Sex, Politics, and Football

I’m working in Spain this summer, but I flew to Paris, where I used to live, to get a cheaper transatlantic flight and to catch up with old friends. I met one in the Marche St Honore, a quaint square not far from the Avenue de l’Opera which had an alarmingly modern glass brick of a building in the middle. 

She and another friend, Caroline, had just seen ‘Definitely, Maybe’, a ‘chic-flic’, to console Caroline, who has just broken up with her boyfriend of two years. After briefly discussing our personal lives, Caroline turned to me and asked ‘Alors, tu adores George Bush?’ She went on to explain that she fancied herself the only libertarian in France and that, while she disapproved of Bush’s spending habits, foreign policy, actually his entire administration in general, she saw a lot to like in the American Republican party.

I said that she must, then, be happy to have Sarkozy, practically a libertarian by left-leaning French standards, in the Presidency. She gave me a withering look and I was reminded of the fact that I have yet to meet a French person who has expressed any faith in the political system. What did she think about Europe, then?, I asked. And the Lisbon Treaty, which the Irish so recently blocked by voting against it in their national referendum? (The EU, still lacking a Constitution – the draft proposed in 2005 failed to pass referendums in France and the Netherlands – takes as its legal code a succession of treaties, the most recent of which is the 2001 Treaty of Nice). It would never pass, she said. 

The way she sees it, Europe is doomed to a future of lukewarm alliances between semi-hostile nations who nevertheless realize they have more in common with each other than the rest of the world and therefore will accept small compromises, but only after exhausting every effort to demonstrate they would rather not. Like, for example, the Irish, who will eventually accept some version of the Lisbon treaty, most likely almost identical to the one 53% of them just rejected. In sum, Europe can look forward to a future as full of exasperating negotiations as the last 50 years.

Tiring of politics, the discussion moved on to football. Not to make any gross generalizations, but I’ve found that many of my conversations in France follow this basic pattern: standard greeting (a kiss on each cheek), inquiry into the personal life (do you have a boyfriend?), discussion of politics (plus ca change, toute c’est la meme chose), and, finally, football. 

Spain beat Russia in the semi-final for the quadrennial European Cup and will be playing Germany tomorrow evening. I mentioned how frustrated I was with myself for having bought a ticket for the overnight train from Paris to Madrid for Sunday evening and therefore unwittingly ruining my chances to see this potentially historic event with the Madrilenos. Two years ago, I was chaperoning a tour in Italy and we found ourselves in Rome the night Italy won the world cup. After putting my charges to bed with dire warnings about how dangerous the streets would be – full of drunk soccer hooligans! – a fellow chaperone and I put on as much azure (the color of the Italian jersey) as we could find and hit the streets. 

The scene was, as one might predict, absolute bedlam. Thousands of mopeds and Peugots with twice as many passengers as they should normally hold were packed bumper-to-tire along the avenues. Blaring horns competed with flag-draped and beer-soaked revelers chanting ‘Italia!’ and the opening lick to the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, which I later learned is the theme music played on TV before soccer games. I’m not a fan of professional sports and you could not pay me to watch a Red Sox game on TV, but I’ve had quite an affection for European soccer matches since that evening.

‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ my friend said with a wink. ‘You won’t be missing anything. Germany is definitely going to win this one.’

Reassured (falsely), I said goodnight to my friend and met a friend from Harvard who wanted to go dancing. One thing led to another, and we found ourselves watching the sun rise over Paris from the steps of Sacre Coeur with Nick, a rather drunk American serviceman on leave from Baghdad. 

Sitting among the glass shards of wine bottles left over from others’ Saturday night revelry, I asked him how long he had before he went back to Iraq. ‘I’ve been stop-lossed,’ he said. ‘Do you know what that means?’ I replied that I wasn’t sure, but from what I understood it meant that soldiers who had served their time were sent back overseas rather than discharged. ‘Exactly,’ he said. 

I didn’t press him on it, but I’ve been wondering a lot about the policy recently. According to Wikipedia, ‘Stop-loss’ is ‘the involuntary extension of a service member’s active duty service under the enlistment contract in order to retain them beyond their initial end of term of service (ETS) date.’ When servicemen enlist, they generally sign a contract obliging them to a fixed term of 2-4 years. In the fine print, however, is the catch: ‘the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States’ Title 10, USC Section 12305(a). Challenges to the legality of the policy are, therefore, difficult, but challenges to the moral rightness of sending those who have already put their lives at risk for their country back into the combat zone involuntarily are gaining ground, no doubt aided by the recent movie ‘Stop-Loss’ and the general discussion provoked by our upcoming election.

I turned to hug Nick, in a completely inadequate gesture of sympathy for his situation, but found he had wandered over to a group of French 20-somethings in order to bum a cigarette. They asked him what he thought of the war in Iraq. He drew his eyebrows together in a look of extreme concentration for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, and said, ‘It’s heavy. Shit. It’s heavy.’

Not knowing what to say, we watched the rooftops turn from dark gray to silver. My father once pointed out how, in the early morning twilight, it always seems like the sky is as bright as day, and then the sun actually appears and it’s hard to hold back a feeling of utter joy and contentment with the world. I’ve always found it to be true, no matter what is on my mind, and this morning was no exception. I wonder if it worked for Nick.
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