Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Return to Europe

After a two month hiatus, I am back traveling in Europe. For the next week I will be taking you on my week long journey in Iceland. Although, my mother, Eve, and I will be staying in the capital city of Reykjavik, we will be touring different regions of the country each day.

For those of you who are not familiar with the geology of Iceland, let me tell you why this is such a fascinating place to visit. Iceland is located directly in the center of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and although I originally was going to try to explain the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, after several minutes brainstorming and coming up empty, I am going to let Wikipedia do a much better job than I ever could have. ( Basically, the plates below the Earth's surface cause so much friction there are millions of years of volcanic history on the island.

Hopefully, my 3-day flu/cold, that has destroyed my strength (the 5 hour flight with absolutely no legroom didn't help) has left me so I can really start to enjoy the next 7 days in Iceland.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Hitting the Scottish Links

I have golf clubs, balls, and tees; everything should seem like another normal round of golf, but it doesn’t. Not even close to normal. The grass on the course is a beautiful bright green as it always is. White sand fills bunkers spread liberally throughout each hole. I am golfing in the gorgeous Highlands of Scotland, the original home of Golf, and no bad shots or three putts can turn my gigantic smile into even the slightest frown.

It is 6:30 p.m. in Fort Augustus, I have been here for an hour and have already located a course, reserved rental clubs, and made a tee time. My heart is racing in anticipation for my first Scottish golfing experience. Every few minutes goose bumps appear on my arm. The hair on my forearms and neck rise to attention, this is without a doubt a special day.

As I enter the clubhouse a tall, blonde haired woman greets me. “You’re the lad who called about the clubs, ay?” I replied with an exuberant “YES” unable to keep my emotions in check. “You picked a great night to play, the weather is beautiful and the wind isn’t too bad,” she said with a smile, her Scottish charm pouring out.

My equipment is, to put it kindly, not what I am accustomed to playing with. My 3 and 5-wood are literally wooden. The irons look like they had been used by the Jacobites as weapons, and my putter’s shine has dulled to a dark coal black. But all that doesn’t matter. Today, the goal for my round is not breaking 80, or making 3 birdies, no way. Today, my goal is to enjoy this great game in its purest form, in the atmosphere that is was meant to be played in.

Dark brown heather, yet to bloom into its beautiful purple color, runs parallel to each fairway, waiting patiently to suck up one of my wayward shots, as it has surely done to thousands of golfers in the past. Huge mountains; some colored a florescent yellow, others packed with tall green trees, enclose the course like bleachers surround a stadium.

The sound of wind howling through leaves on trees outlining the perimeter of the course is constant. Every 30 seconds or so a gust sweeps down piercing through my body as if I wasn’t really there. Could I be dreaming? Am I really playing golf in frickin’ Scotland right now? 

Even in my state of nirvana I can’t help from being hypnotized by the beauty of nature that I am all of a sudden smack-dab in the middle of. The picture of mountain after mountain layered perfectly next to each other behind the 1st green is as clear as the light blue sky, no cloud in site.

The air has a different scent to it, but I can’t put my finger on it. It is very sweet, like honey, and fresh, perhaps a family is baking a cake close to the course and the wind is carrying it into my face. Whatever it is, it couldn’t be more pleasant.

Golf carts, America’s proudest invention, are not permitted to trample the course; yet not one fairway allows for a flat shot. Each fairway has its own crevasses throughout the hole, truly signifying just how much history has occurred on this old patch of land. Perhaps, wars and battles between the Scottish and English for territory were decided on this land. Maybe years ago livestock grazed the fields, some of which were undeniably brought to their death by the monster occupying the nearby Loch Ness just outside the gated fence of the golf course. Who really knows? All I am certain of is that it now has a permanent place in my mind and soul forever.

To passerby’s who see me play while they drive down the road, I am sure they think nothing out of the ordinary is going on. I am also quite positive that people who read this will say, “What is so special about playing golf in Scotland?”

In my heart, everything is different. I have played upwards of 50 golf courses in my life, and it will take me 50 more to feel the way I feel right now. In the center of the most beautiful scenery I have ever witnessed. There are so many pleasant distractions, golf almost takes a back seat to all the other variables surrounding me. The sun is still nowhere near setting, still high in the sky waiting for me to make my swings.

When I am playing golf back home, I play a game with myself on the course. On the 18th hole I pretend I have a putt to win the U.S. Open, usually I miss, although the times I make it I am ecstatic. Today, I will add a wee twist to my game. This time, and only this time, my putt on 18 will be to win the British Open, and I will make it.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Market Restaurant

Roberto Flores has the toughest job in quite possibly the busiest spot in the entire city of Chelsea. Flores wakes up everyday at 6:30 a.m. in his one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Chelsea overlooking the River Thames. When he has time he stops at his local café to pick up the fuel necessary for the hectic day he has ahead. Flores gets to work just as the sun is peaking through the morning sky and won't go home until it is just beginning to set in the west.

Flores is the manager of The Market Restaurant, by far the most frequented attraction inside the Chelsea Farmers Market. The restaurant opens for breakfast and coffee at 9 a.m. and serves lunch and dinner until it closes at 8 p.m. Flores arrives at the Chelsea Farmers Market before anyone else, around 8 a.m. when he begins his workday, and won’t stop until closing 12 hours later. 

Flores hails from Sicily, where he lived before coming to England 13 years ago. Now, at 41, although his slender and muscular physique makes him look much younger, he has found a home at the restaurant that he has managed for more than 6 years. “In Italy you have the weather, food and drink. England has everything. There is always something to do here, and that’s the way I like it,” he said while standing behind the bar, which is built no more than 10 feet from the kitchen.

Inside the kitchen is where Stuart, the South African chef operates. In a genuine, yet joking manner Flores says, “Stuart is one of the best chefs in all of Chelsea,” loud enough for him to hear and give a slight chuckle.  “Thank you, Roberto,” he cheerfully shouts out while preparing a soon-to-be-happy customer’s lunch.

The restaurant is located on Sydney Street where the traffic from buses and cars can easily be heard coming from Kings Road right around the corner. On beautiful days like today, everyone dines outside, where there are tables numbered 1-29. Each wooden table, with benches on both sides, has a little 8-inch square dish that contains ketchup and mustard in red and yellow squirt bottles, salt and pepper, and an ashtray.

The set up brings me back to Rockville Centre, New York, my hometown where on warm summer days there is a bevy of outdoor seating that I feel only enriches the eating experience. The atmosphere just encourages a peaceful mentality to me. Anyway, back to Chelsea.

The people start filing in one after another after another around 1 p.m. until all 29 tables are full of hungry locals and tourists alike, waiting eagerly to be served their food. The sun shines from everyone’s smiling faces as they sip their drinks and relax before heading back to work or continuing to explore the neighborhood. If some prefer to sit in the shade, waiters rush over to the table and in a counter-clockwise movement, open large green awnings that are spread out among the area. One thing is certain, everyone who works for Flores, from Stuart the chef all the way down to the waiters, strive to make every customer happy.

Everywhere I look there is green. Plants varying from light to dark green go around in a big square, surrounding the eating area with beautiful scenery. The big green awnings hang above tables. Even the actual building where people go up to pay and order drinks from the bar is covered in forest green.

The aroma from the food makes me feel like I should be in Paris or Rome, rather than in a small farmer’s market in Chelsea. Dish after dish come from the kitchen, each one looking more and more delicious as I sit at the bar.

“Roberto is a fair man that makes working for him very enjoyable. Everyone that works here has respect for him … and that leads to a good environment,” said the chef from the kitchen, where a big, rectangular window allows him to receive and deliver orders.

I feel very relaxed and safe at the restaurant: something that isn’t always the easiest for someone in a new place. “We want people to think of the Chelsea Farmer’s Market as a must-see attraction as well as a great place to go with friends and family,” said Flores. “You have to be kind to everyone, whether it is people who frequent often or tourists such as yourself.”

Jim Connelly, a resident of Chelsea, says he loves the restaurant. “I come here four or five times a week because the food is delicious, the people who work here are kind, and it’s a great place to bring my dog,” he said. “Thank you very much, sir; we hope to see you again soon,” Flores said, wearing a big, genuine smile.

For Mama

So it is now noon in Chelsea. The streets are starting to get rowdy for the FA Championship match between the hometown Chelsea Blues and Everton. Sadly, I have an 800 word paper to write so if I don't finish in the next 3 hours I might miss it. Last night I went to the Ireland/Nigeria friendly match at Fulham Football Club Stadium. Match was great, teams weren't all that sharp but still some great action. Game ended in a 1-1 draw...boooo ties suck. 

This is my last full real day in London. I leave for Scotland tomorrow for a week of touring the Highlands. No computer which means no blog posts but I should have plenty of stories when I get back. I have absolutely fallen in love with London. The people are nice, although I must say not the most upbeat people I have ever seen. But the city itself is just to awesome to let anything else bother you. Take the 5 biggest cities in America and combine them into one monster city and you have London, and of course make the drinking age 18 (figured I'd throw that in for Lindsay since I'm an alchy). 

So I am going to get back to writing. New blog should be up by 10 p.m. London time. See everyone in a little more than a week.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

London Is...

As a nineteen-year old male in the United States I am very limited to the places I can socialize and drink beers with friends the same age as myself. This angers me, and it confuses me. I am old enough to have a full-time job, pay taxes, go to war, serve, fight, and die for my country. But drink a sip of alcohol or even enter a bar that serves alcohol... NO WAY IN HELL.
Of course there are loopholes like there is with anything in this crazy world. I could buy a fake ID or pay a bouncer outside to let me enter. That will certainly make my wallet lighter, which is not at all my objective before I even take a sip of beer. The system is severely flawed and shows no signs of fixing itself.
That is why to me, London is freedom. Real freedom, not the garbage my government back in America constantly shoves down its people throats every day. Here I can do as I please, have a casual drink with friends in a relaxing bar setting with a few waitresses dress in black with some 1990’s music in the background. Or I can get entirely pissed, steamed up, with a couple guys during an Arsenal football match in a pub right outside the teams’ home stadium.
I love all kinds of beer. Pale ales, bitter Lagers, dark beer served at room temperature, blonde beer served “Extra Cold” for us cranky Americans. Everyone has a distinct quality that makes it unique and special.
The feeling I get as I walk up to a bartender and order a beer is indescribable to me, mostly because I had never really had the opportunity back home. I finally can have the customer and bartender rapport that has thus far eluded me my entire life. I can ask him what he recommends, without him looking back at me with a stare that tells me I am about to get shut down. Rather just the opposite, he smiles, takes a second to consider his favourite beer, then reconsider because there has to be so many running through his mind, before finally sharing his deepest thoughts. “That sounds great, I’ll have one of those,” I would say as obviously I wouldn’t be dumb enough to go against a professional’s opinion.
Still, I know that the freedom I feel now in London is ticking to an end each day. Soon I will be back in America, where I am not of legal age, and consequently go back to being an equal to an infant at the bars. When I leave London in 11 days I will be relinquishing my freedom to consume alcohol legally, and I am not happy about it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Weekend Update

On Saturday, I woke up early to take a train to Sheffield to visit my cousin Joshua. Josh is a graduate student, currently earning his PhD in Political Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. 

It was great to see how another university is run outside America. One of the major differences is that beer drinking is very much accepted in the college culture. In one of the university's student centers, there was an outside patio area called the "Beer Garden", where students went outside and ate food and drank beer, quite different to what I am used to back at Ithaca. But what made the experience even richer, was the great time I got to spend with Josh.

I don't get to see Josh much, but when I do we really make the most of it. The conversation, laughter, and our overall enjoyment we both share being around each other is really one of a kind. I strongly believe that my relationship with Josh is one of the strongest I have with anyone in my life, and I think the feeling is mutual from him. We toured the campus, and some of the city's more historical venues. We dined at a very nice French restaurant... twice. The food was so good the first time we had to go back for more. I gave him his last item of memorabilia from  Shea Stadium, a final season commemorative baseball and tin that had been in my room for the last 10 months. 

So, all in all the horrendously boring 5 hours I spent riding on the trains and tubes were completely overshadowed by the great 8 hours I spent in Sheffield. Hopefully, I convinced him to take a vacation to my turf in the near future. If you are reading this Josh, your family in America will be waiting for your company.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's Not Hooliganism, It's Passion

My experience of Arsenal was long, tiring, and a lot fun. Finding a pub with an entertaining atmosphere, as well as one televising the Arsenal match, was shockingly difficult. However, at the end of the day, with the kindness of the local folks, along with the entertaining passion the home fans displayed all day, my trip could not have been a bigger success.

Today, the Arsenal Football Club defeated Stoke City 4-1 at Emirates Stadium. However, that is not the story for today. Instead, I would prefer to talk about the incredible culture that surrounds Arsenal, and more specifically the connection between the football club and local community.

In America, one of the most loyal and enthusiastic cities to their hometown sports team is Green Bay, Wisconsin. On Packers’ Sunday, the town closes down and all eyes are centered on the green and yellow men at Lambeau Field. In Arsenal, just like in numerous cities throughout London, football takes priority over everything else. On game day, nothing is more important than showing your support and cheering on your respective team.

As I exited the tube station, the only one in London directly named after the football club, I entered a street surrounded by red and yellow uniforms, Arsenal’s team colors. Directly outside the station there were booths, or little shops, selling Arsenal t-shirts, scarves, baseball caps and other paraphernalia.

If today was any indication of the normal game day routine in Arsenal, there are zero cars on the road. Instead, the entire street is jam packed with Arsenal jerseys. The home jerseys, which most fans were sporting, were bright red, with maroon and white trim down the sides. In the middle of the chest wrote, “Fly Emirates”, which was flanked by the Nike logo on the right side and Arsenal crest of the left. Drakes’ Street, the road leading to the arena was a sea of red.

I could smell the scent of locals drinking beers outside the stadium as clear as the sky on this beautiful spring day. In almost a treasure hunt kind of feeling, empty beer cans were tossed on the sidewalks leading up to the pitch. Outside the entrance to the pitch, pubs were overflowing with fans from both sides that were frantically singing cheers for their team.

Purposefully, I had arrived early, to get a sense of the pregame festivities and as well to accustom myself with my surroundings. I had hoped to find a nice pub with fellow Arsenal fans to watch the contest with, meanwhile taking in some of the culture. Unfortunately, things went a rye for me in several regards.

Prior to my trip, I had done some research to find a pub in Arsenal to watch the game, and, believe me, there are a ton to choose from. The problem on this day was after I had sidetracked off my original trail from the tube station into the stadium, nobody seemed to know where the one pub I had set my sights on going to was located — and I mean nobody. I must’ve asked fifteen separate police officers and traffic officials, and close to a dozen more fans drenched in Arsenal apparel, all with the same, unsuccessful result. I approached one policewoman on the streets and asked her if she knew where the infamous, Arsenal Tavern was. Her response, “I don’t have the damndest clue”. It seemed neither did anyone else.

I went on, walking up and down Drake’s Street for well over an hour, until I finally found my destination. I walked in prepared to see a bar covered with Arsenal uniforms and televisions broadcasting the game all over the walls. Instead what did I find?

Seven people!

Eventually I managed to find a place down the street that was a little more upbeat. A sign hung over the entrance in black that wrote, “Home Fans Only.” I entered feeling right at home with my jersey on! Inside, I stood next to cousins, Steve and Dave, from Arsenal, wearing matching uniforms. We exchanged pleasantries and began talking. We mainly discussed football, American and European. Talking to these guys, who looked not a day over 30, I could feel the accepting nature they had towards a foreigner such as myself. I figured this was probably because of the bond we shared due to the Arsenal uniform.

That’s the beauty of sports. It’s the same throughout the world. Fans come together and accept each other for having common characteristics.  In Arsenal, sharing interest in the football club is one of the greatest things you can have in common with the locals, as I experienced firsthand.