"Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow ... Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers." — David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
I had only booked the hostel for two nights before coming to Berlin, and with the World Cup Championship that evening, every last bed in the hostel had been booked up. Every last bed in every half-decent hostel had been booked up, really. That left me with the quarter-decent hostels and the indecent hostels, and I reluctantly booked something in the middle. I showered, said goodbye to the bunkmates (Christina, who had gotten back at noon the day before, was still recovering), then took off to drop my bags at the bunny-less, soulless establishment I had settled for.
It felt something like a laser tag arena, that hostel: all shiny chrome and futuristic design, but futuristic in the way people of the 1980s thought the future might look. It was overrun by tour groups and packs of high school students, and it was damp and smelly. The cheap mirrors in the bathrooms warped more than those outside the mirror maze back in Prague. I hated paying a dime to such a business, but I had little choice. I dropped my things and set back into town.
I visited the East Side Gallery again, walked the murals, passed a Russian shuffling three little cups along the sidewalk—monty, is that what they call it?—with a little ball underneath one of them. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. An onlooker shoved a fifty-euro bill toward him; he grabbed it, turned the cup over, revealed the marble, handed it back to her with another fifty-euro bill for the win. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. A man pulled out fifty of his own and handed it to the monty man; the better placed his foot on the cup he thought had the ball. Are you crazy? I thought. Didn't you see the ball peek out of that other cup during the last shuffle?
I was right. Opened cup, empty cup. The crouched man kept the bill; the standing man offered a disappointed "gah!" Play resumed: shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. It seemed very easy, if you kept your eye on the ball. And indeed, the onlookers were making wins, all few of them, but losses too, silly losses that were so utterly obvious. I don't really believe in betting (I don't really believe in anything that "creates" new money from old money without putting some good into the world), but were I a betting man, I reckoned I could have made five hundred euros in about ten rounds. The monty man was not very good.
He caught me watching. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. "Hey, you," he called in rough English, "which one?"
I shook my head. No thanks. He insisted, "just point, which one?"
I pointed. I was sure I was right. "Here," he said, "put your foot on it." The woman next to me, the one I'd seen win fifty euros, urged me forward. "Go, go! I think you're right!"
I found myself with my foot on the cup, with the fellow onlookers cheering me on. Found myself withdrawing a fifty-euro bill of my own from my pocket. Found the monty man moving to grab it, to pair it with one his own and form a ready kitty. "Yes, yes!" The woman cried through thick Russian. "You'll win it!"
I closed my fist. It was too easy. The fellow onlookers were too supportive. There were also too ... Russian. It occurred to me that I was the only non-Russian among them, that their wins and losses were too well-ordered, taken too lightly, taken in practiced turn. East Berlin was not a rich place, and yet fifties flew from their pockets. I was aware the whole time that the thing felt a little scammy—I guess all of gambling is a scam; it's just a question of degrees—and I cared much less about winning fifty euros than about how I could lose fifty euros. The marble was, beyond a doubt, under the cup under my foot. How could he possibly move it with me staring right at it? Would he just pretend I had gotten it wrong, with his witnesses to back him? I was so curious!
Curious, but not stupid. I pried the man's constricting fingers from my fist, that monty python. I pushed past the woman and walked away. The cup lifted somewhere behind me. The marble rolled. "See, you would have had it!" she called.
And then the game resumed, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. I'll never know.
I killed time doing nothing, had a little barbeque-smoked sweet potato magic at the same vegan place from the day before. I sat and read, walked the east side, and then as noon became afternoon, I headed toward the Brandenburg Gate with the rest of Europe to watch Germany face off against Argentina in the World Cup finals.
Millions were projected to be there, coming from all across the continent for the spectacle, and I was just lucky enough to find myself passing through, neither intending nor realizing the serendipity until only a few days before. I joined them on the subway, a writhing sea of red and black and yellow, and moved with the herd as we exited, wriggled west, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop.
The crowd piled up against each other as the front of the herd came to a halt. It seemed that the city had constructed a wall right down its center, hip-high fences dividing east and west, us and the game, and were we to want entry, we'd have to follow the wall two kilometers around toward a sole Checkpoint Charlie.
I did; we all did. We packed the sidewalks and spilled into the streets, we stopped for pretzels along the way or otherwise kept moving, we pushed ourselves ever closer to the chants and cheers—all hype and practice at that early hour—and then we came to a choke point far around the bend. An absurdly few number of guards were checking purses and packs, and we waited patiently, some of us at least, as they rifled through each and every one. It was hot, people were antsy; I recalled the tragedy at the Love Parade some years back when too many excited Berliners were packed too closely in cramped corners. I grew a little anxious.
Eventually I got in, but I'd brought my anxiety in with me. It was still four hours before the game started, and yet the crowds were drunk and boisterous and everywhere, hardly room for a seat anywhere inside the gates. That, and the clouds made it clear that rain was on its way. Everyone was going to be there at some point—Kelly from Prague, the Danes from the heating plant, Tash, and a half-dozen others I'd met in Berlin or roundabouts—but the cell networks were jammed and I had little hope of finding them as the crowd thickened. I drank a beer; I left.
It was cooler and calmer outside, and I sighed in relief. I wandered to an odd assortment of three thousand rectangular stone columns swelling from the uneven ground, learned it to be the city's Holocaust Memorial. It was beautiful, equal parts subtle and powerful, literally immersing as you wandered deeper toward its center and the columns climbed, until you found yourself in a dark, disorienting maze so surely symbolic of those dark, disorienting times.
I laid on a column on the edge; it was exactly the size of a sarcophagus. I thought about the terrible things we do to one another sometimes. I'd been thinking about that a lot lately. I cried a little, and the sky cried with me, heavy teardrops raining down onto me, the memorial, the millions crammed inside the gates. I let the cool rain wash over me, just for a moment, then left for an umbrellaed patio around the site's perimeter. I ordered a coffee and a falafel sandwich.
Tash messaged me and said the gates were closed, that three hours before kickoff the sprawling park had already reached absolute capacity. Just as well, I thought, imagining the puddled, huddled masses bumping into each other with drippy umbrellas inside. The drizzle had turned into a pour, and Tash suggested I join her at a coffee shop on the other side of Brandenburg, and it was one of those no-Maria-you-come-over-here situations where we both settled to stay warm and dry in our respective corners of central Berlin, at least until the rain let up.
It didn't, not really. I passed a few hours sipping coffee, then beer, and the small patio filled in while the game neared. I liked it there: prosaic as the restaurant may have been, it was family-run and homey and intimate, and as the clock counted down the minutes until the match began, the owner, a Turkish immigrant, grabbed a table right in front of the television while one of his sons brought him whiskey and water and the other passed out blankets to the guests. Shoulders rubbed, blankets got shared once the stock was depleted. It felt like a family gathering, twenty or thirty relatives all crammed into the living room of their Turkish-German grandfather. First kick! We all cheered.
The game was long and tense, and dare I say a bit boring as well, zero-zero after the first ninety minutes, the breaks few and far in between. I realized why soccer isn't a main sport in America, why it never would be: no room for commercials—too little for advertisers to sell. But there was a short one as we headed into overtime, and the waiter hopped up from his seat next to his father and asked if anyone wanted another round, and more glasses clinked on the cosy patio, and then the game was back on, everyone on the edge of their seats, a good play by the Germans, and then ... goal!
The patio shook as fans flew to their feet, beers spilled and no one really cared. Hugs and high fives and howls toward the moon; German cheers broke out from nearby bars. Shhhh!, the elder shushed ... there was still game to be played. Everyone sat, everyone quieted, everyone waited nervously as the seconds ticked by—could the Germans hold the lead for another seven minutes?
Yes, yes they could! The clock hit zero and the celebration continued; it amplified and even the owner was now on his feet. Strangers embraced, I was embraced, that little Turkish eatery exploded in joy. The sky too: whistling rockets detonated colorful bombs of victory overhead, the fireworks heard 'round the world. For the first time since the reunification of East and West Germany, the Germans had done it: they'd won together.
It was hard not to be happy for Germany that night. The rain had stopped so I left the bar, found the little Berlin wall had fallen, saw people spilling out from all sides of the Brandenburg Gate. Millions shared the same song; it crested through the crowds like jubilant waves. Men painted the colors of Germany waved the flag of Germany high overhead, cars drove by with heavy hands on the horn and flags of their own flapping out the windows. Deutschland! they would yell, and Deutschland! we'd yell back.
I headed to Alexanderplatz. I hadn't actually been to Alexanderplatz, didn't even really know where it was, but I figured it couldn't have been difficult nor unwise to locate the main pedestrian plaza of the capital city of a country that had just, moments before, been named champions of the world. I was right: the center was alive, teeming with energy, a mass dancing and chanting around nothing in particular, just each other and their own collective excitement. Someone toward the center would jump up, start a chant, and the crowd would follow, call and return. He'd lower, we'd all lower, and he'd count down in words I didn't understand but didn't need to, for when he hit zero the masses would jump high in the air, calls to the stars, a beautiful bouncing blob.
Congo lines broke out, naturally. We raced around the square, hands on shoulders. We tired of the square and moved to the streets, an eight-lane thoroughfare running up against Alexanderplatz. We shut it down. The cars didn't seem to mind. People poked proudly through moon roofs, danced on the back seats of convertibles, thrust hands out of open windows and slapped fives with whomever was passing by. The crowds surrounded the first car in the line, placed palms anywhere they'd fit, shook it with gusto.
They'd shake it, it'd grunt and groan on its shocks, and then with a tap on its rear they'd let it go, the seas of spectators parting in front of it and drumming on its fiberglass as it crawled by. Next car, same routine. I worried that I was witnessing the makings of a riot, that this was too much victory for a people to handle, that cars and pedestrians in such close quarters was never a good idea. And then I looked inside the vehicles and saw the smiling faces bounce back and forth on suspended rubber and I realized: the cars, they want to be shaken.
So I joined them. A car would roll up and I'd squeeze in with the rest of Deutschland and give it a good heave, and I'll admit, it was good fun! I excused myself for a beer cart a little ways down, drank a Carlsburg, resumed the car-rocking, found it even more fun. Shake, drink, repeat. A few meters away, two men climbed atop a pair of buses, bus drivers just sitting inside smiling and shrugging. They unfurled a huge German flag and let it blow in the wind between them. The crowd erupted, caught them as they climbed off the buses and carried them away. I met some fellow Americans and we shook cars together. I lost the fellow Americans in the mob and I shook cars alone. I joined the thousands around me in the songs of the night, sang proudly and loudly for a people that deserved a victory. Ole, ole, ole ole ole, super-Deutschland, super-Deutschland, super-Deutsch ole ole.
It wasn't all pretty, I'll admit. There was that time a police car rolled through and the crowd gathered around, daring to shake it, that tense moment when the cops said you'd better not and the crowd seemed to consider pushing their luck. There was all the broken glass, lots of it. There was the guy who fell from the hood of a moving car and smacked his head onto the asphalt, hurried away in a daze. There was 4AM, when everyone was well past drunk and the police no longer willing to let the remaining throngs shut down the street. Go to sleep, they said.
And that's exactly what I did.