Chalk One Up for the Americans in Berlin

A German American scored the winning goal Sunday as the hometown Hertha BSC snapped a three-game losing streak to win 2-0 over FC Augsburg at Berlin’s Olympic stadium.

It’s no secret that Declan loves everything football, so we booked an ass crack-of-dawn flight from Belfast International to Berlin in order to make this match on time. Seeing the Olympic stadium where Jesse Owens triumphed over racial hatred and Nazis in 1936 was one of the few requests Declan made of us when planning the Belfast trip, so it was great to be able to fulfill it.

After visiting The Emirates, home to our favorite English Premier League team Arsenal, last week, Olympiastadion certainly is a throwback, but in a good way.

When reading about the match and John Brooks’ goal the next day, I saw that Hertha plans to build a new stadium by 2025. Although I loved the feel of Olympic stadium, I understand the team’s point. There was only one permanent set of bathrooms on our end of the stadium. They were supplemented by what I call “piss shacks,” outside facilities where Marilynn refuses to set foot (or bum, for that matter). The concession facilities also were sparse and supplemented with pop-up vendors outside the main stadium.

But I hope the facility continues to get good use following Hertha’s move. It’s well-situated to transit, providing an easy walk to the stadium. And we absolutely loved the fact that our tickets gave us free transport for five hours before the match until 3 a.m. the following morning. Can you imagine getting that for a Falcons’ game? How cool would that be?

But there’s no mistaking the grandeur and history of the stadium. The Olympic rings are still displayed in front of the stadium, and inside you can see where the Olympic cauldron was located and where Hitler watched the competitions. It still brings a smile to imagine Hitler’s reaction when watching Jesse Owens win his race.

It also brings a smile to see a number of Pissoirs along the route, little shacks where one pees. None of us went in one so I’m not sure exactly what goes on in there. But the presence of pissoirs didn’t stop many men, children and even a few women from taking what the French and cyclists everywhere call natural breaks among the foliage between subway and stadium.

More than football, really

Our early flight meant we had plenty of time to drop our bags and check out the city beforehand. We were conveniently located near the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, places that featured prominently during the East German/West German divide during the Cold War years.

You can find a large section of preserved wall in front of the Topography of Terror Museum, an exhibition documenting the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and following the latter through the post-war years. Declan also had his first taste of currywurst, cut-up sausage with ketchup on top. I had a more traditional hot dog, although the dog far exceeded the length of the bun, and pomme frites with paprika on them. Apparently, paprika is the bad-for-you food seasoning of choice in Germany because it prominently features in both fries and crisps.

So we managed a full day, with two more to go.

‘Brilliant’ Afternoon at Emirates Stadium

How do you describe a perfect afternoon? “Brilliant,” was all Declan said when asked to describe our experience Sunday at the Emirates Stadium watching The Arsenal take on Manchester City. Billed as one of the top matches of the year, Manchester City continues to play good football, while our beloved Arsenal has stumbled of late, dropping four of their last five matches and dropping out of the top four in the English Premier League.

We got there nearly two hours before kickoff, to take in the atmosphere both inside and outside the stadium. The stadium is in a residential neighborhood you walk through from the Arsenal tube stop. Vendors of all sorts lined the street selling merchandise, sweets and street food such as hot dogs, hamburgers and BBQ. It looked tasty, although we’d already eaten. Declan bought a scarf commemorating the match that was half blue and half red.

Friends in the right places

We had club level tickets, thanks to my Arsenal friend Jan, who I met in San Antonio in the fall. She was with a group of UK and Irish people on a week-long tour of Texas. We kept in touch, and she offered us her tickets for this match because she was spending the Easter holiday in the States.

That’s the beauty of football. Even with people who support teams other than ours, a team jersey can create a common bond and spark a lively discussion. The cabbie who brought us home last night was a Liverpool man and repeatedly tried to get Declan to convert during the trip. There’s no chance of that, however.

Our tickets were fantastic, just beyond one of the goals. The grass glowed in the afternoon sunshine, razor sharp criss-crosses where the grass was mowed in different directions. We watched officials check the goal line technology of the balls before retreating to the club lounge to watch TV and watch the fans make their way toward the stadium.

We returned for warmups, with Arsenal right below us and Man City in the distance. The practiced fans know when to show up, because half empty turned into nearly full during the last 10 minutes before kickoff.

Header past the goalkeeper

Although the Gunners fell behind a goal early, they clawed an equalizer as halftime neared, only to concede a second goal right before the interval. Fortunately, the home team scored the tying goal in the 53rd minute, a smart header by Mustafi that snuck past the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper. That moment, and the ensuing celebration, was Declan’s favorite part of the match, which ended in a 2-2 draw.

The entire match was intense, with the head official waving five yellow cards (and he could have waved more). In person, you can much better see the flow of the game as momentum shifts from one side to another. From our vantage point at one end, you could see plays develop much better than you can see on TV, the ball quickly moving from player to player.

Following the match, it was back to the club lounge to watch the crush of fans flow over the bridge back to the tube station and watch pundits discuss the match on TV. Although we waited 30 minutes after the match ended to start home, there remained a decent crowd at the tube station, but we were quickly on our way.

Our thanks again to Jan for the great tickets and to the stewards and club staff who made our visit so enjoyable. It was a perfect afternoon, indeed.

Conferences, Book Launches and Pilgrimages, Oh My

Marilynn left for the states this morning, Kansas City to be precise, for the American Conference for Irish Studies. Which leaves Declan and me on our own until Monday. Heh, heh, heh.

She is a plenary speaker for the conference, which is academic-speak for Really Big Deal. Business folks would be more familiar with the term keynote speaker, and the rest of us would have no clue.

Academic conferences are full of panel discussions and similar papers on a theme because institutions are more likely to reimburse a professor attending the conference if she is giving a paper. That means there are usually several tracks running at the same time, cutting the audience size for each panel. So a plenary is a single-track talk, with an undivided audience in attendance.

Despite being an excellent speaker, Marilynn was nervous about this, which underscores the Really Big Deal aspect. But I know she will knock it out of the park, like she always does.

Book launch events coming up

Marilynn edited an uncompleted but still powerful novel that her playwright Stewart Parker wrote about the amputation of his left leg when he was a 19-year-old student at Queen’s University Belfast. He sketched out the story a few years later, in a style reminiscent of James Joyce (but the readable James Joyce).

Stewart would pull out “Hopdance” during times of personal turmoil, tweaking the dialog, reordering scenes and writing new ones. He returned to it a final time in the months preceding his death from cancer in 1988 but never completed it. Marilynn took his original manuscript, much of it hand-written, typed it up and then went through it with a graduate assistant word-for-word at least twice, standardizing the spelling and punctuation while retaining Stewart’s writing quirks whenever possible.

It’s a labor of love and a great read. I’ve read it twice and look forward to hearing what the critics and the reading public think.

But it also means book launches in Belfast and Derry, either in late April or early May. Details aren’t final, but Marilynn, her agent and publisher hope to attract some high-powered help in launching the book in both cities. Fingers crossed that they succeed, but it’ll be a blast in any event.

Worshipping at the Emirates

So what will the boys be up to while Marilynn’s at her conference? By a happy coincidence, we’ll be in London this weekend, seeing our first competitive English Premier League match, our beloved Arsenal vs. Manchester City (boo hiss!).

Declan became an Arsenal fan in 2013 for reasons he still can’t articulate. But I got dragged into it, too, and became a fan of “real” football. This is one of the top matches of the year, and we were very lucky to score tickets from an Arsenal season ticket holder I met in the strangest of places.

But that’s a story for another day, which will be next week.

About the photo: We toured the “glorious” Emirates Stadium in 2014 while Marilynn was giving a talk in London. The certificates we received after the tour touted the stadium as “glorious,” and it stuck.

Rain Can’t Dampen Spirits at Football Match

You know you’re finally acclimated to the UK when you:

  1. Actually crave British food
  2. Drink British beer
  3. Attend a football match in crappy weather
  4. All of the above

The answer is C. Attend a football match in crappy weather, as evidenced by our attendance at Friday night’s Bristol City vs. Huddersfield Town match at Ashton Gate in Bristol. The other two are unfathomable (see why at bottom).

This was a pivotal match in the Championship, the league right under the English Premier League. What I especially like about football is that it’s a game of comers and goers. Have a great season, and your team gets promoted to the next higher league. Fall apart, and you get relegated to the next league down.

Promotions and demotions

If American baseball were organized in the same way, it would be like the three or four worst major league teams getting sent to AAA, while the best AAA teams got promoted to the big leagues, just like players do. Nothing like the threat of being relegated to get complacent owners to invest in their teams!

Declan would watch football seven days a week if he could, so we purchased our tickets well in advance of the match. Huddersfield Town is near the top of the Championship, where the top two teams advance automatically to the Premier League and the next four have a playoff for the third transfer spot. The home team, by contrast, sits near the relegation zone to the next lower league.

Our tickets were in the second row, near the American football equivalent of the 40-yard line. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our seats were not covered and it was misting cold rain the entire time. I guess we could have moved up (good but not great crowd), but Declan liked our primo seats, so we endured as best we could. The rain swirled around the stadium the entire match.

A neck injury to a Huddersfield player resulted in a lengthy, but necessary, halt in play early in the match and an unheard-of 14 minutes of stoppage time at the end of the first period. But after that false start, the match picked up speed, with Bristol City winning 4-0 to help them stay out of the relegation zone. A friend who is a lifelong Leeds United fan was virtually shouting encouragement during the match because his team is fighting Huddersfield for the final transfer spot.

Unfortunately, I missed the third goal while in the bathroom, but it was apparent what had happened from the roar of the crowd.

A little help from our friends

We have to thank several people who helped us get to the right bus stop, get off the bus at the right place, find our seats and reverse the process to get back to our hotel. These include the clerk in the hotel who looked up the bus schedule and gave directions to the bus stop; the nice woman at the bus stop who confirmed we were in the right place; the bus driver who promised to announce the stop; Bristol City supporters who pointed out the bus stop for the return and walked with us to the right entry gate to the stadium; and the bus driver on the return trip who dropped us off at the right place.

It was a 45-minute bus ride in each direction, and the wait for the return bus was in excess of 30 minutes. My feet didn’t unfreeze until a cup of tea back at the hotel, and I shudder thinking about the cold two days later.

But, for Declan, it was a highlight of the trip, right up there with fossil hunting in Lyme Regis and above visiting Stonehenge. We were all tired the next day flying home, but staying home because it was raining was never an option.

Why the other answers were incorrect: A. No one craves British food beyond fish and chips (or curry and chips). In truth, the food is getting much better and more varied than on early visits. But, as a cuisine, I’ll take just about anything else.

B. The same goes for British beer. On a UK trip with Marilynn more than a decade ago, I tried every British beer I came across—and was left disappointed and thirsty. Lest you think I’m equating Guinness and my beloved Smithwick’s to this bunch, both are Irish beers brewed in Dublin.

A Grand Day Out to Newtownards

We were told at semester start that Declan didn’t need a PE kit at Lagan, given he was just there for the semester. But he came home last Monday and announced that he was being picked to play in Thursday’s football match and did need a kit—immediately.

Declan in his Lagan College football kit.
Declan in his football kit.

Unlike the school uniform, which could be purchased in at least three places in Belfast, there was only one outlet for the PE kit, 12 miles east of Belfast in Newtownards (pronounced Newton-ards). A quick search of bus routes showed that it would take 75 minutes and two busses to get to Newtownards, then the same amount of time and busses to get back.

So I asked a family friend, Eileen, if she would kindly drive me. Eileen had been instrumental in hooking Declan up with a local academy football team, even driving him to the first practice, so she was happy to help.

Detour to Ikea

We set a plan for Wednesday, but on Tuesday night, the third of six Ikea bowls we purchased in early January failed, so I asked if we could go to Ikea, too. Eileen invited another family friend, Joanna, so we set off on Wednesday morning, first to Ikea. The Ikea customer service rep was happy to replace the bowls while Eileen and Joanna shopped the scratch-and-dent furniture and purchased a few items.

The route to Newtownards took us past the Stormont Estate, where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, so we took a quick detour to see Stormont and Stormont Castle.

Upon arrival in Newtownards, we quickly bought the kit and had a quick meal at Haptik, a local coffee shop. I had one of the weirdest-sounding but greatest-tasting brunch dishes—waffles and maple syrup topped by a fried egg, with bacon pieces sprinkled around the plate. It also had sesame seeds sprinkled on top. I did everything but lick the plate afterward.

Garden center? No shit.

Eileen warned me in advance there would be a garden shop involved, but fortunately not the manure she had previously mentioned. Walkers Seeds & Paints is also in the city centre, but we drove there because Eileen sensed there was a big shopping trip ahead. She wasn’t kidding.

What a great, old-fashioned store, full of things a gardener needs as well as many things a gardener didn’t know he needed until seeing them. Oh yeah, and paint, too. I saw nearly two dozen varieties of seed potatoes and hadn’t realized before there were so many. I knew the Irish liked their potatoes, but two dozen kinds?

Half a day after we started, we arrived back in Belfast, lighter of wallet but fuller in friendship. And that’s the best part of a grand day out.

P.S. Declan did play in the match, and his team won.

Singin’ the Blues at local football match

Declan loves football like Winnie the Pooh loves honey. Now when I talk about football, whether in the U.S., the U.K. or in my favorite made-up former Russian republic of Bumfukistan, I’m talking about world football—the kickie kind, the kind the entire planet plays except the US. No helmets required—unless you are Petr Cech.

Folks in the U.S. play a game called American football. I’m not going to say this again, so you need to keep up—football = headers and fancy footwork and not touchdowns. And I guarantee you that we will be talking about football a lot over the next seven months.

Perhaps the only thing that got Declan through a week of Boy Scout camp right before we left (other than not having to pack!) was the fact we were going to see a local professional team play the first full day we were in Belfast. Marilynn had left by then, and the Northern Ireland national football stadium, Windsor Park, not only shares a name with the street we’re living on, it’s also only a 10-minute walk away.

Windsor Park is home to the Linfield Blues of the Northern Irish Premier League, which were four points adrift of the league’s top team, Crusaders FC, a team they had defeated just days earlier. At full capacity, Windsor Park seats 14,000, compared to, say, Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal of the English Premier League, which seats slightly more than 60,000. Home average attendance for the Blues is 2,500, so getting tickets for a Tuesday night match was definitely not a problem.

The night’s opponent was Coleraine, a team in the top half of the table but one that Linfield was supposed to defeat handily. Expectations were understandably high.

The assistant referee on the home side (see picture) apparently had made a bad call against the home team during an earlier match, because the taunting began almost immediately. But when the Linfield captain got a second yellow card in the 34th minute, the howls became much louder and aimed this time at the head referee, who called the apparent infraction that earned the yellow card.

While I was more interested in the match than in the participants, I did feel the Linfield supporters had a legitimate gripe at the sending off because I can’t see how any referee was in a proper position to call a foul, much less a yellow card offense.

Even though the home team, down to 10 men, played admirably for 30 plus minutes, Coleraine scored the only (and winning) goal in the 75th minute. One can sense when a goal is forthcoming, and this one was well due. From the shouts of impassioned fans (mostly men, of course) you’d have thought the Linfield team name was the “Fook Sakes” or the “For Fook Sakes” instead of the Blues. Linfield scored an equalizing goal a few minutes later, only to have a player called offsides and the goal disallowed.

The Crusaders won their match on Tuesday to extend their lead over Linfield to seven points, with a lot more football still to play this season.

I’m sure we’ll attend more Linfield matches this year, as well as those of several other teams. It’s a great way to watch the locals and learn a few new curse words and the proper way to pronounce them.