So despite watching NI get bit of a tanking at the hands of the Azzuro I got to spend a bit of October 2011 in sunshine at 30 degrees!! Pleasant I think we’d all agree!! One of the great things about watching International Football is that every now & then it gives you the chance to get to an interesting place and a bit of winter sunshine.
The journey itself started with a jaunt to Northern Ireland last Friday morning… and the start of my issues!! As I’ve just moved home, getting to Gatwick Airport for 0720 on a Friday morning was always going to be more complicated than my previous ‘walk to London Bridge’ approach. Yet I’d done my home work, booked my tickets & knew what I was to do.
So at 0515 the alarm went off, I got showered, grabbed my bags & was off to the bus stop to catch the 0600 bus to Streatham Common rail station. I was in good time, approximately 15 minutes ahead of my train, which was being displayed on the information board. Only when the train in front of it appeared on the platform and the information board was updated was it noted that my train was cancelled.
So I spoke to the station guard who assured me that I should head for Clapham Junction on the next train from platform 2 and change there… so off I go to platform 2. I guess because I’m a suspicious person by nature, I decided it would be a good idea to call National Rail Enquiries to check out the information & see what the journey would look like. This turned out to be a waste of time. The customer representative on the phone didn’t seem to recognise that the next train leaving Streatham Common was actually going to Clapham Junction!!
Regardless I jumped upon the next train towards Victoria, frantically clock watching… convinced that I was going to miss a flight for the first time. Arriving at Clapham Junction I had some good fortune in that a train for Brighton (and Gatwick Airport by default) was just arriving into the station, so I jumped upon it almost immediately and was off. Unfortunately I made the mistake of thinking that National Rail Enquiries might be useful for a second time in one day (possibly a lack of sleep impacting on my decision making abilities?!). Asking the customer representative what time my train might get into Gatwick Airport, he seemed to think my question was what train should I change on to at East Croydon before proceeding to the airport… at the third attempt to ask the question in a restrained fashion, he just gave in & said the exact same time as an alternative route.
He was wrong.
The train started running behind schedule and eventually loped into Gatwick at 0730 – only 50 minutes ahead of schedule, but thankfully enough time for me to check in my bag & get to the departure gate without too much issue.
And so I go to Belfast & to Dina’s flat to drop off some things for her, before going to collect match tickets and then try to catch a bus to the city centre to meet up with Dina for Lunch at Deane’s Deli. Judging by it’s other clientele, I’m pretty sure that my combat trouser / hoodie attire was not the norm, nor to be encouraged, though in fairness to the staff, the colour of my money clearly was the only real requirement to dine there at lunch!!
On the Saturday Dina & I sat down and went through a pile of wedding stuff to try & get our heads in gear for sorting out Photographers & Videographers for the big day… and actually, between us we had rather good fun!! I’m quite enjoying the wedding planning aspect of engagement!!
I headed down to Fermanagh for the Saturday night & Sunday to see the parents and catch up… and of course enjoy mother’s fine cooking before heading up to Belfast on the Sunday afternoon as I was getting a late bus down to Dublin Airport for my flight to Italy on the Monday morning. The 0100 bus as it turned out… so a rough hour sleep on that, a couple of hours of enforced eye-opening before boarding at 0600 and out for the count for two and half hours on the flight and I was in Italy at the Campino Airport outside Rome. Some fellow from Belfast had organised a bus over to Pescara and we were off to the East Coast.
Italy is always one of those surprising places where you forget about the huge mountains running down the vein of the country and they clearly represented a massive engineering headache for the country when building it’s motorways. But manage they did with some impressive elevated motorway segments and tunnels the sub-three hour journey was a breeze.
Arriving in Pescara we discovered two things pretty quickly. Firstly that taxi drivers charge you for the journey to collect you (!!) and secondly that it was cold. Really cold!! I’d mistakenly assumed that the snow on the top of the mountains on our journey over was do to with the height of the peaks & the time of year… when in fact the whole region had had snow on the weekend!! Yikes!!
Fortunately it was at least sunny on the Monday, so a quick nap and Jonny & I were off down town to explore. At the very first cafe we called in to we settled down with some other NI supporters before three Italian women sat down next to us, so we started chatting… us in extremely poor Italian (I did a course a few years ago) and they in broken English which was a much better attempt at a second language than our own. For an hour or so, it was great fun before they retired & left us to fend for ourselves. So off we went on a cafe culture tour.
Everyone was extremely friendly wherever we went though as I’ve discovered on my three previous trips to Italy, English is not the forte… and yet the lack of ‘anglification’ in the place was a plus as well as an obstacle.
In one cafe we got to chatting with the owners – a married couple – about the game, work, living in Italy and as they were closing they offered us a lift to our next destination!! We accepted and I ended up in the back seat having a balloon fight with their six year old daughter… it was all rather good fun. At the final destination, Jayson’s, we were to meet up with the majority of the Northern Irish supporters and to compete in a ‘bad shirt night’… basically the worst shirt going wins… wins nothing but pride, but wins nonetheless!! I’d like to think my bright orange Diadora effort came close to the top, but also kept the locals on side (with it being an Italian brand & all).
Perhaps the highlight of the night though was meeting up with a couple of Canadians and having a good chat with them about Italy, football, Canada… before (as always) the conversation turned to Northern Ireland & the troubles. The conversation got on to the Hunger Strikes and by this stage a couple of other NI guys had joined in… one very well oiled. Anyways, when I agreed with his assertion that the Hunger Strikes were an attempt to improve equality for Roman Catholics in NI he was none too pleased. He then stated that I clearly wasn’t from Northern Ireland and that I should go outside with him to sort it all out, man to man!! I politely declined, though I did offer him a free swipe at me where I sat… he chickened out before staggering away. We all had a good giggle about it afters!!
So day one down and with day two being the match day, we didn’t really do much… the weather had picked up so we lazed about in the sun for most of it before heading to the game, losing and heading to bed. Day three was another pretty quiet affair with me lazily wandering about, finishing my book and then heading for a massage… which I actually fell asleep during!! So all in all a great relaxing day before heading for the plane station & my flight home.
I have to say that I probably wouldn’t rush back to Pescara, but it wasn’t that bad… I’ve certainly been in worse parts of Europe & Britain. Of course it was also my last holiday of the year (some weekend trips lined up but they don’t really count) so, on reflection, it wasn’t a bad way to end 2011. Here’s to happy holidays in 2012!!