Milan Derby – AC Milan vs Inter Milan

IMG_20121007_212732Timing is everything but this year has been curiously fortunate. Not only have I met old friends who happen to be in towns not usually associated with me (New York, Philadelphia, Frankfurt, Belgrade, Salzburg as examples) I’ve caught festivals and events on the per chance of being there. i speak of the Barranquilla Carnival in Colombia (the largest in South America after Rio), catching the end of the ice hockey season in Canada, the Knicks vs Nets game in the USA, the end of the snow in the Alps, the Festes de la Mercee in Barcelona, the film festival in San Sebastian (Penelope Cruz et al) and another random trip with Jan. Along the way, I’ve met more old friends than I can state and new classic additions to the roster. Certain ideas have been reinforced, new ideas bred and mistakes averted (or at least seen early rather than late).

On a lighter level I’ve seen sport in many of the countries. Ice hockey in Canada, basketball and baseball in New York and football in Colombia, Serbia, Bosnia, Wales, Italy and soon, Ukraine. I wrote before about Serbia and Bosnia, the derbies there were intense, if slightly lacking in football. But football, like many cultural and collective events are signifers of culture development. Development blazes in many directions and could be said to be directionless and football, like most sport (sorry Mr Cameron, Johnson and Coe) is relatively unimportant but becomes interesting when used as a propaganda. Let’s all cheers success and latch on. Forget the rest. Cheers or be damned.

The crowds at the games reveal some of society. Colombia’s crowd were cheerful, mixed affairs full of boos and cheers, chants and relaxation. Serbia and Bosnia were tribal, male affairs where football sat in the background as male antagonism and group mentality led the chants of anger and negativity. The chants took no account of the game. It revelled in the violence them and us, the false assumption bred by facture, ignorance and discord. The celebratory stories of fear and menace sounded like England in the 70s and 80s. The Ukraine vs Montenegro international in the huge

In Italy, I timed myself to Milan perfectly for the biggest game of the year so far, AC Milan vs Inter in the San Siro. Outside the ground there was a casual police presence and yet outside and inside the crowd was mixed. Friends or couples walked or sat in opposite colours. The lack of hostility indicated a maturity within football and society in general where differences fall into the background, the foreground of commonality of issues, problems and culture are debated and upheld. 85,000 people understood the true value of the game.

IMG_20121007_224738The game itself was a classic of noise, missed chances, whistles and humour. The home in the curva sud and away in the curva nord fans were in opposite ends, unveiling humourous banners to each other and generally having a good time. The majority of the stadium was mixed seating and better for it. The lack of animosity and acromony created a relaxed atmosphere allowing the traditional exaggerated Italian body language to overtly exert itself at every chance.

Inter won one-nil despite being down to 10 men for 40 minutes. Milan had the ball in crossing positions down the left all game but desperately lack a striker. Robinho also continues to prove himself as one of the greatest wastes of talent in the game. Inter weren’t much better and how Milito is considered world class is beyond me. Cartman from South Park moves quicker. All this explains the team’s missed chances but only fortunate timing describes mine.

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Feste de la Mercee

Barcelona is a city for all seasons. In winter, its warm, In summer there is the beach to cool off at. Autumn and spring merely add to the seasonal blend. Catalunya is on a personal crusade right now for independence. Turn out at rallies now number the millions as it pushes for political autonomy. Its been the richest area of Spain for a while (with the largest debt) despite its economic wings being ironically clipped by the on-going economic crisis in Europe. But its cultural identity and independence is displayed from the countless flags hanging from balcony, the widespread use of the language, the football club producing their own players and festivals proudly extolling the Catalanism.

We were in Barcelona for the Festes de la Mercee, a religious festival involving street parades, fireworks and more artistic cultural events than you can throw a ham at. The city comes to a stop. Stages are set up, streets closed off. Music lights up the city in day and night. Ilo didn’t know too much about all of this and her Spanish is, ummm, modest so I got to practice my language again and tried to organise everything from free accommodation (muchas gracias Nacho and Riccardo) to understanding the labyrinthine¬† old town and the scale of the festival.

We did other things too. We went to the beach (her idea), drank a lot of wine (mutual idea), ate huge burgers (my idea), bought a magnet (her idea), went to some cool bars (my idea), ate paella (her idea), had free accommodation (my idea), drank wine in the street (her idea), saw The Kooks free (mutual idea), got lost (my idea) and sulked (her idea).

The highlight of the weekend and maybe of all my times in Barcelona was the Sunday night Diablo firework night, a street parade initiation ceremony for the youth of Barcelona. Teams of drummers are accompany by Catherine wheel carrying demons who charge down the street. The idea is to dance in the sparks until it gives out its final bang. The other idea is to arrive dressed appropriately usually meaning hoodies, plastic glasses and long sleeves. I had a t-shirt, jeans and beanie. Ilo had glasses, no sleeves and shorts. Nevertheless after a bit of encouragement she joined me under the fireworks, hiding under me until the bang and we could flee. The noise, energy and excitement was amazing. Such fun. Later we drank in the street, watched a human pyramid family perform next to us, saw a light show and rumba concert and ate some street noodles at 2am. It was a good day.

Now I’m on to San Sebastian, the jewel of Spanish cities, recommended by everyone who’s been. Follow that with Bilbao, Naples, Venice and Bologna before Jan and I’s crazy plan comes into action. For now i can still hear my ears ringing from the drums and fireworks. Awesome time.

Joy from Joy

I spoke to Jennie today for the first time in a long time. We’re going to Barcelona this weekend for a few days and emailed her to see if she is around. She is and she isn’t. For on the 19th she’s suddenly getting married to her boyfriend. The wedding is on Formentera, just off Ibiza. I’m invited but can’t make it. Yet, I was so pleased for her, a huge smile came across my face.

Her happiness as someone I cared a lot and connected with meant a lot to me. I still remember our husband and wife routine to get free drinks in Borneo in the 5 star and bars. That after I invited her to breakfast, the first morning we met. I knew i had to talk to her. We later spent the days exploring, hiking, hitch-hiking, drinking wine, eating delicious Japanese and Indian food, so delicious it stopped all conversation for the entire main course.

I’m going to Bcn with Ilo, staying at Riccardo for a few days before he goes to Italy for a wedding and leaves us the keys to a city centre apartment, its haunts and options. The grand Festes de la Mercee is on, the weather looks fine and we migh sneak a Barcelona game, plus The Kooks are playing for free. Ordinarily this would be enough, seeing old friends, getting round the city, using it as a gateway to San Sebastian and the North coast from where I try to get over to Rome and Naples to see Andy.

Whilst this stinks of good fortune, I’m aware of what more I have to do this year to realise the plans of next year. Enough is enough for me, a striver with no real idea of an end goal but some vague form of enlightenment. Its time to get back to work. Keeps a man and his plans alive ūüôā I am heading to sunrise before returning to sunset. Gonna be a long, long day.

Belgrade

My images of Belgrade are chaotic and positive. The city claims to have the best nightlife around and it proved its point. The bars we graced were indeed very cool from street cafes open to whatever hour, to metal bars full of live, sing-a-long Serbian rock to French drinking songs in Tijuana bar. You really don’t need a club when you have this. Serbs also have a reputation for beautiful women and I can confirm this too. The conversation with shiny pants and my horse comment still makes me laugh.

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I was there with Mirella for the first few days seeing the fortress, Zemun old town and various images of its glorious old past and others of the nearer past. Serbia has kept the destroyed TV building as intact as the NATO bombers left it as a symbol of what they perceive to be murder. 43 TV staff died in the blasts. However what was truly memorable were the people. English was widely spoken, food was provided with faultless service and deference and the portions were enormous. We ate well.

The staff at the hostel showed us round, going well beyond advice and actually taking us to events and places. Nikola and Mira were especially helpful and jolly sharing many beers. It was an immediate home from home. Sat on the balcony just down the road from the fortress drinking a few beers in the heat or passing slectrical storm was a simple pleasure.

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Its always great seeing and being with Mirella. We’re just friends but silly our husband and wife routine never wears off. She plays the gentle, passive aggressive role to a T while I buffoon like a man who nevers gets lost. Mirella of course never gives me any credit when we find our way around but never fails to query me along the way!!

I wrote previously on the football and the elections in Belgrade. Other highlights included drinking to late hours in Tijuana bar, laughing with my new mate Jan, eating lunch on a boat with Mirella in Zemun, Mirella buying 8 cans of non-alcoholic beer (which Nik got exchanged the next day), sitting up till morning with Nikola talking music and Japan and wandering through the streets watching the people go by.

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Times are tough in Belgrade. Salaries are low, there is a sense of anger at the Western bombings and the loss of Kosovo. But the future is optimistic too. Serbia will join the EU in the near future. From a distance and through the lense of modern history, this is easy to question. But having being there, met and talked to the people, I’ve been impressed by their intelligence, culture, knowledge and easy sense of humour. A reading of their long history clearly puts them in Europe. Its a matter of the rest of the world taking the time to look.

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Salzburg

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So Salzburg, home of Mozart, sat in the mountains and decked with some damn fine buildings. Like Vienna, Salzburg’s architecture impresses on the large side. Huge, imposing edifices dominate the town centre. Narrow streets throng with American tourists in caps and sunglasses gawking or eat ice cream next to the fountains. The castle on the hill sits over the city rather like Potala Palace in Lhasa except slightly less mystically! It was commendable and hot. We ate ice cream.

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That brings me to the better part of the day. In Salzburg, I met up with Jacqueline, a fellow student from Nottingham who not only gave me an awesome, whistle-stop guided tour of the city (I provided the ice cream as a thank you) but then we drove out to the lake district area 30 minutes outside the city and her favourite restaurant nearby called The Tube. Built like a wooden tube, we sat outside, drank some beers and ate a fantastic dinner in the sun facing the Alps . This town of Mondsee was where they filmed The Sound of Music, a fact given substance by the tour buses in the town car park. Weirdly Austrians are never really heard of the film.

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The Austrians are a quirky bunch. More relaxed than their Germanic neighbours, they sit quietly in the middle of the continent, militarily neutral and therefore quaintly letting the world take care of itself as they drink their beers, play in the snow or hike round and over the Alps.

Apart from Vienna, Austria is rarely thought about. And Austrians are rarely met. There are only 8 million of them. I travelled with one in South America for a few months. We visited the Austrian embassy in Bolivia and found it, two rooms above a bank, one with the secretary and the other the ambassador. He welcomed us in like lost travellers but considering the long conversation, I think he was glad for the company.

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The cost of travel in Austria is well-known and Vienna has a reputation for being dull at night but yet a country with lakes and rangy mountains, lederhosens and good beers simply added to my Germanic Alpine experience. It’s a gorgeous area. The landscape is littered with antiquated barns and unmarked grassy fields carpeted with daisies. Its culture is heart-warming and traditional, with all the modern world at hand and yet somewhat sleepy for a biggish city. Tucked up here in the mountains, it’s not for me but I’ll definitely be back for another summer beer.

Thanks Jacqui!

Bavaria

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While sat in the emergency ward as Emmo was being examined, I let my eye wander into a neighbouring room where sat on the bed was my Bavarian stereotype. In his green lederhosen, cap, knee-length white socks and brown shoes, he was perched on the bed looking around nervously. He wasn’t comfortable there, maybe not with the questions and uncertainty and ultimately with this form of modern life. The hospital corridors screamed of cleanliness and passivity. It was a Thursday afternoon and all was creepy quiet.

While out riding with Em, she spotted a jump and like her character, took off immediately to get some air. Landing on her head via into a beautiful flip wasn’t part of the plan! I have to admit I laughed at first. Then we went to hospital where the doctors confirmed Emo had broken a bone at the top of her neck. A neck brace was immediately applied followd by two nights in hospital!

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I said they were odd….

I watched the Bavarian man leave well before that. He walked out directly, taking no chances they might recall him. I use this guy as an example of what I saw in Bavaria. The Bavarian Alps were replete of the stereotypes you come to expect with Oktoberfest. On weekends men dressed up in traditional clothing to drink. Women were spotted in maiden dress. Houses built of wooden slates and chip were irregularly but calmly spaced in clumps with a fence and a bell a church on the highest point and surrounded by open fields of long, thick grass mowed by the odd cow. Above the villages, the mountains followed a more regular output; grass-covered meadows, dense alpine forests and then weathered snow-capped peaks. To spend a week in this small town biking around, visiting castles, villages and lakes while drinking up the local, excellent and very cheap beer

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I had come down to the Alps to stay with Emilie who I’d met in New Zealand in 2008. After three days in drizzle and towering glass of Frankfurt (report up soon), the Alps opened up as I headed south. I got genuinely excited as they came onto the horizon. Em lives in Sonthofen, just two stops before the end of the local line which can go no further as the Alps escalate. Despite being almost pathologically afraid of villages, in perfectly glorious weather it was fantastic.¬†Sonthofen and the surrounding vallies is stunning. This season was the perfect time to visit. The mountains retained snow. The fields were in daffodil bloom and the sun shone consistently and brilliantly.

While I started with a stereotype, there is other life in the Alps. Cars are driven and internet is accessible. You can even get a kebab made by a Turk in the small town square. I helped Michael out with an Irish night and went to a cute house gig which later descended into a wine-athon. We visited the famous Neuschwanstein Castle and nipped over towards Switzerland/Austria at Lake Constance. (I later when to Salzburg but more about that later).

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Germans are a curious bunch. My only other experiences involved about 6 trips to Berlin to sight-see and stay with Linden and Claudia. Like the idea of ‘the French’, Germans are a hugely diverse bunch. With a strong export-led economy, strong welfare and educational networks and deep-rooted connections to place, Germans are placid with their differences. There is an idea of being German even if it is not played out in traditional cultural references.

Bavaria is the oldest of the old school Germans and maybe their most unique. Riding in the Alps we’d see few people, a sprinkling of houses but glorious rafts of trees, meadows and ravines. Germany is a big country but with only 25% more people than the UK. Its cities are more moderate too. Its 5 largest cities totalled together are still smaller than London. They are a ¬†representative of states rather than nations. After all, Germany was only united in 1871.

I liked Germany a lot. Its problems are moderate compared to Britain’s and moderated by an active state and a feeling of responsibility amongst its companies, states and people. The need to get it right is more important.
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Bavaria is pretty unique in my experience. Here we have a group who live in the mountains, appreciate and understand the food chain. We hear little of them for they don’t speak much. Isolation and permanence in the mountains and vallies leave them less interested in the world at large similar to the Alpine Swiss. Probably for the better.

Photos up on facebook tomorrow.

Frankfurt

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Coming to Frankfurt from New York was more than a weather shock. New York teemed with life and verve. In Frankfurt,¬†I felt I’d returned to some static past. It build towers to modern finance and shops to porn. The Occupy Park outside the European Central Bank was about the only sign of life or difference. Its cathedral was pretty-ish, the river ran through it and old town was a small square of baroque houses.

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But few go to Frankfurt for its landmarks. Viola took me out to a bar for some drinking culture in a suburb bar full of locals of all ages. Oscar showed me the old town and markets. Michelle brought me out to the countryside. Tomas took me round Heidelburg which was small but cute. Seeing each of my friends made the city valuable. (Seeing/hearing Viola after a few drinks was funnier still!)

Before you start thinking this is a wholly critical post and takes up too much space, let me get to the point. AA Gill, the slightly obnoxious travel writer (and cultural snob) called those who visit countries for beaches or the view selfish. He believed seeing the culture that is the real joy of travel. Take the parks of London in summer on a summer’s day, the only time Britain becomes near classless. Culture is the way people interact, the value given to certain organisation or meaning to some concepts, items or institutions that reflect true sightseeing. In short, it is the culture that is the attraction. It is after all the culture that gives all constructions existence and meaning.

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Despte my love of city space, there is life in the smallest of villages as attested to in Bavaria. The notion there is ‘nothing to see there’ always strikes me as odd. After all, what they mean is there is a lack of overt culture generally meaning construction of some expression of ideology or idology. Having seen too many churches, sites of mythology or country vistas, I find it perplexing that many fail to see the wood for the trees. We are the view.

As to the city Germans are polite but not friendly to those they don’t know. I say this¬† because when dealing with people, they are perfectly sincere in matters. And yet when taking a door or accidently touching someone, they fail to mark the moment. This is all culturally-specific rhetoric of course but continues on from the alleged German inability at small talk. We tested this with our housemate in Nottingham Phil who duly passed, believing that small talk was time-wasting and insincere!

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But with Bavarian views, trains that function and beer prices like that (and with barely noticed the recession), the Germans have it collectively better through organisation, hard-work and investment in skills. The sense of mutual advantage Britain sacrificed in the 1970s from the labour strikes to the Thatcherite thought revolution instilling the goals of personal advancement through individualism and consumerism, Britain has missed out.

Frankfurt came aliver at night with its lit-up towers, underground clubs, shots of apple wine with Viola (who remains elegant despite her spikey-er pretensions). She also knows an impressive amount about critical theory. Heidelberg was rainy but full of straight-up, coloured brick houses with small windows nestled next to the river all overlooked by the castle.

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So fear not Frankfurt. Your present may seem humdrum but it reflects a modernity and therefore a historical connection to the modern present, an opportunity to rise from others shadows. It’s that that should be recognised, analysed and understanding. With that in mind, Frankfurt ain’t too bad at all.