“Have you lived in Helsinki all your life?”
Speak of the Devil and he walks. Not a week has gone by since I told you about our visiting Finnish football club and their wisecracker of a president when I get a text message from Helsinki. They are coming to Germany, twenty-seven of them in total. Do I want to meet up?
A time and a place is agreed, their German host picks me up and we drive half an hour down the motorway. We pull up at the stadium in the quarter-full car park, among the 12,000 or so hardy souls who have got out of bed early to watch MSV Duisburg against Union Berlin.
Duisburg is perhaps better known for its most famous son, Gerhard Mercator, than it is for its football team. The man who made the world map that we all know and love, the one that seems to indicate that Greenland is the size of Africa, is buried in the city. By a cruel ironic twist, the exact location of his grave is unknown.
Actually, Duisburg is probably better known for its obscure partnership with the mythical northern English town of Rosyton Vasey — as featured in the sitcom The League Of Gentlemen — than it is for its football team. The easiest job in all Germany is polishing the silverware in their trophy cabinet.
The Zebras, as the boys in the blue-and-white hoops are known, are a local team for local people. Times are tough at the moment: Currently they are fighting away at the bottom of the second division while budgeting for the third.
Their fans are of the never-say-never variety but even the most hardcore of them admits that it will take a miracle to bring back the glory days when they reached four German cup finals and lost every one. They could do with our moral support and we are happy to oblige.
Needless to say, the Finns are punctual to the last stroke. The president runs a tight ship: no soft drinks after 11 a.m. , no use of the “i” word –anyone who brings up the subject of ice hockey gets locked in the hotel room for the day. No mentioning of the fact that he has accidentally ordered twelve tickets for the wrong game.
They’re a happy bunch, despite the mix up with the tickets. Old hands, young bucks. Fathers and sons passing round the vodka bottle, mothers and daughters in wooly hats and scarves clutching cans of pilsener between their mittens. It was snowing when they left Finland and they’re taking no chances. One of them has travelled all the way from the Arctic.
Their German hosts are happy to reward them for their efforts. When we pull up in the car the boot is opened and out come the boxes of beer. Half a dozen Germans, twenty-seven Finns and a Scot begin to drink and be merry out of the backs of two cars. A tailgate party, German style. For me, a tiny little dream has come true.
I’ve always wanted to go to one. American-style tailgate parties simply do not exist here. It’s incredibly rare that two German football fans are able to persuade their partners to drive them to the stadium and let them gorge themselves on beer and unhealthy food to their heart’s content. Normally if they must do it — and it is at least generally accepted that they must do it — then they should at least do it with the help of public transport. But because we have guests, the wives and girlfriends have relented.
A wet Sunday in Duisburg is a long way from the parking lot of the San Francisco 49ers or the Denver Broncos but we’re there in spirit. I wouldn’t cross the street to watch a game of American football but the tailgating? The tailgating is something I would dearly love to do.
It must be great to see fans unpacking barbecues and picnic tables out of the backs of their cars, doling out their baking and packed lunches to perfect strangers from the other side of the country. Watching fans of the Kansas City Chiefs laugh and joke with the purple hordes of the Minnesota Vikings. Celebrating the true meaning of sport. Our affair today is more modest but our purpose is just as clear.
We speak the common language of football but we have other ways of communicating. The Finns and the Germans speak good English and my Finnish is coming on in leaps and bounds. I can now say “parempi pyy pivossa kuin kaksi oksalla” — “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. Phrases like that really open doors.
I can make the young girls laugh uncontrollably when I say “haista vittu” — perhaps the most offensive phrase in the Finnish language. I have of course mastered “kalsarikännit” — the noun that describes the concept of getting drunk on your own at home in your underwear. The Finns think differently to us, that much is becoming clear to me.
The younger lads insist on teaching me more words and I am struggling. I have had slightly too much beer for a Sunday lunchtime and am having difficulty composing my thoughts even in English. In the end I just tell them to say the word, I’ll repeat it and we’ll leave the translating for another day. They take full advantage. Much of what comes out of my mouth is some sort of variant on “vittu” and the mothers look on disapprovingly.
There are more serious conversations too. Brexit, Catalonia, Donald Trump. Where do we want Europe to go? We want more of this, certainly. One thing we’re agreed upon is that anything that brings Germans, Scots and Finns together to enjoy each other’s company can be no bad thing.
Me, I would love to see a United States of Europe. I would love it if fans from Finland or Sweden could mix with fans from England and Spain as normally as supporters from Chicago mix with supporters from Pittsburgh. I would have no problem with living in a country called Europe.
I’m also realistic. It’s never going to happen.
We’re not that way inclined, most of us. American-style patriotism will probably never catch on here. American games start with the raising of the flag and a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. It’s a fine flag and a fine song but somehow I think that hoisting up Europe’s gold and blue to the sound of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy is a little bit too grand for a wet Sunday afternoon in Duisburg.
For all its faults, Americans have every right to be proud of their country but I don’t think we Europeans will ever think about our united states in the same way. We’ll never be proud Europeans but I hope we’ll continue to be committed ones. Working with each other not against each other, concentrating on what unites us and not what divides us, trying to put right the things we got wrong in the past, sharing ideas about how to best handle the future.
And just enjoying some quality time with each other. We might not speak the same language in the same way that the Americans do but we understand each other better than ever before. Long may that continue. You can tell that it’s my turn with the vodka. The mystic chords are swelling the chorus of the union.
I’ve had too much beer and I really need to pee. I absent myself from the group and do my business at a discreet distance from the nearest police officers. When I return then I get talking with one of the newer members of the group. He’s a first timer here in Germany.
“Have you been to Finland?” he asks.
“No”, I say. “Just to the toilet.”
If we’re ever going to be one country then we have to start thinking on the same wavelength.