wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

USA-CZE I: the kindness of strangers

So I think the best way to give a chronology of yesterday’s events is by focusing on the unlikely and memorable skein of interactions I had with total strangers—many of whom helped me out for no real reason other than human decency—from the start to the end of the day. This lies in sharp contrast (as many of the loyal Broad Readership will doubtless recall) with my experience in Zentraleuropa last summer, when I met hardly anyone on the road (which could have had something to do with my wanting the experience to be a solitary one and spending the whole time with my nose buried in one book or another).

By the way, some brief background to set the scene. After talking to Web Guy, it became clear that he, my friend in Berlin (hereinafter Berlin Girl) and others were on the road to G-town and that I was to meet them. The main hurdle I had to, um, hurdle was that I’d already checked my bag through to Berlin. So I returned to Frankfurt airport and told them I wouldn’t be on the flight but that they should keep the bag on the plane and I’d pick it up at Tegel the next day.

It turns out that this is a classic terrorist tactic that airlines have been wise to since the 70s, so the agent looked on my suggestion with more than a little suspicion. Turns out what they had to do was take the bag off the plane and deliver it to me, where I could enjoy toting all 103 pounds of it to G-town and then aaaall the damn way back to Berlin (which proved to be unpleasant but ultimately manageable thanks to a very kind call center owner in Gelsenkirchen).

So instead of waiting for my flight to Berlin, I found myself on a train platform in Frankfurt, bound for Gelsenkirchen via Duisburg. At this point I’d had zero hours of sleep on Sunday night and only about four on Saturday, so I was to say the least punchy. And in this mental state I apparently developed the opinion that it would be a great idea to simply approach random groups of fans and integrate myself in with them.

Which is exactly what I did on the platform in Frankfurt, joining up with a crew from New York, all of whom wore those enormous Uncle-Sam style stovepipe hats in red, white, and blue. They were headed a different way but it turned out that one of their number was a solo traveler: a really nice guy from Atlanta, about 60, named Richard. We hopped the train to G-town and once there he saved my ass by watching my bags as I went around the train station, sadly discovering that all the lockers had been taken.

We parted ways shortly after that—he wanted to see the town, I wanted nothing more than to drop off aforementioned bag—and after that I wandered G-town for a while, taking in what proved to be an unexpectedly electric atmosphere and taking full advantage of my current two-week departure from vegetarianism by chowing down an obscene number of bratwursts (so. good.).

But then it came time to head to the stadium, and I thought I’d allowed plenty of time to get there (two hours). On the way to the trains, I caught up with two older fans (mid-40s) who were enormously drunk but who clearly knew where they were going. We bonded over being from SoCal (one of them was draped with a California state flag—a nice touch that I wish I’d thought to bring), and the three of us entered the train station. My plan was to follow them in a very literal sense: they’d use their girth (fueled by what appeared to be an enormous amount of booze) to push through the crowds and I’d follow behind, earning a much-coveted spot on the train to the stadium. But even their intoxicated aggression wasn’t enough, as the crowds overwhelmed the trains, and the terrified conductors typically closed the doors well before the cars were full, allowing them to escape what was a pretty grim and not just vaguely dangerous scene (it made me realize how horrible crowd disasters happen—if there had been a stampede or a collapse of some sort there would have been no way out). The LA guys regaled me with stories about previous WCs (this was their fourth), and one of them told me that he’d outsmarted drug-sniffing dogs on the train from Geneva by storing weed in mustard.

But at this point it became clear that waiting for the trains guaranteed missing kickoff, so I headed out of there with a group of four US (and, heroically, Metro) fans out of NYC who planned to walk to the stadium. Looking back, as the one sober one in the group I should have realized that trusting four intoxicated New Yorkers about the wisdom of walking anyplace was unwise, but they seemed sincere and convincing, and I wasn’t really loving the sweaty mass of increasingly angry humanity on the subway platform, so there I was. We got about three blocks north of the city center when we realized we’d miscalculated. I got from a local that the distance between the city center and the arena was unwalkable (well over 10km, I later learned), and there we were. Taxis were rare and all full, and my one attempt to ask a couple German girls for a ride in their car was rejected (with a suspiciously fluent-sounding “we’re sorry but we don’t possess the ability to comprehend either your question in particular or the English language more generally”).

At this point, when I really began to fear that we’d never make it to the stadium, a miracle happened: a US fan stopped near us in an otherwise empty car. We asked for a ride, he graciously offered one, and off we went; sort of. There were five of us (me + the NYers) and that meant someone had to go in the trunk. In an act of astonishing kindness, they ceded the comfortable front seat to me, squeezed into the back, and stuck one of their group in the trunk. So we rolled on with this random US fan/gift from God, who was from Seattle, had no tickets, and was hoping to scalp once he got to the arena. He even let me use his cellphone to call Berlin Girl and update her on my whereabouts. Eventually the traffic slowed to a crawl and we piled out to walk the rest of the way (which turned out to be a not inconsiderable 2+ km).

The walk to the stadium took us through rural landscapes that, while arrestingly beautiful, did not reassure me that we were approaching a 52k-seat sports arena. But eventually, when all hope began to fail, and fatigue was setting in, the Arena auf Schalke appeared on the horizon and it became clear that we’d make the kickoff. Or at least that they would. Recall, Broad Readership, that at this point I still had to find my Berliner compatriots in a sea of humanity in a foreign city and hope that this whole “Hey DF, ditch your flight and head to a random place to meet us” thing wasn’t a major hoax. One of the NYC crew let me use her cellphone to call Berlin girl and we made a plan to meet near the Green entrance. This was great, except that I had followed my group to the Yellow entrance on the other side of the stadium.

At this point I became like OJ in the airport, by which I do not mean that I killed my ex-wife and her possible lover, was acquitted, and spent the rest of my life golfing in Florida, but rather that I took off on a dead sprint around the disappointingly vast circumference of the stadium. (Of course, the German girl who was checking tickets at the Yellow area could have let me take a convenient shortcut, but I’ll let you guess whether she did me any favors.) So I sprinted, dead uphill, to the Yellow area where I then climbed a hill above it to scope out Web Guy and Berlin Girl. Yet another random person let me use his cellphone to call BG and it was on. I was on the grassy knoll, WG and BG were rounding the Texas School Book Depository, and you can guess the rest.

The less said about the game the better (I’ll say a little about it later when I haven’t just eaten and the chances of me hurling are slimmer), but I got in my seats just in time for the Koller goal. Then Web Guy’s friend gave me a ride back to the train station in her rented Audi (she could afford to be generous, she was Czech). As I waited on the platform, a German guy and his Brazilian wife came up to me and he started talking soccer. As I lamented the USA’s performance, it became clear that his wife wasn’t really following the convo, so (language snob alert) I immediately broke into Spanish, which it turned out they both spoke fluently. We chatted for a while til my train came and it was a fairly emblematic WC moment: a German guy, his Brazilian wife, and this ugly American, all conversing about the beautiful game en Espanol.

The ride back to Berlin was a bit grim, as the train was full of sad, exhausted US fans such as myself. It was going on Tuesday morning, and since Saturday I’d gotten about four hours of sleep all told (not that impressive, but I’m a sleep wuss, so this was pretty much uncharted territory). A chatty Italian guy sat next to me on the final leg of the ride, having just seen his team beat Ghana 2-0. He mostly talked at me in shaky English because I was half-asleep by this point. And when I got to Berlin Hauptbahnhof it was like three in the morning and I had no idea how to get to my hotel. And at that moment, I found exactly what one would want to at that moment: two drunk Scotsmen. I told them what hotel I was at and they were all like “Ah, crap, yer comin in a cab with us then.” And so I did. We discussed a mutual fave topic (the English are acting insufferable again) and then I was at the Concorde, where I fell into a comatose sleep that didn’t end until two thirty this afternoon (and even then only when a maid had barged in shouting “housekeeping” for the fifteenth goddamn time).

So to recap: Frankfurt aiport fiasco --> four NYC fans in crazy US hats --> Richard from Atlanta --> DF wandering solo in G-town --> two burly Angelenos --> four more NYC folks --> miraculous Seattle US fan w/car --> Web Guy and Berlin Girl --> WG’s Czech friends --> German guy and Brazilian wife --> chatty Italian --> two drunk Scotsmen --> DF sleeps like the dead. Good times.

{Pic: DF with Web Guy and Berlin Girl at the Arena auf Schalke for USA-CZE match.}


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading all that! :)

5:40 PM, June 13, 2006


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