Looking for the Lighthouse

We were looking for the lighthouse. A clear crisp mid-August Saturday in the prime of summer, on a spec of land jetting out onto the Baltic Sea. The three Lithuanians pulling in the American into a beach weekend. Today was National Lighthouse Day- the one day a year you can go inside. The sun hung above in a cloudless summer sky, one of those lazy afternoons that seem to go on forever. Things slowed down and the sky stayed still. Nowhere really to go and nowhere really to be, a lighthouse off somewhere in the distance.  

On the way to the water we wandered past a patch of grassy field before the entrance to some woods, lay down under a shady tree, opened up a takeout box of chicken tenders and passed them around. Two goats grazed nearby, giving curious looks toward the uninvited trespassers and their chicken tenders.  

The day remained still, an endless summer Saturday refusing to budge. Domas asked me a question and when I began to respond, his phone rang. The first and only real world interruption to the day. As I began to tease him for taking the call, he handed it to me. 

On the other end was a journalist from the States. He had a couple final questions to ask for an interview we began months ago, and I forgot I had given him my friends' number to call.

The goats looked on, by now even more confused as I slowly paced around their farmhouse, trying to find the right words to answer the big gaping questions on the other end.

"So what's been the best experience of the trip?"

Silence. 

I stared at the goats and they stared back. Looked over at my friends as they finished the last of the nuggets, still sprawled out under the tree. 

This was the crux of it all: this was the essence of the trip. The phone call framed this snapshot of a mundane nothing to do Saturday afternoon that wasn't planned or predicted with friends I just met, living a life that wasn't mine but rather a pretending sliver into theirs. It was nothing and everything all at once. Simple and complex, boring and beautiful and all that has made my journey so special. And it was just a Saturday with the goats. One day like no other, yet just like so many others I've stumbled upon in the last fifteen months. 

"Is it hard to pick one?" The reporter broke the silence and my wandering mind. 

All I could say was yeah.

By now my Lithuanian pals had risen from the trees and motioned for me to follow; past the goats and the grass and into the woods on the way toward water. We were gonna find this lighthouse.

"So Mike, how do you feel to be nearly done with the tour? What have you learned?"

I racked my brain but couldn't find words to adequately answer a question that begged for a response much deeper than a sentence or two over a phone call. I had been with other people- friends, friends of friends, host families, strangers - for all but one night in the last fifteen months. I had walked into worlds of all kinds such as this one today, every day since May 2014. How do you sum that up?

More silence. 

I stuttered and finally told him one thing; one thing that seems cliche and obvious until you do it, until you live it.

I told him I think I've learned that being happy doesn't take much. That it's easy sometimes to forget what it really takes, and what it doesn't.

We rambled through a few more questions and answers as I followed my friends to an opening out of the woods, where the path turned into a wooden staircase at the edge of the land. At that moment came the last question from the reporter back in New York City, "so where are you now? What are you doing at this very moment?"

I told him what I was doing. I was standing on the top of a wooden staircase overlooking a speckled white sand beach and behind it, the glassy still water of the Baltic Sea, a late afternoon sun reflecting off the blue calmness beneath it. I had followed my friends to this beach, friends I met while backpacking through Lithuania months earlier with my racquet, friends who then invited me back to see a slice of their summer, to coach a clinic and then camp along their coast, sneak into a music festival in a few hours and share a tent together later that night. 

Silence, this time from him. 

We traded final words and I hung up, caught back up with my friends and apologized for the long call, jumped in the cool blue sea and joined them on the beach.

We were looking for the lighthouse.

Germany/Holland

Playing in the Brüggen Open first requires finding the village of Brüggen. Hidden amongst rolling fields somewhere just south of the southern Dutch border in northeast Germany sits a farm town and it's two thousand residents who, as my ride arrived through town, were as surprised to see squash players as we were to learn that indeed we arrived in the right place. Down the street from the town bakery was the village inn and tavern; winding through thick trees past that emerged a squash club. Time for a tournament. 

No one was home. The inn was empty, it's adjoining tavern vacant as well. After a few knocks the tavern owner appeared and welcomed us into the foyer where an ancient wooden bowling lane sat unused next to a few creaking tables, dusty framed posters hanging on the faded pastel colored walls. If someone told me I was the first visitor in 45 years I have believed it. 

I roomed with three other players: Brian, a thirty-year old school principal from rural western Ireland, married with three kids, taking a year to give the tour a crack. Phil, a thirty-two year old Englishman and a ten year veteran of the tour, set to start Divinity School in the fall. Nearly half his age was Saaid, a seventeen-year old Egyptian junior champion just starting to dabble with the pro game, who would fly back to start his final year of high school in Cairo when the tournament ended. If it were not for this sport, never would a reason exist to link the principal, the priest-to-be, the Egyptian high school senior, and me.

In the main draw round of sixteen, I took on a nineteen year old Czech player, a see-saw, marathon of squash lasting well over an hour when the fifth and deciding game began.

I had been in two similar five game battles in the weeks prior, and having lost them both I was left wondering what was wrong. The fifth is for winners; it's the final stretch and the last round, the time to dig deep and push through. I thrived on the adrenaline of five game battles in college but this month was coming up short. I wanted badly to reverse that trend; as another player told me after the brutal Ukranian loss, you don't to get used to losing in the fifth. 

I knew some of the other players in the draw from past tournaments in Brazil, Ukraine, and France; we were now friends and they were now my impromptu coaches, huddling around me to strategize before I went back to start the last game. In a world where I started the tour on my own, I couldn't help but take in the fact that I now had real friends in my corner. As I headed to re-enter the court, Phil's six-foot-six frame swooped in and grabbed my arm, "THE GUY'S BEAT MATE! HE'S GOT NOTHING LEFT!" I had no idea if that was true but the Priest-to-be had given me the last shot of adrenaline I would need; I walked on court certain the Czech player had nothing left, positive he was beat, and went on to win the game, 11-5, and the match 3-2. I was into the quarterfinals.  

I battled my friend and carpool driver Seb in the quarterfinals; the one seed and Dutch national champion was too strong, although I took pride when he complimented my hustle after the match. I was hanging in there with a top-100 ranked player. A long way from where I started. 

Brian and I made a habit out of visiting the store owner in the town bakery for breakfast. Over eggs and ham and tea we'd hear about the history of this woman's 7th generation family run bakery: how they were forced out by the German soldiers during the war only to be brought them back in for their cooking skills, how her son is 22 years old, the gelato maker and hopefully, the next generation of family ownership. 

One morning we kept walking past the bakery, past the town and through the trees and along farms. We both had read A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Alchemist and as we wandered past another field of cows we traded our favorite sentiments of each: one describing how universe of people around you can help you chase a dream, and the other placing in perspective just how small we are in our tiny universe among infinite others. 

I asked him why he's doing this- leaving a good job with a wife and kids behind to try and climb the ladder of the tour.  He replied with a story about an older school teacher at his school who recently retired. "At his retirement speech, he talked about how every day for the past forty something years, he drove up and over the same hill to work. Each day, same hill, again and again. I live near that same hill. When I heard him say that, I knew that would not be me."

The night I got knocked out of Brüggen coincided with an invite to join the tail end of a friend of a friends' going away party in Amsterdam, and with no couch or set plans in mind I caught I ride with my friend and training partner Marc, and we headed out of the farms for the big city.

Hours later I sat next to a guy named Thomas, who worked for a Dutch company selling commercial boats in Africa. Through polite small talk about his recent trip to Zimbabwe we discovered we shared mututal friends living Harare, and an hour after that I was on the couch sharing drinks with his roommates, answering their excited questions as how exactly I ended up in their living room.

I would play the next day with Martijn, a friend of my friend Reinier and a squash enthusiast. Martijn offered up his couch in return for a squash lesson, so we hit the courts and afterward piled onto his bicycle, weighted down by two grown men and my life belongings, a racquet bag and backpack, dangling off the back as we wobbled our way toward my next couch.

Northern Ireland

Adrian Leeson is a car dealer, his wife Rebekah a crafts teacher, their little boy Sebastian a budding junior squash star and his little sister Amelia a playful gymnast-to-be with a knack for freestyle dancing. The Belfast Open would be my third of four tournaments in a row, Northern Ireland my fourth country stop in four days of planes trains and minibuses. Landing in the countryside on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, I needed something more than squash. And that's when the Leeson family and their friends on Cypress Avenue in East Belfast came to the rescue. 

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When I think of what makes travelling special, I think of the people you meet. When I think of the people you meet I think of the ones who grab your arm and fling you into their world and give you a slice of their lives: their good and their bad, ups and downs, interesting and mundane. It's cliche to say it but at the end of the day the place you go is far less relevant than the people you're around once there. If they pull you up a chair at the dinner table, make room for you in the family car and help you figure out how the stove works - if they do all those things and then some, if they truly make their home yours... well for me at least, that when you've found yourself experiencing the joy of travel.

English tea awaited us on the table as we walked into the Leeson home. "Bacon and toast sandwich?" offered up with a smile by Rebekah, greeting me in the kitchen before I dropped my bags. I dreaded giving the awkward mention that I was gluten-free. Silence. Rebekah, keeping her smile, brainstormed how to deal with this curveball on the fly. Six year-old Amelia looked up curiously, mid-cartwheel on her gymnastics mat next to the oven. From the couch Seb stared on with ten-year old wonder: Who turns down bacon and toast? The American standing in the kitchen does. Who eats gluten-free in Northern Ireland? Me...and maybe just me.

But Rebekeh audibled smoothly and over a pile of bacon and (gluten-free) eggs the family told me the colored history of the city, the tensions that still linger today between Protestants and Catholics over just about everything - neighborhoods to live, pubs to visit, even taxi cabs to take. On a drive through town, Adrian would point out where not to walk around at night: streets of Catholic homes bearing green and gold colors directly facing rows of Protestant townhouses just feet away, shatterproof casings over their windows (just to be safe) and the flag of Great Britain swaying valiantly overhead. The tension was real, the complicated history still very much alive. 

If playing St. Andrews is a must for any golf fanatic, playing at clubs like the Belfast Boat Club should be the same for any squash nut. It's places like Northern Ireland that give the sport it's character: where the local talent is revered, legends are remembered, traditions live on for decades through the heavy concrete courts and creaking grandstands of the vintage club. Sitting along worn wooden benches next to their lockers in the changing room, gray haired seniors trade match recaps in nearly indeciperhable Irish accents, as they likely have for the last fifty years. On the stools at the bar, regulars share the latest sport gossip - who's beating who, who's playing well, who's moving back to the club - over pints, and more pints, of Guinness. 

Everyone is good. The pilot, the school teacher - all amateurs with day jobs who hop on court after work in North Belfast and turn in games at a near professional level. Adrian introduced me to his buddy Jeff, a local bank manager around fifty with that dead-on, dry sense of humor and an avid doubles player who, at first glance, makes you wonder just how he can cover the court in his hefty, towering frame. Jeff suggested a game of doubles and while it's a different game than singles, I wasn't too worried. Wrong. I spent the next forty-five minutes chasing Jeff's arching lobs and dying cross court drops, desparately fetching the ball hit from a bellowing hearty laugh standing amused in the back of the court. For anyone watching the spectacle, it was unclear who was the pro and who was the bank manager. 

 Jeff the playing partner, local bank manager, life of the party  

Jeff the playing partner, local bank manager, life of the party  

The family lived in a cozy townhouse off the tree-lined Cyprus Avenue, the charming street in East Belfast that inspired a young Van Morrison years ago. Coming home was like taking a time machine to suburban America in the '50s. Kids playing in the streets, doors unlocked, dogs tiptoing past the flowers on the sidewalks and in front of our home, a big RV in the driveway that the family had purchased the day before I arrived for future vacations. Adrian ferried me and the other players to and from the club, coaching kids and giving pointers in between, grabbing a pint with older members if he had a minute. He adored the sport was the godfather of the club, both the maitre'd and city mayor wrapped into one, a gem of a guy who I was lucky to meet through the tour and will see again and again with long after my pro days are done.

With spare time I'd take out the dog Jack for a walk around the neighborhood, at night we all cooked stir fry and grilled fish and sat around the table and on the couch, chatted over the squash tournament or the local gossip of the day, figured out who would take who to school when the kids started up again the next week. Rebekah got a kick out of shopping gluten free, and soon I had my own little corner of the kitchen: gluten free pastas, breads, bagels. Friends and neighbors dropped in to meet the visiting squash pros, and Rebekah got a bigger kick extending the now joke with every introduction ("This is Mike: he's gluten free!") just to see the reactions from her Irish neighbors (silence, confusion, another moment of awkward silence, "Sorry to hear that, Mike..."). 

One night big Jeff took a couple of the South African players and me to his favorite Chinese restaurant in town, took care of the ordering with his buddy the owner and made sure we feasted on only the best Chinese cuisine Northern Ireland could offer. If we weren't eating we were talking, if we weren't talking we were laughing, if we weren't laughing, Jeff was all over us, "Come ahn JP! Give yah face a holiday and smile for once!" Afterward the owners brought out a few rounds of Irish Coffee, damn fine Irish Coffee, Jeff told us- the second-best in all of Belfast, he explained. The cream was thick, the coffee rich, the drop of whiskey just enough. Jeff was right. Damn fine Irish Coffee.

I had lost in the round of sixteen to an experienced Englishman a few years older, his 6'6 frame covering my length and anything else I tried. As a loss would normally signal the end of a stay, the family suggested sticking around: a few days later, that local guy named Van Morrison was coming to town.

It turned out Van Morrison wanted to celebrate his 70th birthday by returning to Cyprus Avenue for a small concert on on the street that inspired the early goings of what would become his legendary career. Only a couple thousand tickets were released and fans from New Zealand to the Canada were coming in for it, but since the family lived on what became the concert grounds, they were given a dozen free tickets, and one was generously offered to me.

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By the day of the concert I had finally matched the faces to the names of the neighbors and friends. One of my favorites was Tracy, the owner of her own bakery, Scone Mad, hailing from a rural town in the lake districts of Northern Ireland, Fermanagh ("Eh beaut-E-full en charm-en town: 2/3 under water, the other third should be!") and who by the end of the weekend swore she too was gonna give gluten free a shot (she later did- and is now apparently three months in with no signs of turning back.) On the porch or in the yard, over tea and around the kitchens, the Irish wit and banter was quick and slick and if you could keep up it was just too good- easy to see why pints at the bar is a high quality way to spend a lot of time.

We spent the afternoon with a couple dozen friends in the backyard, strolled along the trees of Cyprus Avenue past the other neighbors and cocktail parties and toward the music from the man himself, came back for a classic English tea time of epic proportions- chocolates and scones and biscuits and toast and champagne (with a couple gluten free options too) that would make the Queen herself proud.

As the concert music faded out and the streets began to empty, I sat in the kitchen with Adrian and Rebecca and the last of their guests as the final evening of the long holiday weekend crept in. We shared the stories and laughs of the last couple days, soaked up the waning last hours of our time together. I tried to tell them how much this week did for me. How much I owed them, how lucky I was to be pulled right into their world. They just smiled.

And when all the others left and it was just us again, we opened up a bottle of wine and toasted to the week that was. The Leesons and their new friend, the wandering pro who for a few days in August was right at home. Nowhere to be but sitting at the kitchen table, helping finishing the bottle of red.

The next day would mark the first day of school for the kids, the end of summer, the departure of the American fly on the wall. And the start of the next chapter of life on Cyprus Avenue in East Belfast. 

 

 The UK's Strongest Man competition overlapped with our pro squash tournament- hard to tell us all apart   

The UK's Strongest Man competition overlapped with our pro squash tournament- hard to tell us all apart   

 A blow up pub on the street turned concert venue for Van...only in Belfast

A blow up pub on the street turned concert venue for Van...only in Belfast

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