If you really want to know someone, you have to see them at play. Only when people are relaxed, intent on nothing so much as their own pleasure and amusement, is it possible to really get to know them and see them at their best.
For travellers, that level of relaxed intimacy can sometimes be difficult to achieve. If the language gets in the way, or if the humdrum requirements of finding food and accommodation take up too much time, then moving into a social arena that is purely and simply a matter of recreation can be challenging. The trick for the canny traveller is to find a way to reach that space.
A great way to tap into the local vibe in Europe is to take in a football match. There is a tribalism and a camaraderie to much of what goes on in football stadia that can allow you to see a different side of the faces that you’ll see out on the street driving taxis, serving at tables or rushing from one office to another. The passions stirred by the locals’ feelings for their teams mean that you will meet them on a very different footing. And if you join an Englishman in considering the way his team is treated in the news or in the football betting then you can be sure to meet them in a way that instantly puts you on their level and makes you something more than just another tourist. Talk up Chelsea’s title chances with a West London local and they will treat you like royalty!
And the same is true in different parts of the world, although the touchpoint may be baseball, ice hockey, basketball or rugby rather than ‘soccer’. The great thing about those sporting congregations is that, much like churches, they bring people together into a community that although seemingly closed-off to outsiders is nonetheless incredibly welcoming to newcomers.
Wherever you hail from your casual attachment to the local team can give you a kind of exotic celebrity – what you do with that status once you’ve introduced yourself is up to you. But as a way to circumvent so many of the social barriers that people erect around themselves sharing in their sporting passion – however ignorantly – is a great way to see them as they truly are.
If you have any sort of an interest in the living cultures of the different countries you visit, the make-up of sporting crowds, the way they segregate themselves and the way they establish and negotiate their differences, can be a real eye opener.
For all the talk of female emancipation, for example, American football grounds remain a strangely masculine domain. Female attendees may be present and prominent to a degree that previous generations would barely recognise but you will see very different codes of behaviour within the walls of a stadium than you might expect to see on the street.
And there are differences in these terms in different places around the world, just as there are in regard to the different sectors of the pubic who take in different sporting spectacles. It’s always worth doing at least a little homework before you take the plunge.
But as a rule of thumb, if you want to see the locals as they like to see themselves, it is always worth finding a way to see them at play. Whether that is as formal as the football example used here, or something more relaxed – a festival or carnival of some description – when people gather together for fun you will invariably find them at their most welcoming as well as at their most interesting.
Photo Credit: Steenbergs