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.

The game did not go as we had hoped despite the U.S. thoroughly outplaying the Japanese for most of the night, but it was still an interesting experiencing to see the world's game through something of a different lens, even if we were surrounded by Americans.

I bring this up because this year's trip is some 40 hours away. At 10:05 p.m. Wednesday night I will take off from JFK to Madrid for 20 days of traveling throughout Spain, Portugal and Morocco. It's one of my less organized trips to date, though I do hold out hope that it will have conspicuously fewer airport fires, and it will have no shortage of sports-related events that warrant mention here. Though I will not be visiting the Festival of San Fermin and running with the bulls in Pamplona (I did consider it), I will be taking tours at famed football cathedrals like Estadio Santiago Bernabeu and Camp Nou. I am contemplating a day trip when I am in Porto to see Estadio Municipal de Braga, though I will likely not be able to even though it is perhaps the most fascinating building to me in the world. I will also try to learn about the Spanish tradition of Bullfighting, a sport I find both curious and disturbing, which has venues that appear to be quite beautiful.

But of all the sports-centric events, the one the I am most looking forward to -- and the one that makes me think about that night in Berlin -- is this Sunday night when either Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands or Argentina will become champions in the final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The next day, July 14, is my birthday, a date I usually prefer to be in the States for, but the opportunity to watch this year's final in Europe, where the dedication is irrational and borders on sycophantic, was one I could not turn down.

Initially, my thoughts were that I might get to see the Spaniards go into a tizzy Sunday night in Madrid as they watched their national side put on the capstone to arguably the greatest run any national team has ever had in major international soccer, winning the 2008 Euros, the 2010 World Cup, the 2012 Euros and the World Cup one more time in 2014. These plans were, uh, spoiled, and I'm almost as disappointed about that as I am about the U.S.'s frustrating ouster against Belgium last week, but being in Europe to watch the event should still be an unusual -- and above all, exciting -- start to the trip. Depending on who wins the semifinal matches on Tuesday and Wednesday I may try to locate a bar populated by German or Dutch ex-pats, but in all likelihood I will find some open plaza projecting the matches on the big screen so I can watch the crowd "Oh!" and "Ah!" in unison.

There is the chance I'm building this up, but I doubt it. There are plenty of other things in Spain, Portugal and Morocco I will see that have nothing to do with sports. I will check out old mosques and aqueducts. I will get lost in ancient medinas and visit oceanside palaces. There are the museums, food, modern architecture, food, scenic vistas and did I mention the food?

I have plenty to look forward to in the next three weeks. There will be plenty of memories, though I hope all airports stay flame retardant and my passport is untouched. But of everything I have on tap, watching the culmination of the biggest event in the world's biggest sport in the place that does it best is probably at the top. And if you think that's silly, you may not know me that well. You probably don't even know that I like going on vacation.

Be good, America. I'll see you soon.

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