USA Trip Part 2: Charlottesville, VA

The second part of our USA trip was probably the part I most anticipated.  We got up early on Saturday morning and drove to Charlottesville, Virginia, a city that holds a special place in my heart. Charlottesville is a relatively small town, nestled at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and home to the University of Virginia, a place where I spent four wonderful years.  It truly is one of my favorite places on earth, and I think it is a great example of small-town America.  As Willem can attest, I talk about my love for “Cville” and UVA constantly, so I was beyond excited to finally show him everything I had been telling him about for the past two years.

We timed our visit to coincide with the first UVA football game of the season, and I got my brother (who is a student there now) to get us guest tickets for the game.  We arrived in Charlottesville a few hours before the game, so I took Willem on a walking tour of Grounds.  We wandered up the lawn, around the rotunda and the pavilion gardens, and down the Corner, where we got lunch at Little John’s, a deli that is always a favorite with students.

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The Rotunda

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Playing tour guide for Willem at UVA. On either side of me are the famous “serpentine” brick garden walls, designed by Jefferson himself

After lunch we walked to the stadium. The game was set to start at 3:30pm, but it was so unbearably hot outside that we took refuge in the air-conditioned Aquatic & Fitness Center next to the stadium for a while before going in.  In fact, it was so hot that the University had to put its “heat management plan” in effect, meaning they made free water available to all students and had mist tents up on the concourse for anyone feeling ill from the heat.

All decked out in orange and blue for Willem’s first college football game!

The most exciting part of the game is the beginning.  I love when the stadium anthems get everyone pumped up, and when the team bursts out of the locker rooms behind the Virginia cavalier who rides out onto the field on his horse.

The cavalier riding out on the field on his horse

It is an amazing experience to be in a stadium with 60,000+ other people, all brimming with optimism for a new season and ready to go wild cheering for their team.  And despite an intense 2.5 hour thunderstorm delay, we stuck it out and were there to see UVA beat Brigham Young University in a down-to-the-wire finish. I freaking LOVE college football!

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The rain pours down in the stadium

The next day, we planned to do some more of my favorite Charlottesville activities—all of which involve the great outdoors.  Charlottesville’s proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains is one of its nicest features.  In less than 20 minutes, you can be out of the city, driving on Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There are plenty of places to hike, secret picnic spots and swimming holes to discover, and during the wintertime, places to ski and snowboard.

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Country roads…take me home…to the place…..I belong

We tried to begin our day by visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, but the place was so crowded already we had to buy our tickets to tour the estate for later in the afternoon and plan to come back. So instead, we drove to Mile 5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the starting point for a hike to a place called Humpback Rocks. The trail most people take up the mountain is short (only about a mile each way), but it is extremely strenuous. The trail gains over 800ft in elevation in that short distance. Close to the top, the gravel and dirt trail becomes pure boulders that you have to scramble over to reach the end.  If you aren’t in shape or are unused to hiking, you will be sucking some serious wind by the time you reach the top!  When you reach the top though, you will be rewarded with some incredible 360-degree views of the mountains and valleys in the distance.  It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit, the views will be different (and equally worth the hike) every time.

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The trail marker at the beginning of the hike

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The first view from the top

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Willem playing monkey on the rocks

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You can see why these mountains are called the “Blue Ridge”

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Victorious hikers!

Once we were off the mountain, Willem and I drove over to Carter Mountain, an orchard popular with Charlottesville residents and visitors alike.  The orchard is located on the top of a ridge, and has gorgeous views of Charlottesville down below. Depending on the time of year, you can pick your own peaches, apples, and other varieties of fruits.  There is also a traditional country store where you can buy all kinds of products made right there at Carter Mountain.  They are famous for their hot apple cider donuts, homemade pies, and fresh peach ice cream.  My mouth is watering just thinking about the food there.

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Fresh picked peaches!

We brought a picnic lunch we had made earlier and ate it at the wooden tables they have scattered around.

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Willem and his squinty-sun-face enjoying lunch

Sitting in the breeze at the top of the mountain, listening to bluegrass music in the background, enjoying melt-in-your-mouth apple cider donuts…that is pretty close to how I imagine the perfect afternoon.

With our bellies full and the car loaded up with apples, we drove back to Monticello for our 4pm tour.  Monticello was Thomas Jefferson’s home, and is now (along with UVA, which he founded) a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Every schoolchild in America knows Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of our first presidents, but few people know that Monticello was his true pride and joy.  Jefferson designed every detail of Monticello himself, and it is considered a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture.  He named the plantation Monticello (Italian for “little mount”) due to its beautiful location on the top of a hill.

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Monticello

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Monticello

Charlottesville, Monticello, Mountain View, Thomas Jefferson, Blue Ridge Parkway

Pretty from all angles

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Not a bad view…

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Jefferson knew how to pick a nice vista!

The inside of the house is incredible, and the tour of the site is well worth the cost of admission.  I know my history, and I still learned things from the guide.  No matter how much or little you already know, you will come out of a trip to Monticello with an appreciation for the genius of the man that was our 3rd president.  I know when I build my dream house one day I am definitely going to be stealing some of his ideas for my own masterpiece!

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Cathedral of Football: A Pilgrimage to Camp Nou

They call it the beautiful game.  For some individuals, football (or soccer, as we Americans like to call it) is more than a game. It is a perfect harmony, a grand showcase of human talent and coordination.  It is a religious experience.

I have been a fan of FC Barcelona for as long as I can remember.  When I visited the city of Barcelona for the first time back in December 2011, I caught my first glimpse of Barça’s home turf: Camp Nou.  The largest stadium in Europe, Camp Nou can seat 98,000+ screaming supporters.  After taking the stadium tour and standing next to that hallowed turf, I knew I just had to return.  I did not want to read about Barça or watch them on TV anymore, I wanted to be one of those passionate fans swept along in the stadium’s electric atmosphere.  Attending a home Barça match catapulted to number one on my football bucket list.  I got my wish sooner than even I expected, when I received my Christmas present from Willem this year in the form of tickets to the upcoming La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Osasuna.

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Jamon y Pan Con Tomate: I could live off of this traditional Catalan food!

We decided to make a weekend out of the match.  We arrived on Saturday night, and after dropping our backpacks off at our hostel (more on the hostel later) we immediately went back out to meet up with some friends of mine from Barcelona.  Since my friends are all Barcelona natives, they took us out for a real Catalan dining experience at a neighborhood restaurant called Can Punyetes.  It was one of those places that you would probably walk right past if you didn’t already know it was there.  The unassuming entrance, however, revealed a beautifully cozy, old world-style interior.  The first thing I noticed was that the restaurant was clearly filled with locals.  There was a constant low buzz of familiar conversation, and the food smelled delightfully home-cooked.  The menu was completely written in Catalan, which I took to be a good sign (in my experience, places with dedicated English menus generally cater to tourists, and are always overpriced and overrated), although this meant my Spanish skills were almost entirely useless.  We started out with a platter of my favorite traditional Catalan food, pernil i pa amb tomàquet (Spanish ham on top of toasted bread spread with tomato—in Spanish, jamón y pan con tomate).  It may sound like a simple combination, but trust me, this appetizer is pure genius.  I would eat Spanish jamón every day if I could.  We each had a different main course in order to sample as many dishes as possible.  All in all, it was a wonderful, relaxed dinner—the perfect introduction to the local Barcelona lifestyle.

After dinner we returned to our hostel, Casa Consell. When I stay at hostels, I generally try not to expect anything more than a place to sleep and toss my stuff while out exploring.  I realize that you usually get what you pay for.  For the price we paid, though, this hostel was amazing.  It was definitely not your typical dirty dormitory.  The hostel was hidden on the second and third floors of a 19th century building near Passieg de Gracia, complete with one of those creaky, old-fashioned elevators with ornate wooden doors.  The architecture geek in me could not get over the gorgeous vaulted ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors, and secluded outdoor terrace.  We got our own key to the building, so it felt like we were real residents, not visitors.  I was sad that we could only stay there two nights, and that it was winter so we could not fully enjoy the outside terrace!

 

The next day, we woke up in total match mode.  We spent a few enjoyable hours wandering the streets of Barcelona without a particular destination in mind.  As the day wore on, I started to spot more and more football scarves and Messi jerseys adorning pedestrians around us.  The entire city was getting ready for the match, and I was getting more excited  by the minute! Below are a few of the pictures I took on our pre-match wanderings around the city:

 

We took the metro out to the stadium, along with dozens of other fans that were traveling in the same carriage.  As we walked towards the stadium, I could hear music wafting towards us from inside.  The closer to the stadium we walked, the more energized I got.  I felt like I had just downed a couple of energy drinks.  We collected our tickets at the proper booth, and made our way to our gate.  The process was surprisingly simple.  Compared to the Dutch Eredivisie match that I attended a few months ago (read about that experience here), there were fewer security measures at Camp Nou.  After finding the gate, we showed our tickets to the attendant and walked in.  From the time we had our tickets in hand to the time we reached our seats, less than 10 minutes passed.  The feeling in the stadium was also more family-friendly than in the Netherlands (and the male-female ratio was significantly better than every other European country where I have attended football matches).  Hooliganism, apparently, is not a severe issue in Barcelona.

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My golden ticket

Before the match started we heard news that Cristiano Ronaldo had scored a hat trick in Real Madrid’s match against Getafe earlier that day.  I jokingly predicted that Lionel Messi (a.k.a. my hero) would then score four goals in the match we were about to see, simply because he couldn’t bear to lose to Ronaldo.  Willem laughed in the most skeptical way possible, as if to say, “I know you are Messi’s biggest fan, Sarah, but really? You’re setting your expectations a little high.”  I bet you can guess what happened that night (hint hint, the woman is always right)!

Every Barcelona match begins with the Cant del Barça (Song of Barcelona), Barça’s anthem and an integral part of the team’s identity.  The hymn is always sung in Catalan (and not Spanish), because Barça has long been a symbol of Catalan culture, and at times the center for the Catalan independence movement from Spain.  During Franco’s rule, for instance, Camp Nou was the only place where traditional Catalan songs and protests for independence could safely be sounded, because Franco was afraid that crushing the protests would attract too much negative international media attention to his regime.  Even today, most people are unaware that Barcelona officially supports the Catalan national football team (though it is not recognized by FIFA since Catalonia is not an independent state).  As a bastion of Catalan culture, Barcelona supplies a majority of the team’s players, including its captain, Carles Puyol.  So for many of the Barcelona players, their team is not just important for football, but also as a medium for preserving and promoting the idea of Catalonia. Whatever your politics, it is impossible not to get swept along with the passions swirling through Camp Nou when the entire stadium rises to sing.  Though I knew few of the words, standing amongst the sea of supporters belting out the Cant del Barça with every power they possessed sent chills down my spine. To hear the anthem for yourself, click here.

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Part of the Barcelona family now!

It was clear to me that FC Barcelona’s motto, “More than a club” rings true for its supporters.  Fans who have attended Barça matches their entire lives talked about the players as if they were family, never merely as entertainment.  When Messi scored the first goal of the match, the old men sitting next to us smacked each other on the back, as if to congratulate themselves on the achievements of a successful son they had personally raised. And when Puyol, the defender often described as the heart of the team, made a particularly intense 80 yard sprint up the field to support the attack, he received an appreciative ovation from the crowd upon his next touch of the ball.

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Messi about to take his penalty kick

This family-style modus operandi results in an extremely fluid style of play, with an emphasis on teamwork and constant ball possession.  Watching Barcelona’s players pass to one another is truly like watching a dance.  Except it is a dance where half of the dancers are professionals and the other half are toddlers. Luckily for my fingernails (which would have been gnawed off in nervous anticipation otherwise), Barcelona handily defeated Osasuna.  The final score of the match was a 5-1 win for Barcelona.  Four of Barcelona’s goals were scored by Messi (that’s my boy!)—and all of them were perfect testaments to the beautiful game. An additional goal from Pedro brought Barcelona’s tally to five.

As amazing as the match was, I don’t think a different score would have changed my opinion of this team and this stadium.  The history, the atmosphere, and the Catalan-steeped football culture in Barcelona are unlike any other place on earth.  Camp Nou is a massive stadium, even by American stadium standards, and yet it retains an intimacy.  Yes, the stadium may be well-worn, to the point where ramshackle would probably be a better word to describe it in some places (it is over 50 years old, after all), but it is also well-loved.  Every year, the club brings the issue of the construction of a new stadium to the table, and every year the club members vote it down.  They don’t want a new stadium.  Camp Nou is their home. It is their cathedral.  And now, it is mine too.

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View of Camp Nou from our seats

Netherlands-Italy International: February 6, 2013

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A few pics from the Netherlands-Italy international soccer friendly played at the Amsterdam ArenA (normally home to Ajax) last week. The Netherlands fielded one of their youngest teams ever (with an average age of only 22 years!), but considering their lack of experience they played a really decent match against those Italian giants like Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon.  Interestingly enough, the Netherlands have never won a friendly against Italy.  It seemed like they would finally earn their first victory when they went ahead by one goal; but alas, Italy scored a heartbreaker in the 90th minute and the match ended in a 1-1 tie.  One of my personal favorite moments of the game came when Mario Balotelli was called offside and he kicked the ball out of bounds in anger.  The entire stadium started cheering and clapping as he stormed away, as if it was a goal in itself to get into Balotelli’s head and provoke some of that infamous temper.  Hate him or not (and I admit I’m one of the haters–especially since his talent is so obvious), you can always count on Mario to provide some good old fashioned entertainment on the field.  This was my first international soccer match in the Netherlands, and after seeing this one, I can’t wait for more!

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Symbol of the Dutch Football Federation

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The Teams Entering the Field

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Amsterdam ArenA

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The Match Begins!

Superbowl XLVII: Let’s Geaux!

Superbowl Teams

It’s almost here. Superbowl Sunday!  It isn’t a national holiday, but it may as well be. The much-anticipated single biggest sporting event in the United States  (and second only to the UEFA Champions League Final as the most-watched annual sporting event in the world) airs tomorrow–at the ungodly hour of 12:30am here in the Netherlands, I might add.  I will be the first to admit that I am not usually the biggest fan of (American) football, but sitting here in Tilburg right now, my Superbowl excitement meter is pushing its limits.  Like any true American I go crazy for the hype, the tradition, and the atmosphere surrounding the Superbowl.  Every other day I am an American living in the Netherlands, eating Dutch food, learning Dutch culture, and following Dutch etiquette.  But on Superbowl Sunday, I get to tear up while hearing my national anthem, munch on deliciously-unhealthy American snacks, cheer for my chosen team, and generally feel free to be as completely, utterly, and unabashedly “American” as I please.

This year’s contest looks to be a pretty darn good one.  The AFC-champion Baltimore Ravens are taking on the favored NFC-champion San Francisco 49ers. I don’t really have an opinion as to who wins this match-up (my team is the New Orleans Saints).  Arguably the most interesting story in the lead-up to the Superbowl hasn’t even concerned the teams themselves.  Instead, it has been the coaches under the spotlight.  For the first time in history, the head coaches of the two teams are brothers.  I imagine there will be some tense dinner conversations at their house after tomorrow!

Superbowl Superdome2The game will be played in New Orleans, at the Superdome.  The stadium (home to my beloved Saints during the regular season) looks a little like a squat nuclear reactor from the outside, but boasts one of the most incredible stadium experiences (i.e. it gets loud in there!) in the country.  If there is one thing New Orleans knows how to do well, it is throw a rockin’ party.  This will also be the first Superbowl to be played at the Superdome since it suffered significant damage in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The Superdome (and the city of New Orleans) has certainly come a long way since almost 30,000 residents were forced to take refuge in the stadium during the hurricane and its aftermath.

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The game itself is only part of the Superbowl equation.  Some people (okay, women) watch the Superbowl as much for the commercials and the halftime entertainment than for the game.  This year, Beyoncé is slated to perform.  While most of the world is in love with her, I’m sure the network broadcasters in the U.S. will all be crossing their fingers and praying that no “nipplegate” à la Janet Jackson 2004 happens this time.  My boyfriend has an entirely different viewpoint on the matter.  By Dutch standards, the whole idea of censoring a nip-slip on TV is prudish American overkill.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a Dutch movie that doesn’t have at least a few boob shots.  The nonchalant way the Dutch act about breasts, one would almost think half the population possesses them!

My personal favorite aspect of the Superbowl is without a doubt the commercials.  At a going rate of $4 million for a 30 second ad, you can pretty much guarantee there will be some good ones.  Last year, I missed the commercials because I watched the Superbowl on the BBC online broadcast in the UK, which edited them out in place of normal BBC advertisements (who does that?!).  Let me tell you, the Superbowl is beyond boring without my yearly dose of hilarious Anhueser-Busch/Doritos/Coca-Cola ad magic.  Chevrolet won my vote for the two best of last year:

 

As long as I have a broadcast of the game, commercials and all, the only other essential I need for a perfect night of sports is some good ol’ American food.  Because let’s be honest, the real reason watching the Superbowl is so much fun is because it is a no-guilt excuse to eat greasy, yummy food!   Unfortunately, the grocery stores in Tilburg are severely lacking in this type of grub.  There are no pizza rolls, no ranch dips, and worst of all, no BBQ chips!  What does a girl have to do to get some BBQ Lays’ around here?!  The closest thing I could find was “barbeque ham” flavor….yeah, the Dutch have strange tastes sometimes.  Other contenders in the Dutch supermarket “weirdest chip flavor sweepstakes” included “bolognese”, “Mexican peppers and cream”, and “cucumber and goats”.  Some part of me wonders what cucumber and goats taste like, but I decided to pass on that culinary experience for now in favor of the barbeque ham that I hope will taste as good as the chips back in the U.S. (Update: I couldn’t wait until tomorrow. The taste is closer to a chip version of lunchmeat than to barbeque; however, they are surprisingly not terrible).

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My Dutch Superbowl snacks–at least I found chicken wings!

If all of this doesn’t get you as excited for the Superbowl as I am, then you may be hopeless (or maybe just European).  Just in case you’re not quite convinced about the pure awesome-ness of this day, I will leave you with these Superbowl trivia facts.  At least you can impress your friends who do care!

  • The Superbowl is the 2nd largest day of food consumption in the U.S. after Thanksgiving. Over 1 billion chicken wings are consumed during the game.
  • The Monday after Superbowl Sunday is the single most missed day of work in the U.S.  Almost 7 million people call in sick every year. That is approx. 5-6% of the U.S. workforce!
  • In the entire Superbowl history, not a single game has gone into overtime.

Happy Superbowl Sunday!

You’ll Never Walk Alone…Or, How I Spent the Coldest Night of My Life

FC-Twente Logo

Last Saturday, as I sat next to Willem on a train to Neede to pick up some documents I needed for my residence permit application, Willem received a text.  He turned to me and asked if I would be interested in attending a Dutch Eredivisie football match between FC Twente (the 2010 league champion) and RKC Waalwijk.  Our friend had two extra tickets for the match that evening. I gave him a look that could only be interpreted as “Of course I want to go, you ninny! Sign me up!”  (Have I mentioned how much I love football?)

A few hours later, I found myself on a bus headed from Neede to the stadium in Enschede.  It was immediately apparent that the bus was full of die-hard Twente fans (including Willem’s brother).  The Grolsch beer was flowing, everyone seemed to know everyone already, and red-and-white FC Twente scarves adorned every neck.  I was particularly conspicuous on the crowded bus, for two main reasons: I am a female, and I speak little to no Dutch.  First of all, very few women go to football matches in the Netherlands.  Football is generally a “guy thing” here, and judging by the extremely skewed male/female ratio on the bus, this match was no different.  In addition, I was on the way to a match between two football teams most Americans have never heard of, much less cheered on at a home match.  I may as well have walked onto the bus with a large neon sign on my head screaming, “Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”

I was at first reluctant/apprehensive to speak to anyone for fear of saying something wrong about their beloved team, but curiosity got the better of me and I struck up a conversation with the old man sitting next to me on the ride to the stadium.  He told me he hadn’t spoken English to anyone in years so he had forgotten a lot, but between my small Dutch vocabulary and his broken English we managed.  I learned that he had been an FC Twente fan his entire life, and that he never misses a home match.  Talk about dedication—and from someone who was clearly at least 70 years old!  I even found out that he had visited Virginia waaay back in 1963, when he was working as a sailor on the Holland America shipping line.  It continues to amaze me how often encounters like this occur while I’m traveling.  I can be in the middle of nowhere-ville, Netherlands, and still find someone with a connection to my home 7,000 miles away.

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FC Twente Stadium

When the bus pulled up to the stadium, named De Grolsch Veste (“The Grolsch Fortress”) after the famous local beer brewing company, we got out and walked to the entrance.  I should maybe mention here that the temperature outside was approximately 19°F (-7°C), with a windchill that made it feel much colder.  Even though I had dressed as warmly as I could, the frigid air blowing straight through my multiple layers of clothing on the short walk to the stadium entrance made it clear that I was in for a cold night.  Willem was in an even worse situation than me since he was wearing shoes with only a thin rubber sole, but him being a guy, he didn’t want to admit how cold he was for fear of being a pansy.  I started to get excited about the match, despite the cold, when I looked up to see the brightly-lit stadium looming above me.  Inside the stadium, we still had 45 minutes before the match started so we decided to wander around.  Unlike the stadiums in the U.S., here you are restricted to a small area around your seat and the nearest concession stand.  Massive plexi-glass barriers (each guarded by dozens of security officers and police) separate the sections of the stadium.  This is for safety. Dutch football fans don’t mess around and they don’t take insults to their team lightly.  In the past there have been serious fights between fans of opposing sides, sometimes resulting in serious injuries or deaths.  For an American used to the family-friendly atmosphere of MLS or USL matches, the need for these barriers and constant security is both fascinating and somewhat scary.  My parents, for instance, used to take my brother and I to soccer matches on a Saturday afternoon and bid us adieu, saying, “Bye kids, have fun, see you at the gate at the end of the game!” …and off we would go without a second thought to the possibility of any kind of danger. I seriously doubt any parent would let their child wander around a football stadium unattended in the Netherlands.

That being said, the atmosphere that I experienced in a Dutch football stadium was amazing, and far from scary. The Twente fans, normally known for being some of the craziest in the country, were relatively subdued; this was most likely due to the fact that taking your hands out of your pocket to throw them in the air in protest at a referee’s decision practically meant risking frostbite!  Still, more than 29,000 people braved the cold to support Twente (something that I venture to say would never happen at an MLS match in similar weather conditions).  One of the best moments of the evening occurred at the beginning, when the FC Twente starting line-up walked out onto the field to the entire stadium of supporters singing the Twente anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry & The Pacemakers.  The song is probably more famous as a tradition of Liverpool FC, but FC Twente has also claimed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as its own.

 

Even with all of the supporters, the football played down on the field was relatively boring.  The final score ended in a lackluster 0-0.  Not that I can blame either team.  I imagine it is difficult to score when you can’t feel your feet.  By the time the final whistle blew, all I could think about was how quickly I could get back to the warm bus.  It is difficult to describe just how bitter cold it was outside that night.  My legs and feet had gotten so cold and stiff that walking down the flights of stairs out of the stadium, it felt as if I was pulling blocks of lead (or ice) along with me.  Willem couldn’t even zip his jeans back up after going to the bathroom because his hands were too frozen (which still made me giggle even in my near-frozen state)!  As much as I love football, I have never been happier to come home to a warm house and warm bed as I was on Saturday night. I may not have grown up a FC Twente supporter, but after braving the cold I’m pretty sure I deserve to be a card-carrying lifelong fan as much as anyone!