Published: July 9th 2006June 15th 2006
A curious fixture next to the airstrip in Harrisburg, PA
I never thought I would arrive. I left the house in North Carolina later than expected because of the absorbing Spain-Ukraine match. Then, my mother momentarily couldn't find her cell phone, almost causing further delay. Then, the first leg of the flight was rerouted from Newark to lonely Harrisburg, Pennsylvania because of traffic and necessary refueling. Worse of all, this delay caused me to miss the Germany-Poland match-up I had hoped to catch during the lay-over.
With a brisk pace in my step, I was able to pass through the hurdles of airline travel in time for the Trans-Atlantic: catching the tram to the next terminal, finding the BA desk to get a boarding card that Continental couldn't print out in the first place, and returning through the circus of the security check-point. Perhaps as some vedic consolation for my woes, I was upgraded to, let's say, middle-class on this British Airways flight. This meant a comfy seat, two airplane bottles of wine - no $5 charge like on American carriers - and a World- Cup savvy German companion to sit next to. Highlights of a few of the games were broadcast on the armchair screens, further inciting meticulous conversation about
What's the deal with that statue back there?
each team, how the main players are performing, upcoming exciting match-ups and general prognosis for the Cup. This German didn't seem to think much of his nation's chances. I would find out that most Germans felt the same way, perhaps as a national display of modesty, but in actuality a secret confidence.
I arrived with barely an hour of rest and exited the plane onto the tarmac. As usual, the Heathrow shuttle bus swallowed us up and spun us around the roundabouts and avenues bordering the airstrip where the maintenance vehicles thrive. Being tossed around in a bus in the airport's underbelly is not your typical airport greeting. So Heathrow. I began to regret the wine and lack of sleep.
I expected a normal passport check and everything went as expected until the African woman asked with a charming British accent, "So where are you spending the night, then?"
"Well, Luton airport, since my flight is so early."
"Awlrwight, and where will you be flying to?"
She paused and looked at her screen. "Ah, hah. Are you going for the World Cup?"
Some siren had gone off, I knew it. The inflection in her voice.
Sophie was here...
I've got a ticket to a match."
"Ah, haaah!" This sounded like the happiest moment of her daily shift.
There was a long pause during which I finally realized what was going on. Young guy, shaved head, goatee... I was being suspected of being a potential hooligan.
In my morning stupor I had answered all the questions wrong.
"So tell me, Mr Anderson, you're a teacher back home?"
She grilled me with several questions concerning my profession, the answers to which weren't entirely true, nor really false. I only had to present the true image of myself: that I was not a hooligan.
She seemed convinced by my line of responses and let me pass, although she likely added many remarks to my file.
6/15 9:11 at a Cafe Pret
The London morning feels like a massive hangover. It's not just me. No one talks through the marmoreal faces on the Tube. They’ve all eaten somewhere else and are either absorbed in the Metro tabloid or some harlequin romance mystery thriller. In fact the only people talking are the Americans, fresh off their Trans-Altantic, still spouting out yesterday’s news. They announce it to the whole train until they run
Will They Ever Score?
This was well into the second half, just before England scored.
out of things to say. Then the train hits the heart of the Tube, around Hammersmith, where the throngs clog the aisles, minding the gap as they escape through the cold, dank tunnels into the London sky.
Today, a glimmer of dawnlight hints at a London rarity: a sunny day. I bask in the novelty of it for a few minutes on Trafalgar Square. It’s no longer a tourist site to me, but still an absorbing nexus of humanity.
The morning commute is underway. Everyone is looking smart, as the expression goes. The ladies beckon with their ample profiles, snug attire and pouting strut. Just enough make-up to give the impression of tan, the difference visible at the neckline. The men sport a shaven head, as if aerodynamic, or a gelled coiffe, so as to look perpetually wet. Oddly enough, no one is smoking.
One can hardly tell that England is to play this evening at 17:00 against Trinidad and Tobago. There’s no sign of paraphernalia this early in the morning. Every now and again, signs appear: a soccer ball on an awning, a kit (US: jersey) worn by a bulky thug, an advert on a passing bus. It’s as if at 17:00 every man in a business suit will strip off his coat to reveal an England kit, à la Superman.
The match-up is dangerous: England coming off of a lacklustre performance against Paraguay, and Trinidad faring surprising well against the Swedes in the scoreless draw. It’s great fodder for an upset, although I don’t want to be anywhere near a pub full of pint glasses when it happens.
As for now, I’ve found a swanky chrome café just off the the Trafalgar confluence called Pret. There’s one on every corner. A legit single latte is 1.69, nearly the same back home. It’s a prime spot to ogle the passers-by caught up in the quotidien. The styles, the ipods, the bobbies, the periodic backpacker, the leather satchels, the bicycles, the Dubai cabs, the Lebanese baristas, the skirts, the trainers, the adverts for Mauritius, the new fragrance, oh and the cellphones, who can forget those?
I decide to ditch my backpack at the National Gallery cloakroom. It and the museum are free, so no one will mind if I walk around London while my bag stays behind. I walk through a few of the halls in the National Gallery, scanning for eye-catching paintings. I had been here before, some eight years ago. I could not remember any particular paintings besides the Impressionist collection on the upper floor and to the right. That’s where the masses usually go. Today, a school group of children sit on the floor with their drawing pads, some sketching Van Gogh’s chair or the figures in the large Seurat. A few have on their England attire, unable to sit still in anticipation of this afternoon’s match. I walk around other parts of the gallery, wings that I did not probably see the last time. I look in vain for a Hieronymous Bosch. When I ask the guards, they keep directing me to a Botticelli. I discover that there is a version of DaVinci’s Madonna of the Rocks, although not the one in The DaVinci Code.
Speaking of which, I could not resist seeing the Temple Church. Dan Brown had made it seem magical, a priceless relic from the Middle Ages that survived the Great Fire. Now that my bags were locked away, I could walk down The Strand and back in a half an hour. The walk down took much longer than anticipated. It seems to be a London backroad. It doesn’t have the opulance or width the of Champ-Elysees, but it’s just as busy.
Once you find the Temple Church, tucked down an alley (that looks like the one where the cardinal gets shot), you discover that it is actually a medieval rarity tucked out of sight from the rest of London. Only, it's been discovered now by the numerous tour groups under the Da Vinci Code theme. Walking around, you hear whispered echos of "Sophie" and "Langdon" reverberating through the edifice. It's reminiscent of the scenes in the film, although I was half asleep and can't recall them that well.
As the day grew on, the red St George's Cross on its white banner began appearing more and more often on passing vehicles, on clothing and even on faces. I met up with a friend and made it over to a backalley pub for the game. We thought it would be relatively empty. Wrong. The standing-room only floor was packed to the gills with business-types having just gotten off early for the match. Trinidad and Tobago provided a competitive first-half, keeping the score at 0-0. The mood is tense in the pub. The expectations are extremely high in this football nation and the patience is low. Finally, Peter Crouch breaks through with a header in the 83rd minute. The place erupts in cheers and spilled beer. Relief spreads through the establishment. The mood is still light when Steven Gerrard buries one in the corner of the net in the 90th to finish off the game.
After a few more rounds in celebration, I catch a midnight bus to the suburb of Luton. The airport terminal is lit and I discover several dozen other passengers spending the night. The few seats are occupied. Most are curled up on the hard cold floor or wrapped up in a sleeping bag. Some couples are just lying on each other in contorted positions. Screens overhead flash a minute long cartoon depicting a posh woman going through the airport hurdles and enjoying the amenities of the new lounge: sipping on a latte, buying a toothbrush, splurging on a brand-new purfume, enjoying a man's leering eye. It becomes a mesmerizing clock of sorts, sucking in your attention so that it is impossible to sleep. I turn over on the hard floor, lose track of the hours and drift off temporarily.