Friday, June 10, 2016


Évian-les-Bains is a very pretty little town, sprawled like its pretty neighboring towns across the bottom of the mountains as if spewed there by the shimmering lake. Every house faces the lake and turns its back to the tree-covered mountains, their bald tops still sprinkled with a crown of snow despite midsummer being just over a week away.
In case you're wondering what I'm doing here, it's because the German team has made it their base for Euro 2016, and I'm reporting on their every move, their every uttering, every crooked eyebrow that they raise during the tournament. Tomorrow I go to Lille where Jogi Löw and Toni Kroos will be giving the pre-match press conference before they open their campaign against Ukraine on Sunday. It's a tough oul' life.
The DFB had a party at the Evian golf club yesterday with free grub and free booze and I didn't drink ANY of it. I've only been drinking water since I landed in France on Tuesday. Évian, named after the water or watered after the name, has loads of it and I have this marathon coming up in September…
I've been running too, despite the dastardly steep mountains doing their best to ruin my legs or turn them into tree-trunks. On Wednesday I ran behind the wooden chalets we're staying in and discovered a forest. Well, it was mad. I ran along the track jumping over fallen trees, down steep ravines, over rivers below waterfalls, up steep ravines, through bushes that whipped my legs, back over gushing streams. I actually drank from one of them, felt invincible. I stung like a butterfly and floated like a bee. Then I went for a swim, 20 lengths of the admittedly small pool back at the chalets.
Yesterday I ran by the lake, Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman if you're French and don't like the idea of a Swiss city butting into your territory). I saw the couples strolling along, the old and the young, the families, the fishermen, the lake-gulls, the speedboats and yachts, the waves casting their salty scent in the air toward the grand houses on the other side of the promenade, the old hotels shuttered and silent yet still maintaining a grand dignity as they look across the waters at Lausanne in Switzerland on the other side, backed by mountains made of untraceable cash.
There's plenty of cash in Évian too, judging by the fine stone houses, the magnificent gardens, the fancy cars, the gold-rimmed people and the extortionate supermarkets. I spent €50 on groceries just to keep me alive for a few days, fruit and stuff, nothing extravagant. That's why I took full advantage of the free grub last night and went back for a second helping. Alas, I am not a snake and was hungry again today.
After writing my preview and attending the presser this morning I went for another run by the lake, the same route only the lake was calmer, a mirror made for skimming stones. I had none. I skimmed stones in my head and watched them hop hop hop hop hop till they were swallowed up by a giant fish who then waved his tail at me and wished me a safe onward journey. I wished him the same.
A French man encouraged me to keep running hard. At least I think he was French, he looked it, as did his dog wearing a beret and a bag of onions, with a baguette tucked securely under his front left leg and a cigarette in his paw.
With all the work and all running and all the work there hasn't been much time for photos. I'd hoped to get a few this evening but the clouds are gathering again – I got soaked on my way home after finding an abandoned house on Wednesday, wetter than a drowned fish – and I have to get back in time for the first match tonight so I find out what I'm supposed to do in Lille on Sunday.
Don't worry, the final's not for another month, there'll be plenty of time to update with pictures.

If you're interested in football, this is where I do be tweeting my professional stuff:

Sunday, June 05, 2016

France, here I come

I move to France on Tuesday, for a month, maybe more, maybe less, depending on how Germany get on at Euro 2016. It's crazy, I still remember following Euro '88 from a hospital bed after being knocked down by a car and cheering on the Netherlands, Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard and co.
It's my biggest foreign assignment yet – AP are sending me to shadow the German team as it negotiates its way, as some Germans hope, to the final at Stade de France on July 10. I'm only booked through to the semifinal in Marseille on July 7, so perhaps AP doesn't believe Jogi's boys have what it takes to emulate Spain's feat of consecutive World Cup and European Championship titles.
I'll be based in Évian-les-Bains, where the German team has its tournament headquarters, and I'll be making my way from there to Lille for the first game, the next two in Paris, and then probably Bordeaux and Marseille for the next games. No doubt the German team will be flying. I and a photographer will be driving to Lyon and getting trains everywhere.
I'm looking forward to it, wow, it's a brilliant job I have, though there's also a very slight feeling of dread – nothing to do with terrorist attacks, but from making sure I do a good job and live up to the trust placed in me. And of course I'm going to miss the young fella when I'm gone. It'll be by far the longest time I won't have seen him. We'll have Skype or whatever but I'm pretty sure already that'll be a pile of shit – you can't beat the real thing of sitting down in front of someone and talking to them.
A Syrian family is moving into our apartment while I'm gone. They're getting kicked out of their current place in Zwickau on Wednesday for daring to say they weren't happy living among Pegidiots and Nazis so the timing couldn't be better. Hopefully a month will be enough for them to find something more permanent in Berlin. Otherwise I guess we'll be living with five other people when I get back.
There's a lot of football stuff going on lately, so much it's staring to interfere with real life. The young fella has started training with Borussia Pankow, a club up the road. He's mad into it, can't get enough no matter how many times I tell him it's just a game.
He's also into collecting the Panini football stickers, and he was the only one at the Späti shouting for Real Madrid against Atlético last weekend. He's young, it made him happy, what the hell. But if he ever shouts for Bayern Munich I shall probably have to disown him, as indeed any reasonable parent would do.
I'm going to have to keep the marathon training going while I'm gone. There are only 16 weeks now until the big day. I figure the month away from Berlin's nightlife will help my fitness. My plan is only to drink water in Évian – they got plenty of it – but I'll treat myself to a beer after games in whatever host city I happen to be in. We'll see how it goes. It promises to be an interesting month ahead.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Marathon Sans Frontières: For Zahra and the millions like her

One thing’s for certain, I’m not going to win it. I’m running the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 25 to raise money for Syria, specifically through Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Every cent I raise is going toward MSF’s humanitarian efforts directly in Syria or to assist Syrian refugees who have fled the country. MSF knows best how the money should be spent.
I've just lodged €600 in MSF's Irish bank account, so that money – thanks so much to everyone who has donated already! – will be put to good use before I run the first of those 42.195 kilometers…
Of course I hope to raise more over the next 16 weeks before the big day. Every little contribution will help alleviate someone’s suffering.
And people are suffering in ways you cannot imagine. When I was first writing these words on April 28 – I decided to keep this post updated rather than writing new ones that go stale overnight – another MSF-supported hospital had been hit by an airstrike the night before, at least 14 killed including three doctors. Five members of the Syria Civil Defence – volunteer search and rescue workers – were killed by a regime warplane attack on their facilities the day before. There were more than 10 airstrikes that morning. That was just 24 hours in Aleppo.
The situation has not improved in any way whatsoever. It's Syria. It gets worse and worse though you think it's not possible. The world turns its back because it's easier than facing the reality of barrel bombs, indiscriminate murder, systematic starvation, wanton bloodshed, a cycle of bloody violence that feeds on death and nurtures extremism to keep the killing alive.
As I type I’m conscious that I have my own life and all my limbs, and I'm grateful. So I'm putting them to use for people working to save others’ lives and limbs.
I’ve never run a marathon before. I'm told they're not easy. I've been training for a while now, it's been no fun whatsoever. People who run and pretend to like it are lying. It's monotonous and boring, though it gives me time to think, time to think about how lucky I am, how Berlin is a bubble where life is a pleasant amble from one beer to the next, where problems are invented in a German sort of way to ensure we don't lose the run of ourselves. It's a comfortable life, the living is easy. The living. In Syria not even the dying is easy.
I complained before about my aches and pains, my cramped up legs, my sore back, the crick in my neck, waking up like I'd been run over by a train, but it's all nothing. Everything's nothing as I said before.
I’m going to keep going, it’s my duty, I cannot fail. As I said, I won’t be winning the thing but if I manage to raise a good amount for MSF in Syria I’ll have won in a much more meaningful way. Please help me win! All donations great and small (small donations are also great) are very much appreciated.

Many thanks to AP for permission to use the photo above, taken by two-time Pulitzer winner Muhammed Muheisen, of Syrian refugee Zahra Mahmoud, 5, from Deir el-Zour. She’s at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. There are another 4.8 million like her and more who cannot escape. If you can call it an escape. I’m running for them all.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Paris, la muse

Paris is like the opposite of Berlin. Where Berlin celebrates decadence, darkness and counterculture (at least the Berlin I know and love), Paris celebrates aesthetics, beauty, light and art. It's another world, one I like very much.
Radiohead brought me there last Tuesday and I had the pleasure of staying with Mark for three nights. We were among the first to the gig and I was so happy to be there I didn't even mind paying €8 for Heineken. Money doesn't last long in Paris, a flaw I'm willing to overlook for now. The concert was brilliant, probably the best I've seen of them, but I won't go on about that. Back to Paris…
I ran to Jardin des Tuileries just behind the Louvre on Wednesday – the training never stops – and can honestly say it was the most scenic run yet, albeit the most challenging with every pedestrian I met going the same way I was as I was trying to get past. Their left to my right and vice versa ad infinitum. Jaysus, my Latin's improving…
Opposite the Louvre, someone had written on the pedestrian light: "Je suis la muse qui l'ouvre." I am the muse that opens it. It works better in French.
The garden had chairs, lots and lots of chairs, occupied by sun-worshippers stretched out in reverence to that otherworldly giver of life. There were people of all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds, all ages, all reverent and completely relaxed. Kids were playing football to the side, their excited yelps adding to the snatches of French you hear as you pass. It's like the city's song. Traffic tries to stifle it but Paris keeps singing.
The footpaths are flooded with chairs, they're not just in the parks. Chairs almost spill into the streets, catering for the national pastime – sitting and talking, or simply sitting and watching the beautiful people go by, the pretty side of life.
There's also the less pretty side. Paris is home to a lot of homeless, contradictory though that may sound, and you'll often see them stretched out in sleeping bags beside a café or club where oblivious revelers bask in the enjoyment of their own private worlds. Some worlds are better than others.
A sex worker freaked out because some dopey tourist took a photo of her, or her shop. There was a big hullabaloo with both sides yelling for the police until it more or less broke up when a guy who had nothing to do with any of it decided to go in and have a swing at your man. Feelings were running high.
There was another incident with a woman chasing another guy who must have stolen something from her. He'd been at my table just before, either offering or looking for something. I guess he was looking. Anyway, she was chasing him up the street, shouting as he was walking away. Two minutes later followed an oldish fellow rolling up his sleeves like a scene from Asterix.
I'd wanted to follow in Beckett's footsteps, literally, but I'd no idea where he'd been so I just walked and walked and walked. No doubt our paths crossed somewhere. I kept walking.
After strolling up to Sacré-Cœur – which is marshaled by soldiers with machine guns now, as are the metro stations thanks to France's self-imposed "state of emergency" (never mind that Brussels too was marshaled by machine gun-toting soldiers before the attacks there) – I took a stroll to République, where I found lots of moving tributes to the victims of the November Paris attacks.
A man with a great big shock of grey hair stood there with his head bowed in front of a load of candles, candles like the ones we left in Berlin. I kept walking, down to the Bataclan, still boarded up and closed for business. I didn't know what to think, just sadness.
One day we ate at a very French place, Chez Paul, where it started with a row between two of the staff, a thin man who was pissed off to be working Saturday, and a huge woman who was explaining that they were all tired. It reached the stage 20 minutes later where the man said they couldn't possibly leave the place in the hands of two other (presumably) incompetent staff.
The woman, who seemed to be doing all she could to prolong the row, eventually came over and took our order and later turned into the star of the show. Two people came in and needed a table for five. Cue consternation until the woman grabbed a chair from another table and stuck it at the end of a table for four. "Ta daa!!"
She teased us for licking our plates clean. "The food was horrible, huh? You should try the desserts, they're really horrible."
In between jokes and hugging babies at another table, she barked orders at the incompetent underlings. She was really running the show. The food was great of course; we left with full and happy bellies.
Nearly all the cafés are jammed with people sitting at little tables, enjoying expensive drinks, and chattering as if their lives depend on. They all look perfect, not a button missing nor stray hair out of place. I was a freak with my uncontrollable mop.
One night there were three girls sitting at the bar sharing a cheese platter, each with a glass of red wine, chatting without a care in the world.
We walked around Pigalle, enjoyed the exotic blend of cultures, found a few Spätis – yes, Paris has Spätis! – though of course they're not as cheap as Berlin's.
I saw an old man wearing a beret with a baguette under his arm near Ile de la Cité, where again I visited my old friends the gargoyles atop Notre Dame. Esmeralda and Quasimodo were there too.
I told Mark I'd like to live in Paris for a while, maybe three months or so. He said that was long enough. Of course Paris has got its problems, but if you like something enough you tend not to see the flaws. And Paris is a muse. I have to go back, I'll go back.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Rayo relegated

Rayo were relegated from La Liga yesterday. I know it shouldn't matter, it's only football, but somehow it does. They won't be measuring themselves against Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético next season. They probably won't be coming to Neuruppin to play Hertha again in the summer. Five seasons in the top flight they lasted – the longest spell for the club.
Despite their precarious position yesterday I still had hope they'd escape by the skin of their teeth on the last day. They had done it before. They just needed to beat Levante and hope neither Getafe nor Sporting Gijon won their games. They fulfilled their side of the bargain but Gijon didn't play ball, or rather they did, clinching survival instead by beating Villarreal.
There were tears all round – Paco Jémez just stood there as they rolled down his face. But Rayo go to La Segunda with their heads held high. After worst fears were realized, supporters cheered and waved their flags as if they'd won. Vallecas is a proud neighborhood. Este barrio nunca se rinde.
I'd feared for Rayo's well being at the start of the season when it seemed all the concentration wasn't on football. There was the business with the jerseys for every cause with donations to charity (a noble idea tainted by the whiff of marketing), the club finally sorted out the shop on its website, and the owner went off and invested in an American club, Rayo Oklahoma, a ridiculous move betraying notions of grandeur. Rayo is not Real Madrid.
In a way it was as if the club forgot its roots, forgot its neighborhood, forgot its fans and temporarily forgot about the football. It's still the world's best little club but now the world's best little club plays in the second division. Maybe it's a good thing after all, for Rayo to be brought back down to earth. They'll be back, stronger than ever.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Angry Münchkins

People were very angry in Munich today – the Münchkins that is. Someone took a swing at me as I was running earlier. Just brushed me with his fist as I went past. He kept his head down and looked like a nutter so I just kept running.
Tonight, coming back from the game, there was a row on the train because some clown wouldn't put out the cigarette he lit. He and his buddy were mouthing off to another guy who asked them to put it out until another guy got up and told him to his face. The smoker tried head-butting him and there was a bit of a struggle and lots of name-calling. It was embarrassing really. But it was all sorted in the end.
When I got off the train another fella was shouting and roaring outside a bar or a restaurant. Two men were fighting and one of them was throwing stuff back toward the restaurant – his glass or something. I dunno, I didn't care, fucking idiots.
Bayern lost! Well, they won but they really lost so maybe that's why they were all drunk and bad-tempered. They're gloomy when they win so I guess losing is a catastrophic disaster for them. They're spoilt, the Münchkins.
Earlier I was thinking the show of wealth I could see everywhere was sickening – all the fancy cars genuinely made me feel ill, thinking of all the arms deals they'd concluded to buy them, all the people somewhere else that they're screwing over – but if they're not happy they're not rich at all. They know nothing.
I wore my Rayo top when I was running – 10K up to the English Garden and back – and every time I passed some Atlético fans they cheered and whooped. RAYOOO!!! I felt like a star, shouted back Aúpa Atleti and kept running. It's to raise money for MSF and Syria in case you didn't know.
I wore my Atleti top to the match but I don't think anyone noticed, they were all too focused on the game. Jaysus, what a game! Ein Krimi, as my neighbor from L'Équipe said.
I dared not write the lede until very late, and even then I was sure I'd have to write it again. Thankfully I didn't, but when they said five minutes of injury time, goddamn. The tension, the drama, the unlikeliness of it all!
I hope Atleti go all the way now. They've got a good chance. Every side to have knocked Bayern out since 2012 has gone on to win it. It's something to look forward to in any case. Sport is a great distraction from the real world, where some people get angry for no reason at all.