"You're an American."
There's a little something that I used to explain to Sinatra about New York, which is that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. What I meant to convey was that New York City is something of a major transportation hub. If you can get yourself there, you can hop on a plane which will take you anywhere else on the globe. The same couldn't be said of, say, Antigua, Guatemala, or Christchurch, New Zealand. Of course, Frank, being a little low on the uptake, failed to pick up on what I was putting down.
But what's clear to anyone who has ever been there is that the John F Kennedy airport is one of the world’s great shitshows. There’s a common method of illustrating the size of a population by noting something like, “if you packed in everyone on the European continent shoulder-to-shoulder they would only cover an area the size of Norfolk, West Virginia.” JFK is a real-life manifestation of that exercise. Gather a hundred thousand people drawn from every country on earth, give them each a ticket to a different country, chosen more or less at random, then send all of the airport staff out for a cigarette break. That’s JFK. It’s like a refugee camp where temporarily stateless people gather in an attempt to figure out what’s going on, and how they can make their way to somewhere better.
When I got to the security line at JFK, I presented the lady checking boarding passes with my phone. She gave me the kind of look that can only be put on by someone whose job is to corral people at a New York airport. “That won’t work,” she said.
“But it’s a boarding pass,” I told her, informatively.
“If you want to go through and try it, be my guest.”
I hadn’t meant to question her authority within her domain of expertise. I was just unclear about what constituted proof of itinerary at JFK. I explained this to her, and she directed me to the check-in counter for Polish Airlines. That’s when I first saw the Peruvians.
The check-in area for Polish Airlines was cut out of a wall under a staircase, like Harry Potter’s bedroom, as if the architect had accidentally overlooked the Poles in the original floor-plan and had had to scramble to accommodate them. The area was packed with people ordered in no discernible pattern. The line for check-in would’ve stretched out for a full Manhattan block. This is standard operating procedure at JFK. But what was immediately arresting about the people in line was they were all wearing the same shirt. It was red with a single white diagonal stripe across the chest. I recognized it after a moment’s inspection as the jersey of the Peruvian national soccer team. The Peruvian delegation was traveling from JFK to Warsaw and then onto Russia, same as me.
I snuck into the business class queue to avoid the throng, for I needed only to print my boarding pass. I still ended up waiting a small eternity to speak to a representative, as the two people in front of me needed to confirm the meal service their dog was to receive. While I waited I watched the Peruvian mass sing songs, exchange high fives and hugs, and generally bubble over with anticipation for the World Cup. Their excitement was contagious, and I began to feel that same sense of anticipation one gets before experiencing something really big.
The difference between us though was that the Peruvians were going to Russia to root for their team. I was going to Russia to check things out and take the whole thing in. To them, the World Cup was a battle waged by hometown heroes. For me, it was an act of intercultural voyeurism. The United States wasn’t playing in this year’s tournament. They didn’t qualify. How exactly it came to pass that the USA was not able to qualify for a sporting event—any sporting event—when Saudi Arabia, Iceland, Tunisia, or Peru could, is a matter of some bitterness among those who followed it. Suffice to say that while most of the world funnels its tax dollars into dominating world soccer, the United States elects to spend its money on dominating the actual world. The Peruvians apparently had no such monetary constraints. And they now made their way en masse to Russia.
For those of you who need convincing, this is how great, how world-beguiling, how magnificently and quintessentially human the World Cup is. Imagine yourself living in a modest house in rural Peru. You hear one day that your national team has made it to the World Cup. It's the first time this has happened since you were a child. In the year before the event you save up as much of your income as possible, tap into all your savings accounts, put a second mortgage on the house. You dedicate all of these monetary resources toward shipping the family—grandma, kids, cousins and all—off to Russia. You buy tickets to all of Peru’s games, jerseys with your favorite player’s name on it, and reserve accommodations and transportation in country (actually several legs of such logistics, as you’ll have to travel within Russia, say, from Moscow to Novgorod to Sochi and back to Moscow to attend all the games). Then one morning in June, grandma and the kids and cousins and everyone pile in a van, drive five hours to Lima, hop on a twelve hour flight to New York, take a place in line at the temporary refugee camp that is JFK, get on another twelve hour Polish Airlines flight to Warsaw, go for a jaunt around Poland during your fifteen hour layover, take another flight to Moscow, and then finally hop on a train to some distant and godforsaken city in Russia, namely Rostov-on-Don, or wherever the hell Peru were to play their first game.
And the thing is, they couldn’t possibly be happier about the whole thing.
I had read a story before coming to Russia of a man who had grown up watching the Peruvian national team with his father. Until 2018, Peru had not made it to the World Cup in thirty-six years. The man’s father had recently passed away, just a year shy of their country’s return to the international stage. The man was going to the tournament to honor his father’s memory.
Yes, I thought, but isn’t everyone is excited about their team being at the World Cup?
I began to realize that the Peruvian excitement was of an altogether separate nature when I came across another story: One Peruvian man had gained fifty-five pounds in an attempt to qualify for disabled tickets (under FIFA’s standards for morbid obesity). The games had, apparently, sold out of tickets for fans within three standard deviations of the mean BMI. One of his compatriots contemplated breaking a leg to earn a seat next to him. Ultimately he declined to do so. But while a handful of Peruvians evidently aren’t willing to go the distance, their nation’s excitement was something special. Over forty-thousand of them made the trip to Russia. And there I was with them.
I couldn’t possibly have been happier about it, either.
Having made it through security, the crowds wandered the terminal in search of engagement until our flight departed. The terminal resonated with a festive exuberance. Peruvians greeted one another as they passed with a warm, “¿Cómo estás amigo?” Eventually I noticed that there was a Mexican delegation as well. The Mexicans were dressed in their green national jerseys, each one of them sporting an outlandishly sized sombrero. Those who didn’t wear their sombreros carried them in plastic wraps to maintain their virginity until we were on Russian soil. Whenever a Peruvian and a Mexican would cross paths they exchanged cordial but reserved nods, not yet in direct competition but regarding one another as of questionable allegiance nonetheless.
Eventually the lot of us—the Peruvians, the Mexicans, me, and even a handful of Poles—boarded the plane, and we headed wheels-up in the direction of Warsaw.
I had a seven hour layover in Warsaw, and I planned to make the most of it. I wasn’t going to just sit around in the airport. I had at least three hours in the city to bum around, and I was eager to get going.
My first impression of Warsaw, as I took a taxi into the city, was that it looked a lot like suburban Germany. The highway featured wide, recently paved roads with a vast median separating the two directions. Trees line either side of the thoroughfare, offering brief glimpses of into an intersecting residential street or a humble community park. It’s an unhurried use of space that says, “plenty of Lebensraum here.” I might as well have been driving through a residential neighborhood in the west of Berlin. This seemed to me an accomplishment, given that Berlin sets the economic high-water mark for the European Union. I told the taxi driver to drop me off in Old Town Warsaw.
I disembarked from the taxi and found myself standing on the cusp of the quintessential European square—buildings of pastel pinks, yellows, and blues, architecture that is at once familiarly continental yet distinctive in its regional identity, an open stone-cobbled plaza centered around a monument to a fallen comrade whose name and visage I didn't know, shop names declared in a strange tongue, and, most importantly of all, people enjoying their meals seated at tables splayed out in the square, with nothing on their agenda besides ordering another bottle of wine, engaging in lively conversation, and just taking the whole thing in. This made it official. I was at large on a foreign continent.
As my first official act of world-galavanting, I embarked on a quest for a convivial restaurant serving pierogi. I longed for a laundry basket sized portion of golden-brown dumplings overstuffed with pillowy potato and lumpy cheese carted out to me in the meaty arms of a homely but amply-bosomed Polish woman of middle age. In my fantasy she was wearing lederhosen, though I cannot vouch for whether that’s something a middle aged Pole is likely to wear. I don’t actually know much about Poland, save for pierogis. Which probably explains why my visions of Polish exultation centered on that decidedly Teutonic object of desire. I wandered through the Old Town to do a bit of reconnoitering before settling on a particular establishment. No doubt I was in the tourist epicenter of the city. This is always something of a crapshoot when it comes to sampling the local fare, as you never know whether the food you’ve ordered is the real deal or an overpriced facsimile, altered to suit the undiscerning palates of tourists. Actually, scratch that, you can be absolutely sure that what you’re getting is overpriced. But on my timescale, I’d have to make do. Grab the pierogis out the freezer, Zuzanna, daddy’s hankering for dumplings.
It quickly became apparent that the relevant translation of “Purveyors of Polish Pierogis” was “Pierogarnia Polska,” as every third storefront proudly attested. This presented what the schlubs in the economics department generally refer to as a paradox of choice. One of these pierogarnias had on offer the best goddam pierogis in all of Warsaw. Yet I’d have to pluck that single gem out of the thousand other hacks who unthaw their dumplings on the same counter as the frozen goat testicles. Is the best bet to stay away from crowded places because they’re full of tourists? Or is it worse to go somewhere empty because not even a tourist would deign to eat there? I decided to poke around until I came across laundry baskets and lederhosen.
At length, I settled on a Pierogarnia in the main square. Clearly designed for tourists, yet completely empty. I believe it was the worst of both worlds. I only got half way through the square before I realized I didn’t give a shit which place I chose and just wanted to eat. I had the establishment more or less to myself. I sat outside under the style of tent canopies germane to the foreigner-infested plazas of Europe. Each canopy sports the brand of the store’s featured beer, ranging the familiar international ones, like Heineken, to unfamiliar domestic ones, like Wcznjałowski, or whatever the hell Polish beer I was looking at now.
Menus in foreign countries are often bafflingly unhelpful. This one was in English but its pierogi section was filled with options like, “potato & cheese,” “cheese & potato,” “potato, onion, & cheese,” “cheese, potato, & onion.” I appreciated the English translation and all, but I suspected that it lacked some of the incisive bite of the original Polish. But like I said, I couldn't care less at this point. So I waved over the garçon and indicated my desire for approximately forty kilos of onion, cheese, & potato dumplings, a generous portion of cold and frothy lager (just wheel out the keg so I can refuel at will), and a busty pair of Bavarian knockers. He seemed to read my request loud and clear, jotted down some notes and returned back within the doors to relay my order to Zuzanna.
While I waited, I watched a family of gypsies playing accordion out in the plaza. One of the accordion players came over to serenade a nearby table of Italian tourists. The Italians pretended that this was not in fact happening, and ignored the man playing the hand organ and bellowing forlornly at them for a song or two. Then they shooed him away with a stream of wild Italianate gesticulation and a declaration to the effect of “Mamma mia, we aura trying to have ameal here!”
Eventually, my pierogis arrived—albeit in a basket of reasonable proportions, accompanied by a bottle of mundane Carlsburg (self-proclaimed world's best beer, "probably"), and delivered by the scrawny, flatly chested garçon himself. The dumplings were of the same Polish pale of the young man who served them, pan-seared in sections to a Brazilian beach-body brown, and filled with a fluffy blend of potato and cottage cheese. Caramelized onion on top. Each bite tasted like the Polish language, a hearty mouthful of chewy consonants. I dipped each pierogi in a heaping pile of sour cream before delivering the little sucker to my mouth hole and washing it down with my beer. It was completely delicious.
I took a moment to reflect on my situation. I was in Europe. I had worried about nothing over the previous hour besides what was going to occupy my plate at lunch. I was surrounded by foreign words and foreign buildings and foreign music and foreign food and foreign people, and I gave thanks in turn for each one of them individually. I was somewhere else. There was no other place I wanted to be.
This is perhaps more than a little embarrassing, but upon arriving in Poland I was under the impression that because Poland is part of the European Union it must also be on the Euro. A very foolish deduction, it turns out. Poland has its own currency. So having been outfitted with a few Euros before the trip, I found myself with an afternoon’s worth of dough in a currency that the Polish don’t use. I wasn’t kidding when I said I don’t know much about Poland. Luckily, the cab drivers were happy to accept my Euros, at an exchange rate of their own definition.
This information was conveyed to me as I attempted to pay for a coffee at a perfect little cafe I had come across on a side street. I handed the girl behind the counter a few Euros in hope that it would allow me to transact for my cappuccino. In this I was wrong, and she politely informed me of as much. “We don’t accept those here, sorry.” I retracted the currency and made a face that implied, “Yes, but of course,” as if I had accidentally handed her the bills during a brief spell of absentmindedness. I gave her a credit card instead. As an American abroad, paying by card tends to be a rather embarrassing ordeal. Invariably the cashier attempts to tap the card on the reader in accordance with local customs. Nothing happens. She gamely tries it once more, again to no avail. Then she inspects the card and puts on a look of puzzled discovery that says, “Gee, I haven’t seen one of these since my great grandmother passed away!” She finally inserts the card into the dusty chip reader, then asks you to sign and initial a three page document verifying your identity, the items in your transaction, and the amount of money you’ve agreed to pay for them.
I retired with my cappuccino to a humble outcropping of tables and chairs set in the street. Though removed from heavy tourist traffic, I savored the possibility of dismemberment should an errant car roll through. Magically, none ever did. I settled in to enjoy my coffee and read.
While I was reading, a drunken gypsy wandered up and took an interest in me. He was a seriously merry fellow. Not beggarly, near as I could tell. But eager to welcome me to Poland, or something like that. I couldn’t tell what language he was speaking. It must’ve been Polish, given the circumstances, but whatever it was he rendered the language’s phonemes a bit too casually for me to pick them out—in more or lesss the way that drunks of all linguistic stripes are wont to do. Eventually he asked, “Português? Español?” I responded, “Hablas Español?” He gave me a broad grin, looked at me silently for a moment, and replied demurely, “Português.” Having settled the matter to his satisfaction, he bid me adieu and continued on his stroll down the street.
I was satisfied with my brief Warsaw experience: pierogis, the opportunity to stretch my legs a bit, an encounter with the vagabond welcoming committee, and a stark indication that I'm somewhere I don't belong. A guy couldn’t ask for more. Time to head back to the airport.
I returned to the Old Town square and hailed a cab. The driver quoted me a price that was twice as expensive as my trip in. Natch. I informed him of the price I had paid in the other direction and asked him to consider it as a fare wage for the same trip.
“Different price,” he told me. “Airport fees.”
“Please,” I negotiated in turn.
He wasn’t having it, so I went to try my luck with a spate of cabs down the block. Same exorbitant surcharge. “You have to pay airport fees,” another driver explained. So “airport fees” I paid.
The cab driver I ended up with was a talker. He thought it was important that I understand he was from Warsaw proper. Most everyone else, he said, comes in from the countryside, just for the work week. Warsaw is a city dedicated to industry, to business. Very German indeed. The native Warseens have a name for the countrysiders: “Jars.” They go home for the weekend, and when they come back to work on Monday they bring with them jars full of grandma’s cooking. This seemed to me a win-win. The countrysiders get a week’s serving of homemade meals and the Warseens get a convenient and pejorative handle by which to refer to the interlopers.
He was impressed that I was going to the World Cup. All Europeans are impressed by this intelligence. Poland, he said, were excited to participate in the World Cup this year. The team hadn’t been this good—they were ranked quite high at the time—for several decades. He said that the Poles nonetheless have always loved soccer, though they’ve had to align themselves with other teams. “Which teams?” I asked. “Hard to say,” he responded. “But Poland loves a good underdog.” I told him I could believe that. After the driver and I had discussed his nation’s prospects for the tournament, he reflected for a moment, turned to me with a suspicious glance, and asked, “But why are you going? You're American.”
I got to the airport in time to watch the first game of the tournament: Russia versus Saudi Arabia. A fact little discussed before the tournament was Russia’s group draw. The first stage of the World Cup consists of a round robin where each of the thirty-two teams are organized into eight groups of four. Each team plays the other three teams in their group. And the two teams from each group with the most points move onto the knockout stage, while the bottom two are eliminated. Russia’s group consisted of Saudi Arabia, Uruguay, and Egypt. On paper the best team of this group is Uruguay. With outside odds of 30:1, they’re at least in the neighborhood of conceivably winning the tournament. Saudia Arabia, at 1000:1, on the other hand, aren’t even in the right solar system to win the whole thing. They’re the worst team in the tournament by just about any measure of it. Egypt, with the exception of their superstar striker, Mohammed Salah, aren’t exactly strong contenders either. According to one statistical analysis, this group of four is among the worst groups ever in the history of the World Cup. And Russia, as host nation, just happened to draw them these opponents by chance.
Now, Russia are not good at soccer. They qualified for the tournament only because they’re hosting it. During qualification they were the lowest ranked team to make it in. Yet somehow they ended up in a group where it is possible, even likely, that they will advance to the knockout round. I contemplated the statistical likelihood of all this as I watched Russian’s head of state, Vlad Putin, shake hands with the royal Saudi representative in the pregame ceremony.
I don’t have any evidence, per se, so I can’t make any strong claims. But let’s look at the facts. FIFA (the governing body in charge of the World Cup) is an organization with a track record of—how should I say it?—a certain moral looseness about sticking to the rules. Especially if any such modification could result in the monetary benefit of any of the organization’s higher-ups. I wouldn’t want to imply that the same could be said of the Russian government—I’d hate not to be invited back into the country—but I’ll let you apply your own geopolitical knowledge. Russia, then, apparently by luck, “draws” the easiest group in the history of the World Cup. Not only that, but their first game—acting as the opening ceremonies of the event—is against the only team in the tournament outstandingly less talented than the Russians.
Coincidence? It’s certainly possible.
I found an outpost in the Warsaw Chopin airport to watch the game. Sports bars, it seems, are not as expected an amenity among the Poles as they are for Americans. I was joined soon after by a group of business Swedes. They required more than the number of seats available at their table, and I offered them an unoccupied seat at mine. Each of them was exceptionally tan, dressed in a well-appointed suit, and equipped with several different languages at arm’s reach. I was a bit intimidated, as I often find myself when in the presence of Scandinavians. Several of them, my main informant explained, were Danish. Even worse.
I told them I was going to the World Cup. They seemed impressed and posed a number of follow up questions, mainly about money. “How much were the tickets? What about the hotels? Airfare?” Not as much as you might expect, I told them. I think they had in mind a level of comfort which I would not be able to attain on this trip. The tickets were the same as any other sporting event—say, a Packers game at Lambeau field—and I had booked accommodations at hostels along with the cheapest flights I could find. It wouldn’t be posh, but better than not going at all. That is, I suppose, the difference between having a job and not having a job. Between us, they had the money but I had the time.
The Scandinavians left to procure a few burgers at Johnny Rocket’s next door. So I struck up a conversation with the older French man next to me, who was also on his way to the World Cup. His English wasn’t great (though much better than my French), but we developed a certain affinity for one another. He also looked like the kind of guy who might have trouble with steady employment, his hair rakishly combed over on top with an exactingly shaved fade on the side. Earring, left side only. He wanted to know which team I would be supporting, as the Americans hadn’t made the tournament.
“Belgium,” I told him.
“Very cheap beer,” he responded knowingly. “But I do not sink will win ze World Cup.”
Uninspired by the Polish airport food on offer, I rejoined the Scandinavian party at Johnny Rocket’s. Russia was destroying Saudia Arabia. The game ended 5-0. Putin looked immensely pleased—at least as pleased as any Russian is capable of appearing for more than a microsecond. The Saudi representative seated next to him did not look nearly as enthused. This, I imagined, was the source of Putin’s pleasure, even more so than the victorious soccer match. I explained to the Scandinavians that I had recently read an analysis, done by a couple of economists, of home field advantage in soccer. Their ears perked up at the word “economists.” Having the crowd on your side, the study showed, was a huge advantage. More so than you might think. A team’s probability of winning a home game is essentially the same as if the other team played a man down in a game on a neutral territory. The Russians not only had the easiest group in the tournament, they had an extra player on the pitch.
After a few minutes of giving this fact its due contemplation, I rejoined my Peruvian and Mexican colleagues, and together we set off for Moscow.