European Level: Playing the Beautiful Game in Portugal

by Trevor Laurence Jockims

Chance conversations, games of language, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and enthusiastic strangers abound, but as a family travels from Porto to Lisbon, it is the love of football that sticks most strongly in this writer’s mind.

“Oh, boy!” my son said, “here we go with the European level again!” He was smiling, backpedaling with a soccer ball moving between his feet. We were at the Praça do Infante, a small town square in Lagos, Portugal, where we’d been going in the evenings to play. It was fun, and it helped exhaust his final energies for the night.

Four kids roughly his age were strolling onto the polished stones. One of them, blonde and wearing soccer shoes, said something in German. Levi flipped him the ball and the boy scooped it immediately with his left foot, juggled it over to his right, back to the left, then up to the knee before heading it over to another boy, who caught it with his chest and let it roll down his Ronaldo jersey onto the ground, placing his foot on the ball to hold it in place. I have tamed you, ball, you are home now, his pose said.

Levi looked at me with that smile again and rolled his eyes: European level!

He’s seven and we live in New York City and his soccer experience is nearly nil, but he’s gotten into it more and more, and during this trip through Europe it’s become one of our pastimes together, learning side by side and being newly impressed each time a new random stranger strolls up to us, calls for the ball, and proceeds to put on a spontaneous skills clinic.

The four of us had arrived in Porto, in the north, a couple weeks earlier and the sun made a good greeting of us there. Porto is just six hours away from our living room in lower Manhattan. We got there, seemingly, before we had left, skating through arrivals in Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport heading to the Centro Historico to settle in, then making our way to the banks of the Rio Douro. That’s when the sun hit us, as we sat along the bank – a different sun than the one we’d left behind: brighter, cleaner, a touch more yellow. Nearby, designed by Gustave Eiffel, the Dom Luís I Bridge stretched across the Douro, looking very much like the tower … but knocked over on its side and with one of its bent legs caught between the two river banks, its arched back connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side.

A passage from Martin Heidegger drifted through my mind–river banks only become composed as river banks once there’s a bridge laying across them–and I stretched and laid back to look some more at the river which, I’d read on the plane, was the third largest in the Iberian Peninsula. Its mouth opened at Porto off the Atlantic then wriggled a border between Spain and Portugal, with olives, grapes, and almonds cultivated alongside it in some sort of microclimate the river created, one unique enough to be a protected, UNESCO World Heritage site.

My wife, Nataša, is a big fan of the UNESCO people, and my daughter, son, and I tend to grumble when the next fort or tower or Cathedral on their list swerves within our purview but, fact is, in metaphorical and actual terms we wouldn’t see much of anything without her pointing us in the right direction. Thanks to covid we haven’t been over the ocean in years – so this time in particular there’s a curious urgency and wonder to travel, and Portugal is certainly the right place to be for wonder and curiosity.

It’s possible to get worse at almost anything, travel included, and the stasis that followed from covid made a lot of basic human activities–travel, going to the office, talking to someone standing directly in front of you–seem like complicated undertakings (like using a fork with your weak hand). So, it did take a moment, at that river, to gather ourselves around the fact that we’d finally flown on the tickets we’d bought three years ago. Rivers are a good place to sit and look to remind yourself that you’ve gone somewhere, that now you’re here when just recently you were there.

James Joyce had had a whole team of researchers gathering up river names for Finnegans Wake, and one way to read that book is as exactly that: an encyclopedia of rivers. How many rivers could I name? Not so many, maybe, but here was the Douro, close enough to touch. Settlements happen and grow around rivers for obvious, practical reasons, but there’s also something apt in their metaphor–always there, always moving–that draws visitors, especially, to them.

The river bank was teeming with people.

“Look at that!” Levi said, pointing at a Rabelo boat easing along with the current. These wooden cargo ships, flat bottomed to accommodate what used to be shallow and fast-moving water, before the Douro was dammed in 1968 and became deeper and slower, have been in use for centuries, transporting port up and down the river. They’re still used by port companies, and this one drifted along slowly past us, loaded with barrels of port.

“It looks like a pirate ship!”
I looked at it more closely: “That’s true, it does. You won’t see that ship anywhere else.”
“Of course, Dad, it’s right there!” Levi laughed, and we all watched the pirate ship disappear down the river.

We got the soccer ball that night in Porto, after a fantastic dinner of octopus. The vendor at the small store asked Levi whom he preferred, “Ronaldo or Messi?”

Levi shrugged and said, “Messi.” (I don’t think he had much thought about either, at the time).

The vendor looked disappointed and laughed and handed the ball over. It was a real beauty, red and white and noted as the official ball of Lisbon’s Soccer Club Benfica. He took it out of its plastic bag and started dribbling through tourists trying to choose a restaurant and locals trying to navigate tourists trying to choose a restaurant. When he lost control, someone flipped it back; when he saw a cat, he’d stop and pet it. In this way we all weaved through the streets of Porto, after dinner, before collapsing into bed.

The next morning, we woke early and headed straight out to the Museu de Serralves, followed by the famous Livraria Lello bookstore and nearby Parque Cordoaria for a soccer juggling session. Fado Show at the Casa do Fado followed. Time enough for one more octopus at the Rua das Flores.

We left Porto for Lisbon early the next morning,

I read once, somewhere, that in fact time does pass more slowly when we are having novel experiences: the brain slows down, stretching time like taffy, to examine and notice and understand everything more closely–which is to say, more slowly–because it’s new, it needs attention.

The drive home really is quicker; there really is more day in a day in Portugal.

Levi called Porto Portal in what was not exactly a malapropism: more like a benapropism – the word was clearly wrong, but obviously right.

Everything around us was sights we’d never seen before, and as I took it in I turned to look at my children to see what they thought of all these fantastical sights. They were playing UNO quietly at a picnic table, as if oblivious to the world that had ruptured all around them, opening up to let some of its brightest colors out. But it wasn’t that they were blind to the carnival of the world, I realized, they just lived in something like this most of the time.

Why do families become closer on trips? (Or believe they will, or hope they will, or know they should, or bother in the first place because that’s all they really want…?) Simple: Being a child is like being an adult in a place they’ve never been. Preferably someplace astonishing. This is the child world, I thought. You’re in it now. Let them take the lead. The senses are lit up by the proximity to life going at such a fantastic clip, funneling straight into this small, defenseless vortex next to you. Of course, it goes at this rate all the time everywhere, but who can notice? Children are the most alive because they’ve been here the shortest amount of time and thus have experienced less forgetting. Life can still find them. They’re defenseless to it.

When we arrived in our apartment in Lisbon in Barrio Alto, we walked four flights up, with four bags, and the host took her time in explaining how the water heater and lights and doorknobs worked, after which I offered to go downstairs and find a grocery store, “at least coffee,” I said, setting the expectations nice and low.

“That would be wonderful,” my wife said.

There wasn’t much around but it was a beautiful European side street where the walls run high and old and fascinating, where the lives inside spill outside in the form of laundry sheets and socks on lines run from one window to the next, sometimes from one side of the lane to the next, like kids with a string between tin cans.

I slung the bag onto the kitchen counter that already felt like home.

“You won’t believe it, I just spoke to my dad, and he told me that Bosnia is playing Portugal. Tonight. In a few hours. Isn’t that incredible?” my wife said.

Her parents live in Bosnia, which is the ultimate destination of our European trip.

“I wonder if Ronaldo is playing. What league is it?” I put the eggs in the fridge. “There’s so many leagues and levels. Very confusing.”

“I don’t know. I doubt it because I checked and there were tickets – and I got them!”

The stadium, Estadio da Luz, on the other side of the freeway, is huge and lit up and there are streams–rivers–of people walking to it along and across and basically through the road. Our Uber driver stops and makes it clear we need to get out here and walk. This was the first clue we’d embarked on an event more significant than originally assumed. The second and third were the vibes in the stadium. The fourth-through-seventh were getting to our seats (very good seats just overlooking the pitch) and the big screens and the enormous singing crowd in unison exclaiming “P-oo-r-too-gal” and, then, the team posters laid out on every seat. I picked one up. Ronaldo was on the right, grinning, reminding me of that terrible statue of him. I shouted to Nataša: “Hey, isn’t that…” But too late for the surprise. Levi had already slipped into the Ronaldo mask left on his seat. So, we had good seats to a Ronaldo game. Can’t be. Ok, can be: up there on the big board, his face at Mount Rushmore size, and the crowd bursting, and eighth, ninth, tenth: “Look!”

Sure enough, the man himself, straight down in front of us, stretching out his immortal hamstrings. He even scored a header (offside, though, whatever that means). We drifted in a mixed cloud of cheers and tiredness and disorientation, all the way back to the apartment–eventually: no easy task getting home from a Ronaldo game!–and crashed out, satisfied and exhausted. What an incredible game! Portugal won 3-0, but the score was immaterial.

A week later, Levi is chasing the red and white ball, now in the south, in Lagos, on the town square, a game begins slowly to start, through a stilted conversation across various language, the boys meeting in a huddle in the center of the square–a little UN. Someone flips Levi his red and white ball and he stops it on the heel of his back foot, then slips it over to his front foot, scooping the back one over and around it, passing it forward off the heel and through his own legs, before scooping it in a nice, perfect arc, running past the other boys, his smile spreading across his whole beautiful face as he runs.

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