Monday, 30 March 2009

A Heartfelt Apology...

To football fans everywhere, to most of the 60,001* other people who attended the Ireland - Bulgaria World Cup Qualifier in Dublin last Saturday, and to Kevin Kilbane.

Why?

Well Fred, I'm glad you asked me that.

Y'see, it's like this - on no occasion where I have been to a competitive senior football match, whether at club level or international, has the team I went to support emerged victorious.

Not that I've been to so many; and in some ways that makes it worse, because I know so many people who are better and more devoted fans of the sport and the team than I.

So maybe I just need practice - you know, learn the songs, sing with abandon, work out the meaning of the expression

"They've got strength in depth" (???)

etc.

The first game I can remember being brought to was against Bulgaria, at Dalymount Park, Dublin, in October 1977, at which Ireland managed a 0-0 draw.

It went downhill from there, and the team, with me in attendance, never managed a better result until last Saturday's match, the result of which was a 1-1 draw**.

Inananyway, as we say in Dublin, my victory-vs-attendance record is, in statistical terms, negative, to the extent that I believe it may be some strange super-power that resists my using it for personal purposes.

This is the bit where I apologise to Kevin Kilbane, one of Ireland's most-capped players and the man who inadvertently scored an own-goal to help Bulgaria to an equaliser on Saturday.

Sorry, Kevin - I can only presume that my presence at Croke Park caused some sort of field imbalance that caused your nervous system to react involuntarily as that ball passed you, foiling your attempt at what would otherwise have been a perfect clearance.

There may be hope, however.

As an experiment to see whether this power can be directed in any way (not 'inananyway' - that's different), I plan to attend the Manchester Utd - Tottenham Hotspurs game at Old Trafford, Manchester, on April 25th next.

As a gesture to Liverpool fans, I plan to quietly support Manchester, which could conceivably cost them three points and potentially the Premiership title.

Getting out of Manchester alive could be problematic, but I am not without resources.

* The official attendance was 60,002
** Note to American viewers - the result of a match (game) is considered a draw (tie) if both teams have scored the same number of goals (points) at the end of normal playing time. A draw is considered a legitimate result, ultimate victory being decided either on goal difference or by means of a penalty shootout (but not with guns).

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Bob's Milanian Adventure...

Regular readers (hello, Fred) may remember I mentioned I'd be visiting Milan with some friends back in December.

Which I did.

However, it's taken until now to distil the events of that weekend into something that was neither too brief

"We went to Milan - it rained, the food was excellent, we came home..."

nor too overdone

"Bright was the sun and high our hearts as we set forth on yet another glorious adventure...etc"...

So here it is:

Ah, Milan...

As I may have mentioned previously, it is our custom, where I work in my secret identity, for a number of us to travel abroad for a weekend in December.

Last year, we visited Nice, which was very - beautiful.

The sun shone, the temperature only dipped in the evening, there was a Ferris Wheel and artificial snow which, as everyone will agree, are the very cornerstones of a good weekend away.

But locations such as that are few and far between when one's ideal travel time is three hours or less, so this year we decided on Milan.

We flew into Malpensa (which for some reason I can't help translating as 'bad thoughts') airport on Friday evening, arriving at approx 2030hrs local time. Nobody had checked luggage, so we didn't have to wait with the other passengers and so headed straight for the train that would take us into the city. The train journey took 11 Euro and 42 minutes, and one of our party managed to get on without a valid ticket.


Can you spot him?

We had a restaurant reservation for 2200hrs. It was going to be close.

One of the things one can't plan for when visiting a foreign city is the possibility of a public transport strike, and indeed this was what we encountered upon leaving the station in Central Milan.

It appeared the entire Milanian* public transit infrastructure, with the exception of taxis, had shut down for 4 hours in advance of our arrival, so what taxis were to be had were scarce. That being said, we managed, and got to our hotel in pretty good time, where we checked in, requested four more cabs, dropped off our luggage, quickly freshened up, and headed out to eat.

The restaurant, for any of you planning a trip to Milan anytime soon, is called Anema e Cozze, at 15 Via Palermo.

It's a Pizzeria with a line in seafood, and if you visit Milan, it's worth a look.

We arrived at about 2230 to find that our table wasn't yet ready, but we didn't have to wait long, and by the time the last of us had arrived, we were all set.


Our waiter wasn't Milanian, as it turned out, but Neapolitan, and recommended appetisers and wine which were spot-on, although Calamari remains, for me anyway, an acquired taste. He paid particular attention to Rebecca, which was right and proper and by which she appeared delighted, this being her first trip away with the group.

Two hours later, after paying the bill (€500 between 14, including a decent tip), we headed out in search of a bar in which to round out the evening. Curiously, the only place we could find that appeared to still be open was a French-themed music bar called Sans-Égal, where the drinks were expensive enough that you didn't have too many.

We were back at our hotel by two-thirtyish. And so to bed.

Saturday:

It is my custom, when on the away mission, to eat breakfast and then take a walk around the immediate area, to get a sense of where things are. So, on Saturday morning, armed with a map of last resort, I headed down to the breakfast room so see whether anyone else had surfaced yet.

They had not.

I was met at the door by a waitress, who bade me good morning.

"Buongiorno, Signore. Solo?"

It took me a moment to realise that she had not, in fact, mistaken me for Robert Vaughn's UNCLE agent, but was asking whether I was by myself. Having conducted me to my table, my waitress reinforced just how stylish and cosmopolitan Milan is by not removing the second place setting.

Breakfast was freshly-squeezed orange juice, fruit salad, croissants and strong, black coffee with hot milk.

Leaving a message for two of my colleagues to say where I was going and how long I expected to be, I went out into a light but persistent rain and headed toward where I believed the nearest Metro Station to be. Having located that, I was free to stroll about and explore.

I walked for about forty minutes in the rain, marvelling at local parking techniques (it seems one may park anywhere as long as damage is not caused to another vehicle) and listening to Vangelis' Blade Runner soundtrack on my MP3. Determined not to get lost, I resolved to make only right turns, and thus found myself back at the hotel without too much difficulty.

By the time I returned, some of the gang had made it down for breakfast, and it didn't take long for most of the rest to appear. We made our plans for the day and set off for the Metro station that I had found, and three stops later emerged into the rain at Duomo, the city's central plaza and site of the third-largest Roman Catholic church in the world. I guess St Peter's in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris are the other two.


Note: Don't try to buy multiple tickets at the automated kiosk in a metro station - it doesn't work.

But I digress.

One of the primary reasons for going to Milan was so that Renée could visit Prada.


It's just down that galleria. On the left.

She and Therese spent nearly an hour inside, and Renée bought a hat, so her weekend was made.

Nearly everyone else waited outside for her to emerge.

For my part, I found a music store next to a rather stylish McDonald's (I know - oxymoron) and investigated it with Paul and Ross, the newbies. There were two departments - Classical, on the First floor**, and Everything Else, in the Basement. The first floor sounded like Bach and smelled of pot-pourri; the basement, two floors down, smelled of sewer and sounded like Rod Stewart. Smell did it for the lads and we left as quickly as possible before fully investigating the possibilities of the department.

After rejoining the team, we wandered through the Christmas Market looking for what we believed was a larger Christmas Market, but didn't find one. What we did find was a huge fortress, centuries old and largely untouched by WWI or WWII, now a museum and public park. There's even a moat, which the rain was doing a valiant, if ineffective, job of filling.


Back at the hotel, we sat in the bar distributing Christmas presents (yay!) and trying to decide where to go that night. We had been given a list of possibilities by a colleague before leaving Dublin, but ended up taking a recommendation from the concierge for a place on the south side, in the Canal district, or Navigli. A ten-minute, 4-taxi ride took us to Osteria Del Pallone in the Viale Gorizia.

I must remain ignorant of most of the details, as I was compelled to leave with a sudden and blinding headache, but the staff were friendly, the food was good and everyone appeared to be having a good time while I was there, despite the fact the power went out - twice.

And there was singing...

***

Sunday, and once again (and unsurprisingly), no early shows for breakfast. This was because many of the group did not get back until after three a.m. I know this because the paracetamol had dulled but not eliminated my migraine, so I was still awake to hear Maree (at least I think it was Maree) shushing the others as they all headed down the hall for their rooms saying

"Don't wake Bob..."

Wasn't that nice? Five years ago it was balloons at three a.m., but that's another story (No, not that kind of story...).

But back to breakfast.

Pretty much the same as Saturday, but more relaxed. I took a longer, more circuitous walk afterwards, to see a bit more of the outlying area and the architecture, etc.

I took some photos - I like architecture - and made my way back to pack up before my friends finished breakfast, and we all made our way on foot to Duomo, a stroll that took us past more of Milan's architectural highlights and another Christmas Fair.


There was no artificial snow this year, but they did their best, however we missed a red bus tour when it arrived early and didn't stop at its designated pick-up point.

Undaunted, we took our time and revisited the centre, where after lunch at an outdoor restaurant (where sparrows hopped around, occasionally crapping on things) I took a tour of the cathedral, including the roof, which turned out to be finished in marble, so one could keep one's footing.

Had to endure some slight ridicule from security (never mind why), but life is flawed, after all.

I met up with the others by accident more than anything else, and after a bit of shopping we all headed back to the hotel to collect our luggage and head for Cadorna and the airport shuttle.

On the way, most of the group stopped at a novelty store to buy souvenirs, and we drifted back in groups to the hotel. Some of us stopped outside a canine pet store with a litter of puppies playing in the window, from which Jennifer, like an orphan out of a Dickens novel, had to be almost surgically separated. I would've taken a picture, only the flash might've frightened the babies, and I'm really a dog person.

We half-dragged Jennifer away from the puppies (she'd have adopted them all if she could've smuggled them home) and returned to the hotel to wait for the others, after which four taxis took us to Cadorna and the Malpensa Shuttle.

Arriving at the airport, we discovered that our flight would be delayed by one hour, delivering us in Dublin at approx 0030hrs. I also learned that if it didn't arrive, the next scheduled light out of Milan was at 0600 to Casablanca, a little out of our way. Happily, there was time for pizza and beer and a trip to the duty-free (it would've been rude not to,after all).

However, Aer Lingus were as good as their word and arrived as promised, and we arrived home as scheduled, whereupon I phoned in a day's leave for Monday, based on the lateness of the hour and all...

The committee sits in June or thereabouts to decide next year's destination - I'm already looking forward to it...

*I know it's not the correct adjective, but I liked it.
**Do I really need to explain?