Specimen Days: How Bosnia Qualified and I Survived
By Pauls ToutonghiJune 18, 2014
ON APRIL 6, 2013, the Portland Timbers hosted the Houston Dynamo in a Major League Soccer match at Portland’s Jeld-Wen Stadium. I was there — but I can’t tell you much about it. I’ve just discovered that Portland won 2-0, and that the Dynamo wore bright orange uniforms, including knee-high socks the color of reconstituted Minute Maid. Timbers striker Ryan Johnson scored two goals, one of them a scrappy volley in the penalty area after a lovely dipping cross from Diego Chara. Rain fell throughout the game, soaking the players and fans.
But all this is research. What I do remember is what I drank that night — and how I drank it — starting in the car, after putting my two-year-old twins to bed. Driving to the stadium, I stopped at the Plaid Pantry on 26th and Division and bought a nicely chilled, 22-ounce bottle of Lompoc Brewing’s C-Note Imperial Pale Ale, which I drank quickly, immediately, in great gulps, the way I drank anything in those days — especially beer, which I could never drink fast enough to quench my thirst. The bottle was beautiful. Refulgent obsidian glass, small beads of condensation all along its body, the bright yellow Lompoc crest — which had come, in my mind, to denote a certain kind of impending wildness — emblazoned on one side.
Within 20 minutes I’d parked and found my friend Tom, whose season tickets we were using. We worked our way into the crowd and I excused myself — ostensibly to get a beer but really to drink two quick shots of Makers’ Mark, neat, and then buy two large Budweisers (the most they would sell me). Tom doesn’t drink, so I finished both those beers before halftime. Each one was 24 ounces. During halftime, I went out, once again, to buy two beers — and once again had a furtive shot of Makers. For those of you keeping a mathematical record: three ounces of hard liquor, 118 ounces of beer. The equivalent, roughly, of 13 drinks. That evening’s game against the Dynamo lasted 113 minutes. Including the 20 minutes it took to drive to the stadium, I averaged six units of alcohol per hour.
guz·zle [verb \ˈgə-zəl\]
:to drink (something, such as beer or liquor) quickly or in large amounts
:to drink especially liquor greedily, continually, or habitually
:to drink greedily or habitually (guzzle beer)
To reach and maintain a BAC of .08 percent, the legal threshold for driving, a 200-lb man (such as myself) needs to have two initial drinks — and then roughly one additional drink every 40 minutes. So — if I’d had, by the end of the game, four beers, then I would’ve been too drunk to legally drive. On April 6, 2013, I tripled that. There are a number of online blood-alcohol-content calculators; most of these fix my BAC at .22 percent, give or take a fraction of a percentage point. At this concentration, an individual can expect severe motor impairment, memory blackout, loss of understanding, and stupor. One more drink and the list of probable effects would have been slightly different: loss of bladder function, disequilibrium, severe central nervous system depression, and death. Did I mention my twin toddlers — tucked into beds shaped like race cars, just a few miles away?
I drove home. I remember a few snapshots of this. Like yelling at the parking meter, when I discovered that I’d gotten a ticket. Then, yelling at the man who’d made fun of me for yelling at the parking meter — and then, chasing this man through the parking lot, staggering and tripping over myself in my eagerness to catch him, my insides hot with rage. I didn’t catch him, thankfully.
They didn’t catch me, either. No one caught me. Not the cops, not my kids, not my wife — who’d taken a sleeping pill and would be insensate when I arrived home. Drunk-driving patrols routinely scour the Stadium District after Timbers’ games; I eluded these patrols, blackout drunk and listening, at maximum volume, to Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift and Rihanna — on 95.5FM, KBFF, Portland’s Hottest Jams. “I should have bought you flowers,” I remember singing, softly, my head slumped against the driver’s side window, the red streetlight ticking back and forth above me in the rain.
What did I do the next morning? Not much. By nine, I was awake, but hurting. By noon, I’d procured another Lompoc C-Note. I had a few more beers with dinner, and then a few more before bed. And then, the evening after that — April 8 — I attended the 2013 Oregon Book Awards. Attended, even though I felt that my second novel, Evel Knievel Days (Random House/Crown, 2012),had been egregiously overlooked by Myla Goldberg, the fiction judge. I only went because my good friend Izzy — Ismet Prcic — asked me to go, and I was pretty sure he was going to win. Izzy had promised that we could drink away our nerves before the ceremony. First we went to 4-4-2, Portland’s finest Bosnian soccer bar, and then to Trader Vic’s. At Trader Vic’s, I had three or four cocktails, including one that was called, “The Suffering Bastard.”
I humiliated myself at the Book Awards. Not in a grand way, not by charging onto stage and declaring it all a sham (which I certainly contemplated, from my seat in the very last row of the Armory Theatre). Instead, I attended the reception, afterward, and held a series of slurred conversations with nearly every writer who was important in my life — as well as many editors and board members and local patrons of the arts. I drank bourbon — sweet, sweet Blanton’s — and Mirror Pond Pale Ale. And I do remember the last drink of the night. Andrew Proctor, the Executive Director of Literary Arts — whose position is never more unpleasant than during the week of the Book Awards — bought me a flute of champagne. Andrew is a tall, red-haired man, and very pale, and I can close my eyes and see the palette of colors that was him: lobster-colored hair, skin like soft-paste porcelain, swath of freckles, and a flute of champagne descending toward me, fizzing and glimmering in the overhead floods. I drank as much as I had at the soccer game. I took a cab home, and left my car downtown.
Never in my life have I been so ill. I’d been drinking for three days — quite heavily — and without stopping. I started to vomit at five in the morning, and awakened Phineas, my son, with the sound of it. He tottered into the bathroom, where he saw his father, clutching the toilet and retching. “What’s wrong with papa?” he said, and thinking about the sound of his voice, now, makes me ache. I continued to vomit throughout the morning, and the afternoon, and the evening — and for much of the following three days. I couldn’t eat or drink. Yellow shit streamed out of me, my bowels uncontrollable, and I became more and more dehydrated. My back ached; my head ached; I had a fever; probably I had some version of pancreatitis.
Phineas, of course, was not the first person to ever ask what was wrong with me. My ex-wife had certainly wondered the same thing, as had any number of teachers, bosses, friends, and road-rage victims, over the years. But his was the first voice I actually heard— perhaps because the question wasn’t inflected with any sort of expectations. Phineas wasn’t sad, or frustrated, disappointed. He simply wanted to know: what’s wrong with papa? And so, somehow, miraculously, I began to wonder the same thing. What was wrong with me, anyway? Why, exactly, was I so fucked up? And how, at the age of 36, could I possibly fix it?
What you need to know about me is this: I’m half-Egyptian, and half-Latvian. Both of my parents were born overseas, refugees of different World War II cataclysms.
While it isn’t perhaps fair to say that the Egyptians are the most addictive-minded culture in the world, I will say this: the Ebers papyrus, dating from circa 1500 BCE, features the use of opium poppies to quiet the nerves, to make people sleep, and to relieve pain. My experience of Egypt is of a society obsessed with concealment — which is, in a very real sense, addiction’s twin — concealment of the physical (female) body, concealment of the political truth (by the government), concealment of knowledge of almost any kind (in personal secrets and conspiracies). In Book Four of Homer’s Odyssey,the Egyptians are drug enthusiasts. Thon’s wife, the Egyptian queen Polydamna, gives Helena nepenthes— a narcotic that has incredible power.
On the Latvian side, the roots of addiction are less obscure. During the Soviet era, my great-uncle, Eizens Mindenbergs, was a noted translator of Tolstoy into Latvian. He was also a lifelong morphine addict, who drank and smoked, and died of esophageal cancer at the age of 69. Over the course of his final illness, he sent my grandfather a series of heartbreaking letters from within the USSR, detailing his lifelong struggles with addiction. These letters included a number of his poems. Here’s one that I have on the wall in my office:
The translation of the first stanza — which also serves as the last stanza — is as follows:
Our lifelong tracks, we must leave them, everyone of us,
And after me this will not change…
So sing heart — sing a few songs more —
That autumn’s late flowers may blossom,
Even if there weren’t summer roses.
Much of the beauty of the language — its subtle rhymes — can’t be replicated in English. The poem is more poignant, to me, because of Eizens’s struggles with addiction, and also — his illness; he wrote this poem as he underwent the treatment for his fatal cancer. There are typos in it. Did Eizens notice the mistakes? Was he too tired to fix them?
The king died and the queen died, E.M. Forster writes. This is the definition of a story. The king died and the queen died of grief. This, he argues, is a plot. It answers the question: Why?
Accepting that you’re an alcoholic is — for most people — an enormous relief. Once the obsession with drinking is lifted, truly lifted, the alcoholic feels a surge of joy unlike anything he’s felt in years. For me it was a bodily sensation; some long-held tension went rushing out of me; I could feel it in my skin, in my arms and shoulders and neck and back. It was a kind of grace.
Once this sensation passed, though, it did little to speak for Forster’s question. The story was clear: excessive drinking, soccer game, day of recovery, excessive drinking once again at the Oregon Book Awards. Yet I was unable to see the plot. And that was a strange sensation, since the plot involved a protagonist with whom I was fairly well acquainted. I broached this subject with my wife.
“You just didn’t believe in the consequences of anything,” she said. “Yelling at the parking meter, chasing that man. You were daring the world to show you a consequence.”
I wasn’t satisfied with this.
“Or was it that you believed you were different from everybody else, somehow? That those bad things happen to other people — and that somehow you were special. Immortal.”
I nodded. This had resonance. Immortal is a special word for me. I have dreamed — fervently — of immortality, since childhood. One of my fondest wishes, to this day, is that by the time my body fails, we will have figured out a way to map and replicate my consciousness, so my sense of being there, my dasein,can be released like spores into the expanses of the future internet. No kidding. The thought, right now, makes me tingle with joyous anticipation.
It started young. As a child I’d been promised, by my parents at home, and from the pulpit on Sundays, a very specific and unimpeachable kind of immortality. Something like — oh, I don’t know — Psalm 23, “You will live in the house of the Lord forever,” or John 3:16, “everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life,” or well, Philippians 3:20, “He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own.” Or, just possibly, Corinthians 15:51, “But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret: we will not all die, but we will all be transformed!” Or, maybe, John 11-25: “Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die,” or, well, Matthew 25:46, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Not to dwell on this too much, but why not add, Daniel 12:2, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake — these to everlasting life,” or Isaiah 25:16, “Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy.” Or, for that matter, Luke 20:34, “for they cannot even die anymore, because they are like angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” The Bible cannot be accused of understatement.
Perhaps when I was drinking I imagined — not always, sure, and rarely explicitly — that I was immortal. That I’d finally made it to a land free of consequences, where my redemption was at hand.
If there is no immortal transcendence to be had on this planet, for me, in the form of religion or booze, then I will take it in the form of sausage. Or, more specifically, Bosnian sausage. Ćevapi. Ćevapčići— in the diminutive form — are little rolled meat sticks, originating (arguably, always arguably) in Bosnia, many centuries ago. Think of ćevapi as skinless, spicy bratwurst. They are the house specialty at 4-4-2, the Bosnian soccer bar where I started my last bender.
I have tried to extract, from my friend Izzy, any stories from Bosnian folk culture about ćevapi.Any epic tales in which — as in Latvian culture — a mythic folk hero devours a meal of traditional Bosnian fare before slaughtering his enemies in combat. Or songs. I would love to hear a good song about ćevapi,which I imagine would be rhythmically adventurous, like a rollicking sea shanty. I demanded such a song from Izzy one drunken afternoon, after several large mugs of 4-4-2’s custom-brewed specialty, Nice Lady Lager.
“There’s nothing,” Izzy said.
“Not even a sonnet?”
“Bosnians,” he said, “don’t versify their sausage.”
But the slightly sweet bread! Lepinja!Andthe chopped raw onions, so sharp and pungent! And the ajvar! That red pepper relish that’s made with chili peppers! Walt Whitman wrote, in Song of Myself, “Urge and urge and urge / Always the procreant urge of the world.” Clearly, he was talking about Bosnian ćevapi.
I began going, regularly, to 4-4-2, in September of 2012, to watch the Latvian soccer team attempt to qualify for the World Cup. The group the Latvians were in — Group G — also included Bosnia, and so 4-4-2 was certain to show all the games. This was terrific — on any day except September 11, 2012 — when Latvia played the Bosnian team. On that day, it was something quite different to be a Latvian in a Bosnian tavern, and wearing a Latvian hockey jersey (the only thing I had with our nation’s flag on it).
Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs is perhaps the best book about European soccer — and European soccer fans, and the drinking habits of European soccer fans. In one of my favorite scenes from that text, Buford relates the experience of going to his first soccer match — and how it all goes terribly wrong. “For my friends,” Buford writes, “it was an ordinary day out — a bit amusing when the policemen lost their helmets, but otherwise nothing special. True, you wouldn’t expect someone in, say, the theater to urinate on other members of the audience — but lads don’t go to the theater, do they? Lads go to matches on Saturday.”
No one urinated on me at 4-4-2. That did not happen. I don’t want to even imply that it could have happened, that it was even a possibility. Okay, it was a possibility. Anyway, my problem was quite different from this. The problem I had, on September 11, 2012 — as I drank Nice Lady Lager with Izzy, sitting on the edge of my barstool — was that Latvia was winning. In the fifth minute of the match, Kaspars Gorkšs, a Latvian central defender, edged his way forward and — on a set piece from a corner kick — knocked an astonishing, beautiful goal into the back of the net. I stood and screamed with joy — and then realized that a dozen Bosnians were eyeing me, apparently imagining my castration. The man closest to me said something under his breath. I looked at Izzy.
“What did he say?”
“It wasn’t polite,” Izzy said.
“I know it wasn’t polite,” I said, “but I still want to know.”
Izzy looked pained. “He said, ‘Fuck your mother.’”
“Should I be terrified?” I said.
“Only a bit.”
I kept a lower profile for the remainder of the match. Fortunately for me, Bosnia soon scored, to tie it at 1-1 — and then scored again, to move ahead. Then they scored a third time. And then they scored once more. The last goal, tallied by Bosnian hero Edin Džeko — who is known in Sarajevo as Bosanski Dijamant, the Bosnian Diamond — was a marvel of ball control, as Džeko received a pass at the corner of the penalty box, cut to the right and then to the left, eluding two Latvian defenders (one of whom reacted so violently to Džeko’s move that he tore his ACL), and struck a low line-drive into the far corner of the net. The shot traveled at least 40 feet through the air, just inches off the ground.
The score was 4-1 when the final whistle sounded, and the Latvians had done a great service to Bosnia. Not only had they lost, but they’d lost by a significant margin, which would help the Bosnian cause by improving their goal differential. In the case of a tie at the end of World Cup qualifying, the team with the better goal differential would advance to the tournament.
That night, the mood inside of 4-4-2 was ebullient. Mohammed, the bar’s owner, a cheerful white-haired man with a deep accent, came over to our table with free mugs of beer. “Nice Lady for you?” he said, and spilled some of the beverage on our tabletop. He pointed to my Latvia jersey and smiled.
“My friend!” he said. And then he was laughing, he was extending his arms to embrace me. “My friend!” he said again. He turned back and called out to the bar: “Nice Lady for everybody!”
Group G came down to the final day of qualifying — October 15, 2013. Due, in large part, to two resounding wins over Latvia, Bosnia was in a decent position. Tied with Greece for first place in the group, Bosnia had a commanding lead in goal differential; they needed to simply mirror the Greek result, whatever it might be, and they would make it to Brazil.
If the atmosphere in 4-4-2 had been tense, before, it was now stroke-inducing. Bosnia would play Lithuania — not a great team — but the game was in Kaunas, Lithuania’s capital. The stands would be full of loud Lithuanians — and the crowd would be wild in its support of its national team. To make matters worse, Greece was playing Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein is a country that has, roughly, 60 square miles of territory. The 100th largest city in California — Napa — has a population more than twice the size of Lichtenstein. And, to that point, Lichtenstein had scored — in the entirety of the qualifying tournament — only four times. Greece was, basically, playing against the San Juan Capistrano YMCA.
The games happened simultaneously. In the seventh minute, Greece got its first goal. It was — barring a true miracle — the only goal they would need. But Bosnia was struggling to solve the tenacious Lithuanian defense. And the Bosnian team looked nervous. Playing for their first-ever appearance at the World Cup, they nearly conceded two goals to the Lithuanians, and were saved only by the spectacular reflexes of their goalie, Asmir Begovic. In 4-4-2, spirits fell. It was silent. Halftime arrived. Innately pessimistic, Izzy told me the Bosnians were cursed with terrible luck; he was certain — 100 percent certain — that the Bosnians would be eliminated.
Did I mention I was sober? During halftime, Izzy and I talked about his country, which was — he felt — an untenable mess, a jigsaw puzzle rigged by the Dayton Peace Accords. Much of the nation’s tax revenue, he told me, went to sustenance of the federal bureaucracy, which was paralyzed by its size and its religious intricacy. The presidency was a good example of this, Izzy said. It rotated, on a yearly basis, between an Orthodox Christian, a Catholic, and a Muslim. Without sufficient time in office, it was almost impossible to get anything done. But with sufficient time in office, the smart money, Izzy said, was on civil war.
And yet — the soccer team was something that could bring about national unity. The players, unlike almost every other aspect of contemporary Bosnian society, weren’t segregated based on their religion. It was not an empty cliché to insist that the Bosnian national imaginary — the sense, in the minds of its people, of the existence of Bosnianness —was in large part because of this sports team, which traveled the world beneath the Bosnian crest, beneath the distinctive blue and yellow, white-starred shield. Because beyond soccer — what was there that was decisively, happily Bosnian?
Even ćevapi, Izzy explained to me, was part of Bosnia’s cultural battlefield. If ćevapi were made by a Serb, or a Croat, odds were that they would be made of pork. If the cook was Muslim, however, then they would be made of beef or lamb. Whenever he went into a Bosnian restaurant in America, this was the first question he had to ask: Do you make your ćevapi with beef or pork? The answer would tell him — a Muslim who followed halal dietary restrictions — all he needed to know.
“But what about Mohammed’s Nice Lady Lager?” I asked.
Izzy nodded. “Well,” he said, “that’s a bit more complicated.”
In his elegiac little book Soccer in Sun and Shadow,Eduardo Galeano writes that, “Like all Uruguayan children, I wanted to be a soccer player. I played quite well, in fact I was terrific, but only at night when I was asleep.”
As a child I assumed, in the way that all young children subconsciously assume, that my adult life would be an ordered one, that there would be answers for all of my questions, that the narrative I’d live through the world would follow, in some very real sense, Freytag’s dramatic pyramid, with its rising action, and its sensible climax, and its orderly denouement. I certainly never imagined myself at age 37, sitting, soberly, in a bar full of obstreperous Bosnians, concentrating on two screens at once, watching, crestfallen, as Greece increased its lead over Lichtenstein.
On October 15, 2013 — in the 68th minute of the game against Lithuania, Edin Džeko, the Bosnian Diamond, managed to get free of the Lithuanian defense, and possess the ball near the end line, 20 feet or so from the goal. He looked up, for just a fraction of a second, the briefest glance, and saw his teammate, Vedad Ibišević — born in Bosnia but raised in St. Louis, Missouri — standing alone in front of the mouth of the goal. The Lithuanians had somehow left him unmarked. They’d made a gigantic mistake.
Džeko lowered his head. He planted one leg and, with the other, sent a clean, direct cross toward Ibišević. This, then, was it. After all that struggle, all that worry and fear and hope, here he was, Ibišević — standing alone in front of the cavernous, untended goal. All he had to do was extend his leg and flick the ball into the net. It was the simplest kind of physical beauty, the movement of a single muscle. It was quick and easy, like a prayer.
Pauls Toutonghi was born in 1976 to an Egyptian father and a Latvian mother. His writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Boston Review, Five Chapters, One Story, Sports Illustrated, Book Magazine, and numerous other periodicals. He received a Pushcart Prize for his short story “Regeneration,” which appeared in The Boston Review in 2000. His first novel, Red Weather, came out from Random House in 2006. It was translated into Latvian and German. After receiving his PhD in English Literature from Cornell University, Toutonghi moved from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon — where he now teaches at Lewis & Clark College.
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