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.

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