18 August 2017

European Vacation Part Four - Good Old England

Charlie George (right) and yours truly
There was that walk along the beach with the wife at dusk in St. Ives. There was cheering and jumping up and down with tens of thousands of others at Emirates Stadium. There was marveling silently at antiquities in the British Museum. There was and always will be England. Loved and admired, hated and reviled. The people are dry and passionless, they are inspired and silly. England is Queen Victoria, England is Monty Python's Flying Circus. England is tea time, soccer hooligans, tradition and innovation. England is gritty gray cities, England is gorgeous green countryside. England is imperialism and it is democracy it is indecipherable accents and Shakespeare. England and how you see it is a reflection on you and what you bring to experiencing it. To me it is always and forever The Beatles, proper football (soccer to you, Yanks) a long and fascinating history and of course fish and chips. I love the place.

We arrived on a Thursday desperately missing Finland and the great time we had there. But the next night it was off to meet my friend Phil, his daughter and a friend to see my favorite footie team, The Arsenal. It was the opening of the English Premier League season and my beloved Gunners were taking on Leicester City. It was my wife's first match and was it a doozy. Within two minutes our heroes were ahead 1-0 but as halftime approached some sloppy passing and poor defending meant a 2-1 deficit. But at the stroke of halftime The Arsenal leveled and we could relax during the interval. Unfortunately they fell back behind early in the second half and I spent nearly a half an hour of playing time worried that my first match in eight years was going to be a loss. But with ten minutes to go Arsenal equalized and a few minutes later went ahead and the stadium was rocking. It was not just mad cheering but singing that ensued as supporters sang odes to the team and individuals. This is part of what makes football so special. Teams have their own chants and songs for their club and also for some of the players. It was thrilling.

Charlie George in his playing days.
The next day four of us were back at the stadium for a tour. The missus instead took in the Tate Modern Museum. The tour was led by my teenage hero one Charlie George who scored the winning goal in the 1971 FA Cup final. I saw the game, his goal and his celebration (laying on the pitch arms spread) on TV and became an instant Arsenal fan. During the tour I had my picture taken with him (thanks, Phil) and got his autograph. I was like a star struck kid. We saw the locker room, coaches' office, the field, the high priced luxury seats and went through the Arsenal museum. After that it was into the team's mega store where I got an Arsenal jacket and another tee shirt.

On Sunday the better half and I were on the train to St. Ives, a resort town on the southwest coast of England. There we spent several days doing very little aside from enjoying the views, going for walks and eating some of the most delectable seafood I've ever had. One day it rained and that was fine too because you can't be running about all the time. The St. Ives Museum was surprisingly good with relics from both world wars, the shipping industry and everything from local fashions to odds and ends from everyday life in the 19th century.

Back to London for a day and another in a long line of great meals we ate on our trip. Yesterday we flew back to New York for a quick visit with youngest daughter and the last of a series of restaurant meals. Today we're back in Berkeley and I'm glad to see oldest daughter and not be living out of a suitcase anymore. I'm rejuvenated for work and refreshed and raring to get back into my routine.

The trip re-enforced my great love for three things: Finland, The Arsenal and my family. It also served to remind me what a lucky bloke I am. That's worth a trip in itself.

09 August 2017

Euro Vacation 2017 Part Three -- In the Home of my Ancestors

The river I fished and swam in.
Jumping into an icy cold river after a hot sauna felt fantastic. It was after 10:00 in the evening and the sun was still out because this is Finland. Three times I emerged from the hot sauna for a refreshing dip. It was the same river I'd been fishing in earlier in the day with my two strapping young nephews. I caught three fish, all undersized and thus all designated for re-assignment as living -- if wounded -- fish. The three of us had fished for a bit near the cabin but later bushwhacked our way through the underbrush to likely spots and challenged the local pike and trout to snag our lures. It was damned fun. As oldest nephew told me it's called fishing not catching, so our failure to reel in an eligible fish was no great disappointment. Youngest nephew had wrestled in a large trout the day before so dinner was already settled.

This whole time in Finland has been damned fun. My first trip to the homeland in decades. I met two cousins I'd not seen since we were all still young, bright-eyed bushy-tailed happy optimists. I'm glad to report that we are all still happy and optimistic, despite our years. Perhaps I am less so as even during this wonderful vacation I continue to fight off waves of depression. There have been distractions aplenty so mostly I've been in good spirits.

Seeing my Cousin Jorma in Tampere was a particularly good distraction. He's my senior by about ten years. I'd been questioning how much longer I wanted to suffer through life after this trip, so bad can the mental torment be. But seeing Jorma charge happily through the world gave me hope and a role model. He reminded me of my dear old dad, a non stop liver. Like my Dad he was charming, funny and wise and most of all active. Maybe, I've thought, I can try that. His wife too is a wonder of glee and enthusiasm and his daughter, who was three when last I saw her, is a charming, intelligent, successful doctor running a family practice, has two precocious sons of 10 and 14 and a wise and kind husband. The missus and I had a grand time visiting them. If life can be this good then maybe depression can be conquered.

My cousin Helena and I.
Further north in Yliveska we visited my cousin Helena. In my prior visits to Finland she felt like the big sister I never had. She was kind, warm, fun and funny. Today she is still all those things but is also a mother of three and a grandmother of four. Courtesy of one of her daughters we drove to the nearby town of Nivala where my father and all his siblings were born and raised. Our visit included a stop at the old family home, which is sadly out of the family now. I'd stayed there during my previous visits when my grandmother was still alive and kicking.

In between visiting long lost kin we stayed in the small burg of Paltamo. My late brother's wife's family has a summer cabin there. The setting was too rustic for us citified folk so we spent our night's in town. My sister-in-law was there along with the aforementioned nephews who, like us, live in the Bay Area. The setting was Eden-like. Besides us there was the river, the trees (Finland has gazillions of trees) and a few pesky skeeters and dragon flies. This was the ultimate in getting away from it all and I, who work and live in a thickly packed urban area needed getting away from as much as possible. I was not in heaven (as the mosquitoes attested to) but I was but a few steps below.

For the last few days we've been Helsinki, one of the prettiest big cities in the world. In Finland it feels like cities, towns and hamlets are just dropped from the sky in and around forests, lakes and rivers. You can't go far without be reminded of nature. Even in the thriving metropolis of Finland's capital this is true. The architecture here is stunning, the people are polite and friendly, the public transportation accessible and convenient and everything is clean. Is it perfect? I guess one would have to spend a winter here to answer that.

We've been going from town to town by train and it is a wonderful way to travel. Out the window you can see trees, fields, meadows, more trees, lakes, rivers, trees again, lots of trees, an occasional town, forests, trees and did I mention trees? It's gorgeous. I also saw a bear. Just a glimpse, but damn that was cool.

With older relatives I've had to speak the native tongue and though I'm rusty I've managed to get by. Virtually everyone here under 50 speaks English and many of them speak it better than Americans do. Still I've used the lingo in a few transactions in stores and at restaurants etc. If we stayed longer I might start making my way toward fluency but as it is we're out of here today. Onto London and a football match, then to Cornwall to stare at the sea.

My God I'm having fun.