Saturday, 3 February 2018

A different league

The trouble with America is that it's not particularly civilised.  Though I've been trying to correct this, I am but one man.  The arena this is most acutely felt is in sports; it's impossible to find any snooker, darts, or crown green bowls around here.  It makes you wonder what they've been up to since 1776.

So imagine my surprise/delight/incredulity to discover that some people with more money and less sense than me are trying to redress the balance with the launch of a new national sport: Major League Rugby.  2018 is the inaugural season and they're going all in, with the founding of seven franchises in various cities.  Would you know it, we have our own team!?  The Houston Sabercats.

The last time I watched live rugby was when I was playing in a match for Hannah's business school, the only different between me and an actual spectator being that I was standing on the field wearing boots.  This time I paid for my ticket and eagerly took my seat on the half-way line, looking forward to some banter with my fellow spectators and the kind of atmosphere that only a rugby match can bring.

Shockingly, rugby doesn't seem to be the best attended sport around here so as I sat, alone on the fifth row, eyeing the empty seats all about, I had to make do with muttering to myself about poor handling skills and occasionally explaining what was going on to an older couple behind me.  It didn't help that it's all played in a baseball stadium, the curve of the seating cutting off one corner of the pitch.  There was an embarrassing moment when - not being able to see - a try was celebrated, with flashing videoscreen and everything, when in fact it was a knock on.

The game was pretty good, with many of the players coming from college programs and no small number of English, Irish and Scots on the field.  No Welsh, because the best prefer to stay in God's own country.  The visiting Capital Select team kept passing too deep so built up no momentum but the Sabercats were massive in defense, their kicker slotted everything, and no one was scared of putting in big hits, a legacy of American football no doubt.

In the end the 'Cats won 49-3, which was a bit of an unfair scoreline.  But then is a scoreline ever unfair?  The geniuses behind Major League Rugby are certainly doing their best, with plenty of  giveaways, promotions, a ton of merchandise, etc.  The "Saberkitten" cheerleaders came out at half-time and threw T-shirts into the small but passionate crowd, although given the foggy, cold night (and the flashbacks this gave me to playing in those conditions all the time at school) they were mercifully wrapped up in puffy jackets.

Is it going to catch on?  Well...with limited opportunities for commercials every ten seconds, and a game where players have to make decisions on the field rather than be told what to do by a coach on the sidelines, rugby isn't the most natural fit for the American sporting model.  I enjoyed myself thoroughly, mostly due to the superior feeling of being one of the few in the stadium who knew the rules.  Still, it's the land of opportunity!  And now I await the launch of Major League Cricket.

#1 fan.  Or only one fan...?

Something tells me this isn't a purpose-built rugby stadium.

Hello?  Do I smell or something?

The Sabercats and the Selects lining up for the national anthem.  I began belting out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before realising my mistake.

A fine set piece.

'Cats dominant at the scrum.


More fireworks in the sky than on the field perhaps, but I'll be back!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

When the fun stops, stop

Birthday parties are big business around here, with your average five-yr-old get-together running at around $400.  Yep!  The Children's Museum, Natural History Museum, probably not the Fine Art Museum, are all in on it, and we've been to several fantastic bashes as Pete's school friends have aged.

Luckily for our pockets, Pete decided - adamantly - that he didn't want a birthday party.  Instead he opted for a day out with friend Conor.  But where to go?  A quick Groupon search by Hannah yielded the answer: Funplex.  You can't put a price on your child's happiness.

Funplex!  I mean, fun's in the name, right?  "Simply no other amusement park can compare to the 200,000 sq. foot establishment" boasts the website, before adding: "FunPlex was recently acquired by a new management team that has worked overtime to renovate the facility. By paying close attention to detail we can guarantee that on your next visit you will experience a NEW FunPlex."  Our next visit?  But what about this visit?

Well, arriving at 11am on a Sunday, I can tell you that (by paying close attention to detail) the cavernous place was deserted, the multitude of arcade machines blinking in syncopated solitude, the vast hulks of aging fairground rides silent and still.  Everything's inside, which adds to the echoing eeriness.  Not that Pete or Conor noticed, having disappeared among the arcade machines, happy to press buttons without even having to drop in quarters.  He's his father's son.

There were also ball pools and cargo nets, whole rooms filled with foam blocks covered with bite marks, bumper cars, a rollerskating rink and a bowling alley.  This place has everything!  We managed to calm the boys long enough to eat pizza and hamburgers in an aggressively mediocre "sports bar" (i.e. it had TVs) before bribing them to leave using candy.

So, as far as five-yr-olds go, a resounding success.  As far as I go?  I'm beginning to worry I was born too old for fun.

Funplex!  Shiny.

Why don't we focus on the arcade machines that don't include guns, eh?

Hannah, not too old for fun, joins the boys on the Ferris wheel.

Looks perfectly safe.

Cage them!

What flavour is the pink ones?

Surveying their domain.

The city of Las Vegas has something it'd like to talk to you about.

Onto the dodgems!

Or crashems, as it turned out.

Birthday fun.

Intense concentration on the motorbikes.

11pm!  I was done a little while before that...

Monday, 15 January 2018

High five

How come Pete keeps getting older but I stay looking the same age?  It's a mystery, as today our little baby boy celebrated his fifth birthday.  It's been a long journey from Obama's California to Trump's Texas but one thing that hasn't changed is Pete's constant, bouncy happiness - a joy at all times, especially 6.45am every weekend morning.

Happy birthday kid!

It's a serious business being five.

"You have to sing happy birthday five times because I'm five!"  As after control as every five-yr-old then.

Where does he get all his energy from...?

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Capital of the South

Atlanta is a great city.  Not quite Houston, but then where is?  They do have World of Coca-Cola which (see below) is the most amazing place on earth, and our last few days have been spent touring the other sights, sounds and tastes of the Georgia capital.  Most of these experiences have been tailored to the two-to-five-yr-old age range of course.

So after visiting the local nature centre and lighting a fire in Drew and Sarah's massive back garden (property prices/sizes are almost Texan around here) the big event was our visit to the Georgia Aquarium - so big they named it after the whole state.

And yes, it is big.  The main tank houses four whale sharks, and the giant galleries take you through tropical reefs to Georgian rivers and dolphin habitats.  We even got a private audience with some belugas, thanks to a volunteer telling us which door to sneak through.  Edward, a lifelong member, was encyclopedic in his species knowledge.  The only criticism - of the aquarium, not Edward - is that it's a little too Sea World in parts, with several animals captured rather than rescued (like in dearly missed Vancouver).  But they all seemed happy enough.

In terms of food - wow.  This is southern cuisine, in a way that Texas isn't really because Texas isn't south of anywhere: it's Texas.  We started at The Fickle Pickle, where there were indeed pickles, a whole fried portion of them, and continued through breweries and some home grilling to Nuevo Laredo Cantina where, thanks to a babysitter and taxi, three pitchers of margarita were consumed.

Sadly, all too soon, we were on the plane home, although it was a lot warmer back here than there.  Thanks to Drew, Sarah, Edward and Margaret for a fantastic stay, and y'all come to Houston real soon.  We have coke and margaritas down here too!

New buddies.

The Fickle Pickle's pickles.  A half-portion, which we still didn't manage to finish.

Thursday night at the brewery.

Wet wood, and the faces of scepticism.

But I used to be a boy scout, so this was well within my skillset.  Ha!

Margaret is happy now.

Georgia Aquarium.  Lots of water.


Smart and agile.

They had penguins too!

Diverse life on display.

Totally wild, and impossible to capture.

Friday, 12 January 2018

World of Coke

We're enjoying a short trip to Atlanta to see Drew and Sarah - friends from business school days in Berkeley.  In the way that time works, we all now have children, so Pete has Edward and Margaret to play with as the adults reminisce about when we were young.

Atlanta is famous for a few things like the 1996 Olympics and terrible traffic, but also for being the headquarters of a small drinks company called Coca-Cola.  Down here in the south babies are weaned on coke, and "Pepsi" is a word never spoken out loud.  We had heard many mythical things about the visitors' centre, including you get to drink as much coke as you want!!  Why wouldn't we take a four-year-old to a place like that?

After receiving our complimentary can on arrival we were ushered into a display of historic coke items, including a ceramic urn from the 1880s which used to contain coke syrup - you would turn up at a pharmacy, pay 5c, get the syrup in your glass, then fill it up with fizzy water.  The use of cocaine in this iteration was not mentioned.  There followed a movie with zero factual content but a lot of people looking very happy drinking coke.  Then we were inside!

The main building contains a bottling plant, various galleries about different coke aspects, a "4D theatre" (seats that shake until your sugar-weakened teeth fall out), a polar bear, and the all important tasting room.

And what a room!  Not only coke, not only every variety of coke (ginger lime diet, anyone?) but 100 drinks that Coca-Cola owns around the world.  My sister, from her time in Uganda, recommended Stoney Tangawizi, a ginger beer that contains a month's intake of sugar.  It was very good, but I was less impressed by Bonbon Anglais from Madagascar; smells of chlorine, tastes of fake bananas.  The European offerings were significantly less sweet than elsewhere.  Thank goodness we'll be able to set our own obesity levels after Brexit!

By our fourth visit to the loos it was obviously time to leave.  We wandered around downtown Atlanta, where there are some other things - Centennial Olympic Park, the CNN Center - but by then I was deep into a sugar crash, and what could be better than World of Coke anyway?  You can't beat the real thing.

Pete meets Mr Pemberton, the inventor of coke, who has an interesting history that was somewhat glossed over.

Welcome to our world.

Excellent responsible consumerism, Pete.

What it's like to be in a glass of coke, but less sticky.

Put these on and you can see the world in 4D!

Where do they hold the recipe, the most valuable secret the company owns?  In this vault that everyone can walk through, of course!

Bottling.  Still syrup + fizzy water.

Alright, here's the reason that we came.

Hannah, enabling.

This is the second time in his life that Pete has tasted a fizzy drink.  And now, thanks to Coca-Cola, it won't be the last!

Me and Drew, determining the finer characteristics of the soda.

And a little more coke.

And a little more.

The store.  Do you have anything non-coke branded?

Maybe I'll get just one souvenir to take home.