The European Wrap-Up
EURO2008 Spanish and Swedish fans
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.”