Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Futbal like it oughta be

As many of you know, over the last few years I have taken to exhausting large portions of my vacation days with one 2-3-week-long bonanza outside of the country each summer. This was sparked by a trip to Israel way back in the salad days of 2010, followed by a five-nation tour of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria in 2011, my Scandinavian adventure in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Norway and the Netherlands (again) in 2012 and a wild and crazy trip last summer to Kenya, Tanzania and, unexpectedly, the Netherlands last summer.

Unsurprisingly, these trips have created many memories. Each trip usually has one or two that aren't so great, like when my flight to Amsterdam in 2011 turned around midway through because it was leaking hydraulic fluid. Or when my passport got stolen in Norway. Or when I somehow found myself in a boat in the middle of the Indian ocean at night getting extorted. Or when the airport in Nairobi -- and I don't think I can say this enough times -- burned down before I was supposed to leave.

But among all the crazy, wild memories I have had in my foreign travels, one of the most memorable was, unsurprisingly, a sporting event. In 2011, The FIFA Women's World Cup was being held in Germany, where I was conveniently in the midst of traveling. I briefly toyed with the idea of attending the final if the U.S. made it, which it did, and certainly would have were the game being played in Berlin, where I was scheduled to be at the time. Unfortunately, the Berlin Olympiastadion was undergoing renovations at the time and the game was to be played in Frankfurt instead.

Still, even if I wasn't going to be attending, with the U.S. in the final I needed to find a place to watch, and my friends Kristen, Luisa and Mike and I happened upon the bar in a hostel in Mitte called Belushi's. The place was supposedly American-themed and there were many fellow traveling countrymen sitting in the bar and watching the game on various big screens. All we were doing was watching a sporting event we could have watched on TV at home, but the atmosphere and the experience were something altogether different.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mama said knock you out

I have no real problem with Belgium. I've been to the country twice and found it to be more or less pretty pleasant. Granted, my experiences are quite mixed as I've been to Antwerp, which is a delightful city with some tremendous museums, and Brussels, which might be the most uninteresting place I have ever been. And I've been to Elkhart, Indiana more than once. I do hope to make it to Bruges one day even if the crux of one of my favorite films, In Bruges, is that the city is unbelievably dull, and I once visited friends in Aachen, Germany, which is almost sort of near Liege.

In short, Belgium is fine. They make good chocolate and taught us to make waffles in large circles. I generally have little reason to dislike the place even if it can't decide if it wants to be one country or two.

Or, at least I had little reason to dislike the place.

This afternoon will change all of that, as the United States faces Belgium in the Round of 16 at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Salvador, Brazil. Getting this far was no small feat, as the Yanks barely hung on in a hard-fought loss against Germany to emerge from the Group of Death this past Thursday. Now that the United States has managed to exceed most people's expectations, however, the real work begins.

There are almost no places in sports where you can find the same kind of tension and drama that you will find in the knockout stages of the World Cup, particularly if it ends up going so far as "the dreaded penalty shootout", which has happened twice already in the current tournament. Should the U.S. and Belgium be forced to penalty kicks, I might tear a few hairs out and swear off chocolate-covered waffles forever, but there would have to be 120 minutes of stalemate to come before that happens.