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

So much optimism, it’s confusing

We left the hotel, me in my 2019 Arsenal jersey and my husband in an Arsenal jacket. The Tube station is more or less under our hotel and we saw one other fan enter the train in his Arsenal shirt, a small boy. We changed trains at Kings Cross St. Pancras to the Piccadilly line and were joined by considerably more Arsenal jerseys, including a lot of the black Away jersey and many of this year’s pink Away jersey. By the time we stopped a few times to pick up more people, the majority of people on the train were Arsenal fans. The train let us out at Arsenal station, only the few neutrals continuing onward on the train. We were playing Fulham, also in London, and there were a few Fulham fans mixed in with our crowd.

In all the time I’ve been coming to matches, I’ve never seen the fans quite so jacked up. They were singing for all they were worth along the Ken Friar bridge and into the stadium. I went to the seats to watch the warmup and my husband went to find a beer.

We were both in our seats at the singing of North London Forever (really called The Angel), the song written by a local musician/fan that commenced being used at the stadium at the end of last season. That was pretty special and I felt the lump in my throat. Once the match started, the stadium was electric.

Normally, I am very tuned into the details of the match but I couldn’t find my focus. There was so much chanting and cheering, none of it very coordinated. A third of the stadium was singing one song, a third singing something else, and a final third singing something else entirely. I started to realize that I had only one purpose—to sing and support my team and will it, with thousands of others, to a win.

It registered with me that we weren’t having our best match. Odegaard was playing well, but things were a bit sloppy from everyone else. Other than that, there were only five moments that stood out in my mind.

  1. Jesus getting drawn in on some Fulham bad behavior and getting a yellow card before the end of the first half. Great animosity toward the referee. Seeing the guy in front of us in a wheelchair doing the international hand sign of—let’s call it—self love, and hearing the toddler next to us pipe up in his tiny voice, while holding his stuffed bear—“you DON’T know WHAT you’re doing! You DON’T know WHAT you’re doing!”
  2. Mitrovic getting behind the last two Arsenal defenders where they had no chance of catching up to get the ball. One of them was going to have to bring him down, risking a red card and maybe a penalty if it didn’t happen soon enough. And neither of them did. Instead, Mitrovic swung his mighty leg back to take a mighty shot that would produce a mighty goal….and then fell down as if God herself had laid a banana peel in his path.
  3. Our Gabriel having the ball at his feet a moment too long and Mitrovic picking his pocket. God, fresh out of banana peels, shrugging while he scored a big goal. The Fulham fans going berserk with joy. And we Arsenal fans doubling down on singing and cheering to get through this moment. 0-1.
  4. Odegaard scoring a deflected shot to bring the score to 1-1. I never took my eyes off the match, but where the ball came from, I have no memory.
  5. Willing the last goal from a corner kick near the end of the 90 minutes, from the foot of Gabriel. It wasn’t pretty but it was in the net. Waiting interminably for a ruling on a possible handball. Then celebrating like mad, as you do when you looked to be losing or tying, and ended up winning.

We hung around after the final whistle soaking up the joy, then walked back over to Arsenal station. The entire train was filled with Arsenal jerseys and fans, until stop by stop, the proportion of fans to regular people changed completely. Finally, my husband and I were the only fans left in the train car.

Singing the New Songs

People sometimes ask me how I came to love the Arsenal. The answer is I started watching them….and something spoke to me. I’ve heard someone describe picking a team as akin to a “sorting hat,” a la Hogswarts. The beauty of play was special, and I was fairly quickly sorted. Never to be unsorted. At […]

He’s sleeping on the couch now

Although I’ve visited the Emirates on many occasions and often stopped into the Armoury shop, I have rarely purchased anything. The Armoury is a huge retail space at the west end of the stadium nearest Holloway road. On a match day, it is bustling with people looking to buy jerseys, jackets, key chains, dish towels, pencils, hats, golf balls, oven mitts branded with the Arsenal logo. If you want to see a model of efficiency in printing money, you need only watch the system of queuing to pay for merchandise at the Armoury.

 

The reason I am so familiar with this model is that I decided I need a jersey. Adidas is again Arsenal’s shirt maker, and I happen to love the new home jersey. I’ve also never owned the home jersey, so this is the year! After we got off the Tube at Arsenal station, we walked to the other end of the station and parted with some cash. Then we walked all around the stadium, taking in the new art, the fans, and the sunny day. 

 

By the time we got to our gate I was getting quite nervous about getting to our seats, because getting through Security at the Emirates is not nearly as efficient as buying a jersey at the Armoury. We had seen droves of people backed up at every entrance as we walked around. Because I had a bag from shopping, I had to get it tagged, but the tagging area is very close to the “Ladies search” area. I separated from my husband to be tagged and searched. I should know better than to worry because the lines for ladies to get through Security are always much, much shorter than for the guys. So much shorter that I noticed a few guys trying to get through the ladies line by pretending they were with ladies whom they were chivalrously escorting through Ladies’ Search. A bearded gentleman to my left kept chatting me up as we got closer to the Ladies Search area, I think to appear to be with me.

After I was searched, the Security guard turned to him and asked, “Why are you here, sir?” “Oh! I used to be a bloke,” he explained good naturedly. She looked like the kind of woman who would never succumb to a line like that. But looks are deceiving: She let him through.

20191027_162754I got to my seat just before kickoff. The fans seemed well-engaged and were in good voice. It was a good thing I got to my seat before kickoff because we scored quickly. Arsenal got a quick corner kick. On Pepe’s first try, he didn’t even pass the first defender, but it got kicked out so he was able to give it another shot. This time, Crystal Palace made such a hash of the clearance that Sokratis was able to bounce it crazily off the ground and into the net. 1-0. Only a few minutes later, David Luiz scored in a similar situation. 2-0.

I don’t think anyone in the stadium felt the game was won at that point. We toiled more than we should have and it felt like Aubameyang couldn’t get any service at all. Lacazette got better service but, honestly, it looked like he’d been prematurely rushed back from injury. He didn’t look sharp, or at least he didn’t look like he could successfully evade the kind of attention he was getting from Crystal Palace’s defenders. At some point, Crystal Palace got the ball to Zaha, who carried it into the box, where any moron would say he’d been fouled by our boy, Calum Chambers, and earned a penalty. Every moron except the special moron Martin Atkinson, that is. He gave Zaha a yellow card for simulation. All of this was correctly overturned, after a long wait, by VAR, and Crystal Palace got the penalty kick they deserved. They did not miss. 2-1.

The second half didn’t look very promising, and before long, some poor defensive play by Arsenal allowed Crystal Palace to score again. Granit Xhaka allowed a ball to be crossed and David Luiz wasn’t close to the player who received it. He made no mistake and it was 2-2. 

What happened next was hard to see. You heard me say a few days ago that I don’t understand why Xhaka is untouchable as a starter. Although you can see that he has some utility, he’s not a guy a team should be built around and yet, that is what seems to have happened. He is also the team captain, nominated by his fellow players. So they must clearly see him in a light that is different from the light we fans see him in. He does appear to be a confident figure, tall and commanding. But he is extremely fallible: Commits a lot of costly and pointless fouls, chases the ball, misses his mark. 

After he was nominated captain, I found it interesting that when other players commented on the decision, they highlighted his propensity for handing out team fines. I find that weird, but I recall the same kind of commentary about Per Mertesacker when he was captain. A soccer leader is someone who notices the faults in others and holds them accountable. Ok, then!

Anyway, a few weeks ago, when Xhaka was removed from a home game before the end, the fans cheered. Normal fan behavior when a player comes off is applause from the fans, a polite, “thanks for your work.” Cheering is not done. On that day, he’d been having a real stinker and I think fans were still smarting from the nomination to Captaincy. In yesterday’s match, I didn’t think he played too badly. Anyway, Unai Emery substituted him at about the normal 60 minutes for a first sub and the fans cheered. Xhaka repaid the fans by leaving the pitch, with his team tied 2-2 in a clearly winnable game, as slowly as he possibly could. By the time he got to the sidelines he was being actively booed and jeered by the section closest to the player’s seats, and he was milking it as negatively as possible by putting his hand to his ear. He took off his shirt and went right down the tunnel. Total damper and downer. 

He was replaced by a youngster, Saka, and things did go a bit better after that. Martin Atkinson made a special point of calling every flop by Crystal Palace a foul. We still had at least one sub that could be made when the fans began singing a useful reminder for Unai Emery:

We’ve got Özil

Mesut Özil

I just don’t think you understand

He’s Arsene Wenger’s man

Better than Zidane

We’ve got Mesut Özil

Everybody knew that Özil was not going to be substituted no matter how nicely we sang and suggested because, once again, he didn’t even make the bench. But, yes, we all wonder, “Why?” How is it possible that someone with that level of skill, our most highly compensated player, is not able to start or even make the bench, especially when you see our forwards starved of service? It is confounding.

Sokratis ended up scoring again, but for no reason we can understand, it was ruled not a goal by VAR. At the field, you don’t get any information about why a goal was disallowed and you don’t get to see any replays. Like many people, after the match was over, I’ve watched replay after replay of the build up to that goal. There is simply no reason that anyone could rule it disallowed. None. But it happened anyway.

20191027_152517The game ended to boos, I think by that time, mostly directed at the officiating. The crowd walking back to the Tube was deeply philosophical, judging who was at fault for the various events of the day. There was much to discuss, from the ineffectual coaching, to why other teams are having no problem sorting us out, to the Xhaka moment and the various parties to blame (Xhaka, Emery, the fans), to what value VAR can/cannot offer.

We headed over to Shoreditch again, because you know Sunday means roast, my favorite British tradition. Leaving nothing to chance, I booked dinner at the Princess of Shoreditch as soon as we had our tickets to the match. I had the beef loin roll and my husband had hake. For dessert, trifle and some chocolatey thing. It was delicious, as always.

 

Because we’d failed in our quest to get London Pride beer on Saturday night, my husband felt we really needed to top off our dinner at the Astronomer, a pub near our hotel. We settled in with our beer and were befriended by a guy who claimed he was from Cypress and an Arsenal fan. I found he did not seem to know much about the team or the match that had just been played. However, he did have an interest in our buying him beer.

Now some of you who know me or have read my blog for a while know that I had kids late in life and prematurely had gray hair. I started dyeing it after learning that my young kids were embarrassed when people assumed I was their grandmother instead of their mother. But after I moved to California with my new job, I decided I was done with all that. I let it grow out and now have a head of salt and pepper. It’s a great color, but it does make me look older. I can take it, or so I thought.

In the course of our conversation with the guy from Cypress, he gestured at me and asked my husband, “Is this your mum?” 

Now what would you say, guys, if you were put into this impossible situation? My husband didn’t skip a beat. “She’s my grandmum!” 

“Ah, you’re a good bloke, taking your grandmum to the match,” said my new mate. He seemed very pleased that he had complimented me in this way. I smiled nicely at him while noting internally that he would never, ever see a beer from me.

My husband and I had a pretty good laugh about that after our friend left.

He’s sleeping on the couch from now on. 🙂

I can only hope the significant others of Martin Atkinson, the VAR genius, Xhaka, and Unai Emery follow my lead.

That time before the match when you don’t quite know what to do

We’ve been to London so many times now, that it is now sometimes a struggle to come up with new things we’d like to do. I know—first world problems. It was sunny, albeit cold, when we woke up in the morning, so we decided to do as the British Air travel podcast suggested and take a walk around Covent Gardens. 

We decided to take in a quick breakfast, and were seeking a Costa or Caffe Nero. It turned out many of them in our City neighborhood were closed, so we kept walking, all the way to the heart of Shoreditch. There we found a cafe called Attendant, “a cashless cafe.” The menu was simple and small, so we quickly decided on french toast and hot chocolate (my husband) and granola and flat white (me). What arrived was one of the prettier breakfasts I’ve ever seen. Judge for yourself.

We took the Tube over to Covent Garden, starting first at the Royal Opera, where a family event was going on. The Opera was overflowing with families. We were able to walk around the inside of the facility and look at the various exhibits of costumes and listen to music being performed by various artists. The facility is beautiful. Lots of light through the atrium in daylight, and great views of the city from the upper level. We weren’t able to get into the theater—something for another day!

Then we walked to Covent Garden market. Covent Garden neighborhood was definitely prettier than the City neighborhood where we are staying. By Sunday morning, trash was piling up from the partying that had occurred Friday and Saturday nights near Liverpool Street station. Meanwhile, nothing but peace and beauty in Covent Garden. My husband asked, “Why have we never stayed here?” I can only guess it’s not in my hotel search price point. Beautiful buildings, lovely shops, nice and clean. Fancy-looking people. They let us walk here.

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Juggler at the market

One weird thing we noticed all weekend: although you rarely see Brits wearing soccer gear unless they’re on the way to the stadium for a match, all over town we were seeing people wearing jerseys of NFL teams. Cincinnati Bengals were playing LA in town, but we were seeing jerseys of San Francisco, Cleveland, many others. They were all around Covent Garden.

NFL, I can only say that your ploy of bringing American football to the world’s people is working. Or at least you are bringing jerseys to the people.

At Covent Garden market we enjoyed street musicians and magicians. The market was cool—lots of interesting and unique jewelry, clothing, gifts. We found lunch at an Italian chain, Zizzi, near the market. Then we walked to Neal’s yard, now one of my favorite spots in London. You walk down a narrow alley that opens into a small open space with trees and flowers and colorfully painted buildings. People were outside enjoying wine in the sunshine, a perfectly lovely way to spend an afternoon.

We stopped by Seven Dials market, also, and ended our afternoon with a walk over to Somerset house (under renovation) and along the Thames.

It was at last time to head over to the Emirates.

 

See it, say it, sort it.

All across the world, as we deal with acts of terrorism, we have formed pithy ways of encouraging citizens to be vigilant against threats. In the US, we say, “if you see something, say something.” But here in London, announcements on public transit encourage travelers that if they see something suspicious, that should say something, and the authorities will sort it out. This is then abbreviated into, “See it, say it, sort it.” 

I think of myself as naturally suspicious, so I recognize I would have to see a WHOLE lot to legitimately “see” something of interest to the authorities. They would be sorting their days completely away.  That was on my mind after visiting the War Museum late in the day, which I’ll tell you more about in a few.

Some of you may remember a time when I visited The Breakfast Club in Shoreditch few years ago where our service was so slow the manager insisted on giving us our entire breakfast complimentary. She said, “I hope you’ll give us another chance,” and it turned out that yesterday, we did just that. I like this chain a lot. I think they have interesting spaces and a nice menu at a decent price. The one we tried this time is the one in City, near Spitalfields market. I had the blueberry granola waffle, and my husband had the Mexican Eggs. Both yummy, and much better service.

We stopped by the market, but it was only just being set up. We’ve been through there several times but never at a time when it was operational. So we headed for our first planned destination of the day, a pub that was playing the England v. New Zealand Rugby Word Cup semifinal from Japan. When we watch Premier League games in California at a bar, it’s always early in the morning, so it wasn’t a stretch to watch a sporting event at a pub in the morning in London.

20191026_102020The pub closest to us that was having a viewing party was the Goose Island pub near Shoreditch. Yes, Goose Island is a brew pub originating in our previous adopted home of Chicago, but we were assured by signage that this beer is brewed in Shoreditch. The pub was thronged with supporters of both countries, although the All Black supporters were clearly outnumbered. I have watched very little rugby in my life, and most of it has been when I was visiting London. Even for someone with little expertise in the sport, it was fun watching the fans cheer and sing until the final whistle blew with England (easily) on top above the previous world champions. But why “Swing low, sweet chariot,” and “Chelsea Dagger”? You got me. England has so much musical talent and history, it’s hard to imagine needing to borrow from slaves and Scottish musical groups. I’ll admit the songs are great.

After the match we headed over to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, a recommendation from a friend. It was extremely worthwhile and interesting.  I’ve never seen an exhibit that did such a good job evoking the environment under which the wars began and were conducted, and their aftermath. We spent most of our time in the World War I and II exhibits. A few things that struck me: First, I’m not sure that humans are remotely good at learning from the past, or at least learning the right things. Second, we aren’t good at Seeing, Saying, or Sorting. We are driven by herd mentality and fearful of sticking our necks out, and complacent. Let someone else do the right thing.  The Holocaust exhibit was especially powerful, and dire. 

We left the museum in the rain and made it to Spitalfield market minutes before it closed. Spitalfield market is on the site historically associated with the textile industry and wool trade. Now it has numerous vendors selling from stalls for which merchandise is set up in the morning and removed at night. Interesting clothing, bags, hats.  

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Spitalfield market

My husband was interested in stopping in a pub we saw earlier in the day that had London Pride beer, the Astronomer. Unfortunately, it and other pubs and restaurants close to The Bull were so crowded we ended up again close to Spitalfields at a gastropub called The Grocer. It was a wet and raw night and we were happy to be in out of the cold. No London Pride. I had steak and my husband had grilled chicken. To ensure that the ice cream search debacle was not repeated, we both had Eton mess for dessert. I am a big fan. Ice cream, meringue pieces, fruit, and whipped cream. Delicious. My husband later wished he hadn’t eaten so much. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t have minded eating some of his (in addition to mine). 

Then back through the rain and hordes of people out having a fun Saturday night to the Bull. Someone has to go to bed in this town. 

The day’s findings

When I arrived in London this afternoon, I realized how differently I travel now than I used to. I didn’t know whether my husband had made it to London, didn’t know his flight number, didn’t know where my hotel was located, and, although I had a perfectly good electrical outlet in my seat on British Air, I arrived with my phone barely charged.

My husband had been in Italy for the week doing research for his novel and was to travel back to London today. He called me yesterday afternoon to tell me that a national strike had been called in Italy that was going to start in 15 minutes. His train from the small town in which he had been visiting back to Rome was certain to be cancelled; we didn’t know at that time that the strike also includes air traffic controllers. Last I had talked to him, he was pretty sure he could hire a driver to the airport, at no small price.

As soon as I arrived at Heathrow, I realized I didn’t know what airline he was to take from Rome, and texted him, with no response. The only place I could guess to meet him from my location near the Border was the baggage claim for flights with British Air. Two flights seemed to have come recently from Rome, a hopeful sign, since I knew he was supposed to arrive within 20 minutes of my flight. I scanned the travelers waiting at the carousel, seeing no one who looked like my husband. I decided to use my time figuring out how to get to the hotel. Thankfully, my husband made his appearance just as I was thinking about texting our kids to see if they’d heard from him.

What was I doing since yesterday, when I heard that my husband was at risk of not making it to London, other than carefully mapping out details of contact, hotel, etc.? Well you can bet I made sure I printed duplicate Arsenal v. Crystal Palace match tickets of the ones my husband had taken with him to Italy!

We took the Tube to Liverpool Street stop, and with many false turns found our hotel, the Bull Inn. It’s not exactly a hotel, more like a bunch of rooms above a pub/wine bar by the name The Hide. Together, The Bull and The Hide. It’s affiliated with Hush Heath Winery. Finding how to check in was hilariously weird. It turns out you have to go up to the bar, which was swarming with the Friday afternoon/evening pub crowd so common in the City. As is typical, throngs of people stand outside to bar with drinks and smokes, in this case, more convenient because the entrance is facing an alley on which cars can’t travel. 

Friday-after-work at The Hide

The pub and hotel are located on land that was formerly the site of a home owned by the William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Devonshire, who has been rumored in a few quarters as writing some of Shakespeare’s plays. According to a placard in our room, the Devonshire Suite, he died of “excessive indulgence in good living.” May we all so indulge!

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We dropped off our stuff and headed out to find a pint and dinner. Our own home pub, The Hide, had a lot of nice-looking wine, but for beer, Amstel light. We left to find something we can’t buy at Safeway in Sunnyvale. After some walking we found a restaurant/bar called Alice where I had the Camden Hells lager and my husband had Meantime lager. The barkeep directed us to a table that was clearly marked as reserved for George. (We were not George.)

I had beef pie, naturally, and my husband had Chickpea, spinach and sweet potato curry. We left the table, still anxiously awaiting the arrival of George.

Then we made a pilgrimage for ice cream, losing our way many times.

In summary, today we found:

  1. Each other
  2. our hotel (twice!)
  3. how to check in at our hotel
  4. London beer
  5. dinner

What we did not find:

  1. George
  2. Ice cream

Tomorrow is another day.

As I settle in to sleep, the party at the Hide is at full swing down in the street outside our window on the third floor. I do not expect it to bother me.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

I’ve written before about the statues on the grounds of the Emirates. Just behind the statue of Theirry Henry, there is a giant objet d’art, a wall depicting every Arsenal team member–we assume–since the beginning of people taking pictures of teams. One team picture morphs into another, from ancient to modern. The left half of the image depicts players in black and white film, and somewhere in the middle the teams are depicted in color. They are, naturally, wearing the red home jersey.

emirates-stadium-arsenal-thierry-henry-statue-1466711685
Photo by Football Ground Guide….because I can’t find mine.

The message is clear–all these players–they are the Arsenal. They have each taken their place in the team and in the wall.  And after a time, far too short or too long or just right, they left the team and were replaced by others. While “the team” was still “the team” after they left, if you think about how teams are formed, a departed player leaves a gap that must be filled. Not just a position, but possibly a gap in some form of artistry that might easily be replaced like-for-like or might require many different changes.

From the first moment I saw the picture wall, that time we came for a “once-in-a-lifetime” pilgrimage to the Emirates in 2012, I was captivated by how it must have been made, and how difficult the upkeep must be as the team keeps changing.

It turns out there is no upkeep. If my googling of the art is correct, that particular installation depicting the players who rolled on and off the team was replaced, in my absence from the Emirates, by this:

theirry-original
Photo by Arsenal.com.

This is also a historical depiction, of “iconic goals and celebrations,” according to Arsenal.com. It’s nice, and to gets a similar point across, but it’s not quite the same point. The original piece was a celebration that contained some darkness: “Things come to an end, don’t get comfortable. It may end well, or not.” The new art is a bit too cheerful.  I’m reminded of what my husband, who grew up Catholic, said about attending my Methodist Easter services: “I can’t stand Easter at your church. Everyone is too damn happy.”

The upkeep of the original art, if ever that was the intent, in the past two years would have been very difficult indeed because the team has almost completely turned over. Jack Wilshire, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, David Ospina, Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck, Gabriel, Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin, Nacho Monreal…..all gone. Alexis Sanchez is so gone that he’s already left the club he left us for. Petr Cech and Per Mertesacker are both retired (though our BFG has a coaching gig with the club).

Really, only Granit Xhaka, Mesut Ozil and Hector Bellerin are still on the team. Xhaka, to my questioning eyes, has become a regular starter, presumably undroppable. But Ozil and Bellerin–neither of them is even making the bench. Bellerin because he’s coming back from serious injury, Ozil because, well, no one seems to know.

Saddest of all, my hero, manager Arsene Wenger is gone. He retired at the end of the 2017 season, beating the team to the punch before they fired him. He got a nice sendoff that brought tears to my eyes, but it was bitter deep down. He’s been replaced by Unai Emery, a coach who looked promising at first, but now just seems like he’s not quite sure how to put it all together.

On that first visit in 2012 when I became captivated by the wall, we visited over the Christmas holidays, watching a cracking match against Newcastle United that ended 7-3.  My small son had been a fervent Santa defender. In the year prior to the trip, I had explained to him that Santa needs a lot of help from me: I had to listen throughout the year for what my kids wanted for Christmas, I had to buy presents, I had to wrap them, and I had to put them under the tree. My explanation didn’t leave much for Santa to do, but somehow my son’s belief in the power of Santa remained well intact. He was a smart kid; I can only assume that he really, really didn’t want to know. The machinations of a trip to London over Christmas fully exposed to my son the sad realities of Santa, but the trip remains one of the most fun Christmases we’ve had as a family.

That small boy left home for college this Fall. We dropped him off in Rochester, NY and won’t see him again until Thanksgiving. He’s having an amazing time. Our daughter is little more than a semester from graduation from College. I miss having them around and building my life around them and their activities. I miss their noise and mess and fun.

Since we moved to California, I’ve been to the Emirates only once, before my husband and son relocated from Chicago. The trip is much farther from the west coast and we didn’t really have the same support system for our son in California that we had in Chicago.

But did I mention he’s in Rochester, NY now?

This is a tough season. Arsenal have talent–maybe better than ever–but haven’t clicked as a team, not even close. There are some exciting young players and some excellent older players, but my feelings for them havent gelled. We now have David Luiz for heaven’s sake: excellent luck, or Chelsea Trojan horse? Xhaka–can he possibly be undroppable from the lineup with so many questionable decisions? Loanee Dani Ceballos–yes, he is a fan favorite, but when he throws a stepover with no one even defending him, I shake my head. The team doesn’t feel the same.

So this weekend, we are doing what must be done. I’m getting ready to board British Air in San Jose and head to the mother ship, the Emirates. We’ll see the new art, have a pint, and, most importantly, try to come to terms.

Suddenly I’m feeling good about it. In the very Uber I’m in, the driver is playing House of Pain’s Jump Around. (Not the “clean version,” I add.) Obviously a sign!

“Oh no,” you say, “That’s not the song played before the second half at the Emirates anymore”?

Fine. Fine.

Although our new players probably won’t find their way onto the wall behind Theirry Henry, they have a good chance of finding a place in our hearts.