Wednesday, March 22, 2006

It's only a game ...

Tonight I watched the United States soccer team get trampled by the German team. A friend from across the street told me about the match and we watched it together. I had only seen a handful of soccer matches before this one. A few years back during the World Cup I spent a few beer-soaked early mornings in Irish Pubs in Manhattan watching foreign soccer teams battle it out in a sport I little understood for a title that meant nothing to me. This was before His Holiness had entered the scene but he was within sight and his future mother (a German) was the impetus for those early morning forays during that summer of love and sport.

Now we find ourselves living in Brötchenland where soccer is serious business and the beer drinking puts anything I’ve ever known to shame. Against that background we settled down tonight to watch the match between the US and German teams. Now I’ve been working really hard at assimilating, learning the German language and customs, eating unhealthy quantities of pork products and generally abandoning my American posture for a more relaxed continental pose. And aside from a few setbacks here and there I’ve been feeling pretty good about the progress I’ve been making. Just this week I discovered a new Turkish butcher in the neighborhood. The other day I spotted a rather massive quantity of lamb parts entering the front door of what appeared to be a Turkish restaurant and on closer inspection I realized there was a butcher shop in the rear of the building. I wandered in and took a closer look at the goods and was impressed. I had been thinking about making a stew to take the chill out of the late winter air and so ordered some lamb chunks. A little aside here: one thing you will notice when and if you ever have occasion to shop in a German grocery store is the isle completely devoted to “fixes” which are little packets of seasonings and other ingredients I don’t even want to imagine, which when dissolved in water manifest a truly amazing variety of dishes. There are “fixes” for just about any dish you can imagine from simple tomato sauce to Bolognese sauce to every type of soup or stew or stroganoff. The Germans are in a hurry to eat it seems and these packets of ready-made magic, when added with a bit of protein and a portion of starch just about make a meal. I confess that I have resorted to using these “fixes” on more than a few occasions. So when I found myself in the Turkish butcher with a bag of fresh lamb and no idea in the world how to make a lamb goulash, I asked him if he had a “fix” and we proceeded to banter back and forth for the next few minutes in terrible butchered German while I tried to make my request clear to him and he tried to make me understand that there was no such thing as a Turkish Lamb Goulash “Fix.” He finally called in the chef from the kitchen and ask for his help, at which point the chef told him to just give me some of his private stash of Goulash spices but I refused – I had already decided that I wanted to learn how to make the dish from scratch – no fix – so I asked the chef, in my best terrible German, what went into his Goulash. He told me to brown the lamb in olive oil and onions, add some garlic, cumin, paprika, salt, white pepper and whole plum tomatoes. I did as he suggested and the goulash was perfect. During the course of this excursion into Turkish cuisine the young butcher and I became acquainted with each other. Like me he was a fairly recent immigrant to Germany. He had been in the country a few months longer than I and he was impressed at my command of the language. You got that right boys and girls – he was impressed at my command of the German language. Well, I could be pretty darn happy for a day or more just on that compliment alone, even if the Goulash hadn’t turned out to be delicious, but it was, and that only made the entire experience that much more gratifying.

So here I am all pleased with myself about how I’m fitting in to my new environment and gaining the admiration of other recent immigrants and learning to cook new and exotic dishes in the bargain when a sporting event comes along and shows me just how far I have not come.

Like I said earlier the American team was slammed in tonight’s match. But that didn’t diminish my affection for this team I had never heard of before and whose players were unknown to me. As the match progressed I found myself fretting and commenting and booing and cheering and wishing the American team well. All of these months of settling into my new world were forgotten when I saw the US team take the field. Funny how that happens, sitting here in my living room in Cologne and feeling kinship with these young men on the field in Dortmund getting the tar whipped out of them by the big strapping German team.
I am an American after all and even though I may learn a new language and grow to appreciate the style of living that Europeans enjoy, in the deepest part of my heart I will always be an American and something as simple as a sporting event, where young men from home take to the field and play their hearts out while facing certain defeat at the hands of my new neighbors, reminds me of who I am and who I will always be.