes used city busses to get around in London, we’ve never again ridden a hop on, hop off-type tourist bus. That is, until Wednesday. My husband has always wanted to do that, and since this trip to London has been longer than usual, we were happy to have someone else do the planning. My husband did some research and selected Tootbus.

The basics of all of these bus companies: you ride along predetermined routes while listening to information about the attractions you are driving past using an audio guide. And, as you might expect, you can get off at any time and delve into specific attractions as you wish. In London, it appears that many hop on, hop off companies offer similar routes. In the tour we took, there were two routes available. We hopped off once to change routes and once to have lunch.

What was most evident to me is that the areas of London we have not much visited over our many trips are those primarily devoted to shopping. I had forgotten how lively Piccadilly circus and the commercial area around Harrod’s is. (It still did not make me want to shop!)

The other thing that really struck me: pubs in London are gorgeous. A container gardener could do a lot worse in getting ideas than to wander around looking at all the pubs in town. Better still if that gardener is traveling with a beer or pie aficionado.

When the audio guide was not providing information about sights around London, it was playing songs from British artists. They were mostly great songs. However, I noticed that my husband removed his headphones when Rod Stewart was singing Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? It had been a while since I heard that one. It had not aged well. And maybe not the best example of British art?

In all, a fun and relaxing day, and we got some ideas for areas we want to explore next time we’re in London.

Like the Côte d’Azur, but gritty

As we headed over London Bridge on our way to London Bridge Station, we were walking against traffic. The Bank Holiday was over, and all of England was crossing the bridge on their way to work. However, several people had pulled off to the side of the bridge and were standing, watching over the water. That seemed strange, so we became curious also. When we looked out into the Thames, we could see the head of a person in the water, and a rescue boat on the way. The water was moving quickly, but the rescue boat was able to get in front of the person in the water and toss them a life ring. Hopefully, it all ended well. 

Our train to Brighton was delayed numerous times due to some kind of switching problem in Brighton, but at some point we were directed on our way. We’ve very rarely left London while we’ve been in town, and it was fun to see the green and lush English countryside on our way to Brighton. Brighton is a little over an hour from London by train, situated on the English Channel.

Photo: WholeArsed

Upon arriving in Brighton, we walked down the hill to the beach. There was something about the town that seemed so familiar, and I realized it kind of had the feel of Nice, France, that we had just visited this spring during our son’s semester of Study Abroad. It was like Nice, but gritty. This is not a criticism or either Brighton or Nice. Nice is lovely and fun to go to, but it does not have much grit. It feels like a place you go to be out of the world. Brighton feels like a place you go to be in the world.

The first order of business was to find the best Fish and Chips in town. Our googling brought us to an establishment called Bardsley’s, where we ordered the Cod, which the menu informed us was England’s favored fish. And it was very delicious fish….delicious enough to almost make up for the chips, which if I’m being honest were a bit soggy. 

We walked over to the Royal Pavilion and gardens. The Royal Pavilion was built as a summer home for King George IV in multiple stages. It was sold to the city of Brighton by Queen Victoria. As you can see, its architecture is unusual among the Royal dwellings. Its gardens have been recently restored and are fully organic. Some dedicated volunteers were busy weeding and pruning. Very pretty area.

Photo: WholeArsed

Then we walked back to the beach and along the Brighton Palace Pier, which has a big amusement park. School is not yet in session at least for some kids, who seemed to be having a great time on the rides and playing carnival games. There is an old electric railway, and we rode it to the point and back. 

Photo: WholeArsed

It was time for more adult pursuits. We stopped by a bar on the beach and enjoyed the breeze and some drinks while listening to live music. 

A very lovely day by the sea.

Photo: WholeArsed

Much ado about Pi

Sometimes the thrill of going to London is nearly as big as the thrill of attending an Arsenal match. As soon as we learned we had tickets for the Fulham and Aston Villa matches, we booked air tickets. And as soon as we booked air tickets, I booked roast dinner at The Princess of Shoreditch and tickets to attend a play at the Globe. We have had roast, my favorite culinary experience in England, at the Princess several times in the past. We have never been able to attend a play at the Globe theatre.

In the past, the outdoor play season has ended before the Premier League started, or at least before we have had match tickets. But this time, the World Cup in Qatar is in the winter, causing the Premier League season to start early and end late to accommodate a break in the winter. Yes, I have greed and graft in the soccer world that accompanied the Qatar World Cup to thank for the fun we had today.

In truth, my actual hope has not only been to attend a play at the Globe, but specifically to attend as a groundling, a peasant attendee who has to stand throughout the performance right at the front of the stage. You can attend as a groundling for £5, assuming you are lucky enough to get a ticket. Sadly, groundling tickets were sold out already when I was attempting to book, and really, almost all tickets for yesterday’s performance were sold out. My husband and I had tickets in different sections of the theatre.

The play running yesterday was Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Although both my husband and I were English majors and took several semesters of Shakespeare, neither of us remembered the plot of this play. Like all Shakespeare comedies I can remember the plots of, the play features the intrigue of love. The play was wonderful, so well acted, and the groundlings for sure had the most fun and produced the most fun for those of us in the seats. Like being in the front row of Blue Man Group, groundlings are an important part of the show….and do get wet.

And dinner….I am obsessive about chicken in the UK. It is so, so much better than chicken in the US. And the very best I ever had was at the Princess of Shoreditch. Alas, it is so yummy it is almost always sold out by the time we arrive, and yesterday was no exception. I decided to try a vegetarian option this time, called Almonds and Dates. It turned out to be kind of like sliced bread stuffing. It was good, kind of strange. Also had a cold pea and mint soup. That was yummy. And roast always comes with Yorkshire pudding, my favorite part of the whole experience. I topped it off with a cherry ice cream sandwich.

The person who helped us select beer made a great suggestion for next time—when you book you can add a note that you’d like chicken. I feel that there is a lot of delicious chicken in my future.

Today we had a relatively quiet day, but formed a plan to see another play, The Life of Pi at the Wyndham theatre. This is the story of a boy who survives a shipwreck and is asked to tell how. He tells two stories, one fantastical, a story of wits, the other grim, a story of base survival. This was also a wonderful play, with wonderful staging.

Tomorrow we will go to Brighton beach. No shipwrecks planned (at least so far.)