corders in the hague

It's like having the Corders round for dinner - except the kids don't smash stuff and Mike doesn't drink all your booze. And when you're bored you can get rid of us with a mouse click rather than having to start tidying up the house.

My Photo
Location: The Hague, Netherlands

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Poor again

I got back from Austria/Switzerland to find the children and Irmie in ruddy health as usual. It's a wonder to me how Irmie juggles all this household stuff in my absence. It's bordering on a miracle that she doesn't complain about it very much at all.
And then the sad realization strikes me that maybe the reason she copes so well in my absence is because I do so very little beyond making more mess while I'm here.
Irmie is always genuinely staggered when I forget to give Esther and Julia milk with their Vegemite and toast (you can take the girls out of Australia, but you can never take Australia out of the girls) at breakfast time. She doesn't call me a bad father, but her amazement that I am able to forget this says enough.
I noticed today that Irmie also had mown the lawns while I was away and managed to keep my tomato plants alive - something I fear I will not be able to do in the coming days and weeks even though I have to look over them every time I peer out of my office window.
Of course there has to be a down side. I just checked our extremely modest portfolio of mutual funds and discovered that while Irmie has been cleaning teeth and carpets and cars, she has allowed our wealth to shrink by about 15 percent in the three weeks I was working my fingers to the bone eating lightly grilled venison in the Austrian Alps. This sounds bad (the financial loss, not the venison - the venison was fantastic), but fortunately given the state of our finances that 15 percent equals about 100 euros.
Now I'm back, I pledge to feed and water the girls every time I remember it, to avert stagflation in the US economy and to bring down the price of a barrel of crude to about $50. If I have any time left after that I'll mow the lawn.

Friday, June 27, 2008

It's all over. Russia slumped to their second defeat of the tournament to Spain, sending the Russkis and me packing. Time, for a brief summing up.

Things I will miss about Euro 2008:
Frauleun Frick at my hotel in Leogang and her sometimes radically undercooked boiled eggs. Seriously, those things were almost clucking.
Guus Hiddink. A walking quote machine and, more importantly, a gentleman. At one crazy mixed zone (where 300 journalists line up behind barriers and try to interview one man), Hiddink stood at the base of a set of steps and told everybody to go stand on the steps so we could all see and hear him. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but he is the only person with common sense enough to come up with such a simple solution. UEFA was certainly stumped. What’s more, when all the scummy journalists tried to elbow one another out of the way for a good position he said: “If you can’t help one another, I’m not going to help you and I’m getting on the bus and leaving.” I’ve never seen TV reporters move so quickly to accommodate each other.
Good football.

Things I won’t miss:

Wiener schnitzels. Seriously Austria, is a slab of meat you’ve bashed flat with a hammer and fried in breadcrumbs the best you can come up with as a national dish? Apparently, they also make a mean cake around these parts, but I haven’t had one. All the konditorei (cake shops) seem to be staffed by stern looking women in starched white aprons who would not approve of my dusty thongs and gnarled toe nails.
Smelling my dirty socks each morning to determine which would be the least offensive to my fellow human beings.
Passive smoking. How Russians can live on only red bull and fags remains a mystery to me.
Bad football.
Bad hotels. I don’t mind basic, and call me picky if you want but I object to overpriced ugly concrete boxes built in places fit only for sewage plants with staff imported from east European prisons. There was a sewage plant, or a nuclear reactor – I couldn’t work out which – next to my shocking hotel in Basel and the Airo tower smells like raw sewage. A colleague staying here swears his room has a very clear smell of urine in the carpet. The Leogang hotel was the most basic of all, but the people who ran it cared about the place and its guests. An example: On my first day there, I was cursing my luck because the room only had one plug socket and it was so far from the little table that I couldn’t plug my laptop in. I solved this by moving an unbelievably heavy fold-out bed and the table, but I still couldn’t watch football on the TV and work at the same time without running down my laptop battery. When I got back to my room that evening, there was an extension cable with three sockets. That didn’t take much effort on anybody’s part but it made me fall in love with the place.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

My new gulag.

This is my newest gulag, sorry, hotel. It's in Vienna, but just barely.
One of the things I find interesting and unexpected about Vienna, having never really bothered to look for the place on a map, is its proximity to the former Eastern Bloc. As you drive in, you see signs to places like Ljubljana and other cities with too many consonants in their names.
Vienna apparently has a lot of beautiful old architecture - cathedrals, palaces and the like. But I haven't seen them yet. I've seen the newish Ernst Happel stadium where tonight's semifinal and the weekend's final will be played and I've seen this hotel, but that's about it so far. Hopefully I can see something pretty today.
The hotel Airo Tower Hotel is a grim reminder of Vienna's closeness to eastern Europe. In fact, I suspect that when communism collapsed an enterprising entrepreneur actually went to someplace behind the former Iron Curtain and dragged this concrete monstrosity in its entirety back into Vienna. If you listen carefully in the morning, you can almost hear it coughing and hawking up phlegm. The noise can't be the air conditioning, because there doesn't appear to be any and again the temperatures here are in the 30s and muggy. This place must have been the original case study when people began talking about sick building syndrome.
Oddly, it's next door to a health spa that is populated entirely by ancient people with walking frames or sticks. I went for a run in a park behind the hotel yesterday and from a hill I could see the wrecks of humanity sunning themselves on lawns behind the architectural wreck of my hotel. It was not a pretty sight.
The mugginess last night set off a great thunder storm in Vienna during the first semifinal - if you were watching Germany-Turkey, you probably saw the effects as the storm is being blamed for knocking out power at the international broadcast center, meaning that tv images of the second half were regularly plunged into darkness.
The storm was so powerful, we journalists were actually ordered out of the media center, which is a glorified tent that has to be emptied in winds over 80 kmh. In the traditions of frontline sports journalism, we all ignored the evacuation decree and I finished writing a story about the blackout and storm. In the interests of full disclosure, I'd have to admit that the evacuation order probably came a little late. A half hour earlier, it looked like we might get blown away, but by the time we were ordered out it was barely raining.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Red army marches on, again

Well, the Russians didn't read their script.
Basel was totally full of Dutch fans yesterday - about 100,000 to add to the city's usual population of 160,000. Bars ran dry, fans leapt off high bridges into the fast-flowing Rhine - if the cops in the barge holding hooking the drunks out of the water missed, I suppose they'd just keep on floating until they got to Rotterdam and then clamber out.
It was one huge party until the match started and it soon became clear the Russians were going to win. Ruud van Nistelrooy managed to make it interesting by scoring a late equalizer, but the Russians were so much better than the Dutch in extra time it was almost embarrassing.
I haven't been into Basel today, but I guess there are a lot of hungover, depressed Dutch fans lying under trees. Meanwhile, my photographer has disappeared, with our car, into the city with his wife leaving me in a very, very crappy hotel looking our of my window at what appears to be a market place for stolen cars on the rooftop carpark of a furniture store that dominates the industrial park that houses the hotel.
Basel, on the other hand, is gorgeous. Floating down the Rhine is a local pastime. I spent the afternoon before the game with a colleague sitting on a bar's terrace built over the river. The bar was equipped with showers and a ladder/pontoon construction that meant people who leapt into the river upstream could get out, clean off whatever chemical filth had stuck to them in the water and then have a beer. An incredibly civilized set up. We resisted the temptation to have a dip - the water was 15 degrees and flowing very fast and the bar served very good coffee.
So I'm here for a few days yet. Semifinal against either Spain or Italy on Thursday in Vienna and final on Sunday if necessary. I HAVE to get some laundry done.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Train troubles

Why is it that train conductors think I understand and in some way empathise with what they seem to perceive as their problem, namely that their filthy, stinking train is running 45 minutes late?It’s not their problem, it’s my problem.
As I crossed the border today into Switzerland - the land that invented time and where everything runs according to schedule – the conductor of my train announced that because of a technical problem they were running three-quarters of an hour late. No apology, just gratitude for my understanding.
I could not possibly be any less understanding.
In fact, I’m struggling to suppress the urge to take a large spanner to the train and then the conductor.
I’m only on this train because my previous connection in Austria suddenly just ceased to exist. I got up early this morning and got a lift to Saalfelden near Leogang. From there, a train took me on a hair-raising trip through the mountains to Feldkirch. There, I had an hour stop before my next train left so I went into town (which is very pretty, by the way) and had a sandwich followed my a sensational ice cream and espresso.
I went and sat under the platform sign advertising my next train until one minute after it was due to arrive the sign simply changed to another train.
I went and politely enquired at the ticket office where the fuck my train was and they said it had been replaced by a bus, which had already left. Nobody told me.
They helpfully booked me on the next train an the one after that.
Finally, I got on this God-forsaken locomotive which eventually will take me to Zurich. From there, I have to wait again for the next train to Basel. By the time I get to that city, I will have missed Guus Hiddink’s pre-quarterfinal press conference and probably the Russian team’s final training session. Thankfully, my good friend and colleague Raf is covering for me and I wrote a story based on a few quotes I’d been saving for just such a rainy day.
Even so Swiss Railways, please do NOT EVER assume you have my understanding that your crappy train has a technical problem.

Update from blighted train: Switzerland is now trying to charm me by having the railway run alongside a beautiful light blue lake with accompanying cliffs and meadows.
But it’s not going to work. Unless I have an exceptionally good cheese fondue and a gallon of fine pinot noir with Raf tonight, I will never forgive Switzerland for making me miss a press conference.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The hills are alive with the sound of ... panting.

Given my fears of abduction by crazy Austrians, I was more than a little alarmed when the delightful matriarch of my hotel, Fraulein Frick, said to me at breakfast the other day that she wanted to show me a "special place."
I needn't have worried.
Instead of an S&M dungeon, she brought a map and said there was a beautiful walk in the mountains I should take if I got the time.
I feared I wouldn't make it, but Russia's 2-0 defeat of Sweden in Innsbruck gave me an extra day in Leogang.
I should have known they'd win. I pretty much guaranteed it when I packed my suitcase and hauled it to Innsbruck and booked a seat on the overnight train to Vienna so I could write the Russian team's obituary there the following day before flying home.
So after getting back to Leogang at 3 this morning I woke up at 8, had breakfast and followed Fr. Frick's meticulous instructions to what she described as a nice half-hour stroll that very few people knew about.
What she failed to mention, though I suppose with hindsight I could have expected it, was pant-wettingly scary drive around a string of hairpin bends to get there.
When I finally, dizzily stepped out of the car, I was in the car park of a mountain chalet restaurant/hotel as seen on the lid of countless boxes of chocolates around these parts.
I set off up a well-trodden path past through a gently sloping pasture holding the cow pictured below and a herd of his/her friends as well as a couple more picturesque mountain huts. Looming over it all was the imposing rock wall of the Hochkonig mountain, which measures 2,941 meters in its stockinged feet.
Have you ever had the experience where you (talking silently to yourself) repeat a word over and over until it loses all meaning and just becomes an odd sound? I had it today with the word loom.
Looking back at that last sentence, it makes me feel like I'm going insane so please somebody say you know what I'm talking about.
So anyway, I set off at a brisk clip past the cows thinking it was a nice stroll to shake off the cobwebs of the late night and early start.
Then I rounded the first corner and saw the narrow path winding up, and up, and up. Fr Frick had promised me an easy walk to a hostel at the foot of the cliffs where I could have lunch. Instead, I wondered if I was going to need ropes and crampons.
Mercifully, the sun was shining as I began the final ascent of a path that seemed to have no end.
Just as I began to fear I would keep walking up the cursed mountain until I passed out, I lumbered, sweating and panting around a corner and there before me was the hostel and a sort of beer garden occupied by about two dozen hikers, all of them well into their 70s, who looked like they'd just woken up. I'm pretty sure there was a secret escalator somewhere for the old crones.
I had a cup of coffee while I got my breath back. All the oldies were drinking half-liter glasses of lager as they compared one another's nordic walking sticks.
It must be an odd place to live for the couple that runs the hostel. I suspect they were banished there because of their poor wood stacking skills. Their pile was such a mess I couldn't bring myself to take a picture of it.
My trip back down was uneventful apart from seeing a woodpecker pecking wood.
I promised myself a bowl of the local speciality when I got back down the hill - clear beef broth with a sort of semolina dumpling floating in it. But just before I got there two coach loads of more geriatric climbers had arrived and were ordering everything on the menu. I wandered out, pausing briefly to admire the dead fox in the entrance that had been stuffed and posed standing on its hind legs holding a hunting rifle. The indignity of it all.

Have a cow

You wanted a cow, wearing a cow bell, standing in an alpine meadow with a mountainous backdrop. You're getting a cow, wearing a cow bell, standing in an alpine meadow with a mountainous backdrop.
I don't think a trip to Austria's Tirol region would have been complete without this particular picture.

I found this beauty on a walk today. I searched in vain for both Edelweiss and the Von Trapp family.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Man of the moment

This is Andrei Arshavin. If anybody is going to get Russia to the quarterfinals, he's the man. He's been suspended for the first two games here but can play against Sweden. Russia has to win while the Swedes can afford a draw and go through to a quarterfinal against Holland. I'm counting on him.
Last night was entertaining. I went to my favorite restaurant to eat venison and watch the Czech-Turkey game on their giant screen but the place was so full of exceptionally drunk Russians that I had to leave. The spectacle of a 55-year-old man in traditional Russian tourist attire of knee length yellow shorts, calf length black socks, white shoes and a baseball cap trying to grope his waitress was one I will take with me to my grave.
I went back to my hotel where they have a smaller screen and worse food, but at least I know the drunken Russians there as I have breakfast with them. One man had an expensive night - he bet 500 euros on the Czech Republic to win and hedged his bets by putting another 500 on the draw. Imagine his delight when Turkey scored its injury time winner. He'd already lost about 100 betting on table football. I think the man has a slight gambling problem. The only good thing was that his losses finally shut him up. He'd been shouting all night and even the other drunk Russians seemed to be tiring of him.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Woodpile #2

Today's woodpile - with a bonus collection of antique tools and sleds thrown in for free - is brought to you courtesy of a young farmer with a savage dog who lives on the edge of Leogang. The dog strongly objected to me taking the picture, but stopped just short of mauling me to death.

This is a handsome stack indeed. I'm not sure the b&w picture shows it, but you can see that on the right is a newer stack than on the left. This seems a neat way of dealing with a problem I've been pondering ever since I began my stack studies, namely what happens when you actually want to burn a couple of logs?
The inherent problem with wood stacks is that the stuff that has been there the longest, which is therefore the driest and best for the fire, is inevitably going to be on the bottom of the pile. Yanking out a couple of choice sticks could bring your whole pile tumbling down around your Tirollean ears. I suspect people probably maintain two stacks, but this is the first example I have seen of piles next to one another.
And while you're studying the pic, check out the truly handsome stacking around the two windows. This man is a master of his craft. (I always assumed wood stacking was a guy thing, like barbecuing and smoking cigars, but like those two traditionally male pursuits women seem to be muscling in. I saw a lady lugging some pretty serious lumber around her garden the day before yesterday.

Red Army

So the "visual action of Russian fan supporting on the match with Greece" in Salzburg turns out to be a whole bunch of Russians waving flags.
"Due the hymn of Russian Federation" they waved red, white or blue flags to look (kind of) like a giant Russian tricolor. It was indeed a "great composition on Russian tribunes." I'm not quite sure the picture does it justice.
More interestingly, Russia kicked into gear in a big way and booted defending champion Greece out of Euro 2008 with a 1-0 win that could easily have been 3-0. A win against Sweden in their final game should seal a dream quarterfinal (for me, anyway) with the mighty Dutch team in Switzerland.
By the way, did anybody notice how I managed to wait 11 days before using the phrase Red Army? I'm proud of myself. I haven't used it once in AP copy because I know it wouldn't make it past the editing desk.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Russain press release

Covering the Russian team here in Austria can be tough. The Soviet Union may have dissolved a quarter of a century ago, but there's something distinctly Kremlinesque about the media operation. The team holds a media briefing each morning at 10 a.m. at which team spokesman Ilya comes and shakes all the journalists' hands and then leaves. Coach Guus Hiddink declared the team's hotel a no-go zone for journalists, but he's given at least two one-on-one interviews there himself and I regularly hang out by the front door and interview players (with the help of my new Russian journalist friend, Sergey). Which is fortunate, because the football federation's English language press releases sometimes lose a little in translation. Here's a recent one. Sausage and homemade sauerkraut for anybody who can tell me what it means. I've itallicized my favorite sentence:
RUF and AFFU discussed questions about performance organization on a match Russia- Greece with Salzburg’s authority.
On June 12-th there was meeting between representatives of FUR, AFFU and representatives of Salzburg security structure on Euro 2008. During this conference both sides discussed details of visual action of Russian fan supporting on the match with Greece, which will be on June 14 on a stadium “Wals- Siezenheim”. As a AFFU’s scenario due the hymn of Russian Federation before the beginning of the match with Greece, will be great composition on Russian tribunes (organizers keep the design in a secret). Representatives of Salzburg arena discussed and give approvement and give help for the visual action preparing.Austrians marked high level of Russian supporting on the first match between Russia and Switzerland in Innsbruck. Nobody’s fans, except Russian fans does not prepare any visual actions. Euro organizers assure RUF and AFFU about aprovement on the next supporting, in case, if it will be regarding the UEFA’s rules. On a conference were manager of RUF°s international department Fedyshina Ekaterina, manager of press-centre Malosolov Andrey, manager of iniciative group Pugachev Andrey, and security officer of the stadium “Wals-Siezenheim” Rayan Olt and UEFA’s security coordinator in Austria Raynhard Rasoher. The official partner of RUF and AFFU for providing visual actions is magazine “Total football”

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Clouds clear

I am a bore about how beautiful Australia's landscape is, but you have to hand it to the Europeans: they know how to do mountains. After days of low-hanging cloud, I woke up yesterday to clear blue skies and a view of the mountains towering over the valley my hotel is in. The village of Leogang definitely looks prettier in sunlight. This is the view from my balcony.
I then went to Innsbruck to watch Russia get hammered 4-1 by Spain. By match time, a heavy thunderstorm was rolling around the mountains that ring the city. With lightning flashing around, I had to climb a temporary metal scaffolding staircase five floors to the press tribune. It didn't feel safe.

Wood you believe it

Maybe they don't have central heating around these parts, maybe it's a product of the same mentality that keeps the streets so clean. Whatever it is, the Austrians seem to lavish huge amounts of care and attention on their woodpiles. Driving between Russia's base in Leogang and Innsbruck, where it played its first match last night (thrashed 4-1 by traditional tournament underachievers Spain), I saw plenty of meticulously stacked logs up against the sides of houses, in barns and surrounding garage doors. It's like a pyromaniac's heaven here. One match and the whole valley would go up.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Odd country, Austria. I’ve tried in vain to find a piece of litter on the streets of Leogang, the sleepy skiing village I’m based in while covering Russia at Euro 2008. Yet the same meticulous nation that won’t drop a lolly wrapper on the road also produces people who lock up and molest girls/daughters for decades. If there’s a link between these two phenomena, I can’t see it.
What I also can’t see at the moments are the Austrian Alps. I’m slap bang in the middle of them, but all I’ve had for my first two days here are brief glimpses of craggy peaks between rain clouds that have descended on pretty much the whole Euro 2008 tournament. A friend of mine is in Lausanne and he has the same weather.

What I also haven’t seen much of is the Russian team. A little bit disappointing as I’m trying hard to interview them and generally get to know them before their first match next Tuesday against notorious big tournament chokers Spain. Russia’s Dutch coach Guus Hiddink has already cancelled two morning training sessions and last night only answered one question before getting onto the team bus.
I have however seen lots of Russian journalists and discovered why their country is going through such an economic boom – to a man (and the Russian press pack is, to a man, a man) they smoke like chimneys and appear to drink only Red Bull. These people must never sleep. Having said that, many of them still manage to exude an air of Communist-era lethargy.
I’m staying at a, how can I put this? Quaint skiing chalet-style hotel. A few things it doesn’t have: WIFI access; credit card-style door keys (my back hurts from carrying my key and its baroque, heavy metal key ring up and down the two flights of stairs to my room); little bars of soap and bottles of shampoo. This is a disappointment to me, who didn’t pack any grooming products beyond a toothbrush. Instead, my shower has one of those dispensers of two-in-one body/hair wash stuck to the wall. The hotel also appears to have no guests apart from me and Sergey, the AP photographer I’m working with here.
What it does have is Alpine charm. The hostess, Frauleun Frick, is incredibly friendly and helpful. She boils a mean egg and speaks good English, which is more than most Austrians appear to be able to do. I note that I can’t speak German, so I can’t really be upset with them for that.
Its also got a bunny rabbit made of straw and sporting a bow tie on the stairs, a HUGE jigsaw of a generic Alpine scene that has been glued together, framed and hung on a wall, and a cheese plant that looks, from the size of the thing, to be a remnant of the 1970s. At breakfast this morning, it had a selection of four different fruit juices and no glasses to pour them into.
It also has that same almost sinister Austrian efficiency that I assume keeps the streets polished. Every day as I eat breakfast, somebody cleans my room to within an inch of its life. How this mystery cleanliness operative knows I’m gone and slips in and out of my room in my brief absence is a mystery to me. (apologies if this sounds like a far less funny version of David Foster Wallace’s account of his cabin cleaner on a luxury cruise liner – I swear I only now noticed the similarity. Anybody who hasn’t read DFW’s essay about life on a cruise liner – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again - I strongly suggest you do so at your earliest convenience).
This village has just one restaurant, which is a disappointment in more ways than one. Lovely patron, but an incredibly dubious menu, that mixes Austrian staples of bacon and more bacon with Italian and Mexican influences. Given that the menu is available in either German or Russian, it makes every meal a little adventure. Tonight, he was serving beer to a couple of 13-year-old boys who were propping up the bar. He seemed happy to do this just so long as he splashed a little Coca Cola in their half-litre glasses of lager.
Odd country.