Getting back on the road for another soccer tour of England: a series of moments, some familiar, some refreshingly new, some worrisome, but all more interesting than the alternative.
I look back at my apartment and think, “Well, if I don’t have it now, I’ll have to go without it.” There’s that little rush of walking down to the bus stop, starting a process that will end, in this case, with me sitting down at a soccer game, across the Atlantic Ocean, in … well, some damn time. The hours don’t matter at this point.
On the train to the airport, I see the other travelers and wonder how, right now, we’re all next to each other, and by this time tomorrow we may be scattered all over the world. I check in, say “See you later” to my luggage, and then — a fine tradition — exactly three minutes later realize I left something in there that I wish I had. In this case, it’s the headphones. Right before 14 hours of travel. Sigh.
The first flight is routine, but on the second I absolutely score: two empty seats between me and the window, from San Francisco to Heathrow! As soon as they say the doors are closed, I slide over and spread out. Nice start to the trip!
Remarkably, and for some unknown reason, I sleep most of the way, trying not to feel resentment when I wake up and realize somebody has moved into my aisle seat and taken the second blanket that was there. I remember the Louis CK bit about people on airplanes complaining that the WiFi doesn’t work, when we ought to be screaming, “Holy shit, I’m going 600 miles an hour, 30,000 feet off the ground!”
Arriving over London, I look around for the landmarks, in my case football grounds. I spot Wembley, which means we’re coming in from the north …
… and then I see The Emirates …
… then I look up and see The City …
… and I realize that the Travel Gods have lined up something special for today. Sure enough, we swing over the East End and then make a long slow turn right over central London, with me on the right side of the plane for an absolutely sublime experience: flying over London on a clear day.
I manage to spot Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage, and Griffin Park, along with all the non-football sites like Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, The Eye, and so on. I missed Loftus Road, but to be honest, I didn’t think to look for it. Still, what a marvel of human accomplishment London is. Or a disaster. Or both.
Here’s the video:
You know you’re having a good travel day when you get that experience, and then you get through customs, baggage claim, over to the bus station and onto a bus in one hour. I was beginning to feel mighty good about this trip. And, with all that sleep, I stayed awake all the way to Oxford!
Thanks to a bit of preparation, I knew which stop to get off at, and how to walk over to the hotel. I was tempted mightily by a Nando’s but opted instead to head for the ground. I dropped my stuff at the hotel, where the clerk told me he only likes soccer for the players’ beautiful bodies, and I said that my girlfriend agrees with him. With everyone properly oriented, I hopped the bus to the ground.
More travel traditions: the grumpy bus driver, annoyed by me and my questions, much less the fact that I can’t understand him, nor can he understand me.
Another: Spotting the colors on the bus. Want to find the ground? Follow the colors.
And then the soccer-ball sign:
And another: spotting the ground for the first time.
Next: The burger truck.
I got a double cheeseburger, slathered it with brown, sunk my teeth in, and decided it was horrible and overpriced, as well as utterly and completely perfect. Also perfect: it’s starting to rain.
At the ticket window, I was told it’s £28 to sit just above the Directors, on the midfield stripe, and £24 to sit anywhere else. So, uh, yeah; I’ll take midfield stripe.
I take a walk around the ground, marvel at the Bradford City fans who came down for the game, who will get back home around 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, and look for the club shop, which turns out to be a table in the “reception” area, which, in turn, is a fluorescent-lit room with an understaffed bar.
At the tail end of my journey, I shuffle through the turnstile, and I’m back home. My home over here anyway: a football ground, surrounded by fans, and imbued with the eternal sense of hope, nerves and anticipation. I get a hot chocolate, file it in the same categories as the burger, and chuckle that the lad at the register wasn’t sure if they take cards or not. Did I mention Oxford United are in League One? Welcome to the Small Time.
I find my seat, think as always that there are eyes upon me, wondering who’s the bloke sitting alone, or who’s that in their mate’s seat, and I wish, once again, that I had a travel buddy.
Just then, the announcer says something through the crackling speakers, some music starts, and the teams come out. And, just 24 hours after looking back at my apartment, I’m in England, and another game is about to kick off.