Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Crip-walking in Shanghai

AK is a twenty-eight-year-old Chinese man who gave up a highly paid, highly respected job as a banker so that he could have more time to work on his football tricks. I want to say that while I watch him juggle the ball on his shins, it’s hard for me to imagine him wearing a business suit and sitting at a desk, but that’s not true—I can easily imagine him wearing a suit and sitting at a desk. Maybe he could see it too—like us, he’s at that age where things start funneling in directions you’re not even sure you want to go—and maybe that’s part of what led him to tell a disbelieving father that his grown up son wanted to become a street soccer player.

Several years ago, AK saw a youtube video of various street players. He enjoyed watching them so much that he started trying tricks himself. Everyday he spent hours mastering the moves he saw on the computer screen and then inventing his own, until he became arguably the best streetballer in China. Nowadays he has a small following of guys who meet him in public squares and attempt to replicate his tricks. They play outside the metro station, in the center of People’s Square, in front of a Mao statue at East China Normal University—anywhere they think people will see.

All over the world, we’ve managed to skirt the rain, roaming the streets, living in sunshine. But in Asia, our luck runs out. We arrive in the dead of winter, even though we haven’t planned or packed much different than we did for summertime. In Tokyo, we were American ragamuffins—layering our t-shirts, each wearing our only sweatshirt over and over again. In Shanghai, we’re just wet, terribly wet. We land in the middle of a record-setting stretch of rain. There are men using brooms to sweep the water off the sidewalk. It’s one thing to play in the warm rain of summer time, it’s another to play when it’s thirty-five degrees outside. Ferg and I buy tights and Luke and Ryan wear jeans beneath their warm-up pants and the four of us huddle beneath the umbrella we check out from our hotel. Ryan believes umbrellas bring out the worst in people—you see selfishness loud and clear as you’re jabbed in the eye, doused with repelled water, or nudged off the sidewalk in favor of the prepared people who have their lives in order and their umbrellas extended. Being tall—his face at the same level as most umbrellas—Ryan is especially susceptible to the various hazards.

The wet ball is not good for the Shanghainese streetballers’ tricks, but it does not prevent them from playing. On Saturday, they meet at the small amphitheater outside the metro station. They know all the public spots in the city where there can play without hassle from the police. It’s a different kind of soccer than Luke and I are used to—more like a performance than a game. Every guy has his own style. One guy’s specialty is a kung-fu infused ball dance, another guy is a master of the “around-the-world,” the foot somehow makes a full circle around the ball while it stays up in the air. He used the trick to woo his wife—she told him she’d marry him if he could do ten in a row. A small sixteen-year-old wearing a black I-Heart-Shanghai t-shirt and baggy jeans is a relative beginner and has not mastered a full range of tricks but his around-the-worlds are tight and clean. He and the other fourteen-year-old wear ear buds and periodically start tracing out dance moves. In order to improve their street-balling-rhythm, they’ve taken up crip-walking. In the same way the Brazilians wove the hip-sway of the Samba into their futbol, they want to make the crip-walking inflect their tricks. It’s a funny thing to stand in Shanghai, watching a sixteen-year-old try a dance that originated from a 1970s Los Angeles gang.

Not only can I not do any of their tricks, I can’t do half a trick. Compared to the snazzy juggling of these guys, even Luke is bad, and he at least knows how to do things like the “around-the-world,” even though he wouldn’t call it that because Luke doesn’t believe in naming moves—when I say things like “scissors” and “stepover,” he scoffs at me. He thinks it’s lame to name a move. He doesn’t like the idea of learning a prescribed set of movements. He thinks you should see something and then do it and then change it and then let it bleed into something else until it’s unique and unpredictable, not something you can just slap a word on. Luke has a similar approach to driving—he knows where he has to go and takes a different route to get there every time, while I sit in the passenger seat, miserably lost, longing for a route I can take over and over again. I’m not in it for new territory. I’m in it for the familiarity, for loyalty. Instincts, gut feelings—I only trust these things if I’ve spent enough time doing the same thing to know it will come out of me on its own.

But even here in Shanghai, where they are breaking the moves down for me, giving me the formula, showing me step by step, I cannot do it. I stand there behind AK as he does it again in slow motion. It has been a long time since I’ve tried to learn to a new move. I can vaguely remember this feeling of helplessness—a Sunday afternoon practice and a circle, the fear of something you don’t know how to do but dribbling into the middle and doing it anyway—I marvel over how brave I was as a kid and how not-brave I feel now. I can’t even hear what he’s telling me, I don’t want to try, I just want to stop. I’m embarrassed. I guess as we get older, and rule out the things we don’t like or aren’t good at, there are less face-to-face encounters with looking stupid. But inside the amphitheater in Shanghai, moving my legs in awkward, unfamiliar patterns—and invariably getting it wrong,--looking stupid is hard to avoid. I just wait it out until it is time to go to the neighboring park and play for real…and see if their juggling moves can translate to the field, to the game, to the kind of soccer I know how to play.

Next and final destination: Iran…

Friday, April 10, 2009

On the Rooftops

PEOPLE TOLD US not to bother going to Asia. Franklin Foer didn’t make it there—when he wrote How Soccer Explains The World, it was the one continent he left out. The passion that spanned Europe, Africa, South America, and the Middle East apparently didn’t exist in Asia. China, the most populated country in the world, rarely qualifies for the World Cup; in 2002 when they did qualify, they failed to score a single goal. When I researched the Asian pick-up scene, the Internet turned up only one article in Time magazine: “Woes in Asia.” An excerpt:

"In Japan, it's often said that we teach too much," says Yahiro Kazama, one of the few Japanese to have played professionally in Europe. Japanese kids—like others in East Asia—participate in organized after-school soccer, but tend to abandon the sport outside regulation time. "They are good at learning," says Japanese soccer commentator Michel Miyazawa. "But if I ask my son to play with a ball, he seems surprised and says 'Really? Here? Now?'"

The article concludes with the sentence, “Look around Asia and the goalposts just aren’t there.” This was discouraging.

In the editing room, we were already killing babies left and right. It’s impossible to go to twenty odd countries without acquiring more fantastic material than you could ever use. I stare at an image of somebody’s face, chewing on my knuckle, thinking, “Could we really possibly cut him? Could we really leave this out?” And then there was the other problem: with the economy going bust and our funding running dry, we were out of money anyway.

But we set out to make a movie about pick-up soccer around the world, the entire world. Luke watched J-League highlights every week and swore they were the nuttiest, most fervent fans he’d seen anywhere, and I too had seen the slew of Asian supporters at the 2006 World Cup. We didn’t believe they weren’t into it. So the four of us spent a month emailing everyone we could think of. We canvassed the celebrity world for people somehow associated to soccer, and who might, theoretically, want to help us fund the rest of our movie—Drew Carey owns an MLS team, Jon Stewart played soccer at William and Mary, Tina Fey wants her daughter to play sports, Kobe Bryant touts himself as Marta’s biggest fan, Steve Nash claims to be the NBA’s most skilled soccer player. But famous people are hard to track down. None of our brilliant plans for infiltration worked out. Instead, we worked odd jobs and answered fliers that said things like, “Alcohol study: Earn $100 to drink.” This, in conjunction with kind donations and one friend’s willingness to lend us money, was enough to get ourselves to Asia.

WE SAW A picture of a rooftop court in Tokyo—skyline bright in the background—so we came to Japan to find it. Music is everywhere, whether you’re getting on a subway, crossing the street or walking through a department store. It’s soft music, trance music. It feels like Tokyo’s made a soundtrack for your life. It’s a trippy thing to stand in the middle of Shibuya crossing, subliminal keyboard notes ruffling your thoughts as thousands of people—women with trendy hair-cuts, fingerless gloves and high-heeled boots, teenage boys with skinny jeans and fluorescent high-tops—swoop past you and your blind search for soccer courts begins.

Maybe the guy who couldn’t find the goalposts just hadn’t looked high enough. We stood on the street corners, craning our necks to the sky, as though we could see to the top of the skyscrapers. The Japanese do not label every street, and we have no address to go off of. We often feel like we’re on a massive scavenger hunt, a sometimes embarrassing scavenger hunt: we tap on shoulders and mumble sentences in broken languages. “What?” they say, frowning, leaning their heads in so the American can try again. In Tokyo, Luke repeats the sentence he has pieced together through language books and podcasts: “Do you know of any rooftop courts?” He tries different inflections until he sees sudden comprehension light up a face. This is often followed by a vigorous shake of the head—No, no, they know nothing about football courts. But eventually, we find people who point to the sky.

High above the busy crossings and electronic signs, there’s a secret world where sakka games are played. Because Tokyo is a city where space is at a premium, the courts have been snuck onto the rooftops. Entering department stores, we walk past Prada bags, Chanel counters, and ladies sampling perfume, and then we board an elevator, standing next to tired shoppers who empty out floor by floor until we reach the top.

When the doors open, we see businessmen wearing well-cut suits and deep blue scarves, leaning back against park benches. They’re smoking cigarettes, unrolling soccer socks and slipping off dress shoes. Changing right there in the open, they shimmy off their slacks and undo their button downs, donning long-sleeved replica jerseys, warm-up pants and winter gloves. They jump up and down to shake out the cold.

There are two courts cloaked in netting that prevents the ball from soaring off the rooftops. It’s not cheap to rent a court on top of the city and it’s not something they do everyday. There’s the special-occasion feeling, like renting a bowling alley or a skating rink for a birthday party. You can hear the faint sound of an automated voice: “Thank you for visiting Mitsukoshi Department Store.” As the smell of beef wafts up from the food court, we begin to play.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

LA or Bust...

WE WERE GOING 80 MPH down highway 94 on the twenty-second hour of our cross-country drive when we struck the deer.

Ryan, Ferg, Luke and I were moving to Los Angeles to try our luck in the big city and turn our 300 hours of footage into an hour and a half feature-length film. Ryan was taking the southern route, Ferg was cutting straight through the middle, and Luke and I were taking a slightly out of the way route via Montana. We’d loaded our lives into my ’96 Camry. While it had 168,000 miles on it and was missing three inner door handles and two outer door handles, there was no reason to believe we wouldn’t make it.

It was the good kind of drive—rolling hills, trees rising out of rivers, sideways light that lit up the cornfields, empty roads, good music and the feeling that so much was ahead.

It turned dark in North Dakota. The speed limit was 75 MPH. There was something vaguely eerie about driving so fast through empty land. We passed a trucker every twenty or so miles. Our Camry was humming and we were crossing off the hours—fourteen yesterday, twenty down today, two more to go before we reached the cabin in Montana Luke’s friend had won in a raffle. This was the land of Norman Macleans’s A River Runs Through It, my favorite book and the reason why Luke was able to talk me into a thirteen-hour detour.

I’d scrunched up my pillow against the window and shut my eyes when I felt Luke come down hard on the brakes. It happened in a second but it felt slow: there it was—the deer—appearing suddenly out of the dark, beautiful and bright from our headlights. He was moving right so Luke swerved left as our brakes and tires screeched. I waited for the relief, the heart pound of nearly hitting something but then I realized we weren’t going to miss it—we were going to hit it. The deer, his instinct clashing against ours, made an about turn and ran in the same direction we swerved.

His face came at my face and for a second, we made eye contract—his weirdly human brown eyes staring into mine right before I closed them and his face hit the windshield. His body thumped against the car and I screamed. I felt surprised to hear myself scream.
Then it was quiet, except for the new rattle of the steering wheel and the thump of our bumper against tire. We limped to the nearest exit. Beneath the exit sign another sign read “No service here.” There was one shed with a flood light in a gravel parking lot so we turned off the car there. Luke got out and I waited for him to come around and let me out. The inside door handle was missing so this was always how it was—I was trapped in there until Luke made his way around to work on the outside door handle, which was also broken but could be pried open if it wasn’t raining or humid.

Luke’s fingers jimmied the door handle up, but the door still didn’t open, dented inward from the body of the buck. I crawled across the driver’s side and stood with Luke, staring at the shattered windshield and headlight. We tried to pull the bumper off the tire, the smell of blood in our noses and something wet on our hands. We tried to open the hood but it was also too warped to get open.

I leaned up against the unwounded side of the bumper, assessing my life with the slightly overwhelming clarity that happened when you’d spent thirty-five hours staring at open road. In the past year, I’d played in sand-swept streets in Togo, with felons in Bolivia, with fifteen-year-old rappers in France. Now I was in Montana, on my way to L-A, with my entire life in my car and deer blood on my fingers.

THERE WAS NOTHING around, so we got back in the car, turned on our hazard lights and drove 30 MPH until we got to the nearest gas station. We borrowed a hammer, banged the bumper off the tire, scotch-taped our windshield, ate two corn-dogs, and continued on our way to Pray, Montana.

At 3am, a policeman unnerved by our now missing headlight and our incredibly slow travel speed, pulled us over. Because our windows don’t always roll back up after you roll them down, Luke opened the door.

“Sir, I’ll need you to stay in the car!” the policeman shouted.

“Uh, well, our window doesn’t work,” Luke said through the crack of the slightly opened door. Then we explained about the buck.

“It’s unavoidable in these parts,” the policeman said. “My wife hit three last year. I just picked up my truck out of the shop yesterday—here’s the place to take it: Crash and Repair, they’re great with deer damage.”

TWO DAYS AND six-hundred dollars later, we were making our way to and then through California. We traded travel stories with Ryan and Ferg: we told them about our buck, Ryan texted, “Speeding Ticket? Check,” and Ferg burst a tire coming out of a camping site somewhere in New Mexico.

Now in Los Angeles, we’re ready to edit. The Europe-Africa trip had finished strong: in Togo, we found more games per street than anywhere in the world—motorcycles zipping through the middle of games played on sand-swept lanes. In Ghana, we went to the rural village of Mafi Sasekpe. There we watched boys make their own balls using machetes and plastic bags, met a nineteen-year-old who told us nonchalantly, “But my football age is seventeen,” and got sucked into the middle of a drum celebration.

After seeing a clip of George Bush on The Daily Show in which he dances during a trip to Africa, I’d thought to myself, “What an idiot,” but when Luke and I found ourselves dancing the Ghanaian version of the funky chicken—cameras rolling—I felt a rare note of empathy for George W. (Also, anyone going to Ghana—we have $100 in Ghanaian cash that no currency exchange place will accept…so let us know if we can make a trade…)

PLAYING PICK-UP has always felt to me like an adult form of pretend, reenacting the big games, imagining that you’re the guy playing in the stadium with thousands of people watching. Nowhere did this feel more true than when we found the workers of Green Point Stadium playing pick-up during their lunch break. They eat their sandwiches on their tea breaks so that at lunch, they have time to play. In the shadow of the stadium, they use their helmets as goals and play in yellow jump suits and heavy work boots. One of the guy watching from the side tells us, “If I couldn’t play inside the stadium, at least one day I’ll be able to tell my son, ‘your father built this stadium.’” Twenty minutes after it starts, the lunch-time game ends. When I say, “Already?” the guy shrugs, “It’s better than nothing.” Then they put back on their helmets and their suspenders and walk back to build the stadium that will hold the greatest sporting event in the world.

We’ve been to three continents and seventeen countries now—enough to see that fondness for the game spreads across the world, no matter how old you are, what your job is, what language you speak, or what God you pray to.

In that game in South Africa, Ryan’s camera locked in on one guy’s face. The guy had no idea the camera was on him. He was swept up in the game and while some of the guys were skilled and good—players—you got the sense that this round-cheeked, round bellied guy wasn’t a player or hadn’t thought of himself as a player in a long time but today, for some reason, he decided to play. His face was lit up with the best smile I’d seen anywhere around the world. There was so much joy in his face, such surprised, innocent happiness—and that’s the feeling we come across in so many of the places we play. You can’t help but feel hope, great hope, looking at smiles like that.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Austin's Field

I am in the middle of the backseat of a taxi with one camera and a pillow on my lap when I see my first matatu. It’s a fuchsia pink mini-bus and there’s a giant picture of Mariah Carey above the taillights. It’s thumping loud music and there appears to be some kind of strobe light. A man is hanging outside the door—he periodically jumps off the still-moving vehicle, thrusting out a hand to those trying to leap on board, then shoving them safely down the aisle. He thumps the side of the bus and the driver takes off.

In the next seven days, under the gray, muggy skies of a Kenyan winter, we stand in the dust clouds and wait on matatus. Most have a name. We see Fabregas, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Jordin Sparks, Sir Alex, Messi, and Luke’s favorite: WESYDE written in huge letters across the front, AM THE FATHER OF THIS GANGSTA SH** written in huge letters across the back.

Some take on a collage format—pictures of various things slopped haphazardly across the back. We see Jesus alongside 50 cent. Wayne Rooney is inexplicably pasted over an American flag. The matatu emblazoned “Pirates of the Caribbean” has a plastic skull and crossbones attached to the front grill. We stand watching with wonder and appreciation until we see a number 32 or 41 and then we make a run for it.

Once we are tightly packed inside, we pass our fifteen shillings forward and stare out the window as our insides vibrate to sounds of Rihanna. We are being dropped in Mathare Valley, the oldest slum in Africa. It’s similar to Brazil’s favelas and Argentina’s villas but more poor; fewer people are able to jimmy-rig electricity and the only place you can get water is at the top of the slum, at a faucet next to the soccer field. Women line-up in the mud to wash clothes, babies, and fruit, and then they fill jugs to haul down to their homes on the other side of the slum.

We’re coming for the Saturday football. Our friends are George, Tito, Bonfas and Keffa. They grew up here as a pack of tight friends and are now in various stages of making their way out. Ryan’s best friend spent a year here on a Fulbright and when we saw his photograph of Keffa taking a penalty kick, hundreds of people lined up watching, we came to find it.

It’s tournament style—everyone puts in twenty shillings and you play, the winner taking home the loser’s shillings. It’s only about 35 cents a person but it makes it so that you are playing for something instead of nothing. Many of the men make chang’aa, a homemade alcohol brewed in the slum, earning them about six dollars a day—so if they can win the tournament, they’ll stand to make up what they lost by playing instead of brewing.

“Brewing isn’t work you do because you want to,” James, a brewer, says in Sheng as we interview him at the base of the river. We’d thought we’d be able to communicate in Africa, but you learn quickly that English-as-an-official-language doesn’t mean it’s the language people actually speak. Sheng is a mixture of English, Swahili and tribal languages, more than a dozen different tribes living in Mathare. Bonfas translates as he stands with us at the base of the river, our faces warm from the fire-pits heating barrels of alcohol.

“I do it because it’s the only thing I can do to make money for my wife and son.” James is a water-hauler—filling buckets from the faucet at the top of the slum and then hauling them through the narrow garbage-paved alleys back down to the riverbank. He wears Copa replicas, the sides blown out, his feet coming off the soles, the cleats digging into the mud and sewage water as he hikes all day back and forth. “Most people drink a little to get some steam, it’s the only way you can do it,” he says. “But Saturdays is the chance to show people I’m not just another drunkard…I am proud because I can play football.”

The Saturday we are there his team is all brewers—they play hard and well and every game is close. The sideline is full—women with babies propped on hips, kids in a variety of Salvation Army cast-outs, and men in ball caps all stopping to watch. When the brewers score, everyone roars, men and children darting out onto the clay field. James is the one who stands out—his short dreadlocks flying as he races forward.

His sister Vinique plays with another group of guys. She stands with them, her hands in the pockets of her black warm-up jacket, talking with them as though it’s nothing that she's surrounded by men…though she does admit, “ Sometimes, later on, guys will come up to me while I’m working or just out walking and say, ‘I saw you! You were that girl playing football! Let me shake your hand.’ They want to buy me a soda just because I can play. It’s embarrassing…” When she’s not playing football, she braids hair in her sister’s beauty shop. There are four sisters in their family and when the violence broke out after the elections, they stayed in a displacement camp outside the police station for three weeks. “Too many people knew how many girls were in our family,” she says, playing with her braids.

Kenyans never thought it would happen in their country and Mathare Valley never thought it would happen to their slum—not when members of different tribes have lived next to each other in corrugated-tin homes for the past forty years. But when President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was announced the winner of the election despite strong evidence to suggest that Mr. Odinga, a Luo, should’ve won, riots broke out all over Kenya. Vinique’s Luo neighbors stormed their Kikuyu home and told them they’d betrayed them. This happened in slums across Kenya, neighbors turning on neighbors, dragging members of certain tribes from their houses and clubbing them to death. Riots between Luo gangs and Kikuyu gangs raged in the street and over a hundred homes were burned in Mathare.

But now Kenya is once again calm. In Mathare, Kikuyus and Luos play with and against each other on Austin’s field at the base of the slum, the same field where many of them voted just six months ago, standing with hope in long-lines in the dirt—the election having prompted the largest turn-out in the nation’s history.

The field has its own history—before it was a field, it was a string of tin homes later burned down to the ground in a land dispute. Then it became the dump, people hauling their garbage here from all over the slum. After that, they cleared it into a field. The goal posts kept disappearing—too tempting of building material—until they got permanent goal posts nobody could take. When we ask why it’s called Austin’s Field, George says, “Because he’s always there.”

Austin has long, thick dreadlocks he keeps packed beneath a beige knit cap. If you played football in Mathare and are under the age of 25, he’s the one who coached you. He’s the guy who made the field happen and he spends all day there, coaching one team and then the next. He coaches for free—he makes no money on football whatsoever—and he seems to us like the type of guy who should win one of those hero-of-the-universe awards. “I came to Mathare when I lost my family—I had nothing and no where else to go. Coaching was what kept me going.” We watch him coach fourteen-year-old girls—when he calls them together in the center of the field, they hang onto every word he says. Two of them wear the same beige knit cap he does.

On Monday, we decide that if we’re going to see any animals before we leave this continent, Kenya’s the place to do it. We call Ruben, the taxi driver in Mathare who picked us up from the airport, and see if he wants to take us to Nairobi National Park, the only national park in the world that’s inside city limits. You can see giraffes silhouetted with city skyscrapers. On the way out, we pick-up George. He grew up in Mathare and though he’s just moved outside of it, he’s not trying to move past it: he’s working toward a degree in social development and he spends most of his week back in the slums, trying to help kids give Mathare the same fight he did. “People think Mathare is all drunks and drug addicts,” George says. “But that’s not all of us.” If you type in Mathare Valley into google, the first site that comes up describes it as “a place of criminals, drug addicts, the unemployed and prostitutes.” But the people we meet are not criminals or drug addicts—they are guys who survived the slum and are now doing everything they can to make it a better place. As for the football, George plays several times a week. “It’s not easy to quit—the kids, they look up to us. We’re the guys who made it out, so when we come back, they want to see us play.”

Like us, George’s never seen animals outside of the zoo. The six of us cram into Ruben’s car and go. When we pull up, there’s a smattering of people wearing khaki safari clothes and riding in Land Rovers equipped with tour guides. We wave to them from our station wagon. We buy tickets and a map and they send us off, bouncing down the dirt roads… city kids, off to see the lions.

No one mentioned any rules or guidelines, so when we see giraffes not fifteen minutes later, we get out of the car and go schmooze.

Luke and George on the field

Luke and George with the giraffes

Then we are off again, figuring if we can see giraffes within fifteen minutes, what more might be out there? We immediately take a wrong turn and spend two hours driving down a road that isn’t on the map. When we link up with a real road, we intersect a herd of zebras. We head towards Hippos Pond and see a crocodile but no hippos. At Lions Den, we see more zebras but no lions. We do, however, drive by a big, friendly-looking baboon. He is sitting there, with the valley spread out beneath him, and because we can’t find any of the foreboding animals we are looking for, we decide he can be our photo op. He is a good model for the first few minutes, staring straight ahead and giving us a full-face shot. “When he started to move closer, I was thinking, oh yeah, he keeps coming more and more into my frame…this is going to be a great picture,” Luke said. “Until I realized he was coming right at me.”

The baboon picked up pace and darted through all of us, catapulting himself onto the roof of our taxi. We, of course, had left all of our doors open for the impromptu photo shoot. George sprints towards the car and slams one of them shut in an effort to scare him. Instead, the baboon is angered, rearing up on his legs and letting out a roar…we scatter in all directions, waving our hands over our heads and yelling, half joking, half scared. That's when we notice the sign “Beware of baboons.”

The baboon calmly climbs into the car. He finds my purse in the passenger seat and fingers through it as though he’s handled purses all of his life. When he doesn’t find any food, he climbs into the backseat and gives Rebekah’s purse a go. He finds a piece of cake—the only piece of food we city kids brought for our safari. He unwraps it, eats it, and climbs back into the car for further investigation. He is so human-like, Ruben is afraid he might actually drive off with the car. This taxi is his livelihood—his father sold his store for it. When the baboon finds and eats a discarded banana peel and then waddles slowly back into the great beyond, we laugh with relief and drive off, station wagon still in tact.

Back at Tito’s apartment, we haul buckets of water up eight flights of stairs, use a coffee mug to dump it on our heads, and then climb beneath our mosquito nets into our side-by-side beds. Mosquito nets are a blessing, an incredible blessing, and we know this from our sleepless nights in Egypt, where through a friend of a friend of a friend, we ended up in an abandoned apartment in a hundred degree weather without a fan. So you had to keep your windows open in order not to die, but the mosquitoes eventually had us sleeping in full sweats, hoodies scrunched up around our faces so that only our eyelids were eatable.

Back in Nairobi, we are sound asleep when there is sudden disturbance. The first “Ryan” shout I am able to ignore because I am enjoying a night without mosquitoes biting my face but the second “Ryan” has the distinct tone of alarm, what I’d imagine someone to sound like if waking up to an earthquake.

“The bunk bed is collapsing! The bunk bed is collapsing!” Rebekah screams from her sleep, digging her feet into the mattress of the bed above her, holding Ryan up with her legs.

When Ryan doesn’t respond, she yells it once more, this time less convinced, “The bed is collapsing?”

“Ferg, Ferg, it’s not,” Ryan mumbles with his eyes still closed, even though his mattress is at an angle, like those convertible hospital beds, this one powered by Rebekah. “Down, put me down.”

Frequently bedmates, they accuse each other of various things—Ferg tells Ryan he sleep talks, Ryan tells Ferg she touched his face, we add the alleged fall of the bunk bed to the list and catch a cab to the airport, next stop South Africa.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ten-minute Game

We always listen for yelling—from the Iraqis in London to the old men in Brazil, the best games are marked by a failure to refrain. It’s not usually the fourteen-year-olds or the eighteen-year-olds shouting into each other’s faces; they’re too conscious of keeping their cool, of portraying to the world that there are more important things ahead. But right around the time you’re on the other side of your playing career looking back, there’s a behavioral abandon. Weeknight games matter as much as or more than anything else in your life and you’ve stopped trying to fight it—so yes, you’re going to yell your head off if someone’s saying your goal is not a goal or trying to jip you out of your final two minutes on the court.

We’ve heard yelling in every country—in Hungarian, Italian, French, Portuguese, German and Spanish—but when we are on a court in Jerusalem and the yelling is between Jews and Arabs, there’s a new level of heat.

Walking down the white-washed streets of Jerusalem, you pass Muslim women wearing burkas and Hassidic Jews wearing top hats, ringlets of hair drooping down past their ears. All three major religions believe their faith has roots in the Old City. While space and territory are big issues, every quarter has found room for a football court. In the Christian Quarter, kids wearing replica jerseys—from Messi to Van Nistelrooy—play goalie-wars on bleached stone. In the Jewish Quarter, guys with yarmulkes pinned to the back of their heads play on a field overlooking the graves on Mount of Olives. In the Muslim Quarter, players scrimmage on a court lining the fortified wall of the Old City.

But it’s not until Friday night, when we head to a park outside the Old City, that we find a game where Jews and Arabs are playing on one court—though the players are quick to clarify, “We’ll play against each other but never with each other.”

There are no nets so it’s not always easy to tell whether a goal is a goal and when Luke scores, the Jews and Arabs can’t agree whether or not it went in. When they are crowded in the box, pointing fingers and gesturing angrily, some clasping their yarmulkes in hand, some pointing outside the post, some pointing within the post, there’s the sense that they’re arguing about more than this game, that they’re also yelling about yesterday’s terrorist attack and tomorrow’s never-ending mistrust.

On the other hand, is-it-or-is-it-not-a-goal is a fight we’ve had all over the world, a sign of being swept up in the game, and there must be some relief in arguing about football instead of the overwhelming history of crimes against each other. They want to know whether the ball went in.

Then comes the realization that we have it on tape. Two separate swarms of men charge Rebekah. In the rest of the world, we’ve been able to fend off similar demands for a repaly, as rewinding tapes while shooting can be a headache. But these guys don’t hear us say ‘no.’ Their hands are up to the camera like they are ready to rewind it themselves. Rebekah gives in and their heads crowd around the LCD screen until they see it and disperse in continued disagreement—even the replay is unclear.

Once our team is off, Luke and I sit in the center of the divide. The right side of the court is full of Jewish men, their thumbs slung through the belt loops of their black dress pants. The left side of the court has been left to a family of ten or so Arabs, who sit along a wall and use a wristwatch to keep track of the ten-minute games.

“So do you guys play here a lot?” I ask a bald man with a large stomach.

“I am here under doctor’s orders,” he says, tapping his gut.

Unsure of how my next question will go over, I ask, “So why are all the Arabs over here and the Jews over there?”

Immediately, the entire family marches over to the Jew side, laughing, put their arms around guys’ shoulders, shaking hands, and saying, “Shalom.” I notice one Jewish man’s face. He is frowning and it’s hard to tell whether this is out of distrust or is just an effort to show the seriousness of the matter—if he’s going to shake this guy’s hand, he’s not going to laugh about it, he’s going to give it the gravity it deserved. The Arabs and Jews sit uneasily together for the remainder of a ten-minute game, and then they drift back to their earlier sides.

Our flight to Cairo leaves Jerusalem at 7:45 AM. We’ve heard that the Israelis take security seriously, and when we arrive at 4:40 AM, more than three hours before our flight, we feel pleased with ourselves.

The airport is staffed by the Israeli Defense Forces and there are brisk, beautiful, twenty-year-olds serving their mandatory duty and asking us hard questions.

“How many of there are you?”


“Are any of you a couple?”

“We are.”

“How many years have you known each other?”

Luke says four at the same time I say three. We feel guilty all of a sudden, scrambling to clarify that while we’ve been together for three, we’ve know each other for four. The soldier looks hard into our faces and slaps a number two sticker on the back of our passports.

Ryan and Rebekah are faring less well. “You are not a couple?” No. “But you used to be?” No. “But you date?” No. It is apparently a very suspicious thing for a male and female to travel together if they are not romantically connected. The Israeli government does not believe in being just friends. Ryan and Rebekah’s passports receive a number five sticker. When they are being thoroughly frisked for a half an hour, their bags entirely disassembled, we know that is better to have a number two.

Once we have endured the hour-long investigation, we coast to the carry-on security, operating under the false impression that we are in the clear. Luke and I thoughtlessly drift to one checkpoint, leaving the suspicious, just-friends number fives on their own.

We wait for Ryan and Rebekah to emerge. After twenty minutes, we poke our heads back around the corner and see that their carry-ons are now being seriously inspected. Luke and I sit down, watching Jewish kids wearing yarmulkes, backpacks, and Wheelies skate by on their heels. After another ten minutes, we check again and discover that Ryan and Rebekah have vanished. A backpacker wearing a t-shirt that says “Meat is animal murder…tasty murder” says, “They got sent back to the beginning of security.”

We feel glad we arrived more than three hours early. But when it gets closer and closer to our boarding time, we decide to head to our gate.

When we tell a woman at the desk that our friends never emerged from security, she tells us, “Don’t worry, we will not leave without your friends.” The board is flashing “Final Boarding Call.” Luke and I are standing on our tiptoes, hoping to see Ryan and Rebekah booking it down the hallway, backpacks bouncing up and down. The ladies speak in Hebrew to each other and I wait patiently until the woman who promised me everything would be ok, says, “Ok, I just wanted to close the flight before I let you know what happened to your friends.”

“One of your bags set off a security alarm and must undergo a 24-hour investigation. You will take a bus to Cairo.”

On the other side of the airport, Ryan and Rebekah have spent the last two hours undergoing questioning and getting their carry-ons dumped all over the investigation room. Though we have two identical cameras, only one of them set off an x-ray machine. “Probably, if it went through again, it would not go off…but now we must check and make sure.” At first, they said they could not get our other bags off the airplane so Ryan and Ferg scrawled out a note to be hand-delivered to us, telling us to get on the plane without them. We never receive the note. Security then decides there is time to offload our bags. “Would you also like us to offload your friends?” As we never got word that we were suppose to get on, there was never any need for us to be offloaded.

Frequent flyers, we are used to feeling screwed by airports, but we are also used to getting some scrap of compensation, a meal voucher hastily thrown your way…it is hard for us to grasp that it is possible for them to simply not let us on our flight and not be willing to put us up in a hotel and not be willing to get us onto another airline and not be willing to refund our ticket. The x-ray machine made a stray beep and now we had no way to get out of Israel. Upon examining the bus route, we discover that we will not be allowed across the border because over-land-routes require a pre-existing visa. All Royal Jordanian flights for the next three days were booked and unless we can convince the security to forgo the 24-hour investigation and let us onto the night flight, we’re done for.

“Probably, if you were Jewish, if your security profile was a little different (maybe a number two instead of a number five), you would be on your way,” a Royal Jordanian flight attendant tells us. “I think it is very bad what they are doing to you. It does not encourage tourists to come back to our country.”

Five or six hours into the process, somebody apparently decides Ryan and Rebekah aren’t terrorists after all. They agree to an abbreviated investigation and hastily wrap our camera in saran wrap. “We will return it to you at the gate.”

By five pm, we are sitting at the gate and the board is once again flashing “Final Boarding Call.” No one has delivered our camera. Our bags really are on this flight so Luke and I go ahead and board.

Royal Jordanian is doing everything they can to help us. The pilot announces to the flight, “Alright folks we are already to go, just waiting for two passengers who got held up in security.” Another ten minutes goes by and Luke and I are staring anxiously out the window until we see a black SUV peel around the corner. Ryan and Rebekah breathlessly emerge.

“Gabby was doing everything he could to get our camera, racing back and forth, his comb-over billowing in the wind,” Ryan says as he collapses down in his chair. “Our car was racing through the airport…we almost took out a median…squealing tires…it was like a scene out of Courage Under Fire.”

The flight attendant hands them a cold orange juice, pats them on the shoulder, and says, “Time to relax.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Cuss a Gnome

The European Wrap-Up

EURO2008 Spanish and Swedish fans

Red Cross vs. EMT

Marseille, France

Paris, France

Vatican Update:
Ruben, the Swiss Guard we almost played with, emailed us after reading the blog: he wanted to let us know that he was not just ignoring our calls, another Swiss Guard got sick, causing him to work a double shift…as you can imagine, they’re not allowed to answer their cell phone on duty.

Everywhere we go, we try to find a family who will take us in. This is in part because traveling around the world is expensive—particularly in Europe where the American dollar is a joke—but it’s also because of their ability to show us the real Italy or the real Germany…the places beyond the tour books.

In Italy, we stay in Biagio’s apartment…who is out of town, in a cave somewhere spelunking (the vocab word none of us have encountered since Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.) The building is 700 years old. Hundreds of knives hang from one wall, another wall is covered with black and white photos from the time Biagio invented a flying bicycle and the town gathered to watch the test-drive. The rest of the walls are covered with his art: oil paintings of all kinds, incorporating every kind of material, from twisted roots to mummified cats. We move aside a long wooden table full of oil pants and palettes and lay down cots. The ceilings are high and the walls are made of thick stone, keeping the building cool even in summertime. We pick cherries in the hills and hide in a barn when it starts to downpour.

In Germany, we head to Rodermark, a small offshoot of Frankfurt, where we are meeting Erich Braun, Luke’s old college teammate. They barbecue sausages, open Franziskaners, and rehash memories: how upperclassmen Braun liked his balls rock hard, sending freshman Luke back to the locker room to repump the bag. How the Notre Dame team fined each other $2 for PDA, guys hiding in the bushes to catch unsuspecting teammates. “My girlfriend was already suspicious—me being thousands of miles away at American college,” Braun says. “And then she comes to visit and I won’t hold her hand in public.” And as the night gets later, they say to one another: “You were good man, you were good…”

In Hungary, we stay with Balint and Butter in a 250 person town called Szentbekalla, where Balint and his mother first came when they were hiding out from the communist regime. We sleep in a loft used for drying lavender and almonds, the nuts spread out along the wood near our head. They’ve started their own vineyard and we drink homemade wine as we overlook the Hungarian countryside. On Thursday nights, the three local villages—Szentbekalla, Mindszentkalla, Koveskal—meet at the largest grass field (though it gets smaller as they get older, the goal posts moved in five yards every year). This is our first county we can say absolutely nothing: we can’t pronounce the town name, we can’t say hello or goodbye…only thank you, Köszönöm, because we are able to make a lame mnemonic device (“cuss a gnome.”)

So when we get to London, we bask in the ability to eavesdrop on the tube, to read the headlines over people's shoulders, to know what kind of food will arrive in front of us. It is our first English-speaking country since Trinidad and it feels like we are in pretend land—a magical place where they speak English even better than we do.

While the Americans jog after work, the British play football. You can see them on the tube—cleats on the their feet, ball in hand. It’s a park culture—games spread out across the grass. They call it having a kick about or a kick around, the term “pick-up” having an entirely different connotation—something you do in relation to women and bars.

Our first day, we head out to Regent's Park and proceed to play in what is by far the most boring game of the trip. No joking or yelling, no anger or enthusiasm, only an occasional player muttering beneath his breath. The most entertaining moment happens when a guy wearing a t-shirt that said CRAP chased a softball through our midfield. Having a kick about felt no more joyful a thing than riding an elliptical machine.

Luke tells me that Eric Cantona, former Man U star, said the British were the best fans: while the Italians and the Spaniards will boo you in hard times, the British will suffer through it with you. To some extent, you can feel this approach in the Monday kick about—they are out there no matter how dull it gets, loyal to the game long after the life has died out.

As we are leaving the park, we hear loud shouts coming from the far corner of the grass. There are guys flailing their arms and arguing intensely. Drawn to signs of animation, we head over to watch. A guy on a bicycle tells us, “If you want to play in an interesting game, this is the one you want.”

They are Iraqis—most of them Kurds, a few of them Sunnis. Because Iraq is one country we will most likely not be going to, we’re excited to play with them.

We walk up to the brawl—which apparently involves who will play on which team—and ask if we can join. This appears to overwhelm them. A man in bright yellow board shorts puts his hands up to his face. “No, no,” he says. “We are busy today. You come back tomorrow. 7pm.”

Coming-back-tomorrow almost always goes poorly, so when we arrive at 7pm on Tuesday night and no one is there, we’re not surprised. We make circles around the park. We do some detective work, talking to several guys who confirm that they do play here, often, towards the end of the daylight hours. So we camp out around a tree and survey some mild games that make us more and more sure we want to play with the Iraqis. We wait until it’s dark and there’s no chance they’re coming. Then we come back the next day and stake out our familiar spot around the tree. They don’t show, but we hear loud British accents and enthusiasm coming from another side of the park. We end up playing in a game that has a mix of pasty guys and Africans—from Gambians to Sudanese. One Londoner complains about the lack of grass: “No wonder England’s team is so weak…you can’t get any pitch because of all the cricket and the softball. Softball for God’s sake.” When we follow the guys to a bar to watch the EURO game, Dean tells us about the time this little American guy named Woody walked up to them and asked to join their game. It was an hour into it before someone recognized him as Woody Harrelson.

“Was he any good?” Luke asks.

He laughs out loud. “No skills whatsoever, but he did play hard. Rode his bicycle up to the pitch everyday. Even came when it was pouring. Became quite a good friend.”

On Friday, it is our fifth day at Regent's Park. It’s empty, the English presumably celebrating the end of the workweek by loosening their ties at a pub rather than sprinting around in the grass. We are leaning back against our depressing little tree when a man begins to juggle a ball in the exact patch of grass where we saw the Iraqis play. One after another, they begin to show up. It feels to me like a scene out of Field of Dreams.

When a guy from Fallujah asks where we are from and we mumble the United States, he makes a sound of surprise and yells, “Fallujah versus New York!” A few plays later he tells us, “I hate your government but I have no problem with the American people.” The other guys moan and tell him to stop—nobody wants to talk politics on the field.

It is one of those games where you would never know it didn’t matter, that it was just a pick-up game in the park between middle-aged guys with jobs in concrete-mixing and information technology. They played with so much effort, as passionate about each goal and each play as the players in EURO2008. When I ask the guy in construction how he could do hard work all day and then find enough energy to sprint the field, he shrugs as though this is too obvious a question, “This is my fun, this is my happiness.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Legend of Ruud van Nistelrooy, The Curse of the Americans, and The Cake Side of Life

Four years ago, Ruud van Nistelrooy--international Dutch superstar--took a vacation along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The weather was bad--dark sky, poor visibility, unappealing road trip conditions. So when he saw a sign for Holiday Inn Drive, he pulled off the highway and opted to wait out the weather.

While hauling his bag out the car, he noticed a small white placard: ASHEVILLE INDOOR SOCCER CENTER.

The Asheville Indoor Soccer Center is a massively confusing place to find--you must drive down Holiday Inn drive through the hotel parking lot until you reach a winding, poorly-lit road that takes you to a vinyl-sided warehouse one could think was abandoned were it not for the small, easily-missable sign with an arrow allegedly pointing toward an indoor soccer field. If you are Bobby Somerville, indoor center manager, there is no chance an international superstar is going to arrive in your foyer.

When the tall brown-haired man with a strong nose walked into the indoor center and explained that he was on holiday and had been driving for a long time and wanted to bang the ball around a bit to stretch out his legs, Bobby Somerville was getting ready to go home. Because Bobby is a softie, and not because he thought he might be talking to Ruud van Nistelrooy, he agreed to keep the field open for another half hour.

Ruud's first strike banged off the ceiling lights. Irritated, Bobby stood up from his desk and raised his arms. Ruud smiled sheepishly and gave him an apologetic wave.

Five minutes later, Mike Rottjakob, the Asheville soccer coaching director, walked in and said, '' Who are those guys?''

''Hell if I know,'' Bobby said.

Mike walked out of the office and back to the field, watching for several minutes before returning to Bobby's desk. ''I think that's Ruud van Nistelrooy.''

Together, they leaned over the walls of the indoor field and tried to decide if it was possible that one of the top goal-scorers in the world could be playing right there in front of them, in Asheville, North Carolina.

''Ruud?'' they called.

''Ruud van Nistelrooy?'

He never answered them directly--just smiled and continued to hit perfect volleys from goal to goal.

''He was very coy,'' Bobby would tell me, as I made him repeat the story again as I filed team registrations at my part-time job at the indoor center. ''He'd smack a volley, saying in jest, 'Who could hit a volley like that? Ruud!'''

Within twenty minutes, Mike and Bobby called every soccer fan they knew and Ruud van Nistelrooy was playing in a pick-up game with anyone who wanted to play.

Because of this story, and my subsequent fondness for Ruud van Nistelrooy, when Ryan, Luke, Ferg and I are putting $10 on a team in the EURO 2008, I choose the Dutch.

Ferg bets on the Germans--a solid, safe pick, Luke opts for the French, which he blames on the boys of Marseille, who effectively convinced him of their greatness even though they'd be missing Zidane, and Ryan went with the Italians.

I don’t hold Ryan’s pick against him. Primarily a tennis player, I figure he must not know the Italians are the team you love to hate...performative dives and pouty faces nothing you would ever knowingly choose to support. I haven’t forgiven them for the dramatics that brought on the questionable penalty kick robbing the Aussies in the semi-final, nor the questionable penalty kick against the United States in group play, nor the way Materazzi insulted Zizou's mother and then crumbled to the ground. Some countries teach the dive as a component of the game…and some countries don’t.

Of course, once we are inside a roomful of Italians, I keep this perspective to myself.

As the Italians were kicking off against the Dutch, we were arriving an Arezzo, where we were spending the night at an art school...an art school without a working television. We drop off our bags, hop into our rental car, and begin to scour the streets for a television, which is usually quite easy to find when the national team is playing. But the Arezzo downtown is not accessible by car. It's a twenty-minute walk we don't have time for. We know of one bar on the outskirts of town but when we arrive, it's closed, garage door all the way down.

But we can hear sound coming from the other side of the door.

Rebekah and Luke bang on the door and someone from the inside raises it halfway up while we state our case.

A second later, we are surrounded by Italian men who have shut down the bar in order to fully focus on the game. It is a very loud room, but not a happy, loud room because the Italians are already down 2-0.

With a two goal lead, I am able to keep my game reactions fairly neutral. It is not until Holland scores their third goal that Rebekah, Luke, and I give ourselves away with a small hoot of happiness. The four men to our left slowly turn their eyes on us, a new awareness in their faces: they have let traitors into the room. They have given their beer and their food to traitors.

The Americans are deemed a curse. We know this because a large man in the back row rises from his seat and makes several trips to the bathroom, cupping water in his hands and flicking it at us, trying to free us of our demons. We smile apologetically, pat them on their shoulders, yell Grazie, and head home.

Three days later, we're on our way to Innsbruck, Austria to see EURO 2008 up close. It's the Spaniards against the Swedes and we harbor a fledgling size hope of getting tickets.
As hordes of colorfully dressed fans pass us by, we hold a small sign: We need tickets. This prompts lots of pats on the shoulder, ''Ha, don't we all.'' One smug couple walks by and asks us how much we'd be willing to pay for a ticket. We say, "150 euros?'' and they laugh in our faces.

So when a round Spaniard in a Peter Pan hat tells us he's got two tickets in Category 1 but that he wants to sit with his friends--and that he'll sell them to us for 150 euros a piece--we can't believe our luck. It is still a load of money, but it's about face value and we think, how many chances do you have to go see a EURO game?

I pat Peter Pan's arm in enthusiastic thanks and let out a small, happy squeal.

We find some leftover yellow face paint laying on the street and spread it across our cheekbones. We haven't decided whether which team we want to win, but yellow is a crossover color that can be read as support for either side. Groups of fans parade in front of the camera, making faces, singing songs, shouting game predictions.

A half an hour before game time we make our way through the stadium gates. We are laughing, giddily excited, aflush with success, when the woman examining our tickets says, "Just a minute,'' and begins to talk into her walkie-talkie. She points at some very small print. She laughs and says something in rapid German to the other ticket attendant, then turning toward us. ''It should say 'Coke Side of Life.' This says 'Cake Side of Life.' These are quite fake.''

We look toward each other in embarrassed, disappointed horror. We are thinking of our euros and the game that will happen without us...when we see a fleet of German police officers coming our way...and it occurs to us that scalping tickets isn't entirely legal. We're not sure which part of the process is against the law--the buying or the selling--but when we ask if we are in trouble, the German officer, says, ''Oh yes,'' seemingly surprised we didn't know that immediately.

We are led through the stadium into a small police station, where we hold our yellow-painted faces in our hands, listening to the sounds of game above us and imagining what it would've been like to see Fernando Torres make a run up the wing...and what we would do if we came across Peter Pan.

The police speak in fast German and apparently decide we are not in trouble. We tell them we have the guy on tape and their undercover cops snap photos of our LCD screen. They escort us to another police station and as we exit through the restricted section of the stadium, we see a field covered with dozens of guys and girls in fluorescent uniform playing in a pick up game, fifty or so ambulances lined up behind them. It's the red cross against the paramedics and our escorting cop allows us to stop and watch for a minute or so before we are whisked off to the other station. Until their walkie-talkies summon them out to rescue an injured player or a drunken fan, they sprint across the field in their heavy black boots, just as taken with the EURO football fever as everyone else.

Two hours later, the Spain/Sweden game is over and we are still in the station. Not only have we not gotten to see the game live, we have not gotten to see the game at all. As our policeman drives us back to the center of the city, we call out the car window to the passing fans: Who won? When a group of Swedes tell us to fuck off, we have a good idea of the outcome.

Later, we receive a magic phone call: able to identify the green hat on one of the cams set up all over the city, they nabbed Peter Pan. While we never got to see the game we railed for hours to see, at least we got our money back, and at least they got Peter Pan.