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|Ich Bin Ein Weltmeister
Segments of this trip include:
Monday Morning: On The Strasse Again
(Argentina boxers courtesy of my now certainly regretful mother)
Today, for the first time, my destination is not a place, but an experience. My ticket tells me I am traveling to Berlin, but the truth is that I am going to the World Cup and everything that means.
While on the ferry over to Vancouver, I see orcas jumping and playing, which I think must be a harbinger of good things. However, my movie on the plane is 'Failure To Launch', which is a bad omen: Not only is it a dubious title for a movie being shown on an aircraft, it also happens to be the worst movie of all time. After a 14-hour stopover in London to visit friends, I am on my way to Berlin.
We land and the nice young guy I sat beside on the plan insists on helping me catch the train into the city. Despite the fact that he is from Dresden, I see absolutely no evidence that he can speak a single word of German. He can not figure out the ticket machine, takes us to the wrong platform and can not seem to explain to the station employee that he'd like his pass validated. Despite my efforts to slip away, he remains insistent he will help me out. I consider laying on the tracks to escape his benevolent clutches, but ultimately decide against it as there's some good football still to be seen.
I've been in the country 10 minutes and everything here already explodes with football. We are given soccer-ball whistles the second we step off the plane. Ads are everywhere. Literally every bar and restaurant I see has an outdoor tv on which to watch the game. Their giant TV tower, the Fernsehturm, has been decorated to look like a soccer ball. My grin spreads past the boundaries of my face.
I arrive at the apartment my friends Brad and Dale & I have rented online. It is located in a very cool and trendy area of what was once East Berlin. Dale and Brad have already been in town a week and have dubbed the apartment Camp Canada due to the fact that, contrary to its online ads, the apartment has not one lick of furniture inside it and staying there is like camping inside a building. We sleep on air mattresses. We had been promised pots and pans which never arrived, but this is ok as we didn't have any plates, bowls, forks, knives or spoons anyway.
To welcome me to the country, the guys hand me a bottle of beer. This is the start of something very bad.
Monday Evening: The Fan Mile
The entrance to Fan Mile
The three of us hop on the amazing Berlin transit system and make our way down to Fan Mile. Fan Mile is a section of Berlin located beside the Brandenburg Gate made specifically for, yes, fans, and is (wait for it!) a mile long. There are six 50-foot TV screens on which to watch the games, hundreds of food and beer stands, a ferris wheel, beach volleyball courts, sand sculptures and dozens of interactive exhibits. This is the centrepoint of the World Cup not just for Berlin but for all Germany and the World. It is incredible.
The idiom of an atmosphere being electric feels almost literal. There is a definite charge in the air that grows stronger the closer to the Fan Mile we get. A streetcar filled with dozens of Swedes stops in front of us. They all wear team colours and sing at the top of their lungs, chanting and stomping and rocking the tram. As quickly as the tram came, it disappears, but it is quickly replaced by a tram full of Portuguese supporters shouting and dancing. On a street corner, a group of Ghanaians dance and play African musical intruments. Ecuadorians are everywhere. The noise is intense and the expression on everyone's face is that of bliss.
We pass by a 30-foot high neon soccer ball and then through the Brandenburg Gate and into the Fan Mile. Inside the Mile are tens of thousands of fans. Everyone is laughing and enjoying themselves. People do the wave at dinner tables. A young German comes up to me and puts his finger on my head, indicating he would like me to perform a pirouette. I oblige and his friends release a chorus of air horn blasts in approval.
We explain to people that we are from Canada, to which we are returned anything from dubious glances to expressions of pity. Some people are kind enough to inform us that Canada did not, in fact, make the tournament. We threaten to fire our travel agent.
We watch Spain play Tunisia on one of the giant screens and over the course of the evening party with about 60 people from seven or eight different countries. Dale is chatting to a pretty German girl and I am reading through my German phrasebook when Dale provides me with perhaps the best single moment of my entire trip. He leans over to me. "How do you say, 'I am 27 years old' in German?" he asks. Dale is 34.
We find the one pub in all Berlin showing the Stanley Cup game 7, have our hearts broken, and return to Camp Canada at around 6:30 am.
Tuesday: The Fan Mile Intensifies
Fan Mile (this, times 6)
A rather late wake-up call and we head immediately back down to the Fan Mile. At 4pm Germany plays Ecuador for Group A dominance. The match is being played in Berlin and the city has shut down. We filter slowly through the gates and are greeted by 500,000 Germany supporters. Black, red and gold flags blanket the sky and chants pulsate down the length of the Mile.
We slide in amidst the swaying sea of white jerseys and roar along with the crowd as Germany takes a quick one-nil lead. The chants reach a new, deafening height. Soon it is 2-0 Germany and the party begins in earnest. People are dancing and everyone is having photos taken with their new best friends. A group of six men walk by wearing inflatable soccer ball outfits. People dressed a chickens dance past us. Everyone wears facepaints and a flag-coloured fake mohawk is de rigeur.
Afternoon carries into evening and evening carries into early morning as we talk with groups of Swedes and Brits and Germans. We drink wine from a bucket, using 2-foot long straws. It's 3am and all the cafes and bars are still packed. Wandering droves of fans pass by us in groups of a hundred, all singing. Where they come from or go to, we don't know.
Returning home, Dale & I stop in at a bakery as we are starving. We ask if they have any sandwiches to which we are returned a smile and a glance at a wristwatch that say, "It's 5am. We don't have any sandwiches at 5am." We settle for a croissant and call it a night.
Wednesday: The Days Are Long, The Nights Are Longer
A bike at Fete de la Musique
Summer Solstice. It's been around 33°C an exceptionally humid since I arrived and today is no different. Brad has managed to fall in love, so Dale and I head to some museums to cool down and get out of the heat.
Five museums are located in the city centre on Museum Island, a tiny islet circled by the Rhine. We make it to the Altes Museum and the National Art Gallery, where Dale sets off the main alarm by bumping into a wall with his ass. He also gets reprimanded for taking a photo using a laser focus and we find ourselves trailed by guards for the rest of our visit.
Three of the five museums on the island are closed for refurbishments but it turns out to be a blessing: For Summer Solstice, there is a city-wide series of concerts called Fete de la Musique happening. It is free shows in parks all over the city. We sit in the sun for a few hours and watch the crème de la crème of Berlin punk and hip hop before wandering over to the fasionable area of Hackescher Markt.
Ten hours and many conversations later, we head back home. It is 7:30am and this time the bakery does have sandwiches made. Life is good. We figure out the key to getting what anything we want in Berlin is just to stay up later. If the subway is closed, just stay up until it re-opens. No sandwiches? Stay up until lunchtime. No steak? Stay up till dinner.
Sleep is not our friend.
I am officially on board
Today is the day we manage to lock ourselves inside our apartment. More accurately, we lock ourselves inside our apartment building. For 10 minutes we try with our previously functioning key to get out the front door, but have no luck. Dale is about to pull the door out of the wall, splintering the wood and destroying the lock, when a stranger walks past our front door. He sees our predicament, pulls a key out of his pocket, opens the door from the outside, and continues walking on his way. We are so relieved to be set free that it does not instantly occur to us that this stranger had not come from inside our building, and so we don't know why his key would work on our door. We are slightly disconcerted, but mostly just grateful. It's not like our apartment has anything to steal, anyway.
I spend the morning at the Modern Art Museum and down at Checkpoint Charlie, the central location of the allied forces in old West Berlin. It is a phenomenal museum that describes the history of the Berlin Wall and of escapes made by East Berliners. Attempts included people lying inside two cut-out suitcases, others hidden underneath car hoods and one of a woman who disguised herself as the passenger seat of a car and actually drove across the border with another passenger sitting on top of her. Totally fascinating, and my three hours there were not enough.
Today I also encounter my new favourite word: fussballweltmeisterschaftspiel. 31 letters of German goodness.
Friday: Viva Ukrainisia!
Today's Action - complete
(photo coutesy Brad Santa Maria)
Today is game day. We have managed to secure tickets for today's match, Ukraine v. Tunisia, which was amazingly not the most popular ticket of the first round. It is the final match of the round and it has played out well for us in that the game's result is meaningful: the winner gets through to the next round and loser will be going home. I am curious whether the vendors have been rooting against the teams from Muslim countries due to the loss in alchohol sales at game time. The Ukrainians in town seem to be more than willing to make up for this loss, however.
I arrive at the stadium three hours early just to soak up the atmosphere. Thousands of fans are already there when I make my way to the stadium. People adorn phenomenal and overwhelmingly ridiculous costumes. Chants can be heard from a half kilometre away. There is a low rumble of shouting and songs and pleasant teasing that grows higher-pitched and louder the closer I get to the Olympiastadion gates.
I am excited and nervous as I walk down the gangway inside the stadium and am greeted by chants from the sold out crown of 72,000. Thousands of Tunisians dressed in red and white line one end of the stadium, thousands of Ukranians in their native yellow & blue line the other. When asked who we would support for the game, we tell people that we will bring face paints for both teams, see who had the hotter fans, and dress ourselves accordingly.
The game itself is a bit of a snoozer with the Ukraine winning 1-0. Tunisia has a man sent off after 40 minutes and never pose a serious threat to score. Chances are low and the attack from both teams is lacklustre. It is still the best football game I have ever seen.
Watching the Ukrainian fans go completely bezerk after their team's goal or seeing 72,000 fans doing the wave - and not just one, but three concurrent waves - is a breathtaking experience. Feeling the stadium rumble beneath us as the wave gets closer and closer, or listening to 10,000 fans shout competing chants back and forth at each other throughout the stadium; these are the things I dreamt I would experience, and now I was experiencing them. I can already feel the pull towards South Africa 2010 and this game wasn't even over yet.
The game ends and the stadium clears out easily and peacefully. We have been constantly impressed by how smoothly everything goes with crowds here, even when the numbers run up to over half a million people. We have seen no fights, not even any shoving, which in North America would seem at an outside shot, unlikely.
We bask in the stadium for a while before heading into town for dinner, and where we meet other Canadians for the first time. Dale and I hit a very cool Berlin nightclub. As with everywhere we've gone in Berlin, we are the least fashionable people there, but we make up for it with our world famous Canadian dance moves. I sustain a minor sprain.
Saturday: The Million Man Mile
My friend Mark is now in town as well. After I go sightseeing some of Berlin's incredibly cool mix of Eastern Bloc and ultra-modern architecture, Mark and I have a plan of meeting up at the 30-foot high soccer ball to watch Germany play Sweden in the round of 16. We do not meet, as there are two flaws in our plan:
Germany again provides a convincing victory and tens of thousands of flags are waved. Interestingly, we have been told many times that this is the first time anyone can remember people waving flags in Germany. Since World War II, nationalism has been frowned upon and people would never really wave their flag and certainly would not drive around with flags on their cars. Now it seems every car has one, or two, or six.
Mark, Dale, Brad & I meet up after the game and I get to watch my Pumas of Argentina defeat Mexico 2-1 on what will be the goal of the tournament. I celebrate with my fellow Argentine fans by dropping my shorts and revealing my Argentina boxers that I received from my Argentine mom (who is, at this moment, probably regretting her gift selection).
We stay out late with a group of nine Germans and, for the 5th time in 6 nights, get home after 4:30am.
Sunday: The Beginning of the End
You know what they say about guys with big soccer boots
We are all feeling distinctly sub-par. It seems our plan of staying awake until 6am every day in order to avoid jetlag has a snag in it. We spend the day shopping and falling asleep at various cafes.
For people who have the stereotyped insecurity, "Do I look fat in these pants?", I seriously recommend never shopping in Berlin. I fit into nothing. My beefy Canadian thighs continually act as a blockade and I can never seem to get pants up to my waist; even the Comfort Fit feels like it has been made for anorexics. This is not a surprise, but the shopping does reinforce us as a continent of ginormous fatties.
We fall alseep early and Dale and I hop on the train to Munich where we catch our flight back home. I know I'll want to be back in Berlin the second we touch down, but at the moment, all I want is a shower and my bed. We board the plane and the in-flight movie is, once again, "Failure to Launch". Home can't come soon enough.