Sunday, October 16, 2011
When asked about travel to Wales, Harlaxton faculty and staff have been in two camps: Don’t mention the rugby and Do mention the rugby. On Saturday, October 15, all I knew about rugby was what I had been told by Ziggy, the shuttle driver: it’s sort of like American football, but without padding, and they don’t stop the clock every twenty seconds. In other words, I knew almost nothing. Nevertheless, I decided I would mention the rugby. In fact, I watched it.
It all started last Wednesday, at about 3:10 pm, when I ventured into town to buy milk. I hadn’t been outside since Sunday night (it can happen when you live in the Manor) and was desperate for a break from my studies, even if it was just to the local Morrisons. Ziggy and I exchanged the usual greetings (me struggling to open the shuttle door, him getting out to help), and he asked if I had any plans for the weekend. “I’m leaving for Cardiff on Friday,” I said. “Do you have any tips?”
“When you get there,” he said, “find a pub to watch the rugby on Saturday. Wales are playing France, and it’s going to be huge.”
So we did. At our hostel, we asked the friendly American at reception to recommend a pub. Pubs weren’t really her area, she said, so she called over “the expert,” a young man wearing a t-shirt with “The Ten Welsh Commandments.” (“1. Worship Sheep.”) He was absently singing along with an Adele song on the radio. “Do you always sing harmony to popular songs?” asked my friend Margie, ever the vocalist.
“It’s a Welsh thing,” he explained. “When we win, there’s gonna be loads of singing.
“This may be an ‘I’m a dumb American’ question,” Margie said, “but do you guys have a separate national anthem?”
They do, which hadn’t even occurred to me, so I guess I’m the dumb American. It’s called “Hen Wlad fy Nhadau” (“The Land of My Fathers”), and he played it for us. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMI5wpwXTCY&feature=fvwp&NR=1 — sung at Millennium Stadium.) It’s not a march like so many national anthems, and I had a feeling they must be singing about something peaceful. I was partly right. “Basically,” he said, “it means ‘you’ll never get rid of our language, so sod off.’ ”
He told us that tomorrow (Saturday) we should go to a pub called Y Mochyn Du (The Black Pig). “Everyone’ll be talking and singing in Welsh, but they’ll speak English to you,” he assured us. We knew we would be the outsiders, but we decided to go anyway. “You can go to a castle anytime,” he said. “History will be made tomorrow.”
Saturday morning at eight o’clock, we looked out the window at a sea of red. Everyone we could see was heading toward the futuristic Millennium Stadium, which was practically on top of our hostel. But the match wasn’t actually happening there; it was happening in New Zealand, which was why, as our hostel friend said, it was being played “at stupid o’clock.” So that crowd was headed to watch the match on a gigantic TV screen, to cheer and boo and sing in harmony in the company of thousands.
There were people with painted faces and daffodil hats, carrying signs and wearing flags as capes. Walking the opposite direction in our everyday (non-red) clothes, we stuck out more than a little.
At the pub, Y Mochyn Du, we stood in a corner and did our best to cheer when everyone else did. I’m not going to try too hard to explain the match; I really didn’t know what was going on, and anyone who actually cares already knows the whole story, play by play. I was interested in the people. They started out drinking coffee and tea but had switched to beer by the second half. By this time Wales had scored three points (“It’s a field goal!” my friend said), the angry-looking player (captain Sam Warburton) had been taken off the field and looked even angrier, and France had scored six points. All the commentary was in Welsh. Interestingly, most of the people spoke English, and occasionally a guy not far from us would translate the commentary for an Englishwoman who seemed to be his girlfriend. She may not have understood the Welsh, but she watched the game like her life depended on it, clutching her neck when France got close to the goal line and jumping up and down when Wales scored what looked like a touchdown (a try?). It was now 8-9. Wales were only one point behind.
I don’t think it’s possible to understand the electricity of the last twenty-something minutes of that match without standing in a pub in Wales watching it. Quiet was an impossibility. Various people shouted at the screen, and no one seemed to mind, even though they knew it wouldn’t change anything. Every couple of minutes, a man with big ears yelled “Come on, Wales!” in a voice that could have carried across the street.
With a few minutes left, Wales got to make a penalty kick that could win them the game. “I can’t look,” one of my friends said. Many people were shielding their eyes. The English girl was digging her fingernails into her cheek. When the ball soared toward the posts I could tell it was going to go in. We all cheered. We jumped up and down. People hugged each other.
Then came the replay. The ball had gone just under the bar. It was still 8-9. We sighed. We thought we had won.
Wales held on, fighting to score until the very end of the eighty minutes. The man with big ears yelled “Come on, Wales!” several more times. When the clock finally stopped, the pub went silent. The English girl sighed deeply, and her boyfriend put his arms around her shoulders. Suddenly, I could hear every breath, the Welsh from the TV running over it all. Everyone was trying to comprehend that they had lost.
We sneaked out the back door—as my friend Allie said, “trying to avoid all the sadness.” I realized I had a stupid grin on my face. I was at once both thrilled and terribly sorry. History could have been made here, today, and instead it was being made somewhere else. Why was it that I cared so much? I had cheered with these people, jumped up and down with these people, watched with them with bated breath. But I wasn’t one of them. What was it that made me want so much to be a part of this country I had never seen before yesterday?
Part of it, I think, is the Welsh attitude. Rugby was everything in Cardiff that Saturday, but I had a feeling no one was going to go beat up French people. A couple of hours later, the die-hard fans (after, I presume, drowning their sorrows) were back partying in the streets, many of them still wrapped in their Welsh flags. They had lost, but they were celebrating a nobly played game. This picture is one of my favorites from the afternoon. The sign reads “An Englishman, Irishman & Scotsman walk into a bar. The Welshman…still in New Zealand.”
Many went home to mourn, I’m sure. But one of the side effects of identifying a people so closely with a team (“We lost” as opposed to “They lost”) is that what’s important is being a part of it. Being in New Zealand, being at Millennium Stadium, being at the pub—that’s how those supporters made history. Being there was something they would celebrate, and we could celebrate it, too.