In the first in a series of questions to Irish football journalists about working abroad, Aidan Fitzmaurice shares his experiences of good food on the way to visiting Stalin’s house and why he chooses to stay in apartments over hotels.
Travel Bug by Aidan Fitzmaurice (The Herald)
Can you remember your first working trip overseas?
Liechtenstein versus the Republic of Ireland in the 1998 World Cup qualifiers – it was Mick McCarthy’s first game as manager. Everyone was very wary because of the history – Ireland had a disaster 0-0 draw on their previous visit there – but I was only two months into my first job, working for The Title newspaper, and I was just delighted with the fact that I was getting paid to go abroad and watch Ireland play.
Did you learn anything in particular from that trip?
Never try to return a cash advance. I had been given some money to use while on the trip by my newspaper, and being an honest, idealistic and inexperienced young man at the time, I handed over the leftover cash which I hadn’t spent to my editor, Cathal Dervan, who was shocked at the notion of money being given back. ‘Never bring back money,’ he said. Of course in these recessionary times, the idea of a cash advance for a journalist is long gone and all expenses have to be accounted for.
Favourite place that you have visited on a work trip?
As someone who is fascinated by all things east of the old iron curtain, the trips to Georgia (2003) and Armenia (2010) were, indeed, fascinating, especially the visit to Georgia when a few of us made a day trip from Tbilisi to the city of Gori, home town of Stalin which had a museum to the man and a large statue in the town square – the museum is still there but the statue has since been taken down. I still smile at the way in which the BBC English-speaking tour guide in the museum summed up the whole period of the Purges, famine in Ukraine, mass arrests and execution of millions by saying: ‘In the 1930s, some mistakes were made’.
Montenegro was pretty good too. The capital, Podgorica, doesn’t have much to see but while there I took a local bus (ticket was less than €1) to the coast for a day trip and had a pleasant day in the sun with a swim in the Adriatic.
Have you returned to any city when not working?
I was in Berlin to see St Patrick’s Athletic play in the UEFA Cup and managed to make it back there for a non-work trip. I also loved a follow-up visit to Zagreb while on holiday, having been there for a Euro 2000 qualifier covering Ireland.
Have you visited any country during a particularly turbulent period?
The whole Euro 2000 campaign with Ireland was surrounded by doubt and controversy due to the increasingly violent situation in the old Yugoslavia, which resulted in the NATO bombing of the Serbian regime. I had flashbacks while watching the news later on – the town of Smederevo was bombed by NATO as it held a large military base and I had been there for an Ireland Under 21 game.
The Ireland game in Macedonia in 1999 was also quite turbulent. There were a lot of NATO staff and other suspicious American spook types based there ahead of the impending NATO attack and with so many western ‘advisers’ around hotel rooms were scarce and the Irish journalists had to share rooms.
Best result a team has achieved on your travels?
Aberdeen is probably the greyest place I have been to, but a 2-1 win for Bohemians there in 2000 was something else. Irish clubs were just about to start making an impact in Europe, I think Shelbourne had won in Macedonia a few weeks earlier, but for Bohs to win away to an SPL side was something I thought I’d never see.
Any cities or countries that you still want to visit?
Still a few of the old USSR countries I have to see, so Azerbaijan and Moldova are next on the list.
What is the best hotel you have stayed in?
Probably the place I stayed at in Louisianna when I managed to get a free trip there, on a junket, to see the SuperBowl in 1997. But overall I’m not bothered by hotels. In fact, while on trips now I prefer to stay in apartments when possible as you get to stay right in the heart of the city and have much more space for your non-working time.
I had a brilliant apartment right in the centre of Skopje for the Euro 2012 qualifier there. Then at Euro 2012, my base for two weeks was an apartment in Gdynia, on the 12th floor of a big old apartment block. You get to meet the locals every day in the lift and interact with people in a way that’s not possible when staying in a soulless IBIS or Holiday Inn somewhere.
And what about the worst?
A place in Paris when I was there for Derry City’s game against Paris St Germain. It was cheap but not at all cheerful, was in a dodgy part of town near a train station and beside a brothel, the room was tiny and dirty, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
What is the best meal you’ve had on your travels?
I remember stopping for khachapuri – a kind of bread stuffed with cheese, meats etc – in a very basic local cafe on the way to see Stalin’s house in Georgia. Due to a combination of a hangover from the night before and hunger from a long road trip, that food tasted so good. I also liked the food in Armenia, especially the English translations of the menu and I still regret the fact that I was too conservative to try a starter named ‘expressed human yogurt’.
Should we even ask about the worst?
I cursed the person who thought of putting a raw egg on a pizza and then cooking the pizza but not the egg fully. That choice in an Italian restaurant in Paris before Ireland’s scoreless draw with France gave me a serious dose of food poisoning. That was a very unpleasant 36 hours.
Any nightmare trips?
Thessalonika in Greece for a Shamrock Rovers game in the Europa League was a bit hairy at times due the fact that a general strike was on, no taxis and buses meant we had to walk everywhere. And getting a taxi from the city to the airport for a flight home was an ordeal as the taxi drivers were all on strike, so we had to bribe one to take us there but he had to drop us off a bit before the terminal in case he was seen to be working by his colleagues. I don’t usually tolerate breaking a picket but I had to make an exception in this case.
While in Georgia with Ireland in 2003, myself and three colleagues, heading back to the hotel in a taxi after a night out, were (sort of) held up at gun point by crooked cops who were trying to shake us down for a few quid, but the taxi driver sorted it out without too much fuss.
What are the three must-need items when working abroad?
Apart from the essentials for work – laptop, mobile and phone charger – I’d have to say an iPod, a book and a good pair of walking shoes. As a luddite I have for ebooks and to me, there’s nothing better than sitting down for a coffee or beer in a local cafe during a bit of down-time from work with a good paperback, especially if the book is related to the place you’re in, like reading a Henning Mankell book while in Sweden. And I love to walk when abroad so I would think nothing of making the four-mile trip out to a stadium, once I have my iPod fully charged.
Best advice you could give to a new journalist going away?
Do a bit of research before you go and try to get an idea of where you’re going. Journalists who cover international football have such a privilege, getting paid to go to exotic places to see football matches, but so many of them – due to a mixture of laziness and fear – never go beyond the usual route of hotel, stadium and airport, eating and drinking in the hotel bar instead of exploring the city, or else heading to an Irish bar. If you are only away from home for two nights, why the hell would you want to drink Guinness, listen to the Saw Doctors and watch Sky Sports News in an Irish bar?