Monday, January 31, 2011

The Burgermeister and My Dinner with Hanka

Sankt Wendel Day Two

The Burger Meister and My Dinner With Hanka

SANKT WENDEL, Germany (Jan. 30, 2011) –Alone again after an amazing race, I tramped through the team area, past all the Fidea trucks and the French federation trucks, and up a hill to a school-like building where a small banner fluttered with the words “VIP.”

My announcing colleagues had told me to meet there.

Zdynek Stybar and Marianne Vos had just posted repeat victories. The Belgian fans were bouncing in their massive beer tents, content that Sven Nys and Kevin Pauwels had restored the axis of the earth with the silver and bronze medals. The sun had dropped beneath the hills towards France, but the blue sky offered another hour of winter light.

I entered the building to find two ladies staffing a table who spoke neither English nor French nor Spanish but only German.

Allow me to digress on language and culture. A few weeks back I encountered a troubling thread ignited innocently enough by an old friend from my hometown neighborhood. She expressed in her status some understandable frustration with being asked to press one for English on a phone line. I understand that English is our language in America.

But what really discouraged me were the responses she got from people that were so flame-throwing hostile that I had to respond. Things such as “THAT IS TOTAL BULLSHIT!!!!!," and "THIS IS THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, LEARN ENGLISH!!!," were in this thread.

Typically such people are so frightened to leave their own country not for fear of running into other cultures; what they fear is running into their own types.

We’ve all heard it. I happen to believe myself to be the greatest of Patriots. I have walked nearly every Civil War battlefield. I weep at monuments. I live right next to the Battle Green in Lexington. I travel to Congress every year to lobby for my cause. I also believe rock ‘n’ roll to be the finest of exports we’ve ever had.

Whether we like it or not, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, and Victoria Falls happen to be in other countries. And if folks in other countries are going to drink Coca-Cola and log on to Google and wear Levis jeans, some of us actually need to leave our country to go there. And some of the braver ones actually like to travel. And I might even choose to work in another country.

I also realize a lot of folks for a lot of reasons want to live and work in America. Clearly there is a strong demand for labor here, too. Heaven forbid a white kid should ever mow a lawn, eh?

And if we’re going to fill Holiday Inns and sell Big Macs next to our national parks, they are going to come here, too.

Some folks watch protests or some speeches and assume that the world hates Americans. They kind of overreact to that emotion.

Here is the news flash for those folks who only view the world through the pinhole of Headline News: People typically ADORE Americans.

So armed with nothing more than a smile and no language, I stared down this 60-something women who looked balefully over the top of her reading glasses to deny me entrance.

I said the only word that I could muster: “Burgermeister.”

And she arose and started to escort me upstairs.

Enter Klaus Bouillion, burgermeister, or mayor of Sankt Wendel.

I have met countless mayors and senators and congressional folks. I even met a president once and attended a White House function. But Klaus put them all to shame.

I first spied him with a radio headset, snowpants, and an unzipped winter jacket, driving a quad about the venue. He never came off like a mayor. Before I knew who he was, I actually questioned why he was hanging around the stage. Later I saw him driving stakes into the ground and supervising some earth moving equipment. In the middle of my announcing, he pulled me aside and stammered at me in German for two minutes, patting me on the back the whole time. Beats me what he said, but I liked him!

For those unacquainted with what I do, I announce bicycle races. And I had been brought to Germany to announce the 2011 World Cyclo-cross Championships. Look, friends, I love the NFL. But for a live sporting event, American football does not come close to big time cyclo-cross. When you’ve tried it, come and tell me otherwise.

And this day would be one of the biggest of the big time 'cross races one could see.

So for day two I awoke to find Will Matthews, a photographer friend, at breakfast. To my surprise he was with the soft spoken Phillip, a video shooter I had met in 2004 working in Europe for OLN (Now “Versus”). Afterwards, I tramped over in the same chill, through the same gingerbread neighborhood, and arrived at the venue.

After the customary coffee and cake, we hit it for the women’s race. This proved a fantastic race with the local heroine Hanka Kupfernagel, several times world champion pounding away at the front. Then the American Katie Compton took over and dispensed with all but Marianne Vos of the Netherlands and Katerina Nash of the Czech Republic. Compton dropped Kupfernagel, but not the others. With just over one lap to go, Vos attacked, went clear and stayed away to repeat as world champion, her fourth 'cross worlds title. Compton finished second, Nash third, and Kupfernagel, for just the second time in the history of the event, finished outside of the medals in fourth.

Then came the intermission. I did some soup in the press room, had a fun interview with Dave Towle for Velo-News television and another for Chandler Delinks' video project "Cyclo-What?", and then augered into thejam-backed beer tent. There I found the Portland Cross Crusade guys on the main stage, having just completed the wedding of Doug Moak, a great stake-pounder and all-around good guy, to his new bride who was just loving enough to allow Rick Potestio to serve as the JP for a wedding in a Belgian beer tent. Hopefully Rick won’t do the divorce if that should become necessary.

Then came the big one; the elite men’s race. The sheer power of this field assembling is daunting. But the passion of the fans eclipses the caliber of these racers. There were easily 3,000 people packed into the stadium before the race started with tens of thousands more on the course, having staked out positions throughout the venue. My colleagues and I spent 30 minutes warming up the finish line crowd by effectively making fun of them.

And there stood the smiling Burgermeister, laughing at my joke that I had enjoyed my stay in their local jail. (Germans are funny; they thought I really HAD been arrested for peeing in a fountain!)

Czechs, Germans, French, Spaniards, Americans, Swiss and other fans poured in but the Belgians were out in force divided into factions. This group for Nys; that group for Pauwels; and another for Albert; and they all were jammed on the fence with drums, bells, costumes, flags….

I made it a point to ridicule the Belgians for having yet to score a medal.
I did the call up without incident and the men were off. I pounded them with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. These fans are not used to having any music play during an event; they went bananas.

The race unfolded fantastically with about a dozen riders in a wedge at the front after one lap. Right in there rode America’s Jonathan Page. His countryman Tim Johnson rode in a second group charging forward. From the leaders broke a group of six: Zdenek Stybar of Czech Republic, Marco Fontana of Italy, Philip Walsleban of Germany, and three Belgians: Sven Nys, Kevin Pauwels and Klaas Vantournout. Nys and Stybar broke free. Both had won world titles at Sankt Wendel in 2005; Nys as an elite and Stybar as an Under-23. The story lines were fantastic as they rode a minute ahead of the others. Farther back, Page had flatted but Johnson charged forward and seemed poised for a top 10 result.

Two riders rode with such grit to warrant mention. Jose Antonio Hermida of Spain, the world mountain bike champ, lined up dead last but pounded through the traffic and up to this group in about five laps. And Francis Mourey of France spoiled his first-row start with a high-speed crash starting the third lap. He would leap up with mud and blood, and charged back to contention.

For the Americans disaster struck. Page flatted and went out of the lead group. And just as Johnson’s group whirred down the track, a rider smashed in on his left side and put a pedal into his front wheel.

Johnson went down like a stack of cans. He lay crumpled in pain on the gritty running track; I directed traffic around him but did not interrupt the medical staff. Earlier the chief official had concerns with my being on the track. But right then it came in handy. As I directed traffic around Johnson, the fans became focused with concern, pointing on to the track.

I looked over to Johnson’s bike. The front fork had a hub, but the rim had been entirely chopped off. The front wheel had collapsed beneath him.

On the track were the cut spokes as if a box of spaghetti had been broken in the supermarket. That this audience recognized the potential for a puncture impressed me.

My presence really helped when the medic jumped up to pick up the spoke, nearly darting into the path of three riders. I pulled him back by the shoulders of his coat and re-directed him to the medical task at hand. I took over the collection of the spoke when safe, handed the spoke to a spectator…..Then they all yelled for another. With each spoke I handed off – and there were nearly a dozen - the applause grew. THESE FOLKS WERE NOT CONCERNED ABOUT THE PUNCTURES!!! They wanted Tim Johnson’s spokes as souvenirs!

Stybar pulled away from Nys. With one lap to go, Mourey joined the second group in the race for the bronze medal. But as he arrived, Walsleban attacked to the delight of the Germans. But Vantournout countered and set up Pauwels for a savage follow up attack to finish third. Mourey charged to fourth; Walsleban in fifth.

Awards were held. We were done. As is customary, several fans were kind enough to come up to our fences. I signed one autograph and hugged a half-dozen drunken Belgians. People were really nice to me.

Then one fan waved me over to the fence, pointing down to the ground,and speaking in Flemish....which is kind of Dutch, but with a peanut butter sandwich in your mouth. Seeing no flag, no phone, no wallet, nothing of any value, I wondered what he wanted.

"Sven Nys," he said.

Then I spotted it: he wanted the cork popped from Sven Nys’ champagne bottle. I looked over and saw the other two corks and retrieved both for him, thereby bringing the corks from all three podium finishers. I held out my cupped hands to offer him the corks.

He panicked and in a squint, asked me imperatively “Which one Stybar???”

I looked at his panicked face….And then matter of factly pointed to the one on the right. “Stybar….That one, Stybar.”

I nodded with complete certainty. He left with joy.

And with that, the whole thing ended. A season of racing, several weeks of studying, incredible days of packing and preparation came to a vacuous close. My German co-announcers asked me to attend a VIP reception, of which I had not known. I cruised again through the press tent. Then I made lonely traipse through the raucous Belgian beer tent. Pushing a snowblower would have been easier. I followed my German friends’ instructions, walked through the team areas to discover the VIP reception.

VIP? There was not a single suit and tie in the place.

With my pantomime escort, I entered a school cafeteria where legions of police, marshalls, firefighters, and event volunteers gathered around tables. By most standards, these VIPs were not Very Important People. But more than 500 citizens of Sankt Wendel had volunteered services; by Klaus Bouillon standards these were indeed very important people. Some ambitious people get to the top by walking on the backs of people; Klaus Bouillon has been stacking up friends like cordwood.

Ironically, my German colleagues, with mastery of this native language would not get by the two women; they never arrived.

I was escorted to the guy in charge, who spoke English. He said to standby, not to worry, and we would figure it out.

Had I been frightened of the language barrier, I would have walked back to the safety of the hotel and the people I already knew. But I took a shot.

I wandered about politely, somewhat aimlessly. Then I saw him.

The Burgermeister, after running heavy equipment, recruiting sponsors, driving stakes, cooking sausages, picking up litter, and performing tasks I’ve never seen a mayor perform, appeared to me. He wore a blue apron and carried a rack of dirty dishes, when we spotted one another. His eyes lit up; his smile was like opening drapes on a sunny morning. The dishes were put down, and he waved me forward. I was given great treatment in the food line, enjoyed fantastic potatoes au gratin and schnitzel. As soon as I sat down, a beer was put on the table.

Seeing that I sat alone, the Burgermeister came and leaned on his heavy, strong arm, talking right into my ear and sufficient English.

He had a hand the size of a ham, pumping my hand with a big smile, told me I had to come over later to try the greatest sausages in the world. He then went off to greet others. In walked a small group of people with a minimum of fanfare. A long legged blond with a shiny parka stood nearby, her back to me. I had failed to cut my schnitzel well, leaving me with way too big of a piece in my mouth. As I gnawed on meat the size of a deck of cards, she whirred about , saw me , and politely asked if the seat was taken.

Without hesitation I recognized that Hanka Kupfernagel, perhaps the greatest German cyclist of the last 20 years, sat down next to me. Her boyfriend, Phil Spooner, sat across from me. We exchanged the most pleasant of pleasantries with minimal discussion on her race. Our discussion would be punctuated with the occasional gushing fan that came up for an autograph, photo, or simply to unload incredibly sugar-coated adulations on her.

Her English proved impeccable and her boyfriend, a professional race car driver from the UK, offered up splendid conversation. Hanka had to get up to make an obligatory visit to another table, but scored me a beer before leaving…..Opening the cap herself.

Phil and I continued on for a bit with discussions on driving, music, culture, history and just about anything BUT bike racing.

Then the Burgermeister, still in his blue apron, took the microphone. In my severely limited German I heard him thank all the townspeople group by group. I took out my camera in hopes of capturing an image of him to post later.

As I fuddled with the phone camera, the Burgermeister started another thank you. In the German I heard the words “meister,” “speaker,” and “American” and he suddenly switched to English, paid me the highest compliments as the “world famous speaker from America.”

And the place gave me a tepid, standing ovation.

Such grace given to a man who had crashed their party moved me.

With that we all sat down and I enjoyed a phenomenal hour with Hanka, speaking about her life growing up in East Germany, her boyfriend’s career racing 24-hour events, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, the economics of the EU, and the re-unification of Germany during her lifetime. She would be a fabulous dinner guest with or without her cycling pedigree.

Without a photo or autograph (something I strictly forbid myself from ever doing), I packed up and tramped back through the Gingerbread neighborhood, remarking on its topographic and climatic similarities to my native Western Pennsylvania. A platinum sky escorted me back to the hotel. I caught up on e-mail, joined some Americans in the bar, and then joined the UCI for dinner afterwards. Again the conversation swung from French to English to Dutch. I found I could vaguely follow the French, especially when Enrico Carpani, a charming Swiss press officer for the UCI who is fluent in Swiss, Italian, French, and English, provided his vivid hand gestures.

I have come to realize that languages are much like jigsaw puzzles. What at first is a jumbled mess becomes an elegant pattern that our brains organically start to process. A word, like a puzzle piece, so obscure at first suddenly calls out to your brain …its shape, its color, its pattern, its rhythm, its position – suddenly makes sense.

Having apparently pleased the UCI, we began discussions for next year. “It would be good if you learned some French, eh?,” Melanie Leveau said.

“I’m on it,” I replied.

After a nightcap with photographer Will Matthews, I clocked out to sleep.

I awoke, grabbed breakfast, and caught a ride to Frankfurt. In the front seat rode a member of the UCI management committee en route to Spain. Our driver spoke English. He worked for the Burgermeister.

I pulled out two business cards. On the back of one I wrote a note to the Burgermeister inviting him to the states and pledging to do my best to return the hospitality to him.

All I can hope is that if the Burgermeister does travel to America, he does not reach out an open hand to our citizens, hoping only to discern the difference between a dime and a quarter (neither of which have been stamped with their numerical values) and encounter the mean-spirited individuals I had to deal with on Facebook.