“Ask him why he is standing up for Holland,”
Adrie nudges me, curious about this large bear of a man, clad in a bright orange shirt and jersey shorts, who has been alternately sinking in his seat then leaping to his feet at the table in front of us, cheering in broken Romanian and what I think might be Gagauzian while emoting dramatically with meatloaf-sized hands and exaggerated facial expressions, for the last 3 hours. Adrie, compact, a sprightly orange knitted cap sprouting atop his tousled silvery locks, barely grazes the chest hair that one knows must carpet this guy’s sternum. The other man is unusually tall, dark and swarthy for a Moldovan, lending credence to my vague supposition of Turkish heritage.
In spite of the disparity in height and stature, though, at this moment they are twinkling twins, their effusively replicating grins practically flying off their faces as they shake hands, high five, and hug impetuously after the deciding goal slammed into the Costa Rican net and mercifully put an end to the stomach churning suspense of the past half hour. It’s 2:15am, but we linger on the pockmarked street, loathe to loose the camaraderie that has culminated with this euphoric victory.
I dutifully pull together my Romanian translation of Adrie’s awkward English and test the waters:
”Vrea să știe de ce te iubesc atât de mult Olanda.”
The man is laughing maniacally before I even reach the end of my sentence. Screwing up his forehead with effort, he gazes intently into Henri’s upturned face and affirms their ebullient solidarity in sputtering bursts of loosely grammatic English:
“Me,” the man slaps his chest with fanned fingers. “I, me, is me for Germana. Friend…”he stabs a sausage finger towards the second man who was at the same table all night, “He, he are, he is for Olanda. Now we is, he, me, you are, we fight together!” He pounds his fist into each other with enough force to break knuckles, then laughs uproariously and claps Adrie, who only staggers slightly, on the back with unbridled glee. Those in the know, I am coached later, understand that tonight’s win for the Netherlands will now pit them against Germany in the semi-finals the next day.
No need to translate. The language of sports has again transcended national boundaries.
I can’t say that I have ever “got” professional sports and the thrall of fandom that accompanies it. Once, in the late 90’s during the height of the O’Neal-Kobe regency, I rallied myself to join my husband in cheering for the Lakers during their bid for the national championship just to feel what it was like to get so carried away by the movements of a ball through space. One season was enough, though, and the next year I couldn’t summon the fortitude necessary to sit through interminable time outs, commercials, sportscaster commentary, and incessant camera panning of the courtside seats. I kept getting up to wash the dishes, or fold the laundry, or recheck the smoke alarm batteries. Clearly, I was no longer engaged.
Despite having forcibly witnessed the pervasive permeation of championship tournaments into every season back home, I was still a bit surprised to see an equal – well, perhaps even bigger – fervor take over Moldova with the advent of the 2014 FIFA World Cup games, beginning in June. Wikipedia tells me that the World Cup is the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world, exceeding even the Olympic Games; that the cumulative audience of all matches of the 2006 tournament was estimated to be 26.29 billion, with an estimated 715 million people – almost a tenth of the entire population of the planet – watching the final match. This is definitely a bigger deal than the NBA pennant. In Chisinau, the downtown area adjacent to Stefan Cel Mare Park is roped off to corral an area the size of a football field, bookended by two 80-foot projection screens, and crammed with beer stalls, music stages, and picnic tables. Since Brazil is halfway around the world many of the games are taking place in the small hours of the night; this has not deterred audience attendance in the slightest. Nevertheless, while it has been a hugely popular attraction for PC Volunteers, I have not been one of them. In fact, I have had only a passing awareness of the competitors wins and losses as they are sporadically sandwiched into the bedlam of my fellow M27’s FB posts recording their emotional last days in Moldova.
So, I’m not really sure why I accepted an invitation from the three Dutch volunteers currently staying at my center to watch the game at a local restaurant last night at 11pm. 11pm? Anyone who knows me can tell you that all my lights have been dimmed for at least two hours by that time. Soccer game? I may be the only suburban California mother who has never watched a game in its entirety. (I generally did the grocery shopping while the rug rat carried out her requisite team sport sentence.) But it’s Moldova. And I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer. And I have come to feel a sense of obligatory hospitality when it comes to the visitors who pay a goodly sum to stay for days and sometimes weeks at a time on the property to volunteer with the beneficiaries, cleaning their bedrooms, cutting their hair, massaging their legs, clipping their toenails. These are damn good people. I can watch a soccer match with them.
And what a surprise! After a brief homage to the two teams’ national anthems, the game began, 11:06pm…wtf? That never happened in a basketball game, from my admittedly limited experience. And then – what??? They keep playing? For 45 minutes straight? No time outs? No commercial breaks? No cheerleaders prancing pompoms or costumed mascots cavorting dumbly for the crowd? I found myself inexplicably riveted by the little ball whipping at mach speed back and forth across the green. By the second half I was tensed in my seat, yelling at Sneijder to kick the damn ball towards the goal rather than 50 meters backward. (I can’t say I gleaned anything about game strategy during the first half, but it did feel good to yell.) By the penalty phase, I was bobbing in and out of my seat along with the vociferously vocal men and one little boy in front of us and the two Scouts from Belgium to our left. And it was about then when our groups’ budding affection blossomed into a fervent, full blown love affair. We were all strangers, caught together for a brief span of hours in a tiny neighborhood dive 20km from the capital of an eastern European country that most people have never heard of, who happened to be standing up for Holland even though just three out of the nine of us called it home. It was one of those surreal and lovely moments that underscore the very best of Peace Corps service. I couldn’t imagine this happening in Irvine.
English. A game played in Brazil between players from Costa Rica and Holland, viewed on a sheet tacked to the wall of a terrace outside a pizza parlor owned by a Moldovan, by three Belgians, one American, three Dutch, a Moldovan man and boy and a giant of dubious Turkish origins. And it was the English that threaded it all together.
“Ask him why he is standing up for Holland,” Adrie says, not recognizing how truly ubiquitous spoken English is. Even here in Moldova, a tiny land-locked, mostly ignored country clinging to Europe’s coattails while trying desperately to escape from Russia’s shadow, it is not unusual to find your server or the person selling you a movie ticket speaking to you in English. In fact, probably a third of the Peace Corps Volunteers living here never achieve complete fluency in Romanian (I include myself among them,) largely because their partners prefer to converse with them in English. Strangely, this has been one of the most humbling aspects of my service: I was born into a language that has made it possible for me to be understood almost any place in the world I go. Having travelled to Morocco, Turkey, Austria, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia in the past two years, I still haven’t encountered a circumstance where English was not spoken by someone in my immediate vicinity. Just out of curiosity this morning, I looked it up: according to a Slate article dated June 14, , FIFA recently ruled that all of the referees selected for this year’s tournament had to pass a test of written and spoken English in order to ensure that all five officials at a given match can communicate with each other. Why English, you might think to ask? (I did.) Why am I, yet again, the lottery winner at the chancy tables of life? I know that colonialism and geographic hegemony and capitalism and access to printing presses and education have all played their parts; but it is also the immense popularity of English-language media which has fabricated a communication bridge to many more people than I would’ve ever thought possible. Ask any Moldovan how they learned their English, and the majority of them will reference films, music, and sports. It is both scary and wonderful, simultaneously.
The language of sports is a shared culture of competitive rivalry underscored by the camaraderie of engaging within a common arena. One can usually always find an entrance into a country or a neighborhood through the gates of the local sports field or around the big screen at the local pub. People will be cheering and cursing and celebrating and jumping up and down while punching air. And I will never fail to be astounded, and grateful, when it is my beloved English that succeeds in concatenating it all.