Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Roland Garros ~ Where the clay is red and the story lines are always a little unpredictable

Roland Garros 2012 poster art by Hérve Di Rosa /
 "Sensual mouthes and rebellious looks."

As world No. 1 Novak Djokovic began his quest on Monday to hold all four Grand Slam tennis titles at once by winning his first round match at the French Open ~ and Roger Federer and Andy Murray figure to advance deep into the second week of the Paris fortnight ~ Rafa Nadal entered this year's tournament as the defending champion and the favorite to make history on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Like Djokovic before him, the world No. 2 Nadal had no difficulty in defeating his first-round opponent, the 111th-ranked Simone Bolelli, on Tuesday afternoon on Philippe Chatrier Court, the main stadium at Roland Garros.

Each year in late spring, the French Open in Paris serves as a grading period ~ a report card ~ for tennis. It's the second of the year's four Grand Slam events ~ the others are the Australian Open in January, Wimbledon in June and the U.S. Open in August ~ and all the big names of tennis come to the famed Roland Garros to complete for the Coupe des Mousquetaires, or the Cup of the Musketeers.

With a 128-player singles draw for both men and women, there are plenty of interesting story lines among the top men's players emerging after just three days. Here's a few worth pointing out:

* Nadal is going after his seventh French Open singles title, which would surpass the record of six first set by the famed Bjorn Borg. The Spaniard won at Roland Garros in 2011 and is the pre-tournament pick to win it all, again. He is the undisputed "King of Clay".

* Djokovic is aiming to hold all four Grand Slam tennis titles at once. He has won the last three Grand Slams ~ Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. A year ago, Djokovic reached the semifinals of the French Open before losing to world No. 3 Roger Federer en route to surpassing Nadal as the world's top-ranked player.

* As for Federer, he remains a very viable competitor and still possesses the talent and ability to win Grand Slams. With 16 career Grand Slams, including one French Open crown (2009), Federer would have to beat Djokovic in a potential semifinal match-up in order to meet Nadal in a dream championship final.

* Meanwhile, No. 4 Andy Murray has a new coach this year in three-time former French Open champion Ivan Lendl, who beat John McEnroe in an epic, five-set final at Roland Garros in 1984. If anyone can, perhaps Lendl can finally bring out Murray's potential and push him to loftier heights.

On the women's side of the French Open, in Tuesday's fading twilight that fell on Philippe Chatrier Court, unheralded Virginie Razzano of France, ranked 115th in the world, stunned perennial (13-time) Grand Slam champion and world No. 5 Serena Williams in a three-hour, three-set thriller that was anything but a routine first-round match ~ and it knocked the American out in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in her professional career after winning 46 consecutive first-round Grand Slam matches. The Tennis Channel commentators, broadcasting the match back to the U.S., called the dramatic and emotional loss by Williams a "monumental" and "stunning" defeat.

In a Grand Slam event that few Americans ~ men or women ~ ever fare well in, the early farewell by Williams, who was the last American to win a French Open title in 2002 and was thought of as a "sure thing" entering this year's Roland Garros with a 17-0 record on clay this spring, took everyone by surprise. Including Razzano, who said in a post-match interview while still on court that she just simply wanted to win the match. The last game of the match, alone, lasted a quarter of an hour. "Yes, I think there were some angels watching me up above. I'm going to enjoy this for a long time."

Finally, here's a feel-good story that involves a player little known outside of his native north African country of Tunisia. His name is Malek Jaziri and he's the 94th-ranked singles player in the world. He may not be a house-hold name to most, but he's got a Facebook page devoted to him created by fans from his home country.

Jaziri, 28, hails from Bizerte, Tunisia, and he's a first-time qualifier for the French Open. On Monday, he won his first round match against Philipp Petzschner of Germany on an outer court.

Meeting the media after his victory, Jaziri said that he's been an avid viewer of the French Open for many years and has been to Roland Garros before as a hitting partner for others. "It's a tradition back home in Tunisia. We all watch Roland Garros," said Jaziri. "Everyone in north Africa knows the tournament. I've dreamt about playing here since I was a kid. It's a dream come true. What's even better is that I didn't have to go through the qualification round like I did in the U.S. Open (last year), but went straight to the main draw."

Jaziri is the top-ranked player in Tunisia and the fourth-ranked player in north Africa. As long as he stays ranked in the top 100, he should be able to gain main draw status in Grand Slam tournaments. He said his goal is to be able to some day play Roger Federer. Next up for him in this year's French Open is a second-round match against Spaniard Marcel Granollers, ranked 23rd in the world, on Thursday. It will likely be assigned to one of the outer courts away from the big crowds filling up Philippe Chatrier Court and Suzanne Lenglen Court, the two largest show courts at Roland Garros.

"I'd love to play one of the greats like Federer," said Jaziri, who could only meet Federer at Roland Garros if both reach the final.  Give Jaziri credit. He's full of heart and he's got lofty goals.

"That's why I play tennis," he said. "To play on the big courts with the legends."

Image of 2012 Roland Garros poster art by French artist Hérve Di Rosa, courtesy of Galerie Lalong FFT 2012.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The most photographed bridge in the world

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge at 75

It's a Happy 75th Birthday today for the Golden Gate Bridge, the most photographed bridge in the world.

The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the Golden Gate, which is the opening of the San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean. It is part of both U.S. Highway 101 and California State Highway 1 routes, and it links the city of San Francisco, on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County. Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1933 and it opened to the public on May 27, 1937. It has a height of 220 feet and is 8,980 feet long.

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most internationally recognized and photographed symbols of San Francisco. Each year, countless photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge are taken by both locals and tourists.  It's a very beautiful sight to behold no matter the point of view: from the vista point near the northern end to the Crissy Field shoreline adjacent to the Marina Green.

The American Society of Civil Engineers selected the Golden Gate Bridge as one of the modern Wonders of the World and it's easy to see and understand why.

As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area for 16 years, I've seen the Golden Gate Bridge countless times ~ from both sides of the bay ~ and snapped many photographs of it, too. I'm happy to say that it's still a very welcoming sight to my eyes after all these years.

Golden Gate Bridge photograph by Michael Dickens. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

De Lapjesboom ~ Thoughts on urban knitting

Urban knitting / De Lapjesboom at Floriade 2012.

Urban knitting can take on many forms and be seen in many spaces, too. More and more, it's becoming common to spot this kind of knitted graffiti in public places all over the world.

At Floriade 2012, a world horticultural event that is held once every 10 years in the Netherlands, we came upon De Lapjesboom ~ Dutch for The Patchwork Tree ~ while walking the festival grounds during our recent visit in the Dutch city of Venlo. Mind you, this yarn-storming work of fiber art was planned ~ not impromptu. Still, it was a beautiful and artistic sight to behold and it truly added to the enjoyment of our day.

Observing reactions to De Lapjesboom.

De Lapjesboom was not only very colorful to admire. It became very interesting to observe people's reactions, too. 

A sign in Dutch near the tree described De Lapjesboom:
Een statige oude eik omhuld door gebreide lappen, die kleur en vrolijkheid brengen in de harten van de mens. 

A stately old oak tree wrapped in knitted cloth, the color and joy into the hearts of man.

The color and joy into the hearts of man.

According to Wikipedia, these urban yarn installations ~ also known as yarn bombs ~ were recorded as early as May 2004 in Den Helder, Netherlands. Personally, I don't like the term yarn bombs and much prefer yarn storms. Besides trees, yarn storms have shown up on many unimaginable-but-common things such as telephone poles, bicycle racks, fences, door knobs ~ even the omnipresent red phone boxes in the U.K.

Reflect or be reflective /
Hugging De Lapjesboom.

At Floriade 2012, the De Lapjesboom became ontmoetingsplek, a meeting place for everyone to pause and take notice. Whether to reflect or be reflective, the De Lapjesboom became a conversation topic among many who stopped to take photographs or be photographed standing ~ even hugging ~ the tall oak tree.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On travel: In search of making friends

We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls. ~ Anaïs Nin

Grand Place / The Grote Markt in the heart of central Brussels
 is the focal point of the city.

Last Thursday, I returned home from a 12-day European holiday in which I visited Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It was my sixth visit to Europe this decade ~ the first since 2007. I am happy to say that, overall, it was a positive experience for me and my wife. There was plenty of urban adventure as well as some open spaces to enjoy, too.

Our holiday afforded us a chance to relax, release and enjoy a change of routine ~ not to mention, it reacquainted ourselves with the Euro. (I like the 2 Euro coins very much.)

The Eiffel Tour in Paris
In each of the major cities we visited ~ Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam ~ we enjoyed getting outside in the fresh, spring air and walking each day. I am happy to say that each of these cities also had efficient and affordable local mass transit systems that we availed ourselves to often in our daily journeys from A to B. Plus, it was nice to be able to take advantage of long-distance rail service, such as Thalys, which enabled us to visit Paris for a day while staying in Brussels. Imagine, all there is to see and do in the City of Lights ~ the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre ~ on both the Left and Right Bank. We only had eight hours to do it, but it was worth every minute.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
Additionally, our holiday gave us an opportunity to visit and absorb some very beautiful sacred spaces such as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, and the Oude Kerk (Old Church) in Amsterdam.

Each one, in its own way, was inspiring to see and to absorb its history. After all, there's many centuries of history worth learning about in each of these holy cathedrals and churches.

In Amsterdam, the ordinary bicycle was the preferred method of
transportation used by locals to navigate the city's narrow streets.

In Amsterdam, I marveled at the abundance of bicycles. They were everywhere, numbering in the thousands ~ not 10-speeds or mountain bikes, mind you, like you would normally see in the U.S. ~ just ordinary two-wheelers, most equipped with simple hand brakes, a bell, lights, a comfortable seat and a dependable padlock. The bicycle was the most common form of transportation seen navigating the narrow, cobblestone streets lining the canals of the city's centrum, greater in number than automobiles. It was a very refreshing sight to see.

Lovely and colorful Dutch tulips
 adorned the Floriade 2012
site in Venlo, Netherlands.
Another refreshing sight to see was Floriade 2012, a world horticultural event that is held once every ten years in the Netherlands ~ and the impetus for our visiting Europe now. This year's festival, which began in April and continues into August, brought us to Venlo, in the southeastern Netherlands.

I am happy to report that were many acres of lovely and colorful Dutch tulips to admire even if the weather was less than ideal on the day of our recent visit.

A Belgian waffle treat near
 the Grand Place in Brussels
was enjoyable and affordable.
Finally, we embraced the opportunity to speak a little French and Dutch in our daily interactions in restaurants and bakeries, at newsstands and in grocery markets. It's amazing the amount of kindness and goodwill that can be generated by simply knowing how to say "hello", "goodbye", "please" and "thank you" in the local language of the country you are visiting ~ especially among the French in Paris. Indeed, making an effort to speak a foreign language means all the difference in the world ~ and, it makes one's journey more enjoyable, too.

Amsterdam at night / Looking across the street
at the Concert-Gebouw from the Museumplein.

In closing, here's a thought about travel that comes from the American poet Maya Angelou. It sums up my feelings about my recent travel experience:

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends. 

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The beauty of a spring flower

The beauty of one of our first orange roses
of the Spring season.

And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Sensitive Plant"