The summer of my 21st year, a long time ago, I worked in a machine factory in a small town in Switzerland, about 20 miles from Zurich.
I had worked the previous eight summers at a golf course in Maine, and I was ready for a change, an adventure, something independent.
My co-workers at the factory accepted me as a curiosity. We all wore the same blue common-laborer jumpsuit. For many, I was the first American they had ever known.
When I punched in at 7 a.m., at the beginning of my shift, the other workers all greeted me with “Johnny America!” and made the gesture and sound of a pistol firing, “kchooo, kchooo kchooo.” To them, I was a cowboy, the dominant image of Americans from the popular media of the time.
When the whistle blew ending the shift at 4 p.m., they pointed to me and I pronounced loudly a phrase they had taught me, “Schluss für heute!” or “Quittin’ time!”
I was truly on my own.
That summer was a World Cup year and Switzerland qualified, though quickly went out, losing her first three matches. England was host and made it all the way to the final against West Germany in Wembley before 98,000 fans.
I found a gasthaus in the middle of town where local fussball fans gathered for the games on TV, and bier.
Watching the final in that Swiss tavern with a packed house of fanatics remains near the top of my favorite sports experiences, and when England won on a disputed goal in “extra time,” I exulted, though quietly, as I was in the German region of Switzerland.
Less than two years later, in the spring of 1968, I was on the road again, this time with my friend Jon, hitchhiking around central and southern Europe for five months.
This was before the Internet. Way before.
We never called home — exorbitant long distance rates prohibited that. Writing postcards was a daily downtime activity. We were truly far away, though in Europe, the West.
In Spain, we became absorbed by the Bullfight. We read Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon” and attended the corrida each weekend in the two months we were in the country. We were transfixed by the élan and athleticism first of the banderilleros and then the matadors themselves.
We knew it was ritual more than competition: we understood the bull always loses. But the spectacle was captivating, nothing like it at home in the U.S.
We saw Antonio Ordonez earn two ears and a tail, and a wild, sustained standing ovation from the packed crowd at the Plaza de Toros in Malaga, his home town, so clean was his swordwork on his second bull.
Now, a lifetime later, here I am in Cameroon, West Africa, for the year. I never have been away from home, in another country, for a whole year, like now.
I meet American expatriates teaching at the American School here in Yaounde, for whom this life is a lifestyle. One couple teaching here has four kids, ages 9-18, in the school and has taught in Bahrain, Madagascar, Zambia, and now Cameroon.
I find my sporting interests well-satisfied here in West Africa.
There is a Cameroonian sports culture, but it operates at a much lower frequency than it does in sports-addled USA, and has largely eluded me so far.
The national football team, the Indomitable Lions, is on its way to a World Cup spot next summer in Brazil. Media coverage of Cameroonian sports is in French, and my language skills are too limited to follow the commentary in print or on TV.
Instead I log on to the Internet.
With the Red Sox in the playoffs, the first thing I check when I wake up in the morning are their fortunes from the night before. We’re five hours ahead, so the games start here after midnight.
When my wife, Brett, or I are aroused from sleep, perhaps from a wicked vivid malaria-pill induced dream in the early morning, the first thing we do is check the score of the Red Sox game, sometimes still in progress. We poke our slumbering partner, “We’re up 4-1 in the sixth.”
“That’s nice. Thanks.”
My son Peter and I listened to the game when Lackey outdueled Verlander, 1-0 in Detroit, the whole game, as it started at 4:30 p.m., your time, so reliable was the Internet that night.
We tuned to the morning rebroadcast of the last three innings of Game 2 of the ALCS when Papi hit the grand slam, wiping out with one swing of the bat a four-run deficit. Fenway went crazy. Us too.
On Saturdays this fall, I check “live stats” on the Internet to discover how the Panther teams are faring while the game is still being played. Real time.
I contribute almost daily to a NESCAC MBB (men’s basketball) list serv or chat room.
This ease of connection goes way beyond sports. My kids, Peter and Annie, ages 16 and 18, retreat to their rooms for hours at a time to communicate with friends back home in the States on e-mail, Facebook, Skype, Twitter — space-age marvels.
The people whose house we’re renting, Lutheran missionaries back in the States for a year, left us a cornucopia of movies on DVD, hundreds, “better than Netflix,” according to Peter (though nothing beyond PG-13).
This extensive, intimate, and immediate connection to the life we left does force one to ask the question: is this really such a blessing?
When you are away from familiar things, does this access to them create perhaps a greater sense of their loss? Is it possible you miss home more because home seems so nearby, so maddeningly near, yet in fact, so far, 5,700 miles in our case.
Is one’s adjustment to a new place made easier, or more difficult, by having home right at your fingertips, albeit virtual? I fear it takes more discipline than I have to forgo it.
Good questions. I’ll ponder them later.
Right now, as these thoughts go to print, we are at a game reserve in South Africa. The American School that Peter and Annie attend is on a weeklong fall break. We are spending five days in “the bush,” observing the big animals of Africa.
No power, no electricity: no Internet, no screens of any kind.
Think we can do it?