Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Vegas Story

I have to preface this story by saying that the night before we drove to Vegas, Holler and I were discussing casino poker. He questioned my gambling credentials, things escalated, and eventually I laid down an ultimatum:

"Holler, I know I'm going to win money in Vegas, and I'm so sure of it that I'll bet you $5 that I win $200 or more."

He accepted. Disregarding the faulty logic of that bet for a second (if I made money, I'd probably be more than happy to part with $5, and if I lost money, I would probably just regard it as $5 more of gambling losses, which would be pretty accurate), it was probably a good bet for him. Unless I was overly risky, I would have to earn $200 over the course of the night, since I wasn't about to try to win $200 on one hand of blackjack or poker. In the morning, I didn't think much of it, I just figured that $5 wasn't much in the grand scheme of things. But as we rolled into Vegas, I remembered something Ernest Hemingway once said: "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That'll teach you to keep your mouth shut." I set out to follow my idol's words and win at least $200 or going broke trying.

We had booked a room at the Motel 6 in Vegas, which is probably the only Motel 6 in the world with a glimmering animated digital billboard. It has the dubious distinction of being wedged between the MGM Grand, the Hooters hotel/casino, and the Las Vegas Airport. After checking in, we got our Vegas backstories straight: Stefan, the most foreign-looking of us, was given the deliberately vague title of "importer/exporter." John Holler was mysteriously involved in "logistics," and I (the best-dressed out of all of us) was the "legal consultant." We all put on our outfits and started mentally preparing to hit the town.

Fast forward to dinner at a nice little pizza place, where we got some Vegas advice from the chefs. They told us to go away from the Strip to a more affordable part of Vegas where the locals gambled. One of the chefs was pretty adamant that we do that--he said something along the lines of, "They've got midget strippers with one arm and no teeth over there! You HAVE to go, it's sooooo skeezy!"

We promptly decided to ignore his advice and do the touristy thing, which was to walk the entire length of the Strip and go to the Sahara, the only casino on the Strip with $1/$2 Hold 'Em and $1 blackjack. We sat down at a blackjack table and I lost $20 pretty quickly--we were all taking a beating from the dealer. It was impossible to count cards, those MIT kids must've been wicked smaht. Anyway, after I busted out of blackjack I wandered over to the poker room. I tried to buy in with $60, only to find out that the minimum buy-in was $100. I headed back to the ATM and withdrew some cash, got my chips, and rolled up to the table itching to play.

The table itself was pretty average--your typical low-stakes game. To my left was a kid who looked about 23 and talked more about poker than he knew--he would analyze each hand after it was played, which was a little unnerving. To my right was an older guy whose haircut looked a little ex-military. He barely spoke the entire time. I laid low, folded my hands, and stayed out of a few big pots as I tried to get a feel for the table.

On the fifth or sixth hand after I sat down, I got dealt the 10-Q of spades as hole cards. I called from the small blind and saw the flop: a jack of spades, a king of spades, and a blank. I was first to act and I was sitting on an open-ended straight flush, meaning I had about a 64% chance of hitting either the best possible straight or probably the best possible flush. I bet $5, and everyone folded down except a Mexican guy two seats to my left, who called.

The turn came, and it was the ace of spades. That gave me a royal straight flush, the absolute best hand in the game. I was a lock to win this hand, so I checked. I'd like to say I kept my poker face and was under control, but I was pretty excited when the Mexican guy bet $25 at me. I checked my cards two or three times to make sure that I wasn't hallucinating and then called. The river came, and I don't know what it was because it was irrelevant. He bet at me again, and this time I re-raised him $50, putting nearly all of the $100 I had just withdrawn in this one pot (this actually wasn't a gutsy move, because I knew I had won the pot, but it was still cool to see it sitting there). He smartly folded, and I flipped over my cards to reveal the royal flush. The entire table reacted like I had just walked on water--some people literally jumped back in amazement. The dealer, who I can only describe as an older man who looked kind of like Woodhouse from Archer, was the calmest of them, and just said something along the lines of, "Well, that's a pretty nice hand you got there. Let's see what kind of bonus that's going to pay out."

Fig. 1--The man who dealt me a royal flush.

The pit boss came over and verified my cards--I think they reviewed security footage of the table, because it took them a while to get back after that and the whole game had to stop. Finally, the pit boss came back over, congratulated me, and said that I had won the royal flush jackpot. [Aside: Casinos often have jackpots to encourage people to take insane risks by chasing the best hands--straight flushes, full houses, four of a kind, etc. The jackpot builds bigger and bigger until someone eventually gets that hand while playing, and then it resets. It's kind of like Megabucks, but more legit.] Nobody playing poker in the Sahara had hit a royal flush in nearly 2 years, so the jackpot I won had had plenty of time to grow. When the pit boss announced the size of the jackpot, I was astonished. Take a chance and guess how big it was, keeping in mind that I was happy to win $200 at the beginning of the night. Go ahead, I'll even put in a little spoiler alert.


Four hundred and seventy five dollars. $475. PBS should hire me, because not only did I meet my fundraising goal for the night inside of 10 minutes, I doubled it. I thanked the dealer profusely and gave him a $66 tip, explaining that we had traveled to Vegas on Route 66, and that we were staying in a Motel 6, and that I had worn number 6 in high school baseball and college soccer, and that 6 was my lucky number and that I wasn't some Satan-worshipper but I was pretty sure that the number 6 did hold some sort of special significance for me because wasn't that the sixth hand you dealt me? I think my little John Nash rant actually scared him a little, but whatever. That guy was awesome.

Anyway, I got $375 in cash and the rest in chips, so I was the alpha dog of the table with over $200 in chips. On the very next hand, I think everyone was hoping to get a few of those house chips for themselves. I eventually got into a betting war with the kid to my left. Unfortunately for him, I had a nut straight (the best possible straight, and in this case the best possible hand because there were no flushes or pairs on the board), and I took him down for another $50. Woodhouse was just handing me money--with him dealing, Simple Jack could've made $200 sitting in my chair.

Sportsmanship be damned; after that, I did what any lucky jackass would do, and called my buddies (who were still at the blackjack table) up on my phone:

Me: "Hey man, guess how much I'm up?"
Holler: "I dunno, 20 bucks?"
Me: "No, I'm up 500, still gonna keep playing though..."
Holler: "Wait, did you say five HUNDRED?"
Me: "Yeah, it's not a big deal or anything..."
Holler: [excited expletives]
Me: "Alright, I'll catch you later, gotta play this hand."

Or maybe I played it slightly less coolly and left my chips on the table, told the dealer I was going to the bathroom, and ran across the casino to find them and celebrate. I forget... ;)

From there, the night just went downhill--not in a bad way, just in the way that I knew I wasn't going to get that lucky again. Nobody at the table wanted to bet against me unless they had the absolute nuts, so I won a lot of blinds and lost some bigger pots. Woodhouse left the table and was replaced by a taciturn Asian woman (I don't mean to be racist when I describe people by their ethnicities alone; the fact is that in casinos, there's not a whole lot of talking or interaction so I can't really describe anyone beyond what they looked like. Unless you're wearing something really outlandish, even by the standards of Vegas, that's probably going to be your race or who you look like. The longest conversation I had with anyone at a table was about two minutes, with a former FBI field agent who sat down next to me and used his old badge as a card protector. He was the most intimidating man I've ever met and a major reason I left the table).

I made about $40 during the next hour of poker and as the table was winding down, I cashed out and headed over to the blackjack tables to rejoin Holler and Stefan. Big Stef had hit a nice little streak of his own and managed to pull in $25 over the course of the night. I lost $7 playing blackjack over a couple hours, but the experience alone was worth it. We played at the loudest table in the house--four Mexican guys (five, if you count Stefan), Holler, and me all shouting at the dealer to bust on every single hand. My "variable-risk" blackjack strategy--alternating $1 and $5 bets--actually paid off for a while, even when I did really stupid stuff like double down on 13s, 14s, and 15s.

When all was said and done, I left the Sahara with just under $500, which was more than enough to treat Holler and Stefan to a taxi ride back home and a $2.99 midnight-6 AM breakfast special at Hooters. Looking back on that meal, if Gandhi had ended one of his hunger strikes next to the Hooters restaurant and was on the verge of dying, I would probably tell him hike up the catwalk and at least try to make it to the MGM Grand. The food was that bad. It was about 5 AM at this point and the sun was starting to come up, so the walk back from Hooters to the hotel room was particularly epic. That thing they say about losing track of time in casinos is totally true--we spent about 5 hours in the Sahara, but it felt like 3, tops. We woke up and checked out at 11 AM. I counted my money at least three times between the time I woke up and the time I took a shower, just to make sure it all wasn't a dream.

It wasn't. And the best part is that I still made Holler pay me that $5.

P.S.--In case you're wondering what I did with the money, I spent it in the nerdiest way possible: at Best Buy, upgrading my Mac OS X from "Tiger" to "Snow Leopard" and getting a 2 terabyte external hard drive, Mac keyboard, and wireless mouse. I also built a mantel for my fireplace (yes, ladies, my room has a fireplace), added a custom platform for my old-school rear-projection TV, and stocked my fridge with plenty of Albertson's finest "groceries." Thanks, Vegas!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Road Trip: The Western Half

Continued from Part I...

Day 6: Chicago, IL to Brandon, SD

We left Holler's house early and headed over to Stefan's for a big home-cooked breakfast. This was fortunate, because we were headed to the Wisconsin State Fair, and if we had arrived hungry we probably would have eaten some of the most disgusting foods on the planet. After the drive, during which the only noteworthy event was that the A/C appeared to die and scared all of us, only to come back to life moments later, we got out to explore the fairgrounds. State fairs are some of the most interesting collections of people and Americana that you'll ever see, and Wisconsin totally lived up to if not exceeded every stereotype you could think of. If you're looking for a place with massive numbers of obese people in overalls, with VERY serious livestock competitions, with entire pavilions devoted to one food item (seriously, an entire warehouse-sized building selling only cream puffs), a place with three different varieties of pig racing, with fried anything, a place where everyone looks like they belong on People of Wal-Mart, look no further than the Wisconsin State Fair. We left after about three hours, which makes sense because three hours is about the most time you want to spend in a zoo--any longer, and you become one of the animals.

To say our itinerary for the first two days was ambitious would be like saying Arnold Schwarzenegger is "in shape." We covered 1330 miles in the first 48 hours after Chicago, and a lot of those miles came after the fair, when we drove across the entire state of Minnesota. We stopped for the first of many burger dinners at a place in Rochester, MN, a city whose main attraction is the Mayo Clinic. The restaurant was rated highly on Yelp, an app on Stefan's iPhone that we used to search for places to eat in most every city. It never led us astray--the place in Rochester had several unique kinds of burger, including one where the cheese was inserted into the patty and melted as the burger cooked. It was a good little pit stop, and after that we hit the road and wound up spending the first night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We had booked a hotel there earlier in the day, which was lucky because we rolled into town around 1 AM and were completely exhausted.

Day 7: Sioux Falls, SD to Denver, CO

On this day, I think I discovered my own limit of how long I can remain in a moving vehicle. To give you an idea of just how much driving we did, it was on this day that we started calling my car "Stad," short for Amistad. We woke up early and took I-90 across the entire state of South Dakota, which is just one of the most devastatingly boring drives you'll ever encounter. The most interesting thing about that state is the roadside advertising, which starts about 200 miles from any particular attraction. Instead of using billboards, a lot of companies just paint their ad on the side of an 18-wheeler trailer and abandon it in a field next to the road. Seriously, the best part of South Dakota was that we found a store that sold sweet stickers and we started amassing a sticker collection on the roof carrier. Actually, I take it back--the sticker collection started at the Wisconsin State Fair, when I got a free sticker from a radio station called The Hog (classic rock).

From Road Trip

The Badlands, one of the only good things about South Dakota.

When I hate on South Dakota, I'm really only hating on 95% of the state though, because the southwestern 5% is gorgeous. We went to the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, which are both beautiful in their own way. The Badlands is obviously a place of incredible natural beauty, whereas Rushmore is more of a human achievement and a work of art. We saw them both within a span of 4 hours, and then kept on driving all the way down through Wyoming to Denver, where we also arrived at 1 AM. Wyoming is so rural it makes South Dakota look like New York City. You can do whatever you want there just because there are so few people around. We drove past a town that had a population of exactly 1, according to the roadside sign. However, Wyoming is actually a beautiful state, especially at sunset. I think these photos say it better than I can:

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

Anyway, we arrived in Denver way late and crashed with John's cousin, who was awesome for hosting us even though we only saw her for about 15 minutes total. In two days, we had covered almost half of the distance from Chicago, which was somewhat insane but also gave us more time to enjoy the next few days.

Day 8: Denver, CO to Moab, UT

Denver was the first time we could really sleep in on the entire trip, so we did just that. After waking up and actually showering and getting dressed properly for the first time in a couple days, we walked around downtown Denver for a little while. The city is pretty cool because it has a giant pedestrian mall that is completely closed off to all traffic except for city buses which take you up and down the mall for free. The state capitol is also right at the end of this street, and when we were there they had an outdoor market set up on a square between city hall and the capitol. There were also (randomly) some ping pong tables out there sponsored by ESPN, so Stefan and I played a game of ping pong with an amazing backdrop:

After spending a couple hours in downtown, we took a short drive to Golden to tour the headquarters of the Coors Brewing Company. This is probably the closest I will come to understanding how Muslims feel at Mecca, because in my opinion Coors Light is one of the best cost-effective beers in the world (I think I've referred to it earlier on this blog as the "Cadillac of College Beer," and I stand by that statement). As most connoisseurs know, Coors is brewed with water fresh from the Rockies, which explains why each beer has that cold, fresh, Rocky Mountain taste. As you might imagine, most of the tour was this kind of propaganda, but it did teach us a little about the beermaking process, too.

After a quick stop at a local bar so Stefan and Holler could enjoy some $1 pints of Coors, we started our cross-Rockies journey that afternoon (with me behind the wheel). This segment turned out to be pretty eventful, because we had no idea just how overloaded the car really was. Going up hills of 7% grade or more, we had a hard time keeping up with 18-wheelers. There were extended stretches where the most we could do on an interstate highway was 25-35 mph. Stad, the little engine that could if there ever was one, eventually made it over the hills and to the Glenwood Canyon portion of I-70, which was absolutely unreal. Part of the cool thing about this trip was that we got to drive by or across a lot of man-made wonders, the kind of stuff that I used to only see on Modern Marvels (seriously, the History Channel is awesome), and that was definitely the case with Glenwood Canyon. I was too busy trying to navigate all the turns to take pictures, but Stefan and Holler got some good ones that I'll try to link to soon.

The day ended well, too, because we were able to find a youth hostel in Moab with a private 3-person room that we rented for $30/night total. This is actually a good time to discuss our lodging arrangements: we originally planned to stay exclusively at Holiday Inns, because Stefan had stayed in one all summer and accumulated a ton of rewards points. However, the reason Stefan was able to do that was because he was working for Allstate and they were paying for his housing. At the end of the summer, Allstate claimed that they deserved the rewards points, not Stefan. Besides causing us to curse every time we saw a Holiday Inn that we could no longer afford to stay at, this affected our trip in several ways. We wound up staying in budget places that I would argue gave the trip more character than if we had just stayed in a Holiday Inn all the time. For example, in Vegas, we got a room at a Motel 6 right across from the MGM Grand (and next door to Hooters). We would have missed out on this if we hadn't gotten screwed over by Holiday Inn and Allstate, so I guess it was actually a blessing in disguise. So, to summarize, when we found a hostel in Moab for really cheap it came with a sense of accomplishment that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

Day 9: Moab, UT to Torrey, UT

This day was mainly just to tour Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. I could describe how sweet they were, or I could just show you pictures:

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

Day 10: Torrey, UT to Prescott, AZ

Another day of parks; this time, the main attraction was the Grand Canyon:

As we were leaving the canyon, we saw one of the craziest things I think I'll ever see. A hailstorm hit us while we were at a gas station, so we had to wait it out (apparently it's normal for hailstorms to hit in the middle of August). It passed, but we caught up to it again as we were driving around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. However, the storm clouds were really only on one side of the road--on the other side, it was sunny and there was a giant, low-lying rainbow. Splitting the two images was the road we were driving on, which extended forever in front of the car through the desert. If I had a wide-angle lens, I would've stopped and tried to capture it all, but I'm not about to forget it either. It was the kind of scene that I only thought was possible in Photoshop, but it was actually there in reality. Crazy stuff.

That night, we met up with my high school buddy and teammate Alex Yates, who lives in Prescott with his fiance. He showed us around town for a bit and we had a lot of quality catching-up time. It was good to see him, but it was also a little bit of a wake-up call for me to see him with a house, a fiance, a steady job, and all of the other little things that constitute an adult life. I guess I'll have to get on that ASAP.

Day 11: Prescott, AZ to Las Vegas, NV

My Vegas gambling exploits warrant a separate post, which I'll put up tomorrow. But on the way there, we stopped to see the Hoover Dam, another thing that fit under my "Modern Marvels" category. Security was really tight along the dam and traffic was pretty heavy, so it took a while to cross. We stopped and explored for a little bit, but didn't have the time or the money to take a tour. Still, we didn't need one to appreciate the magnitude of the structure. I'll always have a healthy amount of respect for whoever saw the Colorado and thought, "Hey, we can tame this river," or the guy who saw an exposed piece of rock in South Dakota and envisioned Mt. Rushmore. Part of the reason people keep coming to these places is because you can't really understand them until you've seen them in real life, and I'm glad we were able to fit the Hoover Dam into the schedule. They're opening a new bridge to bypass the road over the dam in the fall--traffic was a problem, but it's mainly for security reasons I think--so my car will be one of the last to pass over the dam. That's pretty cool to think about.

Day 12: Las Vegas, NV to Los Angeles, CA

The last day involved us pulling a Katy Perry and waking up in Vegas. I counted my money from the last night about 3 times just to make sure that I wasn't dreaming the whole time. Still full from the Hooters buffet (God, I hope I never have to write that sentence again), we checked out of the hotel at 11 and drove all the way to the Pacific Ocean to stay with my friend Alex Sigoloff. His mom has connections, and hooked us up with 4 free tickets to a Dodgers game about 10 rows behind first base--the good luck continues. After that, we went to a famous LA restaurant called the Apple Pan, whose entire business model is based on "doing simple things excellently" (that's their motto, I think). Anyway, they only serve basic American food but use the highest-quality ingredients and recipes. It was so absurdly good that I may consider driving into LA just to go back.

Road Trip Pics

For those of you I haven't talked to, the road trip was a complete and utter success. The full summary is in the works right now, but here are the best pictures I took. Obviously, I couldn't really take pictures while I was driving, so Holler and Stefan have some of the better ones. Also, since this blog will kind of be in limbo once I tell the story of the road trip, I might have to think up a new "theme" for it other than chronicling my travels, or just use it to share short stories and pictures of random stuff that I do.

Anyway, thanks for reading and until next time, these pictures will have to whet your appetites for the full story of the road trip.

The Road Trip: The Eastern Half

This is a massive post, but to summarize it all pretty quickly, the road trip went better than I ever could have imagined. I would have been happy if Holler, Stefan, and I had just arrived in California safely and if my car had made it across the Rockies in one piece. Instead, I got so much more than that. I could tell you all the reasons I/we got ridiculously lucky, but to make things clear let me just do a day-by-day breakdown:

Day 1: Bar Harbor, ME to New York City

I got out of bed, showered, and ate by 8:00 AM, which for me is a major accomplishment. After saying goodbye, I drove off. It wasn't until I got to Bangor and turned to go south on I-95 that the magnitude of the journey really hit me. To give you an idea of how mentally unprepared I was, I only had about 50 songs on my "Road Trip" playlist and I ran through all of them by the time I hit Portland.

The driving was pretty uneventful--compared to LA drivers, Bostonians are pretty tame and I drove around the city anyway. After getting stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway (which has to be the single worst road in America, I'm not kidding and I'm actually somewhat qualified to make that statement now), I rolled into my friend and beer league teammate Chris McGuire's place in Manhattan around 5 PM, for a total of 9 hours of driving. My day was far from over, though. We wandered around Central Park for a bit and took a whirlwind walking tour of the city. I'm pretty good at judging things like cities and people quickly, and my impression of New York was overwhelmingly positive. The city is full of activity and diversity, and even though it's really expensive it seems like it would be worth it to live there just for the opportunities you can come across. NY city-dwellers seem to be driven and successful at the same time, if that makes sense--like, they've already done something right to make it to New York, but now they're trying to make it big in New York.

Having judged an entire city and its people in under 15 minutes, I did some quality catching up with Chris at an outdoor cafe. I'll spare you readers all the minute details, but a recurring conversation topic on the road trip was the ongoing controversy over beer league teams that I should probably explain. When people started going abroad as juniors last year, our team (the Men's Union, or MU, pronounced "moo") faced a bit of a predicament. In order to continue to field a seven-person team in beer league (you pitch to your own team, so you don't need a pitcher or catcher), we had to recruit a bunch of new players during both the fall and the spring semesters. Some of these players were pretty good, some were average replacements, and some were striking out multiple times per game, which is quite an accomplishment given that the pitcher is trying to let you hit the ball.

Now, everybody who went abroad is back for senior year, in addition to all of the new kids we recruited. This means we have exactly 14 players, which is way too much for one team but the bare minimum for two teams. The question facing the MU is thus twofold: a) Should we divide into two teams? and b) If so, how? We've pretty much decided to split up, but the major issue is how to evenly divide the teams. This "how to divide the teams" question was the subject of a giant message thread this summer, complete with analyses of players' skills, ideas about what makes a good beer league team, excessively legalistic arguments, and complex compromise schemes--basically, everything other than an actual solution. Both teams want me to play for them, so my team affiliation was a major topic of conversation in New York and in the car after Chicago (both John and Stefan play; Stefan is actually the commissioner this year). I'll let you know how this one turns out.

Anyway, so back in New York, Chris and I hung out and got dinner at an awesome outdoor cafe. We then met up with another one of my Pomona friends, Alex Efron, who was celebrating his 21st birthday. Although I basically had the same conversation with him as I just had with Chris (discussing the past semester/summer and the beer league issue), it was good to see him again. We stayed out until 3 AM, which meant I was awake and active for 19 hours. On the subway ride home, my body was arguing with itself over whether I should get some real late-night New York pizza or just collapse and go to sleep. I eventually chose to collapse in exhaustion for a solid 6 hours. It's too bad, though--a good pizza would have really solidified my opinion on New York as an awesome city.

Day 2: NYC to Pittsburgh-ish

I woke up at 9:30 and wandered into Chris' kitchen to find two maids at work cleaning. Chris actually had to go to the dentist that morning, so I was all alone with the maids in the apartment. I needed to get an early start driving, so I had said goodbye the previous night. I just packed my things and left, which was kind of weird but I guess it had to be done. I set out to drive across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I quickly found out that driving in these states is just about as boring as you could possibly imagine. I started playing games to amuse myself, games like "How long can I keep the car on cruise control because there's no traffic or even anything interesting worth slowing down for, just miles and miles of farms?" The answer, actually, is about 250 miles, which is pretty amazing considering that my car can only go about 300 miles on one tank of gas.

Because I-80 was so soul-crushingly boring, I decided to take a detour to Pittsburgh to liven things up a bit. This road was a little more white-trashy interesting--almost exactly what you'd picture central Pennyslvania being like. How interesting, you ask? Well, I saw not one, but two drive-through strip clubs. Although I was really curious about how these businesses worked, logistically speaking (do the strippers come in your car? Do you drive by a window? Are the strippers in central PA so bad that they can only be viewed for a few seconds, without leaving your vehicle?) I didn't feel the need to actually spend the money and find out.

While in PA, I also had the first "oh-shit-my-car-is-going-to-die-on-me" moments of the road trip. Driving up a slight hill on I-80, my car suddenly started to lose power and refused to do more than 60. I pulled over and checked for overheating, but I saw nothing so I visited a local mechanic. The guy couldn't really find anything either, but he suggested that I replace my fuel filter ASAP. I took care of that the next day and it never happened again, so the only in-trip maintenance occurred on the third day.

Toward the evening, I made it to Pittsburgh and explored the city a little bit. It's a really cool city, but confusing to navigate because you're pretty much always next to a river and not sure which one. Architecturally, the city is pretty uniformly Gothic and steel town-y, but there's a surprising amount of green space. Also, Pittsburghers are some of the most helpful people I encountered on the trip--always willing to give directions, advice, and just generally help out a stranger to the city. There weren't too many highlights from this portion of the trip, because it was just me exploring an unknown city. I checked into a cheap motel off the highway just outside of the city and got a really good night's sleep.

Day 3: Pittsburgh-ish to South Bend, IN

I started the third day off a little early so I could go to an auto shop and replace the fuel filter. That took about half an hour, and I was on the road by 10 AM and glad to put the issue behind me. The drive to South Bend went by really quickly--there was almost no traffic, and I made a pit stop in Oberlin. I figured that a college town would have some good, cheap food places and I was right. The campus is actually incredibly beautiful--very green, sunny, and warm, definitely not what you would expect in northern Ohio. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and jog around the town/campus (thus exercising and exploring at the same time), a trick I started doing in Europe with Sam, Dan, & Zack. I felt much better after the run and arrived to South Bend feeling fresh and clean.

The reason I stopped in South Bend was to visit my grandfather. I haven't seen him in a while so I stayed for a night in his guest bedroom. It was nice, we went out to dinner and drove around the Notre Dame campus where he used to teach, but it was an understandably quiet night and nothing really story-worthy happened. It was good to say hi, though, and we did watch a sweet documentary about sailing. Overall, though, a quiet day and night, almost a rest after the first two days.

Day 4: South Bend, IN to Chicago, IL

I woke up at 10 AM and worked out in the retirement home's fitness center. It was kind of absurd because I was down there doing a P90X workout next to a senior yoga class and a couple octogenarians on the treadmill. Anyway, Opa and I ate some lunch and then I said goodbye and headed for Chi-city.

The drive to Chicago was one of my favorite stretches of the trip, not just because it only took a couple hours but because it was really scenic. When you come over the I-90 bridge into Illinois, the Chicago skyline just appears out of nowhere and you get to watch it get closer and closer and bigger and bigger for the rest of the drive. Also, during the last bit on Lakeshore Drive, the Blue Angels were practicing for the Chicago Air Show the next day, doing smoke shows and buzzing the road a few times. It was really difficult not to be distracted by either the buildings, which I was stoked to see for the first time, or the planes, which are just awesome anytime. Together, staring at big buildings and fast planes really took me back to when I was about ten, and I was fascinated with that kind of stuff. Suffice to say that ten-year-old Nick would have forced his parents to move to Chicago if he had gone during Air Show weekend.

I found John Holler's house without any trouble and parked right outside, which was a minor miracle (it also happened in New York, where the only available space for 4 blocks around was right in front of Chris' apartment). It was great to see Holler again because Holler's my boy and it had been over a year at that point since we hung out. I set up camp and met his family and then we went on a giant walking tour of the city. Holler actually knows a ton about Chicago because he worked for the city's economic development agency and his dad is a real estate lawyer who works for the city, so the tour was super-informative. We hit up a deep-dish pizza place and then met up with Stefan and some of his friends at a south side bar. Stefan had literally finished his summer internship that day, so he was pumped to be back in the city (he had been living in the suburbs in an extended-stay Holiday Inn, which sounded pretty miserable) and with his friends rather than the other interns. I hadn't seen him in over a year, either (we went abroad during different semesters), so we conversed a ton and had the first of many beer league discussions. It took a while to get back to Holler's house (he lives in Evanston, on the opposite side of the city), so the ride back was similar to NYC in that both of us were nodding off on the train at 3 AM. We went to sleep and woke up at 10 to go see....

Day 5: The Chicago Air Show

Apparently, locals don't like the Chicago Air Show. Actually, that's not accurate; it's more like they're ambivalent toward it. "It's just the same planes every year," one of Stefan's friends said.

This is one thing that Chicagoans couldn't be more wrong about. The air show is sweet. It's a collection of military and stunt planes doing insane tricks at low altitude on a beach on Lake Michigan in the middle of summer. What more could you ask for? Holler and I filled a cooler with ice and some Goose Island Brewing Company beers (their pale ale is one of my new favorites) and took the bus to the beach. We sat there for three hours and took in the sun, the planes, the water, the awesomeness, the patriotism, etc. They had a giant loudspeaker system set up on the beach, so a DJ-announcer type person was calling out the names of each plane and the tricks they were performing as it happened, and playing 80s rock and samples from the Top Gun soundtrack during the whole thing. The showcase of air power was incredible, kind of like a giant Cold War parade through Red Square, but American and in the sky. I'm sure that some IR scholars (Bacevich, at least) could make an argument that the Chicago Air Show was really indicative of the military-industrial complex and is actually a bad thing for society, but he's wrong--he didn't see how sweet those planes were.

We walked home and on the way, we randomly ran into Aaron Hosansky, my old TSL sports editor, who was visiting the city with his girlfriend. The rest of the day was pretty much devoted to packing--John had to pack his clothes, Stefan had to pack everything, and we all had to find a way to make it fit in my car. The solution was this:

From Road Trip

That picture was taken in Arches National Park, but it pretty much captures what we did to my car. We put a rooftop carrier on a car with 106 horsepower and loaded it up with luggage. The backseat was full of backpacks and day bags, and the trunk was full of suitcases as well. The car weighed 500 pounds more than it should have, looked absurd, would probably lose to a Model T in a drag race or going uphill, and we still made it to California. We laid low on Saturday night, knowing that the next day was going to be a long one. I'll continue the summary in part II...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ma' Sha Allah

New window decal/good luck charm. By the will of God, we'll get to California.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Road Trip Itinerary: It's Actually Happening

This map has been about four years in the making. Ever since I decided to go to school in California, the idea of a cross-country road trip has been brewing in my mind, slowly fermenting like a delicious IPA (mmm... beer). For me, I've never really seen the middle of the country other than the occasional airport. I've visited my grampa in South Bend, Indiana and gone to a Cubs game once, but that doesn't really count--when I talk about a road trip, I'm talking about seeing cornfields and mountains and all that natural gorgeousness I usually fly over on the way to school.

Unfortunately, I lost my means of doing a road trip when I totaled my car on some black ice during my senior year of high school. There's a long story about why this shouldn't have happened--my tires were bald because I thought it was ridiculous to put $400 worth of tires onto a car that I only paid $800 for, and who expects black ice in late April?--but that's irrelevant now. The point is that I flipped my car sideways into some trees and was lucky to walk away without getting hurt--I think I even played baseball the next day. But for the rest of senior year and the next two summers, I didn't have a ride to school, work, or prom. The accident forced me to drive a delivery van more than I would have liked (though, thankfully, not to prom) and put my road trip plans on indefinite hold.

It took me about two years to earn enough money to pay for a new car, new (more expensive) insurance, and all the other little costs associated with owning a vehicle. I could, in theory, have done this road trip at the end of last summer, but because I was going abroad for second semester I didn't want to have to deal with either a) driving back during the winter, or b) storing my car out west. Since I was already coming off traveling in the Middle East and Europe, I figured that a cross-country road trip would be the perfect way to cap off my summer and start senior year.

And here I am now, T-minus 4 days from beginning the trek on the map above. It's a 4176.78-mile journey through 18 states that will in theory take 12 days and just under 70 hours of driving. I don't have any driving buddies until after I get to Chicago, where I'm going to pick up John Holler and Stefan Castellanos. I haven't seen these guys for over a year because of study abroad, so it'll be awesome to finally be reunited. We're going to put a roof rack on my car to hold all of our stuff and cram three people into a Honda Civic. Only Holler and I can drive because my car is a stick-shift, so this should be interesting.

3 guys plus all of their luggage will fit in this car. Believe it.

We're going to hit up a lot of interesting places on the trip, including but not limited to the Chicago Air and Water Show, the Wisconsin State Fair, Mt. Rushmore/Badlands National Park, Denver/the world headquarters of the Coors Brewing Company, Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, Vegas, and Zyzyx, CA. Obviously, we'll find only the best roadside food to eat along the way. Thanks to Stefan's rewards points, we'll be staying almost exclusively at Holiday Inn/Holiday Inn Express locations, though I am looking forward to staying with Chris McGuire in NYC and Alex Yates in Prescott, AZ. We're capping everything off by going to a Dodgers game and moving into our dorms a week early (and perhaps doing some interesting dorm construction projects, too--more on that later).

So that's the plan. I don't know how much time and/or energy I'll have to write during the trip, but I promise to recap all the best stories afterward. Until then... to infinity, and beyond!

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Boys Get Hit By Fireworks: Madrid and the End

Madrilenos are crazy. That's just my impression, but I could be a little biased from the fact that I watched Spain-Portugal outside the Bernabeu, Real Madrid's stadium and home of the laxest security checks on the planet. Although every cop was careful to make sure the caps were removed from our water bottles, they let in enough fireworks and explosives to rival any good 4th of July show. Periodically during the match, someone would toss a lit firecracker on the ground at our feet, and everyone would scurry away and form a giant ring around it until it went off. On the way out of the stadium, someone set off a firework that produced a bunch of shrapnel--kind of like a Claymore, but without the power to, you know, kill us--and it hit me and Sam in the legs. Luckily, we made it home OK--it was really just more shocking than anything else, but the story gives you an idea of what Spain was like.

The crowd outside the Bernabeu for Spain-Portugal.

So to reiterate, Madrilenos are crazy. Madrid is a city that only sleeps during the afternoon and is full of activity during every other time of the day. True to form, we rolled into our hostel in Madrid at 2:30 PM and promptly ate an extended restaurant meal and took a major siesta, missing the entire England-Germany match. The first thing you notice about Madrid is the heat--at least, that's the first thing I noticed coming directly from Scandanavia. It's a really stifling, dry heat that makes it impossible to do anything outdoors between the hours of 11 AM and 5 PM without getting all sweaty. Even sleeping next to an open window in a hostel with a fan blowing directly on you becomes uncomfortable because of this always-prevalent menace. It's kind of like during the first week of school in August in a non-AC dorm in Claremont, CA--if you don't know what I'm talking about firsthand, use your imagination and understand that it's really, really hot.

Still, if the biggest complaint about a place is that it's occasionally too warm and sunny and you can't do much during the afternoon because everybody naps, that still sounds like a pretty good place to me. And Madrid certainly is an awesome city, one that was tons of fun and that I wish we had more time in. After we woke up from our siestas (around 6 PM, I think), we decided to explore the city on foot and find a place to watch the upcoming Argentina-Mexico game. We spent an hour or so wandering through some of the bigger plazas and most of Madrid's shopping district. Our hostel was right in the middle of a major pedestrian shopping avenue, a location which had its pluses and minuses--on the plus side, the streets were always filled with people; on the minus side, you have to walk some distance before you can find affordable food. Anyway, we wound up watching the game in a tiny little Spanish restaurant (it seated maybe 30 people, tops) with a single TV. The owner/waiter was an older gentleman, the kind of person you might describe as "dignified," but when Mirman explained that we were traveling around Europe to watch soccer, his face lit up with joy and he was extremely nice to us for the rest of the night. As far as the match went, I thought Argentina looked great, although Mexico deserved a better scoreline--if you take away Argentina's offside goal and if one of Mexico's total screamer shots finds the back of the net, it's a totally different game. Watching the game with the Spaniards was a pretty unique experience--to our left at dinner was a group of middle-aged Spanish women, and to our right was a young couple. They all talked to us at some point in the friendly way that you chat with someone who is conspicuously out of place. Nobody was really invested in the game, so we all just cheered for good plays (although I was pulling for Argentina because watching Messi, Tevez, and especially Maradona is always a treat).

In the morning, we jogged to the Parque del Retiro to do a much-needed morning run/workout routine. The park is sprawling, on the same scale as what I imagine Central Park would be like, and shirtlessness is not just permissible, it's encouraged. Naturally, we embraced the concept of "sol afuera, armas afuera" (sun's out, guns out) and did our workouts sin camiseta for the rest of the trip. It was like Venice Beach, but with manicured lawns instead of sand and skinny Spanish guys instead of meatheads.

The park is gorgeous, too.

We had planned to visit Madrid's two big art galleries--the Reina Sofia and the Prado--during our time there. Because of their schedules, we had to do the Reina Sofia first, which was fine by me because I like modern stuff like Picasso and Dali much more than old-school guys who just painted different variations of the same Bible stories (I know that's a gross oversimplification, but it does feel like that sometimes. At the Prado, I probably saw ten different versions of The Adoration of the Magi, and even though I know that each artist used different techniques and styles to paint his own interpretation, it's still basically like hearing the same story told ten different ways. I mean, if you asked Shakespeare, Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Stephen King, and Dan Brown to write different versions of Huckleberry Finn, no doubt you'd get some pretty awesome stuff. But if you do this over and over, you'd probably get sick of the basic story. That's how I feel about old-school Bible art. End of rant). So the Reina Sofia was really enjoyable, mainly because they had so much crazy stuff like Dali (see below) and Picasso. A huge chunk of the museum that surrounded the painting Guernica was actually devoted to the Spanish Civil War, which really brought me back to senior year English class and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Dali is awesome.

After the museum, we went back to the park to relax, only to find that the place was literally filled with Spanish couples just lying in the grass making out. While this underlines how awesome of a country Spain is, it also brings up a point that I've been meaning to make throughout the trip about the differences between Europe and America in terms of PDA: basically, in Europe, PDA is out of control. Everyone in America knows that one couple that can't let go of each other--literally, they aren't not touching each other for more than a few minutes at a time. When they're walking in public it's always with at least one arm around the other person, and when they're not making out they're kissing each other on the lips, neck, whatever. In America, these people (usually young, often in their first real relationship) draw the attention of passers-by, usually in a negative context. They might be heckled or told to "get a room already." In Europe, everyone is that couple. Even in a group of all guys or all girls (a rare sight) the amount of physical contact and arm-draping is astonishing--it puts Jordanian shabab, some of the most bro-tastic people on the planet, to shame. I think that open PDA, more than anything, is where Europe gets its reputation as a sexually liberal place where there are no rules. But the funny thing is that, contrary to what Jason Segal's character says in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, there are plenty of rules--most of the people draped across each other in public places like the Parque del Retiro are actually in relationships, and are just showing it off. It's not like the couples in the park switch up makeout partners every 20 minutes. Anyway, Spain was by far the most egregious of countries when it came to PDA, although London was close. Actually, in London it seemed like most of the girls were clinging to their guys and not vice versa.

Distracting PDA notwithstanding, we spent about an hour in the park before the bugs began to get to us and we headed back to the hostel. We headed to a major pub district to watch Brazil-Chile, and I managed to eat red meat (a delicious Argentinian-style steak) for the third meal in a row before cutting back in the final two days. Brazil looked great in their match, although Kaka's constant bitching at the refs when he was already on a yellow made me a little worried. Still, I think the Chile game was Brazil's best performance of the tournament--they certainly didn't play at that level against the Netherlands three days later. We took it easy after the match, knowing that Spain was playing Portugal the next day and that we would need a good night's sleep and a siesta if we were going to keep up with Spanish fans.

I'm going to fast-forward through our morning workout and the Prado and get right to the good stuff: the match. We left our hostel at 6:30 for the 8:30 match wearing the Spanish swag we had just purchased (Mirman bought a real jersey, I bought a knockoff shirt by a company called "Formula Toro") and carrying two bags full of kebab sandwiches, a bottle of Famous Grouse, and two flasks to put it in. I felt like I was back in Jordan. We had planned to take the Metro to the Bernabeu (the stadium actually has its own subway stop, which makes a whole lot of sense given that 100,000 people have to get in and out of there every time Real Madrid plays a home game), but as it turned out the Metro workers had chosen this weekend to strike in favor of better working conditions and higher wages or some other BS. I don't know the first thing about Spanish unions or working conditions on the Metro or whether the strike is justified, but I do know that it was terribly unlucky for us because the only thing that could take us to the Bernabeu were our feet or a horribly overcrowded city bus. For the trip up, we chose to cram onto the bus with probably 100+ people all headed to the stadium, which was an experience that made me appreciate deodorant that much more. We got out and found ourselves in the middle of a giant street party. We had seen people in Spain jerseys drinking on the median as far as two bus stations back, presumably making their way to the game. Everybody was converging on the stadium, blowing air horns, whistles, beating drums, singing, etc. If that place had StadiumPulse, it would be off the charts. We bought a couple bottles of water, which turned out to be a pitifully inadequate amount given the heat, the constant yelling, and the fact that our kebab sandwiches were by far the worst meal on the trip if not in the history of food. I climbed a tree just before kickoff to take a panorama video of the crowd and snap some photos (like the one at the top of this post). One interesting observation is that Madrilenos hate Cristiano Ronaldo even though he plays for Real Madrid. I wish I had been quicker with the camera, but when he was introduced, everyone pointed at least one middle finger at the screen. That says a lot about Ronaldo--he's the A-rod of soccer and such a fanny merchant that even his club fans turn against him.

So if you didn't watch the game, Spain won, in dramatic fashion. I left at halftime to purchase some water because we were on the verge of death by dehydration, and wound up going on a small adventure to do so. Using my very basic Spanish, I managed to find a vending machine selling water for .40 euros instead of the 2 euros vendors were charging outside the stadium. I promptly bought 10 bottles and convinced a woman to give me one of her plastic shopping bags to carry them in. I was begging with one of the security guards to let me back in the stadium (I even offered him a bottle at one point) when David Villa snuck through and finished. The crowd exploded, I looked at the guard pleadingly, he looked at me, and he waved me through with all of the water. I sprinted back through the crowd to celebrate with Dan, Sam, and Mirman, hugging some random Spaniards along the way. It was pure jubilation, and as Spain hung on and closed out the match everyone spilled into the main street. The crowd was big enough to bring six lanes of traffic to a standstill, and some guys were using their Spanish flags to play Toro with oncoming cars. The whole scene was completely surreal, and thinking that it was just the result of a Round of 16 win is scary--imagine what it was like for the quarterfinals, or what it would be like for the final. Firecrackers were going off every couple of minutes, and we wound up walking all the way back to the hostel (probably a couple of miles), spending most of the time with Spanish high school kids. One thing I learned in Spain is that, when called upon, I can bring back my Spanish, most of which I forgot in order to learn Arabic. I seriously wonder now if I can be trilingual, or if re-learning Spanish would just push Arabic out of my head. We'll see.

The next morning, the gang began to break up when Sam left for the airport at 7 AM. Everything began winding down at this point--Dan and Zack began preparing to meet their families, and I began packing to go back to the US. We went for a run in the morning at the Royal Palace and the attached gardens, which were absolutely incredible. They had the kind of grass that makes me want to learn to play golf--the center was a perfectly groomed 300-yard stretch that would make a sweet fairway. We all had to do separate things in the afternoon, so I went to a bodega that the guy at the hostel said was the best in Madrid and picked out a couple of bottles of wine as gifts. I know very little about wine, and the salesperson at the bodega spoke very little English, so we'll see how that worked out in due time.

Dan, Zack, and I spent the last night feasting (we went to two restaurants and did deals where you got a multiple-course meal and a pitcher of sangria) and smoking the Nicaraguan cigars Dan had brought. We sat by the fountain in a nearby plaza and did a few hours of people-watching, reflected on the trip and talked about a lot of big stuff, stuff that's probably beyond the scope of this blog (I'd much rather stick to my forte of travel recaps and tasteless jokes). Unfortunately, the heat, the sangria, and the cigars left everyone feeling a little sick and we called it a relatively early night at 1 AM. The next morning, we went our separate ways--Dan to Grenada at 7 AM, me to the airport at 10 AM, and Mirman to stay another night in the hostel with three random Asian guys who brought matching anime pillows (no, you can't make this stuff up). Overall, it was an awesome trip, and the stuff I've written about here is really just the tip of the iceberg. It's frustrating because I want to tell every little story, but even now that I'm home I don't really have the time and when I was still traveling I barely had time to get the basics on paper. Still, most stories are better told in person and if you ever want to hear every detail, you know where to find me.

The U.S. Loss and What It Means for American Soccer

So the US lost. Not badly, not undeservedly, we just lost. We didn't show up to play, gave up two fluke goals, and squandered a very winnable game and one of the best chances America has ever had to go deep in a World Cup. Calling the US game a heartbreaker would be disingenuous, though, in light of what happened to Ghana in their next match. I never thought I would feel sorry for Ghana after all the shit luck and time-wasting hijinks they pulled in extra time, but their exit had to have been the most painful of any team in the Cup so far. Still, I'm not disappointed with America's performance overall. We overachieved against England, struggled against Slovenia, had some gutsy play by Donovan, Dempsey, and Howard, and ultimately probably got just as far as anyone would have predicted before the Cup.

I watched the US-Ghana game from a pub in Denmark. Most of the crowd was pulling for Ghana because of the whole "they're the last team from Africa at an African World Cup" thing. This is some BS logic, and really irked me when the Danes employed it since most of them were actually for the Netherlands after Denmark had lost two days earlier, and the US game was meaningless to them. Seriously, either pick a side or don't, but cheer hard and don't use some half-assed African solidarity argument to tell me why you're rooting against America. Anyway, the result of the game, combined with the stress of extra time, combined with the beer, combined with the fact that I literally got one hour of sleep made me an extremely tired and unhappy camper for our flight to Madrid the next morning. Our flight was delayed twice for a total of two hours, most of which I spent napping. When it was time to finally board, our plane had no air circulation and was about 75˚F, which promptly sent me into a flop-sweat that made sleep impossible. I spent most of the flight in the kind of half-conscious state that you get into when you're really tired in class--heavy eyelids, falling asleep forward and then snapping your head back up, half-dreaming, etc. In short, not a terribly enjoyable experience. I was happy when we finally got to our hostel in Madrid and took a siesta.

Before describing my experience in Madrid, I'd like to spend the rest of this post ranting about American sportswriters and their utter failure to cover the World Cup in an intelligent way. I didn't realize this when I was in Europe, but the same tired "is soccer catching on in the US?" argument is currently being rehashed in the American sports media. For example, I Googled "US-Ghana" to find the date of the match. One of the first results I got was an article in the Wall Street Journal by Allen Barra, who argues that

"Soccer is the world's most popular sport, but rather in the same way that one might call rice the world's most popular food. In many places, it's all that's available or that most people can afford. In fact, in terms of soccer supremacy, we may as well call the World Cup the Western Europe-South American Cup, since the only seven countries ever to win it have been from those two continents."

Really? This is the stupidest thing I've seen in print since I read Glenn Beck's Common Sense. Barra argues that soccer is popular among countries with no other athletic options, and then, in the next sentence, that it is dominated by Western European teams. Think about that for a second. You don't think the highly developed nations of Western Europe--which have widespread access to international TV, local development leagues for the NFL and NBA, youth leagues for a huge variety of sports (including obscure stuff like handball that Europeans really love but Americans have barely heard of), and some of the greatest Olympic athletes in history--you don't think that they have options? For that matter, what about well-developed Argentina, which sent guys like Manu Ginobili to the NBA and (famously) beat the US in basketball during the 2004 Olympics? People in these countries have options, and they choose to play soccer because it is awesome. Slowly, Americans are learning that the sport is awesome, too, and we have slowly begun to develop and export soccer talent. Guys like Barra, who proclaim that America will never be dominant in soccer as long as its best athletes go to the NBA or NFL, miss the point: we can win at more than one thing at a time. Look at the Olympics, where hundreds of our athletes won medals in extremely diverse fields. We had the best medley relay team in the world, but it didn't stop us from also winning basketball, track and field events, etc. Saying that you can't do something is the first step toward not doing it, and we need to ask more of the USMNT in the future, not less.

Barra's negativity toward soccer is echoed by people like Rick Reilly, who used his column space last week to write a ridiculous screed against the vuvuzelas (the horns that are always blowing in the background of Cup matches). What I found interesting was that the biggest thing Reilly--a perpetual complainer if there ever was one--found to bitch about during this World Cup was the horn that fans were using. Sure, it was a crappy recycled column idea from a fading writer--a slightly elevated version of a "SOCCER SUCKS LOLZ" comment on YouTube--but even in 800+ words, Reilly couldn't find any good jokes about the World Cup. Now, this could partially be attributed to the fact that Reilly is fading as a writer (90% of his columns these days are a mashed-up series of one-liner jokes, maybe 5% of which are actually funny), but it may also have something to do with it no longer being cool or edgy for American sports journalists to hate on soccer like they did in the 1990s.

Like it or not, World Cup soccer is awesome and it's here to stay. You might as well enjoy it like many Americans have started to do--at least, if ESPN/ABC's outstanding ratings show anything. For a good example of a sportswriter who embraces this attitude and is actually in touch with the American public, check out Bill Simmons and his take on the World Cup thus far. I'll recap my time in Spain tomorrow; right now, I'm going to bed.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

End of Germany/Denmark

Alright, so to tie up any loose ends from my last post: we had a giant celebratory party with a ton of Germans after the US won. Germany won too, so the streets were slightly crazy afterward. Since about 4 PM (Germany played at 8:30) the entire area around the public viewing was crawling with riot police, but everyone we saw was very orderly.

The next day, we hopped on an early-morning train to Copenhagen. This train was unique in that it drove onto a ferry boat in order to make the crossing into Denmark, and we got to disembark and get a great view of the North Sea. On the top deck, we ran into a group of three kids from Yale who are doing the exact same trip that we are--same concept, same countries. We hung out for a while and broke down the U.S. performance, and during the course of the conversation found out that we were actually staying in the same hostel in Copenhagen. We'll probably meet up later today to watch the US' Round of 16 match--with 7 people, we have a better chance of not being a minority in whatever bar we go to.

The city of Copenhagen is very Danish. I know that's a complete truism, but that's the only way I can describe it. Everyone rides around on bicycles, I feel like 75% of the population is blonde, and the architecture looks exactly like I would imagine a Danish city. There's an amusement park 200 yards from our hostel and a pastry shop every 20 yards. So far, we've walked around the city to get our bearings, visited the royal palace, residences, and the national arms museum. The arms museum was kind of weird because only the section on artillery was open, and it really showed that the basic concept of using big guns to shoot things hasn't changed for 800+ years. We also spent a decent amount of time in Christiania, which is a section of Copenhagen that seceded from Denmark in the seventies and has existed autonomously ever since. It was really surreal because the whole place seemed stuck in the late 60s--the art, the people, the lifestyle, the political messages. It was also very strange in that the place started off as an anti-establishment collective (and a glorified drug enclave) and has since ended up as a major tourist attraction, with vendors hawking cheap t-shirts in the most capitalist way possible. I'm sure this parallels the death of the hippie movement somehow, but I don't know enough about that history to write about it now.

Overall, Denmark has been great, though. The average level of beauty in this city--architecture, people, fashion, food, and anything else you can imagine--is staggering. It's also by far the most expensive city we've visited, because Denmark is not on the Euro and its kroner has stayed relatively stable during the financial crisis, while the dollar has lost a lot of value. The only reason we haven't gone broke in the rest of Europe is because the Euro actually collapsed more than the dollar (thanks, Greece!). But a small cup of coffee at the cheapest place we could find is still the equivalent of $4, which is somewhat absurd. As a result, we've been eating more at places like 7-11 and the European equivalent of Chipotle instead of nicer restaurants.

Today we might splurge on day passes to the amusement park before the U.S. game, but I don't know if my stomach can handle it. I'm already a little physically ill from the butterflies I'm getting about the match tonight. Watching this game is going to be a trying experience for me. I'm really counting on Dempsey, Donovan, Altidore, & Co. to come through on offense, I think if we can turn this into an offensive rather than a defensive battle we should prevail. Anyway, I'll be on pins and needles and depending on how things go, I'll be happily exhausted or depressed and tired for our flight to Madrid tomorrow morning (why we decided to book an 8:30 AM flight, I don't remember, but I certainly regret it now). Anyway, I'll have more in Madrid. It's hard to believe we're already close to the final city, but I guess time really does fly when you're having fun. Until next time, good night and good luck to the USA.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Germany is awesome

So I have basically an entire week's worth of events to recap here and forty minutes to do so, which is why this post might seem a little manic. But the overall point, which may or may not come across in the following paragraphs, is that Germany is an awesome place that is America's cultural twin and that I'm proud to call my ancestral homeland (or at least half of it).

As I mentioned before, I spent my first full day in Germany watching soccer in a giant stadium. Germany does their parties--I mean, public viewings of World Cup matches--right: this one was held in Cologne's brand-new stadium from the 2006 WC that seated something like 50,000+ people. By the time we got there at 1:00 PM for a 1:30 match, the entire place was filled up and we were relegated to an outdoor overflow lot that was basically a giant tailgate party. Dan compared the atmosphere to an SEC football game, which was pretty much a dead-on metaphor that we used for the rest of the day. The main attraction was a 40-foot tall TV screen showing the game and an open set for Sky Sports Germany, where they were filming a show that was pretty much like ESPN College GameDay (meaning that we were the fans screaming crazily in the background). Inside the stadium and on the JumboTron, they had an elaborately produced "pump-up" show for the match, with a DJ who played the "Final Countdown" theme from Rocky on trumpet and then led the crowd in a series of cheers. Germany's World Cup anthem is "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes, so the whole crowd inside and outside of the stadium was singing the opening chords and going absolutely nuts at kickoff. The fact that the area was an open field surrounded by beer vendor tents probably helped; some of the more enterprising vendors had strapped portable kegs to their backs and were walking around to serve people who were too lazy/drunk to make their own way to a tent. In short, the place was very festive and very, very, German.

As for the match itself, Germany looked awful. Although most of the Germans I've talked to since blame the referees, the fact is that Miroslav Klose played like an idiot once he had a yellow card and Lukas Podolski (who looks like the biggest bro of all time and who, in our ongoing SEC football metaphor, I labeled as Germany's Tim Tebow--the big, dumb, headstrong lefty) found new and creative ways to miss every time he was in front of the net. Part of the reason I'm hating on Podolski is that he didn't seem visibly upset by his misses, no matter how bad they were. In fact, at the end of the match he flashed a smile at the camera, which to me is an unforgivable sign of arrogance when your national team is losing to Serbia. I also think that Germany's coach, Joachim Löw, did a terrible job of managing his team. He basically acted like a spoiled child on the sidelines and took out the only players who were effective (esp. Özil, who was the only spark in Germany's attack after Klose was sent off) and replaced them with duds who could barely hold onto the ball. Even though they'll most likely advance, I don't think Germany can go very far based on what I saw last week.

The set of Sky Sports GameDay.

Anyway, 95% of the German fans cleared out of the field after the disappointing match, leaving behind a scene of destruction reminiscent of the first Woodstock--the entire place was covered in a layer of beer cups, cigarette butts, and the occasional passed-out German fan (a couple of guys were "napping" on the ground until halftime of the US game, when they woke up in a daze and stumbled toward the exits, much to our amusement). A crew of janitors in orange jumpsuits were cleaning up for at least half an hour, working around the remaining fans and the nappers and filling a couple of garbage trucks with waste. The only people who stuck around were US fans and Germans who wanted a better shot of getting on Sky Sports GameDay or whatever, so it was an interesting mix. We met up with a group of American students who were studying in Germany for the summer, as well as a German-born mother and her kid who had lived in NYC for ten years. In a weird "small world" twist, her kid currently attends UMO, so we talked about Bangor for a while. Anyway, the scene for watching the US match was pretty funny--in an empty, trashed field, there's a tiny contingent of Americans cheering wildly and at the German TV set, a group of Germans going "who are these guys?" We didn't have much to cheer about in the first half, though--in fact, we were so quiet and depressed that the German TV people began filming their broadcast during the match, sticking a boom camera in front of the big screen.

Luckily, though, the second half was a completely different story. We absolutely dominated and probably deserved to win if not for a terrible decision by the referee. I thought the US showed a lot of heart and perseverance to stick with the match, and Bradley played the match of a lifetime. A few observations: I would still like to see a Dempsey/Altidore striking combination, especially when we need a little extra punch on offense. It's a happy medium between going 3-4-3 (what we did against Slovenia right before scoring the second goal) and relying on Altidore and Findley/other random strikers to produce for us. With my boy Stuart Holden holding it down on the wing, we would also get more dangerous services. I think Bradley will stick with the normal lineup for Algeria, but it might not hurt to get a little riskier when (knock on wood) we play better teams in the elimination rounds.

Back to the Eurotrip narrative: after standing for both of the matches, we were pretty tuckered out, so we took a subway back to the hostel and relaxed for a bit before dinner. I've made a pretty conscious effort to have as much German food and drink as possible here, so we went to a place that served schnitzel for dinner and watched the England-Algeria match. Even though the restaurant looked pretty Latin, the schnitzel was incredible and I'm officially a fan.

That night, I began to feel a little sick, and contrary to popular belief, it had nothing to do with a day of consuming only beer and schnitzel. It actually was just allergies acting up--we've been sticking to a pretty regular regimen of working out in the mornings. Cologne had a giant park that was jogging distance from our hostel, so we would run there in the mornings and do sit-ups, push-ups, or pull-ups. However, the whole park was filled with pollen, so me breathing heavily there probably aggravated my allergies. So fast-forward to after the Germany game, and I'm coughing up a storm and trying to find something to fix my sore throat (again, yelling for four hours straight certainly didn't help, but it wasn't the cause of illness either). It's impossible to find a pharmacy at night in a foreign city, so I ask a cashier at the corner store for help. He barely speaks English, but he yells something in German and we find someone who does. Then, he finds someone with a smartphone that can locate night pharmacies, and together we figure out where the nearest one is (turns out, it was just a block away). They point me in the right direction, and I eventually get some lozenges and medicine (funny aside: when I described my symptoms, the lady at the register asked me if I was on any allergy medication to begin with. I said no, so she replied, "Good, you are a true German man," which I thought was hilarious). The point, I guess, is that Germans are very helpful people.

The next day in Cologne, we went to the city's cathedral, which was the tallest structure in Europe until the Eiffel tower was built. More impressive is that the cathedral was built entirely out of stone over the course of 800 years because the city kept going bankrupt and forcing the builders to stop. Everything about the cathedral is gorgeous, and I consider it a miracle that it wasn't bombed out in World War II (more on this later) given that it's located next to the city's major train station and rail bridge, both of which were destroyed by Allied bombers. We spent a good chunk of the morning at the cathedral and took the time to climb up to the top (550+ steps up and down) for a nice view of the city.

After a quick lunch, we went to the city's museum of modern art, which was an interesting experience. Half of the museum was incredible stuff by people like Picasso, Dali, etc., and the other half was everyday stuff that required huge stretches of the imagination to be considered "art." The crown jewel of quasi-art was a "piece" on the observation deck of the museum entitled "Bushes in Concrete Pots" (I shit you not) which would have been an amazing work if it didn't look like something any municipal janitor could have done. Still, we had a good time because it's too easy to make fun of this stuff.

That night, we headed out to dinner in the student district in an attempt to check out some pubs and watch the undercard matches (I think that night was Ghana-Australia and Cameroon-Denmark). We found this giant street that was pretty much exclusively pedestrian, and while we were checking it out we were accosted by a German bachelorette party. Apparently, it's tradition in Germany to fund bachelorette parties by selling random stuff, so these girls were charging 2€ to cut away chunks of the bride-to-be's shirt. It was all in good fun and we wound up talking to them for a while, which is what they really wanted in the first place. More interesting to me is the gimmicks that European women come up with the meet guys--in addition to the bachelorette party thing, which happened a couple of other times that night, we were also approached in London by a group of girls on a "Save the Blondes" campaign. Although that campaign would have been more accurately entitled "Feed the Cougars," I still think the amount of creativity and thought that went into it is commendable.

The next day, we got on the train to Hamburg and spent the better part of 5 hours playing travel Scrabble (yes, we're nerds). On the first day in Hamburg, we went on a walking tour of the city led by a British expatriate who looked a lot like Tinkerbell. She was very knowledgeable, though, and in three hours we saw a ton of the city and learned a lot of history. My favorite part was my church--St. Nicholas' cathedral--which is now an anti-war memorial. The whole church, save for the spire, was firebombed in WWII, and the shell of the church was left standing as a reminder of the horrors of war. This is another theme in Germany--especially at historical sites, the legacy of WWII is really evident. The Germans seem to wave war history in your face at times, which makes sense given the whole never-forget/never-again ideas. More significant to me though was how far we've come--a British tour guide can speak at a German war memorial about the loss of German life as a result of firebombing.

EDIT: I got cut off writing the last bit of this post, but basically I just wanted to say that it seems like the world is getting smaller. Even though England will play Germany in the round of 16, the tensions between the two countries seem pretty tame compared to what they once were. Teasing is always good-natured. Also, we spent our final night in Germany watching the US game, which was actually somewhat of an ordeal since every pub was showing the England game instead of USA-Algeria (there are more English expats than Americans in Germany, I guess). Despite my desire to go to an Algerian pub and talk smack in Arabic, we wound up finding a completely abandoned cafe with Sky satellite coverage during the 15th minute, and convincing them to switch it to the US game. We were the only four people in the place, and we were so loud we actually scared the bartender away at one point. Needless to say, the game was an emotional roller-coaster and when Donovan finally tucked the winning goal away we were euphoric. As in, we made a giant pigpile on the floor of the (abandoned) pub and started a four-man "USA" chant. Afterwards, we spilled out onto the streets of Hamburg to the Germany-Ghana pregame, which was basically a giant party and for us, a victorious two-hour celebration. There are many highlights from that night, most of which involve copious amounts of delicious German beer. We smoked some Nicaraguan cigars that Dan had brought and just generally lived it up for two hours. Details will follow, but right now I'm getting kicked off again. I really need more time than I have to describe all of the awesomeness that has ensued, so it'll just have to wait until next time.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Amsterdam Wrap-Up, Bruges, and Germany

First, let me apologize in advance for any typos in this post. I'm using a ridiculous German keyboard and none of the key locations make any sense (for example, as far as I can tell there is no way to actually type an @ sign, I had to Google "at sign" and copy and paste it every time I wanted to log in anywhere). Also, I have no clue if the pictures I uploaded will work at all, so if everything shows up as giant lines of HTML then please be patient :)

That said, it's been a pretty awesome past few days. We spent our last night in Amsterdam in the red light district, which sounds cool but is actually like a giant strip club: pretty sad, depressing, and populated by some of the lamest people on the planet. We left after 20 minutes and decided to get an early start on the next day, which turned out to be one of the best decisions of the trip (thus far).

In the morning, we left on the train for Amsterdam and headed to Bruges, a small town in Belgium that is not unlike Northeast Harbor in that most of the tourists who go there are older and richer folks. The town used to be the size of London in the 1800s until it lost its seaport and all of its commerce; since then, it dwindled as a metropolis but reinvented itself as a tourist hotspot. I believe it was also used as a cautionary tale about the effects of global warming in one of Thomas Friedman's books, but I could be wrong. Anyway, going into the day we were worried about a lot of things: how would the Eurorail passes work, would Bruges be too expensive for us broke students to handle, would there be anything to do after we got into town at 4 PM, etc.

The good news is that everything about Bruges was awesome. We got in fine with our Eurorail passes and found that our hostel is one of the cheapest ones we have on the trip--just 17 euros per person per night. We set out to explore the city and find a place to watch the Spain-Switzerland match, aka the Miracle on Grass 2010--more on the match in a second. After checking out the city, which looked like a beautiful medieval Italian city transplanted from the Florentine countryside (and was a welcome contrast to Amsterdam's darker, swamplike atmosphere), we stumbled across yet another public square showing the game. At this one, maybe 200 people of all backgrounds were sitting down outside of cafes, and each cafe had rigged up a glare-proof LCD TV under an awning. You could watch from the sun or the shade, but since everyone on the trip chose to go to school in California, we naturally gravitated toward the sun. We've had the most ridiculous luck in finding venues on this trip, and it continued in Bruges--we just ordered a bunch of different Belgian beer (there are over 1200 varieties, so despite my best efforts I couldn't sample all of them in one day) and watched Spain put up one of the more pathetic performances of the Cup thus far.

Although France has found new and creative ways to not advance out of an easy group, it's hard to envision a more disappointing result for a European powerhouse. The French are used to choking (see Zidane's headbutt), but the Spanish came in ranked #1 in the world and dropped their first match to Switzerland. Sure, Spain looked dominant for most of the game, but they were very soft in the attacking third and their crosses didn't seem directed to anyone in particular. More worryingly, their attackers didn't take enough risks in front of the net--all of the dancing and pullbacks didn't produce any goals. Sometimes, as Coach Swartz says, you need dirty finishing--stuff that's not pretty but puts the ball in the back of the net. Spain didn't have that, and they suffered for it. We also kind of need the Spanish to advance because we'll be visiting Spain during the Round of 16 games, and I don't want to spend that time taking siestas and watching Messi tear it up while David Villa & Co. sit on the sidelines.

Anyway, I'm running out of internet time now so I'll make this next paragraph quick. Basically, we made it to Cologne fine this afternoon and saw the France-Mexico game. Good result--unfortunately, the reason I have time to type this e-mail is because we're stuck in a six-person room with a couple of girls who think it's OK and/or acceptable to go to sleep at 10:30 PM in a youth hostel--not cool, randos. Tomorrow promises to be a marathon since we're invested in all three matches and we're going to a giant stadium to watch them with a bunch of Germans. Stay posted.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Post USA/Amsterdam

All I can say after the U.S. match is that Robert Greene should extend his stay in South Africa indefinitely. The death threats I heard against him were made in good humor, but there was a little truth in them and if England has trouble in its next two group matches then that tone might change. The first threat came from a guy on our flight to Amsterdam, who said that Greene should probably be shot. Another woman--a sweet older lady we met in the Gatwick train station--summed everything up in typically understated British fashion: "Well, he could have done better." The British tabloids were rightfully brutal on him, and their headlines were hilarious ("God Save Our Greene," "Hand of Clod," and "Clown Keeper to be Axed" were some of my favorites. One story led by saying "It's not just BP who's having trouble plugging leaks--add England's calamity of a keeper Robert Greene to the list").

Obviously, the US benefited from Greene's mishap, but even in London people seemed to agree that we played well enough to deserve a tie. Altidore could just as easily have scored a couple of legitimate goals, and the game could have tipped the other way if not for Tim Howard's brilliance. As I mentioned, we watched the game from our hostel's bar, where the crowd was pretty pro-American. Still, we recruited an ex-middle linebacker from Kentucky named Chase to hang with us in case of any trouble. Chase was cool because he's the first person I've met from the South who's both passionate and knowledgable about soccer--Phillippe Bouchard would be a close exception, but he doesn't have Chase's thick Kentucky accent or Wikipedia-like on-call knowledge of the game. During the match, Chase would literally say things like, "Oh, that play was exactly like Henry's goal against Barcelona in the 2006 Champion's League quarterfinal," which is just impressive to me.

Anyway, I thought the US showed some streaks of brilliance, especially toward the end of the first half, when they kept England's key players from seeing the ball for long stretches of time. Now, it's a contest to see who can run up the score on Slovenia and Algeria the most (or who can avoid playing down to the level of their competition, which has historically been the US's Achilles' heel).

Meanwhile, I've been in Amsterdam, and our group is finally reunited as of yesterday, when we met up with Dan Holleb in the Gatwick airport. Amsterdam is one of the greenest cities on the planet--there's as much bike traffic as there is car traffic, and all of the public facilities and transportation is electric and very environmentally conscious. The city is built over a series of canals (think Venice), its streets are all askew and make no sense (think Boston), and the city itself has this very Las Vegas-like image of itself that seems geared toward tourists more than anything. Since the Netherlands were playing today, all of the streets were covered in orange and packed with people in Oranje garb--the fact that it's a Monday and a workday didn't seem to bother too many people. We watched the game in a bar just on the edge of a park, where there was a full-on drums and horn section camped out playing national team songs during the full 90 minutes.

The Dutch were playing Denmark, whom we assumed were their archrivals because there's only room for one small, blond, socialist country at the World Cup. After the Netherlands won the match 2-0 and looked great in doing so--Dutch football has a ton of style, it steals the best aspects of the German and Spanish game and nobody should be surprised if the Oranje sneak their way into the final rounds--everybody spilled out into the park to celebrate. The sun, the band, and the fact that the Dutch are level-headed fans who are able to share the streets with people from Denmark without causing any trouble--all of these things made this afternoon one of the best so far.

Tomorrow, we're headed to the Van Gogh museum and Rijksmuseum, which Dan guarantees are both well worth the price of admission. Photos, updates, and some more good stories are all coming soon.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pre-match sentiments/exploring London

T-minus one hour to the start of USA-England. Because of safety concerns, I'll be watching the match with Sam and Zack from the bar in our hostel, where there's a large community of American travelers and no rowdy Brits. Should be a great atmosphere, though--I wore my USA throwback jersey all day and kept running into people who also had US swag. A decent number of them are staying at the Generator (our hostel), which is apparently the biggest one in London, so by networking like this we managed to assemble a good-sized crew. As far as the match itself goes, everyone is excited. Tons of people were sporting English jerseys on the Underground, and the tabloids were proclaiming imminent victory for Gerrard, Rooney, & Co. Bookies are confident too; last time I checked the US was a 4-1 long shot to win while England was something like a 2-5 (a draw was close to even). It's also the Queen's birthday today, so there was a long series of super-patriotic ceremonies at Buckingham Palace (a 64-cannon salute, multiple airplane flybys, flags everywhere, etc.) that we kind of stumbled into while walking around the city:

Personally, I'm optimistic about the US' chances, but more than anything I'm eager to find out which American team showed up to the World Cup: the awesome Confederations' Cup squad or the God-awful, struggling-to-beat-Trinidad and Tobago-in-qualifying one.

It's been a pretty busy couple of days, so I'm just going to recap most of what we've done (maybe I'll elaborate once I come back to America and have more time to write and edit). After Zack got in, we went out to dinner and caught up over a long meal--everyone ate an entire large pizza. Everyone was pretty wiped out from travel, but we still rallied and made it to some of the local bars and the one in the hostel before we came back to crash. The next day, we did a rapid-fire walking tour of London, starting with London Bridge, the Millenium Bridge, St. Paul's, and winding up in Trafalgar Square, where they had set up a giant screen to broadcast the opening ceremonies. Along the way, we stopped at Westminster Abbey, which was a really incredible place--gorgeous architecture, tons of history, and (unfortunately) a ridiculous prohibition on photography that really frustrated me the whole time. And to answer the question I know you're thinking: no, I didn't find the key to the Holy Grail on Alexander Pope's tomb, although I did see Newton's. The best spot, though, was Poet's Corner, where half of the greatest authors in the Western world are buried next to each other.

As a quick aside, I think I should say why we were able to do all of this: the London Underground, which is by far the nicest public transportation system that I've ever been on. A day pass is just over £5, so we could just hop on a train to wherever we wanted to go. Anyway, the start of the Cup was a giant party in Trafalgar Square, and the South African expat community was out in force to celebrate. The sun popped out about halfway through the match, both teams played well, and overall the day was just perfect.

After that, we went back to the hostel to drop our stuff off before going to an icebar, which is a new experience for me and probably the most trendy thing I'll ever do. Basically, it's a gimmick where the entire bar is made of ice (sponsored by Absolut!) and you pay a fixed fee to come in and drink for 40 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time for something like that. At any rate, it was a good time and afterward we still were able to catch the tail end of the France-Uruguay match, which was actually a pretty weak showing on France's part.

Today, we continued the tour of London at Buckingham Palace and some of the parks, where we saw the ceremonies for the Queen's birthday completely by accident. We also went to the Churchill Museum (guess who wanted that one? Yeah, I'm a nerd, but Winston was a badass), which is housed in his old World War II command bunker, where he basically ran the country during the London air raids. Obviously, the museum was every bit as awesome as the man himself, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We stayed a little late (I kind of held everyone back) and missed the beginning of Argentina-Nigeria, but saw 75 minutes of the match from Westminster Arms, one of the more famous "local" bars that because of its notoriety has actually become kind of a tourist destination. Messi looked invincible even though he was denied, and Maradona looked like a drug runner--I swear, he has an uncanny resemblance to Vinny Chase in Medellin. Sam and I also tried to determine if there was any figure in American sports with Maradona's career path--international superstar, drug addict, TV host, and now controversial coach--and decided that the closest thing was a combination of Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas. These are the things we talk about.

I'll have more soon and some of the things I want to write require a little more reflection (like why Euro-pop culture and music draws on 1980s American pop-culture and music, but is still newer than current American trends), which I'll have some time for tomorrow on the flight to Amsterdam. Until then...