World Cup Dispatch: Part Six (Every Match Must Have An End)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Contributor Andrew Post is traveling in the U.K and Ireland for the next two weeks covering the World Cup and his trip for This week he’s in North East England before heading to Dublin, then on to Scotland. Minus any hooligan-related incidents, Andrew will be checking in with dispatches along the way. God help him.

By Andrew Post

Reality is harsh. Our existence on this earthly plane is, by most accounts, an impartial one. The universe cares little for the fortunes of the individual. But every so often, life rewards us with small miracles. Once in a great while the stars align, the dice roll, and the roulette wheel stops where we want it to. During such bittersweet moments as partings, these tiny miracles can make the difference between a journey taken and a journey long remembered.

The Climb To Arthur’s Seat

It was my last day in Edinburgh, and I knew it. Soon I’d be boarding the train for Newcastle, there to spend two precious last days and then depart for home. Jeff and I would go our separate ways in Scotland — he was heading to London directly. Perhaps I’d see him again, perhaps not. So we were determined to squeeze the last trap of dolce vita out of Edinburgh before we left.

Between the sagging mattress, the alcohol in my system, the snores of other sleepers, and the parched quality of my mucus membranes, I didn’t get much rest. I finally slid out of bed at 8:30 a.m. to check my e-mail. I rudely awakened our Romanian roommate as I sat down on a vacant bed to put on my boots. He looked around blearily as I apologized in a whisper. His voice was deep, and had the frog-like quality that smacked of a bender.

Jeff had spoken with him earlier, and gathered that he worked as a waiter, and had been living in Edinburgh for some time. Talking later on the front stoop of the hostel — where the Romanian was smoking a wake-up cigarette — I learned he was from Transylvania. (He pronounced the name exactly like Bela Lugosi.) The man had his elbows and arms drawn up tightly about him as he talked; he admitted that he was “alvays cold in this country, alvays.” I felt fine — it was a balmy 20 degrees Celsius or so. Back home in the fields and valleys of Romania, the man said, it would be 35 degrees Celsius, and humid.

Jeff and I checked out, stowed our bags in the storage room, and walked across town to Holyrood Park to climb to Arthur’s Seat. This peak stands at the top of an 823-foot hill which was once an active volcano. The area’s volcanism has long since died down, however, and the peak is now a lumpy table of basaltic rock, which both locals and tourists love to climb and look upon the Edinburgh landscape. Remnants of human fortifications have been found in the hill’s vicinity, leading to the belief that the mound was once used as a look-out post, but no one really knows the origin of the name or the true significance of Arthur’s Seat.

The climb was steep, but relatively easy. The humidity and relative stillness of the air covered us with sweat, and our legs, long unused to this sort of toil, ached abominably. Nonetheless we persevered, and were soon taking the air from the Seat itself, viewing a countryside much changed since the medieval days. We could see the River Forth where it flowed into the Firth (estuary); across the Firth of Forth to the north shore, to the cities of Kirkaldy, and the oil refinery whose giant flame stack glowed like a flickering lighthouse; the towns, lochs and valleys to the east and south; and the daunting mountains hovering almost out of sight in the northwest. It was a majestic sight, but we were too parched to do it justice. We’d neglected to bring any water.

This Is The End

We hurried down from the mountain and found some water. I also picked up some ice cream. The temperature was now well into the 20-degree range and quite equable. For good measure, I also bought a small sampler bottle of Highland Cream Scotch whisky from a little shop I saw down near South Bridge. After retrieving my bag from storage, I met Jeff at Ryan’s for one last pint (and a glass of whisky) before my train left at four. I had Lowlands this time, a glass of 12-year-old Glenkinchie, and found it the lightest and most delicate of any Scotch I’d yet sampled.

To make matters even more bittersweet, the Doors’ classic song “This is the End” came on the stereo as we sat and sipped. I joke you not.

We fought through melancholy, goodbyes, and mid-afternoon foot traffic to return to Waverley Station. Jeff and I said a heartfelt see-you-later to each other, and finally parted. The ride back to Newcastle was no less magical than it had been going up to Edinburgh. The sinking sun, setting so slowly (as it does in northern latitudes), broke through the scattered clouds to illuminate the fields, hedgerows, and shoreline with a glorious golden light. It reminded me of the sunshine streaming in through the enormous church window above my bunk in Belford Street.

It hit me as I sat with Adam and Elaine at their dining room table, eating a delicious meal of onion rings, breaded mushrooms, popcorn chicken, and unfrozen pizza (all purchased from Marks and Spencer): I was nearly done. My travels were almost over. In 36 hours I’d return to London, and eight hours after that, fly home.

* * *

I strolled about downtown Newcastle the next day, waiting for Adam and Elaine to get off work and meet me at the South Gosforth metro station. It was a hot afternoon. The cool breeze blowing from the North Sea did little to alleviate the sun imbuing the cobblestones and buildings with a radiant heat. Grey’s Monument was a zoo. Five streets come together here, the central hub of the metro station and the jumping-off point for a foray around the shopping and eating district.

People were everywhere: punks with tattoos and muscle shirts; Indians and Pakistanis in hoodies and sandals; harried-looking middle-aged women in power suits, wearing shoes that clicked on the concrete; and more young couples than I could count, ratty, ragged, straight-laced or clean, wandering up and down and window-shopping. I looked and looked as though I could never get enough. Sunlight slanted through the streets, casting deep shadows and lighting shop windows with a blaze of fire. All was magic and wonder, savvy modernity and ethereal antiquity. I strove to confine some shred of these marvels to memory, to carry it away with me into years and travels unguessed.

The final evening in Newcastle was a perfect cap to the hospitality and generosity I had experienced at the hands of my hosts and their friends. Adam, Elaine, and I, and our friends Jay and Nathan, all strode out to the Point, a spit of grass and dirt and cliff overlooking one of the prettiest beaches in Tynemouth. We looked to the north, where the sun was setting in its infinite majesty. It took hours to finish. We drank cider and laughed as the sun inched lower, cool breezes blew in from the sea, the shouts of young girls playing in the freezing surf echoed up the cliff side to us, and the light of the dying heavens lit the scant clouds on the horizon with brilliant hues of purple and orange. It was a quarter to twelve when the last light filtered out of the sky, and the subtle radiance which never quite leaves Newcastle’s summery night sky took over.

And as if an evening by the sea in the Land of Eternal Sunset wasn’t good enough, we feasted on Papa John’s that night. I am happy to report that PJ’s pizza tastes precisely as good in England as it does in the States.

Two Small Miracles

The next day was the deciding factor. I would leave Newcastle Central Station on the evening train, the 6:35 for London. But before that, there was the England-Slovenia game, and, playing simultaneously, the USA-Algeria match.

The fate of nations hung in the balance. The USA, after tying with England 1-1 in the first match and Slovenia 2-2, had to win this third and final game or face elimination from the first round. England was in similar straits. In its second game, they drew 0-0 against Algeria, a highly defense-oriented team. Tensions were high as both games kicked into high gear. Adam, Jay and I popped some cider and sat in the living room to see what would happen. Adam’s mother, Ann, joined us as well. Though we were watching only the England game, Adam assured me that the BBC would flash any score from the US-Algeria game up on the screen should something happen.

I could hardly bear it, for in essence, I was watching not one but two games, both of which I was personally invested in. Kicks went up and down the field. Possession bounced back and forth wildly. Near-misses and pile-driving shots abounded. England scored early, and spent the rest of the game trying to keep the Slovenians at bay while the rest of the country bit its nails to the quick. I followed suit, but all the while my eye hovered about that top left corner of the screen, where the little box would appear and tell me my team had scored.

There was nothing there.

Nothing continued to be there for the remainder of the game.

The suspense peaked tortuously in the final minutes of the games, during injury time. At every turn it seemed the Slovenians would equalize with England. And still that little box up in the corner of the screen refused to appear. The USA and Algeria were at a stalemate. It looked like we’d be going home. But I didn’t give up. Ann suggested that I give her my lucky cowboy hat to wear as a talisman. I obliged, and we watched breathlessly.

The England game ended. Jay and Adam high-fived and celebrated their team’s victory and progression into the Round of 16. I sat there, congratulatory, happy that England had won out, but my heart was tinged with sadness. The first World Cup I’d ever watched, and my team hadn’t even made it past the first round. On the screen the England players celebrated to the sound of the announcers’ jubilant comments.

And then it happened.

“News from Pretoria, the US has scored against Algeria—”

The living room exploded. Adam, Jay and I smashed together as though magnetically charged, collapsing into a screaming, bouncing bundle of ragged joy. The living room resounded with our hoarse yells, and shook with our weight as we leaped and stamped. It was a double-whammy. England won, and the US scored in the 92nd minute. The gods of football had granted us two miracles. It was a Hollywood moment, the best possible ending to a fortnight of World Cup madness, anguish and uncertainty. We’d remember it the rest of our lives.

* * *

There remains little to tell. My parting from my friends in Newcastle was hard, but not permanent. The train ride to London was less than picturesque, but far from ugly. The drink in the pub I had with Jeff and Andrea (our London friend, who helped us navigate through that city, and without whom we would both still be lost on the Underground) was short, but sweet. My flight to Chicago was long, but full of memory. Las Vegas, when I arrived, was boiling hot — but sweetly familiar.

And so ends the tale of the man who’d never been to Europe, the man who’d hardly ever watched soccer (okay, football) on the TV before, the haggis virgin, the culture warrior, the man who expected to find Irish in Ireland, who likes both Scotch and Irish whiskey, the fearless Viking sea-bather, the newly-minted cider-lover and football fan, the cowboy, the pedestrian, the blithering wanderer in a foreign but friendly land.

I’ll never miss another World Cup.


Read Part One Here

Part Two Here

Part Three Here

Part Four Here

And Part Five Here

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