After playing soccer in Malente, I was approached by the captain of the Bucerius women's soccer team. They wanted to send a team to this year's WHU Eurosport competition, and they asked me to be on it since I was a woman who could play.
The WHU is a business school in Vallendar (on the Rhine, near Koblenz) that annually puts on a weekend-long sports competition. Other business schools from around Europe send teams to participate in soccer (men's and women's), basketball, volleyball, rowing, running relay, and cheerleading compeitions. Bucerius goes even though it's a law school (and it's the only law school that does go) because it's a law school with an emphasis on business. And besides, all the business people are gonna need lawyers to get their business done anyway... Ultimately I think there were teams from seven countries represented (including Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, France, Spain, England) and even more countries if you consider the origins of all the students. For instance, I was not the only international student there: Bucerius itself sent four from two countries, and most other schools seemed to have brought their exchange students as well. Thus everything that weekend was organized in English, as it was the common language that everyone could handle.
At the time I was asked to do this it seemed like a great idea. I've been trying to play as much soccer as possible, and the idea that it could be the basis for travel seemed exciting. Plus this didn't seem like your normal backpacker-sightseeing weekend: what better way to get to know Germany than by doing things that Germans do? If I was lucky enough not to have to experience the country just through museums or tourists traps, it seemed I should jump at the chance. So I did.
However, then I got busy. And grumpy. And a part of me started dreading the weekend. It was going to suck up hours and hours that I couldn't do anything else with, and potentially screw up my sleep schedule for days and days afterwards, thereby compromising any future productivity I really needed to have. Plus everyone was raving about the all-night parties that were going to ensue between days of competition, and I just couldn't see the appeal. Even in my youngest and "wildest" days I wasn't keen on that kind of party. And I think whatever enthusiasm I could muster for it was used up in Malente. True, I did have a nice time there in spite of my hesitations. But it also struck me that perhaps I should quit while I was ahead, since these things have never really been my cup of tea. Crowded, loud, dark, smoky rooms, where you have to shout at the top of your lungs to communicate with increasingly inebriated people? It's not exactly my definition of fun. And the drinking? Unlimited beer and 1 euro cocktails may seem to be quite the bargain, but I can't imagine how much I could possibly enjoy it to make up for how lousy I'd feel the next day, exhausted and hungover.
Still, despite my second thoughts, I couldn't back out of the weekend. I'd already paid, and it wouldn't be fair to my team. So I packed what I could to make the weekend as tolerable as possible (lots of schoolwork and snacks in one bag, and a pillow and blanket in another), and on I went, hoping for the best.
After a long day in school on Thursday, we finally all boarded the bus at 11pm and drove all night to the sports hall in Koblenz. There we got out and staked out an area in the stands to wait for the games to begin. At around 9am they did. And they continued until the evening. Our team wasn't scheduled to play until 6, so we mostly watched the other teams throughout the afternoon and did some passing and shooting drills in the hallways.
The complex was vast. Its playing floor was bigger than a full-court basketball arena, and it was divided by large, heavy curtains into thirds. Soccer took place in one third, basketball in another (played width-wise), and two courts of volleyball were in the third. One side and the ends also had bleachers for the people waiting to play to hang out and watch. Then throughout the day on the mezzanine they offered free food and water. Lunch was a wurst of some kind in a roll with ketchup or mustard, plus there were boxes of chocolate milk, mineral water, smoothies (more or less), fruit, and lots free bags of cookies, crackers, and potato chips. (There were also gift bags filled with things provided by sponsors. Mostly the usual free shampoo samples and such, although there also was a condom...)
All in all it was an incredibly well-run event. Especially when you consider that it was entirely put on by 320 college students. (Fewer, even, because the WHU, like Bucerius, also sends a class of students abroad every fall and the incoming international students weren't expected to be so heavily involved.) Logistics involved registering several hundred participants, overseeing about 5 different locations, scheduling and officiating well over a hundred individual matches a day, feeding all these people, arranging and providing accommodations for them, and then putting on massive parties both evenings. Certainly some things could have gone smoother (e.g., dinner on Friday night was a little underwhelming, and the music they played in the sports hall was a little repetitive (a ClearChannel top-40 station has more variety... if I never hear certain songs ever again it won't be too soon...)) but like the Malente weekend – and even more so here – it was a tremendous example of student-led organizational efficiency.
One of the other distinctive features about the weekend is that for their housing, all the visiting students stayed with WHU students. And this is where I lucked out. Because the guy I was assigned to (some random guy I'd never met before...) turned out to be really nice. He lived in a really nice apartment overlooking the Rhine with two other roommates, and all together they had about 11 people (Germans, Spaniards, Frenchmen, and me...) over to crash on their floors. And all three of the roommates were extremely flexible and hospitable. They left a key under the mat, so anyone who wanted to come back from the parties to sleep could at any time. Which was absolutely fantastic for me, given my aversion to parties, since it provided me with an alternative. Even just knowing that I had a back-up plan - some alternative to having to being awake and uncomfortable late into the night - made me immediately feel much more at ease with the weekend entirely.
But I still had some reservations, and even on Saturday I was still entertaining the possibility of leaving early by train as soon as my team finished with its games. (In the morning my host kindly took me to the Koblenz train station on the way to the sports hall so I could drop off my luggage and get a train schedule in preparation for this escape.) The problem was, even though the housing situation was fine, I really wasn't having any fun. I did go to the party Friday night for a little bit and wasn't completely miserable, but I'd really come to WHU for the sports and so far I'd found them disappointing. For one thing, games were really, really short. Two five-minute halves of all-out sprinting. And we had three substitutes, so I couldn't play the whole 10 minutes anyway (although with the all-out sprinting, that was ok). But additionally, and the bigger problem in my estimation, was that the games were surprisingly dirty.
To some extent, I think many of the girls on the other teams lacked the experience at the game to really understand that obstruction is illegal and be able to avoid doing it. In soccer you are allowed to "play the ball," and there are ways to do so where the opposing player is "inadvertently" blocked from being able to get to it. But you can't just maneuver yourself there on the field, making no play for the ball yourself and just being an obstruction to keep others from getting to it.
But the obstruction was just the tip of the iceberg. The really egregious thing was all the charging in from behind. This is much more forbidden, by both FIFA rules and WHU's own rules, and it's dangerous. Particularly in indoor soccer, when there are walls to contend with. A lot of action occurs along the sides when the ball gets caught between scrambling players and the wall. Elbows shouldn't be flying during this, yet sometimes they do. But what really shouldn't happen is people charging in, body-checking the person with the ball into the wall, and before they can recover THEN making the play for the ball. Such action is illegal, dangerous, and incredibly poor sportsmanship, especially when done purposefully to take advantage of lax referees. And that's exactly what happened with one team in particular. I've never had less fun playing soccer than during that game. Maybe that team would have beaten us anyway, but we were deprived of any satisfaction of getting to play the best we could because we were constantly having to contend with their cheating. It was miserable, and had we not had two more games scheduled for the next day, I might have left then and there.
The next day did go better, even though we lost the first game and found ourselves with a 0-2-1 record. It looked like we might be done for, so the captain gave us a peptalk, telling us that in this last game we should just worry about having fun. And we did. And so we won. And thus we limped into the playoffs to play for third place. And we won that game too. So we, along with the rowing team, both got trophies for Bucerius. Sadly those were all the trophies Bucerius came away with from the weekend, but it was nice to be involved with one of those efforts. I didn't cause us to win it, per se (I didn't score any goals), but I played well enough that I wasn't a liability that caused us to lose either. In the end we played well – perhaps better than even the first and second place teams – because we could play as a team. All the passing drills that we spent hours and hours on really seemed to have paid off.
Once we won our final game, my mood vastly improved. But I still thought I might like to leave early so I could get more work done. To that end, I left the sports hall and caught a bus to the train station. I was lucky, actually: the bus only ran once an hour, and it happened to show up just as I was ready to leave. Otherwise I would not have been able to get to the train station in time for the 5:12 train I really wanted to take.
But then, once at the Hauptbahnhof, I discovered that it would cost me 57 euros to leave. And it just didn't seem worth it. No, I was going to need to stick it out until the very end. But now I was a little stuck: me at my luggage were now at the Koblenz train station, too far from either the sports hall in one direction or the university in the other to walk back to. Fortunately, the nice guy letting me stay in his apartment was willing to come get me and take me back to the sports hall for the final contest and awards. And then while I was waiting I got a chance to walk around the town a bit and be an actual tourist for an hour or so.
Meanwhile, back at the gym, the final contest was the cheerleading. The cheerleading was an interesting event. Our school sent a squad of seven people, who seemed more interested in the dance component than the cheerleading component. But I don't know... they were decent dancers, but their choice of songs and choreography might even make Michael Jackson blush. It just seemed a little... much. But seven people managed to conjure up the energy of squads many times their size. Other schools sent enormous contingents, some with dozens of cheerleaders. ESB definitely had the most spirited group, I think, with everyone showing up to the gym the first day with face paint, balloons, and blasting air horns... And I liked the French cheerleaders who walked in with their chant, "ED! HEC! Tous ensembles! Tous ensembles!" ("ED! HEC! All together! All together!") For their dance numbers they started with a French song, and then went to some song that sounded like a hip-hop version of a square dance song. Which, naturally, they square danced to, more or less...
It should also be mentioned here that their school was, in fact, called EDHEC. Most schools seemed to go by acronyms instead of their actual long-winded multi-word and/or multi-syllabic names. Bucerius stood out as an exception, actually, having been named for an actual person. The French school was really called some lengthy French name that was shortened to EDHEC, the ESB was the European School of Business, and the WHU was short for "Wissenschaftliche Hochschule fuer Unternehmensfuehrung..." As I said, Bucerius stood out...
With the cheerleading concluded they gave out the trophies, and I got to go up with my team to collect ours. Then we all dispersed. I went back with my host to his apartment and spent some time talking to his roommate and the other people who wandered in. Then my host and the roommate left to go to the party, and I went to sleep for several hours. At 3am a taxi came for me, where I paid the exorbitant price of 10 euros for a ride up the hill to the party location. But it's one of those things that, though expensive, was worth every penny, as it would not have been particularly pleasant to walk my tired self and my suitcases up the Rhine valley hills to the party, especially not in the middle of the night when I didn't know where I was going.
The party, as it was the night before, was held in an unused factory. It looked like a factory, with large concrete rooms, trailer offices, and a smokestack. Both nights they bathed it in tinted light and thumping music reverberated from its walls. I went up at 3 because the bus was supposed to board at 3:30. Unfortunately, it was delayed until 4:45, so I pretty much stood around in a parking lot of an hour and a half as inebriated people milled around me. At one point I was hit on by someone so drenched in rum he smelled like a dentist's office. Fortunately, drunk people have really short attention spans so I was able to walk away from him when his attention got diverted, and then he either forgot how madly in love with me he was, or couldn't figure out that I'd moved a few feet away...
Eventually I was joined in my wait for the bus with the other Bucerius students, who were in various stages of intoxication. It was fun to mess with their minds too... At one point a group was standing around with one guy with a bushy hairdo and beard. They called me over and asked me, "Don't you think he looks like Jesus?"
"I don't know. I've never seen Jesus."
"Oh come on. Use your imagination."
"But I don't aspire to see Jesus."
"Is that all you can say?"
"OK, I tell you what. The answer is that he doesn't. I've heard that Jesus was seen in a grilled cheese sandwich, and he doesn't look anything like a grilled cheese sandwich."
This answer seemed to satisfy them, and I can now say I've finally sated my long-standing wish to talk about Jesus in a dark parking lot somewhere in Germany in the middle of the night... Meanwhile, some other students started singing about our long wait for the bus. As we eagerly anticipated our bus to pull in, other normal-sized vehicles came in instead. Every time one did, one of my classmates sang out, "Der bus ist klein. Der bus ist klein. Der bus ist klein, ist viel zu klein." (The bus is small. The bus is small. The bus is small, it's much too small.) Sadly I cannot type out the pleasant sing-song melody he put these lyrics too...
But eventually it came, we boarded, and mostly slept through the night until we at last arrived in Hamburg around 11am. I had somehow managed to survive the weekend and am reasonably well-rested, all things considered.
But I did realize, as we rolled off the freeway and into the city, driving past the glistening Alter lake, that Hamburg was no longer just a strange dot on the map to me; Hamburg was home.