Lionel Messi of Barcelona Scores Big in Galilee

6 Dec

It’s three in the morning in Galilee.  I’m a passenger inside a tiny Honda that races past dark fields and meadows.  I’m sleep-deprived, caffeinated, bundled in a coat and scarf.  At this hour small talk is small with my wife’s brother-in-law, Hezi, and his two sons, Yaniv and Ido, ages 35 and 29.  We’re all heading to the airport to take part in a four-day, three-night soccer expedition to Barcelona.

Barcelona Harbor

Barcelona Harbor

“You’re crazy and why can’t you watch the game on TV” — my father’s words from the night before — echo in my head as I go past airport security and take a seat on board the charter plane.  We’re one of three flights — 900 passengers — leaving this morning for Barcelona.  There isn’t a single Spaniard, American or Englishman on board.  We’re all Israelis with one purpose in mind: to see Boy Wonder, Lionel Messi.

After we land, a convoy of buses awaits, whisks us to our hotels near Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s pedestrian-friendly boulevard.  At the Rialto hotel we inch our way to the reception desk to get our keys.  There are about 100 Israelis and 100 suitcases in line.  These soccer fans range from young to old, from couples to buddies (us), to toddlers.  Toddlers?  They’re wearing Barcelona’s football club jerseys, red and blue stripes.  Around us, Hebrew is dominant.  We own the place, talk about the upcoming game tomorrow night.  The hotel clerks are calm; they must have seen it all before; they pepper their instructions with “Toda” and “Shalom.”

We venture into the streets.  It’s frigid, scarves and woolen hats all around.  Hezi, whose arm was injured during Yom Kippur War of 1973, chooses to wear one tight leather glove on his good hand.  It’s not long before we sample the many tapas bars and the one beer in town: Estrella.

Barcelona Soccer Game

Barcelona Soccer Game

Israelis are everywhere.  By their numbers in the streets and bars you’d think Israel is ten times its size.  Souvenir shops carry signs in Hebrew along English and German.

The big night arrives.  The Barcelona stadium, Camp Nou, is filled with 90,000 fans, a near sell-out for a league game against Athletic Club Bilbao.  The people of Barcelona hate being labeled as Spaniards; they’re from Catalunya.  In fact, many wish to separate from Spain, form their own nation.  Their language is different as is their food, their music, their culture.

Lionel Messi and his teammates enter the stadium through the tunnel.  They’re warming up on the green pitch.  It’s a frenzy of screams and shouts.  The Israelis behind me join in, call out his name from the stands.  Some wave Israel’s flag, possibly wanting to adopt him as their own.  Messi continues to stretch, to hop and skip.

The whistle blows.  It’s kickoff time.  The game clock ticks. Barcelona tapas At 17:14 the crowd suddenly erupts into song.  Ido tells me they chant at every game at the same exact minute and second — 17:14 — to commemorate the last time, the year 1714, the Catalans were independent.  Eventually they were crushed by the French, later taken under the Spanish flag.

It isn’t long before the team from Bilbao is crushed.  By half-time Barcelona leads 2:0.  The game ends 5:1.  What a treat to see Messi score twice, to hear the crowd roar, to watch the locals question the referee’s every call, to watch all the Israelis become one with Barcelona.  After the game we celebrate with rounds of Estrella at nearby bars.

Initially I thought the Israeli presence was restricted to Barcelona.  I was wrong.  The next morning our Israeli tour guide takes us on a day-long bus tour to Monserrat, a multi-peaked mountain range an hour away.  The limestone rocks jut out like fingers pointed at the heavens.  Against the rocks there’s a beautiful monastery with depictions and paintings on the exterior walls.  The words Jerusalem, Hebron, Nazareth are inscribed on the walls.  At closer inspection I see another set of words: Mount Tavor.  Its significance to Christians worldwide is undeniable.  Hezi, the brother-in-law, appears to take pride in that Tavor is “our” mountain, seen from our window at home.

We return to the bus past the souvenir shops and the cheese artisans.  I can’t believe my ears.  The herdsmen and farmers are describing the goat cheese, the soft and the hard kind, the herbs – in Hebrew!  The guide tells us they sell the most cheese to Israelis, chose to learn key words to drum up more business.

Gaudi Cathedral

Gaudi Cathedral

By the fourth day, I miss home.  I’ve had enough of tapas in glass displays, of beer, of soccer talk, of my three male partners, of Gaudi’s wild (!) cathedral, of seeing pig legs hang from every hook known to man.

It’s not long before I start to hum the lyrics to Elton John’s song: “Rocket Man”

“I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight”

The bus to the airport arrives.  We catch a red-eye back to Mount Tavor, back to Galilee.  Still early in the morning, I climb into bed and pull the blankets over me.

Good night, Messi.


9 Responses to “Lionel Messi of Barcelona Scores Big in Galilee”

  1. Meg December 6, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    S C O O O O O R R R R E!
    Love your adventures – my guilty-pleasure-vicarious-thrill-ride!
    Yummy pics of you AND the food!
    Wishing you & your kin cheery holidays [hope the Mayans are wrong].

    • Maurice Labi December 6, 2012 at 9:36 pm #

      Thanks, my friend. Always good to hear from you. GoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaL

    • Maurice Labi December 6, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

      Always good to hear from you, Meg. Yes, anchovy, olives and beer go well together

  2. Avi December 8, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    As a side comment to your otherwise a great article: Spain is one of the most anti Semitic countries in Europe

  3. rachel bar December 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    My dear Maurice, you must be getting old if after four days in Barcelona you wanted to go back home. I enjoyed the post, but shuddered to think of so many Israelis in one hotel…

  4. Sandy Galfas December 9, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Liked the Barcelona escapade. Sounds like you had a great time, despite the homesickness. Query: how did your Israeli compatriots react to seeing “pigs hanging from

  5. Sandy Galfas December 9, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    Oops. Didn’t mean to send an unfinished comment. Meant to ask how your fellow Israeli travelers reacted to seeing “pigs legs hanging from every hook known to man.” Fun to hear about your soccer jaunt. Ditto the mini history lesson re Catalonia. I knew they they hated the Spaniards. Didn’t know they were previously conquered by France. Sandy

    • Maurice Labi December 9, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

      It’s not only the pig legs everywhere but under many of them there are waxy paper cups to collect the fat that drips…drip…drip…drip

  6. Mark December 10, 2012 at 12:23 am #

    The beauty of living in Israel is that you have quick access to so many countries by taking short flights. One day you are in a giant soccer stadium in Barcelona, eating paella and the next day in Bucharest eating mamaliga. In the same amount of time it takes for you to cover 5 different cultures, multitude of languages, etc., I am still in California with the same food.

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