How to Feel Broke in London

Step 1: Fly to London.

I’d love to tell you that this was an informative blog post full of tips on how to see and do London on a budget. Something along the lines of “have a practically-free-yet-utterly-fabulous time in London on less than $50 a day.”

But that would be a really short list because (1) London is ridiculously expensive and (2) not to sound bougie or whatever, but $50 a day is really not a lot of money.

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Heck, I’m not even sure I exist on less than $50 a day here at home because (1) the greater D.C. area is ridiculously expensive and (2) if I do, for some reason, sally forth from my nice, comfortable home office, the cumulative expense of hours not worked (ah, self-employment) and money pissed away during an Old Town gallivant that probably includes stops at Anthropology, Bluemercury, Gap Outlet and a red velvet cupcake from Bittersweet certainly tallies up to way over $50.

It’s not that I don’t know how to do London on a budget. I lived in London for six months back in 1997. I was a poor college student/waitress and I rented a small, freezing one-room bedsit in Islington with a plug-in electric radiator that would put a scald on whichever side of your body happened to be closest to it, but did nothing to heat up the rest of the room. Also: No TV. No radio. No computer.

As you can imagine, I did not spend much time in my bedsit/prison-I-actually-paid-money-for. Instead, I spent a lot of time getting to know London, and since I didn’t have parents footing the bill and I was living on my meager waitressing salary, I spent a whole lot of time doing free/cheap stuff, ie: going to museums and churches, browsing in stores, seeing cheap West End shows during the day, nursing a single cider for hours on end and reading a book at a pub.

But thankfully, those poverty-ridden days are long behind me, and while I’m certainly not rich, our last trip to London confirmed two things for me: (1) I am, in fact, bougie, and (2) London is a lot more fun when you have a little bit of money.

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Preach, Erika.

So, here’s a roundup of some not-so-free things we did in London.

Black Cab Tour – This was my manpanion, XFE’s first time in London. Thankfully, all he really wanted to do was go to every possible soccer match (see below) so we didn’t have to do too much touristy stuff. Still, I felt it was my duty to give him at least a rudimentary amount of exposure to the glories of the British Empire. So, I arranged a private tour in a black cab. We did the Classic Grand Tour, a 3.5 hour whirlwind through about 1,000 years of history.

We got driver David Cannell and I’m pretty sure we were the easiest, most low-key clients he’s ever had. We hardly even stopped for photos (neither one of us are really big into selfies). I happily chatted with David about British history (I got especially excited hearing all about Tyburn Tree, because who doesn’t love a good public execution?) and XFE watched the scenery whizz by. (Cost: £175 GBP or around $250 US. I will say the cab could have held up to 5 people, which is quite affordable.)

Gin Tour—XFE’s other major interest is gin and—as one would expect in a place where the consumption of gin was causing so much strife and ruin it had to be banned—there were a lot of gin-based activities to choose from. But the Gin Journey’s Shake, Rattle and Stir tour worked best with our schedule. We started at a small, very dark underground, totally hipster bar called the Whistling Shop in Shoreditch where we were introduced to our very cool guide, Cocktail Kate.

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After getting a brief history on the star of the evening—gin—and quaffing some Sipsmiths, we set off in a mini-bus for stops at five more gin parlors/distilleries/bars (dipping in and out of the City, Shoreditch and Hoxton, mostly) over the course of 4.5 hours, enjoying specially selected premium gins and fine gin cocktails made just for us. The tour was mostly made up of Londoners (with a couple of non-English speaking Italians in the mix) and was a really fun way to spend an evening. I can’t recommend it enough. (Cost: £60 GBP per person or around $85 US)

Tea at Sketch—I know I said I didn’t drag XFE to a bunch of touristy stuff, but that’s not entirely true. I did have one London bucket list item I insisted on crossing off the list.

Despite having lived in London for six months and downing copious amounts of the stuff, I’d never actually been to a proper English tea*. Like in a fancy tea room with mini-sandwiches and cakes. I decided to skip the traditional, stuffy hotel high teas (sorry, Dorchester) and go for something more modern and fun: Sketch.

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This restaurant/tea room/coffee shop/lounge nestled in an 18th-century townhouse right on the border of Mayfair and Soho is kooky as hell. The vibe is very Alice in Wonderland with oversized doors, coat check closets hidden behind swing out bookshelves, toilets hidden in egg-pods and quirky staff uniforms (the waitresses in the tea rooms were wearing these sort of World War 1 nurse’s pinafores, for lack of a better description).

The tea room decor was a suffocating plush ballerina-pink cocoon that made me think: this is what it must be like to live inside a jewelry box. And it was packed to the gills with (mostly) female tourists, even on a weekday in March. XFE was pretty much the only guy in the place, unless you count the guy wearing a dramatic silk scarf, lip gloss and some heeled boots in the corner banquette (his tea companion was a gorgeous, exotic girl with a wrap shirt that kept gaping.)

The tea itself was pretty meh—we manned it up by splurging for the Champagne Afternoon Tea. Sandwiches included coronation chicken salad, egg salad, a posh grilled cheese, the usual suspects; sweets included assorted cakes, some lemony pudding thing and that most overhyped of all cookies, the macaron, of course. The people watching though: that’s worth the admission price. (Cost: £57 per person or $81 US)

*(I had, however, had a Devon cream tea with clotted cream and scones, and honestly, I liked that way better.)

Soccer matches—If I end up living in the poor house or becoming an indentured servant (or worse, working as a barista at Starbucks….again), it is because I gave all my money to the English Premier League in 2016. Specifically, the Tottenham Hotspurs.

We went to three games while we were there, one against Swansea at Tottenham’s grounds, White Hart Lane. The second against West Ham at their playing grounds, and the third against Arsenal back at White Hart Lane.

Buying tickets to overseas soccer games is usually a bit of a difficult enterprise involving months of research, repeatedly checking the team websites, Ticketmaster, StubHub and any other online resource you can think of. It usually requires the assistance of a hotel concierge, who can’t really provide any confirmations on successful acquisition of tickets until much, much closer to the match day, when the teams finally, reluctantly release tickets to the general public. It is not at all uncommon for us to get on an overseas flight without knowing for sure if we have tickets to a game or where our seats will be.

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London and the EPL, however, are even more insular and stingy with their tickets, so the whole process requires the combined efforts of a hotel concierge, online ticket brokers, bicycle delivery personel, plus copious amounts of cash (in all three cases) and subterfuge (in at least one instance). It’s almost, ALMOST enough to make you think that splashing out $1,113 for (guaranteed) VIP tickets to a game is reasonable and sane. Almost.

These hoops and hurdles prove to be particularly true when you are dealing with major London rivalries like Tottenham and Arsenal, and most especially when it’s close to the end of the season and those two teams specifically are in a hot-and-heavy, three-way race for the top spot in the League. I’m not allowed to divulge any more information into how exactly we got our tickets, particularly to that last game, but I will say it probably would have been easier (and cheaper) to get “Hamilton” tickets (flights included). (Cost for three EPL games: I don’t want to talk about it)

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You’ve Got to Be Kidney Me: 5 British Foods We Ate in London

I’m about to say something highly controversial: I love British food.

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Poezilla eat all the mini-foods. (Tea at Sketch)

And I’m not talking about “crisps,” because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy a little salty sliver of fried potato goodness? Although, the British do tend to test that love with some rather unique flavoring options. Beef and onion? Roast ox? Prawn cocktail? Don’t even get me started on repeat offender/intrepid flavor alchemist, Tyrell’s.

But crisps are easy to love. What I’m talking about is heavy, stodgy British fare with funny names and a heavy reliance on the aforementioned potatoes or other mysterious carbs (what starchy root vegetable is a Yorkshire and why is it made into a pudding?)

I like the stuff that, in a pinch, could be used as a building material. You know, to stucco something perhaps, or be a passable substitute for mortar. We’re talking bubble and squeak. Bangers and mash. Jacket potatoes with baked beans and cheese. Toad in the hole. Welsh rarebit.

I didn’t even scratch the surface of my love of British food during our recent trip to London. I had forgotten all about my love of a good Ploughman’s lunch until we were almost departing. I never did seek out a Lancashire hot pot or a Cornish pasty. No stottie cakes doused in gravy (to be fair, stottie cakes are generally hard to find anyways). We’ll have to save all those delicacies for next time.

Here are a few British things I ate and loved this trip:

Full English breakfast – Since our hotel, the W Leicester Square, included a breakfast buffet every morning, we really only went out for breakfast once – our first morning in London. We were jet lagged and tired from sitting on the plane but we couldn’t check in yet (we’d been upgraded to a suite, which is all very nice, until you find out that the previous suite occupant has asked for a late checkout).

We went to a place recommended by our friend Amy, the Grazing Goat. It’s a small, bright gastropub that’s part of a boutique hotel on one of those posh, Georgian townhouse-lined streets near Marble Arch.

Since it was a Sunday, there were quite a few families with small, needy, yelling children smearing dippy eggs and soldiers all over their pink British cherub cheeks. If I liked children and their hippy parents, I’m sure I would have found it adorable. As it was, it was a lot for my jet-lagged self to handle.

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The tables were (of course) wobbly and the service was a bit spotty, but the English breakfast made it (mostly) worthwhile. Eggs, streaky bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, beans, toast and hold the black pudding, please.

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I skipped the tea and went for something a bit more caffeinated, but I cannot for the life of me imagine why I didn’t get a Bloody Mary or mimosa to soothe my nerves and pre-game for the Tottenham soccer match we went to later that day. Did I mention we had literally just flown in?  I think I was worried I’d fall asleep if I started drinking.

Fish and chips with mushy peas – My default British meal (and everyone else’s). I think I had these at least four time over the eight days we were there. Maybe five. Each place had their pros and cons: one place had better chips, another had better fish, yet another had a better batter. My favorite was the place we went on our first night: The Brewmaster Pub in Leicester Square. The haddock was great, the chips were triple fried, the homemade tartar sauce was wonderful and the mint in the mushy peas really cinched it for me.

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These are not the fish and chips at the Brewmaster. I forgot to get a photo of those. These are the fish and chips I had approximately 18 hours later at Villiers in Embankment. Very cute, nice place. Not as yummy as the Brewmaster. And much more expensive. 

Steak and kidney pie – I’m generally not a fan of offal, something that is very hard to avoid in jolly olde England. They’ll eat just about any organ over there. But, when your black cab tour guide suggests you try the steak and kidney pie at the oldest restaurant in London – Rules in Covent Garden — you just do it. Plus, it was the only pie option on the menu and it looked very, very good.

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I even ate a few of the kidney bits, all mixed in with the steak and awesome gravy and pastry, and washed down with lots of red wine. It was actually very good. Well, at least I didn’t die or anything.

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The old clubby atmosphere at Rules and plethora of animal trophy heads (there must be hundreds) can’t be beat, either. Just be sure to take your coat with you to the bathroom…those back stairs are drafty.

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(I did have a steak and ale pie at another pub later in the trip, but it was pretty meh.)

Sticky toffee pudding – After so bravely swallowing many small bits of gamey kidney, I figured I deserved a dessert. And my favorite dessert in the whole wide world is sticky toffee pudding. Rules does it up right, serving the (yes, sticky) toffee syrup-soaked cake with a dollop of just slightly tart crème fraiche. It was not my only sticky toffee pudding this trip, but it was by far the best. Maybe it was because of all the animal heads placidly watching me devour something not derived from them.

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Sunday roast – The event I had been planning and waiting for the whole trip and it did not disappoint. We had so many options to pick from, but I had read an article in Time Out about London chefs and what their favorite new restaurants were in 2015. Blacklock was mentioned time and again. It was my birthday and Mother’s Day (in Britain, at least) so I was extra glad we had made a reservation.

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The restaurant is located in a Soho basement and has lots of communal tables full of folks sharing plates heaped with slabs of meat.

This was after our appetizer of bone marrow, because, well, England and weird meat byproducts. (Seriously, is there anything more invasive than eating the marrow of another animal? “Let’s see. I could gnaw at your tendons and tear your flesh into bite size pieces, but that just doesn’t seem to be sufficient. I know! Let’s crack open a bone and get at the gelatinous molecules inside there.”) I try to be a good sport and try everything, even if I have had it before and didn’t like it because you never know. But no. Still not a fan.

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We ordered what I’m affectionately calling the Gluttonous Americans Special, also known as the All In: roast lamb, pork and beef with duck fat potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, carrots and some broccolini, and a large, delicious boat of salty brown gravy– all for 20 GBP a person.

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The waiters were wonderful, very chatty and friendly and they politely looked the other way when I ate all of my Yorkshire pudding, half of XFE’s and the entire third one that I think we were supposed to share. They humored us while we marveled at the fact that Sunday roasts with all the trimmings hadn’t taken off in the U.S. yet.

Sadly, Blacklock did not have sticky toffee pudding and I know this because I asked, even though I was uncomfortably full and sweating meat by that point. I’m pretty sure I would have found a way to get one last dessert in.

London Experiences We’re Skipping

Editor’s note: Seems XFE has really taken to this whole blogging business and has come up with another post to fill the void while we’re in London this week. Enjoy!

You recently may have gotten your football related fill here on ThePoeLog, but we are currently in London to celebrate Poe’s birthday week, and we have football on the agenda three times here in London. Once we return I will have a full break down on the games we attended, but in the meantime I figured I would share part of our experience getting tickets and more importantly the “Matchday Experience” we considered but ultimately decided to skip.

Once we settled on London as the destination for this year’s birthday trip, I immediately turned to the current schedule for the Barclay’s English Premier League soccer and most importantly our beloved Tottenham Hotspurs. Thrilled beyond belief it looked like Tottenham was playing an away match at East London West Ham on Wednesday and a home game against rivals Arsenal in the North London Derby (pronounced darby) on the following Saturday. Two Tottenham games, all in London, the week we are planning to be in town. The mere coincidence of these games aligning with Poe’s birthday brought tears of joy to my eyes.

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It is his tight bikini underwear that make him so sensitive.

(Editor: please note that after XFE wrote this little post, he convinced me to move up our trip up by a day in order to attend a THIRD Tottenham game — this one against Swansea this past Sunday.)

Sure, the schedule included a random weeknight game in Stoke-on-Trent that I briefly was going to try and work into the program, but two games in London for our team was the minimum and I was excited.

What started to happen next can only be viewed as a blessing and a curse. First, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United started the season in less than the outstanding form expected by most and the League took on a bizarre life of its own where Leicester City was leading the standings and others were struggling to keep pace.

Second, our Spurs started winning and, even more importantly, not losing. Meaning that by Christmas, they were real contenders for cracking into the top four and even pushing higher in the table. (Note: At the time of writing, Tottenham sits in second place, tied with Arsenal, but a game between writing and publication of this post may change the live standings. If you want live standings, go elsewhere, I am not Rebecca Lowe, for heaven’s sake.)

So, as the New Year launched and Tottneham climbed in the table, my worries about getting tickets increased to a level of pure concern and angst. No tickets for sale were showing up on the usual suspect reseller websites and there was no way we were getting tickets through the club being the lowly American foreigners that we are. A £89 British Pound fee can get you a membership to the supporters club, but that does not guarantee you tickets, just the right to buy tickets from the club towards the back of the line. So rather than waste £89, we started exploring other options.

Fresh off our recent VIP experience in Bilbao, we discovered the Tottenham VIP experiences on their website and sent off an email to inquire. The next morning I awoke to find a very nice email informing me that VIP tickets were still available for the Arsenal home match in something called the “Bill Nicholson Suite.” Wow, this might be easier than I expected. This would get us guaranteed access to the game, meaning that I (we) were guaranteed to see at least one of the two matches for our Hotspurs.

In addition to having availability, the email included the following in response to me mentioning why we’re attending the game:

“On top of the listed details, to make it extra special for your Girlfriend’s birthday, I’d happily get her name included in our Matchday programme and arrange for her to have a photo with a first team player after the game!”

Well, just send the Best Boyfriend in the World trophy over right now, because this competition is locked up. Sorry, Ronaldo! So what else does this experience include?

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“Four Course Buffet?” must be a British thing, but ok fine.

Seems like a nice way to spend a day enjoying our team, and “buffet” means I can avoid another international soccer VIP experience incident with Poe like the one we had in Bilboa. And free bar “throughout” the day, what can be wrong with that? Digging a little further, we can find some nice pictures of the room and it looks perfectly acceptable. There is a dress code, but I am sure we can work with that little requirement.

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So now, the only question I had was: What is this little experience going to cost me?

If you have felt the anticipation building, you were right to feel that way and here you go. This wonderful British soccer experience can be yours for the low, low price of £649 British Pounds plus VAT per person. Well, that sounds….expensive? Not expensive? I don’t know.

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The typical reaction to math at ThePoeLog.

For those without calculators handy, let me help. Currently ,the VAT tax is 20% and in mid-January when I received the email, £1 was equal to $1.43. So, adding the VAT, which was £130, and the currency conversion meant that each ticket would cost $1,113.68 per person! Yep, that’s right, for a mere $2,227 Poe and I could have a great birthday experience at the home of our favorite EPL team.

As the shock settled in, I actually considered spending the money. I didn’t want to, but I did want to go to the game.

My head was working overtime trying to justify the expenses and rationalize that I had used points and miles for the flights and hotels, so this was going to be my big expense, etc.–all the usual tricks to say “yes, this is worth it.”

I think I had even manage to convince Poe that we should just bite the bullet, but in the end, we said “NO.” My Boyfriend of the Year trophy would just have to be earned another way, because the Tottenham VIP experience was not going to be my ticket to glory.

So this week while we are in London, we will be skipping the Tottenham Bill Nicholas Suite Experience. But fear not, we will still be going to the game. In fact we will be going to both of the games we identified for our trip. (ED note: Plus one more).

Yes, it will be expensive. No, there will not be a buffet or bar available to us during the game. But in the end, I am perfectly happy eating Pukka Pies and getting buzzed at the local pub before sneaking my road flares into the game.

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Pinxto Paradise: 5 Pinxto Bars in San Sebastian

I love San Sebastian. I fell for it hard on our first trip there in 2012 and I’m still enamored. I legitimately want to buy an apartment there. I’m not exactly in a position to do so just yet but a girl sure can dream.

So what do I love about San Sebastian? Oh, just the culture, the architecture, the shopping, the people, the vibe, and the food. Especially the food. But first, a little background: This coastal city (known in Basque as Donostia) is a cross between Paris and Barcelona. With a gorgeous beach thrown in for good measure. It’s really just all too much of a good thing.

Which brings me to the food: San Sebastian is a serious foodie town with the most Michelin stars per capita in the world, second only to Kyoto, Japan. But when it comes to those mini works of culinary art known as pinxtos, I would argue that San Sebastian is home to the best.

Here are some of our favorites from this last visit:

Bar Txpetxa
Calle Pescaderia 5
If you want old school, this place is it. Txpetxa is a very traditional pinxto place featuring a fish-shaped menu hanging up behind the lacquered wooden bar. It’s primarily known for its antxoas or anchovies. The menu includes about 14 different types of pinxtos featuring its oceanic star, including one with blueberry jam which just sounds vile. I don’t know what would compel someone to put those things together. We skipped that one and ordered a couple of other anchovy-based pintxos. I, however, can’t stand anchovies, so to me, it tasted like cat food on bread. XFE has more refined tastes and he seemed to choke them down just fine. It’s tradition and I gave it a try.

Zeruko
Calle Pescaderia 10

Once we were done with our catfood and ready to give traditional pinxtos a swift kick in the scallops, we crossed the street over to Zeruko. This place is all about cool, modern molecular pinxtos. The mile-long bar display is a sensory overload as you try to make out just what ingredients are in each pinxto. Befuddled and overwhelmed, we settled on a few from the display (versus ordering off the kitchen board), including this gilded and grilled artichoke stuffed with a creamy filling topped with grilled scallops. We did not get Zeruka’s most famous dish, bacalao la hoguera, a piece of cod served up on a little grill that cooks in front of you.

A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31
Continuing on the experimental pinxto vein, we made sure to go nice and early to the much-hyped A Fuego Negro. We had tried to go the last time we were in the Parte Viejo, but the place was packed and we just couldn’t be bothered. On this visit, we had the Makobe with txips- a Kobe slider served in a tomato sauce bun with banana chips, and pajarito fritos, which was sort of their spin on chicken wings featuring some small—not chicken—bird. Pretty yummy and American-taste-bud friendly.

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Mayor Kalea, 18 (right next to—and affiliated with–our old favorite Atari Gastroleku)
The definition of Sirimiri is “a very light rain; stronger than mist but less than a shower.” What a great word! Sirimiri features a good mix of playful pinxtos with traditional. We had their version of “natxos” and some really wonderful roasted goat topped with pickled cabbage. They also, like their sister bar, make an unbelievably good gin and tonic, which Spain, and San Sebastian in particular, has elevated to an art form. Very small interior but wonderful, buzzy vibe.

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La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
Saving the best for last: our favorite pinxto place in the whole wide world (so far). We love La Cuchara and every time we go (which can sometimes mean twice a day), we are constantly blown away by this place. How, oh how, does it not have a Michelin star? But don’t take my word for it: On our second night there, we struck up a conversation with a girl standing next to us at the bar. She told us she had been an apprentice chef at two-Michelin star Mugaritz and this was her last night in San Sebastian and she just had to eat at La Cuchara one last time.

We ate pretty much everything on the menu, revisiting some of our favorites from our last visit:  veal cheeks slow cooked in wine till they fall apart, bacon-wrapped scallop, cochinillo or suckling pig with an apple puree and topped with crispy skin. We discovered a couple of new favorites: grilled goat cheese with peppers, and roasted salt cod (bacalao) with tzatziki. And one dish that I did not care for: pig trotters. I am just not a fan of gelatinous proteins.

On our final night in San Sebastian, we reluctantly said goodbye to our bartender friend at La Cuchara and stumbled out onto the cobblestone streets with full bellies, trying to wrap our minds around all the new flavor combinations and textures we had had this trip. It’s impossible to pick a favorite pinxto, but I do know this: we will be back, San Sebastian. As soon as I win the lottery and can plunk down a down payment that apartment overlooking La Concha beach.

GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain: La Liga in Bilboa

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain. Part 1: UEFA in Bilbao is here and Part 2: Copa del Rey in San Sebastian is here.  

Our third and final game of our trip to northern Spain would take us back to Bilbao and a La Liga game between Athletic Bilbao and Levante.

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One would think a game scheduled for an early Sunday evening in the top league in Spain would not be expected to be heavily attended, especially as the opponents are one of the country’s smaller football clubs.

But, surprisingly, navigating the process of acquiring tickets proved to be harder than usual. In the end, the concierge at our hotel in San Sebastian was able to arrange for us to have VIP tickets in Bilboa, which as explained to us, “included a welcome reception, refreshments and free WI-FI.”

Neither Poe nor I were particularly excited by this description of the “VIP experience,” or the uptick in ticket prices, but in the end we consoled ourselves with the fact that we definitely had tickets and we were excited for the game. We did do a little additional Internet research to understand that the “VIP experience” was something that the club had added as part of the new stadium the team moved into in 2014.

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San Mames Stadium

As usual, football Sunday arrived and we headed out to the pintxos bars with the masses for snacks and cocktails in the streets before heading for the stadium. This process always requires a delicate balance as a few too many drinks during pregame may result in having to sit through a 90-minute match buzzed and without more drinks available, as most European stadiums do not serve alcohol inside during the game. So we did our best, with Poe testing the limits of her tolerance, and we eventually headed to the stadium well-lubricated to cheer on our adopted Spanish team.

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After a trek to the Will Call window and VIP entrance, an elevator dropped us on the level of our “VIP” experience. Here we were met with a large room lined by a bar, soft comfortable seating and high top tables for mingling and snacking. We quickly approached the bar to find complimentary beer/wine and even gin and tonics, and made ourselves at home at a high top table. The room was enclosed by glass on one side and looked into the stadium over six rows of seats separated from the other sections of the stadium.

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What we learned during our visit was that the team built a section/level of six rows of seats around the entire perimeter of the stadium–all backed with the VIP areas, including bars, restrooms and catering facilities. It was like a group private box where you could sit in the seats outside or stand behind the glass and enjoy the game from general warmth and comfort. The VIP tickets also entitled you to an assigned outdoor seat, and refreshments and drinks before, during and after the game.

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As we sat enjoying our VIP beverages, it became clear that Poe was in need of a snack to soak up her wine from the pre-game pub crawl. A steady stream of servers carrying trays of food towards various areas of the VIP section kept walking by, but none of them were near us.

But when in a foreign country, the next embarrassing cultural incident is just around the corner, so we waited patiently for some snacks to be dropped off near us. As time passed, trips to the bathroom were made, a small bowl of mix nuts was discreetly devoured, and I started in on another cocktail.

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After what seemed like ages, a server carrying a nice tray of meats, cheeses and other snacks appeared and was walking toward us.  As she approached with a friendly smile, she raised the tray towards Poe–who delirious from hunger and too much wine–reached out her hands to take the entire tray of snacks from the server, only to be met with a disapproving head shake and a vanishing smile. Poe quickly changed course, swiping three or four of the snacks to a napkin as she turned away from the server and what she thought was her loot of snacks for the taking. After a few sheepish minutes of snacking, a new strategy was devised–move tables in hopes that a new server could be lured into the trap being laid by Poe.

While no entire trays were captured, a few more satisfying snacks were had and we moved outside to our seats for the first half. Despite several chances to score, neither team was able to convert in the first half and time expired with the score tied at zero.

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During halftime, we again headed inside to warm up a little and grab another cocktail and snack. While neither Poe nor I were particularly excited about the VIP experience initially, it really turned out to be quite nice. Plenty of food and drink was available, no lines to the bathroom, and overall, it added a pleasant little way to pass the half.

I will acknowledge that, right now at least, it seems like only a few people have begun to embrace the idea of the VIP experience. I would suspect that at a sold out game or as popularity grows that the experience may become a little more hurried and not seem quite as exclusive.

Before long the second half kicked off and we returned to our seats. Athletic Bilbao started the second half strong and it was not long until the team scored their first goal and really looked to be cruising towards a victory. A second goal late in the second half sealed the deal and Athletic Club went on to win 2-to-0.

La Liga

As we left our seats and headed back into the inside VIP area, racks of chocolate treats and small deserts had been set up and the bar was again open for patrons to sit and enjoy one last drink before leaving the stadium. While our ticket entitled us to stay for up to an hour, we decided to head back into the city center and grab one last cocktail among the fans.

Quite honestly, leaving San Mames stadium is a great experience as roughly 40,000 people all depart on foot into the streets of the city. Celebrating the win, the crowd is happy and boisterous, chants still emanating as families quickly stop to pose for pictures, and the diehard fans head back to the bars for more pintxos and vino.

Poe and I made our way to a local waterhole focused on gin, where we sat trying new gins among the local fans as they enjoyed the rest of their evening.

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After our drinks, Poe and I made one more stop before the hotel for donner kebab. Yep, that’s right kebab–the trusted food of the partier everywhere. Greasy mystery meat, ranch dressing and spicy sauce all on a flat bread. Yes, there are better things to eat in Spain and most of the world, but sometimes a kebab is just what the doctor ordered. I would be lying if I claimed the doctor had prescribed me donner kebabs only once on this trip, but hey, I love them.

As I wiped sauce from my chin, I smiled and reflected on having just enjoyed another great night of the world’s sport in Spain. And just in case Poe somehow decided to keep the party going, I grabbed a couple of extra Radlers to take back with us on the walk back to the hotel.

In the end, three more European football games seen in person and a multitude of new experiences had. Poe and I had an amazing soccer experience the first time we saw a game in Bilbao. We were always worried that that experience could never be recreated, and while great experiences are hard to duplicate, our games in Spain this trip were all equally great and created a new set of memories that we will be talking about in the future. So next time you are on the road, pick a new experience, cheer yourself on with a “gumbate,”  and enjoy.

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GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain Part II: Copa del Rey in San Sebastian

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain. Part 1: UEFA in Bilbao is here.  

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The next game on our agenda was in San Sebastian, and was a contest scheduled as part of the Copa del Rey. The Copa is a tournament that allows teams from across Spain to compete for a title. The teams not only include those in the top tier of the league (La Liga), but other teams from lower divisions who are selected based on both competition and a lottery. The tournament starts in September with 83 teams and will work down to a single winner by the following May.

The game we attended was one in the round of 32 where teams play a home/away format to determine the winner. This means that each pair of teams plays twice to determine who will move on to the next round. Each team plays one game at home and one game away and the aggregate score of the two matches determines the winner.

The match we attended was the second leg between the home team Real Sociedad and Las Palmas, which is the team from the city with the same name that is the capital of Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s Canary Islands off northwestern Africa. Real Sociedad had lost the previous match 2-to-1 so they needed to score at least two goals in order to win the aggregate and move on to the next round.

Unlike our previous experience in Bilbao, we did not run into any traveling fans from Las Palmas, at least that we know of, and since the stadium is removed from the central city, it was tougher to identify fans that were out for pintxos before heading to the game.

Poe and I absolutely love the old part of San Sebastian and were perfectly happy grabbing vino and pintxos in the city center before grabbing a taxi for the 10 minute ride to the stadium.

Once on the stadium grounds, we saw fans streaming in from the neighborhood as well as what seemed like 50 different public buses that were convening near the front entrance. As is our custom, we quickly purchased a scarf with the colors of the home team and headed to our seats.

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The Anoeta Stadium opened in 1993, but appears to have used a 1970s design and left much to be desired aesthetically, especially after Bilbao’s shiny new San Mames stadium. But it was holding a good crowd that night as we took our seats in the second level at about midfield. The tickets, which our hotel concierge had helped us get, were really good and among some of the best in the stadium. It was clear that we were seated among several of the city’s diehard season ticket holders.

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As kickoff time neared, we did seem to notice some angst amongst the small group of locals next to us. They were particularly bothered by the heavy cigar smoke wafting up from a few rows in front of us. Poe and I also found the smoke to be annoying and on some level nauseating, but the woman next to us was frantically waiving her program to disperse the smoke, all while glaring at the group of smokers two rows ahead.

So as glaring continued and smoke rose through the stands, the game finally kicked off. It was clear almost immediately that these two Spanish teams were not quite on par with some of the other popular Spanish clubs or even the teams we had just watched five nights prior. The game took on a ragged sense and the fans sense of disappointment was clearly evident as each missed pass or bad shot was met with loud groans or halfhearted sighs of disappointment. The crowd became further disappointed when midway through the first half, Las Palmas scored meaning that on an aggregate basis, the home team was now trailing 2-0.

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Halftime was Poe’s favorite part because immediately every single person around us broke out their own bocadillos – sandwiches – to eat during the break.

Halftime became welcome relief for the fans as their hope for making it to the next round of tournament play seemed all but lost in the current score. So as the second half started and a fresh round of cigars were lit, Poe and I moved to some open seats at the end of our row for fresh air and the second half.

Things were underway and it was not long before Real Sociedad had their first goal of the match, which instantly injected the fans with a fresh dose of hope for a victory. The goal was almost a cruel treat for the fans surrounding us as it did not represent hope for a team struggling to come back against a perceived weaker opponent.

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One of the offending cigar smokers.

As the half continued, the cheers grew louder, the jeering at mistakes grew more vile, and the hand talking became more dangerous to those sitting nearby. Somewhere in this stretch of fans, Poe and I were able to pick out most of the foul Spanish language we learned as kids growing up in El Paso and southern California, respectively. It was around this time when the woman down the row from us pointed out that one of the player’s mothers was a woman of questionable morals, perhaps even accepting money in return for affection. Several more chances for the tying goal were missed until the crowd threw in the towel as the final whistle blew.

In the end, Real Sociedad was not able to overcome the deficit and the fans quickly filed out of the stadium to return and fight (ok cheer) another day.

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Check back later this week for my final post on a La Liga game in Bilboa.

GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain: UEFA in Bilboa

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain, and we’ll be posting them throughout the week.  

While this installment of ThePoeLog may not be geared to the usual audience searching for cat stories or reality TV updates, it may let you in on a little secret about maximizing experiences during travel.

The key here is to understand that ThePoeLog coach-for-life XFE, loves a little soccer or “football” as it is known to the rest of the world. This does not just mean the occasional game, but a true following of our adopted team–the Tottenham Hotspurs in the English Premier League (EPL)–and a general desire to witness soccer festivities around the world. To date, we have seen games in Ireland, Italy (3 games), Sweden and Spain (4 games). An upcoming trip to London will take us to two EPL games, both for our beloved Spurs.

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What is great about a football match–or any sporting event truly loved by the home country–is the people and the passion. There is no single more fundamental and direct way to appreciate the people, passion and culture of a city or country than sport.

Take for example, our trip to see sumo wrestling in Japan. Seven very out-of-place Americans had box seats for the second day of the Winter Sumo tournament in Osaka. We arrived early to the festivities, learned that we should have brought our own food and drink, and relied heavily on a printout from Wikipedia to understand the spectacle we were witnessing.

However, despite clearly being out of place, the small Japanese grandfather in the box next to us was quick to lean over and offer us his sake as an introduction to his culture and the sport of sumo. As the afternoon wore on, we smiled, drank sake and yelled “gambate,” the traditional sumo cheer, which roughly translates to “try your best.” An experience and memory that resonates with me today despite having been almost eight years ago.

So as our trip to the Basque region in northern Spain developed, the opportunity to search out football games began. While it originally looked like our schedule had us just missing games in our planned destination cities, the stars aligned and it turned out that not only would we be able to get to one game, but three, all in different “competitions” or “tournaments” over the course of our 10 day trip.

First up was the UEFA Europa League match between the home team Athletic Bilbao and AZ Alkmaar from the Netherlands. Scheduled for a 9:00 pm start on our day of arrival in Bilbao, we both knew it would be a great way to stay up and fight the jet lag to get set on the new time zone.

While accurate thinking in theory, the execution is always a little more challenging and Poe may have grabbed a quick cat nap sometime during the first half, but our first game of the trip was an experience not to be missed. Soccer in Bilbao is special. We have been before and having the opportunity to go again was amazing.

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Poe took the pictures, which might account for their blurriness.

We headed out from our hotel after a quick siesta in search of some of the same great bars and tapas places we had visited almost three years prior. We walked through the park towards downtown streets which became more familiar as the red and white striped colors of the home team hung from doorways and on scarves around the necks of our fellow fans. We visited a couple of familiar spots and found a few new ones, sipping on glasses of wine and enjoying fresh pintxos as we went.

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One great thing about a Europa League match, which we had not experienced previously, is that fans from the away teams actually travel to see their team play. What better excuse for a group of friends to take a 90-minute flight to a far off city for a couple of days then a soccer match. New country, new experience, and an excuse for a quick vacation.

So it was at one bar where we ended up seated across from a Spanish-speaking barman next to a group of non-Spanish speaking soccer fans from the Netherlands. What ensued was why I love going to soccer in Europe.

Our new friends from the Netherlands were enjoying Spanish culture by the plate–but more importantly wine bottle full–and it was clear that the significant others that may be waiting back at home were not high on the priority list during this “boys” trip. So when the buys decided to try to ask the bartender where the local “strip” club was for after the game, it was Poe and her broken Spanish that were called into action. Translating poor English from the Netherlands into broken Spanish required not only words, but sign language, whereby Poe pretended to be lifting her shirt and dancing for the barman all to the howl of our friends form the Netherlands.

And guess what? It worked! The bartender knew exactly what the guys were looking for and drew them a map for after the game. While not exactly an international peace treaty, at the time, this was the most important issue being addressed by the representatives of these three countries.

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Bilboa’s new stadium, San Mames.

Major international issue completed, the crowd continued growing in the streets as locals prepared for the game. Glass after glass of wine was ordered and passed to revelers as they filled the streets in front of bars on the way to the stadium. Then, finally, about 20 minutes before kickoff, the crowd seemed to move as a single unit towards the gates and seats of the stadium. As we took our seats in the stadium we were surrounded by fellow fans and enjoyed 90 minutes of sport while cheering and chanting for today’s home team, who went on to tie 2-2 after conceding a late own goal.

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A far less jet-lagged group of supporters, no doubt.

After traveling overnight the evening before, partying into the night was not on the agenda and we quickly returned to our room for some well-deserved sleep.

Check back later this week for my post on the Copa del Rey cup in San Sebastian.

Back to the Basque

Hola, mis gentes. And Happy New Year! (Where did 2015 go? Seriously. I can’t believe it’s a new year. I’m woefully unprepared.)

My travel-compadre-for-life and I have had a sort of travel rule for the last 10 years, which is: “Let’s go to new places. Places that neither of us have ever been.” After all, the world is a large, wonderful and varied place. We’ve hardly exhausted our options. There’s always some place new to go.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s one we’ve generally followed.

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Me at an Athletic Bilboa game in 2012. Per XFE’s preference, he’s cropped out. Except the tip of his thumb.

The thing is, as we get to a stage where we’ve done quite a bit of traveling, we find ourselves wanting to go back to places we’ve already been. We want a second chance at something, maybe it was another day at that secluded beach in Vieques or a trip to the Big Easy without stitches.

And so, in December, while the rest of the world was buying Christmas presents and attending holiday parties, we instead found ourselves revisiting the Basque region of northern Spain. We just had to go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. And recreate that wonderful day of soccer in Bilboa. And stay in my favorite hotel again in my favorite European city.

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A nice moody picture of La Cuchara San Telmo, our favorite restaurant in San Sebastian.

You know what? It wasn’t exactly the same as that first magical trip, when everything was unknown and each experience was completely new. For example, the late-night kebab place next to our hotel in Bilboa wasn’t as delectable as it was when we went there after the soccer match on our last trip (for one thing, I had had quite a few gin and tonics that evening….). But it was pretty fantastic, and in some ways, even better.

We did go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. Twice. And it was freaking phenomenal. (Don’t worry: We also hit up a whole bunch of new-to-us places as well. We ate all of the pinxtos. All of them.)

My favorite hotel upgraded us to an even more ridiculously luxurious room than last time.

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This was our terrace. Just ours. We didn’t have to share it or anything.

We pretty much recreated that wonderful day of pub crawling and soccer in Bilboa, not once, but twice, watching two Athletic Bilboa games in the team’s fancy new stadium. We even got tickets to the swanky VIP suite for one of the games, which has completely spoiled me for any future soccer matches. Plus, we saw a match in San Sebastian, so we basically tripled our soccer gluttony compared to our 2012 visit.

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It was all slightly familiar and comforting in a lot of ways. While it wasn’t what some travel guides would call a “journey of discovery,” it was great to cut through all the angst of getting somewhere and not knowing what you want to do first or where to go for dinner. The whole trip had a bit of nostalgia to it. Almost every sentence began with, “Well, when we were here last time…”

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Another XFE hand shot. I feel like we’ve been here before….

The world is a very big and varied place and there are plenty of places to go, but sometimes, going to a place you’ve been before offers up the opportunity to take a little trip down memory lane and revisit old favorites. After all, we don’t stay the same and neither do our favorite destinations. And that late-night kebab place deserves a second, more sober visit (but probably not a third visit. I think we’re good on that one).

The Inherent Romance of a Hypothetical Near-Death Experience

(photo via 1000 Awesome Things)

I know I declared romance to be all but dead just last week, but I wanted to share a recent text exchange between myself and my spousal equivalent, XFE. I think it perfectly highlights how love (and concern for your partner’s welfare) can continue to bloom despite distance, bad dining choices, and self-inflicted injuries.

Sure, it’s not the passionate stuff we used to send each other 10 or so years ago, but just knowing I can inadvertently scare the bejesus out of XFE on a moment’s notice is it’s own kind of small thrill.

Let me set the scene: XFE was hundreds of miles away on a mid-week work trip in a town with limited dining options. I have made dinner for myself at home, courtesy of Blue Apron.

This fairly typical, totally normal text exchange illustrates a couple of things:

  • Fried sage is a lovely and tasty garnish, but deceptively dangerous.
  • I am prone to choking (true.)
  • XFE is a very tolerant boyfriend who is used to high drama and hyperbole.
  • Cats are horrible EMTs; ergo:
  • I will probably die at home alone from a freak choking incident only to be found by XFE days later with a cat nibbling on my toe. (My biggest fear).

XFE: Took the crew to Ruby Tuesday for dinner tonight.

Me: Nice. Did you get fries?

XFE: No, I am having a salad, fish tacos and ice t

Me: If you come home and I’m dead, it’s because I have a piece of fried sage lodged in my throat. On the left hand side. Just scratching and stuck.

Me: Thanks, Blue Apron.

XFE: Try some water.

XFE: R u going to be ok?

Me: It’s just annoying. I’m not coughing or choking or anything.

XFE: Well, the “I’m dead” might have indicated it could have been more serious.

Me: Sorry. It was really annoying.

XFE: Glad ur ok

Me: I think I’m gonna make it. Call off the 911. Petunia finally showed up to seek her dinner, so I feel like I’m in good hands.

XFE: Glad to hear HR has u covered.

Me: You know it. Whew.

Me: Also, I burned my thumb. Knew I shoulda ordered pizza.

XFE: Sorry to hear. R u ok?

Me: Yes, it was actually really good. Now I’m watching a documentary with Toons. Bye.

Fantasy v. Reality: Work Trips

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My enamorado XFE has deserted me once again.

OK, fine, that’s a bit dramatic, I suppose. He’s travelling for work this week.

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(picture courtesy of Donny Miller/MisterUnicorn.com)

It’s actually been several months since XFE has been a work-road-warrior. I’d gotten pretty comfortable with him around all the time.

Which is why it feels like total desertion.

Of course, it doesn’t help that he’s leaving the frigid Arctic of D.C. for the sunny shores of California this week.

I’m more than a bit jealous. But I do have to admit, sometimes having perspective on these things is a bit difficult.

For example, there’s what I imagine his flight and arrival are like:

After five hours of guzzling champagne and imbibing in warm macadamia nuts, XFE lands in California, picks up his convertible, and armed with a miraculously traffic-avoiding GPS, arrives minutes later at his luxury hotel, where check in is immediate and completely painless and includes an upgrade to a top floor suite complete with a 1,000-foot deck overlooking ocean waves.

XFE riding his ocean-wave loving unicorn. In his suit. 

Here’s the likely reality:

XFE arrives at Dulles at the crack of dawn, his wallet $100 lighter after his 45-minute cab ride. After a pre-dawn rubdown by TSA, he makes his way to the gate area, where he finds that his flight has been delayed. His breakfast options at this hour are Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. So he can have a scone with his coffee or a doughnut with his coffee. Did I mention that XFE doesn’t drink coffee?

Finally, his flight begins to board. Thanks to his ever-vigilant miles hoarding, he is upgraded and allowed to board in the first group. After wedging his suitcase in the overhead compartment, he settles in to his aisle seat, while the stewardess leans perilously over him and plays overhead Tetris with two other pieces of oversized luggage that ultimately will be gate-checked. Boarding continues, with XFE being whacked repeatedly by backpacks of disgruntled coach passengers passing him on their way to the back of the plane.

Upon landing, XFE will navigate the unknown airport to find the car rental garage and retrieve his lime green Chevy Spark which is a hybrid vehicle and as such, will shut off at every stop light. It also contains a GPS that is determined to drive XFE and his luggage into every available body of water along the route. There will, of course, be tons of traffic, lots of detours, and streets that are one-way between the hours of 9 a.m. and 7 a.m. on all days ending with “y.”

XFE will arrive at the hotel where he will be told that yes, he has been upgraded to a suite, thanks to all his Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty, but his suite won’t be ready for another two hours. He’s welcome to wait at the bar. Or, check in to a smaller room and move all his stuff tomorrow morning before he starts his work day.

Continue reading Fantasy v. Reality: Work Trips