21
May

Trecker’s Travels: Lisbon, Day 2

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LISBON — The red and white scarves have been stowed for the season, the plaza at City Hall last night was being swept up of the cups and flags. Over at Restauradores, the only rally was for graduating university students – something to do with big wooden spoons and lots of beer, by the looks of it. A Bola is still gleefully printing pictures of Benfica players holding up three fingers but the rest of the city has moved on towards the big game on Saturday. The headline in Record read: “The world is watching.”

But until then, there’s not much to do, soccer-wise. The teams are training in Spain, the fans have yet to trickle in, and Lisbon, the oldest city in Western Europe is glorious. So, why not see it?

Now, I have a weakness for trains. I believe they are the only civilized way to travel, and I have been known to walk miles between train stops rather than take a bus. I once refused a plane trip from Berlin to Warsaw on the grounds that I could take a sleeper car there overnight. The fact that it turned out to be a Soviet-style bed car, complete with hissing steam, did not teach me any lesson whatsoever. On the contrary, I am of the belief that it made me stronger, much as the journeys from Leuchars to Dundee on the sublimely discomfiting Fife Rail trains of the early 1970s, all plaid and burr.

Much to my glee (and my partner’s despair) Lisbon has had an urban train system for nearly 130 years. Yesterday, I decided to ride all of them, going from the ancient basilica on the west side of the city out to the giant flea market that occupies Alfama just west of the castle. The points are connected by an ancient tram line, the “28,” which runs through the winding roads along the harbor line. The “28” started out as a horse carriage line (I pity the poor beasts on these hills and cobblestones) but switched to overhead electric in 1901.

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19
May

Trecker’s Travels: Typical 5-star Portuguese hospitality

imageBenfica won their third trophy of the season last weekend (Reuters Image).

LISBON –

Red and white coursed down the tight streets of the capital on Sunday night, in an echo of the party taking place in Islington. While London had 250,000 fans, only about 3,000 showed up in the center of the Portuguese capital to celebrate — but what Benfica had accomplished inarguably shades Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph.

Benfica, one of Portugal’s great teams, completed a historic domestic treble, winning the Portuguese Cup, 1-0 over Rio Ave to add to their haul of the league and league cup trophies this season. They might have had four: just four days prior, Benfica had continued their cursed streak in Europe, falling to Sevilla in the Europa League finals. (Benfica have been shut out on the continent for 52 years, allegedly due to a hex that Bela Guttmann slapped on the club after they won the 1962 European Cup.) So the restaurants and fado joints in this tight city of winding streets were full of fans late into the night, many in team shirts; many more with handmade, old-school scarves.

Lisbon is mad about football, and they boast two of the greatest teams in the game, Sporting and Benfica. Saturday, they will host the UEFA Champions League final, and if there is a regret that the game will be contested between teams from their far bigger neighbor to their West, few here are showing it. Instead, the typical Portuguese hospitality is on full display, with signs across the Barrio Alto welcoming fans and pumping up the big game.

imageBenfica fans celebrate the cup win over Rio Ave on Sunday (Getty Image).

Now, Lisbon is a small city – just around 600,000 in the core city center, another 2 million in the suburbs – and in the aftermath of the financial crisis that rocked Europe, it still feels a bit empty. Graffiti lines many of the major streets, and a number of the buildings look vacant. Granted, Lisbon is a late starting city – many shops and restaurants open at 4 in the afternoon and remain open into the wee hours of the morning – but the scars of the nation’s near-bankruptcy in 2011 remain. Walking up and down the hills here, it’s easy to see shattered windows and boarded up townhouses. It’s also easy to find spectacularly good food and friendly conversation, a mark of just how resilient this ancient city is in the face of adversity.

The Champions League final will also fall around the anniversary of one of Portugal’s most pivotal moments: forty years ago, the right-wing Estado Novo was toppled in the Carnation Revolution, forming the Third Portuguese Republic. The 25th of April remains a national holiday, and the event is being marked at sites around Lisbon with large reproductions of news photographs outside plazas, museums and statues.

imageThe Estadio da Luz is the site of this year’s Champions League final (Getty Images).

It’s an uncomfortable memory for some: the revolution caused an exodus (if you live in New England, you probably have a Portuguese bakery or restaurant in spitting distance of you) and there are some mutterings that the fiscal irresponsibility under the Third Republic’s watch has laid this nation low.

Still, the city feels primed for a celebration. The Champions League final is bringing the world into the city, and the European Cup is back in Portugal, if not to stay. And don’t be surprised to hear some chants of “Amo-Te Benfica” from the crowd at the Estadio da Luz. After all, it is Benfica’s home stadium.

9
Apr

Trecker’s Travels: Santa Claus hits Bayern Munich’s official store

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MUNICH

Every time I travel, I ask the guys in the office if they’d like me to bring anything back for them. Scarves, jerseys, chocolate, whatever — though I do draw the line at objects bigger than a breadbox — and this is an attempt to camouflage the fact that, well, I’m out of the office in foreign lands that most people would really like to be in.

[This is the point at which I’m supposed to remind you that not one thing at all about 11-hour plane trips and all-day sits at rainy arenas at which you curse the wi-fi and wish dearly you had a fifth of Early Times, is glamorous. But I’ll skip it.]

So, the guy that runs our podcast is a Bayern Munich fan, and of course I’m in Munich. Neither of these things are a secret. Thomas Hautmann, in fact, is so over the top in his Bayern fandom that several weeks back, Warren Barton took the opportunity to poke fun at the poor guy on-air — something about him wearing Bayern underwear. And so, this trip, I was to get him Bayern underwear.

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4
Apr

Trecker’s Travels Day 3: Writers in a bookshop

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By Jamie Trecker

FOX Soccer

LONDON — The Big Smoke has been smogged in. This is a rare thing. Schools are being closed, kids are being kept inside. The prime minister didn’t go for his customary jog yesterday citing health dangers and the need to “set an example.” (The mayor of London was having none of that faff and went out for his customary bike ride.)

London is not Los Angeles. It is true that at one time the pollution here was so bad that the fog lingered on the ground – for you Sherlock Holmes fans out there, that’s where the term “pea-soup” came from. It was burning coal that did it, and London burned a great deal of it. This city, for a time during the Industrial Revolution, was basically one big chimney. London earned its nickname.

But this week’s morass has not been caused by coal smoke – for that, just head north – this apparently is an attack of Saharan Dust. No, the V&A did not bring down the mummy’s curse on us all; apparently a freak confluence of events has driven a cloud of the particles up and over Europe and into London. Big Ben has been shrouded in a haze for the last few days and the smog has stretched all the way to Newcastle, where the Angel of the North has been wrapped in a shroud.

Seeing little point in going out and adding to my collection of photographs of Things That Look Like The TARDIS, I headed instead to a dusty bookstore to speak with my colleagues Jonathan Wilson and Patrick Barclay.

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31
Mar

Trecker’s Travels: A second home

Jamie Trecker

MANCHESTER — You know you’ve been on the road too long when you walk out of the train station here, grab the paper, and the man looks up at you with recognition and says: “Welcome home, mate.”

His mistake is understandable: I’ve actually been in Manchester more days this year than I have in the place I actually call home by a significant amount. Part of it is the fact that not many folks walk around here looking like Frank Zappa gone to seed. But a part of it is that slowly but surely – and probably much to my Scottish mum’s disdain — England has become a second home.

The diner in Stevenson Square knows my order before I place it (to be fair, Americans drink a lot more black coffee) the newsagent next door knows I buy the Telegraph, the Mail and Private Eye on Thursdays and yesterday a guy at Port Street leaned over and asked me who’d won the early match…in Scotland. “Barmaid said you’d know.”

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21
Feb

Trecker’s Travels: 411 on the London Underground

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LONDON

Down the street from where I’m staying sits one of the busiest train stations in London. The Camden Town stop is one of the Underground’s oldest and deepest stations, and handles an enormous amount of traffic. On a sunny weekend day, you can barely cross the High Street for the crowds, and it seems like a wave is coming at you, babbling in multiple languages, all heading for the shops and Camden Locks.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the London Underground lately by dint of spending so much time on it. It is hot, crowded and faintly miserable. It is also utterly indispensable: in my case I’m 15 minutes from Arsenal, about 30 minutes from Shoreditch, and never further than 45 minutes from any stadium in the city limits, save perhaps Dagenham and Redbridge.

Camden Town’s stop — not to be confused with the Camden Road overground stop about five minutes north — is so busy that it closes up shop to departing passengers on weekends. When that happens, you have to clamber down a steep 96-step spiral staircase. If you go down an extra set of steps at the end of Platform 2, you will find yourself in an air-raid shelter that was used during World War II. Doctor Who fans have seen the shelter: Tom Baker prowled about it in the 1977 episode “The Sunmakers,” — I’ll give you an extra mark if you name the other sci-fi series in which it made a cameo.

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12
Feb

Trecker’s Travels: London’s rare moment of brightness

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LONDON

On Tuesday, the sun was out and underneath my flat window, Hollywood had broken out. A camera crew was at one end of Inverness Street, at the other stood a man I recognized from Doctor Who: James Corden.

For a moment, I thought Los Angeles might have followed me over here but then I realized that all the people crowded around him has been rounded up off the streets. Those were not extras playing schoolgirls, cops and street-sweepers — they were schoolgirls, cops and street-sweepers (London’s public worker rules must very liberal indeed). A good hour and a half went by while they rolled off shot after shot as I watched from above. Some of the cast started waving up to me and I waved back. A girl asked for a bottle of water, I chucked one down.

I won’t spoil the plot, but it is apparently part of a campaign for Cadbury over here, and might have a bit to do with the return of the cult-classic comedy “Gavin and Stacey.” I only know this because their social media team tweeted at me about it.

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12
Feb

Trecker’s Travels: East London’s much-needed humor

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LONDON

Green Street, the approach to the Boleyn Ground at Upton Park, has a famous clock outside the Tube station. The message is grim: it reads “DON’T KILL YOUR WIFE/LET US DO IT.” It’s for a launderette, and it’s sold with typical East London humor.

There’s a lot of that around here, and the area needs it: Upton Park is in a ragged part of London, clogged with shops offering mobile phone unlocking, open-air fish markets and halal eateries. And the football here’s not offering much relief.

West Ham is an immensely proud club, fallen on some difficult times. Nearly 120 years old, they have bounced back and forth between the Premier League and the Championship in recent years and are currently locked in a fierce relegation battle. Tuesday night, they were in a classic six-pointer against an equally poor Norwich side, hoping to put a bit more distance between themselves and the drop.

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Off the field, the Hammers have been a bit more successful. Owned by two veterans of London’s now-faded pornography industry, David Gold and David Sullivan, West Ham have inked a sweet deal to move out of their aging ground and take over the Olympic Stadium in nearby Stratford. For a mere $26 million, they will get to take over a stadium that is expected to cost nearly $310 million to retrofit for football. In addition, they announced on Monday that they will sell their old grounds here to a private developer, in a deal that has been reported as worth nearly $120m. Not a bad bit of business.

Not everyone is happy about that, mind you. Tiny Leyton Orient, currently trying to clamber out of the third division, sits in the Olympic Stadium’s shadow. They fear their tiny stadium on Brisbane Road simply won’t be able to compete, and they have a point, but they have lost several legal challenges to West Ham’s tenancy there, and as it stands, the matter is settled.

The funny thing is that West Ham might not be far apart from Leyton in the tables next season. Their fabled “Academy of Football” is referenced with heavy irony these days and with just seven points separating the eleven teams trying to stay in the top-flight, they have a brutal run-in ahead of them. In the final weeks, the Hammers will play both Manchester sides, Liverpool and three London derbies (against Palace, Arsenal and Spurs). They are currently 4-1 to go down the chute.

Leyton, on the other hand, sit in third in League One and have a realistic chance of going into the Championship. They are hardly world-beaters and rely too much on a single player — defender Romain Vincelot, a steely defender who begins most of their play out of the back — but they aren’t half bad, either.

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The fact that these two clubs on opposite trajectories — one wealthy but always soggy; another plucky but well-scrubbed — might meet next year is a bit of an irony. What would be even better is if the two were in the same division come 2016. One will be playing in a taught ground that barely seats 10,000. The other might be rattling in around a 54,000 seat stadium. And both are likely to be far away from the top-flight.

7
Feb

Trecker’s Travels: Weather, transit strikes paralyze London

LONDON

Welcome to England. Half the country is underwater, and the other half is stuck indoors. Deluged by gale force winds and soaking rains, and besieged in the capital by a series of transit strikes, London had the feeling  of a ghost town. It’s Ballard’s Drowned World.

The rain has been falling since last July and show no sights of letting up. It is no joke, even though the satirical magazine Private Eye went to street this week with a picture of a scuba diver on its cover and the tagline: “Environmental Minister Visits Somerset.” Brighton’s old west pier has collapsed under the waters and the south-west coast has suffered enormous damage. The rain tracks between London and Corwall at Dawlish, repeatedly referred to in that deliciously English manner as “one of the world’s great railway wonders,” is now kindling. The waves over Penzance dwarf those at Malibu.

Such things normally wouldn’t bother the City very much — but wait! A series of Tube strikes, have paralyzed much of the London’s subway system and forced everyone out of the stuffed hellholes of the Underground into the teeming mire. The strikes are over a so-called “modernization” plan, which in fact would close all the ticket offices and put a number of folks out of work. The administration’s rationale is indeed questionable, but the union’s cause was not helped when pictures of workers taking naps behind the glass at the ticket windows made the rounds on social media. That, and the fact that the roads around London were utterly impassible.

Now, the English do love a good complaint. There’s even ritual whingeing here: one of their cherished traditions is the so-called “question time” in Parliament whereupon men in rep ties bray at one another while their parties trade crude insults. This week, while the South drowned, the moaning was about the number of women on display in the Tory Party. This seems like a perfect one-two: miserable weather, miserable governance.

Yet the prevailing attitude here seems not one of complaint but of exhaustion. There’s not even much energy for the Olympics — a hot topic of conversation in the States, but merely something in the ether here. People seem to just want to get home and put the fire on, and who can blame them?

This has affected the football matches as well, with the lower league in particular feeling the pinch. The pitches are terrible — which isn’t unusual for this time of year — and that many of the games have been flooded out, which is. Reserve matches around the city were postponed, and the conference game up north at Kidderminster was called off. Teams have also been unable to travel to the games, while some places are quite literally underwater; others have been hit by buckled tracks and washed away roadbeds.

On my way out to Liverpool this morning, with 80 mph winds expected to sweep the capital, I passed a lonely greengrocer setting up his stall. His newspapers remained bound in plastic, and a bunnet of soaked local strawberries fetched a pound. The good news, according to him anyway, is that all this rain means better berries. That might be wishful thinking, but I got some. They weren’t half bad.

4
Nov

Trecker’s Travels: London’s “Four Four Jew” exhibit

imageImage: Jamie Trecker

Around the corner from one of London’s flashiest shopping districts, full of green-haired punk kids and French tourists, is a small townhouse with a brushed aluminum door, kitty-corner to a notorious pub called the “Spread Eagle.” You have to buzz to be let in, but once you get past the foyer, a kindly old woman at the cloakroom, you’ll be in the guts of an old piano factory.

“They haven’t made pianos in London for years,” says the guard. “So, we got a nice place to put this mikveh.”

This is the Jewish Museum of London, currently hosting the cheekily-titled exhibit “Four Four Jew,” that celebrates the achievements of English Jews in football. I’d heard about it from my colleague Jonathan Wilson (his book is prominently displayed) and while it immediately made me think of that old Mel Brooks joke about a pamphlet being able to encompass the entirety of Jewish sporting prowess, we went and had a look.

It’s a small but well-curated show, one on the periphery of a number of exhibits around the FA’s 150th anniversary this year. Football was to emigrated Jews in London what basketball and baseball were to the Yiddish-speaking in New York a hundred years ago: a way to assimilate into an alien and, at times, hostile culture that became a passion. For some, football became a path to success. Represented at the exhibition are genuine household names such as David Pleat and Mark Lazarus, alongside barely remembered trailblazers like West Brom’s Louis Bookman, the first Jew to play in Britain’s top-flight.

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