A friendly shawarma shop unwittingly serves up comfort during a difficult World Cup

Journalist Grant Wahl died at Lusail Stadium the other night, and for all his devastated friends in Qatar, covering this World Cup, with all its physical demands, has now become emotionally and psychologically challenging, too.

Correspondent Chris Jones finds a home away from home in wake of friend's death at World Cup

Chris Jones's favourite shawarma shop in the Al Sadd district of Doha. (Chris Jones)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

People who spend a lot of time on the road develop coping strategies. One of the lessons I've learned — from astronauts, actually — is that you can't fight your environment. You need to accept the new rules, new rhythms, of your temporary home and adapt to them. It's never the other way around.

This has been a strange World Cup for a host of reasons. Normally, the tournament is held across an entire country, so you're constantly on the move. I didn't realize it in South Africa or Brazil, but the travel days are helpful. They give your brain a break. Your only job that day is to get on a plane.

Here in Qatar, in Doha, the pace has been relentless. At a normal World Cup, if you really mash it, you might cover 14 games. I did that many in this year's group stage.

It's been fun, but it's also been harder on my system than I thought it would be. I was a much younger man when I started covering big soccer tournaments. This is the first time I've found things physically tough.

My friend Grant died at Lusail Stadium the other night, and for all his devastated friends here, this World Cup has now become emotionally and psychologically challenging, too.

That's an understatement. The last 36 hours have been brutal.

A tribute to American journalist Grant Wahl marks his desk in the press box at Al Bayt Stadium prior to the World Cup match between England and France on Saturday. (Chris Jones)

I was talking to some friends at Saturday night's game between England and France, where Grant's picture and some flowers sat where he should have been, and we're all re-evaluating our lives.

One of them said he's decided that this is his last World Cup. Another heard that his son had scored his first goal in high-school hockey, and he'd missed it. He looked on the verge of tears, telling me. I expect this will be his last World Cup, too.

Forgive me for being so personal, but I don't really know how to process everything that's been happening here. My editor wanted me to take yesterday off, but I don't write because it's my job. It's a compulsion. Writing is how I work through things, so yesterday, I wrote about Grant.

Today, I'm sitting here in my flat in Doha, trying to keep busy, even though there are no games to cover. I've done the dishes. I'm doing laundry. And I'm writing some more.

I've learned not to fight my environment. I don't fight me, either.

My flat is in a part of Doha called Al Sadd. It's not a fancy area of town, and as far as I can tell, no Qataris live here. It's also not popular with expats. They're in the Pearl or Msheireb. This is a neighbourhood mostly of migrants. Nothing about it feels permanent.

It's a good place to get a haircut. There are barbers everywhere. (For some reason, "salon" is often mistranslated into "saloon" here, and when I first arrived, I thought I'd lucked into an area filled with brawny, illicit bars. I was crushed to learn the truth. I was in the market for a different kind of maintenance.)

It's also home to Galata Istanbul Restaurant. I just checked my phone, and I first walked in there after Canada's loss to Belgium, on Nov. 23. It would have been early on Nov. 24, I guess.

Like its neighbourhood, Galata Istanbul Restaurant is also not fancy. It's a shawarma place. There is nowhere to eat inside. There are two tables and some chairs on the sidewalk, next to the dusty cars screaming by.

I can remember eating that first shawarma. I was still jet-lagged and disoriented, trying to figure out the train schedule and where to buy milk. It was so delicious, I took pictures of it.

I have eaten there often since. I've gone to Galata Istanbul Restaurant for lunch, dinner, and too late at night. I've even started to think of the guy who takes the orders as a friend.

Home away from home

He would be alarmed that I think that of him; he no doubt thinks of me as the weird white man who suddenly started coming to his restaurant an uncomfortable number of times. But he smiles when he sees me, and we have an awkward little chat, and then I wait for my shawarma, which is always as delicious as the first time I ate it.

I receive reassurance from being there. My stomach gets joy from it. More important, I find emotional and psychological solace as well. I feel a flash of human connection, and the pleasure of a happy routine, and the sense that I have found a home away from home — somewhere reliable, with predictable outcomes.

I went to Galata Istanbul Restaurant yesterday afternoon, when I was reeling from Grant's death. I'm going to go again later today, once my laundry is done. I think I'll eat there, at one of the tables, and soak in a little of the Sunday bustle. I'm looking forward to it, the way I imagine astronauts dream about gravity when they're floating in space.

I'm finally starting to understand, at 49, that your body is also a temporary home, with its own rules, and its own rhythms. They change over time. You need to adapt to them, too.

Right now, mine wants comfort, and I will yield to its demands.


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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