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Discovering home: an American Spurs fan’s first trip to London

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Cartilage Free Captain writer 55thVin made his first trip to London to see the Tottenham play.

Tottenham Hotspur v KAA Gent - UEFA Europa League Round of 32: Second Leg Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Upon returning from my first Trans-Atlantic trip, I sat on this “London trip” piece for days, which turned to weeks, which turned to a month because I couldn’t find the correct words. Chronologically, the facts are straightforward. I bought airline and match tickets, boarded a plane, and had a holiday. If reduced to those moments, it’s substantial enough. Being a first time visitor and the reality of the Lane’s demolition, however, made this everything other than an itinerary, executed. It was epic.

My journey, if we’re being honest, started a decade ago when I fell in love with the club. In a more present sense of “where this started”, it was September 2016. On a whim I looked up fares to London from New York City over my mid-winter break. Seemed we would be playing Stoke at the Lane the weekend of my vacation so the final part (the part that always prevented me from visiting in the past) was to see how ungodly the price was to fly to England. The number staring back at me after I put in the details made me do a double take. Then a third. $397 for a direct flight. The fates had aligned; before the day ended, I had a flight to Gatwick International for fear that it was all some joke.

Five months later, armed with a carry-on bag, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and my usual trepidation about flight, I stepped onto that Norwegian 787 Dreamliner, bound for the other side of the pond.

My plane left at 11:12pm EST, 42 minutes late, and 20 minutes into Finding Nemo. I touched down, without sleeping a wink, at 10:24am GMT, shortly after finishing Finding Dory. There has to be symbolism in there somewhere, but I’ll leave that analysis to the formalists.

Boots now firmly on the ground, not even a serpentine customs line could dampen my spirits. In fact, once through customs, I’ve never been happier to wait for a train than I was waiting for that Bedford-bound Thameslink at Gatwick Station.

The fun thing about coming in from the south of London is getting to pass through the English countryside a bit before entering Croydon. I’m sure there is scenery as romantic as the countryside views from a train, but when immersed in the experience, it feels perfect.

At one point, the train actually passed over the Thames, giving me my first panoramic of the famous river, its banks, and all that hugs them. The fog of sleep deprivation was washed away with the adrenaline rush of realization that the only thing separating me from arrival at St. Pancras/Kings Cross were the few minutes until our next stop. London, indeed, was calling.

After getting off the train, and a few wrong turns later, I met up with Bryan, my traveling, and Cartilage Free companion. Note, Bryan and I had never met in person until this point. He has very few requests for this piece aside from asking me to tell the English how good they have it with their savory pies. Does it make up for the weather? Probably not, but the pies are good anyway.

We rarely left each other’s side for the duration of the trip. Whether it was our first trip to the HIgh Road, touristy obligations in and around Piccadilly Circus, or taking the bus the wrong way while trying to catch non-League football in Lewisham, it sure was fun to have another first-timer to share it with.

And, to the first timer, I would say go get lost a bit. Bryan and I, quite accidentally, ended up in Southeast London--New Cross if memory serves--at a pub called Royal Albert. While we didn’t get to see crap footy, we did get to, not for the first or last time, have some lovely real ales, watch Champions League, and see a neighborhood full of Londoners, living their lives.

Don’t feel too bad for us on account of missing live football; we did get to see a Championship match, and even a hat trick, that Saturday in Brentford at Griffin Park. More notable than the action on the pitch, however, was the quick thinking of the fans who, upon announcement that the standing terrace’s toilets were not functioning, broke out in a lovely rendition of “we’ll piss when we want”. Thankfully, the toilets were restored before halftime, and the crowd’s collective will was untested.

My stay was full of fun anecdotes like this and I could drone on about them for paragraphs, but before we wander too far from the point, this trip was about Spurs.

After a few jam packed touristy days, Thursday arrived. When first purchasing the tickets for the Europa League, I did not realize that going to Wembley was such an honor. Sometimes in the States we are not in tune with how big a deal the national stadium is. Stepping off the train, I was struck by how imposing it feels. Wembley Way and the arch are all perfectly placed, giving a sense of immensity along with symmetry.

Goosebumps rose on my arms as I came through the turnstiles. For those of us not based in London, seeing 100 supporters together in a bar is jarring, and only something seen in bigger city’s supporter clubs. So gazing upon thousands was breathtaking.

As we walked about, the sounds of 94.9 BBC Radio London played. There was even talk of the game, as the kick drew nearer. The deejay predicted, most energetically, a 3-0 triumph for our boys. While it was not my first time seeing Spurs live, it was the first time seeing them in a competitive match. Friendlies are friendlies, nothing more. This was different, and there is just something about football at night. I always knew this theoretically, but did not viscerally understand it until then.

When it was finally time to take our seats, I was staggered by the sheer size of the Wembley pitch, and once again, the electricity in the air. A cause of this palpable verve was, of course, the throngs of KAA Gent supporters--8,000 strong--who made the trip. Full credit to them, they sang through the entire match. And why wouldn’t they have? They are proud of their local club, got to visit the famous Wembley Stadium, and managed to pull the shock result.

I will say this, though. There was very little negativity that night from Tottenham supporters. Rather there was a sense among us that we were being done wrong by the refereeing incompetence, even if Dele did deserve to be sent off. I have been in large stadia before, but never have I heard an eruption like the one that occurred when Victor Wanyama curled one into the corner, turning the tie on its head once again. There was even a point after when it seemed all 73,000 Spurs supporters were singing “When the Spurs Go Marching In” and aesthetically I just wanted to listen, but that’s really missing the point of being at the ground, so, once again, I joined the number.

Despite the disappointment, I will never forget the dogged running of Kyle Walker, Mousa Dembele, Victor Wanyama, and Jan Vertonghen. The amount of ground those covered while we played with 10 players allowed Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane to chase every lost cause, and push forward like we were still fielding our starting XI. They will remain heroes, if only for that night.

If I’m being honest, the result was not the only negative thing to happen that night. Full of beer, I forgot to evacuate before leaving for home. This led to some panic, and the slightest leakage, on the DLR home. Bless Liverpool Street station for having a toilet or else Liverpool Street proper would’ve been more than a thoroughfare that night.

Relieved that I wasn’t urine soaked, we decided to carry on with the party. Continuing the party, if you’re in London, means grabbing some beer at an all-night market and getting kebab. There were Belgians in the market with similar plans, too, and they shared a few light moments with the immigrant store owner as we perused the selection.

When Bryan and I finally stepped up to buy our cans of Kronenbourg, the owner greeted us.

“Belgian, yeah? Good job tonight.”

As we paid him, I responded “Actually no, but thank you.”

Innocent as it may seem, the man’s tone was clear. Up to that point, we had managed to avoid conversation of Brexit, but his words were clear to me then, and have stuck with me since. We all wish that life we easily separated, nice little columns with no overlap. That’s never been the case, though, and on our way to keep the party going, the message was delivered again.

Which is not to say I was melancholy for more than a moment. Bryan and I drank those pints, and destroyed those kebabs with the furor of wild men. We even confronted a vagabond who was following us home in an alley. In the end, he wanted less aware targets and went about his night amicably. A messy night, yes, but one I wouldn’t change for anything.

That night was not the only taste of Tottenham on the trip. The previous morning Bryan and I trudged our now only slightly jet-lagged legs to the Victoria line. Destination: Seven Sisters station.

Because the Undergrounds come with such regularity, we were on our way within a minute, racing towards N17. We did not know what awaited us. Due to the Thursday-Sunday nature of Europa League competition we no longer could see a match at White Hart Lane. This we had known for months. What we did not anticipate, however, was the limited space for official tours. Turns out they are booked out as people take the chance to see the old yard before it disappears forever. At the recommendation of my friend Thad, who called the ticket office on our behalf, we went without tickets, hoping for cancellations.

Coming out of those impossibly steep tunnels was always fun, but this ascent felt different. We were going to see Tottenham, literally, and possibly the Lane. One of the first things I noticed upon surfacing was a multi-laned road running next to us teeming with traffic.

The High Road.

Bryan quickly noted a sign signaling the way to the stadium, and we were off. In that moment, I realized I was quite literally being pointed home. A home I didn’t know I had until that moment, but home nonetheless. Most of my life I understood “home” to mean a living place, a family dwelling. To reduce the idea of home to this is to mistake the reality of how encompassing the word can be.

Taking in the sights and sounds of the Tottenham High Road may draw sniggers from many, but it was spiritual for me. Imagine dedicating hours of Tottenham Hotspur, but not knowing what the actual place, Tottenham itself, looks like. For me, and countless others, that was a reality. And now, finally, I was getting that context, and I’m glad to know what it looks and sounds like before the new stadium changes the neighborhood forever.

As depressed economically as Tottenham is, something is always lost in the gentrification process. As excited as I am for new opportunities to matriculate to the area, I’m cautiously optimistic that those opportunities will come to the residents. Residents who can continue to call the borough home.

Continuing to walk, the large cranes working at the site of the new ground came even clearer into view, and before we knew it, we were there. Almost dumbfounded we walked into the Spurs shop where I got a few souvenirs, buying divot replacers for my father. Fairway divots wasn’t the goal of our excursion, so it was on to the ticket office, for better or worse.

Alas, there were no spots to be had. We circled the stadium, arching our necks to get a view of the iconic terraces, but we were left outsiders, looking in. Biding our time, we snapped pictures, expressed laments, and inevitably accepted that today was not our day.

Fortunately, we had a potential ace in hole.

Because of our connections to Cartilage Free Captain, we were put in contact with a communications employee at the club. Bryan had emailed a few days prior to our trip, but we’d heard nothing back. In one final act of desperation, he emailed again.

Later that day, after making it back to our hotel, we heard back. Despite a few miscommunications, and a few back and forths via email, we found out we would be getting a private, extremely short, tour of the Lane! Because the gentleman doing us the favor does not come to the Lane every day, we could only link up a few hours before the game on Sunday. And because it would be match day, many areas would be restricted, but we could not have cared less. The goal of the trip, a look at the Lane, would happen. The rest of trip could go carry on without the cloud of doubt. Drinks were in order, and drinks were had.

In a strange way, when Sunday arrived, knowing that I could’ve come this far without getting to step inside made the day better. We put in the call to our contact when we arrived, and minutes later, he appeared. In what felt like ten paces, we were through the entrance and staring at the greenest grass I’ve ever seen in my life. Only 72 hours earlier, I walked along the east stand, peaking at the cockerel famously perched upon its ball and thinking “if this is all I get, I need to remember it”. But there I was, feet from the pitch.

Truthfully, I felt a bit overwhelmed as our guide made small talk and asked me and Bryan questions about our fandom and thoughts about the club’s public profile. I mean, there I was, pitchside White Hart Lane. I only wanted to let that air fill my lungs, those visuals my memories.

After a few more pictures, long gazes, and heavy sighs, we toured the interviewing areas. For those who haven’t had the privilege of seeing them, they are quite small! A few more pictures, and we were off to the media area where, live and very much eating breakfast, was none other than Jermaine Jenas. Bryan grabbed my arm like he’d just seen a Catholic miracle, but we kept it together and allowed JJ to carry on with his conversation. We collected our complimentary match programs, and just like that, it was over.

Being a part of club culture comes from feeling connected. For many, that connection is the Lane and surrounding areas. For others it is the shirt or scarf they put on every weekend to stream the game in the kitchen or den, muting goal celebrations as to not wake the family. Maybe it’s drinking coffee out of the same mug, or having a pint with the same lot, in the same pub, every match. Maybe it’s even a website. The digressions and possibilities are endless.

As an American, I often felt that my version was somehow not adding up, but I was wrong. And only in going to the Lane and realizing my dreams could I come to understand.

(A special mention to Thad, Edward, “Socks”, and “Tekkers” for their company and knowledge of the best pubs and cocktails spots. You all drink like warrior poets. Another shout to “Dare” and “Cider” for their presence, no matter how shortly lived. Hope you enjoyed the theater.)