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Saturday June 08, 2002, 02:45

There is a very American take on the whole notion of the World Cup that every American living abroad has to come to terms with at some point during the tournament and that is that it simply does not make any sense at all. The rules of the game are not particularly difficult to understand (or if they are, then they seem merely incidental to the whole football phenomenon) but it is the culture surrounding the sport that leaves us scratching our heads in bewilderment.

Sitting in the flat just around noon I began to realize that I'd been hearing repeated cheers coming from the corner pub. Realizing then that we were in the middle of the England-Argentina match, I gathered the shouts and cries to be goals made, goals blocked or any other particularly exciting act during the course of the game. When finally I decided that I really couldn't be in London and not partake in the activity that is standing out in the rain and watching the match from outside the pub window, I put on my shoes and coat and headed outside. What I found there was a game tied nil-nil with the shouts and cheers coming from... the ball heading down the field and bouncing out of bounds? Could this really be the excitement that everyone was talking about.

To be sure, there is more to the game than simply numbers, and I've often found American basketball with the average game scoring in the hundreds to be equally bizarre, but still, this is the tournament that shuts down the entire city for its duration. I wonder if I'll ever be able to understand. It doesn't help matters much that my idea of a good time has not yet, to this point, involved heading down to the pub for a pint (mostly because an entire pint might actually kill me)1 and I suppose it's no surprise that I don't watch sporting events back in the States, but come on now, it's just bizarre. Though to be sure it can get rather exciting watching the ball fly through the air only to miss the goal, the goalie relieved and the shooter devastated.

England won, incidentally, with a final score of one-nil against Argentina. This was quite an impressive feat for them (apparently) and the rest of the day was filled with chants and the honking of horns, cries of "Ennnnnnnglllllaaaannnnnd" and "one-nil-one-nil" filling the streets. This evening, realizing that I had spent too much of the day passively experiencing the joy bubbling over in the city and also realizing that the extent of my interactions with any other human beings had been my paying for a package of envelopes and a zesty tofu sandwich, I ventured out into the city, which turned out to be pretty much the same as it is any Friday evening but for the abundance of people wearing English flag as skirts.

One of the bars in the neighborhood had not been showing the World Cup games but always seems to have a nice crowd anyway (which I suppose is fairly moot given that I was heading out long after the games had ended for the day) and so I swung by there, not intending really to stay and not intending to actually have any meaningful conversations with any new people but instead hoping for at least some movement that would lead me to believe that not everyone in this city was wrapped up in little balls and big goals. Approaching the bar I spotted and was simultaneously spotted by one of the guys that works at said bar, loitering at the edge of the crowd. A Bulgarian, I learned, it was his job to make sure that the crowd didn't get too unruly and disturb the patrons at the other establishments on this particular row. I also learned that he moved to London with some friends to make their music and that a five-track demo tape later, they still have had no additional success breaking into the London scene. Everyone has a story, everyone has a dream. His dreams didn't seem to include wiping tables for the rest of his life, but he also didn't seem to have the drive that musicians should have to make it anywhere, let alone in a city like London. Demo tape indeed, but it was nice to be recognized, to actually have established myself as "from the neighborhood" and having been "here for two months already" as he astutely pointed out when I noted that I was wandering the streets of London, alone and relatively friendless, on a Friday night.

Wandering and meandering, I still found myself walking at what I consider to be a healthy New York clip and what other people might consider to be "far too fast for any one person to walk. ever." and forced, actively stopped and started up again slower, when I realized that my leisurely stroll might be over before I knew it if I kept up that pace. Which is how I ended up in a large square with a lot of movie theatres, a lot of drunk people, and the perfect mix of crazies to quell my desire to ever see any more people ever again. The flag-as-skirt ensemble was again out in force along with the flag-as-cape and of course the standard-issue clothing emblazoned with that same flag, often with the accompanying flag-as-blank.

I really do not understand how people can get as drunk as they do and still maintain what appears to be balance. Literal balance I'm talking about here, not necessarily spiritual balance, though that's a particular mystery as well. The fact of the matter is that I saw more than one person spin around and fall into the side of a building while keeping his beer upright, heaven forbid he should lose a drop anywhere in the process. Watching a fire-spinner, I was approached by a big drunk homeless man holding a beer and a cigarette, with snot running down his now and drool all over his face. I successfully ignored him until he put his hand on my shoulder at which point I told him to back off before walking away to encounter the preacher man on the step-ladder denouncing all the sinners. I walked past and stood again, watching as girls in backless shirts and pleather pants shimmied by and men sang and supported each other as they staggered to another pub before last call. It was a little before 11pm.

Looking back at the crowd, I noticed that the man on the step ladder was gone, replaced by a group of about a dozen people milling about in brightly colored jacks. The Jesus freak had been replaced with the Jesus army it seemed, and I chuckled to myself until I looked closer and in fact realized that they really had been replaced with the Jesus Army. Bored and still in need of some sort of contact (the drunk drooling man had not done it for me) I waited for one of them to approach me. Kurt did the honors and soon I was talking with him about being born-again and accepting Jesus Christ as my savior and God as my father. "I'd like to pray with you now," he said, and I punched him in the face.

Well, no. I just told him that I wasn't going to pray with him2, and I wasn't going to visit his commune.

Incidentally, I hit a bird over the weekend near Looe, on the South Cornwall coast. It was standing in the middle of the road and though I slowed down a bit to give it the chance to fly away, it hit the grill of the car before bouncing off the windshield and landing in the opposite lane of traffic. Is that a sin? I sort of feel bad about it, but I also think it was kind of funny.

Then we went to see monkeys.

Reference:
Plant (of zesty tofu fame)
Jesus Army
Jesus Army Watch
Monkeys



1. The thing about pubs is that I really have not been able to just walk into a pub and talk to people. I don't think that's what people do. To be sure, sometimes you find the group of people that is particularly friendly and welcoming, but at least in this neighborhood, where everyone spends their lunch break and beyond at the pub, it seems more of a place that you go with colleagues, not neighbors, and as such it is not anywhere that I particularly belong, having no colleagues in this country at the moment.

2. I went into a long explanation about how if I was going to pray with him that I would have to believe that I was actually going to be praying to God and that if in fact I felt that way then I would also probably view praying as a more personal experience and one that I was not going to be sharing with him and as it stood, I would really just have been standing there watching him pray and thinking "look, there's a guy praying." He seemed to accept this argument. He also told me that some people find God while tripping on acid.

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