Monday, July 10, 2006

My time in Kaiserslautern and other thoughts of the World Cup

If you'll remember, Mrs. Expat Teacher and I went to Kaiserslautern, Germany to watch the USA soccer team play the eventual champions, Italy to a 1-1 draw. I've been meaning to blog about this for a while, but life, The Move and everything got in the way. With the conclusion of the World Cup yesterday, it is now or never.

In a word, It was awesome! Germany isn't one of my favorite countries in Europe, but I was so overwhelmed with the efficiency, hospitality and wonderful party that I might have to reconsider.

We arrived at the Frankfurt airport on Saturday morning and boarded a train for Kaiserslautern. The airport was full of people from all over the world sporting colors of their favorite teams. The Brazilians walked past signing. The Italians were on their phones gesturing wildly. The Polish were laughing and giggling while waiting for their train. And wonderfully, the Americans in all red, white and blue, were smiling and discussing our chances of making it out of the Group stage after our horrible defeat to the Czech Republic.

The train ride was typically German. Completely on-time, completely clean and completely packed! After a speedy change at Mannheim, we got off out Weidenthal, our little town, to check into the hotel. It was a wide spot in the road and had only one hotel. Kaiserslautern had 150,000 visitors that weekend, but only 3,000 hotel rooms. Therefore, we stayed 20 minutes away in Weidenthal. The most exciting thing about staying there was that we had to pass through Frankenstein to get to Kaiserslautern.

After dropping our bags and eating a quick lunch, we headed to Kaiserslautern to catch the Ghana-Czech Republic game. Once we got off the train, the atmosphere was amazing! Thousands of people streaming out of the station heading toward the city center or the stadium. Ticket touts wanting to buy or sell tickets. Italians marching under homemade banners while chanting about the superiority of Italy. Americans with faces painted in red, white and blue talking loudly and drinking beer.

After braving the "The World Cup Mile" into the city center, we settled into the FanPlatz. We grabbed a space on the bricks and laid out our blue blanket. The Ghana-Czech game was on the HUGE big screen television and thousands of Italian and Americans were watching with great interest. Ghana scored 2 minutes into the game and if they could hold on, the Group would be wide open. The sun was blazing down on us, but that didn't stop the tension from rising as the minutes climbed.

When the final whistle blew and Ghana took the 3 points, everyone was cheering. Now we had about 90 minutes until the kickoff of the USA-Italy game. An emcee came on the stage and tried to get a little nationalistic clash going but us Americans were outnumbered 5 or 6 to 1. Any chanting, screaming or yelling was just too lopsided. They had some people sing karoake and dance to help us pass the time.

Finally, the game started. The FanPlatz was filled to capacity with 30,000 or more people. 25,000 Italians sang their national anthem. 5,000 Americans responded in kind. The game ebbed and flowed with Italy scoring first and then America responding. We chanted U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! every ten minutes only to be overpowered with I-tal-ya. When America scored again, Mrs. Expat Teacher and I went crazy. I leapt 10 feet into the air. Mrs. Expat Teacher hugged me. We high-fived all our new American friends. I talked trash in Italian to the surrounding Italians. I almost cried when the I realized the referee (rightfully) called offsides on Brian McBride. The game ended in a 1-1 tie. It was probably the 2nd best game the USA has ever played. Mrs. Expat Teacher and I were elated.

Even though it was almost midnite, the night was young. Italians and Americans congratulated one another on a game well played (even though it finished with 3 men sent off). The stage lit up 1990s rocker style and out came Bongiovio (pron- Bon Jovi-oh). An Italian cover band of Bon Jovi that spoke perfect New Jersey English and Roman Italian.

Although I am a Bon Jovi fan, we decided to head for the train station because we didn't want to miss the last train to Weidenthal. That was an adventure. The streets were jammed. I was in the biggest conga line of my life. There was no music, we were just stacked one next to the other. Considering the situation, everyone was rather courteous and helpful. The problem was that Kaiserslautern just wasn't designed to hold this kind of after party. Eventually it all calmed down and we made our way to the train station and back to the hotel.

Our Sunday was more subdued, but still revolved around football. We went back to Frankfurt to watch some of the Sunday games at the FanPlatz there too. It was fun, but not the same as rooting for the good ol' U S of A.

Reflecting back on the weekend now, I realize that I have one grudge against President Bush. Most of the stuff he does doesn't effect me on a daily basis, but I realized that because of President Bush's actions I've been embarrassed to wave the flag and proclaim my love for my country. It brings too much shame, accusations and awkwardness from neighbors, relatives and colleagues. Somehow President Bush stole my joy. The World Cup freed me to wave the flag and sing the Star Spangled Banner without worry or concern. The World Cup returned my joy.

Mrs. Expat Teacher had a road to Damascus experience in Kaiserslautern. She went into the weekend knowing very little about soccer and caring even less. She came out a complete fanatic. She watched Ukraine play Saudi Arabia one night in our apartment all by herself. She took the time to comprehend the offsides rule. She explained extra-time and penalty shoot-outs to colleagues and parents. Mrs. Expat Teacher and I have even hatched the "Joburg 2010" plan to see a US game in South Africa in 2010.

I wasn't the only one who had a wonderful time in Germany. Mary-Elizabeth Madden, Assistant Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London, talked about her experience being at the World Cup to watch the U.S. vs. the Czech Republic. Or here is her 6 minute MP3 podcast. Her passion alone makes it worth your time to listen.

If you are interested, take a look at my Flickr set of photos from Kaiserslautern.

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