Sunday, November 18, 2007

On football riots, and being the token American

Yesterday I took what may end up being my last weekend trip here in Wales. I went to Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, not returning to Aberystwyth until late.

I took an early-morning bus to Carmarthen, a small town in southwest Wales, and then a train to Cardiff via Swansea. On the train there was a group of guys about my age, all graduates of a prep school in the area, all headed to the Wales v. Ireland football (soccer) match in the capital city. Cracking open cans of Strongbow and Carling, they serenaded their fellow passengers with Welsh national songs, and when a group of Ireland fans got on the train at Swansea, they mockingly sang the national anthem to them. Kind of a preview of things to come.
By the time the train reached Cardiff Central station, I had decided I wanted to see the game (when else would I have the chance to see the Welsh national team play in front of a home crowd, at Millennium Stadium), and as we all disembarked at the station, I befriended the group and asked if there were still tickets available. They told me they were going to buy them when they got to the stadium, and I tagged along with them for a while. Being the token American in the group, I was the center of attention, and they all introduced themselves to me, one of them explaining that it was his twenty-first. “Why aren’t you fat?” asked one of the guys, hearing that I was from the states. They tried to convince me to have my face painted with the red dragon logo, but I declined. About that time, I decided I wanted to see some of the city before the game, so when they all headed in to a pub I told them I might see them at the stadium, and one of the guys gave me a bear hug as we said goodbye. I had only known them for about ten minutes, and already it was as if we were old friends.
I wandered around the city a bit, and saw Cardiff Castle and the Civic Centre (where the National Museum, City Hall, old National Assembly quarters, and the campus of Cardiff University are located). There was a war memorial in the middle of a large park in the center, with bouquets of flowers surrounding it and a wreath of artificial red poppies. All the while I was seeing these sites, though, I was hearing the whistles, horns, chants, and yells in the air that signaled that the game was soon to begin, so I began to head back to the area around the stadium. The pubs were overflowing with fans dressed in red (the color of the Welsh national team), and a few green jerseys here and there to signal Irish support. When I got to the ticket line, I noticed a sign that said that tickets were only being sold to Wales supporters – and that, therefore, if you were from Ireland, you were out of luck. Fortunately, though, before having to prove my Welsh pride I was offered a ticket for ten pounds. I accepted the offer, and no sooner had I found my way to my seat inside than I ran into the same guy who had sold the ticket to me – apparently, he had been trying to get rid of a package of seats in his same row. And once again, I was the novelty American student, with everyone in the group he was in asking the usual questions of what in the world I was doing at a European football match in the middle of November, halfway around the world.
It was a good game, even though it ended with a tie score, both teams scoring one point. Afterwards, I walked down to the Cardiff Bay district, where the Wales Millennium Centre, Mermaid Quay, and the Senedd (Welsh Assembly parliament building) are located. It was a cold and windy night, and I didn’t stay long. I found a bus back to the train station, and hopped on a train back to Carmarthen.
The train was packed, and I was lucky to find a seat, sitting down at a table with two others. And lo and behold, there was the same group of guys I had rode the train with before. The next sequence of events was a blur, but what I do remember is hearing them start trash-talking the other, rival groups of fans on the train, guys from Cardiff and Swansea, respectfully. It was a hard dynamic to describe – football allegiances are strongly held here, so it was in many ways like a confrontation between rival gangs, only in this case, surrounded by families with small children, the elderly, and everyone else just trying to make their way home on a Saturday night. Suddenly, one of the Cardiff boys decided he couldn’t take it anymore and began to approach the group of young men, leading his mates in a chant of “who do you think you are” (you would know what I mean if you heard it), and inspiring the others to stand up as well. The two groups came within near distance of each other, separated only by a row or two of “neutral” passengers in the aisle who were holding each side back, all of it happening literally right above my seat. Soon enough the tensions boiled over, though, and the St. Clair’s boys moved to the back of the train, scared off by having nearly come to blows with two groups of die-hard, middle-aged football fans (keep in mind, these guys were even younger than me). “Honey, you almost witnessed your first football riot,” the lady sitting in the seat next to mine said to me after the moment had passed. On a train, no less, packed with people just heading back from a day in the capital, me just trying to get back to Aberystwyth after an already long day.
The vast majority of the passengers got off at the train at Swansea, leaving only a handful of people – including, yes, the same boys from St. Clair’s. It was at this point that they noticed me, and they asked what I had done with the rest of the day. The guy who had just turned twenty-one came over to my seat and, seeing that I was writing in my journal, took the pad and wrote:

Hi Casse if I spelt your name right, my name is Matthew McCabe or Muff if u really know me. I love the american way of life I would love 2 experience ur way of life and live in america. u are an ambition for my life and i would like 2 live my life as freely as u do. All my luck and success in the future

yours sincerely
Muff or Matthew McCabe

Needless to say, he was enjoying his birthday to the fullest, and it made for an interesting conversation that ensued. “It's good to see an American,” he said. But again, as much as it made me feel out of place, and reminded me of the fact that I really was (most likely) the only American that anybody around me had seen all day, it made me proud to be who I was, a lone representative of a country that, for all its faults and shortcomings, still is looked up to by a lot of people around the world. “I’ve wanted to meet an American for some time,” the guy who sold me my ticket had said to me earlier in the day. And when I saw the sign of a restaurant that said “USA Chicken” later that evening, it was as if, for a brief moment in time, I was home.


girlalex said...

One of the funniest things when you're abroad is the locals version of "American Food" - I remember once when I was at boarding school, we had "American Night" with such delectable offerings as "Mama Beth's Chicken Wings", "Cousin Sue's Country Gravy" and "Bubba Joe's Corn Bread". Also they hung the American flag on the wall, backwards. Being the token American myself, I had a stern talk with the kitchen director. :)

Kris and Martha said...

Hi Casey!

WHAT A DAY!!! I can honestly say I am glad I wasn't on that train!! We had enough entertainment from students going to school in Birmingham on our ride to Aber that will last me for awhile!!! Glad you got a view of Cardiff, and attending the soccer match was undoubtedly fun.
Love you!

Aberystwyth said...

Great post!

Casey said...

Thanks aberystwyth

Dad said...

What a great day! I wish I could have experienced all of it with you. I'll ask many questions about the full day when I next see you. A fun "read" as the literary folks would say!

Rhonda Lillie said...

Hi. Can you email me:

I'm an American and I want to go to school in Wales. I'm looking at Aberystwyth... could you please contact me so that I could speak to you about how to go about it.