Friday, June 27, 2008


I like to think of myself as a sophisticated consumer with discerning taste. However, I seem to be the only one who thinks that way. Sainsbury's for example, clearly has me pigeon-holed as a sucker who will throw away cash at the sligthest provocation. Everything they try works on me. They discount a family size trifle to £1.69 - I say "bargain" and buy one for dinner. Half a litre of tasteless cream, custard and jelly (net value 12p) later, I feel ill and slightly poorer. They put Cadbury flapjacks on display near the checkout - I say "delicious" and buy one for the tube ride home. Twenty minutes later I feel full of rolled oats and vegetable fat and almost considering saving the trifle for breakfast instead of dinner. They put their special butchers sausages on sale on a 2 for 1 offer - I say "bring on the bangers" and plunge in. A week later, I'm still shovelling away pork and sage sausages for dinner and there's still a mountain of them left in my fridge. It would be easier if Sainsbury's just decided what they wanted to sell me and delivered it to my door each week, then I could pay by direct debit and cut down their transaction costs. I'm sure they're considering it ...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good things come in fours

A quick wrap of the highlights of the past few weeks


Barthelona! What a town. My favourite European city so far. I love it. And I love that I love it. Even before I stepped on the plane at London City, I was expecting to enjoy Barcelona, as everyone I know who has been there before raves about it. And, of course, there is a small matter of Barcelona FC, the beating heart of Catalunian culture and long-time best friends with Dutch football (more about that later). My excuse for visiting this Mediterranean jewel was Huy's 30th birthday, an event that Huy micro-managed to perfection (Joyce - your position as top-dog organiser is under threat!). Arranging for 20+ people to fly in from around the world to celebrate your birthday is no mean feat and the fact he has such pulling power is testament to what a popular guy Huy is (despite my frequent attempts at slandering him in this blog). The weekend was just the best fun ever - gastronomic delights at La Boqueria market, shopping at hidden boutiques in the alleyways of the Born district, being transported to an underwater world in the Casa Botilo, the overwhelming flavour hit of the foams and other emulsions that pass for dinner at Hisop (actually, I think the restaurant was top class - great choice, Huy) and dancing the night away underneath a giant gorilla head at La Fira. What a weekend. I have to go back! Soon!

Holland 3 - Italy 0

Despite not having set foot in Holland for 15 years, having extremely minimal Dutch language skills and knowing very little about Dutch culture or history, my Dutch heritage is extremely important to me. Its fullest expression comes when watching the Oranje play football. Whenever the Oranje play, I go a little crazy - and the sight of the massed thousands of Dutch fans wearing orange shirts, clogs and clown wigs makes me well up with emotion. Usually, the overwhelming feeling I experience is disappointment (like when the Dutch conspired to lose the Euro 2000 semi-final against Italy by missing two penalties in normal time and two more in the shoot-out - I was travelling at the time and returning to my hostel dorm room to find it full of Italian supporters was one of the worst moments of my life) though there is the occasional highlight (Bergkamp's goal against Argentina in the 89th minute of the 1994 World Cup semi-final - incredible- you MUST watch it on youtube). Even outside the low lands, the Dutch are admired for the way they play the game - they're open, attacking, skilful, graceful and all those other complimentary adjectives I can't think of right now. Sure, they're also mentally fragile, prone to in-fighting and unfamiliar with the concept of defence, but for this I forgive them. And in their first game at Euro 2008 they repaid me by thumping the world champions by three goals. Apart from his first name, Wesley Sneijder is perfect.

Bec & Frank

Two of the best people I know, who happen to also be two of my closest friends, are now married. Sure it was inevitable from the moment Bec sacrificed years of sun worship to move to Dublin to be with Frank and was confirmed when they set up a joint "Bec & Frank" email account, but it's nice to make these things official by going through with the ceremony. In customarily diplomatic style, the couple chose neutral territory for the big event, and stepping off the plane onto Italian soil was a sweet moment, coming so soon after the Oranje humiliation of the Azzurri (see above). Not only was the venue non-partisan, it was also stunning. The ceremony was held at the Palazzo Publico in Siena, which is set against the stunning backdrop of Siena's famous town square (actually, it's shell-shaped, not square - but I could hardly describe it as the town shell). I can't think of a more beautiful place for a wedding. It was an intimate ceremony, punctuated by Frank's uncontrollable sobbing and Bec's cool detachment ... We all know now who wears the trousers in that relationship. After a brief interlude during which the couple were mobbed by snap-happy tourists / paparazzi taking pictures in the square, we all hopped on a party bus to Borgo di Fontebussi, a stunning villa / hotel set on a Tuscan hill side, overlooking olive groves, vineyards and rolling valleys. Amazing. Wonderful food, the world's most charismatic wedding singer (able to move from U2's "One", sung in a thick Italian accent, to "Figaro" and then to "Bohemian Rhapsody" with barely a pause, this guy was incredible) and mad cross-cultural dancing ... this wedding had it all. Congratulations again Bec & Frank!

Holland 4 - France 1

Holland's second game of Euro 2008 was inconveniently scheduled for the same time as dinner on the second night as Bec & Frank's wedding. OK, I admit that I thought about it for a bit, but in the end I got my priorities right ... I went to the dinner. But I politely excused myself every 15 minutes to check the score and then, after scoffing dessert, ran upstairs with a couple of the lads to watch the second half. What a game!!! After thrashing the World Cup champions, I didn't think we could back it up by dishing out another humiliation to the World Cup finalists, but somehow we did. In the words of the Dutch commentator, screamed repeatedly at a high pitch , "Ongeloofelijk!!!" It was an amazing game, punctuated for me by Arjen Robben's stunning solo goal from a tight angle that shut down any prospect of a French comeback. I watched with disbelief as we repeatedly shredded the French defence on the counter attack. Amazing, amazing, amazing. A match that will never be forgotten (at least not by me).

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Allez! Vamos! C'mon!

Tennis truly is an international language and, in my view, one of the best sports for spectators. One of the things I like most about tennis is the way that the game changes so completely depending on the court surface being used. Grass court is different from clay court tennis. Clay court tennis is different from hard court tennis. Hard court tennis is different to indoor carpet tennis. The list goes on. When people find out I'm a tennis fan and that I'm living in London, they usually ask if I've got plans to go to Wimbledon. Well, the answer is "no". Though I wouldn't turn down a free ticket offer, I have to confess that Wimbledon is my least favourite tournament (even though it was the only grand slam won by my all time favourite player R Krajicek). Sure, the tradition and history associated with Wimbledon is impressive, but with today's racquet technology and other advances in the sport, grass court tennis just isn't attractive to watch. The points are short and the play mostly one dimensional. The French Open on the other hand sits right on the other end of the spectrum, as it's played on slow clay, which means that the points can go on forever and players need to be amazingly fit and truly creative in order to succeed under those circumstances. Though I admit it tends to favour players who play from the baseline, I think clay gives most players a good shot (Pat Rafter, Tim Henman and, yes, R Krajicek all made the semis at the French during their career, so big servers can still prosper on the dirt). So, those of you still reading this somewhat boring post, will not be surprised to know that the French has always been a tournament that I look forward to. And this year I was lucky enough to go, thanks to the organisational genius of Huy, who put us into the ticket draw earlier this year.

The average punter like me doesn't need much of an excuse to head off to Paris for the weekend, but the tennis was an absolute clincher. We eurostarred under the channel on Thursday evening and were deposited neatly at Gare du Nord where, thanks to the wonderful Paris Metro, we were just a short trip away from our hotel in the 5th arrondisement (Parisians don't do suburbs). The next morning, after the obligatory shopping trip, we raced across the city to Roland Garros, the dusty, red centre of the French tennis world. I must say that I was very impressed with Roland Garros as a tennis venue. The courts are all quite close together, but there still enough room to move between them and most seats offer the crowd a good view. There are three very large show courts and a bunch of other outside courts with tiered seating where the plebs who can't afford to get onto centre court can still watch good matches in style and comfort. The crowd obviously knew their tennis well (you can tell this by the fact they gasp and clap at the appropriate moments), though I have to admit that they weren't quiet as enthusiastic in their support as the Oz Open crowds (I'm not used to watching tennis without 50 chanting vikings in the background and the sound of Swiss cow bells ringing out from centre court). We managed to catch quite a bit of good action, including a set of a doubles match featuring Lleyton Hewitt and Chris "I can serve but otherwise lack even the co-ordination of a 5 year old" Guccione. Sure, the Aussies lost, but they put up a good fight and, given that he had the Gooch as a handicap, Hewitt performed pretty well. We also saw a tight match between Mikhail "I may be a crazy Russian but don't mess with me because I have connections" Youzhny and Fernando "The poor man's Nadal" Verdasco. It was a real battle of styles, with Youzhny's attacking flair and misdirected aggression contrasting against Verdasco's spin-heavy backcourt game. Youzhny showed some spirit and broke some racquets, but Verdasco prevailed.

I could go on, but most of you probably stopped reading halfway through the first paragraph. If any tennis fans have actually made it to the end of this post, get in touch and we'll start organising Roland Garros 2009!