Sunday, June 15, 2014

public viewing

Last night I took a beer shower.  It was three minutes into the game and England had just scored a goal.  People around me screamed, jumped and waved their full glasses.  I got soaked.  After the spray had settled, the score was still 0:0.  When the Italians farther back in the pub realized that, half a minute later, they erupted into cheers of their own, celebrating the hypothetical equalizer after England's goal that wasn't.  No beer reached me this time, or maybe none was thrown.

Watching England play with English supporters in a crowded pub late at night was not a pleasant experience.  The game had started at 11 and a large part of the audience seemed to have prepared by binging on ale all evening.  The game began optimistic enough, with singing and hoping, but the atmosphere soon degraded into something vaguely rowdy.  England isn't supposed to win in World Cup finals, but the self-deprecating humor that this country does so well was missing from the spectators' perspective.

The night before, in another pub, things had been different.  The Goose is not a sports bar.  It's a regulars' local, with carpets and cheap food, that even spiffed up after recent remodeling retains an air of home away from home.  The Goose shows the games, but it seems as if many customers don't come to watch them.  They sit there having dinner or a drink and chat with friends.  Overhead, the TV's on, but that's just a distraction.

I was having dinner and a drink with a friend, but we had also come to watch the game.  It could have been a quiet night, had it not been for the large group in orange that clustered near the entrance door.  When Holland scored goal after goal against a shockingly lethargic Spanish team they got more and more noisy.

After the game, karaoke started.  The World Cup doesn't break Friday night traditions at The Goose.  Exuberant men head to toes in orange don't normally feature, but they're easily absorbed.  I know it's unfair the compare the behavior of supporters of a winning team with those of a losing team, but the Dutch were a rather enjoyable bunch, never mind their competitive drinking.

From the small to the big, why are we watching football in pubs in the first place?  In Germany, big screens are erected all over big cities.  People gather from all over to watch together.  The German term for this is "public viewing", as if it were something imported.  The friend who visited me this weekend ask where we'd watch the games, expecting something like "by the Thames" or "on Leicester Square".  He was disappointed that no such showings exist in London.

I told him, half in jest, that it wouldn't work, that English supporters drink too much and get too rowdy, that their doomed passions couldn't be contained if thousands were gathered.  The truth is probably that the pub owners who already operate in a rather dense marketplace, see the World Cup as theirs and wouldn't want competition to spoils the takings.

The Famous 3 Kings where I saw England fall to Italy certainly makes a roaring trade during big games.  Last night it was so busy that everyone through the door got a stamp on their hand and only those with a stamped hand were allowed reentry after the smoke-and-fresh-air break at half time.  They sold their beer as fast as they could.  There was never any slack on the bars.

For me, this works as well.  I'll be back to see the Argies in an hour and for most of games afterwards.  I want to watch in a crowd, with shared emotions and the energy of something important.  But it needs to be contained.  A hundred drunks, with superfluous beer showers, groping and stomping on feet, is all I can take.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

transport for London

This afternoon, after abandoning the idea of a pub lunch that had been high up on the agenda until time started to crawl while the clock hands raced, I had a coffee and a carrot cake and poked around my mailbox a bit.  I was out in the sticks, in clear view of ambitious vegetation and falcons hunting in packs, but there was internet.  You can't escape it these days, it seems.

An email from stopped me cold.  It asked me, the "Dear Customer", to "Please open the attached file to view correspondence from Transport for London".  The subject line was "Email from Transport for London".  Does that sound dodgy, or what?  I have one reason to correspond with Transport for London, but that correspondence hasn't been sent yet.

The unsent correspondence concerns Jane, TfL employee and member of the station staff at West Brompton tube station.  Last weekend, with a friend in tow, I had got special-fare tickets to go down to the coast.  It was supposed to be a sunny weekend, an entire summer in two days.  The tickets were for Southern, printed paper incompatible with TfL's touchcard system.

We wanted to get on at West Brompton.  I had picked an all-Southern itinerary and wasn't concerned at all.  With my cheery sunny Sunday morning face, I approached the ticket window.  "Could you please let us through?  We got these Downlander tickets?" I asked.  "No", came the curt reply.  There was no smile.  The woman was not happy.

I tried again, "Look, this is a ticket for Southern for today.  Our train leaves in five minutes."  I threaded the folded paper through the hole in the glass.  The woman studied it for a while, then shoved it back.  "To me, this is not a ticket.  This is a piece of paper."  That's when I wrote Jane's name down.  This will not go unpunished, I thought.

First was the matter of the train, though.  Faced with two options, I gave up on principle (jumping the gate with a finger in Jane's face) and did the deed of the meek, using my Oyster Card for the first part of the journey, effectively rewarding TfL for awful customer service.  My only consolation was that I'd get back to them with an inspired rant to the Complaints Department, and hopefully be reimbursed.

Ten days later, the complaint still waits to be written, which is why I was rather surprised to see an email purporting to be from TfL.  The invitation-to-click was signed "Business Operations Customer Service Representative", as if this meant anything.  To me the whole thing screamed Nigerian inheritance scam or maybe Russian spybot, depending on the content of the attached file.  I didn't open it but navigated to the sender's website to learn more.

Turns out that is the home of the congestion charge, which is administered by TfL.  Things fit, all of a sudden.  The sticks I was in was Oxford.  I had come to pick up kit to be moved to Imperial.  I had rented a van in the morning and paid ten quid for the privilege of later driving into Central London.  The email was indeed for me.  It contained my receipt – and quite a bit of material for a critical assessment of TfL's customer focus.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In Brugge

Belgium is an absurd country.  This statement is as good as any to resuscitate a moribund blog, maybe better.  It seems to come out of nowhere, spiteful and inexcusable, but was chosen with care.  It will turn out to relate to the unfolding post and, by doing so, recall one of the main themes of this blog.  Last Friday evening in a Eurostar somewhere under the Channel, I remembered that sentence as the beginning of a Streiflicht column in the Süddeutsche many years ago.

The Süddeutsche is a serious newspaper, Germany's best, a quality daily in the lingo of the trade.  The Streiflicht, on the left side of the front page, above the fold and just below the masthead, is a comment on one bit of the day's news, somewhere between humorous and satirical but never malicious.  Belgium has its bit of daily news, but I don't remember what triggered that particular column.  I had laughed hard and clipped the column from the paper.  Since then, most associations with Belgium have been purged from my brain.  Now all I can think of is cherry beer.  (The post could end here, having neatly made it back to the first line.)

My preparation for the trip that started on Friday consisted almost exclusively of imagining things and trying to remember what I had once heard or read.  It didn't come to much.  There was a Scientific American article on Lambic beer when I was in college, but that's not at my fingertips anymore.  A week or so before departure and increasingly lost, I went out to buy a film that appeared to have been issued by the local tourist office.  It was a bit of a scam.

In Bruges provided much factual information on the prevalence of cobbled streets and lovely canals roamed by swans, of brick houses half as old as time itself and soaring gothic monuments, romantic enough to make you cry, and featured the belfry in all its splendid octagonality.  But it also contained a joke about chocolate and murderous child molestation and had an elderly gentleman hurl himself off said belfry and land with a thud of crushed bones on the town's market square, next to tourists halfway through their comprehensive beer sampler, cherry, Trappist and all.

Late at night I was sitting underneath the belfry and had a beer.  It was not a cherry beer, and no one crash-landed on the cobbled ground.  The belfry had long closed for the night.  The beer was a bit frustrating.  I could only get taster sizes, chosen from what seemed like 178 varieties.  Being German I prefer a simple beer in a big glass.  But this was Belgium.  Sample sizes kept appearing on my table, the liquid evaporating faster than I could sip the foam off the top.

In Brussels earlier in the evening, announcements were made in three languages, here transcribed into a fourth.  "For trains to Holland, take platform three.  For Germany, press 5.  If you want to stay in Belgium, please hang up now." My connection was half an hour off.  As I ambled by the departure displays with no rush whatsoever, I realized that the earlier train was five minutes late and made connection with a nominal gap of zero (being luckier than Flucha who had to do an overnight pitstop in Frankfurt because for her seven minutes weren't enough).

On the market underneath the belfry, the good vibes lasted long past midnight.  It was mild, almost seasonal, and chatter wafted from table to table.  I learned that hello is Flemish for hello and that swearing in Mexican gets you a cheap beer.  I also learned that cheese as a snack is best consumed dipped into thick mustard.  Before, this would have struck me as absurd, but it went down a treat, one of many oddities we would encounter and enjoy over the weekend.