Saturday, March 29, 2014

In praise of public transport

I'm a sceptic about many things and can easily rant about things that bug me but one thing I cannot complain about usually is public transport.

It gets a bad rap from many people I think largely because it doesn't run where and when they exactly want it to run.  They have to walk to where the bus, train or underground runs from which of course nobody wants to do these days.  We live in a time of personalized everything where we believe we are in charge of our lives totally with for example TV on demand, smartphones available with apps that do everything, and so on.  If we actually got up and walked the often short distance required, I think people would be pleasantly surprised how well public transport actually works.

Sadly it's a self fulfilling prophecy if people don't use it, then public transport becomes too costly to run as the costs of running grow which in turn prompts cuts to service which in turn prompts complaints that the service isn't good enough, and so on and so forth.  Personally I think that public transport is one of those things that governments should operate.  They at least don't have the 15% ROE targets that private enterprise is constantly striving for.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in England where public transport has been largely privatized and its cost to use as a result has gone through the roof.  Our experience in Miami by contrast was nothing short of sensational.

In previous years Viv and I had used taxis or the official tournament shuttle to and from the tennis on Key Biscayne.  The taxi would cost $40 while the shuttle was $15 return daily per person.  The difficulty was that late in the day, taxis would become scarce for the way back and the shuttle only ran hourly and sometimes it was tricky to determine quite which vehicle was the correct shuttle as there are always loads of buses hanging around and none of them seemingly were the correct ones.

This year though Viv googled buses to Key Biscayne and after some mishaps we found that the B bus from Brickell Station stops outside the ground with the return bus stop on the other side of the road and operates between 5 am and 11.30 pm every half hour all for the cost of $2.25 per person per trip.

What a revelation!

Furthermore the buses always came on time and took no more than 20 minutes out and more likely 15 minutes back as evening traffic was much lighter.  The bus stopped right in the middle of Mary Brickell Village, a place that offers an endless supply of bars, restaurants and shops and was no more than a 10-minute walk away from our apartment.

As for the tennis, it was of course wonderful.  We saw some great matches including  Tsonga/Baghdatis, Dolgopolov/Lajovic -- a young Serb supported from the crowd by Novak Djokovic at least until the rains came -- Nishikori/Dmitrov and Bautista-Agut/Fognini.  These were all lengthy well contested close matches but there were of course some less well contested too but that is always the case.

From top: Tsonga, Baghdatis, Nishikori, Dmitrov, Dolgopolov and Fognini

Our final day in Miami was spent largely on and off the Miami trolleys, a free service we mistakenly took to be tourist buses but which turned out to be free shuttles for workers all around Miami.

We took the Biscayne trolley north and the Coral Way trolley to Coral Gables and if that wasn't enough did the full circle on the Coral Gables trolley too before finally giving up the ghost and retiring to the Mandarin Oriental on Biscayne Key, an 8 minute walk away from our apartment, for a restoring Martini.

Martinis at the Mandarin.  Viv's with olives, mine with a twist.

Our final dinner in Miami was at a nearby place called Truluck's where the waitress told us that last week Andy Murray had visited with his entourage and eaten 2 entrees.  The steak was lovely, by the way and all round the restaurant was very good.

Next stop on our tour is San Francisco!

The apartment Viv found on the 38th floor


You can't always have action packed days like the last few in Saddlebrook. There are always in between times like the last few.  We had to get to Miami in time to watch the Sony Ericsson tournament taking place in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, one of the bigger islands off the Florida coast near Miami but we had a couple of days in which to cover the 500 or so miles.  So we stopped off in Naples for the night.

The drive down I75 is pretty dull it has to be said only livened up by annoyingly not picking up all the articles we'd bought in Dick's Sporting Goods and having to turn around and get them when we realized what had happened.  (Memo to self: Always check what's in your shopping bag before leaving the store!).  But the GPS worked just fine and enabled us to reach the Ritz in Naples without much difficulty.

What a nice hotel and what an efficient bunch of people that run it.

We'd stayed in the Ritz on 7-Mile Beach on Cayman before so were looking forward to a pleasant if brief stay.  I'd been keen to stay somewhere on the Gulf Coast as I'd never put foot in it before so as soon as we dumped our things we went for a swim (reluctant on my part as the sea was cold!) and walk along the beach.

The Gulf Coast

First thing to say is that the sea was quite wavy.  The staff said this was unusual but it was also a little windy which didn't help much either. Mind you the beach was enormously long in both directions towards who know where.  It sort of reminded me of 7-Mile Beach except that the sand whilst white was also grubby in parts and the architecture of the buildings was very similar to that on 7-Mile Beach except surprisingly there was not so much of it.

Quite some beach!  This is headed north.  South is just the same.

Now under-developing isn't a trait I usually attach to Americans.  Normally I would have said if they start building something, they build a lot of it.  And there was certainly no shortage of available land along the gulf coast there.  I suspect it must have been the protected mangrove habitat along the shoreline that stopped them.

Isolated clumps of development along the gulf coast waterline

In Cayman, the planners had allowed building right down to the beach.  I don't know if there were mangroves before but there are none now.  The result of this is that there is constant beach erosion along 7-Mile Beach.  In Naples there was a mangrove line that I think prevented some if not all of this.  Wise move although it does mean that there is wetland between the hotel or other buildings along the beach that I am sure houses bugs a-plenty in the humid summer months.

Another great trait of the Ritz is that they have great beds!  Just what the doctor ordered after a few days exertion!

It's only a 2 hour drive to Miami from Naples along the part of I75 that borders the Everglades to the north.  Every so often there were lay-bys where people put their boats into the water and presumably head off into the 'glades to go gator hunting or whatever.

We stopped at one and actually ran into at least one gator that was both awake and interested in what we were doing enough to swim over and greet us.  Reminded me a little of Alice in Wonderland.

How Doth The Little Crocodile
Lewis Carroll

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!   

After dropping the car off in Miami and dumping our gear at the apartment Viv had organized for us right downtown off Brickell, we went for a stroll to remind ourselves of the layout of the city and came across a group of Peruvian street vendors serving stone crabs and ceviche and chowed down immediately.

Very lovely but very fishy so we had to immediately change flavors at our favorite Japanese ramen noodle shop, Moni Ramen (see website here), where mine host offered us a new sake he was looking to import from Japan.  Unusually it comes in a can (he said it is sold in dispensers like Coke here!) and is served cold as opposed to warmed to a temperature of 98.4 degrees fahrenheit as James Bond states in You Only Live Twice -- see here.

007 would NOT have approved!
Tennis starts tomorrow but this time we are watchers not players.

The view from our apartment!  Not too shabby.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why don't you play with more topspin?

Finally, the first big post re-retirement trip for Viv and I!

Planning a lengthy trip is quite a task particularly when there's the wishes of more than one person to take into account and if you don't want to schedule every second of every day.  Strange that, the more you want it to be less of a package tour, the more tricky it becomes to organize things.  My approach was to place a few key things and leave blank spaces around it.  Our big round the world trip in 2010 was great but suffered a little I think by being too organized.  With time less of an issue, a bimble factor needs to be built in.

That said, none of the time we are due to spend in Florida is unplanned!  The overview was to attend the tennis tournament in Key Biscayne again and so I crammed things in around it.  This segment included 3 days in Saddlebrook Tennis Resort (30 minutes north of Tampa) and a recovery day in Naples (about 2 hours west of Miami) -- see website here.

Some of the tennis courts at Saddlebrook.  There's also hard courts where touring pro's come to train.  When we there John Isner came to practice on the hard courts ahead of the Miami tournament this week.

I'd organized a hire car from a smallish company called SIXT, a first for us and they turned out to be very efficient indeed down to upgrading us to a nice BMW X1 that could hold all of our luggage (we still haven't figured out how to travel light).  The GPS took us ultimately to the right road and in the goodness and fullness of time, we covered the 450 kilometers in around 5 hours to Saddlebrook.

And boy, has it changed.  Admittedly it has been since 1997 (by collective memory) since we'd been there and previously it was out in the boonies.  Now not so much.  The Waffle House that I remembered we'd enjoyed pretty much as the only local eatery is still there... and probably hasn't changed one iota.  It looks very small now.  It is in the midst of a shopping plaza, one of several that have sprung up all around and that is the thing I find odd.  There's still no industry of any sort near by nor any big city that could draw on the local population.  There's a couple of new hospitals for sure but mostly it seems to me like a field of dreams: build the shops and then developers build housing estates for people to live in.  So there's people living all around these days.  But what do they do?  In the 3 days we were at Saddlebrook we never found a town of any sort.  There were shopping plazas and housing estates for sure, but no town.  No reason for the people to be there.  I don't get it at all.

The resort itself is owned and operated by a man named Tom Dempsey, after whom the new steak restaurant is named.  He's now 88 but works every day and his family are now more involved in running things.  That does mean there's no deep corporate pockets behind them which probably accounts for the fact that the units themselves are pretty tired.  We joked that they'd probably not changed anything since we were last there in 1997, actually not true as the last major reno was back in 2006/7.

The view from our room.  Not too shabby really... unlike the room!

However the tennis was as remembered: 5 hours of intense drilling and activity.  The day starts at 7.50 am for stretching and then its tennis solidly until 11 am.  After a 2 hour break, tennis restarts at 1 pm and continues to 3 pm.  From memory this worked well in the summer months as thunderstorms came in daily around 3.30 pm.  That was the theory anyway but in practice it didn't work in the first 2 days because of the enormous storm that came slamming through at 11 am and which lasted for the next 15 hours.

Talk about deluge but to be fair to Saddlebrook they managed to get the courts ready for play by 9 am the following day.  Given the amount of rain that came down, I'd half expected for there to be no play for the whole day at least.  Very impressive.

That meant we had the afternoon free so we went to a shopping mall 30 minutes away near Tampa airport.  It was a hideous drive in torrential rain. Poor Viv who drove but she then rallied and came up with the great idea to have a restoring Martini at the Capital Grille there before embarking on some retail therapy.  We'd had a more than respectable Martini the previous evening in Saddlebrook's sports bar so were prepared to embark on a 7-week taste test across the USA.

Capital Grille is an up market steak and cocktail chain and I for one am a supporter if they produce Martini's like that.  The vodka used makes an important difference and Viv and I had become fans of Tito's which is smoother than some but less bland than, say, Grey Goose which I think is massively over rated.  Viv stayed with olives whilst I'd recently made a change to a twist of lemon.

This proved to be a nice restorative enabling us to face the malling prospect in better humor.  As it turned out we didn't buy anything, nor did many others by the look of it as the mall was relatively empty.  Mind you the Apple store of course had a solid coterie of people inside whilst I did note that Microsoft has given up on its notion of branding stores and is now calling them X-Box stands.  The game side was busy but the computer side totally empty.  That must say something about Microsoft in the future.  I see they are planning a new version of Office for the iPad.  I call that surrender.

Back to tennis though, the format is 1 pro per court with 4 players.  Viv and I shared the court with another husband and wife, from Toronto of all places, who hadn't played for quite a few years and wanted a crash course in muscle memory.  They were very sporty so by the 3rd day, their progress was pretty impressive.  But this did mean that Viv and I weren't taxed that hard competing with them and the coach, a Russian guy named Alex, was actually very good at ensuring we all worked at our respective skill levels.

By the 2nd day though the main coach, an English guy named Howard, moved me to another group of harder hitters run by a young coach who committed in my mind the indignity of asking me why I didn't play with more topspin.

"All the current guys do this and so should you."

To underscore his words he showed us all a video on his phone of Djokovic playing his forehand which of course is just ridiculous in both its severity of grip and the amount of topspin he therefore can play.

"You should try to do it like that."

Now I understand that this is the current norm, but then again I learned with a wooden racquet when nobody hit topspin at all so I thought I'd done pretty well at least playing with a little topspin.  Bloody cheek!  And I wasn't impressed that when we were all picking up tennis balls after a drill, he immediately went onto his phone to text.  Bloody young kids!!

Howard invited the guests to cocktails by the pool at 3.30 pm that day which was nice and of course we attended prior to lounging by the pool as the sun had returned in force.  I tried out the pool and immediately regretted it.... it was really cold!

The final day was back to the usual schedule and our afternoon was with another husband and wife from New Jersey who were good, the wife particularly so.  Because Alex had 15 racquets to string, we had a new coach, John, who was 62 and an ex-touring pro and was great fun.  He loved to talk too and had some great stories but still found time to work us thoroughly as well as critique my stroke dynamics -- forehand lazy, backhand structured well but I have to hit both harder... and with more topspin.  Aaagh!!!

We even managed to get filmed in action using an iPad and some really neat editing tools.  Somehow they'd managed to put my head onto some really dumpy chap's body.  But his forehand was quite lazy and he certainly didn't hit much topspin either.

The backhand was nice though!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dining in the Dark

In retrospect, the recent London trip was much about eating.

Immediately on our return from oop north, Alex had distinct ideas about what he wanted to eat and the location -- the much gentrified Shoreditch area.  I remember Shoreditch as being very much the poor relation to the City nearby and in fact much of the area was either bomb sites or those revolting buildings slapped up in the 1950's and 1960's.  Well that's all changed as the artsy set has moved in and gentrified the place to shabby chic levels, higher property prices and much, much better restaurants and bars.

Alex chose the Viet Grill (see website here) where we ate up a storm clearly needing some Vietnamese comfort food in the shape of their pho (aka noodles).  Really nice too after which we all split up as I wanted to go for a stroll through the City whilst the young uns wanted to rest before that night's birthday party for Ali which would be held in Brixton Market.

Brixton Market through the years

Things have changed a lot since I last worked in the City nearly 30 years ago.  Wild horses wouldn't have dragged me to Shoreditch or Brixton.  Then the former was a dump whilst the latter was a place people didn't return from.  Gentrification has changed everything and whilst the bones of the City were still there, I was keen to stroll down memory lane to see if I actually could recognise some of my old haunts.

How the City has changed too.

It still has the same character that it always had I think because the City like most places in England grew simply by adding on bits to what was there before.  There was nothing planned.  So you have tall buildings, small buildings and little lanes cheek by jowl with the new glass monstrosity high rises.  It all makes for a very interesting labyrinth which it took me years to learn years ago and which sadly meant I had to keep to the main thoroughfares this time so as not to get lost.  By contrast US cities are mainly planned with the big blocks dominating so there are fewer labyrinthine walkways to discover.

Anyway Dirty Dicks opposite Liverpool Street station is still there -- it used to be scraggy but now I am sure it has gone up market like everything else.

Bishopsgate is unrecognizable now with many of the little lanes and low buildings replaced by big roads and even bigger buildings!  But it was pleasant to stroll through the City during rush hour… for a while until I got sick of the deluge of people and the rain, and caught the tube back to my lodging.

We'd arranged to meet at Brixton Market at 8 pm and I wanted to be early as Jan's daughter Gabby would be joining us and I suspected the lads may be late (they were).  As it happened I met her just outside Brixton tube station so we walked into the market together.

Brixton has also been gentrified… or rather it is in an earlier stage of gentrification than Shoreditch, but you can see it happening.  Gabby and the London based friends of Alex and Ali were all devotees of the area, but it still has a bit of an edge to it.  Mind you the assembly point was a hamburger restaurant which next door had a champagne and cheese bar.  Further into the market was a Roti stand so all ethnicities appeared to be covered.

Ali and the Champagne Bar

The following day I went down to Canterbury to see my mother-in-law Anna on the train.  Not as easy as it should have been as the heavy rains had washed away part of the fast railway that connects to the Channel Tunnel.  This meant the stopping train which in the end was both reasonable cost and fast enough, not quite 90 minutes.  Mind you it rained cats and dogs throughout which actually wasn't bad at all as I enjoyed strolling along the City walls into the City centre -- something I haven't done enough.

1,000 year old City walls

1,000 years of history in this City but now it was very, very wet.  Even the usually low River Stour is right up to its highs -- the story of the entire country at the moment.

The highlight was that evening's big adventure -- namely dining in the dark with Gabby at Dans Le Noir (see website here), a restaurant on the fringes of the City.  This what the website says:

"You are about to live an unbelievable experience: eating and drinking in the pitch darkness.
This idea might seem a little strange at first, but by suppressing the dominant sense of sight, you will enter a world in which one is uncertain of surroundings and experiences.

"With the help of our blind guides you are going to completely re-evaluate the notions of taste and smell through our gastronomic and pedagogical process.

"Our food, mostly organic, is based on first quality ingredients, making this experience as interesting and tasty as possible. Just choose one of our 4 surprise menus.

"Dans le Noir? London is located in the charming Clerkenwell area, on 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, near Holborn and Farringdon, a few minutes walk from the heart of the city: the restaurant can accommodate approximately sixty people in the “dark room”, the main dining area. It also has a lit bar and a private lounge serving fine wines and delicious specialty cocktails before and after a meal."

This was an amazing experience although there are several practical considerations to get over: first is the total darkness.  And I do mean the total darkness.  Wave your hands in front of your eyes and you can usually see a flicker.  Not in that restaurant though.  Very eerie.  Second is the food.  As you cannot see a thing, it is almost as though you are eating with a spoon as you cannot find the food on your plate in the usual way.  Makes fine food almost irrelevant.  Third is the company.  You cannot see them!  There are people to left and right and the noise level is pretty high -- one of our neighbours talked endlessly about fell diseases throughout.  But overall I had a great time with Gabby!

I think I put on 10 pounds!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

It's like this, Guys…

The guy I sat next to on the flight from Bermuda to Toronto said "last week it was minus 33 in Toronto".  I couldn't work out what that meant in terms of fahrenheit (which I understand) but I do know that that's really, really cold… fortunately I wasn't staying in TO for long this time, I was heading for London but would stay once the Arctic Vortex had receded in a week or so.  This week was all about football and in particular Manchester City.

Now I'm not a particular fan of City although I do enjoy football.  My team is Southend United -- the Blues not the Shrimpers, as some call them -- who hold up the lower echelons of the football league very well indeed.  After all they've had plenty of practice.  However my sons, Alex and Ali, are big fans due of course to the Bermuda connection with ex-City superhero Shaun Goater.  They attended his summer football camps in Bermuda for many years and found him (as have many others) to be a real gentleman, an inspiration and one heck of a role model.  Not overly talented, Goater's big plus was a work ethic of unbelievable depth and being a true team man.

The 'Goat'

The game though was huge.  This was City's first really big Champions League match ever, having made it out of the group stages for the first time.  For a team that spent that much, this really isn't that great an achievement.  They should have done it sooner.  But at least they did this time and this round of 16 game was a knock out against the might of Barcelona.  Not an easy task by any means.  Also they'd lost the week before in rather disappointing fashion and I was hoping they'd have the cojones to pick themselves up and earn their £200,000 a week.

Big issue was how to get tickets as this promised to be a well supported game. Alex had joined the City supporters club thinking it would be the way but the club only offered him one ticket!  So the fall back was a package tour including train there and back, accomodation and ticket for … gulp … a lot more than the face value of £28.  Mind you it was the experience that counted, not that aspect of things.  I'd even convinced my brother Jan to join us for the event!  That was a tough one as he doesn't much like football in the first place!!

I was lucky enough to land at Heathrow so I could take the Tube into central London directly thanks to my Oyster Card.  No hassle, less than an hour to Green Park which was only 5 minutes walk from where I was staying.

But what a city London is!

Such a mixture of sounds, tongues, smells and what a wonderful vibe.  Last time I was here a year or so back you could tell the economy was damaged.  That's completely gone.  The city is rocking!

But my goodness, how expensive it is.  From a simple cuppa to a nice apartment in central London, this is one hell of a pricy town.  No wonder fewer than 50% of the inhabitants are native Londoners!  I read in a paper that Malta was selling citizenship for $1 million enabling people access to the EU and more importantly London property.  These were from people in politically challenged locations such as Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela in South America, Kazakhstan and other central Asian locations too.  Presumably Ukraine and Russia too given the uproar in that region currently. Add the Chinese flocking in and this promises to keep London property prices moving strongly upward.

The plan was to meet at Euston on the day of the game -- Tuesday 18th February -- and head up together, all 6 of us.  That gave me time to go the theatre the night before, the Duke of York to be precise where I saw Jeeves & Wooster being a big PG Wodehouse fan.

Just wonderful, innocent stuff from a bygone age.  My favourite bit was part of the denouement when one of the main opponents to J&W's schemes was disarmed thoroughly.  Being the leader of the Brown Trousers movement in England at the time (remember this was the 1920's or 1930's at the time of the Mosley Brown Shirts), this rascal was undone when Jeeves discovered his dark secret through his links at his butler's club.  Apparently he was a maker and purveyor of ladies underwear.  A succesful one too.  Bertie's comment was priceless:

"A chap can be a dictator or a seller of ladies underwear, but not both."

Bertie's wisdom is undeniable.  Wannabe dictators should take note.  

I met Jan early next morning at Euston and the others, the young guns, trickling along later.  We were booked on a lunchtime train and arrived in Manchester Piccadilly mid-afternoon for an interminable taxi ride to the accommodation… miles outside town and in fact nearer to the Man U ground than City's.  But this was a hotel specifically for football supporters so was served by many shuttles.

Pausing only to drop off our gear in the room, we headed straight out again for the stadium… another £25 taxi ride!  There didn't seem to be a downtown area in Manchester, but that could be my wrong perception and the route the taxi took but the City of Manchester or Etihad Stadium was nice.

The Crew L to R: My brother Jan, son Alex, friend Andy, son Ali, friend Matteo and yours truly 

This was built for the 2000 Olympic Games -- something that never happened, but it was used for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.  City moved in for the 2003 season.  Capacity is 47,000 but is about to be expanded to 62,000.

These days match day is all about the event… pre-match TV chat, bands, VIP section for the arriving demi-gods of football, special parking for the demi-gods Bentleys, Maseratis, Ferraris and he rest… So it was quite fun.

We found the Maine Road Chippy across the street for our fish and chip fix as well as Mary D's, the official supporters club pub further along the road.  The tension was building nicely.

With son, Alex, in the supporters' pub

My son Ali even found the Barcelona website masters who were interviewing City fans on the likely result and questions about Barca to see if they knew anything.  Ali nailed them all which I thought quite impressive!

Ali being interviewed by Barca TV

Our seats were nosebleed equivalents but that made them actually just right as it gave us the perfect panoramic view from above the centre circle.  Barca were pretty well supported too -- at least 5,000 out of the capacity crowd I estimated, all behind the goal to our left.

As for the game, well Barcelona did their tika-taka stuff for the first 15 minutes but then they lost the ball and City dominated the rest of the half.  What didn't help was a moment's inattention early in the 2nd half that saw Messi one on one with the goalkeeper only to be flattened inside the penalty area by a really, really dopey City defender.  Immediate red card and penalty.  So 1-0 down with 40 minutes remaining and only 10 men remaining.  Game over.

Barcelona scored another just before the final whistle which makes it really tough for the 2nd leg and quite a subdued band of young fans from Bermuda.

Bouncing back: Ali, Andy, Alex and Matteo

However they bounced back quickly and 4 of us headed off to Manchester's famous curry mile -- for what was unfortunately a pretty average curry at a place called Shere Khan -- whilst the other 2 headed off to party.

The stadium emptying out

And now the confession.

Now I don't gamble often.  Maybe some Crown & Anchor at Cup Match in Bermuda and some roulette in Las Vegas.  But nothing much else.  However whilst we were there, the boys laid their bets -- 3-0 in favour of City was a common bet -- and, well, you know how you get carried away some time?

So I put money on Barcelona.

To win 2-0.

Sorry guys.

I feel bad about this, really…

Brothers in arms