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Hugging strangers

2004 was the summer of hugging strangers, in the country in which “don’t talk to strangers” was something Americans said in the movies, and not a dictum by which to live. Then, at least.

On the special Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the Champions League games would take place, Ajax would face Juventus, Real Madrid’s Roberto Carlos would make the otherwise bored Greek sports commentators jump out of their seats, and-once in a blue moon-the odd Greek team would qualify only to lose 5-1 to a Norwegian soccer club none of us had ever heard of. On those Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we would get to order pizza, stay up past our bedtimes, and gather around the TV to listen, almost with worship, to a few bars of the Champions League theme song blare through the screen. The commentators always said “we” were outclassed, then proceeded to raise “our” hopes that maybe Olympiakos or Panathinaikos or occasionally AEK would surprise us all, quickly followed by an all-knowing proclamation that nobody ever seriously thought “we” could compete in this league.

Every evening of watching soccer went something like this: The dads would compete with each other over trivia in the Pre-Internet era when they couldn’t pull out an iPhone and “just look it up.” One of the aunts would inevitably complain that Neni or I had not had enough food. Neni would then recite how many slices of pizza she had eaten, an aunt or another would boast that Neni is such a good eater, and I would be harangued to eat more. The same cluster of mums and aunts would also occasionally ask “what does off-sides mean again” and “how many minutes does this last,” even though they had the answers. They had to have known because they had watched their husbands (and us “kids”) watch the sport for years, so their asking had become a sort of ritual that accompanied the reminders to eat, the ceaseless smoking when the game got tense, and the assured opinion-offering. On the rare night when I counted just how much pizza I had eaten and could join Neni in boasting about it or, more rarely, when we “the kids”offered an opinion that was not entirely out of sync with whatever was going on in the soccer field, one of the dads would be impressed with us, brag about his daughter or niece, and then get back to the rest of the Dad Conversation.

This was all before the elitism of international soccer (and of something called “The Champions League” of all things), or the sexism of the commentating and advertising alike (and of the aunts feeding-dads offering opinions dynamic, while we’re at it), or the corruption of the institutions governing these athletic events had ever registered on me. In a sense, that was the purest memory I ever have of loving not just the sport, but also the act of spectating as exactly that: an active endeavor.

***

By the time we got to the summer of 2004, I had graduated to watching soccer at the dining table with the dads and uncles. There were fewer of us then, already. This was the table at which I did my homework, ate every meal. This was the site of every bout of anxiety before a school exam, every life conversation, every celebration, ritual, and loss. Not even the most self-assured prognosticator had predicted the joys the summer of 2004 would hold for Greeks. In the opening match of the Euro Cup, Greece stunned its Portuguese hosts with a 2-1 victory (the kind of victory that comes with shocked shouting by the commentators, which I highly recommend you click on at full volume in the hyperlink above if you are not at work and don’t have babies as your neighbors. No, not all Greek sounds like that all the time.)

We poured into the streets. Hardly 18 years old, we hugged strangers, all night long, and nobody thought anything of it. We made up songs, in the way that you do when victory is neither expected nor replicable. Except we did it again, tying the Spanish team of Raul and Morrientes and a very young Iker Casillas. And again, in the quarter-finals against Zidane’s France, and the semi-finals against the Czech Republic at the very last minute of extra time, and all the way to the final, where Cristiano Ronaldo shed some of the first now (in)famous tears of his career.

Every time, people poured into the streets. People hugged. We all bought Karagounis or Charisteas jerseys. I don’t know how many of us believed that winning the Euro was possible, but I was not among them. Every time we grabbed each other and launched ourselves into the streets, I joined because I thought this was the last game we could win. This was as far as we would go. There was nothing reasonable about what the Greek National Soccer Team accomplished that year. In the years to come, I would often hear from non-Greek friends that “Greece played the most boring soccer” or “Greece did not deserve it.” My uncles would likely argue the technicalities of these points, but for me there is little that is reasonable about the joy that sport had inspired in all of us as a community, as a collective noun of spectators.

Between my homeland hosting the Olympics later that summer and the joy we derived from the Euro, that was The Summer of Greece. For me, it was also the summer of transition. I watched games between reading my pre-college preparatory documents. I already felt foreign within them. I have yet to figure out if that was because there is nothing earnestly home-like about an H-shaped cookie cutter and the “Harvard cookies” recipe that we received in the mail or if the summer of Greece had inspired the kind of nationalist fervor that would forever trigger nostalgia in me wherever I went.

***

In the ten years that have passed, I have moved house over 30 times — sometimes across the street to a different Adams dorm room, and sometimes across the world with all my belongings crammed into two suitcases. I am not sure what possessed me to pack my Karagounis jersey. I am also not sure if I am more surprised by the fact that I held onto it for a decade and did not unload it at a particularly tricky border crossing or by the fact that Karagounis himself, now 37 years old, played in the World Cup against the Ivory Coast just last week.

The cynics said it began then, in the nationalist fervor we caught that summer. They trace the beginning of Greece’s collapse to the shiny stadiums we couldn’t afford and the fancy vacations some took in a delirium of national joy and the debt into which we, as a collective, plunged ourselves. Like most other cynical explanations, this one did not appeal to me. It is too easy to blame all our national plights on that moment of joy. Such explanations erase the agency of the decision-makers at every level that helped steer the country to its plunging point and invisibilize the deep, institutional, structural violence and corruption that had underpinned my homeland — and, arguably, the global financial system at large — for years before the crash.

Even if we try to push what is short-handed to “the crisis” out of our minds, watching the World Cup is an unsubtle reminder. There are noticeably fewer Greek fans on the stands of this year’s World Cup — and it’s not just because Brazil in 2014 is quite a bit further from home than Portugal was in 2004. The team is less shiny, though Karagounis continues to make me smile within it. The grumbling about corruption is more persistent, and the national voices of cynicism and jadedness are louder.

I am no longer baking Harvard cookies with an H cookie cutter, but somehow, I am in transition again. I got my college and graduate degrees, I got used to leaving and arriving. I am no longer watching soccer at the table at which I did my homework for 17 years, though the table is still at the same location in my Greek living room, waiting for my return.

In the meantime: We have formed other tables, all of which are too small to hold all our spectator friends and most of which shake from side to side when we reach over each other to feed ourselves something fried and awful for us. Someone still asks what off-sides means, and I love them, whoever they are each time, just for bringing me back to my childhood living room, in the company of the aunts and mothers. Then I look around the table, and notice that almost every time, one of our friends is either from the country that is playing or has lived and worked there. I find myself very far from learning to watch soccer among my family in Greece, and yet very near family at once.

We cycle through conversation in concentric patterns. Someone always has the latest gossip on X player’s love affair. Someone else claims they had predicted the underdogs’ success all along. I usually complain that we only eat fried food at ‘these things,’ and I’m usually the first offender to order it. This time, the sexism of the comments and ads and elitism of the ticket prices and racism of the fans and corruption and violence and and and — they all register on us. Then the referee blows his whistle, and we glue our eyes to the screen for 90 minutes, and I quietly wonder how anyone might ever bring about change within these corrupt institutions when we are so enraptured by the spectacle they provide that we forget about all the -isms the second the ball crosses the midfield.

***

There is a wistfulness to watching your national team play when you are an immigrant. It feels understandably more distant. You do not recognize all the names on the squad. You lose the urge to root for your national side when you see they are passing the ball poorly, when they appear to not even be able to approach the goal, let alone strike within it. You wish you could hold on to the memory of the underdogs of 2004 and the merriment they inspired. And, at the same time as you mourn the distance, you become more invested in their success than even you yourself had predicted — and suddenly it’s the 94th minute of what looks like the last game in a mediocre tournament for Greece and the referee calls the penalty that will mark the difference between qualifying into the next stage and going home.

***

You are at home in the suburbs of Boston, taking turns editing your latest research on patterns of gender-based violence and the passage on love you have been tasked to write for a friend’s wedding. The surrealism of the parallel worlds does not evade you. The game is unfolding in a different tab on your browser because you can’t bear not to watch it, but you can’t bear to watch it in the same breath. Then that penalty is called and you find yourself rooting for your team harder than you ever had before. You switch tabs, watch Samaras score, watch Greece qualify to the next round in disbelief. You scream, scaring yourself and the neighbors alike. Your boyfriend comes home from work to find you laughing and crying at your desk. Your girlfriends call from Greece, screaming into your ear too, and you can hear the TV in the background. Suddenly, you find yourself wishing that were the commentary you could hear. You wish for the honking horns and irrational exuberance.

You want to go out there and hug strangers.

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