Time stopped. Or at least, it slowed down long enough for me to enjoy the naked terror of watching my high school nightmare unfold before my eyes. In the span of two short seconds I flailed my arms upward, not high enough to cover my face (or do anything useful for that matter) and held my breath – a pointless defense tactic. My scream reflex conquered during years of miserable summer volleyball picnics, it was in silence that my nose made intimate acquaintance with a hard leather, good ole’ American football.
Anthropologists have a phrase for when someone lives among a new people group for so long that they become a part of that community – adopting its customs, mannerisms, mindsets… It’s called “Going Native.”
I would hardly say I’ve gone that far, but I will admit that I have become increasingly disgusted by tourists who hog both sides of the escalator and have begun to find the American accent irrationally irritating. I don’t get upset when I hear loud Americans (or Italians… My goodness, Italians) on the buses and metros, but I do roll my eyes with the rest of the nationals. I feel like to survive here I have been trying to fit in with as little friction as possible and in doing so I have laid aside some of my Americanisms.
So what happened this weekend was essential in rebalancing my inner identity.
It’s Saturday afternoon and two of my Czech friends convinced me to join them in a football game with some other Czech and a lanky American English instructor who shall from here on be referred to as American Joe.
American Joe is 6’3’’ and, apart from his respectable stature, has a respectable sense of humor. Leaning more towards goofy-looking than dashing, he still manages to cut an intimidating silhouette on the ocean of soft spring grass we had claimed as our field. Parading around in the silky sunlight of late afternoon, we stroll onto the meadow to begin warming up, wearing our awkward I’ve-just-met-you grins (it was a grimace in my case – I confess to have been in a bad mood due to an intense desire to stop everything and take a nap).
American Joe tosses the ball to each of us, showing the girls how to grasp it for the best spiral. We also could have used a lesson in how to catch it, throw it or hold it without dropping it. He’s in a chipper mood, unfazed by my cavalier approach to this game and my complete lack of cooperation on the “let’s learn the rules” front.
“I feel like an Indian Princess,” I say, curtsying with the tips of my white flags pinched between my fingers.
“Leave those in your pockets,” he says. “The other team will grab them to tackle you.”
“Oh, so this is like flag football,” I say. He gives me an exasperated smile and nods.
Cool. I’ve heard of that.
“Are any of you good at sprinting?” American Joe asks me and the girls.
“No,” I say. “Mostly I just do the smack talk.”
He chuckles, ignoring the snippiness in my voice.
“That’s such an American thing to say,” he tells me. “Czechs tend to be quietly ferocious, but Americans stretch out our arms and say, ‘C’mere and look what I got!’” – he spreads out his own arms like an eagle to demonstrate. I perked up a tiny bit – something felt good about having my American qualities recognized and appreciated.
We split into two teams of three with American Joe agreeing to swap between us to play quarterback.
“What’s a quarterback?” asks my Czech friend. I laugh condescendingly because she doesn’t know. I don’t technically know either so I leave one ear cocked open to hear what American Joe will say.
“I just throw the ball to you guys,” he said. “I won’t do any of the running. Okay?”
My friend and I accept this answer as reasonable and move to the line-thinging that we kept starting at (never found out what that was called). I squat like they do in the movies and growl at the boy across from me. Based on hair and choice of red T-shirt, I will venture a guess that he is in high school. He looks more amused than intimidated by my show of fierceness, but that would change. American Joe calls, “Hike!” and I run screaming at the boy whose eyes have now widened to the size of a 50 Crown coin. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t have the ball, so when I get to him I stop. We just stand there eyeing each other.
It’s the second down (mwahaha, football lingo!) and I give my growl and scream routine a second go. This time, red shirt boy runs after the football before I can get to him. So I find myself just standing on the field alone and awkward and still wanting a nap.
I shuffle over to American Joe who asks if I have a question – he’s on a high from a good play so his patience is nicely padded.
“Yeah,” I say, twirling my Indian Princess tassel-flags. “What am I supposed to do?”
I see him inhale. The annoying 12 year old in me is secretly extremely gratified to see someone else finding this situation undesirable.
“Just cover your guy.”
“Do I tackle him?”
“Not unless he has the ball.”
“What do I do if he doesn’t have the ball?”
“Make sure he doesn’t get it.”
Growl intensely. Run and scream. . . Er, let’s start calling that scream a “war cry.” Employ war cry. Stand and wait for the play to finish. Honestly, football is a thousand times easier than I thought it would be.
This is when things get serious. Because this is when I get hit with a football. I don’t know how exactly it ended up coming in my direction. I just remember seeing it fly towards me and then feeling the grass beneath the palm of my left hand as I held my nose with my right thinking to myself, “This will be the coolest story ever if I get a nosebleed.”
And that’s it. That’s all it takes. Suddenly, the game is real. My overly-competitive, don’t-poke-the-bear nature that is so intrinsically American awakes with a roar.
I start paying attention to American Joe as he describes the various rules of the game as they arise or become issues. The Super Bowl is going to make so much more sense next year.
At one point I had a run-in with a pair of unclipped fingernails which left a gash and an ugly blue bruise on my right arm, making me the only player to leave the field with an injury (if you’re not counting the two shirts that got ripped in half by that same claw of death – nail clippers, ever heard of ‘em?).
Do I detect a hint of relief in the voice of American Joe as he says, “Cya later” while I troop off the meadow? I feel a tiny twinge of guilt and briefly wish I had thanked him for … putting up with me, I guess.
Americans have a habit of blundering through foreign experiences, new acquaintances and nearly everything else. I especially tend to make a mess of these things. It is perhaps my most recognizable American quality here. And while it’s easy to turn into a guarded and cynical expat, American Joe reminded me what I love most about the people from home. They are easily accepting of everyone, despite quirks or pre-assumed temperaments. They can be sarcastic and funny without being mean. And they can take a hit (or give one) just as freely as they can give encouragement or offer a water bottle.
And while football is still not my favorite sport – and I am not its favorite player – I can find no fault in our rough-and-tumble, bend-the-rules-to-make-it-fit scrimmage, romping around on a Czech meadow with a leather ball and some new friends, screaming and shouting and being obnoxious. For the first time in months it felt like I was stretching out my arms and opening up my chest as if to tell the lazy afternoon, “Hey, look at me! I’m an American!”