France, 2006. My sister and I were on a we’re in our early 20’s so why the hell not? adventure, back before either of us had been bitten by too much cynicism and the economy was still friendly enough toward young ladies in college with part-time jobs. It was totally by accident or serendipity that we arrived and exchanged our dollars for euros during one of the most thrilling times to be in the country.
We had heard the buzz of the World Cup during our week in Paris, but the excitement didn’t ramp up until the final 16, when we were on the Côte d’Azur. Games were on in every café, crowds stuffed onto the famed sidewalks as men smoked and drank Pastis or beer or wine, commentating on every move in a language that I was only beginning to understand. Certain words popped out, like marquer and stupide and allez!, but it was easy enough to follow what was going on because it was, after all, soccer. My sport.
I hadn’t watched a soccer game in years. It was still painful to me; I wanted to jump through the screen onto the field, not passively sit and watch players do something that came so naturally to me way back when.
However, sitting in that café the first night in Nice, after a pizza and cappuccino, my sister and I caught the enthusiasm. We stayed well into the evening to watch the game. The U.S. had been disqualified almost from the beginning, and shame over our country’s disdain for the sport seeped through us. It was obvious who we would root for, even before the U.S. was eliminated.
After Brazil won a huge victory while we were in Cannes, the tiny wedges of streets packed fully of yellow and green jerseys, of gorgeously tan men and women shouting in Portuguese. Since when did so many Brazilians decide to hang around the South of France? One of the Brazilians Emile and I met grabbed my breast while we were talking, then suggested I go to bed with him that night. Not only had that thought never crossed my mind, but fortunately I had the presence of mind to smack him in a way that said “touch me again and next time it won’t be the shoulder I hit.”
Despite that lone foreign victory and subsequent celebration, it was the other red, white and blue team that held the everyone’s heart. Maybe mine, too.
After Emile left, I spent my days wandering the country on my own. I passed lunches by myself with a book, and evenings in restaurants and cafés watching whatever game happened to be on. Instantly, I felt companionship with everyone in the restaurant as we watched offside calls, injuries, yellow cards and the rare goal scored. The knee injuries of youth rotated quietly around to the back of my head and the aching to be on the field transmuted into something I didn’t recognize at first. I yelled in French and sat at the edge of my cane chair just like everyone else. No one would even know I was an American if they didn’t stop to talk to me.
By the final game against Italy, I had rambled into Tours, a smallish-city in central France that boasted a medieval town and a central location for châteaux-visiting tourists. That night, I wandered into the town square and a buzzing din greeted me.
Though I was thousands of miles from home, I had never belonged somewhere more.