The ultimate sports safari: USA


Is it possible to round the bases of the ‘big four’ professional US sports without moving to the states and applying for a ‘Green card’? US sports authority Derek Green leads us on a three week tour de force of bats, balls, pucks and hoops.

Just like us Aussies, Americans take their sports seriously, so seriously in fact, that they have been known to award the title ‘World Champions’ to their winners, along with a silver trophy the size of a small car. How they must chuckle at the sight of the Ashes.

Although difficult, this challenge is technically possible – the regular season schedules don’t quite cross over – but like a solar eclipse, there is a brief moment where all four will slide into alignment. The ideal time to attempt this trip is from mid-October to early November. The north-east coast has the highest density of sports teams, and as New York City provides the easiest access to the region, it is a logical landing point and base. The weather is turning for the worse – snow is not unheard at this time – but with Thanksgiving imminent and Christmas looming, the short days and crisp nights are accompanied by an air of festivity. For the sports nut prepared to buy into the concept of an ultimate US sports odyssey, let’s break down the options.

WEEK ONE

Baseball

The first stop is also the trickiest box to tick. The Major League Baseball (MBL) regular season finishes at the end of September, and with the ‘post season’ well under way by the time our itinerary starts around the second weekend of October, success is somewhat reliant on the teams involved in the playoffs and their location. A popular team or one off the beaten track can spell doom. Tickets to the World Series are tough to obtain, so visitors should aim for one of the two league championship series held prior. With a minimum two home and two away games per team (dead rubbers are not played), it is rare that one of the four participating championship teams is not within easy reach of New York, and tickets, though expensive, are obtainable through means both fair and foul.

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Whereas you could be excused for dozing off in the bleachers after a couple of Budweiser’s on a warm July afternoon, when the play-offs start, the casual air and Wonder Years feel of ‘America’s Game’ are blowtorched in a high stakes battle of network ratings, eight-figure player contracts and endorsements, stadium deals and intercity bragging rights. Higher television ratings dictate that post season games are almost exclusively held at night, but the smell of cool grass, popcorn, beer, and hot dogs mix with the evening autumn air to create an intoxicating brew.

Introduce yourself to your neighbours; Americans love to explain the game, its rules, the role it plays in their life and the virtues of their team. Before you know it you’ll be sharing a beer and a sack of nuts, expertly tossed across 30 rows by a skilled vendor, and yelling “charge” in time with the arena organ.

GAME SUGGESTION: Given the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have participated in eight of the last ten National League championship series, the chances are good that you won’t have to venture far.

EXPERT TIP: Although more expensive, try for a lower-level seat in the region of first base. Much of the action takes place in this part of the field, and the fans are usually friendly and knowledgeable season-ticket holders.

 WEEK TWO

American Football

“Cricket is a gentleman’s game played by gentlemen, rugby is a gentleman’s game played by beasts, and American Football is a beast’s game played by beasts.”

Although this quip appears in various guises and its source is unknown, it has been attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill to Oscar Wilde. Coupled with an apparent lack of rules, this sentiment is evident to the novice viewer, even more so when watching some of the great rivalries of the sport. Few games are contested with the bitterness of the closely matched, (both geographically and on the field) traditionally working-class, ‘meat and potato’ towns of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore. In these divisional clashes, boos and bottles will swiftly rain on an unsportsmanlike visiting outfit, or during a poor home team performance.

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Unlike the other three of the ‘big four’ professional sports, football is not an everyday event, with the NFL scheduling regular season fixtures on Thursday, Sunday and Monday of each week. By mid-October, all teams are six weeks into their 16 game seasons, and the race for divisional titles and play-off seeds starts to take shape. With so few games played – each city’s team will host a mere eight games a year – each becomes an event in itself. Even if you can’t stand the sport, the pre-game festivities, stadium rock tunes and general mayhem throughout make for a memorable day.

GAME SUGGESTION: There are five teams within a two or three hour train or bus journey of the Big Apple. For a near guaranteed home team win with plenty of atmosphere and a leafy, scenic round trip, take the option of the New England Patriots at home in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Otherwise New York’s two teams, the Jets and Giants, will host matches that are equally entertaining for those who attend, as it is for those who opt to read the savaging handed out by the fickle local media.

EXPERT TIP: The best views are to be had from mid-field or the ‘end zone’. Arrive early and mingle with locals in the car park, trying to make friends with some of the many ‘tail-gaters’ before the game. An Australian accent is a great conversation starter, and before long you’ll be eating hot corn cobs and Buffalo wings in-between ‘going deep’ for a ‘Hail Mary’ in a parking lot scratch match.

WEEK THREE

Basketball

Madison Square Gardens (MSG). Three words are all you need to tell you where you should be when the New York Knicks campaign starts in this hallowed edifice. Giant banners of the team’s current stars greet you in the foyer, and the smell of nacho cheese and grilled sausage hangs in the air like a mid-town fog. Tickets at MSG are expensive, and the upper level fans are boisterous, bordering on boorish, which is surprising given that this is possibly the least physical of the pro sports. The excitement factor is high early in the season, making for a true adventure as you delve into the psyche of hard core Manhattan sports fans.

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GAME SUGGESTION: With the recent relocation of the New Jersey Nets to nearby Brooklyn, the Knicks are no longer the only New York team. This rivalry can only get hotter.

EXPERT TIP: If you can get your hands on a pair of binoculars, apart from a better perspective of the game, you’ll have the chance to spy some of the celebrities who have the cash to splash on courtside ‘Celebrity Row’ seats, including regulars Spike Lee, Ben Stiller, Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock.

Hockey

Speaking of hard core, this week also marks the start of hockey season. There are three teams in the New York area; the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils, with games played at Madison Square Gardens, in Brooklyn, Queens, and over in Newark, New Jersey. As you might expect, the crowd can be rowdy, and will hurl abuse at players, referees and opposition fans with little provocation – it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotion as spot fires break out on and off the field. The game moves quickly, and only the trained eye finds it easy to follow, particularly from the upper deck. Try to focus on the puck as it shoots across the ice, ignoring the players, unless they are involved in one of the inevitable (and occasionally brutal) scuffles the game is famous for.

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GAME SUGGESTION: Once again, MSG is a great venue to watch this sport, and the three New York area teams play each other often, each leaving nothing out on the ice. Likewise games featuring teams visiting from Philadelphia, Boston or Pittsburgh pack enough heat to melt the ice. If you decide to travel further afield, the animosity between fierce foes Boston and Montreal or Detroit and Chicago rarely remains subdued.

EXPERT TIP: Early November in New York is already quite chilly, but with all that ice, you will need additional layers to keep yourself snug.

TRIP NOTES

SPORT EVENT TICKETS

There are three ways to obtain tickets for a sports event; direct from the team or venue, from a ticket re-seller website, or if you’re desperate (although not recommended), from a scalper outside the stadium before the game. StubHub, SeatGeek and TicketExchange all sell returned or unwanted game tickets online which are then either posted to you or can be printed if you have access to a printer.

STAYING THERE

While Brooklyn offers cheaper accommodation options, nothing beats waking up each morning to the bustle of Manhattan. The Windsor Hotel, Pod 51 and Chelsea Lodge consistently rate well in the $200-300 per night price range.

GETTING AROUND

Train is an affordable, convenient way to branch out into Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, and Boston – all within three hours – but beyond that, a hire car is advisable. Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise all have offices in Manhattan. The subway is cheap and easy for journeys across the city and its boroughs, and yellow cabs are still a thrill for short trips.

SPORTS GEAR

To get hooked up with the latest apparel, try the official NBA (590 Fifth Ave) or NHL (1185 Avenue of the Americas) stores. For NFL or MBL merchandise, Modell’s or Sports Authority are found in multiple locations and carry most teams and sports.

Classic Paris: A day trip from London?

 

Before the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, London to Paris and back in a day was out of the question for all but millionaires, politicians, and airline crew. With the 20th anniversary of the Eurostar on the horizon and improved traveller services, faster tracks, and advance purchase specials, a day trip is becoming increasingly attractive to the time-poor visitor.

For those visiting England this year, the additional time and expense involved in a dedicated trip to France may not fit all schedules or budgets. Now you can unleash your inner Clark Griswold and take some pleasure in a day crammed with culture, history and fromage. Depending on your preferences you can either extend or drop any of the sites described in this suggested itinerary.

5.40 am – Depart London

The first scheduled service from St Pancras International rumbles off toward the coast bright and early. Assuming you’ve already printed off your boarding pass, you’ll still need to arrive at least 30 minutes beforehand to grab a pain-au-chocolat and double-shot latte, then run the gauntlet of barriers; a security scan, UK passport control and French customs – quite similar to those you might encounter in an international airport (without the confiscation of liquids).

6.35 am – The Tunnel

The darkness of the tunnel lasts about 20 minutes. If you’re squeamish about descending into a 50km tube under the sea, just breathe and imagine you’re on a night train. This may also be a good time to run through your itinerary, and check the routes linking the sites on the map. Surfacing in French territory at Coquelles, near Calais, set your watch forward an hour to account for the difference in time-zone. The country side is picturesque; agricultural with small medieval villages interspersed with factories and warehouses servicing the megalopolis Paris has become. Take a good look, as it will be dark when you return.

9.17am – Arrive Paris Gare du Nord

As all customs and immigration requirements were handled in London, you’re free to walk off the train and straight into the streets of Paris. Exit the platform and follow the signs on the left, down the stairs to the Paris Metro. Find a quiet ticket machine and buy a one day ‘Visite Pass’, valid for zones 1-3 of inner city Paris. Don’t be afraid to take your time and stand your ground if a busy Parisian starts to grumble behind you. All metro routes are marked by colour and number, and the direction the train will travel is identified by the route’s final station at either end. Get the magenta metro line (4) in the direction of Port De Clignancourt.

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9.30 am – Montmartre

This is a logical first stop as it’s close to Gare du Nord, and is a more enjoyable experience before the inevitable daily crowds converge. Most visitors approach via the Metro stations Pigalle and Abesses, but for a different perspective of ‘Le Butte’ exit at Metro Chateau Rouge. It’s a quicker trip from Gare Du Nord, and there’s no metro change required. Walk west up the quiet but appealing Rue Poulet and Rue Muller. Resist the cute café’s if you’re able and ascend the trademark Montmartre steps, emerging in front of the magnificent Sacré-Cœur. This route also avoids the hordes of pushy touts at the foot of the steep, meandering gardens.

9:40 am – Sacré-Cœur

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris provides one of the most spectacular views of the city. On weekends, the talented and highly organised buskers start early, so take a seat on the famous steps and enjoy the comic mimes, musicians, and the amazing soccer acrobat who entertain millions each year. The cathedral’s interior features a beautiful mosaic, accompanied by an air of peace. It’s a place of worship, so keep your visit short unless you have arranged time to join the tour to the Basilica’s dome via the 234 step spiral-staircase.

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10:15 am – Place du Tertre

Follow your nose into Montmartre village via the western wing of the Basilica, and plant yourself under the awning for a coffee at Au Cadet de Gascogne, watching the artists set up for the day as tourists spill into the narrow cobbled streets like Pampolonians fleeing the running of the bulls. Push on against the flow along Rue Norvins past the postcardesque Le Consulat and start your descent.

11:00 am – Moulin Rouge

Follow the worming Rue Le Pic down through Amelie territory, blending in with the locals going about their business. Look out for the wall marker on the left at number 54 which indicates the former residence and studio of Vincent van Gogh (1886 – 1888). Stop in at Les Fromages De Marie for picnic lunch supplies of fresh baguette, cheese and olives, and if your arteries can stand it, a ‘crosssausageroll’ – you guessed it, a traditional flaky croissant wrapped around a smoky Andouille sausage. At best, it’s a decadent treat you will surely work off over the course of the day, at worst it will seem like a good idea at the time. At the bottom of Rue Le Pic you’ll find the celebrated Moulin Rouge. Take your photos, then jump on the blue (2) metro line at Blanche, heading in the direction of Porte Dauphine.

11:30am – Arc de Triomphe

Periscope up from the metro at Charles de Gaulle – Étoile, taking a moment to absorb the barely organised traffic chaos that swirls around the Place Charles de Gaulle, admiring the combination of skill and daring displayed by Parisian motorists. The Arc de Triomphe is best appreciated up close and accessed by underground tunnel from Avenue de la Grande Armee on the western side of the monument. Feel the smooth limestone and hold your fingers in place long enough to let some of the Arc’s 200-plus years of history seep in. Spreading eastward is a classic slice of old Europe; the Champs-Élysées. Broad and tree-lined, this popular boulevard, now dominated by restaurants, designer chains and mobile phone outlets has seen its fair share of celebrities, dignitaries and dictators. Return to the metro and take the teal (6) line heading in the direction of Nation, alighting at Bir-Hakeim.

12:45 pm – Eiffel Tower

For the efficient traveller who has bought into the Paris-in-a-day concept, this stop poses the greatest threat to the success of the day. Queuing to climb the tower starts early, and factors such as the weather, time of year and efficiency of the French attendants to shuffle tourists along on any given day will all affect the line’s length. Purchase a ticket online and print it at home to save time. On a busy day, the stairs (rather than the elevators) to the second level are your best chance to witness one of the world’s truly wonderful city views.

Champ De Mars is a perfect a spot to eat your well-deserved picnic lunch. When you’re done, Metro École Militaire is a short walk along Place Joffre. Take the lavender (8) line in the direction of Créteil – Préfecture to Concorde metro station.

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2:15 pm Musee L’Orangerie

Walk towards the river along the east wall of the Place de la Concorde, enter the grand park gates and follow the rise up and around to Musee L’Orangerie, This low key gallery is one of Paris’s favourites. The two oval-shaped rooms featuring Monet’s permanent Water Lilies murals are a tranquil place to sit and catch your breath while devoting a few moments out of your busy day to personal reflection.

3:15 pm Jardin des Tuileries

If the sun’s out, find a reclined chair and feed the ducks while eating an ice cream from the concession stand. Continue east through the gardens to the Louvre.

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3:30 pm – Musée du Louvre

It’s unrealistic to expect to see the entire Louvre collection in a short visit, so hire the audio guide (note that all plaques are in French) and choose a manageable highlights package depending on your artistic preferences. The ‘Masterpieces’ tour includes Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa and French classic Raft of the Medusa, and is comfortably achievable in 60-75 minutes.

5:15 pm – Cathédrale Notre Dame

A 15 minute walk along the north bank of the Seine is the most practical way to reach the famed cathedral. Lean against the statue of the infamous ‘Father of Europe’, Charlemagne and take in the detail in the stone masonry of Notre Dame’s western façade. Entry is free, and on a lucky day you might quietly slip into a pew and hear the amazing acoustics at work during an organ recital.

5:45 pm – Left Bank bookstalls

The Seine Left Bank has hosted bookstalls along the nearby stretch of Quai de Montebello for centuries. Selling publications in French, English and other languages, the Bouquinistes generally close at dusk. Cross the Pont au Double bridge from Notre Dame, and take the opportunity to check out the Shakespeare and Company book shop on the way.

6:00 pm – Latin Quarter

There are many cute restaurants in the back streets of the Latin Quarter, equally charming on a warm spring evening or when lit up on a chilly winter’s night. Rue de la Harpe is close and has many options for a quick meal that somehow doesn’t feel rushed.

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7:15 pm Seine night cruise

A river cruise is a must at any time of year. Enjoy old jazz and the rush of cool air as you pass under the ancient stone bridges in summer, or pass around a sneaky bottle of red while your vessel’s spotlight searches out frozen lovers mid-embrace during the colder months. Cruises are generally one hour and start at 10 euros. Several operators depart from the Left Bank stretch between the bridges Petit Pont and Pont de’lArcheveche.

8:30 – Metro to Garde du Norde

Jump on the metro at St-Michel, and take the magenta line (4) in the direction of Porte de Cligancourte to Garde du Norde.

9:13 pm – Depart Paris

If all goes to plan you’ll arrive with about half an hour to negotiate security and immigration for your return trip. Slump into your chair and let the Eurostar do the rest, remembering to wind your watch back an hour when you touch British soil.

10:43 pm – Arrive London

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

The Eurostar can be booked and paid for online at www.eurostar.co.uk. Return prices start at $125 for an advance purchase, non-flexible fare.

A single day Paris Metro ticket is valid for zones 1-3 on both metro and local buses and costs about $20 AU.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

A map of inner-Paris – better still a smart phone with a map app – and good comfortable walking shoes.

WHEN TO GO

Captivating in either light or dark, Paris is one of those rare cities that can work its magic any time of the year, though the summer months bring crowds, long lines and short fuses. A visit either side of the June to September period may reward you with the best of both worlds; warm weather and far less jostling. Conversely, don’t get caught out in the middle of winter without your woollies and an umbrella; it can often feel like the sun barely breaks above the horizon in Europe.

The loneliness of the long distance blogger

 

You may have noticed I haven’t added to this blog much lately. We’ll, I’m concentrating on print at the moment, and in the meantime, the ‘good’ stuff just doesn’t make it on here, as its usually being pitched to some magazine editor that checks their email once a year, before sending out an automated response informing that they have either gone on sabbatical or maternity leave, or both. Alas, apart from not being able to cannibalise my own material when offering exclusivity, this has taken up all my remaining time.

Not that what you’re reading now is necessarily the chaff, its just that lately life has become a constant quest for the perfect ‘angle’. No I haven’t taken up billiards. Its just that unless one traipses off to live with the Yanomami people in the lower Amazon, or goes wind-surfing in Afghanistan, or hot air ballooning on the moon, every destination, site and activity you can conceive of (and every prose that can describe it), has already been turned over, trodden on and basically flogged to death. And if its anywhere in America, there’s already a car park, soda machine, top-notch A/C, and guidance from cheery volunteers with badges that display names like “Marvin” and “Doris”.

So here’s where the angles come in. If you have a really good angle, you can still re-discover anywhere and write about anything. So I’m enjoying trying to get under the skin of wherever I am, thinking about different ways to get there, eat there, and be there.

Maybe that’s not a bad angle from which to approach life anyway.

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Travelling fun and games

 

Every family has their own travel games, those humorous little moments that can smooth over the inevitable boring parts of a long journey. Some work better on the road, others on foot (nobody jokes around on a plane). Ours seem to get more convoluted the further and longer we go – what so often starts as an innocent game of “yellow car”, can quickly descend into a cage fight of unverified sightings, accusations of colour-blindness and references to the Pantone colour chart.

One of our other favourites is the classic “Etes-vous un local?” (Are you a local?), in which the winner is the person who can successfully enter a foreign establishment, interact with the local proprietor as required – for example order food or procure other services – and depart without having his or her cover blown. All under the pretence of being local to the particular non-English speaking country of course.

Sadly, this game has become far too easy, particularly in Europe. Just light a cigarette, grunt and gesticulate, and generally act like you own the place. Walk out with a baguette, bottle of aqua, or 12″ kransky with the lot, leaving all present none the wiser, and the prize is yours – a 12″ kransky with the lot!

Alcohol has been known to increase a player’s confidence, further eroding the traditional barriers of self consciousness and lack of spatial awareness.

Speaking of alcohol (shown below), a variation off this game was recently devised whilst sipping a Spanish beer served in a large vase (vase not pictured).

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In this daring new strand of the “local” game, the player must enter a business of their choice and clearly assume the role of a citizen of a third party country.

The setting was La Rambla, in Barcelona, Spain. Faced with a long queue in a phone accessory outlet, and holding my intended purchase above my ahead (a new iPhone protective cover), I barged my way through to the counter, demanded to know the price, and slapped down the correct remittance, bolting before any of the shop assistants (a true oxymoron in Europe) could object. Transaction completar!

OK, so I cracked this game on the first attempt, but lets make it interesting and see if any of you can guess which nationality I impersonated?

Winner gets a 12″ kransky with the lot.

Angkor wasn’t built in a day

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The temples in the Angkor complex were built over hundreds of years.

During one of my earliest journeys into the world I travelled the length of Egypt by sleeper train, and returned on a Nile felucca. It was the 1980s, but might well have been the 1880s. Picture a scene in which fez-capped porters balance suitcases on their heads whilst donkeys are loaded with great trunks of supplies for the trip, palms swaying in the breeze to the tune emanating from the surrounding whir of human activity.

I learnt much on that trip, but one of my favourite lessons was translated for me by my  African guide on a day when a double booked hotel room was the least of the things that had gone wrong. After discussing the reason for our long wait with the hotel manager, the guide returned and quietly sat down next to me, took a long draw on his fat cigar, and, understanding my western need for an explanation, said:

“My son let me teach you something about Egyptian time. It goes like this:

“If I agree to meet my friend at the coffee house near the market square at noon, and he is not there, it does not mean he is not coming, it means he has been delayed.”

“If by one o’clock, he is not in his usual seat opposite me, it is because he is on his way.

“At two o’clock, I may be sipping coffee alone, but my friend is close.”

“And if he has still not arrived by three o’clock, then it means he will surely be here soon.”

A different time, a different concept of time.

A woman heads into a temple to sell her wears.

A woman heads into a temple to sell her wares.

And so it is here in Cambodia, working for a wonderful NGO with a great sense of compassion, care and hope for the future. Like so many, I arrive full of ideas and energy, driven by a desire to make what difference I can in a relatively small amount of time, over-bearing all with a hastily formulated agenda.

Well close enough. I’m comparatively sensitive to the fact that many have come before me and performed great work, and will still be on the ground every day, long after I have gone.

Working in the office, helping to design and roll-out a communication strategy that is simple enough to be implemented by Buddhist Monks in my absence, yet modern enough to propel the organisation forward, I witness NGO groupies come and go. Sometimes two in a day, other times none for a week, their eyes are wide, ears closed, dialogue intense –  anxious, road-weary souls who’s hearts are in the right place but who’s bodies will soon be in Bangledesh, Laos or Burma, seeking their next outpost on a path to self fulfilment.

So the last month has been a great lesson in finding the flow and going with it, patience, and just chipping away at the rock, bulldozer well and truly in the shed.

A young girl pushes through the mud to make it to school on time.

A young girl pushes through the mud to make it to school on time.