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Where You Least (or Most) Expect it

August 24, 2011

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Earlier this May, I went on my first trip across the Atlantic Ocean to stay 9 nights in London, along with a quick 1-night excursion to Dublin. Phenomenal, exciting, overwhelming, the trip was such an experience that I needed a few months to gain some hindsight. In this series of posts, I will reflect on my experience of seeing London for the first time and on my interactions with people from across the world who I met on my travels. When appropriate, I will also expand on some general points of interest about the English to add to my “Confessions of an Anglophile”.

*Both Christopher Hitchens and Terry Eagleton have written about what they see as a tendency of sports to bring out the ugliness in people. While I lack Hitchens’ vitriol on this topic, and I definitely do not subscribe to Eagleton’s Marxist analysis about the need to abolish football, I did see something interesting in Trafalgar Square that made me see some of what each of them where talking about.

It was my first full day in London, the day of the Manchester United vs. Barcelona game at Wembley Stadium, and all of London was full of well…pro-Barcelona energy. This was not surprising, London is in the south of England after all, so the support for Man-United would be rather thin. On my way to the National Portrait Gallery, I watched huge crowds of Barcelona fans cheering and singing. It all looked like a great fun to me, and if I had a football allegiance I’m sure I’d jump in as well.

What I did not expect however, was what I saw shortly before entering the gallery:

(Photo by J. Andrew Zalucky…I took this!)

“Catalonia is NOT Spain”

Wait! So there is such a thing as Catalan Nationalism?!

I consider myself a European History buff- but I’ll admit that the lands below the Pyrenees are a bit of a blind spot for me. I knew that the Basques  have long sought independence, but had no clue that this sentiment spread to other areas of Spain as well. I caught this moment just before a few other fans took the banner down. There was no fighting or rioting (I planned my trip a few lucky months ahead of time), but it was a very eerie experience.

So what did I make of this? I was not sure what to think. As a mass gathering of people tied to a region and nationality, it’s only natural that certain political tensions could come out into the open.

Before I left for London, I’d read State Department memos telling travelers to avoid big crowds due to the heightened terrorist threat. Not to be deterred, I blatantly ignored my government and went to Trafalgar Square as much as I could. Maybe I could see some big Trade Union protest or other organized event? There had been a whole series of demonstrations earlier that Spring over the Conservative/Lib-Dem government’s austerity cuts, so I thought I could get a glimpse at mass politics in the UK.

Though I may have missed that chance, I was very intrigued by what I saw that day. I found myself in a pub somewhere in Bloomsbury that night and sat with a Manchester fan from Romania and watched as he and about 3 other people groaned as Barcelona won the game, and covered my ears as the rest of the pub erupted in celebration. Again, there was no fighting and I even saw a few Manchester fans shake hands with their rivals as a sign of respect for Barcelona’s victory.

Hitchens is right when he says that team loyalty is “the most trivial and parochial form that attachment can take”. I have always resented the sentiment of “oh, well he roots for that team, so I don’t like him because of that”. Who cares? When I lived in Boston, I was aghast when I told a few Red Socks fans that I was from Southwestern CT and heard them say “oh, it must suck to live there cause there are so many Yankee fans.”- As if that has anything to do with the quality of life or the nature of the people there. It must be said however, that most sports fans are not like that- or are only like that in jest, which is fine of course. I’ve been to enough peaceful games at Yankee Stadium and Gampel Pavilion to know that you can enjoy a game without becoming a total moron.

But can you be an insurgent nationalist instead?

I guess so.

*(As it happens, Hitchens and Eagleton would probably be furious to see each other mentioned in the same sentence, much less agreeing on something! Oh well, I guess hatred makes for strange bedfellows)

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