Arsenal Football Negative Premier League

The Beginning Of The End?

We’ve done all we can. But my Dad and I will not be able to go to Arsenal’s biggest game of the season which takes place this weekend.

Despite the fact that we both have season tickets in the Upper Tier of the North Bank, the fact that the match has been moved to midday on Sunday by Sky TV means that we can’t use them and will not be in attendance. Let me explain.

My dad is partially sighted and I go to the games as his helper – I commentate for him. I do have my own ticket but (quite rightly) the rules of the tickets we have state that the helper cannot go to the game without the main ticket owner. So without him, I can’t go.

Since retiring a few years ago, Dad has moved to Norwich to be nearer family and obviously can’t drive to games, so he regularly gets the train to London and back, despite the endless engineering works that that line is subject to.

This particular game was, until 3 weeks ago, scheduled to be played on Saturday at 3pm. Dad’s train was booked and, along with the rest of the fans with tickets to the match, plans were made. But when Sky realised that this particular season, Arsenal v Leicester might be worth televising, they held off and they held off, before deciding to move it with only 21 days notice.

There is no way he can get a train that arrives early enough for him to be at the ground in time for kick off and he can’t, as he sometimes does, stay with me or my brother the night before, due to personal reasons. A hotel is going to cost in excess of £100 and presents it’s own problems due to his eyesight and so a man who has been a regular at Arsenal since 1953 and his son who has been going since 1982 can’t go to a match that they’ve already paid for.

To make matters worse, neither of us have Sky and so cannot even watch it on TV. Two long term season ticket holders, having to listen to their team’s biggest home game of the season on the radio because they literally cannot find a way of getting to the stadium for the time which the TV company has decided it will start at.

In truth, this could be the beginning of the end for our patronage of Arsenal Football Club. We’ve regularly discussed how distanced we feel from what’s happening on and off the pitch at the club in the last few years and quite a few of our contemporaries have given up in that time for various reasons and it feels very much like we’ll be next.

Good luck to Arsenal for the future, but everyone has their limit and it feels like we’re very close to ours now.

Arsenal Football Negative

Change Something, Arsenal. Please.

They say that when you’re angry, you should count to ten before you react. Take a breath, think about things, calm down.

But I can’t. I’ve just got home, the game finished over an hour ago and I’m still absolutely furious. I’ve got a computer and a blog and I don’t give a toss if anything I write in the next few minutes is utter rubbish or makes any sense to anyone. I don’t care if I swear, make grammatical errors or piss anyone off. I’m angry.

Arsenal Football Club is falling apart. No, scratch that – it’s fallen apart. The club has been in the process of falling apart for the last 8 years and in that time, no-one – not one single person – has done anything about it.

I remember talking to fellow fans a few years ago about what we needed to do. Back then, we needed a defensive midfielder. Maybe a captain.

Years have passed and we still need those things. But now, we also need 2 centre backs, a goalscorer, some goalkeepers, a new medical department, a new manager and some different people to run the club. Every season, it’s the same problems as the season before but with some more added on. Nothing ever gets improved. We, as fans, have been conditioned to aspire to our team doing precisely the same thing as they did the season before, gradually getting less and less good at it and clinging on for dear life to past glories that are rapidly fading into the pages of the dustiest of history books.

The Manchester United team that have just beaten us 2-1 – and let’s face it, we were lucky it wasn’t 3-0 – was probably the worst United team I have seen in the last 25 years. Defensively, they were all over the place, their midfield – Di Maria apart – looked ordinary and one of their strikers (Robin van Persie) did nothing. After a decent 25 minutes, we crumbled into dust and ended up making them look good. We can’t score goals and we have a fucking joke of a defence.

The only player who didn’t contribute in the first half was Aaron Ramsey. In the second half, none of them did. 10 players went from a fairly good performance into a dirty, stinking pile of shit within 15 minutes.

Back in the later years of the George Graham era, I remember being this angry with Arsenal because we were so rubbish. But in those days, we knew why that was. We had players like Ian Selley, Glenn Helder, John Jensen, Chris Kiwomya, David Hillier. Today, we have some of the best players the club has ever had and yet they are a joke. An absolute joke.

Some teams are greater than the sum of their parts. This team isn’t any more than the sum of my farts.

To put it simply – and, admittedly, emotionally – they are just pathetic. I’d really rather have had Hillier, Selley et al out there tonight than that shower of utter shit. If you are a hugely talented footballer, with the world at your feet, given the chance that millions of kids around the world would kill for and you can’t be bothered to pick your head up and at least try and run around when your team are a goal down at home then you should be thinking about leaving it to someone else.

I sound like I’m blaming the players but the club is rotten from the top to the bottom. We famously have the highest ticket prices in the country, our medical department is so badly managed that it often only takes the slightest blade of grass at the wrong angle for a player to get injured, the manager has too much power and has lost his way, the youth system has only provided fast, skilful wingers for the last 20 years, despite our constant need for stronger, more defensive personnel, the board is happy to treat the fans as customers whose cash returns need to be maximised at every opportunity and the players have given up.

It’s very rare that you feel that you can’t support your own team but that’s the way I feel right now. When Di Maria missed his chance to make it 3-0, I wanted him to score. It feels like the club needs something to go very, very wrong before anything is done. Am I even sure that anything would change if something did go wrong? Is it too late already anyway?

Manchester United have problems – big problems – but I am fairly sure that they will be rectified in the next year or two. Arsenal have had the same set of problems for the last 8 years and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we were still talking about them in another 8 years.

Arsenal Football Negative Premier League

Playing Football – The Arsène Way

There is a song which Arsenal supporters sing which goes

49 49 undefeated

49 49 I say

49 49 undefeated

playing football the Arsenal way

In 2004 we played a style of football that was revolutionary in the English league. This style of game was invented by Arsène Wenger and used in its embryonic state when he led Arsenal to the double in 1997/98 and in the successes of the following years. By August 2003 he had assembled a squad of players that suited his style of play absolutely perfectly and moulded them into the team known as “The Invincibles” and the rest is, as they say, history.

Of course all good things must come to an end and gradually, as the squad of 2004 were broken up for various reasons, their replacements were, naturally, not in the same class. In addition, the move to the new stadium caused financial restraints which resulted in Wenger not being in a position to buy the top class players he would have liked and having to sell several star players. Added to this was the rise of Chelski and Man Sheikti and the continued spending power of Man United and Wenger was forced to accept the fourth place was “winning a trophy” and it is very much to his credit that somehow he has guided the club to said “trophy” every season since the stadium move.

In August 2013 the financial restraints were lifted from the club and Wenger was free to buy star players such as Özil and Sanchez. With the squad he already had, it seemed that there was no reason why a challenge for the championship should not be far away. Unfortunately this has not been the case and there is no chance of this happening at the moment. Certainly Wenger has been very unlucky with injuries and obviously is not able to buy the sheer number of players that Chelsea and Man City can buy to help with the injury situation. However I believe there is another underlying reason as to why the current squad of players are not providing any evidence that a challenge for the championship is imminent.

It is of course true that for some reason best known to himself Wenger did not feel it was prudent to buy any cover for central defence nor a natural holding player in midfield but, in my opinion, the real problem is that the team is still playing football the “Arsène way”. We all know that everything becomes out-dated after a while and sadly the Arsène way will not succeed in 2014. Clearly he believes that possession is the most important part of the game and that eventually chances will be created and taken by passing opponents into submission. The reality is that our opponents know this and are quite happy to allow us to have possession up to the final third of the pitch when they simply dispossess us with ease. This has been happening gradually over the last 5 or 6 years but Wenger has refused to react to it and clearly still believes his way is the only way, which is his prerogative as the manager. From a personal point of view this has culminated in a team that do not provide the entertainment that I crave, especially in home matches. It seems that shooting at goal is not encouraged and in most matches shots on target are in single figures and shots in general the same. The worst thing about the possession game is that it mainly involves passing the ball sideways and backwards and then running into defenders at the edge of the penalty area and losing the ball. The biggest frustration for me is that I believe we have a very good squad of players and with the addition of the defensive requirements could well be good enough to give Chelsea and Man City a run for their money.

Sadly Wenger will never change his philosophy and I feel we are seeing the end of an era in the same way as we saw the end of the George Graham “boring boring Arsenal” era in 1995.

I certainly wouldn’t want Wenger to be sacked and no doubt we will continue to finish fourth for the next 3 seasons and then, hopefully, Wenger will not renew his contract and the club can move on with the times.

I must say I haven’t been as bored by an Arsenal team in years and it’s a shame that there are likely to be a few more seasons of this. Naturally I hope I am proved wrong but whilst Wenger is trapped in his time warp I will have to look forward to season 2017/18.

I know there are those who will say I should stop going if I feel this way but if it was that easy I would have stopped going in the early sixties when we were truly awful and 4th place would have been a major achievement. The thing is once a gooner always a gooner through the good and bad times so as always I will look forward with optimism as best I can.

Arsenal Football Negative Premier League

It’s Nuffin’ To Do With Me, Guv

This morning, Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal’s Chief Executive, proudly told a supporter’s forum that his club are the 6th richest in the world.

Under his guidance the club has consistently made money for the owners and shareholders, despite the expenses of building a brand new stadium and paying for some of the most expensive football players in the world.

A few hours later, his team were lucky to get an injury time equaliser to rescue a point at home to Hull City.

Having fallen behind early in the 2nd half, Arsenal failed to create a single shot on target for 40 minutes. Many of the fans were left wondering why the manager hadn’t used his full complement of 3 substitutes to try and win the game. The reason he didn’t, one assumes, is that he looked at what was available to him and decided that they weren’t good enough.

Mikel Arteta – a holding midfielder who was just back from injury.
Tomáš Rosický – a 34 year old who was just back from injury.
Frances Coquelin – a defensive midfielder who has failed to make an impression in 6 years at the club.
Semi Ajayi – a 20 year old defender who has not yet played a single game for the first team.
Damián Martínez – a 3rd choice goalkeeper.

You could see his point.

Arsenal – the club that this week was widely criticised for having the highest ticket prices in the country, the club that regularly boasts of its riches, the club that recently spent £35m on Alexis Sanchez and £40m on Mesut Özil had run out of viable options that might be able to win a home game against Hull.

It is the middle of October. We have played 8 League games. But the cupboard is already bare.

Wenger Out. Ah yes, that old chestnut.

In a week when the Chief Executive and Chairman both admitted, during the AGM, that the club is effectively run by Arsène Wenger, one has to wonder if sacking the manager of the football team might not be the correct course of action.

If this is indeed the case – and for the purposes of this hypothesis, I will put to one side the (albeit cynical) possibility that these announcements are made in order to discredit the man in charge, fuelling the increasingly-held opinion that the fault of the current malaise lies with the manager – then there are only two explanations.

  1. These statements are not true and are being made in order to obscure the fact that the board are, in fact, responsible for most, if not all, of what goes on at the club.
  2. The board have allowed one of their employees to gain more power of the club than they do.

Oh dear, lads – it’s not looking good for you either way, is it?

In the last two years, the club have invested heavily in the playing staff. It’s not yet the end of October and we already have an injury list of 5 major players, with a predicted total time out of 9 months.

Is this the fault of Arsène Wenger? If not, who is at fault? Could it be the responsibility of those running the club? If everything that happens on the field of play is down to Wenger, what exactly do these people do for the club? Are they there just to ensure that the shareholders see huge dividends? In which other line of business do the people at the top delegate responsibility for everything to the manager of one part of the company, whose wages they pay? Either you run the club or you don’t. There are more problems at Arsenal at the moment than the lack of a defensive midfielder and not enough cover in defence. Arsène Wenger has his faults and the team may well benefit from someone new with a fresh outlook and some new ideas but whoever did take the job on would still have had to stand there today and choose from Arteta, Rosický, Coquelin, Ajayi and Martinez to try and steal a point from Hull City at home.

Ivan Gazidis took over as Chief Executive in 2009. The last time Arsenal came close to winning the league was 2008. Since then, the club has made huge profits and some of the owners have pocketed large amounts of money from their investment.

At some point, someone on the board of Arsenal Football Club has to accept responsibility for something. You can pull the wool over a lot of football fans’ eyes but not all of them. And there are plenty of people who can see that the manager is not the only one that needs to shoulder blame.

Arsenal F.A. Cup Football Positive

Good Old Arsenal

The day didn’t begin well.

As well as being Cup Final day, 17th May is also my girlfriend’s birthday. I’d successfully negotiated my attendance at the game but it required me to cook a 3-course meal for her and some friends the night before. This, I’d managed without (much of) a hitch and a good time was had by all. After the now-traditional period of dancing to Soca music, we called it a night around 2.30am.

Having been informed that the small child of the couple that were staying with us overnight would be up and about by 6.30am, I’d thoughtfully placed some ear plugs by my bed. I wasn’t starting the biggest day in the last 8 years of Arsenal history without a proper night’s sleep.

Five minutes later, the adorable Orrin was tickling my feet and giggling. He calls me “The Man” but I felt like more like “The Vegetable”, having been asleep for barely 4 hours.

Lunch with the birthday girl and her mother was pleasant enough but it seemed strange to be sitting at a fancy restaurant at 1pm on the day Arsenal would, once again, visit Wembley just one win away from a trophy. Still, I exchanged pleasant conversation as best I could, sipping water carefully, so as to avoid revealing – to myself as much as anyone – the extent of my hangover. Today was going to be hard.

The train journey from Farringdon to Wembley took more than an hour and I was late for my arranged meeting with my Dad – the official Provider Of Ticket for the game. I scampered up Wembley Way with increasing urgency, my body beginning to shake with nerves.

Dad wasn’t there.

I panicked – phoned him – no answer.

I phoned my mate Elric – the most optimistic man I know – at least he would get the positivity flowing. He’d had a personal emergency and wasn’t coming to the game at all.

Oh god.

Dad did eventually turn up and in we went. 10 minutes into the game and I wished he hadn’t bothered.

I’m a big one for superstition. Only in football, I might add, but it really does affect me, especially on these big days. The two soft goals that Hull’s centre backs scored early on, right down in front of us, left me in no doubt. The heavens weren’t aligned, someone’s chakra was out of place in their aura or whatever and we were going to blow our chance of silverware again. At least, I told myself, it wasn’t the last minute agony we had in the League Cup against Birmingham. We had plenty of time to get back into the game but one more mistake and we were done for. One more.

Kieran Gibbs saved us. A floated header from the near side looped up, over most of the defence and was dropping in at the far post, until it was calmly headed away by our lovely left back.

I’ve seen Arsenal play a lot this season and one thing has always been clear to me about the way they play. Once the pattern has been established, it doesn’t change – it can’t change. There are not enough leaders on the pitch to change it. But it did change. Not quickly – or indeed, very convincingly – but we began to play better.

I was unconvinced by the choice of Santi Cazorla to take the free kick. It just didn’t seem like the right angle for him. When he struck the ball over the wall and into the top right hand corner, I found myself making that noise that fans from other countries make. Not “Yes” or “Yeah” as is the ecstatic cry of the English football fan but “Gol” or, in this case, “OHHHHH” to signify the quality and sheer brilliance of the strike. Maybe I was a little surprised but it was a great goal and the response was one of relief. It was still the first half and the difference was now only a goal.

Half time brought a return for a familiar pursuit of mine that day. Water, I must have water. The hangover was one thing but commentating – on a pulsating first half – was quite another. Trudging around the Wembley concourse in search of the expertly-hidden free drinking water supply, I overheard many conversations. There wasn’t much in the way of happiness.

Arsenal are the only football club in England for whom the media maintain a publically available running count of the amount of time since they have won a trophy of note. No-one knows why, but the man in the street just doesn’t seem to care when Aston Villa last won the League or when West Bromwich Albion previously lifted the Cup. It’s a mysterious obsession, especially given the fact that footballing success in the modern era is more about bank balances than anything else but every man, woman and child in this country knows that the Mighty Arsenal have gone 9 years without a big bit of metal to take home.

The impact of this public shaming is that a lot of Arsenal fans are more than a little anxious and it often seems to have the effect of causing mass apoplexy. Everywhere I went, I heard people raging about “what we should do” or how “Arsene Wenger has to go this time, surely?”. I was feeling rather better when the half time whistle went than I was 35 minutes before but the sound of these expert complainers was bringing me back down. Did they not realise it was only half time? Could they not conceive of a way in which we might score another goal and maybe go on to win the FA Cup in around an hour?! Maybe I was the deluded one?

The second half began in a similar vein to the way the first had ended. We looked to be playing a little too slowly and carefully – the players, Ozil in particular, unwilling to take any risks in getting the ball forward for fear of further mistakes. A change was needed. All I could hear around me were the names of Rosicky and Wilshere being muttered to friends. Everyone, it seemed, knew exactly what was required. Then, the manager acted. He brought on Yaya Sanogo.

I wouldn’t say the reaction of the fans was negative – it was just silence. Plain, stunned, disbelieving silence. Surely the man who makes the decisions knew what we all knew? That Sanogo isn’t good enough? That 4-4-2 is dead? That what we needed was more drive from midfield, not another striker? I feared the worst, but Yaya changed the game. Not by being the most accomplished player on the pitch but by causing the Hull defence problems and by giving Olivier Giroud someone to work with. For too long, our lone striker had struggled to control the ball up front and make it stick – now, he had help.

When Laurent Koscielny turned and swept the loose ball into the net from a corner, we all thought we’d win it. The doubters had vanished, replaced by believers – their faith earned by a bundled goal from a dubious corner. Good old football.

But we failed to get the winner and we would have to watch another half an hour.

The first period of extra time was similar to the semi-final against Wigan – cagey, careful, a few tired legs on both sides. Giroud’s header against the bar aside, this game had penalties written all over it. But then.

I only really found out what actually happened when I saw the highlights the next day. My commentary dissolved into a morass of “ooh”s and “aah”s, finished off with something like “a shot” and then I don’t know what. All I can tell you is that I couldn’t feel my fingers. The celebrations were explosive around me. In me. I couldn’t breathe. All of my blood was in my head at the same time and wouldn’t budge. I leaned against the railing in front of me, desperately trying to calm down. It was too much. In. Out.

When I eventually came around, we had 10 minutes to hang on. A few moments of sensible defending against Hull City and we had won the Cup. Our goalkeeper had other ideas. Per Mertesacker – the imperious German who we’ve all come to love so much – slipped and fell in several, agonising instalments and the ball ran free down the Hull left. Then I saw him – a man dressed all in green was running, way out of the penalty area towards the ball. I’d have thought that a fan had invaded the pitch if I wasn’t acutely aware that that was the kit worn by our hero-villain with the gloves, Lukasz Fabianski. The crazed man in green missed the ball and it was surely all over. Another moment of lunacy – probably his last, and most certainly his finest – had cost us the game and the Cup.

But the shot missed. I turned to my Dad and realised that every single Arsenal fan had their hands on their head in disbelief. “How the hell are you still alive?”, I said to my father. “I’m close to having a heart attack and you’re nearly 70!”.

A few more moments ticked by and the whistle went. We won the Cup.

The trophy was presented and celebrations were had. Those fans that had been at the game and were travelling back into town on the train were stunned into virtual silence. Physically and emotionally exhausted, we dragged ourselves to Holloway Road where the cars were sounding their horns, flags were waving and songs were being sung.

When I returned home, I could barely make a sound, my voice having given up on the idea due to the stress.

Nine years may not seem like a very long time to go without a trophy for most football fans but for us Arsenal fans, it felt like an eternity.

Arsenal Football Negative Premier League

No Fun

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that the God of Football was trying to tell me something. At exactly the same time as my involvement with Dulwich Hamlet is giving me so much pleasure, Arsenal are pushing me away, it seems.

Glory Hunter.

That’s the obvious concern. I loved going to Arsenal when times were good but I haven’t got the stomach for the fight when the pickings are slim and with Dulwich winning the league against all the odds, I’ve switched clubs in the most embarrassing way possible. I’m the worst kind of modern football fan.

But there’s more to it than that.

I’ve been going to see Arsenal for more than 30 years. Only a small proportion of that time could legitimately be described as “good times” if you define good times as playing good football, winning matches and holding up trophies. I go because I like football and because I like Arsenal. I go because I have friends there and because it’s fun. Yesterday was not fun.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the game was the unbelievable refereeing. Anthony Taylor may well have secured the award for most inept performance of the season before some of the contenders have even had a chance to stake their claim. Despite his efforts, we can only blame ourselves for throwing the game away in the same pathetic way that we have done many times in recent years. There wasn’t much to like. Then the final whistle blew and an unhappy, frustrating day turned ugly.

Arsenal Football Club is in disarray. For years, the way that the club is run has been a great source of pride to me. When so many clubs were making rash decisions to throw huge fees and salaries at mediocre players, only to regret their cavalier attitude when reality hit, Arsenal stood firm. We have always been run as an institution and it has stood us in good stead. Now, it is the one thing holding us back.

Like the FA itself, there is a feeling of stale, old-fashioned intransigence at the club these days. I’m certainly not one of those that favours huge investment from morally suspect benefactors but any business has to adapt to the changing market conditions in which it finds itself and Arsenal is stuck in a rut. It is very clear that, whilst some of the clubs around us have altered the way they do business in order to remain competitive, Arsenal’s views on how a football club should be run have become more and more entrenched.

Our Chief Executive, Ivan Gazidis, epitomises the attitude of so many people that hold that position in major companies.

The feeling that, above all else, his job is to make money for the company, coupled with the desire to be seen by his peers as someone who is very successful, thereby earning him the next big payout, gives rise to a self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. He knows he is doing the right thing. And who would argue? Under his tenure, the company’s coffers have swollen and continue to grow. If he were to leave the club now, he would do so with a glowing CV stuffed full of accolades for bringing great riches to his employers. He’s not in it to be remembered as a great man – he wants to make money. He wants to be paid more the next time he takes up a new post as a Chief Executive and if he was to seek new employment any time now, he would not fail to attract wealthy companies willing to pay him what he wants. He will leave the club a lot wealthier than he when he arrived. The man is a success.

But his short term success is our long term failure.

It is clear to anyone that knows anything about football that Arsenal as a football team is going backwards. It has been doing so for the last 5 years and there is no sign of a change of direction. Where we were 1 or 2 players short of a great team in 2008, we are now 8 or 9. The gap between us and the teams above us is continually growing and failure to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 14 years is a distinct possibility. Furthermore, the upward curve of income from supporters does not appear to be sustainable. With the team performing badly on the pitch and failing to challenge for any trophy, the fans will soon lose their faith and relinquish their season tickets. Last night I was told of a fan who was informed, only 3 years ago, that he was number 48,000th in line for a season ticket. This season, he reached the front of the queue. Clearly, this pot is not bottomless and the rate of withdrawal appears fairly rapid. If the money that is being made is not invested wisely – not just on good players, but on good coaches and good back room staff – then the future is bleak.

It won’t stop me from supporting Arsenal. We’re not the first group of fans to find ourselves having to rail against self-serving individuals that are eroding the future success of our football club.

What may drive me away is the poisonous atmosphere amongst the fans. I can understand people being angry. I am angry. But do I really want to support a club whose fans hold up little placards displaying messages for the board or the manager? Do I really want to support a club whose fans boo at the slightest mistake from an obviously unfit player?

Arsène Wenger has brought great success, on and off the pitch, to this football club in the last 17 years. In that time, the core support at the club has gradually been eroded. The fans that once stood on the North Bank are long gone. Given the current rate of season ticket renewals, the entire crowd is replaced every 4 years. Replaced by angry people. People who feel that they are entitled to support a perpetually successful football team. People who refuse to stop and think before fully accepting the popular view that 8 years without winning a major trophy is a disaster on an epic scale.

Football is not, and should not be like that. I’m not condoning the behaviour of some of the executives at the club. I don’t believe that every single one of the manager’s decisions in the last 5 years has been spot on. But if there’s one thing guaranteed to make me feel more depressed about an abject home defeat on the opening day of the season, an appalling refereeing display and the feeling that my club is being run into the ground, it’s realising that I have almost nothing in common with the people that support the same team as me.

Germany Travelling

I Mentioned It Once – But I Think I Got Away With It

Germany is a place that neither of us have spent much time in – surprising really, given it’s nearby location and how easy it is to get there. So having been very kindly loaned the use of Mister Milford’s BA flight concessions for six months, we decided to try Berlin for the weekend of my birthday.

We were lucky to get the last two seats on the plane and, despite a slight delay, arrived at our hotel in pretty good time. We dropped our bags at our apartment in Charlottenburg and within minutes, we were drinking German lager and consuming knackwurst and frankfurters in a local pub.

We’d arrived in the early evening so, once we’d had a short lesson in the oddities of the German language (26 is, in fact, “6 and 20” – madness) from the pub waiter, it was straight on to dinner in Kreutzberg in the former East Berlin.

Berlin, and the East in particular, may have changed a great deal since reunification 20 or so years ago but one thing seems to have remained the same – the food. OK, so we deliberately chose a traditional German restaurant but how we were expected to consume the sheer volume of goulash, smoked pork chops, sauerkraut and “dumpling noodles” that we were presented with, I’ll never know. Good stuff it was, but waistlines – and seemingly other body parts, like feet, bizarrely – had definitely expanded. Exhausted by it all, we both slept like very full logs.

As we came down the stairs of the hotel the next morning, we were greeted by a somewhat surprising sight. The large TV in reception was showing stock film of Adolf Hitler goose-stepping around with his mates, circa 1943. And there was us thinking that we weren’t even supposed to mention the war.

We headed straight for Scheunenviertel, the Jewish district, to continue our war-themed day. After wandering past the huge, impressive Synagogue which somehow still remains in this area, we realised that an army of tourists such as ourselves marches on its stomach so we went straight into lunch – an absolutely delicious sandwich of mountains of pastrami on rye bread with pickles, washed down with a pint of Pilsener, followed by a slice of New York cheesecake. Wunderbar. The cafe was in an old Jewish girls school which also housed a posh restaurant so we made a booking for that evening and moved back to the war.

We walked along a stretch of where the Berlin Wall once stood, reading testimonies of life at the time, escape attempts and terrible stories of families divided overnight when soldiers from the East suddenly erected barbed wire fences, later replaced by the wall, obstacles, guard posts and death which would remain for 30 years.

A short U-bahn ride and an increasingly rainy walk led us into the DDR museum, a hands-on experience which tells of life in the former East Berlin.

Next up was the Brandenburg Gate, which became symbolic of the division of the city when it found itself on the East side of the wall. Ticking off as much as we could in the short time we had here, we took in the exterior of the Reichstag – the German parliament – and the sombre Holocaust Memorial before conceding to the rain and returning to the restaurant for incredible ox steak, superb German wine and absorbing debate on political systems and humanity. It’s interesting that visiting places like this – whose history appears on the face of it to be something we, as Brits, know so much about – causes you to really think about what happened, how it happened and it’s impact in a way which you would never have done just by reading a book or watching a film.

Suitably fed and watered, we decided to investigate the famed Berlin nightlife. We had eaten in an area which promised a multitude of trendy bars and clubs so we couldn’t fail to be wowed. Or could we?

We walked. And we walked. And we walked.

A bar! No, too quiet…

A bar! Too smoky…

A bar! Closed…

A bar! Oh god, look at all the young people…

We began to laugh at our impossibly specific requirements.

At long last, we found a suitable establishment. Not too hot, not too cold. But just right. We downed a couple of beers and relaxed, enjoying the lovely atmosphere. The lovely atmosphere which, within a few inexplicable and confusing seconds, turned into a confusing and disorienting chorus of coughing and spluttering.

I first noticed it when I felt a slight tickle in my throat. Not pleasant but not that bad. Then Annika began to cough. As she did so, she looked up and saw everyone in the bar, hands to mouths, choking, whilst swiftly evacuating the room. As I left, one girl was coughing so much she actually collapsed onto the floor.

The barman, somehow unaware of the acrid smoke and confused by the max exodus, appeared at the front door to urge us to return to the bar, lest we were to upset the neighbours. Seeing (and hearing) the coughing customers he ducked back in to investigate, returning seconds later to enquire “OK, who’s the joker with the pepper spray?”.

We began the day with Hitler and had ended it being gassed. These Germans have taken the war tourism just that one step too far.

We decided not to return to the now-fumigated bar and returned home to reflect on an interesting, thought-provoking, confusing and ultimately peppery day.

Our last day featured a brief and pointless wander around a rubbish market and a slap up lunch of Alsatian pizza, schnitzel and chocolate mousse, washed down with yet more German lager.

We also spent some time in the former offices of the Stasi, learning about the lengths that the secret police went to to ensure that none of the citizens dared to dream of another life. The collection of buildings that housed them grew steadily throughout the time of Communist rule, eventually employing more than 90,000 people to spy on, interrogate and ultimately, in the words of one excerpt, “terminate, physically” some of the unfortunate people to find themselves on the wrong side of the wall.

We’ve tried to see cities like this in a hurry before – Rome was a particularly difficult place to cram in in such a short period of time. Berlin has a lot to see and a lot to do but it’s easy to get around and surprisingly quiet. The Brandenburg Gate and the DDR museum (due to the rain, I suspect) were the only busy places we encountered. But despite this, it’s really hard to come away after two days feeling like you’ve seen it all. Inevitably, many of the sights are based on or connected to the war and this makes it quite emotionally draining to do one after the other after the other. As with Cambodia and Vietnam, we felt that you needed regular breaks in order to stop yourself from feeling exhausted by the horror of it all.

As a result, I’m sure we’ve missed some great stuff and I’m sure we’ll be back one day.

Panama Travelling

Marinated Crab Cramps

I had intended to write this final post from Panama whilst sitting in a hammock on the veranda of our incredible cabana in Bocas del Toro but our time there turned out to be so much fun and we made so many new friends that I just ran out of time. So here I am, sitting squashed into an aeroplane seat down the back of an Iberia flight to Madrid, trying to write with my eyes closed so I can remember what it was like this morning.

More of that later – my blog is nothing if not chronological so I must cast my mind back even further to bring you up to date.

After a very sweaty walk up the hills on our island near Boca Chica to see the howler monkeys we waved goodbye to Cala Mia. While I paid the bill, I asked one of the original staff of the resort how they were finding the new management. “You’ve seen”, he shrugged, raising an eyebrow and glancing in the direction of the whirling French lady with the wild look in her eyes. And with that, we boarded the boat and returned to the mainland, wondering what the future holds for the locals that work there.

A frenetic taxi driver took us to the city of David in double quick time and we picked up a 4×4 from the airport which would take us up to the mountains for a few days.

We’d booked a bungalow which had a kitchenette so we stopped on the way to buy some steak and sausages. However, when we arrived, the Canadian owner asked us how we were planning on cooking them as the place had no cooking facilities beyond a toaster and a microwave! Tricky.

One of the friendliest people we have met in Panama, Jane – the owner of the Coffee State Inn in Boquete – simply took our food into her house, and cooked it for us. The steak in Panama is pretty poor as it turns out but it was nice not to have to eat in a restaurant for a change.

Perched on the side of a hill overlooking the town of Boquete and Volcan Baru, at a height of 1500m, Barry and Jane’s guest house is a good deal cooler than the rest of Panama which was quite a relief.

The morning brought fine weather and superb views so we set off for a hike up one side of the volcano. A short drive took us to the start of the trail, we paid the $5 fee and drove on, as instructed by Jane before we left. As we bounced around, slipping from boulder to boulder, the wheels seemingly spinning independently from one another, we began to wonder whether we’d driven too far. Eventually, we cracked as the road turned steeply downhill and the rocks got bigger so we parked up and started to walk. The trail entered the jungle and we began to climb but, after half an hour or so, we came to what looked like an impassable obstacle – a raging river littered with large rocks. Eventually, we were helped across by an American guy with skin like leather who’d been camping in the jungle. He lent us his walking sticks to balance and, once across, hacked an enormous branch off a nearby tree with his two foot long cutlass and hid it in the jungle for us to use on our return. Standard.

Thanks to Action Man, the crossing was much easier on the way back and eventually, exhausted, we drove back to town for some dinner at Big Daddy’s. Wow. A portion of onion rings to share arrived – around 15 of them, enormous, smothered in batter, devoured in seconds. Fish tacos followed, with rice and beans, gone in the blink of an eye. In and out in less than an an hour, we fell into bed feeling good.

The next morning, Barry took us on a tour of their small coffee plantation. The man is a font of knowledge on all things from cleaner ants to the optimum altitude for growing every plant under the sun – fascinating. With the smell of newly roasted coffee in our nostrils, we set off for another walk, this time up the main trail that leads to the top of the volcano. We made it to a view point half way up and came back down but it was well worth it and, to reward ourselves, we returned to Big Daddy’s for the exact same meal. Superb.

Feeling refreshed by the cool air, the next morning we took a taxi the 3 hours over the mountains to Bocas del Toro. A couple of boat rides later we arrived at our final destination, a small resort on the island of Bastimentos called Al Natural.

The last 5 days of our trip were spent there and these days will live long in the memory.

First, the place itself. Picture an island covered in jungle and mangrove swamps with a strip of golden sand around the edge. Surrounded on 3 sides by jungle, the front of the traditional wood and bamboo huts are perched over the beach and open to the elements. The walls of the huts are only 3/4 height and so you are essentially sleeping outdoors. The bathroom is in a kind of annex-hut, and contains a living tree which is thrusting up through the floor boards and out through the roof. You sleep and wake to the sound of the sea along with the constant noise of the jungle – birds tweeting, monkeys running around on the roof, insects, err, making whatever noises insects make. The place is called al Natural for a reason.

At breakfast, lunch and dinner, you eat with the other guests at one long table. The guests come and go and the atmosphere is always changing. There always seems to be someone interesting to talk to.

When we arrived, a Canadian couple gave us the lowdown on the place as they’d been there for a few days already. Don’t leave fruit in your room, bats will find it. Be careful of scorpions in your shoes. There were monkeys that came down from the trees at dinner time, tempted by the daily offer of bananas provided by the owners. There was a myriad of different birds and Annika even caught sight of a caiman (a small crocodile) in the mangroves behind our hut. She was assured that they couldn’t climb the stairs and get in but that didn’t stop her wondering.

On the boat over to the resort from Bocas Town, we’d met a Chilean couple who had recently got married and were on their honeymoon. There are many couples who would prefer to spend their honeymoon away from other people. Not Daniela and Nahuel. Or at least we hope they didn’t as we spent a lot of the week with them and had a lot of laughs.

During our time there, we convinced them to teach us a new word, in Spanish, every day. Day one, the word was ‘calambres’ – cramps. Day two brought us ‘cangrejo’ – crab. By the end of the week, we also had ‘adobado’ – marinated and ‘ojas’ – leaves. I’m sure there were more but our favourite was probably the one that we learnt on the boat dock in the dark. Only this one was invented by Annika.

Once the night had fallen, torches were fetched and we all headed for the pier. A few seconds was spent shining a light into the black water before turning them off to see huge areas of plankton glowing neon in response. It was a truly magical sight and caused a slightly inebriated Annika to proclaim that it was ‘Chuleta!’, a word she remembered reading in the guide book that she thought meant ‘Excellent!’. Sadly, as Daniela pointed out, it actually means ‘pork steak’ but the exclamation stuck and was used to express surprise, delight or joy whenever the chance arose.

During our time there, we did two dives and some snorkelling, saw dolphins and flying fish and circumnavigated a nearby uninhabited island on foot. We met more great people including a group of Spanish, a group of French and a German/Slovenian couple who run a restaurant near Barcelona. The Belgian owner of the place joined us for the last two nights and the food, cooked mainly by the dive master from the US and the Argentinian barman was superb.

It was a brilliant end to our holiday. Chuleta, in fact.

Panama Travelling

Happy Children, Terrifying Boats And Fawlty Towers

During our travels, we have been on quite a few trips to see the local indigenous people. Sadly, we have become quite jaded by some of these encounters, having found that many of the people see the tourists as wandering cash dispensers and concentrate much more on fleecing them than welcoming them and talking to them. It often feels as though you’ve come to gawp at their lack of civilisation and they try and capitalise on the presence of the rich Westerners.

The Kuna people, however, are quite different. We were shown around their village by a local girl who, it turned out, was returning home for the holidays from her degree which she was studying in South Korea.

The first word that sprang to mind when we started walking down the main street was ‘children’. Wow, do these people have children. Seven or eight each apparently. There were children everywhere – playing games, throwing balls, chattering, standing staring, walking on their hands whilst trying to kick each other with bare feet – the place was like an enormous crèche. Apparently, 60% of the 3,000 people in the community are children. It gave the whole place a feeling of fun rather than the distrust, shifty looks and hard selling we’d experienced in similar villages around the world. Cheerful, high-pitched shouts of ‘Hola!’ were regularly heard as we wandered around, often from unseen faces, hidden behind bamboo walls of local houses. Yes, we were sold some local crafts but weren’t pushed into it and we both felt more than happy to contribute to the local community when the time came for an appeal at the end of the trip.

A slight dampener was put on the trip by the two travel journalists we were with though, who struggled to see why the locals might not like to have their photos taken without asking permission and who, as soon as they discovered that the community had free, open wifi in the village (provided by the government), immediately checked their iPhones for emails.

Still, the whole two days in the San Blas islands was thoroughly enjoyable and we wished we could have stayed longer. However, we had a flight to catch, so the next morning we were ferried across to the ‘airport’ and boarded the tiny plane back to Panama City. After helping one of the local ladies to fasten her seatbelt (I had to intervene when I noticed she was trying to insert the material part of it into the metal buckle) and a quick stop on another, even smaller airstrip, we were back in Panama City.

And didn’t we know it. The glum faces, the monosyllabic staff, the refusal to accept a $20 note for something that cost $13, we were back alright. But not for long, luckily.

We took a cramped bus to Las Tablas and from there, on to Pedasi on the coast. Unfortunately, I had consumed something that didn’t agree with me so the journey was painful – and the next 3 days were quite slow and uneventful due to my lack of energy.

We were under the impression that Pedasi was quite a funky little place by the sea but there wasn’t much there apart from retirement villages being built for rich Americans. We were woken at 5am the first morning by the regular beeps of dumper trucks reversing as the incessant obsession with construction in this country continues. As it turned out they were laying the road outside, which Annika discovered to her cost (and fury) when she popped to town to get me some pills, only to return covered in tar which took a long time and a lot of effort to remove.

After a couple of days doing very little, we decided to venture out to a nearby island for the day. The boats to Isla Iguanas leave from Playa Arenal – a good hour long walk away. As we walked down the beach into the gale force wind, I couldn’t help but notice the enormous waves topped by frothy white horses. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of boats as it is, so I was secretly pleased that it was looking less and less likely that we would be spending any time on one, especially when we got close enough to see the life-jacketed fools who’d been convinced to travel as they were thrown around on the way out.

We sat in a bar and had some food. It was a shame we wouldn’t see the uninhabited island but such was life. At least we wouldn’t drown.

Then, Annika changed her mind. Someone had told her that the sea was ‘tranquillo’ and we’d be fine so, after a swift negotiation with a boat owner, we were off.

I clung on for dear life and tried to focus on one part of the boat but what followed was terrifying . The approach to each wave was preceded by what became a portentous reduction of the engine speed, the driver trying to minimise the impact as we flew into the air at ridiculous angles and slammed back into the water. It was like sitting in a motorised bathtub that was being driven into a brick wall at 20 miles an hour every 5 seconds for half an hour. When we eventually arrived, it took me a while before I could uncurl my fingers properly, I’d been hanging on so tightly. We’d been taken to a stunning island in the Pacific Ocean with white sandy beaches and azure sea but all I could think about was the fact that at some point, I had to go through that again.

The island is named after the iguanas that roam the place, fairy oblivious to the 20 or so tourists that had invaded their world but there are also millions of tiny land crabs (I think) which scuttle around in the undergrowth making a combined chattering sound. It was all very nice but we had that return journey to do. Luckily, the opposite direction proved to be the ‘right’ way to travel and the trip was quite nice really. The odd feeling of surfing the enormous waves was much more fun than attacking them, I must say.

Next morning, we left on what was the longest day of travelling on this trip – from Pedasi to Isla Boca Brava – which would involve a taxi to Chitre, a bus from there to Santiago, another bus to Horconcitos, a taxi to Boca Chica and a boat to the island.

Now that is how long days of travelling in foreign countries should be. If that was how it usually was, I’d never had spent so much time complaining when we went around the world. All the connections worked out perfectly, the buses were all quite comfortable and we weren’t ripped off by anyone. I even bought one of the bus tickets myself, using one of the 14 words of Spanish I know!

Our hotel here has apparently just changed management and it really shows. We’ve been here for 4 days and we still don’t really know how it all works round here. The hyper-active French lady who appears to manage the place seems to spend half of her time looking after the local children and the other half barking instructions in French to the Spanish-speaking staff who must be nostalgic for their previous boss. It’s a lovely place, but it has a touch of the Fawlty Towers about it.

We’ve done precisely nothing while we’ve been here. It’s incredibly hot, even at night, and there are only certain times of the day when there is any breeze so it’s hard to motivate yourself to do anything. However, we are about to go on a walk to see if we can catch sight of the noisy howler monkeys nearby that give the impression of evil horrors taking place in the jungle.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Boquete, in the high mountains, where we should get some relief from the heat and do some more walking.

Panama Travelling

Big Ships And Hairy Landings

It wasn’t our first choice. It wasn’t even second. But for some reason, we are in Panama on a 3 week holiday.

The original plan was to go to Burma but the political situation still seemed a little fragile so we postponed that idea. Our thoughts then turned to Central America.

We enjoyed Honduras and Guatemala so much when we were travelling and had vowed to see some more of this area so we looked into Costa Rica but eventually decided against it as it sounded a bit too developed for our tastes. So in the end, we went for Panama.

The trip took an age to plan due to some severe ineptitude from us both. Somehow, planning 3 weeks’ travelling seemed harder than organising 7 months but we got there in the end.

With 3 days to go before we left though, getting there was thrown into doubt by the British weather. The forecast of light snow in the West turned to heavy snow everywhere by the day before our flight and insurance policies were checked. Fortunately, it eased off for a time though and our only delay was caused by some passengers whose luggage had boarded the plane without its owners.

Despite the fact that we were seated next to a small, potentially noisy baby, the flight to Miami passed in relative comfort. Which is more than can be said about the trip from there to Panama, which will be remembered for the ear-piercing shrieking of a child nearby who dealt with the change of air pressure as we descended by repeatedly throwing up into a bag.

Travel fatigue had set in by the time we climbed into a taxi headed for the city, exacerbated by the eon that it took to clear customs due to Tocumen Airport insisting on security scanning everyone’s bags on the way out!

Our apartment was shown to us by a grumpy man and we headed to a local bar, scoffed a pizza and a beer and fell into bed at 1am, 22 hours after leaving Brixton.

The next morning, we decided to investigate the district of Panama City that we were staying in, pausing only briefly to deflect the attentions of our first attempted con. Ah, the old “it’s my birthday” scam – how we’ve missed you.

Casco Viejo is the old part of the city and has more than a touch of the Havana’s about it. Crumbling colonial buildings, until recently the home of the poorest in uncared-for slums, are slowly being expertly restored by property developers. Whether the residents are simply evicted, it’s hard to say, but my guess is that the new wealth here is not that evenly distributed.

We spent the day wandering around the town and the afternoon on the roof terrace of our apartment, sipping rum and coke and reading.

We had three goals to achieve the next day. Eat some ceviche in the cafe above the fish market, find out how to get train tickets to Colon and see the original European settlement in Panama – Panama Viejo. All were achieved but it was hard going.

The fish market was eventually found and prawns and sea bass bought for dinner, but the discovery that the cafe upstairs didn’t have any ceviche was a surprising one. Where on earth would they be able to get the fish from?!

Lunch consumed, we set off in search of the tourist information office, but this turned out to be nothing but the base for some very unhelpful tourist police who gave us some clearly made-up directions to a non-existent information office.

An old US school bus thumping with Panamanian beats ferried us round the bay, through the main business district of the city to Panama Viejo, which turned out to be quite underwhelming, the local government having seen fit to build a road through the middle of the buildings that were destroyed by the marauding pirates under the command of Captain Morgan in the 18th century.

On our way home, we stopped at the headquarters of the tourist information centre to find out about the train, only to find the usual glum-faced, confused staff that have typified Panama so far. Shrugs, monosyllabic replies and, crucially, no information were delivered so we threw in the towel, realising that the Internet would be more forthcoming.

Our dinner consisted of ceviche along with home cooked prawns and sea bass in a garlic and tomato sauce, eaten on the terrace with a bottle of wine – superb.

The next morning began at 5.30am as the train to Colon, along the banks of the Panama Canal, left at 7.15. The hour long journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic was principally a tourist trip and tour groups were rife. Some amusing jostling for position followed whenever container ships appeared briefly through the jungle undergrowth and being touristed was getting on our nerves. But the worst thing was the feeling that the canal wasn’t anywhere near as amazing as I thought it would be. I had imagined lines of huge ships, queuing their way across the isthmus but precious few were spotted.

Once in Colon however, we hired a taxi to take us to Gatun Locks and suddenly things picked up. First of all our taxi driver, Victor, was a really nice man – could it be that some Panamanians were actually friendly? But the main reason for the lift in my spirits was the locks themselves.

To think that these things were built 100 years is astonishing. To all intents and purposes, these are normal canal locks, similar to those you see barges passing through as they wind their way through the English countryside. Except they are MASSIVE.

Ships the height of a 7-storey building, carrying around 4000 enormous containers slide into locks which allow less than two feet of clearance either side, guided by four trains – two either side – which prevent them from bumping into the sides. Water pours in, raising the small floating city of consumerism to the next level and on they go. We watched all this for an hour and a half from a platform virtually within touching distance of the cargo. Incredible.

I could have stayed there for hours, mesmerised by the sheer mind-numbing size of it all but time was moving on, so we bid Victor farewell and took a bus back to our apartment for some more ceviche, a rubbish steak dinnerand an early night.

And an early morning. 4am to be precise. Our time in Panama City was over as we had a 6am flight to the San Blas Islands.

I knew the plane would be small but this was ridiculous. I counted 21 seats and that included the two pilots who didn’t have a separate cockpit as such – they just had the two front seats really.

The flight was bumpy at times as the cloud built up and I think we were both a little perturbed when one of the local Kuna people actually had a chat to someone on her mobile phone half way through. I was quite keen to land by this point and as it turns out, my wish was the captain’s command – assuming my wish was the most terrifying landing possible.

I was first aware of our impending arrival when the strong smell of fuel filled my nostrils as the plane angled towards the ground. Well, angled towards the trees really. Then suddenly, we took a sharp right turn and I realised that we were falling fast and the tops of the trees were meters away. With no runway or indeed, anything other than trees, in sight, we then swung left and, just when I’d come to the conclusion that we were done for and that our bodies would probably never be found in the thick jungle, we landed. Barely a minute later, we were standing on the tarmac of the runway at Playon Chico – alive.

A short boat trip later and we were on the island of Yandup, our home for the next two days. The entire island consists of 10 circular cabins, most of which are on stilts over the turquoise water, a small restaurant, the staff cabins, a generator and a water tower and is no more than 200m by 150m.

Yesterday we visited another small island and today we hope to go to the local Kuna village to gawp at the natives and, I would imagine, fend off their sales patter. We shall see.

Other than that, it’s just been reading, sleeping- and blogging of course.

The people here are much more cheerful than those in the city so we’re hoping that it was a bit of a city thing in PC. Tomorrow morning, we fly back there but only so that we can take a bus to Pedasi on the Pacific coast where we have a b&b for 3 nights which is where this will be posted from, I expect. Not much in the way of electronic communications round these parts.