Amsterdam is for lovers.

Travel: Amsterdam is for lovers

Amsterdam re-visited

Amsterdam has received a reputation of debauchery, gluttony and indulgences over the centuries. Even the Pilgrims that settled America lived in the area only to move due to the “evils” of the place.

So, what better place to go on vacation!

The streets of Amsterdam.

Amsterdam gets a lot of bad press and a lot of people I’ve met seem to think of the city as a free-for-all haven of drugs and sex. This is not the case. Rather it is a country that is more liberal than most others, but not a drug ravaged city filled with sex on every corner.

When I was there in 2010, the city is even taking steps to prevent tourist from taking part in the marijuana coffee shops.

In October 2010, my wife Kate and I found ourselves in the “Venice of the North” on a daytrip. As our train rolled through the Dutch countryside we were treated to beautiful views of the farms and villages along the tracks.

The Dutch are extremely eco-friendly, and the amount of bicycles being ridden or parked outside buildings was unreal. The Dutch government has provided their citizens with wonderfully safe bike paths, and some even stretch the entire length of the country. The Dutch are obviously doing their part in taking care of the world.

As we disembarked the train and stepped out of Amsterdam train station we were met by a cold North Sea breeze and constant mist. Typically, this kind of weather would ruin trips. However, it felt like the gray skies and the city’s architecture went hand in hand.

Before we set out for Amsterdam Kate encouraged me to find places to see in the city. I ignored her suggestions and would live to regret it. If I would have done some research I would have realized the Heineken Beer museum is located in the city. As much Heineken as I have drank I’m still unsure how I didn’t realize this.

Well, since then I’ve been kicking myself for missing out on what is called the Heineken Experience. Apparently, it’s so awesome it is called an experience rather than museum.

Regardless, on the day we would hit two museums: One a must see and the other a place to have your picture taken in front of.

After getting off the train we walked about a kilometer into the downtown area – a kilometer is about .6 miles for thus unsure.  There we found a slightly non-descript building known as the Amsterdam Sex Museum.

It is what you think it is.

This isn’t for everyone, but I must say it was fantastic and definitely for me. It was only $6 US, which was a bargain – especially compared to the museum we went to later. Basically, the museum is what it says on the sign and brings elements of sex and pornography into one place for museum-goers. You can even get your picture taken with a huge erect cock. I did!

Now after spending over an hour wandering through the sex museum we walked to the Anne Frank House Museum. I found Anne Frank’s House to be quite passable and I advise against it, unless you love the Diary of Anne Frank book or you’re a WWII buff.

The house/museum is in a lovely part of town facing a canal. The walk in the autumn was very enjoyable despite the cold and drizzle. I guess if Anne could have looked out the window while she was locked away, she would have enjoyed the views.

After the sheer awesomeness of the Sex Museum, I was quite disappointed by Anne’s house. I love history, but it felt so bland. Even before going inside I was turned off by the loud, fat American tourists behind me complaining about their plane seats being too small. By the time I paid my $12 US I was pissed off – overpriced.

Kate liked the Anne Frank Museum (it was her second time to see it), however, I did not. Literally, there wasn’t much to see. I guess the whole selling point is for visitors to experience the tight corridors that Anne and her family lived in. My advice is to keep your $12 and just take some photos outside. There’s more to see.

To finish off the day we set off for the red-light district in the middle of the day. Obviously, we weren’t out to purchase a prostitute, rather we wanted to see what the area looked like. And it looked very similar to the other parts of the city we’d already been through – nice.

The only difference was the amount of coffeeshops and bars, and the inclusion of brothels. Prostitution has long been legal in Amsterdam, and many probably associate the two – or Amsterdam and pot.

The Bulldog Coffeeshop.

Though crime seems to have risen in the area over the last 10-20 years, it was very tame on a weekday afternoon. Consequently, there were not many prostitutes showing off their wares. For those unaware they don’t walk the streets, but stand in a shop window waiting for a John (customer) to make a choice.

Fulfilling my desire to check out the red-light district we retreated to a canal-side café for beers. We finished our day in Amsterdam sitting outside watching the people walk by. It was an absolutely beautiful way to finish our time there.

This is the point it dawned on me that the Heineken Museum is located in Amsterdam. But with only a couple hours until our train it would be impossible to see it.

Amsterdam is a beautiful city in a beautiful country. Spending a few days would have been much better than cramming a few things into one. Also, getting to experience the country’s nightlife would have been great.

Though I’d like to live in the Netherlands, I don’t think I could live in Amsterdam due to the amount of tourists. As a city one of those places that I can visit, but don’t feel like I could live there. However, given the chance I’d probably change my mind.

 

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Manchester

I look out the window this morning and the sun is beaming down in beautiful Manchester, a place that has become my home over the last two years.

In England, whenever the sun comes out, pushing grey, rainy skies away, the people lap up the sunlight as quickly as possible. There’s no guarantee the sun will be back tomorrow. Nor is there a guarantee the sun will be out for more than five minutes.

When I first arrived in England in 2009, before my wife and I married, it was difficult to adapt to the rainy weather. It seemed like the rain would never stop. Coming from the US, the constant rain in the UK was something very different. After a year, we moved away due to work, this time to Eastern Europe which was cold before moving on to Korea for a second time and then the Middle East.

My time in the Middle East helped me to appreciate the weather in England. The weather in Qatar was hot and at times oppressing. Though when I arrived in November of 2012, it was wonderful to have warm weather after coming from bitterly cold Korea. But as winter turned to spring and then to summer, it become nearly impossible to do anything outdoors.

Even going to the pool was difficult as too much time in the sun could easily cause heat exhaustion or sun stroke. Never mind doing outdoor activities such as running or playing football in the sun. Even being out at night could easily dehydrate you.

Back in the UK, the weather may be cold and rainy for much of the year, but I’ve learnt to accept it. I’ve learnt to love it actually. Having students in my class from France, Spain and Italy, they question how anyone can get use to this type of weather. But in the end, it’s not so hard if you can learn to appreciate it.

toro loco

Wine is delicious, 2013 was a great year

Wine from Aldi is delicious. That’s right, wine from Aldi is delicious. This comes in handy as studies show in blind taste tests, people cannot discern between cheap wines and expensive wines.

Tonight’s bottle, a Spanish wine known as Toro Loco, came in at a bargain of £3.79 ($5.75 approx.). While it’s true I’ve drank more expensive wines over the years, unlike beer, I cannot recall the taste of one over another. Perhaps it is just my ignorant palette or perhaps no one else can either.

According to Freakonomics, it is regularly the price that dictates, subconsciously or not, our opinion of wine whether it tastes good or not. Being that I have grown alligator arms since having my first child, perhaps that is why, subconsciously, I prefer cheaper bottles.

This is just fine with me as a lot of wine is sold wholesale for the same price and it is the restaurant or store or what have you that puts the price on it.

So tonight, enjoy what you’re drinking as I enjoy my bottle of Toro Loco.

st peters bascilica

Rome in 72 hours with a baby: Part 2

st peters bascilicaThough I had been to Italy prior to my trip to Rome, on a mad weekend of football watching in Milan, Bergamo and Turin, I’d never had breakfast in Italy. On that previous trip I was either too hungover or rushing to catch a train or both on the days that I was there.

Of course Italian breakfasts are not the same as in England or the USA. In England there’s the full English with sausage, bacon, toast, baked beans, black pudding and tea. In the USA there’s Waffle House or IHOP to fulfill your breakfast wet dreams, something that the UK is completely missing out on. On the continent, breakfast is typically sparse and consisting of a croissant, some meats and/or cheese, maybe yogurt but of course coffee. At the Santa Costanza, chocolate chips cookies were also on the breakfast menu, which seemed odd. Yet, people were eating them for breakfast. So rather than have cookies and milk before bedtime, I had my cookies and milk for breakfast for a change. When in Rome!

crushingOn the second full day, Kate and I set off early as we planned to beat the crowds to The Vatican. Though neither of us is religious, The Vatican was something we couldn’t miss. Rome’s metro system got us there in no time and it wasn’t long until we walked into The Vatican, population 842. One minute we were shooing away people peddling tours of The Vatican Museum and the next we were inside St. Peter’s Square. The square was amazing and at 9:00 AM was still quiet. For those travelling on a budget or backpacking through Italy, it costs nothing to enter St. Peter’s Square and for me was well worth the time. Though the square is free, the Coca-Cola that is sold at the cafes and shops around The Vatican is not. I found this out after ordering a 20 oz. bottle of Coca-Cola at a cafe. There must be a high import tax on Coke as it cost me €6. It was a damn good drink though.

expensive cokeVatican seen, €6 Coca-Cola drank, and it was time to move on to the next ancient Roman site. That site was the Pantheon. On the way, however, we passed the Trevi Fountain. Good ol’ Rick Steves warned us it wasn’t an important site to visit on our trip and once again Rick was right. Perhaps the fountain would have been more interesting if there wasn’t renovation work being done on it this summer. Even if the fountain had been working as usual, I’m not sure I’d have been too impressed. I’m afraid due to the waterworks in places like Las Vegas, the lustre has been taken off of a historic fountain such as the Trevi Fountain.

mummy and finn pantheonDisappointed by the fountain, we continued on to the Pantheon which completely made up for the fountain’s inability to arouse our interest. The inside of the Pantheon was gorgeous and the whole structure is well preserved. The Piazza della Rotunda outside the Pantheon is great for allowing patrons of the local restaurants and cafes the opportunity to sit and eat or drink amongst a structure built between 27 BC and 14 AD. Not too bad. With temperatures reaching the mid to high 30s (Celsius), it was time to retreat to a pizzeria.

eating pizzaFull of food and a full diaper shortly there after, Finlay’s not mine, it was time to relax back at the hotel. The Pantheon would be the last site we got to truly see on our trip, though on our drive to the airport the next day, we continually passed structure after structure that made us ooh and aah.

drew romaThough I don’t think, at this moment, I could live in Italy due to the difference in lifestyle to England, I love everything Italian from the football to the mafia, pizza to Peroni. A trip to Italy twice a year would suite me just fine. But unfortunately, there are so many other places to see. Forza Italia!

daddy and colosseum

Rome in 72 hours with a baby: Part 1

daddy and colosseumIn Rome it’s not too difficult to find yourself amongst thousand year old monuments and architecture everywhere you turn. Those monuments and that architecture along with the food and wine attracted my wife and I there this past weekend. In tow was our 14 month old son as we embarked on our first family holiday. Though we had been to the US to visit my parents and friends last April, everyone knows that visiting family is much less a holiday and more of a necessity that must be fulfilled, much like seeing the dentist or getting that AIDs check you’ve been putting off.

In the eight months since I last visited Italy, I got a little more serious about studying Italian and took a six week course at a local college. Though my listening comprehension is at a beginner level, I surprised both my wife and myself with an ability to communicate a bit with locals until they figured out they could just speak English and feel good about themselves. In turn, making me feel inadequate at my ability to fully speak Italian. But hey, when in Rome!

The lovely Santa Costanza Hotel was our home for three days and proved to be a brilliant and cost efficient hotel. My wife always seems to be pleasantly surprised when our lodgings are of a good quality and this time was no different. Her surprise puzzles me as I expect a certain quality when I pay for something. I think this shows the difference between her growing up in England and me in America. I expect things to be good, she is surprised if it is. When in Rome!

colosseum collegueOf course Rome is packed with places to see and things to do, therefore we spent a few hours before leaving Manchester to come up with a shortlist of important places to see over our 72 hours in the Eternal City. To help us narrow things down was Rick Steves, American travel writer and tour guide extraordinaire. I must say I do love Rick Steves’ guidebooks, language dictionaries, TV series, podcast, breakfast cereals and decorative fanny packs (bum bags in England, because fanny means vagina here) and all products he endorses. With the help of Rick, Katy and I decided the most important things to see were The Colosseum, The Vatican, The Pantheon and though not important, we decided to see the Trevi Fountain as people gush (no pun intended) over the oversized wishing well.

One of the best things we did during our trip before even seeing any sights, thanks Rick, was to buy the Roma Pass. For €36 we bought the pass which allowed access to three sites in Rome and free public transportation for three days. A great deal for anyone traversing the city. However, if one wanted to explore the city and pay nothing to enter the sites but still see them, it can be done to a certain extent as viewers can walk up to most sites and walk around them.

Our first stop was The Colosseum which was every bit worth the price of admission. The Roma Pass not only allowed us access, but we bypassed the incredibly long line at 9:00 AM as we went from the end to inside the The Colosseum in one minute. Brilliant if you have a baby in tow. The Colosseum was amazing, though on TV it looks wider. We were able to walk around the inside, but with a baby, unable to make our way to the top due to the steep sides that go up some distance. If in a rush or a baby in a stroller, The Colosseum can easily be seen in 30 minutes, but if you can take your time it is easy to spend and hour or more walking through the halls and stairways. It’s also quite easy to ease drop on a tour and listen to a few historical tidbits for free.

daddy and finnWhile we were enthralled with The Colosseum, my son somehow had the same effect on the Asian tourists at the site. Two Japanese ladies even asked to have their picture taken with him which we of course agreed to without batting an eye. His ability to charm everyone in Rome was quite impressive. Even the angriest Roman cracked a smile for our blonde haired son with Harley Race-esque curls.

Day one ended sitting outside a cafe near our hotel drinking beers, which is always a good way to end any day. Having a young child that goes to sleep early doesn’t mean you have to stop doing everything that’s fun on holiday. You just need to work with or around their schedule. This meant buying meats, cheese, wine, Peroni and bread at the supermercato to eat back at the hotel post-baby bedtime.

Part 2 coming soon…

2014-07-14 07.31.38

Fifty Priests you say?

2014-07-14 07.31.38England’s Metro newspaper is continually unrivalled in producing the best/most ridiculous headlines. Obviously the editors want to work for The Sun. This headline caught my eye this morning on the way into work.

I’m actually quite surprised that the Pope gave this quote, using the word pervert. That’s the NEW Catholic Church for you.

Meanwhile, ‘Uber the Moon’ is awful in its own right and makes no sense whatsoever.

 

 

world-cup-usa-1994_1400597905

World Cup 1994 to 2014: Twenty years of my life

world-cup-usa-1994_1400597905In the summer of 1994 I was a chubby 12-year-old. That June I experience something for the first time that would alter my life in the years to come.

The 1994 World Cup was granted to the USA, but until the USA’s first match on June 18, 1994, I had no clue the tournament was happening in America. As a matter of fact, I had no clue what a World Cup was or what a World Cup did. The USA’s match against Switzerland changed things completely for me. I watched that tournament religiously from then on, or at least as best I could living in a house that only had four TV channels. My parents were a few months away from buying our first mini-satellite dish as the technology became more affordable and hundreds of channels flooded our house.

My World Cup fever continued as I bought the ’94 World Cup video game for my Sega Game Gear (remember those?). I played the game continuously as I spent a week or two playing baseball tournaments in the Midwest of America, staying up late in hotel rooms watching highlights on ESPN’s Sports Center. I still remember watching Andres Escobar’s own goal against the USA as I laid in bed. The Colombian was murdered weeks later back home in Colombia for his misfortune in that game.

Ramos suffered a fractured skull and spent weeks in the hospital.

Ramos suffered a fractured skull and spent weeks in the hospital.

It has been 20 years since I watched that first World Cup and can remember each tournament in the intervening years. In 1994, besides it being my first to witness, I remember Brazil’s Leonardo fracturing American Tab Ramos’ skull with a vicious elbow.

The ’98 tournament is much harder to remember as I believe I spent much of that month playing baseball tournaments and unable to sit in front of a TV. But for some reason I remember Mexico goalkeeper Jorge Campos and his colorful kit.

The 2002 World Cup is quite memorable as it was the first tournament in which I was in university. It was also the USA’s best performance as the team made it to the quarterfinals which was a complete surprise. My three best friends (Solomon, Johny and Erik) and I watched those games together. The ’06 games had Zindane’s headbutt and 2010 was the year of Spain.

One of the best birthday gifts I ever received.

One of the best birthday gifts I ever received.

This year it was the justification of everything Germany has built over the last eight years and what a tournament it was as it was the first World Cup win for the re-unified Germany. A brilliant tournament and the best I’ve seen.

Running the Park Run

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Saturday marked my first ever Park Run. For people outside of the UK and a few other countries, Park Run is a weekly 5K race (three mile run) that is organised at a park/running circuit. It’s organised by volunteers and runners, and it’s a way to train and do a race for free every Saturday.

A free race isn’t offered often, and I don’t see the point in paying for a race. Paying £20-£50 to go and do something I do nearly every day, but with a group of people and a free t-shirt, isn’t very tempting.

In all, it was a great morning for my first run at a Park Run event. About 200 runners turned up for the 5K. I finished 50th overall (48th male) which was better than I expected since it was the first race I’d run since 2009.

WIth the popularity of Park Run, there is one done every Saturday in more than 100 places across the UK, you’d think it would have caught on in the US, too. However, looking over the Park Run website, it appears only three places host a Park Run – Michigan, North Carolina and Florida. I find that to be a bit of a shame. It seems Park Run would catch on in places like Southern California. Finding people to volunteer to run it is the key and it’s hard to find people that will give up their time for others. I’m not even sure I’d like to volunteer instead of running the course.

Next weekend I will try to beat my 50th place finish and I look forward to next Saturday’s race.

Baseball season 2014

ny-mets-wallpaperNot only has it been a long time since I wrote on my blog – over a year – but it has been a long time since I followed a full Major League Baseball season.

Being an American, baseball was my first love when it came to sports. However, that love has faded over the last 14 years. The last seven or eight have been incredibly difficult to follow the game as well since I moved away from the US.

This season I’ve made a promise to myself that I will follow the entire season even if my beloved New York Mets are terrible; which they are expected to be.

mets-wp-32-1920Though the Mets are New York’s second team (the equivalent of Manchester City in football in the UK or Atletico Madrid in Spanish football), you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the UK or Europe that knows who they are. At least I seem unable to find anyone. Though I’m not having too many conversations about MLB greats over here. Despite being in the country’s biggest market they’re practically anonymous.

New York’s first team, the Yankees, have the original iconic NY hat logo. Made famous outside of America by the Asian kid in Indiana Jones and Justin Bieber. Despite me wearing a Mets’ hat for almost the entirety of my relationship with my wife, seven years, she didn’t realise there was any difference with the two logos.

Finn rockin' his first ever Mets shirt.

Finn rockin’ his first ever Mets shirt.

I don’t have the patients to watch most baseball games these days, but I’m doing my research on players and teams.

I’m excited for the season to begin in April and hope I can make it through an entire 162 game season from afar.

But my desire to watch and follow the MLB again is two-sided as I hope to draw enough interest in my household that one day my son will also enjoy America’s pastime.

If so, he’ll probably be one of a select few with North American parents living in Northern England that has some interest in America’s beautiful game. If not no big deal, just as long as he doesn’t wear a Yankees hat or a St. Louis Cardinals hat.

Travel: Budapest Honved

The quaint and snug Honved stadium.In the autumn of 2010, eight English teachers, including my wife and I, arrived in Budapest, Hungary for a five month teaching contract courtesy of the EU – and the Wolverhampton AEC.

Of course, one of the first points of research was what Hungarian football team I was going to support. Budapest is home to numerous lower league or minor league clubs as well as the top-flight sides of Budapest Honved (former Army club), Ujpest (most successful club), MTK (at one time known as the Jewish club), Ferencvaros, Rakospalotai and Vasa.

Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, though it still struggles with its conversion to capitalism after decades of communist rule. Those struggles can be seen throughout the country and it’s no wonder suicide and alcoholism are rampant.

The city had excellent cafe to sit and have a beer.

Just as other sectors have struggled to come to grips with the wealth enjoyed by other countries and a small section of the population, so too has the country’s football – or soccer. Like many Eastern European countries, Hungary has a large hooligan problem and the club that exemplified this problem most was Ferencvaros (pronounced Fen-erents-ver-osh).

My wife Katy and I lived a mile away from Ferencvaros’ training center. When it was warm enough to go for a run, I would usually run in the park next to the center, so I could watch the team train. I began to think of the team as my local club, but when I asked the Hungarian teachers at school about Ferencvaros, I was told not to attend any of their matches. I shouldn’t even go to any Hungarian football teams’ matches. Confused, I pressed on. Which led to my friend Tim Watts and I to attend our first game of the Hungarian OTP Bank Liga.

In the end, it wasn’t a Ferencvaros match we attended. Only a few days after asking my co-workers about the club did one of the biggest stadium riots of the season occur thanks to the Ferencvaros hooligans. Losing to their city rivals Ujpest (pronounced oo-ya-pesht), the Ferencvaros hooligans began ripping the plastic seats up and throwing them on to the pitch. This was followed by a pitch invasion and water cannons being deployed to stop the fans. Though I simplified the riot, it was quite the event.

So rather than attend a match where Tim and I could get hurt, we settled on the more family friendly Budapest Honved. The club is one of the most famous in Hungary and have a niche in European football history. Though now days many people will have little idea about the club or how they had a hand in revolutionizing the game.

Honved formed the nucleus of the Mighty Magyars, the Hungarian national team of the 1950s who won the Olympic gold medal in 1952 and finished second at the 1954 World Cup. Even more famously now, the Mighty Magyars are remembered for beating England twice, causing the English to rethink their football approach and tactics. Honved also produced one of the greatest players of all-time in Ferenc Puskas (pronounced Fen-erents Push-kash). Puskas is still a national hero in Hungary and his face can be seen on various gimmicks from mugs to shirts.

Besides his excellent football skills, Puskas is also a national hero for standing up to the communist leaders. In 1956, he refused to return to Hungary after playing in a tour of other countries. The football great did not agree with the communist regime of Hungary that was under the control of the USSR. Puskas relocated to Spain where he became one of the all-time greats at Real Madrid, and in 1962 gained Spanish nationality, enabling him to play for Spain’s national team.

When Tim and I finally arrived at Honved’s stadium, it looked to have seen better days. I have seen USA high school soccer teams play in more expensive, aesthetically pleasing  facilities than Honved. However,  there was still something wonderfully romantic about it.

The main stand.

We took the bus, which only ran every hour, from the nearest subway station to the stadium. The bus wound through streets before dropping us off in an area far removed from where one would expect a professional sports team – these days – to play. The stadium was located in an industrial area surrounded by housing and small shops. Being that the team has never relocated, their stadium showed the tradition with the local community they have had and community ties that sports franchises in western countries no longer have.

After a few short minutes in line, we used our best Hungarian to get the best tickets on offer. Unbelievably tickets were under $2US to sit – or stand – with the Hungarian working class in the curva – the curved end behind the goal. Despite being a bit run-down, the stadium was actually cool. Though some of it was blocked off due to repairs being made. It looked as if repairs had started years before and had not finished. The club did have a new looking training pitch next to the stadium complete with artificial turf for those cold and snowy months, late October to late March.

As with tickets, beer was also cheaply priced at around $1US. So, as Honved neared kick-off, the Borsodi followed. The football wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either. The beer surely improved it. The football on display could be compared to League Two in England or possibly League One.

In the end nothing memorable happened, except discovering Eastern Europeans have a nasty habit of eating sunflower seeds at football matches. Similarly to Americans and baseball, Hungarians spend much of the 90-minute match chomping on and spitting out sunflower seed shells. We’re not so different after all.

Tim and I decided to beat the rush and attempt to catch the hourly bus back to the station before the end of the game as Honved was down 2-0. However, before heading home we attempted to buy Honved shirts at the club shop. Ridiculously, the club shop was not open on a match day and the only time it would be open was one afternoon a week. We shuffled back to the bus stop defeated, vowing to return another day.

Unexpectedly that day never came and that was the only Hungarian Liga match I witnessed in person during my five months living in the country. Like most Hungarians, much of the football I watched was beamed on to my TV screen from Italy, Germany, England and Spain. We’re not so different after all.