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.)


Super bloom where you’re planted

This year England celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. One of the celebrations was a planting of wild flowers all around the moat of the Tower of London, called Super Bloom at the Tower. It includes a Queen’s Garden that specifically commemorates the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. We wandered by and took it in from above. Many people were walking along the path, looking at the flowers as beautiful, peaceful music played. Given the queen’s love of natural beauty, this is the kind of tribute someone gives when they really “get” you. Or so I believe from my hours watching The Crown, which is probably a bunch of hooey.

Super Bloom at the Tower (Photo: WholeArsed)

Before that, we started our day at Natural Kitchen, a place in the neighborhood that specializes in healthy food. I had granola and yoghurt and my husband had buckwheat pancakes. My husband was especially happy with this breakfast because our wait person turned out to be Italian. My husband, while not Italian, has been a student of Italian language all through the pandemic. We took our first trip abroad as the pandemic was winding down this spring to France and Italy. Our son was completing a study abroad program in Nice, France and joined us in the trip. He and I would exchange amused looks when in France, rather than asking for help in English, my husband would ask for help in Italian.Because Italy is very close to France and Nice used to be a territory of Italy, almost everyone did speak Italian. I didn’t think my husband would find the same level of opportunity to practice speaking Italian in London, but there it was.

We walked by the Super Bloom on our way to the Tower Millennium Pier. Our destination was Greenwich, hosting the Greenwich Fair this weekend. We took the Uber boat from Tower hill to Greenwich, a lot of fun by itself. This boat moves fast, and then they announce that you’d better hold onto your small kids, after which they really kick it into high gear.

On arriving in Greenwich we walked to the top of the hill to the Observatory, then further still to a garden. The area was alive with picnickers and dogs trotting around, happily free.

We walked back down to the fair, stopping by one of the food trucks for lunch. We had a chicken wrap and vegan rice bowl from a truck selling Bengali cuisine, Nanizi’s. It was delicious.

And then we did the thing we came to Greenwich to do, went to the fair. The fair consisted of a variety of musical, circus, street art, staggered so that you can take it all in. It was a lot of fun. The act we were able to fully watch was called Barriere, from Belgium. They sang, played instruments, and did acrobatics on a pole. Quite a combination. 🙂

We planned to take the Uber boat back to Tower Hill before the match, but there was a 40-minute wait. Instead, we walked in the tunnel under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs and the nearest Tube station. As you may recall from your Arsenal history (or maybe not, shame), Isle of Dogs is where Dial Square (which later became The Arsenal) played its first match. On the train, we went past the hotel of the famous Tottenham lasagne incident.

It all seemed like good karma for the match to come.

You can take the train to Eltham Palace

We arrived at Heathrow extremely early this morning. The Border has become very efficient, and we were quickly in the Tube on our way to our hotel, the CitizenM Tower Hill. It was all quite a bit too quick and we arrived far too early to check in. We took a few minutes to reorganize for the day, checked our bags, and walked out into a beautiful, rare (at least for us) sunny London day.

We’ve been curious just how busy the streets would be post-pandemic, and for sure the number of people out and about was lighter than in previous trips. We were happy to see that it’s still incredibly vibrant. When we started coming in 2016, the number of cranes over the buildings was astonishing, suggesting tons of building and renovation. If anything, the number of cranes post pandemic is even more extreme. It’s pretty hard to take any kind of a skyline picture without cranes all over it. London is definitely not sitting around on its laurels.

Business first, we shopped quickly for the best SIM card deal we could find in our neighborhood. Because that took us over near Leadenhall market, we wandered about there for a bit. Leadenhall market is said to be J K Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley (and certainly where a scene about Diagon Alley was filmed in the first Harry Potter movie).

We also found ourselves wandering over to Borough market. I guess because we haven’t been in London for so long we wanted to repeat some things we’ve done before. We bought some croissants and empanadas to hold us over until a real meal could occur. And then we walked along the Thames over near The Globe. We enjoyed watching kids playing along the river front and listening to the variety of buskers making music and most enjoyably, making bubbles. They were so pretty in the sun.

Borough market

While we were there, we formed a plan to visit the Eltham Place. This is a smallish palace that started as a manor house and became a vacation/weekend haunt of Edward II and his heirs starting in the early 1300s. Henry VIII grew up in the Palace. It fell into disuse and was restored by a textile magnate and his wife in the 1930s. We learned that we could take the train to the place, so we set out for the London Bridge train station. We struggled to figure out how to buy round trip tickets to the location we had understood to be the closest and ended up buying tickets to the town of Eltham. However, once we got to the tracks we were informed by a train employee that you can’t get to Eltham Palace from Eltham.

At that point we had a decision to make. We decided to let the train take us to an adventure in Eltham, even if that adventure would not be Eltham Palace. I slept almost the whole way there.

When we stepped out of the train, our googling, enabled by the new SIM card, gave us new hope—it seemed we could EASILY walk to Eltham Palace. It was only 10 minutes up a pretty, shaded street.

Photo: Wholearsed

I’m glad we went because it was a very peaceful setting, with cool, somewhat wild gardens amongst Medieval walls. Note: you could see London skyline, including all the cranes, from the garden. The Palace, which would have been quite small by Palace standards (at least among those I have toured previously) was made larger due to a large great room used for parties.

The textile magnate and wife had left the exterior relatively pure to its roots, but inside had redecorated to 1930s standards in Art Deco. Although it seemed strange amongst palaces I’ve seen, it was interesting to see someone apply modern style to an ancient space.

We enjoyed the house and gardens and then trotted back to the train. By the time we returned to Tower Hill it was well past the time to check in to the CitizenM.

We’ve visited London at least 15 times and have never repeated a hotel….except this time. Partly because there weren’t very many options in our price point and partly because it just seemed like something familiar might be nice after the pandemic-induced hiatus from travel. Although the CitizenM is fine, it’s not the hotel I thought it was when we selected. Our room has the dreaded alcove bed where inside person has to climb over outside person to leave the bed. In my case, this is numerous times in a typical night. Oh well. We will enjoy the view and the location anyway.

Tower Bridge (Photo: WholeArsed)

We were happy for the shower and regrouped for dinner. For dinner tried a program via the Evening Standard where restaurants form prix fixe menus with typically three courses + wine for a reasonable price. We selected Cucina del Ponte. This restaurant is located along the Thames with inside/outside dining and a great view of Tower Bridge. There was also musical entertainment—an opera singer. I’m not a huge fan of opera but that was a very nice addition to the experience. The food was very good. I chose the Caprese salad, Scaloppina alla pizzaiola, and panacotta. My husband had bruschetta classica, mushroom risotto, and tiramisu.

Then a quick visit to a local pub called Hung, Drawn & Quartered for a London Pride, before we called it a day.

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.

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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.

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.