Football’s paying a quick visit home before it has to get going

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The World Cup! For a long time I didn’t care about football at all, and then in 2010 I decided I was going to care about football once every four years, and here we are in 2018 with an unusual number of England games to watch and esprit de corps and so on.

This country certainly doesn’t stop for the World Cup… indeed, it’s markedly less visible this time around compared to when I arrived in 2014 and the US team was doing unexpectedly well. But Randi and I have seen quite a few matches with a variety of people, including with Lauri (escapee from the suburbs!) in her swanky high-rise apartment, England vs. Sweden last weekend when Randi’s family friends Elana and Steve sportingly agreed to come over for a 9am kick-off, and this morning’s anti-climactic third-place consolation match at Karol’s birthday brunch-and-football gathering.

And yes, I am basically inclined to like international competitions. Most of us have these national identities, so we might as well put them to better use than trade wars/actual wars. It’s fun to learn about the fates of the Chilean and Argentinian teams with Francisco and Gonzalo over burgers at Au Cheval. (Side note: holy hell, those burgers are great. I had forgotten this lesson from last time.) It’s enjoyable to sit at the people-with-visas table at Robert’s 4th July party (America!) and have an immediate reference point  for conversation which is not all about visas. It’s… well, it’s an experience when our seventy-something French landlord lets himself into our flat and starts yelling jaunty French propaganda at me when I’m trying to concentrate on a work call.

The point is: the World Cup has been great, there are much worse choices than football to be your national sport, and despite England’s exit I am looking forward to the final tomorrow. I presume my landlord is too.

One of many World Cup gam.... ur, matches

One of many World Cup gam…. ur, matches

Obviously I haven’t been playing any football myself (Years Of My Life Where PE Lessons Were Compulsory: 2000-2004) but I have been enjoying the type of game which you can sit down at a table to play. For example, with Chloe and Aaron we played Catan again (after far too long!) and Chrononauts, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek card game where you rewrite the historical timeline for nefarious ends. Kicking the nerd level up a gear, with Jason and Carrie we played Gloomhaven, which is all the rage, although it is essentially D&D for people without the time or energy to play D&D.

Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven

I have also seen a bunch of good things recently:

  • Our flat has very much been enjoying The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. (Sometimes we have been enjoying it with homemade ice cream, which is a great accompaniment.)
  • On Wednesday night we made up for England’s semi-final defeat with a cheeky Nando’s and a movie, Ocean’s 8, with Ellen and Lou. Ocean’s 8 is a super fun comedy heist film, which has (per Wikipedia) a “routine storyline” because it’s a comedy heist film for goodness sake. Spoiler alert: they successfully steal things. The film also has an entirely female lead cast, and it is striking how much you notice that, as opposed to an entirely male cast which (for these characters) would not stand out. Recommended.
  • Who should I blame for never having taken me to a Gilbert & Sullivan opera before? Isn’t this something my parents should have done? Or do I have only myself to blame, given that Sideshow Bob’s performance in The Simpsons has made it obvious for years that this was something to look into. Anyway, thanks to Catherine and AJ (mostly Catherine), this 29-year drought was ended on Friday night with The Pirates of Penzance. It’s so good! And so silly! +1 to the Victorians.
  • Funny/pathetic story: a few weeks ago I decided it was high time to see a play at the Steppenwolf. So I bought tickets for a grisly two-hander about the legendary bloodshed behind the building of the Taj Mahal. And then about 30 minutes later I realised that I really didn’t want to see a grisly play, and successfully weaselled my way past their “no refunds or exchanges” policy to swap my tickets for a different play on the same day. The alternative on offer turned out to be The Roommate, an ungrisly two-hander about the “comical mismatch” between a “Midwestern nice” woman from Iowa and her new roommate from the Bronx. I’m quoting this intentionally vague description because I would probably not have paid for these Steppenwolf tickets other than through this accidental chain of events. Hooray for serendipity! The performances were amazing, the story took a sharp, unexpected turn which really paid off, and I can now tick the Steppenwolf off my Chicago bucket list with a feeling of satisfaction and no grisliness.

On the subject of Chicago bucket lists: I had already done the Ferris Wheel (sorry, ‘Centennial Wheel’) at the unfairly-maligned Navy Pier, but I was more than happy to do it again with Randi, Arielle and their cousins visiting from Philadelphia. Technically it was a new wheel anyway, which seemed much fancier than my memory of the old one.

On the subject of grisliness: I’m really good at killing flies now. I mean, really good. Our flat had a night of trauma, and as a consequence I can now stalk my fly-prey with the sleek hunting prowess of a big cat.

Last week was a busy one! It started with a relaxed and cheerful evening at Wrigley Field where I showed up to watch a Cubs vs. Dodgers game with Todd, Carolyn and Kevin (note, Todd, that no Oxford comma is remotely necessary) which was, to be honest, not really diminished at all by the cancellation – due to rain – of any actual playing of baseball. That’s not intended to be a dig at baseball. It’s more a tribute to the atmosphere and the company.

The next day I turned 29 (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it is a prime number) and I celebrated with Randi and Amanda by going back to Red Square for dinner. It holds a special yet frightening place in our hearts because after meeting Amanda for the first time and showing her around her prospective apartment home, almost two years ago, we had all walked together along Division Street and decided to “get to know each other” over pierogi. As we walked in, the owner (or, if not the owner, an enthusiastic ambassador) put his arms around my shoulder and invited me (and only me) to the baths downstairs. I declined, somewhat fearfully, and we quickly retreated to the outside tables… but the pierogi were good! This time we escaped without any kidnapping attempts, and I returned home in one piece to enjoy Randi’s amazing homemade chocolate cake.

On Wednesday evening I grabbed a beer with Jonah, who had been sending stalkerish photos of Chicago over WhatsApp, and on the following night I was due for Birthday Dinner #2 at Spacca Napoli Pizzeria with Randi, Catherine and AJ. This was good pizza. If you’re looking for a place which is respectably fancy enough for a birthday dinner, but deep down all your heart desires is pizza, this is your place.

OK, enough prelude, let’s get to Virginia.

Downtown Charlottesville is pedestrianised!

Downtown Charlottesville is pedestrianised!

Charlottesville is a large town (sorry, an ‘independent city’) with a wonderfully pedestrianised downtown area, a historic university and the sort of vibe which produces colourful markets, boutique shops and RBG fridge magnets. So I was very glad we had a good reason for a long weekend visit, together with Villy, to see this for myself and undo some of the mental association between the words ‘Charlottesville’ and ‘murderous Nazi rally’.

The other famous association is with Thomas Jefferson and his plantation at Monticello, which we also visited. As with our visit to a plantation in Charleston, it’s difficult to square the workings of a tourist site (gift shop, shuttle bus, tour tickets) with the fundamental horrors of slavery. It’s even more complicated at Monticello since, whatever you think of Thomas Jefferson (and I am not a fan, for multiple reasons) he’s clearly a historical figure of huge significance and talent.

I can say that the presentation was more historically honest than in Charleston. We were probably lucky in our guide, a University of Virginia student. For example, during the tour of Jefferson’s house, and after giving equal prominence to Jefferson’s acknowledged and unacknowledged children, she shot down one man’s suggestion that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s “mistress” or “special friend” with a firm “no, she was his slave”. It was a small moment, but a brave one, because it’s not an easy thing to risk a confrontation like that when your job is on the line.

Talking of workplace confrontations: in a Charlottesville taproom I caught up with Brett, a volunteer we met on the 2016 Hillary campaign in Toledo, for a non-hypothetical discussion about what to do when a colleague truly believes that the Earth is flat. True story.

Announcement: I don't like Thomas Jefferson

Announcement: I don’t like Thomas Jefferson

Probably mid-MASH

Probably mid-MASH

The aforementioned ‘good reason’ for being in Charlottesville was the wedding of Chelsea (Randi and Villy’s middle school friend) and Daniel. Congratulations to them! The wedding took place outdoors at a winery which was both incredibly beautiful and very, very sunny. Fortunately, fans were provided. It was also great fun to hang out with Villy, who was very helpful and responsive to my emergency questions whilst doing last-minute shirt shopping at Charlottesville’s TJ Maxx.

Villy, Randi and me at Chelsea and Daniel’s wedding

Villy, Randi and me at Chelsea and Daniel’s wedding

The setting was beautiful (and hot)

I’m proud of this photo

Despite prior forecasts, we never required tents to shelter from rain

Despite prior forecasts, we never required tents to shelter from rain

It's been a while since I was last in DC

It’s been a while since I was last in DC

Finally, on Sunday morning we got the early morning Amtrak to Washington DC and spent the day with Randi’s cousin Ben. Randi’s patience for taking photos around famous DC monuments has worn very thin in the current era, so instead I will use this photo of a much younger me outside the Washington Monument from 1999. At least the monument itself has greatly improved!

The highlight of this day trip – other than meeting Ben – was seeing the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. To build anticipation we counted up through the portraits of the 42 previous Presidential office holders first, passing a swift-but-fair judgement on them all in turn. FDR had a line drawing of Stalin in the bottom left, which seems a little unfair.

Randi and Ben at the WW2 Memorial in DC

Randi and Ben at the WW2 Memorial in DC

The sci-fi dystopia to haunt your dreams and/or the Washington Metro

The sci-fi dystopia to haunt your dreams and/or the Washington Metro

To conclude, here is a transcribed exchange between an elderly couple over breakfast:

“Why are we feeling like this?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’ve never felt like this before.”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re feeling homesick too though?”
“Maybe we’re just getting old.”
“No doubt about that.”
Android lawn statues

Android lawn statues

I spent most of last week working from Palo Alto and was joined by Robert and Shelby who also flew in from Chicago. While nobody could begrudge a quiet night in at the Comfort Inn Motel, it was definitely more fun to go out and spend my evenings in Antonio’s Nut House with these guys instead. After they left I also took the opportunity one evening to walk to Mountain View and poke around Google’s headquarters, which I had never seen before. It reminded me very much of the campus at UC Santa Cruz: all young people milling about in shorts and brightly coloured bikes against a background of hills, nature reserves and an epic showdown between grey and black squirrels.

Why bother to wander around what is – at the end of the day – a collection of office buildings? It’s the same reason you’d visit the imperial palace in Vienna or Wall Street in New York: it’s a centre of power, whether it’s dressed up with the grandeur of royalty, the crassness of banking or the chillaxed stylings of Silicon Valley. It’s a single spot which sucks in wealth, talent and knowledge from all over the globe. And I’m torn, because I do like the aesthetic. I’d also rather be in t-shirts than suits, rather see a smiling Android statue than a soldier. But it’s still a superpower, and deserves a careful eye.

Intriguingly, there’s a small row of small non-Google houses right in the middle of the Googleplex which look very out of place. I googled them (obviously) and here is their story. It includes the phrase “a handful of eclectic renters”.

The Impossible Burger in more ways than one

The Impossible Burger in more ways than one

After finishing at the Android lawn statues I left the complex, crossed back over the motorway and sat down to ponder all this at In-N-Out Burger (“now paying a $16/hour wage!”). Even though Californian law seems to require calorie counts to be printed in blindingly white lights, I held fast and supplemented my pondering with a double-double burger, animal style fries and a chocolate milkshake. Take that, land of salads.

But what if you want your giant burgers a little more… vegan? Enter Christa, who was in town this weekend, and the Impossible Burger at Kuma’s! After filling up on Friday night we had an equally enjoyable Saturday walking it off around Lincoln Park, the lakefront, Pride events in Boystown, a secluded lily pond and Wrigley Field. And of course, for the full Chicago experience we finished the day with Improv Shakespeare (Death By Chocolate). It was so great to have Christa swing by, instantly form a deep and lasting bond with both apartment cats, and experience the city in its truly summery mode.

Christa and Randi at the secret lily pool

Christa and Randi at the secret lily pool

And finally:

  • In keeping with my tradition of PIXAR on planes, I finally saw Coco and enjoyed it very much. Please note that 100% of my knowledge about the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ holiday now comes from this film, so I hope it was at least somewhat accurate.
  • I shared my ride home on Thursday night with two other passengers, one of whom worked for American Airlines as a flight attendant. I think ‘flight attendant’ is one of those inherently interesting jobs which just invites questions about the behind-the-scenes world of planes, and I learnt many interesting snippets.
  • The pool in Pulaski Park has reopened, and at 33°C today was a great day for it 🙂
Our local pool

Our local pool

This is the post that no one will see and no one will read, because it won’t show up in anyone’s Facebook feed. The wheezing, creaking old plugin which transposed posts from my blog to Facebook has finally given out, and all of Facebook’s recent and well-publicised disasters have made it harder and harder to integrate with their API. I may have a solution coming, or I may just cut ties. Still, in the course of salvaging all of my historical Facebook ‘likes’ from previous posts, I did discover that 190 separate people have engaged with this blog (at least, enough to press ‘like’ at least once) since I started cross-posting. Thanks guys.

It is worth noting, actually, what a strange position Facebook is in now. I first encountered it when I visited Cambridge on a shadowing scheme in 2006. It was only available to students with a student email address, and it was cleaner and more grown-up than MySpace. I switched over. Then everyone switched over, aside from Joshua. Then everyone’s families switched over, there was that weird FarmVille phase, and gradually the young people (not me, I mean the actual young people) moved elsewhere. But this year we entered a new era, when suddenly every bus stop in Chicago is plastered in a full-length Facebook advert pointing out how miserable it can be and pledging to do better. It’s an odd turn we’ve taken.

In the sun!

In the sun!

Anyway, I’m writing this from the airport en route to Palo Alto after a few weeks of intermittent Chicago sun. The photo above is from Lincoln Park, courtesy of Randi’s fancy new camera. The weekend before – Memorial Day weekend – I got sunburnt sitting on Catherine and AJ’s deck as we grilled burgers. I know you’re really not supposed to say this, but it was totally worth it. I mean, sure, the sun without the burning would have been preferable. But it was a glorious afternoon.

Randi and I were also honoured to be the first visitors to Francisco and Carolina’s new apartment in Chicago, where they welcomed us with Chilean hot dogs and lots of great suggestions about the many, many places we should visit in the world. We also saw The Terminator at Todd and Carolyn’s on Friday night, ticking off yet another film which everyone is incredulous that I haven’t seen. To be honest, it was not exactly what I expected. Sure, the theme tune is good, and the being-chased-by-a-cyborg-slash-future-Governor-of-California is fun, but it felt like a short story rather than a fleshed-out film. And don’t even get me started on the weirdness of your best friend handing you a photo of their long-dead mother in the middle of a war and “falling in love” with her. That’s a red flag.

Side-note: in the generous spirit of a good host, Todd promised to make “whatever drink I wanted”. Being obnoxious, I asked for a Lilt. And, somehow, I ended up with an alcoholic Lilt. Incredible.

I much prefer climbing with the ropes

I much prefer climbing with the ropes

Finally, today we went rock climbing with Catherine and AJ. Unlike last time there were ropes involved, which I greatly prefer, and even though I certainly don’t rock climb ‘properly’ (why limit yourself to one colour when there are so many to choose from?) I did feel a great sense of vicarious achievement by watching the others.

As many people reading this will already know – because you were there! – last Saturday was Randi’s surprise 25th birthday party at Carnivale. It had been a stressful two months of constant lying, but everything paid off and it was a completely wonderful evening. There are way too many photos to include here, but obviously a huge thank you to the many, many people who came to celebrate with us or sent videos for my (excessively long) video montage. And special thank yous to:

  • Georgelle, who flew in from New York just for the party, and then stayed up chatting on our sofa until 2am before turning around and getting a super-early flight back.
  • Randi’s parents, who came from California and hung around Chicago sneakily all Saturday.
  • Catherine and AJ, for helping me to organise everything including the venue, food, balloons and emotional support when Randi didn’t understand why we didn’t care about her birthday.
  • Todd for running a traditional Todd Trivia session!
  • Carnivale for being awesome to organise with. And for including those chocolate cannoli. (Amusing moment: when I first visited, the event organiser apologised for the delay in getting back to me, as “we’ve just been so busy with the NRA in town this week”. I was concerned, before she clarified it was the National Restaurant Association.)
  • Jake at Friends First Photography for taking the beautiful photos below. Even though we weren’t a wedding.
Successful surprise!

Successful surprise!

Catherine, AJ, Randi, Taylor and Billy

Catherine, AJ, Randi, Taylor and Billy

Georgelle is a hero and flew in from New York

Georgelle is a hero and flew in from New York

Side-note: the carrot cake in the background was delicious

Side-note: the carrot cake in the background was delicious

Todd adjudicates his trivia

Todd adjudicates his trivia

Randi's parents

Randi’s parents

"Randi, you're short enough to just go in front"

“Randi, you’re short enough to just go in front”

Team flatmates!

Team flatmates!

On Randi’s birthday itself we went to a fundraiser with sloths, and then after the party Randi’s parents stayed in town for the next couple of days, which was lovely. Now I’m largely exhausted and happy to spend an atypical Memorial Day long weekend travelling nowhere and discovering no new states. Last night, however, I did venture out to Todd and Carolyn’s to play Mario Kart with Marte IN WHICH I DID NOT COME LAST (capitalised, bolded, and ready to flag to Amy and Ben) before seeing the new Star Wars film Solo. Which was totally fine, but not very wondrous. And as ever I have some questions about the economics of the Empire which I will spare you all.