Higher Ground: How We're Watching the World Cup

Hua's note: Technology, as Pete reminds us below, is amazing. I'm posting this from a car, as I stream the Greece-Nigeria match in a neighboring window. (Courtesy of Univision and alternate-side parking rules.) Perhaps not the most exciting environs, given that I'm parked about a dozen feet from an actual Greek restaurant, but it'll have to do for now. A running commentary box on the right-hand side—culled from the world's Facebook users—simulates togetherness, all the way down to the among-friends banter, nearly-racist taunting and CAPS LOCK backslapping. All we're missing are some beverages.

The World Cup, as we've been reminded infinity times the past couple weeks, is an occasion for unity. Merely quadrennial, understandably alluring and ever durable, this special World Cup unity activates any number of multitudes: South Africans as a people; Africa as a continent; the formerly colonized; all non-North Korean humans; cosmopolitan-types in America; anyone with a fast Internet connection; etc.

But now that the first matches have been played, the real divisions have begun to emerge: we aren't the world, after all. German legend Franz Beckenbauer dissed England for their "kick and rush" tactics, prompting testy, huffy replies that will probably, in the retrospective lucidity of a future mauling, seem ill-advised. Meanwhile, Argentinian legend Diego Maradona responded to some sideways comments from Brazilian legend Pele by telling him to "go back to the museum."

The lesson here, besides the obvious one about the evanescence of World Cup unity: when legends catch hurt feelings, we listen, for it was their majesty that brought us together in the first place.

Your average worker? Not so much.

Keep us bookmarked. Just to recap: I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, the vuvuzela-as-zeitgeist and the North Korean national squad. Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa and R. Kelly's allegiances, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case. Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football. And yesterday, on the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, Anmol meditated on Mandela and the lines marked "out-of-bounds" by FIFA.

In Search Of...
By Pete L'Official
SKY HIGH, somewhere between MA and NC—Everyone loves an ethnic joint. Or, rather, everyone loves to love an ethnic joint, especially during the World Cup. "Have you heard about that cute little Kiwi-Slovakian tapas bar downtown? Perfect for Group H action. No? Well, my boys told me about this ill Irish pub to watch Cameroon v. Denmark. It's called Indomitable Brian's." Maybe you've been desperately searching your city for bands of Uruguayans or the places that they frequent. Maybe you read about a place in the New York Times.

And hey, who am I to stand in the way of people wanting to be around other people who have a reason to cheer for the French beyond simply admiring the density of Yoann Gourcuff's eyebrows? Soccer, and the World Cup in particular, is a more than suitable window through which to look—however briefly, perhaps superficially, often satisfyingly—at other cultures and their respective propensities to invite noble, exquisite tragedy upon themselves, on or off a soccer pitch. One of the soccer fan's simplest pleasures is had just listening to the soothing tones of a silken-voiced announcer rhythmically calling out the surnames of a team's players set to the beat of their passing movements, especially if those names are Dutch, Brazilian, or if your last name happens to be Tshabalala. Why? Because those names are awesome, simply put. Yet soccer's proverbial window-onto-culture ought not be one composed of one-way glass. Authenticity is most attractively not worn as a badge or sought out like an incredible banh-mi.  

The World Cup provides what you might call an "opportunity" to gaze longingly upon other cultures whom many will forget once they are mercilessly defeated by Germany in penalties, but it is also a chance to look at American culture, not inwardly, but as part of and connected to the world in a myriad number of ways different than those to which Americans are accustomed. Viewership should never be so opaque, so one-sided. Jerseys are not the only form of exchange on offer. Never forget: as you stare out at the world, marveling at the metaphysical mastery Lionel Messi seems to wield over the ball's destiny while tearing into the ojo de bife that you believe holds the answers within, the world is looking back at you, too. (And you may have a bit on your chin there.)  

What, then, might that same search for American authenticity look like? (For whatever reason, the job of answering this question often tends to fall to those with Francophone surnames.)  

There may indeed be better locales to view the World Cup's opening match: cruising through Jackson Heights in the back of a gourmet churro truck that serves Castle lager would no doubt satisfy some. But where can the Afrikaner-Mexican dual national spy on a bunch of Yanks and their viewing practices? Sure, they could saddle up to the bar at a place like New York's Nevada Smith's, but it'll be packed to the gills with their own hybridized countrymen anyway. And woe to the fan who happens upon the spot monopolized by disconsolate Swedes this time of year. Why not get out of town? Hop a flight somewhere and soak up the "atmosphere" at thirty-thousand feet? After all, technology is amazing.  

I went to Charlotte, NC.  


Pete L'Official

Once aboard and cruising at a comfortable altitude, a cursory glance about the cabin at the local color (televisions) suggested that South Africa was not on everyone's minds: CSI: Miami, So You Think You Can Dance?, The Weather Channel, and the plane's sky-map seemed the more popular fare. One patron skipped delightfully between Emeril Live, a live Prince show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air—presumably all for symmetry—and Good Times before also finally settling upon the reassuring beacon that is David Caruso's flame-red hair. Not once did the complimentary lush greens of a soccer pitch grace her screen. The live map showed the plane streaking above New Jersey.

It would be remiss to forgo recounting to you the bounty of authentic cuisine on offer in such an elite (just 120 seats in the whole joint!) sky-bound, all-American lounge. There were chipped potatoes of many varieties, roasted cashews, and from the state of "Arizona," one of their finest teas, iced, presumably only for the summer months. And for those rootless cosmopolitans present in the cabin, there was coffee from the American northeast's most prominent and popular artisanal roasters, Dunkin' Donuts. America, apparently, runs on it.

But I know what you're thinking: how can one claim to have seen authentic American culture while flying tens of thousands of miles above it? Spoiler alert! The plane landed.

And so there you are after a two-hour drive west and north through the remarkably picturesque North Carolina high country, looking for a suitably "ethnic" place to watch the United States play their new Auld Enemy, England. You would do well to find yourself at the Bayou Smokehouse in Banner Elk, NC, improbably -- yet altogether appropriately -- situated "upon" Tynecastle Highway.

On such a beautiful day it would make sense that most of the Bayou's patrons were seated outside. But of the 17 customers perched around the large, central U-shaped bar inside where the game was showing, 11 were there expressly to watch soccer; the rest, either to eat, drink, or to play Countdown Trivia, which occupied around 20% of the bar's televisions. On the far wall opposite the entrance hung a small chalkboard that read, "RIP GARY COLEMAN." A crude yet surprisingly accurate caricature of the child star appeared in chalk below. A waitress asked, "What does FIFA stand for?" in the match's opening minutes. Answered: "It's French." Someone else ordered a Newcastle and was summarily rebuked.

"Which soup is a traditional Chinese dish?," the trivia screens asked. The English scored. One-nil. "Egg drop," announced the screen. The Americans equalized. One-one. "Did you know that George Washington was proven to be a member of the Virginia legislature before becoming president?" A patron smiled at the writing on a dollar bill pasted above the bar: "Strippers go to Fairbanks, AK to die!!" Washington sat, green and silent on the matter, muzzled by the double exclamation points. The referee blew for the final whistle. Full time. A computerized game of no-limit Texas hold 'em played itself out on an unwatched television in the corner. No one stuck around for the flop.

Now: anyone know where to find the perfect kim-chi taco before the group stage is over?


Pete L'Official is currently a student in the History of American Civilization program at Harvard. His interests in modern American literature and culture, American art, and the urban built environment do not preclude him from waking up at ungodly hours on the weekends to watch the English Premier League and the heartwarming, hilarious friendship between Patrice Evra, Park Ji-Sung, and Carlos Tevez. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, Salon, the Believer and elsewhere. He previously wrote about the Louis Vuitton World Cup trophy case.