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.”