Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My International Football Career

I am, to put it mildly, not one of the world's greatest footballers. As a child I would be one of the last people picked in playground matches, and as an adult this record has not improved much since (a) I don't play that often, and (b) I'm still crap. But, for two brief years I was, and I say this with a fair degree of certainty, one of the best players in the country in which I resided. (There is a topical point to this post, so bear with me)

For this we have to go back over ten years now to 1996 (cue twilight-zone-esque music and the wibbly wobbly blurring of the screen as the universal indicator of the flashback). I was living and working in Pohnpei, the capital island of one of the world's lesser known countries, the Federated States of Micronesia. Every evening just before sunset I'd meet up with a few people at PICS Field, which was the only football pitch in Kolonia, the main city, and play a match. Most of us were foreigners of various origins, though there were one or two high school kids who joined us. Among the regulars were a Ugandan guy named Charles Musana, and a wily veteran Ghanaian called Thomas who was over 70 and who could still play a midfield anchor role, standing near the centre circle spraying passes around with unerring accuracy. Other nationalities typically represented included Japanese, Fijian, French, Australian and US American. On one occasion we organised an island wide tournament on a weekend, and we had 5 teams that got together - three high school teams, a team of Fijians, and my team of expats, originally called "The Internationals". For reasons that I can no longer remember, we decided to organise the tournament in such a way that we started off with two first round matches (with one team getting a bye to the semis), followed by one semi final and another bye, and then a final. The flaw in this plan became obvious when we were drawn to play in the second first round match, which we won, followed by the semi final, which we also won. Meaning that we, a team of players almost none of whom were younger than 30 and some of whom, like Thomas, were much older, had to play three matches in a row in the intense strength-sapping 100% humidity that was not really conducive to running around. And to make matters worse we were facing teams of 17 and 18 year olds, who were actually getting a break between matches. However, despite our totally exhausted state we managed to eke out a final win against the Seventh Day Adventist team (the SDA school had some enthusiastic American teachers who actually trained the kids, so they were always seen as potential winners).

This epic achievement still ranks as my finest moment on a football pitch, and possibly (and without too much exaggeration) in life. A little later in my Micronesian football career, I caught my foot in a divot while playing and ended up breaking my leg, which was not such a great high point of my life, though I do like to play up the story where I limped around my house for an evening, and then drove to the doctor's the next day, before discovering that I had broken it, and being gently advised not to drive home since the pain I felt on accelerating and breaking was almost certainly caused by the fact that I had a broken leg)

Anyway, why this story and now? Well, I happened upon this story this week, which rather took me back as you can imagine. References to my former colleague and teammate Charles, "an expat from Ghana" and all the things I remember (especially the barefoot approach favoured by the kids). Good luck to the new coaches. I suspect the (obviously tongue in cheek) hope for eventual world domination in football mentioned in the last sentence maybe a little optimistic, but they might beat Chuuk one day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

They all look the same to me

It is said that people from one ethnic group cannot tell members of another apart. There does seem to be a grain of truth in that, though if people really say they can't tell two different people apart (assuming they're not identical twins) it seems to me that they're really not trying that hard. Anyway, before this post becomes something serious, let me get onto the not-that-serious point of this post and the reason I started down this dangerous little side track. This is that I have recently become aware of a certain group of (sort-of) people which I cannot tell apart.

My daughter, Paula, is a princess. Obviously as a doting father I sort of think this anyway, but this statement comes not from me but from her. She tells me, and anyone else who is paying attention, on numerous occasions every day. She also is a big fan of other princesses. And so, on my recent trip I brought back a Disney princess memory card game (the kind of game that we used to call pelmanism until that word was co-opted to refer to prejudice against Pelmans). In this game, there are pictures of many princesses from Disney films over the years. The definition appears quite flexible, so a character could have started the film a princess and remained as one, or the character could have started the film a humble woman who lived in a menage-a-huit with a bunch of dwarves, or a mermaid or what-have-you, but finished it shacked up with a prince.

The thing is, I get absolutely trounced in this game every time. Partly this is because my short-term memory is shot to pieces through age and youthful indiscretion, partly because Paula, despite the limited attention span of a three-and-a-half-year old, seems to have the recall skills of a small, blonde, cute elephant, but mostly (I contend) because all these bloody princesses look exactly the bloody same. You pick up one card and it features some indeterminate blonde-haired pink-clothed princess. "Aha", you think to yourself, "I've seen this before", and pick up another card bearing a similar, but crucially in the context of the game, not exactly the same, image. Every time.

To be honest, there are one or two of them which I can tell from the others, but these are the one or two princesses from different ethnic groups. Ariel, for example (ethnic group: mermaids) is clearly different from the others, as is the princess (whatever her name is) from Aladdin (ethnic group: non-threatening Middle Eastern. More belly dancer than burka). But those two aside I'm lost. Why? Why do all princesses have to look the same? Is there a rule? They even all dress the same (exceptions: mermaids and belly dancers). Are there no individualists in the princess world? It's a rum do, and no mistake.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Things that irritate me about Romania

(part umpteen in an occasional, but almost certainly infinite, series)

If you try and change money here they only accept perfectly pristine mint-condition bank notes. Any rumpledness? Sorry, can't accept it. The slightest imperceptible tear in the side? Nope. Any indication that the note has in fact been used at all and has not just been issued by the European Central Bank? No can do.

Why? For the love of god, why? They're still legal tender, they're still banknotes. I'm not talking about something that's been torn into pieces and sellotaped back together, I'm talking about perfectly healthy banknotes that get rejected like they've been taken from a Monopoly set. Romania is not quite the only country that pursues this ridiculous policy, but in Europe, it only seems to be here and Bulgaria. I've asked bank employees why they refuse these notes and you either get a look that says "It's internationally normal for us to do this, you fool" (that's from people who've never travelled and don't realise that it really isn't), or "Sorry, that's just the rules. No idea why, but we've been told". It must be a national law, since it's across the board - every bank and change office follow the same ridiculously strict and unnecessary guidelines. It drives me bloody mental. (As may be obvious)

Le Tour de Ciuc

I've always been a big fan of the Tour De France. Well, I say "always", but obviously that's an exaggeration, since for many years of Le Tour, I wasn't actually born, and even when I was it didn't feature on British TV until I was in my teens (a quick check of past winners would seem to suggest I first watched it in 1983, when Channel 4 started showing it). More recently two major factors have lessened my enjoyment somewhat - the knowledge that most of the riders are on drugs, and the overshadowing of the race by the vast and obnoxious ego that is Lance Armstrong. [On a venn diagram of those two factors there is a significant overlap, allegedly]. But I still kind of get into it, despite suspecting that any results could be changed at any time in the next 6 months as someone or other gets busted.

Anyway, this weekend I was able to witness first hand professional top drawer road-race cycling. Well, maybe not top drawer, because that would be Le Tour and other major races, and probably not second drawer because that would be other races that might occasionally get a mention on Eurosport or somewhere, and maybe not even the third drawer from the top, but at least the fourth drawer down. Which on most chests of drawers is the bottom one, I guess, so bottom drawer professional road race cycling.

This was because it was the "Tour of Szeklerland" (It exists! Really! Check out the mention of it on the website of the "Union Cycliste Internationale" if you don't believe me). Pretty much every stage started and finished here right outside our apartment so it was fairly easy to keep track. There were teams from all over (well all over Eastern Europe at least - Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech republic, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel and probably others I missed).

Professional cyclists are fast. I mean really quite ludicrously fast. Yesterday the final stage of the race involved 17 longish (5.5km each) circuits of the town, which meant they zipped by on a regular basis, while the official cars following them struggled to keep up. The first stage of the race involved a route which took them from here up to Gyergyo/Gheorgheni, across the Bucsin pass to Parajd/Praid, down to Udvarhely/Oderhei and back here. 193 kms, and a fair few serious hills including Bucsin which is 1300m high and is a right brute even in a car. If I were to set off to cycle that route, I'd take a week off work. They did it (in the pouring rain) in under 5 hours. (Report on that stage and the others - when they are posted today I presume - can be found here) And these are the fourth division journeyman pros of cycling world. Your Alberto Contadors must be just a blur when they pass.

Sadly the little guide which we got for the race which includes the stage profiles and routes and everything doesn't tell me how the hills they climbed relate to the categories that they use on Le Tour. Bucsin is listed as being category A - does that mean it would be a first category climb? I'd really like an idea of how close the hills here which I know very well are to the climbs that they do on the telly. Yesterday morning in "halfstage 3" they did a time-trial up to the Harghita ski-resort from down the bottom here. 14 kms of cycling with an ascent of slightly over 600m. The winner took 28 minutes. That's just insane. I'd struggle to get one-quarter of the way up in 28 minutes.

For the record the winner was a bloke called Vitaliy Popkov from Ukraine. Yesterday's final stage was won by a French guy (Aurelian Passeron) who rides for the local Tusnad Cycling Team who are based here. I presume that means he sort of lives here, which means that I'll have to add him to my mental list of "foreigners living in Csikszereda". He apparently has ridden in the actual Tour de France (last year it would seem, though I don't think he finished it).

It was a good event. I hope they do it again next year.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Police 2.0

Just got back from two weeks working in Barcelona, from where comes this heartwarming story of modern day technology in action...

One of the participants on the course I was teaching was a Chinese bloke from Xi'an ("A small city. Only about 8 million people"). One day while going back to where he was staying he had his pocket picked on the Metro. He felt something but thought nothing off it until he realised, too late, that his wallet was gone. Not only was there a fair aount of cash in it but various other things which were of no little importance. He called a friend and asked what he should do, and whether he should maybe go to the police. To which his friend responded that he could if he needed the report for insurance purposes but otherwise he would be completely wasting his time.

Less than 24 hours later, though, to his (and to be honest everyone else's) surprise, the police sent him an email letting him know that they had his wallet - with everything in, including the cash - and he could come in and collect it.

Apparently two plain clothes policemen had witnessed the initial pickpocketing, and had followed and arrested the thief (with Peng's wallet as incontrovertible proof). So far, so good, but of course they also needed to reunite Peng and the wallet. A wallet which contained some forms of ID but which of course were of no great help in finding him in Barcelona (not to mention that they were all in Chinese anyway). A Chinese speaker in the Barcelona police was found, and having found his name, they eventually located him - on Facebook. From which it was a fairly quick process to get an email to him.

Not only was I extremely happy for Peng that he got all his money and cards and everything back, but I have to say I'm very impressed by the attention to detail and resourcefulness of the Barcelona police force. I guess, deep down, that it's not really all that amazing, but it is one of those things that seems very unexpected, and therefore notable.