WARSAW -- How great is the power of soccer to bring people together? On Tuesday I met up with a group of U.S. soccer fans I had blocked on Twitter, enjoyed a terrific Polish lunch with them and came away with three new friends, all thanks to Euro 2012.
Just because the U.S. team isn't involved in the European championships doesn't mean Americans aren't here for the tournament. The soccer is good, the party is always rocking and your ancestral home may well be involved. You can't help but have a good time. All of which explains why three friends who met at the Highbury Pub soccer bar in Milwaukee decided to travel here for part of the tournament.
Over Polish chicken and rice and cucumber soup at the U Kucharzy restaurant, I heard the stories of two Milwaukee advertising guys -- Jim Kogutkiewicz, 35, and Colin Deval, 34 -- and Stephen Schaller, 30, a Los Angeles screenwriter. They're staying in an apartment near the Warsaw Fan Zone owned by Paula Bialski, a Polish-Canadian singer whom Schaller met when her band, Paula & Karol, was playing at the South by Southwest festival in Austin in March.
"We had been searching a few different spots, and everything was insanely overpriced," says Schaller, the owner of a splendid handlebar mustache. "I met Paula and we hit it off. She mentioned she was from Warsaw, and I said I'd be there this summer. We were thinking of pulling the trigger on an expensive place for 350 euros a night, and she said, 'Oh, you can stay at my place for 150 a night.' She's been a great host."
For Kogutkiewicz, an affable Polish-American former newspaper editor, the trip here is the first of his life to Europe. "I grew up in Milwaukee in a heavily Polish neighborhood, and as soon as we get to the LOT Airlines gate to board the plane to Warsaw, all the faces on the plane were this instant time-warp to my childhood. The old women were wearing the same clothes they were wearing in 1985, the same haircuts, the same hair dye. To come here is big deal to be in a foreign place. This has been six months in the works, and now it's actually happening. It's amazing just to stand in the fan zone and be around all these people."
Deval, for his part, has French, Canadian, Swedish and Irish roots. "I don't have any Polish or Germany ancestry like most of Milwaukee," he says. ("He's like the only one," cracks Kogutkiewicz.) "I really never had a connection to Poland, but last year I was staying in Prague with a friend from Poznan, and we went to Wroclaw [in Poland]. And I loved it. I had never considered going to Poland, but I was so charmed by my two days there that I wanted to make this happen again."
They attended the Spain-Italy game in Gdansk, have plans to watch other games in fan zones and watched Tuesday's Poland-Russia game at a party on the Wisla River near the stadium. A friend of their landlord Paula who goes by the name "Lone Wolf" picked them up at the airport and provided a three-hour architecture tour of the city. On their way to Poznan later this week, the trio is planning to stop in Kalisz, the town Kogutkiewicz's Polish grandmother emigrated from in 1917.
When they decided to make the trip to Euro 2012 last December, Kogutkiewicz looked at the schedule and circled the Poland-Russia game in Warsaw on June 12. If you're Polish, it doesn't get much bigger than that. As Kogutkiewicz says, "I can still hear my grandma's voice: Germany took a little bit of Poland, and Russia took a little bit of Poland. She'd ball up her hands, and she was a fiercely proud old Polish woman. Poland-Russia, that's just immense, and I'm going to be here for it."
We had such a good time talking about soccer and Poland over lunch that I couldn't believe I had ever gotten into a dust-up with Kogutkiewicz (@JimmyFK) and Deval (@ColinDeval) on Twitter. I'm not even sure how it started, really, but their irreverent soccer takes (also at @MatchPricks) struck a nerve, and I felt like things got personal, and I blocked them. We all share a common friend in Peter Wilt, the former Chicago Fire general manager who's also a regular at the Highbury Pub in Milwaukee. Wilt helped arrange our lunch summit in Warsaw, and the rest is history.
They're solid guys, and we wouldn't have met without Euro 2012. Only 24 hours ago I had blocked them on Twitter, and now I'm following them. Isn't soccer great?
• The mood in Warsaw was extremely tense ahead of the Poland-Russia showdown here on Tuesday. A large group of Russian fans marched through the city to the stadium celebrating Russia Day, which has a nationalist vibe like most countries' Independence Days. Polish fans weren't happy, and there were clashes in the streets before the game, despite an extremely heavy police presence.
• Nice work by the Czech Republic to rebound from its 4-1 loss to Russia with a fantastic start in a 2-1 defeat of Greece. We could end up seeing a reverse of the Czechs' 2006 World Cup campaign, in which they opened great (a 3-0 win over the U.S.) but tanked from there and failed to advance from the group. It's also a good result for Poland.
• Pants update: Still haven't had any time to buy any after I stupidly forgot to pack them. Many thanks to reader Nathan from Iowa (@chaumpy), who wrote that he hasn't washed his pair of Baldwin jeans yet: "You won't notice the difference." We'll see!
• The sun comes up at 4:30 a.m. here. Kind of freaks me out.
• I rode on a horse-drawn carriage with Jimmy Conrad through Old Warsaw today for a Kick TV video piece. Will post the link on my Twitter later. This city is beautiful.
• Polish Beer Watch: Didn't dig Zywiec, which is sort of like Polish Budweiser, but Okocim was much better. Reminded me a little of German Franziskaner wheat beer.
• Internet-willing, I'll be writing a quick reaction to the U.S.-Guatemala World Cup qualifier later tonight.
Back with more tomorrow!