I Watched Football in Different European Pubs to Taste Life Before We Retreat to Our Little Island Forever
What could I learn from other countries and cultures just by going to their pubs in weird costumes and watching football with them?
I love multiculturalism. I really do. But aside from the gulps of German pilsners, sips of French wines and overindulgences in Turkish falafels that I regret in the morning, I'll ashamedly admit to say that I probably haven't made the most of it. I always assumed I would get the chance to, until a few weeks back when Britain took a dagger and repeatedly started plunging it into the heart of diversity. Overnight our country changed, and with every hate crime and racially-driven attack, I realised that the writing was on the wall for the cultural paradise of the capital. Soon we'll all be legally bound to only eat jellied eels and scones, and drink weird British ales that smell like a sink, and tea, and salute the Queen at gongs that chime on the hour every hour.
So with all those dreams of spicy food in Portuguese Stockwell and rich moussakas in Greek Haringey disappearing over the horizon, I decided that I should make the most of the world on my doorstep. And there was the only one time to do it: The European Championships. I would use this crude celebration of national identities and coming together of people to learn about and revel in cultures I know little about. Without leaving the epicentre of multiculturalism that is central London, I would watch games in bars and areas with long-established communities from a particular nation, doing my best to fit in.
EREBUNI BAR, BARBICAN.
I've always been intrigued by Russian culture, but don't know much about its people. And as they were getting a particularly bad rep this tournament because they kept throwing dads in England shirts over big railings. But I put that aside to flock to a beating heart of Russian Culture in Barbican. In spite of the history lessons about the iron curtain, fighting as Zangief on Street Fighter and watching late-night documentaries about Shostakovic on a comedown, I know nothing about normal Russian people. My blueprint is Robbie Coltrane in Goldeneye. If I can channel his pure, unadulterated Russian-ness into one outfit. It is this.
Sheets of sellotape, an old woman's jacket and a furrowed brow: one of the world's oldest and most complex cultures captured in one trip to the charity shop via the bathroom. Strutting through sunny central, I feel particularly Le Nin. However, aghast at my reflection in the windows in Erebuni, I chuck the definitely-in-bad-taste towel sellotaped to my head in the bin on the way in. What was I thinking? I was thinking English. Instead I needed to think Russian.
I stroll across the polished, glittery floors to the bar. The bar lady talks Russian to me casually and I reply, yawning and nodding, with absolutely no idea what she has just said. A frosted cold glass of vodka soon arrives and it is fucking delicious. I lift my hand in the air, gesturing for another. The woman starts pointing at the toilet door, saying more Russian things. I nod – she looks confused – and my cover is blown. Bumbling through an explanation, a group gathers around me and laughs, pinching my jacket. Ordering another vodka and some marinated tomatoes, I'm invited over by a lady for a bite to eat. We shovel sour food down and, like our bellies, the place fills up as the kick-off approaches.
Old bearded Russian men, generation X couples and millennial men; throughout the game, they flip between fist-slamming anger to cheering when Glushakov appears on screen. For example, one missed opportunity inspires the old guy behind me to harpoon his fork at the ground. And as it splutters across the floor, nobody bats an eyelid. Then, however, something bafflingly surreal occurs. Within 30 seconds of the final whistle, bitter defeat and a symphony of frustrated cries, the bartender switches the channel to some sort of Russian incarnation of You've Been Framed and the whole room - including the fork-throwing man – is giggling wholeheartedly. The hefty atmosphere is flushed in seconds as if history had been rewritten. Is this a Soviet Ministry of Truth hangover? Or are they simply better losers than we are? I have no idea, but one thing is for sure: Russian You've Been Framed is a fucking hoot.
NORDIC BAR, FITZROVIA.
Admit it: before Euro 2016, the word 'Iceland' just made you think of Sigur Ros, those wildlings they film beyond the wall there and Kerry Katona. But now they're in vogue. Everybody wants a piece of Iceland, and so did I. Not wanting to look like a scenester, I don some traditional Icelandic garb so I blend in seamlessly. With my blooded sword, fur shawl and luscious locks, I am the king beyond the wall.
Songs heartily reverberate around the basement walls and this place, around about 500 metres from Centre Point, isn't even supposed to be open tonight. But the special occasion has attracted brigades of London's full-on drinking-out-of-horns, volcano clapping Icelandic folks. I'm pouring with sweat in my fur shawl and, after a minute or two, four fans in Iceland shirts hail me down.
They're laughing at my 'beyond the wall' costume and, after a quick Google Image search, we agree that I look less Ygritte, more Nicola Sturgeon. Soon enough, I'm having a beer with 0.00123% of Iceland. These guys are more than a percentage though: they were in France for the group stages. The moment the whistle goes, they assume silence and start drinking. They sip in sync and at a ridiculous rate, one I can't match. But if there's something I'm learning about the Icelandic culture, it's that logic and numbers literally mean nothing, so I give it my best shot.
Iceland are getting fucked here. And I feel myself getting down, beaten and a little depressed with every goal slammed past them by the French. At half time, there's a surge up the stairs for cigarettes. Expecting the kind of post-mortem analysis I've been hearing since I first watched England bomb out of France '98, I'm surprised with what I find. A number of Icelandic fans, performing the volcano clap. Pulling against every fibre in my body, I join in. And they pretty much carry this steely determination of drinking coupled with optimism through into the game, they score the first to make it 2-1 and the volcano erupts. Iceland have the threaded scalp of Wayne Rooney and his England to their name – why not the mighty France too?
With every goal, the dream is disappearing before their eyes. Eventually the whistle is blown but they continue defiantly. I'm struggling to find an Icelandic in a similar same state of mind as mine and eventually I find Arne. When I ask whether he's disappointed, he simply shakes his head and says, 'Of course not, I'm just sad that this incredible time for my country has come to an end.' The beers continue and the clapping alike as I stumble out onto the street: these insatiable people are going to take over the world.
Winter is coming.
With both Euro 2016 and multiculturalism reaching their last kicks, it is time for the finale. The leafy streets of Stockwell and Ovul are calling; I'm heading to 'Little Portugal' for the semi-final. But with just a couple of hours to go, I realise that I actually know nothing about Portugal. I can't even think of a Portuguese person who isn't a footballer. And after page after page of Google image searching inspiring fuck all, I'm desperate. Staring at my phone, I have a 'eureka' moment: of course! My friend Merv will know, his family went there a tonne of times throughout his childhood.
"Merv – what is Portugal like?"
"But what are the people like? What is the culture out there?"
"It's sunny, it's pretty–"
"But the people Merv, what are they like?"
"I don't know, mate. It's essentially people on holiday?"
So I present to you, the cultural understanding of a white middle class Londoner in 2016, epitomised in one outfit. I present to you, the pride of Portugal: man on holiday.
Wheeling around the corner, I'm welcomed into a parade of expectation and excitement. Horns resound and every shop, bar and barber in the area has people piling up outside, watching the game. You can't get anywhere near the epicentre and security are having to limit those entering. So I join fans scaling walls and slopes to secure a view.
After a tense first half, I see off my corner shop Sagres and exploit a small gap to get inside for the real deal. For 20 minutes, I'm merely making my way towards the bar through a dense crowd made up of die-hard vocal elites, people munching on pastel de nata and grown men holding their head with teary-eyed disbelief at throw-ins. When I get there, an older guy spots me taking photos of the crowd reactions. He buys me a drink in exchange for me taking this photo of him.
The place has been alive the whole time but when Portugal score, it's something like celebratory apoplexy. Drinks go all over the place, an elderly lady in the corner yells at the top of her voice and pretty much everybody starts crying. Then comes the nerves. A man next to me that has been fanning himself now takes pinches of Sagres from his glass and dabs his forehead: it's not even hot. The final whistle is drowned out from vuvuzelas.
I've never seen anything like this: it is absolute unadulterated chaos. There's a hilarious ritualistic dancing and crossing the road that comes every time the green man appears. I'm trying my best to sing along, but can't stop myself laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. All that time seems to be doing is encouraging more to flock to the South Lambeth road.
And as the night finishes, the croons of a tuneful ditty named 'Fado' resound. This, I'm told, is a traditional Portuguese song that romanticises about Lisbon, its people and the values of home. Watching teenagers and pensioners singing arm-in-arm, hanging off of London pane trees and red telephone boxes, stood just 3.9 miles away from the banking centres of Fleet Street in this cultural oasis, it's hard to think of a place better suited for this ditty. For Portugal is not built on 'man on holiday' it is built on 'people at home', and that's exactly what they've found here.
And so I get back to my shed, drunk at 3am and clamber into bed. But I can't sleep: something just won't sit right – why have we as a nation voted to rid ourselves of something so beautiful, so human, so pure? I need to know. So I take off my shirt, paint a St George's flag on my face and sit in front of up my laptop rewatching the England vs Iceland game. Wayne Rooney's penalty goes in; I take a sip of Carling. Iceland reply, I punch a pork pie. The second flies in and I pull a flat cap over my face and scream: I pass out. Coming to in the second half, however, I see something in the corner of my eye. Daniel Sturridge, attempting step overs and edging for the wing. Raheem Sterling taking a dive, trying to win a penalty. I jump up into the air, because I've cracked it. Watching these English men, badly attempting tricks from the continent, one thing becomes apparent; different cultures are now coursing through our veins as a nation. We're no longer hoofing the ball: we've learned. Even at our most petulant, we're calling for cards and misplacing passes from the outside of the boot. Then at our most triumphant, our capital city can boast three unique and compelling experiences within just a few square miles. Both, equally pertinent, prove one thing: multiculturalism is here to stay.
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