Sunday, 26 July 2015

Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Real Madrid and Barcelona really are the best, aren't they?

I recently finished Fear and Loathing in La Liga, an account of the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry written by Sid Lowe, who covers Spanish football for, among others, the Guardian. I first became acquainted with Sid's work through the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, and then his weekly column rounding up the latest doings in Spanish football.

I'm not the biggest fan of Spanish football, of course. I've spoken before of how boring I find it that La Liga is effectively dominated by only two teams, and always has been. Looking through the lists of championships for other countries, you do typically see one team that's dominated (rather than two), but you also see that other teams have had periods of dominance, sometimes for large parts of decades - for example, the Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s. In other leagues teams rise, shine for a while, then fall.

Not so in Spain. In recent memory, the longest the league's gone without either Real or Barça winning it was 4 years in the 80s, when Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad won it twice apiece. The only longer streak when neither won it was for the five years right after the Civil War, or eight if you count the three seasons before war broke out (La Liga was suspended during that time). Those streaks drop to two years if you look for seasons when Real or Barça failed to make the top two spots.

Which is why Lowe's book is a history of the league, as well - Spanish football makes little sense outside the framework of Real vs Barça. He does a good job of picking apart the politics that have latched on to the rivalry, of Catalonia vs Spain, of left-wing vs right-wing, and the different sides in the Civil War. Barcelona fans tend to think of themselves as representing the left, and of Real as being Francisco Franco's pet team - but Lowe shows how much more complicated the reality, especially now that we're 40 years on from Franco's death and 35 since Spain opened to the rest of Europe.

Of course, Real has always been one of my favorite teams to hate, since the first time I saw them was in the 1998 Champions League victory over my hometown team of Juventus. I was only too willing to buy into the propaganda of Barcelona as mes que un club (more than a club), with their Dutch influence and, until a few years ago, their shirt sponsorship deal with Unicef, rather than a traditional for-profit entity.

Admittedly, they've gone and ruined that a bit by getting sponsored by Qatar, of all places, but that didn't stop me enjoying the two epic dismantlings of Manchester United, in 2009 and 2011. The latter of the two I watched in a pub in Bath with my dad, and it was hard not to cheer to see entertaining, passing football win out against kick-and-rush.

What really struck me about the book, though, was how different the narrative in Spain was for the post-war period compared with Italy or Germany, or even the UK. This is, of course, because Spain remained neutral during the war; even though Franco was greatly influenced by Mussolini and Hitler, and benefited from their weapons and materiel during the Civil War, he didn't send Spanish troops to participate, and so was left alone in 1945.

As I read Fear and Loathing, I couldn't help wondering what Italian history would have been like if Mussolini had done the same thing. There was an Italian author a few years ago who imagined just such a scenario, in which Italy thereby became a European and even a world power, but I doubt it would have happened like that (after all, Spain isn't exactly a power-player these days). It took a while, but Germany eventually faced up to its role in World War II; Spain, meanwhile, let its own Fascist dictatorship run its course (and was enormously lucky that King Juan Carlos, Franco's successor, turned out to favor democracy). Italy, by contrast, did neither, which is why Mussolini's legacy continues to distort Italian politics - sometimes literally, as in the case of his granddaughter Alessandra.

Back to the football, though, I'd say the greatest disappointment of Sid Lowe's book is how he glosses over the last few years. I suppose this couldn't be any other way, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are probably harder to get interviews with than greats from the past, like Hristo Stoichkov or Alfredo di Stefano. But it's still a shame not to have more on how the current situation, where Messi and Ronaldo seem to break each other's records every week, looks as an extension of the past.

Still, it's not hard to draw your own conclusions. Real and Barça long ago outgrew the rest of the Spanish league, such that they compete on European Cups. This year's Barça triumph against Juventus, and last year's Real win against hometown rivals Atletico, are just an extension of the rivalry - effectively, Barcelona saying to Real, "You may have more European Cups than anybody, you may have won your tenth, but we've been catching up."

With that in mind, it's hard to see when the rest of Europe catching up - there have been years when Real or Barça have lost, but seen through Sid Lowe's book, those are looking more and more like blips.  After all, even during England's dominance in the Champions League, Barcelona won every time it got to the final.

It'd be nice to see the rest of Europe catch up, but even if they don't, at least Real and Barça will provide good entertainment.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A Taste of Portland

Just got back this week from a trip to Portland, and I'm wondering why the heck it took me so long to visit!

Actually, I know exactly why: not having lived in the US for a long time, it was quite difficult to justify trips to random places that weren't major international hubs. But it begs the question of why I got the idea in the first place...

I've always been glancingly familiar with the place - Powell's City of Books, Portlandia and Chuck Palahniuk, for instance - and in more recent years this was allied with an interest in the Pacific Northwest in general. I almost went to journalism school at University of Oregon in Eugene, to boot (though I don't regret choosing to go to New York instead). More recently, I started watching Grimm, NBC's extraordinarily silly but addictive show based on fairy tales, so it's been top of mind for a while.

So the opportunity came up this year, and I figured on spending almost a week there - I've had good weeks off on my own in the likes of Paris and Singapore, so I thought I'd try it out in the continental US. I found cheap flights and an expensive hotel, got a guidebook and got in touch with a friend from college who (it turns out) lives there.

It was nice to experience a relatively compact American city, which I could get around by public transport or even on foot - I've really only spent time in New York and SF and LA, so Portland's size (600,000 in the city and 3 million or so in the metropolitan area) was a nice change. The place also felt like a slightly larger, less scuzzy version of Berkeley. Not that I have anything against Berkeley in general, but my abiding memories of the place include my dad and grandma being politely asked by a drug dealer to take another set of stairs up to where we'd parked in a parking structure there, or a guy outside a shop rather less politely flicking his cigarette at my dad's head and accusing him of being an imperialist.

Portland's motto

I'm sure Portland is full of experiences like that, but the place seemed to be pretty free of pretensions - unlike hipsters in London or SF, folks mostly just seemed to go about their own business, and were shockingly polite. When I was taking the MAX into town from the airport on my first day, there was a guy helping out another tourist by directing her to her stop, and when she got off he said to her, "Have a nice day!" I defy you to find a similar experience on BART, the subway or the Tube.

Not that Portland's completely without problems. Despite being possibly the most expensive hotel I've ever stayed in, the Courtyard Portland Convention Center was in a not particularly desirable part of town on the northeast side of town. I went exploring a couple of times (looking for a drugstore and a post office, respectively), and while I never felt unsafe, it certainly looked more rundown than the neighborhoods west of the Willamette. I later discovered that the Northeast was traditionally where Portland's African-American community was forced to live; much like Harlem in New York, it's clear that urban renewal hasn't been good for everybody.

I may have spaced the hotel search until it was too late, but my impression is that there's not a lot of middle ground - you can either pay loads, or stay in a shitty neighborhood far from downtown (or both), but there isn't much under $1,000 for a week. The McMenamin hotels might be the exception, but I didn't book those because they weren't available for the times I was there.

As far as attractions, I mainly eschewed the breweries, and found museums to haunt instead. I spent a fun enough morning at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and a nice afternoon at the Portland Art Museum. There was a lot of art from the last 150 years or so at the latter, including a room devoted to the French impressionists, which on consideration is probably my favorite style and period. There was a lot more modern and contemporary art, but I returned to the Impressionist room on my way out of the museum, and was fortunate enough to find that an employee was giving a friend of his a personal tour.

Portland also seems to have rather visible Asian communities, as evidenced by the Japanese Garden over by Washington Park, and the Lan Su Chinese garden in Chinatown. The former is situated on a hill overlooking town, and it comes with beautiful views of Mount Hood; Lan Su, meanwhile, is in the middle of probably the most rundown part of downtown Portland, but once you entered the walls it was easy to forget you were in the middle of a city. I visited the morning before I left, and spent a nice hour first wandering the walkways and then enjoying some dim sum and tea in the tea house.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden

Another thing I didn't do much of was the outdoorsy stuff that Oregon is famous for, mainly because I didn't want to rent a car. But my friend did take me on a walk along the Springwood Trail, along the Willamette, down to Sellwood and back up along the west side of the river. That took us back through OHSU and the Waterfront, which plays host to the Saturday Market every week.

The other thing I kind of splurged on was food - my first night in town I found one of the food cart pods and downed a pair of Korean tacos, which set the tone for a week of good eating. I'm not suggesting there aren't any big chains in Portland, but it was certainly easy to find something local, especially downtown, and there was a good range of prices, from the food carts up to Swank and Swine, where my friend suggested getting dinner the second night I was in town.

The Voodoo Doll, from Voodoo Doughnut

I've generally said that European cities are better for things to see, while American cities are better for things to do (ie, outdoors pursuits), but I'm happy to see that this doesn't necessarily apply to Portland. If you like city breaks, taking in museums, bookstores and nice food, it's a nice getaway for anything up to a week.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mass Effect and the Curse of Becoming the New Star Wars

I just finished the Mass Effect trilogy last weekend, amid reports that the next game in the series has finally been given a name (along with almost exactly nothing else). It's fair to say that as I played through Mass Effect 3, it started to consume my life, much like a Reaper consuming a planet's population (now there's an in-joke for you). Also, let me just warn you up top:

It also goes without saying that this is his favorite blog.

To give you an idea, I took the better part of a year to finish Mass Effect 1, as I was doing my usual thing of getting bored and switching out to catch up with other games. I did something similar when I started Mass Effect 2, but only had a single break, after which I powered through the rest of the game and started immediately on part 3, which I played without a single break. Probably the last game I played so single-mindedly was on the NES.

Part of the reason for this fanaticism is clearly the story. Over the three installments you guide your character, Commander Shepard, from life as an ordinary soldier to the person who saves the galaxy from the Reaper threat. At the start you choose how Shepard looks and what his skills and abilities are (I played as a dude, so I'll be referring to Shep as "he" from here on), and then you choose how he reacts to people and situations.

This all involves you more heavily than the so-called sandbox games, like Skyrim or GTA, especially because choices made in one game eventually impact later games - not to the point of keeping you from winning at the end of ME3, but they do affect who's on your team or available to help with the final battle.

One point that Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon made on their Indoor Kids podcasts relating to Mass Effect is that the combat is actually pretty bad compared to, say, Gears of War, but that the main draw is the story. While I've never played Gears, I can see what they mean - and frankly, the fact that the story's such a big part of the game makes up for it. I don't remember all the times it kept me from diving for cover (possibly because there were so many that they blur together after a while), but I do recall the feelings of WTF when I was forced to send one of two characters to their deaths, or when I found myself choosing whether the Quarians or the Geth should survive.

I believe the Indoor Kids also said something to the effect that Mass Effect was effectively this generation's Star Wars, which I find compelling but not necessarily accurate. I could quibble and say that it's more Babylon 5, but really I just don't think it has the cultural reach of Star Wars or Star Trek. Video games are still a niche pursuit, at least at the level of blockbuster games like Mass Effect - they might make jokes about the ending on shows like HBO's Silicon Valley, but I'd say it's still too left-field for something like the Big Bang Theory.

Yet it does hold up with something like the Hyperion series, by Dan Simmons (as the guest on those Indoor Kids episodes, Nick Ahrens, said). Like any good novel, the Mass Effect games present you with a wider world and the rules under which it operates - you can make certain choices (like who to sacrifice at the end of ME1, or with whom to pursue a relationship), but at the end you've gone through a set number of plot points. And like a novel, there are loads of other, smaller stories spider-webbing out of the main narrative, but here you can choose to pursue or ignore them.

Now, when Kumail and Emily said that Mass Effect was like Star Wars (again, assuming it was them who said it), what I suspect they meant is that the game had the same emotional resonance as when Luke blows up the Death Star or rescues Darth Vader's humanity. I mentioned my WTF feelings when sending people to their deaths - I also found myself heartbroken at plot points like Mordin, my Salarian scientist from ME2, sacrificing his life to propagate the cure for the Krogan genophage in ME3, resolving a giant plot thread from way back in ME1.

Because there was time to range around the ship between missions, you'd get to chat to crewmates, and learn that, for instance, Mordin was fond of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. That's one example, but the point is that Mass Effect went out of its way to flesh its characters out, which I've seen little of in the other games I've been playing lately.

As for the ending, I have to say that I'm not that disappointed. I think the extended endings were better, and Bioware should have added those in from the start, but overall I think they had the concept right. There was a sense that all your choices over three games had led to this point - control the Reapers, destroy them or live with them. As I chose my course, I had the same doubt that assailed me whenever there was a big choice, but I also had the precedent of all my previous choices - in the end I chose destruction, knowing that it would also mean the death of my synthetic crewmate, EDI, who had also powered my ship. And while that was sad, it also felt like I had to be loyal to the Shepard character as I'd developed him - the way others played would likely have led them to other choices, and perhaps that's why the game's ending was so controversial.

In any case, I've given myself a break from all the feels, but I expect that at some point soon I'll be trying again - seeing the effects of different choices and character configurations. Which is another feature of the great SF stories, whatever their medium - wanting to experience them again.