Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Weltmeister Schaft to Remember

(Someone please correct my misspelled German words)

The dream ended too quickly. After many great spiels (matches) featuring many great mannschafts (teams) and many brosts (cheers) over delicious Bavarian biers, my time at the Weltmeister Shaft (World Cup) 2006 in Deuschland is now over. I already extended my trip by a week and while I would have loved to stay until the finals, but responsibility beckoned. I was supposed to be back in the real world already, but I just didn’t think I had seen enough great live football. I watched only the pitiful US-Czech match and a dismal Iran-Angola match, so I extended my trip by a week. So just 10 hours before my flight, I decided to go watch Brasil take on Ghana. To survive the coming 4 year impasse, I needed to exit the tournament on a high. For those of you familiar with my 7-step method of getting into sold out sporting events, this was perhaps my most difficult challenge ever. There were two perimeters and inflexible German security guards to get past, which made things very complicated, but the 7-step method has never failed me.

I was in Europe a total of 3 weeks. Most of my time was spent in Germany although I did leave the country on two occasions. First I visited the Greenstein Mind and Body Spa in Den Haag, Holland for a couple days of R and R. Then I was treated to a lovely tour of the sunny-side of Brussels where I learned of the world’s shortest, but most effective fireman, Mannequin Pis. But it was hard for me to stay out of Germany, the epicenter of global motion for a month in 2006.

During the moments that I was not thinking about or watching football, I was observing the efficiency of German society. The only discernible difference between East and West Berlin today are the electronic crossing signals. In West Berlin, they are normal, run of the mill stick figures. But in East Berlin, they have a chubby physique, wear Soviet-style hats, and on the green signal turn to the side and appear to be in middle of a long gait. But the point of this story is that in all of Germany, and I hear especially in Bavaria, these signals are sacrosanct. I never once saw a jaywalker. Even when the coast was clear for miles in the middle of the night in East Berlin, I saw people waiting for the green fat guy to escort them along.

When Germany won their World Cup match against Sweden, the party went on all night, but the next day I walked through Berlin all day and didn’t see one impromptu celebration or any hint that Germany might have won a World Cup match the day before. It was as if the time for celebration was over, and it was time to return to the regularly scheduled program. I found the Germans generally to be very stiff and melancholic in their facades, but once you poke through the exterior you get an appreciation of their depth. They are philosophic in their thinking, intelligent, and refreshingly idealistic.

Out of the 50 sum odd trains, subways, and buses I rode in Germany, every single one departed and arrived exactly on time. And I mean exactly on time. One time I was delayed by exactly 23 minutes on a train and I was expecting a lot of pissed off people who would be late to their destinations. But in an uncanny and unpredictable turn of events, the delay actually put everyone is a great mood. I really was amazed by change in the atmosphere in the train. When the conductor announced jovially that there would be a delay, the announcement cut through the social anxiety like a knife though hot butter. The Germans began talking to perfect strangers, laughing about things I couldn’t discern, while others smiled at their misfortune. It was as if the people were suddenly liberated from the timetable of life, which I know from Shabbat, feels really nice. The old woman next to me suddenly seemed approachable as she turned from stoic to giddy. I asked her why she was so happy and she said, “I don’t know. Now I am very late for my doctor’s appointment.” Ha!

There are so many wonderful things about this German efficiency, especially with respect to the environment. In my three weeks here, I didn’t once use a private vehicle, only public transport, which is brilliantly organized and runs 24 hours a day. You never see just one garbage can in Germany. It is always a set of 4 garbage cans, 1 for plastic, 1 for glass, 1 for paper, and 1 for general waste. Also, many bottles are returnable for a not-so-miniscule reward of 50 cents (Euro). Outside of every match or in the specially designated fan areas, I would watch as the poor people of the city would stalk the surrounds looking for plastic and glass bottles to pick up and to return to the stores for their reward. Creating an economic incentive to recycle is the ultimate in efficiency, and I really got a kick out of watching these bottles getting picked up off the floor by needy citizens. They would carry large heavy-duty trash bags, filling them up within minutes. I bet they made a killing after an England match. Speaking of boozing, every time I went to a bar and returned my empty bottle of beer, I would get 50 cents off my next one. Considering the amount of beer consumed in this World Cup, this simple step probably saved an enormous amount of waste. Concern for the environment seems to be on everyone’s conscious mind in Germany, which made me feel good. Riding on a subway in Berlin, I read a quote that really stuck with me. It said, “Man needs nature to survive. Nature doesn’t need man to survive.” How true.

This was probably the best-organized World Cup ever, and South Africa will have its work cut out for her in 2010. Berlin built a beautiful new “hauptbanhof” or central station in time for the tournament. There were city volunteers scattered thoughout the host cities, and I swear they always freakin’ appeared at exactly the right moment. One day I was walking around Leipzig looking for the stadium when suddenly, a red-shirted city volunteer appeared out of nowhere. She was uber-helpful and gave me more maps than I knew what to do with. I needed to go to the toilet before the match so she directed me to the nearest city toilet. This was also an experience. You pay 1 Euro and this dome-shaped structure absorbs you through automatic sliding steel doors. I felt like I was going into a ride at Disney World, but the thing didn’t lift off like a space ship as expected. As I entered the lights went on automatically. Fortunately for me, it was a number one, and I was out rather quickly, because I read afterwards that the doors open automatically after 20 minutes and then, here’s the best part, the toilet cleans itself. Gotta love German efficiency!

I could not leave Berlin before visiting the Jewish Museum. I went there on my last Friday in Germany. It was fascinating and touching in so many ways. The building is the work of architect Daniel Libeskind. While walking through its very linear corridors, I felt very trapped and uncomfortable. I’d never before appreciated how the shape of a building can affect your psychological state. I spent 4 hours learning about the rich and tragic history of German Jews. There was also a special exhibit on Sigmund Freud, which I enjoyed. But my most powerful experience in the museum was entering into the Holocaust Tower. It is an awkwardly shaped pentagonal room, about 30 feet below street level. There is an attendant outside the room, who opened the heavy steel door and then closed it behind me. I entered the room alone. Inside, I heard the muffled sounds of the street above but I got the feeling they wouldn’t hear me, even if I screamed. The room is pitch black except for a small opening where a shaft of light enters the room and beams to the floor. I stayed in the center of the room where I suddenly became drained of energy and needed to sit on the floor. Finally, I regained enough strength to walk towards the single beam of light. I basked in the light for a minute and felt invigorated. I knocked on the door, indicating to the attendant that I was ready to leave the room. She let me out and I smiled at her. That night I went to Shabbat services and dinner in Berlin with the thriving Jewish community here. The dinner felt like a meaningful way to end the trip.

Berlin is an energetic, dynamic, and interesting city which I hope to revisit when the world cup is not happening so that I can I can see and do more things. I only had time for one other museum while in Berlin, the film museum, which I highly recommend for filmmakers and film buffs. Despite the many liters of Weizen and Pilseners I consumed, this was a truly unforgettable trip. Since I have been lucky enough to know a handful of locals in Berlin, I was treated to a side of the city that not many tourists get to see. Believe it or not, I even played beach volleyball one day in Berlin! Many thanks to Isi, Michael, Kristin, and the Soccer Elvii for showing me an awesome time and I look forward to seeing you all again soon. Also, I would like to invite you to South Africa in 2010. It will be a homecoming of sorts for me and yes I have begun counting down the days.

Elated after watching Brazil defeat Ghana in Dortmund

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