When I was 19 years old, I lived in Australia in a house with six other expatriates — three Americans, two Germans and a Bulgarian. We lovingly referred to our home as the White Castle. For one, the white boxy house stood at the very top of a huge hill and could be seen from far and wide. And secondly, it was the most disgusting cesspool of filth and vermin that any human being has ever had the displeasure of living in. It was ground zero for the birth of the bubonic plague, the death of the dinosaurs and the weird radioactive green ooze that resulted in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’m sure of it.
Situated in the middle of a paved-over rain forest, the castle had no heating, air conditioning, fans or screens. We were forced to leave the windows open to prevent death by heat exhaustion, and each night, the ceiling would turn black from the bugs that flew in. Each morning, we would sweep up the bugs that now carpeted the floor as armies of ants tore apart the dying insects. Huntsman spiders the size of our hands lived in our bathroom. Poisonous redback spiders hung out under the toilet seat. Every morning, I would shake out my clothes so the cockroaches could fall out before I got dressed. For a few weeks, I was convinced I had contracted herpes when bumps started appearing in my nether region, only to discover that bedbugs had shacked up in the teddy bear that I cuddled nightly.
Six- and eight-legged friends weren’t the only creepy-crawlies that came into our home regularly. My roommate with the basement bedroom worked as a call girl, inviting in two-legged pests along with the rest of the vermin.
But when I think back to my time living in the White Castle, I don’t think of the disgusting living conditions. I think of the World Cup.
As an American without any athletic ability, I never saw soccer as being anything more than that sport with the cool ball that I would trip over between Gatorade breaks when I was 7. It was a game for children, a training ground for more important future activities, such as Hacky Sack.
I had heard of the World Cup but didn’t really know what it was. It never once had occurred to me that I could watch soccer on television. And really, why would I?
The White Castle changed all that.
Soon after we all moved in, the games began. As ours was one of the few houses furnished with a television, neighbors from Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and, of course, Australia came over to watch. The energy, the excitement, the heartache — I had never experienced such live-and-die-by fandom. It was intoxicating. Our castle hummed well into the night, and for once, it wasn’t from the moth wings.
The World Cup brought our home and neighbors together in a way that, I believe, nothing else could. It resulted in an immediate introduction to the differences and similarities in our cultures. The nations would battle it out in our common room as they simultaneously did on the field. There would be screaming, cursing, brooding, cheering, kicking over the upside-down cups that covered our floors — each with a trapped cockroach inside, as we were attempting to kill them off one by one.
After one particularly heartbreaking missed goal, my German roommate Heinz kicked our wall. The White Castle was built so shoddily that Heinz’s foot went completely through the wall and got stuck on the outside of our house. From that day forward, we didn’t just have bugs flying in through open windows. We had snakes and rodents crawling in, too. But that didn’t stop a crowd from forming at our castle every evening.
Enemies one night, reconciled friends the next, teaming up to cheer for or against a different country. In the thick, sticky air, you could feel the racing heartbeats. Endless rounds of cold beer provided the only buffer between the heat from outside and the heat from within. All of us together. Winning together. Losing together. Suffering together. Celebrating together.
The World Cup games became the breeding ground for friendships I still carry with me, a decade after leaving the Land Down Under. And thanks to that hole Heinz’s foot created, I’m guessing, it became the breeding ground for many other animals, as well.
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