Spanning the Globe to Bring You the Constant Variety of Perfect Hindsight and Second GuessingSo I'm back. My undisclosed pleasure trip was a three week sojourn to France with a quick side trip to San Sebastian, Spain in the Basque country. I missed a lot of big time sports event while I was away, and then again, I didn't miss a thing.
The sad death of Muhammad Ali got just as much attention in France as it did here. I didn't watch either the Stanley Cup, NBA Finals or US Open live, although the latter two were on French TV, which has as many cable sports channels as we do, because the six hour time difference meant 3 a.m. starting times. But I could see highlights in the morning, and follow basketball and golf through the pages of L'Equipe, the French national sports daily that had two reporters at the NBA Finals and one at the Open. Therefore, I did not miss the breaking news that LeBron James remains a pretty fair basketball player and that the United States Golf Association remains as pompously dysfunctional as ever.
But I didn't lack for sports, neither on TV nor live. I couldn't get away from them. At least, it was impossible to escape Euro 2016, the soccer tournament for the national teams of that continent this year being held in France, including games played where I was, the city of Bordeaux.
For Euro 2016, soccer overtook wine as Topic A in Bordeaux. Topic A1 was fevered. neurotic assessment of Les Bleus, France's team. France is a nation that loves drama, seeing life as a series of crises interrupted only by long meal breaks and August vacation. The French as rooters accordingly bear a striking resemblance to Red Sox fans circa 2003 or so. They know their team has talent, but it's a source of as much or more anxiety as joy. And like the Red Sox of those years, Les Bleus themselves are very good at generating internal drama.
The week before the tourney began, Karim Benzema, a star for European club champion Real Madrid, said he had not been picked for the French team because coach Didier Deschamps had succumbed to pressure from right wingers who objected to Benzema's Arab ethnicity (he was born in Lyon).
There IS a lot of racism in France, as much as here. On the other hand, over the winter Benzema became the subject of a criminal investigation for making a sex tape of a fellow member of the French team and maybe blackmailing him with it. One could see that Deschamps might've found that harmful to dressing room harmony. As noted, France loves drama, so the whole matter gave the country a good wallow in its neuroses. And let's face it, the Benzema affair was a billion times more fun to wallow in than Deflategate. Our US sports scandals just aren't world class. We must do better.
One would have thought that Topic 1A would be will Euro 2016 get me blown up or shot, but it wasn't. Oh, there were plenty of police and soldiers, some carrying machine guns, on site at both Bordeaux's stadium and in the city center where the Fanzone, a several square block soccer theme park and beer garden where games where broadcast on Jumbotron-sized screens. Their presence increased in both numbers and intensity when France was playing, too. But then, there were also a lot of soldiers and cops in public spaces the week before the tournament started. That's just how life in French cities goes since last November's atrocities in Paris. People have adjusted. Outside tables at cafes, bars and restaurants were as hard to come by at lunch as ever.
No, the non-soccer concerns of the Bordelais about Euro 2016 were the same as they'd have been in Boston. How will these games affect my parking and commuting? What kind of a hassle are the fans of other countries going to be in my neighborhood?
There are no unoccupied street parking spaces in Bordeaux and as far as I could tell there never have been, so I don't know why that was a worry. Traffic sucks and always has, as in any 21st century city. Public transit soaked up the visiting fans without a hitch -- despite theoretically being on strike on game days.
French workers are staging strikes in various industries to protest labor law changes. Let's not get into it. Bordeaux's bus and streetcar workers were supposed to be on strike the day of the game I attended. Service was disrupted to the extent that streetcars going to and from the stadium ran only every seven minutes instead of five.
As for visiting fans, there were many. Even tiny Iceland had 30.000 of them roaming from city to city. And there were serious disturbances in some places, notably Marseille. But Bordeaux lucked out. It had no games with England nor with Russia. Instead, it got the Irish, a horde of jolly inebriates wearing lethal looking sunburns. The Hungarians were loud, drank as much or more beer than the Irish fans, but alongside the usual bros and dudes were women and the occasional child. Men ready for serious aggression seldom travel in mixed company.
The overall experience for this Yank surrounded by Euro 2016 was the same sense I had from Super Bowls and Olympics I attended, just less intense because I wasn't working. The event seems to define all reality. The world outside it becomes indistinct and unimportant -- except for those long meal breaks, of course. And along with the immersion, I felt a twinge of regret. Our country as a whole can never experience such a sports-only daydream. We're too big. The Copa America tournament is still going on here in the US, but as with the 1994 World Cup, when the show moves from, say Chicago to Houston, Chicago goes back to its old reality. No country, not even ours, is rich enough to have tens of thousands of people traipse around on airplanes for three weeks to follow the home team or occupy a city center for a week between games. Only medium-sized countries like France can create the proper Soccer Theme Park atmosphere.
The game I attended deserves a post of its own and will get one. This essay has been somewhat disjointed, but my theme can best be summarized by glimpses of two pure tourism side trips my family made from our Bordeaux base.
Getaria is a fishing village in the Basque region of Spain, where we went to eat turbot grilled over wood fires. Sarlat is a small town in the Perigord region of France, where there are many enormous castles and roadside stands sell foie gras. Each town's tourism depends on making it seem as if life hasn't changed much there since about 1500.
In each place, every TV in town was on, and they all had the game on, whichever game it was. In Sarlat, it was Northern Ireland-Ukraine.
Spanning the globe to find the constant variety of sport is easy. The trick is finding a place on the globe you can avoid it.