Dateline: Beneath the English Channel

That’s right: I’m currently underwater AND underground. I’m aboard the Eurostar, the high-speed train from London to Paris, after a couple of days in the UK. I had originally planned to head to Scotland after my days on Polar Bear, but it turned out that my sister-in-law and two eldest nieces were going to Paris, so I figured I’d join them there for a bit. Since I was always planning on heading to France while over here in Europe, this development simply sped up the process.

The two-plus days in London were interesting. It’s been — gulp — 35 years since I was last in the city, and that visit was for about 24 hours or so, as best as I can recall. I remember playing rounders, a precursor to baseball, in a park with a bunch of locals who were the children of a friend of my mother’s, and I remember being the clich√© boorish American — even at 10 years of age. I was yelling and screaming and win-win-win and…ugh. I recoil to this day at the image of my behavior.

This time, I was slightly more subdued. The emphasis on this visit, however, like the last one was sports: I caught two English Premier League matches in two days, and was thoroughly entranced by both.

In the first, a sunny afternoon at Craven Cottage saw Fulham host Blackburn. Craven Cottage is pastoral site for a football match, with swans and rowers passing alongside on the Thames making the scene all the more scenic. The match played out to a 1-1 draw; not surprising since neither team is exactly setting the Premiership on fire at the start of this season.

One other point worth mentioning about the match: the moment of silence observed before the opening kickoff to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tourist attacks was without question the most sincere and deeply moving moment of silence I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. Perhaps that was due to the fact that there was an American, Clint Dempsey, on the pitch, but whatever the reason, it moved me to tears. Indeed, the memory of the sincerity of the local fans in their gesture is getting me choked up now.

Last night, the 12th of September, I caught the Queens Park Rangers-versus-Newcastle United match at the former’s Loftus Road stadium. “Cozy” is putting it mildly: at Loftus Road I had neighbors’ elbows in both sides, knees in my back and head at my knees — and I had paid for good seats.¬†And good seats they were: at midfield, about six such rows from the pitch, on which there was less than a meter to the touchline.

I’ve been a fan of the Premier League to varying degrees for a while now, but seeing the players this close made the game a whole new experience for me. Full disclosure: I was always a horrible soccer player. Truly awful. So I’m not trying to build the pros up because I fancy myself as being just a notch below them. But the fact remains: watching the skills of those players and the precision with which they played the game was hypnotic. The split-second timing and execution was magnificent — and we’re not talking about a lot of international-caliber players in this particular game. Color me way more impressed than I was before.

This match ended in a 0-0 draw, somewhat surprising since Newcastle is off to a great start this season and Queens Park featured five new signees playing their first match for the squad.

While both games ended up in kissing-your-sister outcomes, the experiences made the trip so worth the venture. The cozy parks where the games were played were like cleaned-up versions of the pitch where your kids play. Craven Cottage and Loftus Road are such intimate venues that they make Fenway Park seem like the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

Beyond the football, I cruised the underground (which is not, as Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda” believed, a terrorist organzation), drank Guinness on tap, wandered Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square and Covent Gardens and Trafalgar Square, and got the next stages of my European travels in order.

Which has led me here: racing across the French countryside at…how fast? Two hundred miles an hour? Whatever the speed, it was slightly unnerving as we stormed through southeastern England at that pace, the buildings and highways whirring by in a blur. Here in France, the farms and fields and villages — all with red, ceramic-roofed homes and a stone church with steeple — are more easily digested, visually, than the mayhem of urban and suburban England.

Which brings up another point I wanted to make: I rode a train into London on Sunday from Oxfordshire, northwest of London. I’d spent the night in a tiny little inn above a pub in a tiny little village out there in the English countryside. It was a wonderful place to stay and I felt oh-so-propah driving to the train station in the sun the next morning. All I needed was a tweed jacket, some leather driving gloves and a wool cap and I’d have made the very picture of a gent.

But what caught my attention was this: we were a brief, hour-long train ride from the heart of London, and yet this was full-on rural countryside. And that’s when it hit me: freeways are the scourge of the United States. If I’d been back in the U.S., that area would have been infested with subdivisions, strip malls and shopping centers, the farms and fields having long since been paved over. And why? Because we’d have built a couple of God-awful freeways enabling suburbia to sprawl out there, bedroom communities sprouting like mushrooms from a dung heap.

Instead, driving in the UK is a more genteel activity. Slower, to be sure, but less stressful than back home. Granted, it’s a much smaller country so taking your time still enables you to cover the length and breadth of the place fairly quickly. But lacking the sterile and utilitarian blacktop that we have in the U.S. has helped the UK retain its non-urban areas. I feel kinda sorry for us after having experienced what a viable rail system can do for a country.

Or countries, plural. This high-speed thing is awesome: comfortable, clean and without all the hassles of airports and snotty security people and indifferent airlines. I could get used to traveling like this.

And perhaps I shall. I’ll spend six days in Paris (where I rented a small house, a cheaper and better option than a hotel room) and then head on to Munich, where I’ve not been since I was playing hockey near there back, oh, 21 or 22 years ago. And I’ll be there for Oktoberfest, no less. Just a coincidence, I assure you. After that, we shall see.

But for now, my destination is the Gare du Nord in Paris in an hour-and-change, so to get in the spirit I’ve been enjoying a little vin rouge avec a croissant. Oh la la!

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