The hand of God (not that one) provides direction

As many times as I’ve been to London, often in the same neighborhoods, I still struggle to find my way around. The city is not laid out on a grid, streets aren’t always well marked, and without my less directionally challenged husband I’m sure I’d spend most of my time wandering around completely lost.

My husband’s flight back to Chicago on Thursday was much earlier than my flight, so he arose early and departed. I decided that I had enough time to try to find Le Pain Quotidien nearest me for breakfast, which happened to be near Borough Market. As I have explained, I have a weakness for this chain because they have delicious and reasonably priced scones accompanied by a giant glob of clotted cream, my not-so-secret weakness.

I have been to Borough Market many times, including twice on this very trip, but I still did not feel confident that I would be find it without mishap. I studied the map on my phone carefully, so carefully that I was running seriously short on time before I needed to check out of the Citizen M. I took a deep breath and strode out into the streets.

20170406_103414I was lucky and got lost only briefly, close to the shop. I was seated quickly, ordered my precious scone, and paid my bill immediately so I could run away as soon as I had the last yummy smidge of cream. It wasn’t the most relaxing breakfast, but mission accomplished. My only disappointment was that the clotted cream was not as giant as I remembered it. When the clotted cream was gone, I abandoned the rest of the scone and rushed back, again getting lost only once. I arrived at the Citizen M a minute after official checkout, rushed up and grabbed my bag, and headed out to the Tube to get to Heathrow.

The reason my husband and I didn’t fly back to Chicago together is this: I no longer live in Chicago.

During last season, I referenced in this blog BIg Problem A, a problem that I did not manage to resolve during the season despite my deepest desires and no small effort. I gave no detail on Big Problem A because it was the sort of problem that shouldn’t be shared on social media.

I was so obtuse in the blog that even my dearest friends and closest family members were not certain when they read of Big Problem A what it might be. Several people said to me, “Please tell me that I am not Big Problem A.” Even my dear sister, who has completely made my travel possible by taking care of my kids when I travel to Arsenal. For so many reasons, there is nothing Big Problem A about this woman. She is Big Solution A, B, C, and more.

Worry not that my husband or our marriage represents Big Problem A. This man is a prince and my marriage is healthy.

I’m still not going into great detail on Big Problem A, but I will share that it was a workplace problem. Although I loved my work, there was something going on in my workplace that was taking a small bite of my soul every day for more than four years. It reached its height right around the time my father passed away. The combination of Big Problem A and my father’s death arguably propelled me to take the share of Arsenal tickets. Life is painful so why not have some joy?

Now a lot of people might (and did) say, “Just leave that job,” but it’s not so simple. I have specialty skills and specialty interests. My job is important to me and a huge source of what propels and engages me. It is critical to my family; puts a roof over our heads and kids through College. It is at the intersection of two professions dominated by young people and men. Although it would not be hard to argue my virtues as an employee, If you think employers are lining up for people like me, well, they just are not.

One exceptionally dismal and tearful night after my father died and while Big Problem A was growing like a cancer, I finally fell asleep near morning. When I woke up it was sunny. I went upstairs to have my bath, and when I walked in the bathroom, on the frosted window, I saw a clear outline of a hand. It was not a creepy hand, but a healing hand. It stopped my in my tracks. It seemed like a sign from God: have no fear, be patient: this problem will be solved.

On closer inspection, because I am the sort of person who looks a gift horse in the mouth and questions even messages from God, I realized that the “healing hand” was just a reflection of the sun through the leaves of our neighbor’s tree. Still, the message had registered and I had to believe in it.

I worked actively to resolve Big Problem A last year, but was unsuccessful. There were some options I just couldn’t take. This past year, I got so busy at work that I didn’t have time to actively address it. Certain changes, including having a big, interesting project, caused Big Problem A’s trajectory to be altered. It was becoming a contained cancer, and I had hope that it was going to become a cancer in remission: It was starting to seem that Big Problem A could be solved without actually leaving my job.

Near the holidays last year, I got a call from a former colleague about a job opening up in her current company. Would I be interested in exploring this position? I was, but there was a very big catch: the job was in California, a place I never wanted to be. The other problem was that I was very, very busy working on the big initiative at work. I did not have time to devote to job acquisition. I barely had time to read my personal email.

As it worked out, interviewing didn’t require much effort or time on my part. I interviewed by phone late at night when everyone else had gone home, and the prospective company’s pace of organizing next steps seemed to match the pace I needed. When it seemed like there was no denying that this position would be interesting and I should look into it seriously, I flew out to California for an interview, missing one day of work.

IMG_20170114_071243_629My husband and I stayed through the weekend to check things out and experienced an Arsenal match on Pacific time zone at Jacks’s Bar and Lounge in San Jose. I had a resigned feeling when we stepped into the small bar at 7 a.m., realizing that they had no food….and my husband couldn’t drink because it was right before a planned, minor surgery. I was going to have to hold down the fort at the bar for our Arsenal viewing single handedly: What beer to have for breakfast?

The interview went well. I got an offer from the company on the second anniversary of my father’s death. It took a few more weeks to come to an agreement. I had a few weeks with a solid offer on the table to carefully measure whether Big Problem A had a realistic chance of being resolved while staying in place.

The decision was easy, as easy as can be.

The rest of it more or less fell into place, like when you get to the last 25 pieces of a 1000-piece puzzle. My husband and I made a few key decisions that simplified the relocation. My son was thrilled at the prospect of moving to California, somewhat unexpected because he is a sophomore in high school and arguably settled in his life. He found a high school that interested him and my husband found time, when I couldn’t, to travel to the Bay Area and locate an apartment in that district, quite close to my new office.

We got a lease, insurance, a bank. We handled a few curve balls that were thrown: a broken garage door, a refrigerator that stopped working, a car that sustained $6,000 of damage in an accident, which delayed our ability to ship the car to California.

Working through this normally drama-filled situation with, really, no drama is a testament to the team my husband and I have formed over many years. Where I drop off, he picks up and vice versa. It is hard to pinpoint when that happened exactly, but it clearly happened before this. I acknowledge that I dropped a ton in this situation and he picked it up handily and cheerfully.

There was some messy business at my old job, saying goodbye to people I loved and had worked with for nearly 17 years. It is hard to think of being far from my daughter, in College in Chicago. There was crying. Quite a bit.

But no looking back. I arrived in California three weeks ago and moved into that apartment I had never seen, three suitcases in hand and four boxes shipped. I bought the other things I needed after I arrived. I spent the first weeks sleeping on an inflatable mattress and am still using a TV box as a dining room table awaiting the glorious day furniture arrives. My son and husband will join me when the school year is over. Our daughter will join us briefly before school starts after a planned summer internship in South Dakota.

It feels very much like I just teleported into a new life. I started my new job right after I moved. It’s good so far, interesting. My new employer let me leave two weeks after I arrived to travel to London because they understand it is important. There is a fabulous Farmers market in my town on Sundays and I’ve tried fruits and vegetables I’ve never even seen before. I’ve been to the beach. Hiked high above the Bay and watched the sun rise. I started back in a yoga class and, in quintessential California style, even started working with a personal trainer. Poor man. Such a mountain to climb.

What will happen next season with these Arsenal tickets I have no idea. It is a 10-hour flight from Northern California to London. This last trip was tough. I worry about whether Arsene Wenger will survive and what the team will be without him. I worry about what they will be with him, whether they’ll still be Arsenal if our stars are sold.

But we’ll see what presents itself next season and whether I can take it on. Taking the good things offered, no matter how outlandish, is a weird habit that I started two years ago.

It has worked majestically so far.

Second verse same as the first

There are many songs I would gladly forget. That line from one of them was on my mind all day as we were headed to Hampton Court Palace, the country home of Henry VIII. Yes, the Herman Hermit’s song had nothing to do with the monarch Henry VIII, but what did it have to do with? She wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam, but who would?

Some things are better left unexamined.

We  planned to take a boat down the Thames to get to the palace. The boat leaves Richmond at 11 a.m. and there isn’t another one until much later in the day. We had miscalculated a bit getting off the Tube at Kew Gardens instead of Richmond, so our walk was longer than anticipated. We struggled with data on our phones and couldn’t get a clear bead on whether we were headed in the right direction.

We asked several people for the directions to St. Helena Pier, and were met with mostly shrugs. When we finally got to Richmond, we understood why. St. Helena Pier is as anonymous a starting point as you could ever imagine. If imagining anonymous piers is your thing. (I do not judge.)

We didn’t have time to grab a bite, but we managed to get to the Pier on time. We boarded the boat and headed down the Thames, changing boats at Kingston. It was a lovely ride, and fun to see all the stately private houses and decks that were carefully constructed as peaceful places to watch the boats go by. There were many people rowing and sailing on the river since it was a school holiday.

We arrived at Hampton Court Palace, and made a quick detour to grab a quick lunch at the chain Pizza Express before returning to the palace.

Hampton Court was used by quite a few royals after Henry VIII, but we spent most of our time there focused on his use of the castle, visiting his living quarters, an exhibit about his life, his kitchens, and wine cellars. We walked through the church he attended as the head once he had left the Catholic Church, which had refused to allow him to annul his marriage of more the 20 years to his first wife. Also the “real tennis court,” which was indoors, to our surprise. Probably not to the surprise of anyone who knows the difference between tennis and “real tennis.” I can now count myself among them.

Henry VIII lived quite a train wreck of a life; it was a thousand times worse for his many wives who variously struggled to produce male heirs and to otherwise keep their difficult man happy (and themselves alive). Palaces are rarely comfy and cozy, but this one felt especially cold.

We had a bit of extra time so we spent some time in William III’s quarters and in his privy garden, which has been restored to its original state. The garden was in bloom with spring flowers, looking lovely.

We took the train back and met some friends at the Angel for a few beers. Several of us went over to The Sichuan and had dinner. Crispy duck, kung pao chicken, pork with cabbage, and wonton soup.

It was a feast Henry VIII would certainly approve, in a different time and place.

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Monday monday

I find myself in crowds when I am in London, most notably as I am entering the Emirates. But I never saw a crowd like the one that was heading across London bridge and down the streets of City on Monday morning as we were making our way to find breakfast near 9 a.m.. Droves of people in suits, skirts, dress shoes making their way to work. An army of workers.

My husband said it reminded him of T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land.

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Literary thoughts are usually not in my head. I thought they looked like cows being herded.

 

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Undone by death, or cows? You be the judge.

We were planning to stop by the Borough Market and grab breakfast in our way to the Museum of London. However, the market was in the process of being set up. There were a few vendors ready to sell bread and croissants, but we stopped into Monmouth coffee shop next to the market and grabbed a flat white and a croissant from the bakery next door shop to hold us over until we could find breakfast.

 

We worked our way over near the museum, encountering St. Lawrence Jewry church, where there was to be a piano recital at 1 p.m. We decided to try to stop back there after visiting the museum.

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It tasted better than it looks

We stopped to have breakfast at Vital Ingredient, just up the street from the museum. It’s a chain in the approximate genre of Pret a Manger. I had what was called an acai smoothie, which consisted of some fruit ground up with acai sauce, topped with fresh fruit, yogurt, coconut, and seeds.

The Museum of London was fascinating, although I have to admit I hit the wall before I saw all of it. It covers the history of London, including from before London was a city. London has been a city for around 2,000 years, so adding on history before it was formed means we are looking at a whole lot of years. The museum displays tons of artifacts from every period, many of which were pulled from the Thames.

I tried to see it with a broad brush rather than in detail, which I think helped me draw some important, fast, and hopefully accurate conclusions: the river is the lifeblood of the city and always has been and big change comes in globs and often with outside influence. For example, there was really not much change in tools and household goods for hundreds and hundreds of years; but there was massive change in objects associated with the Roman invasion the first century A.D. You could see it blooming before your eyes. There was also tremendous change associated with the various fires across the history of the city. Much like a forest that burns, a city must regenerate itself, and when it does, it often does so in a highly progressive way.

We left and went to St. Lawrence Jewry for the piano recital. Such a surprise inside that cathedral. The outside had been dingy and dark, but the inside was as beautiful, light, and well-maintained as any cathedral I’ve ever seen. The recital that day was two sonatas, Mozart’s Sonata in D major, and Prokofiev Sonata No. 8 in B flat major, played by Antonia Suhanova, a young pianist working on her masters degree in piano performance. She was wonderful and the music was lovely; it was a nice midday treat.

We had theatre tickets that night for Travesties, Tom Stoppard’s play about the lawsuit brought against James Joyce over a pair of pants worn by an actor in Oscar Wild’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest. We headed over to the theatre district and stopped in a Peruvian restaurant named Casita Andina, which serves tapas. We ordered a burnt orange salad, ocopo chips, avocado fritters, hake, tamal, panna cotta, and a chocolate bombe. I think that was my favorite restaurant experience in London this trip. The food was beautiful and delicious and fun, in a fun atmosphere.

I was full of trepidation that I would fall asleep during the play because I was still feeling jet lagged and I remembered that Tom Stoppard plays require some intellectual effort. I took the precaution if having a latte at the restaurant.

The play was terrific. I still found myself nodding off in the first bit once the lights went off, but the play was so lively, funny, creative and entertaining, I was quickly captivated and sorry when it was over. The big Tom Stoppard play playing in London while we were there was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with Daniel Radcliff of Harry Potter fame in one of the lead roles. I’m delighted it was too hard to get tickets to that. It would be hard to imagine we would have had more fun than at Travesties.

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The set of Travesties at the Apollo Theatre

In contrast with all those workers we swam against in the morning, it was a long and busy day of play, so we headed back to the Citizen M for our night’s sleep.

That latte which didn’t completely do its job of keeping me awake during the play did an excellent job overnight.

Man spread and the guerilla girls

It was a long flight. I was situated between two men, both engaging in Man Spread, where they both helped themselves to their left and right armrests (translation: no arm rest for me, plus both have their elbows in my small space). They were also both spread down below, knees in my space. I didn’t sleep much, even resorted to writing a rare post during the flight. I think my typing woke them both up. (Good!) I topped it off with an epic nosebleed, during which I noticed they kept to themselves.

The Border at Heathrow was packed, and it took a long time to clear it. My husband was coming in from Rome where he had spent the week conducting research for a novel he’s working on while our son was on a Spring Break trip to Memphis and Nashville with his high school orchestra. My husband’s flight must have arrived 15 minutes before mine and I could see him three rows in advance of me at the Border.

Naturally, he was engaged in animated conversation with the person in front of him. My husband isn’t exactly an extrovert, but he does always seem to be able to strike up a conversation wherever he is. It makes traveling with him much more interesting than traveling alone; he gets us into situations. After we got through the Border, I briefly met his acquaintance, who happened to be a 21-year old rabid Arsenal fan from Perth Australia, in for the Man City match. They met on the flight from Rome. The Australian is now my Facebook friend. My husband, who has no problem friending everyone in real life, is not on Facebook.

It was nearly 6 p.m. when we got to our hotel, Citizen M Tower Hill. It is a hotel that would come in handy in the rain showers that often greet us in London, so close to the Tower tube stop is it. The requisite rain showers have not occurred so far. I do not complain.

My husband and I are divided on the Citizen M. It has a very cute lobby, but the rooms are very, very small, especially as I compare them with others we’ve had in this price point. My husband really likes the layout, especially in the bathroom. Although it is tiny, it has a fair amount of storage, notably a giant drawer under the King bed. It is similar to the Z Shoreditch we stayed in for our very first visit last season, in that the bed fills an entire alcove so the person on the interior side has to crawl over the person on the exterior side to use the restroom at night, but can’t turn on only the restroom light to be able to see where that toilet might be.  It does have more fancy amenities than the Z, such as an electronic “mood” board, which can be used to raise the shades, request a wake up call, and report one’s mood. My mood is good, albeit a bit cramped.

20170401_183122We headed out into the evening across the Tower Bridge to get a bite to eat, settling on Cote Brasserie on St. Katherine Docks. It is right across from a chain called The Slug and Lettuce. Although I’ve walked by this chain many times, somehow I’ve never chosen to eat there. At the Brasserie Cote I had roasted chicken with wild mushroom sauce and my husband had the Beef Bourguignon. Both delicious. We topped it off with profiteroles.

The Tower Bridge was lovely at night. The Shard also was looking beautiful on our walk home.

The next day, we woke up to a lovely, sunny morning. We had received many warnings from Arsenal by email that we needed to be at the stadium an hour early to clear Security given the recent terror attack in London. Since we got a late start in the morning, we decided to head over to the Tate Modern. Hard to beat a free museum when you don’t have much time to spend. I don’t know that much about art, and even less about Modern Art.  The only artists I recognized at the Tate Modern were Picasso and Andy Warhol.

In the same room with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe study was some protest art from a collective called the Guerilla Girls, a group of female artists of the mid-80s addressing the paucity of female artists whose work was being displayed by the major galleries.

The Guerilla Girls must have been successful, because the Tate Modern is teeming with the work of female artists. I found it to be quite interesting, and I show some of it below.

If only the Guerilla Girls could take on Man Spread.

The tough get going?

It’s been a dismal Arsenal time these past few weeks and months. We’ve crashed out of the Champions League in catastrophic fashion (10-2 on aggregate against Bayern Munich) and haven’t been able to put together a decent performance in the Premier League for quite some time. In the last match, we lost against West Brom, done in mostly by dodgy defending on corner kicks. The FA Cup competition is our only bright light, and that is 100% attributable to the kindest draws anyone could ever hope for. We’ll play our first tough match of the completion in the semi final, against Manchester City.

Meanwhile, our stars, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez haven’t signed the contracts that have been in front of them for many months, and it doesn’t look like they will. I love these guys, but neither one has covered himself in glory in this dismal run of games. Arsene Wenger’s contract is up this summer, and a large population of fans have been calling for his head. Vociferously.

I haven’t read Arseblog or Football 365 for at least a month because I can’t stand to see the commentary. Political news has seemed more palatable of late, and you know that can’t be a good thing.

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Pet “relief station” at the airport. All the comforts of home! This also seemed to sum up the Arsenal season of late.

On this backdrop I find myself on a plane to London to see two matches. The first one is, on paper, the toughest. Manchester City has had an up and down season as well, but on a good day, they are very good indeed.

The second match is against West Ham. West Ham is often able to put together a solid plan against Arsenal, and they are just the sort of team to take one off us, especially in this dismal period.

It must be said that just about any team is able to “take one off us” right now.

At the point in late summer that my husband and I drew matches with the others who share tickets, getting two matches in a single trip seemed like the luckiest thing in the world. Financially better for sure, and I was hoping with a longer trip to bring my mother along to experience London. For a variety of reasons that I’ll explain before the trip is over, that didn’t quite work out.

The West Ham match on Wednesday will be the last match We’ll attend live this season. At the time of the draw, I had hoped to be able to nab tickets for the last home match of the season, which is in May. As you know, it is always my goal to BE PRESENT for the award ceremony when Arsenal win the Premier League.

It works out to be no loss to not have that match this year.

This trip demanded little of my thought in advance, and it’s a good thing because thought is not something I’ve had time for. I was terribly busy with work things before I departed. My husband organized air tickets, and I selected a hotel, belatedly, with little of my usual joy. I waited so late that it was hard to find something new in my budget and search criteria. There was really only one choice. We’ve done little planning in advance of what we’d like to do while in London. We’ve only put in place a plan to get together with friends at the Angel on Tuesday.

In short, the trip is going to have to dig deep and produce its own moments.

Arsenal will, too. No time like the present.