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.