As we crossed the border from Syria to Turkey I had only one thing in mind: I wanted to find a campsite with a huge TV screen showing the Football World Cup. I was an Italian on a mission. My love of the game, inherited through my familial genes along with a healthy appetite and a propensity to wave my hands furiously whenever I speak, had weaned throughout the years. Having spent long periods travelling and living in remote countries had altered my interests and hobbies, although my passion does tend to resurface with fervour for two weeks every four years. They don’t call it World Cup fever for nothing…
The exhilaration I felt when watching the Azzurri play had nothing to do with patriotism…and all to do with childhood memories. Every time I saw one of our handsome boys score a goal I was transported to 1982 and that famous one made by Tardelli, after which he runs around yelling ‘gooooooaaaaaaallll’ for 10 seconds. Just about every Italian child of that era counts that as one of their fondest memories; when the whole country just stopped in nervous anticipation to watch Italy beat West Germany in the final. It was the single most electrifying moment of my childhood and something which gave me goose bumps at the mere thought for the following three decades.
Anyway, back to Turkey on the 14th June 2010 (the ability to waffle ad infinitum may also be another inherited Italian trait!)
Italy was up against Paraguay; it was only the beginning of the tournament yet I didn’t want to miss it. I’d told Chris I didn’t care what kind of campsite we found, as long as there was somewhere I could watch the game in the early afternoon. He’s not much into watching sports actually, but he understood how important it was for me.
We had just reached the Mediterranean coastline and we were both euphoric. It was simply splendid and the options for bush camping on the beach near infinite. Yet we headed to Iskenderun nonetheless, hoping that a beachside cafe/restaurant would allow us to camp on their lawn in return for a meal.
We soon struck gold.
The camp we found may have had nothing to rave about but the TV screen I spotted as we walk into the restaurant was about the size of our camper, Matilda. THIS.IS.GOING.TO.BE.BRILLIANT! I thought. We asked the manager if they intended showing ‘the match’ and he replied with an emphatic ‘YES!’ Goodie!
The great thing with football is that it is the most beloved sport in the world and the World Cup is followed religiously by just about every country on the planet. Although apparently, not so much if the country you happen to be in holds a wee grudge…hmm…
A few hours later I grabbed my hardly-used mobile (great for texting my brother during the game to argue game technicalities) and headed to the restaurant on my own. Chris decided to stay back with Matilda and read instead; apparently, watching 22 men running around after a ball is really boring to some!
As I walked into the restaurant I noticed it was jam packed with people. They were all men. There were about 50 chairs lined up in front of the screen, and dozens more scattered about the place. As soon as the owner spotted me he waved energetically and gestured for me to come up front. He comically slapped a young kid on the back of his head as he grabbed a spare chair and positioned it right in the middle of the front row. Within a minute I was holding a cup of tea, a plateful of biscuits and if it felt like all eyes were on me…it’s probably because they were. I felt very self-conscious and secretly wondered where the women were hiding…surely some Turkish women watched football?!
As the screen came to life all about the foreign woman was forgotten and the room simply erupted in excited cheers. It is so incredibly infectious to watch a game in a room full of football enthusiasts! I quickly placed my cup and plate away and settled into my seat and turned my attention to the screen.
Something struck me as odd…the cameras swept over the crowds and I could not, for the life of me, work out which stadium the game was being played in. It seemed smaller than usual and the crowd rather casual looking. As an interviewer took to the microphone I gathered that he was speaking in Turkish and simply assumed that perhaps a crowd had gathered elsewhere to watch the game. Right…‘local stuff’ I thought to myself.
As the minutes passed a doubt entered my mind. I was quite convinced the teams should’ve been on the field warming up already. Why weren’t they crossing over to the game???
And then the vision appeared…of a whole bunch of half-naked men dousing each other with olive oil. I admit not every woman would feel crushed at the sight, but as soon as I recovered my breath, I immediately understood what was happening and was beyond panicked.
By the time half an hour had passed I had resigned myself to the fact that I had become a victim of an epic ‘lost in translation’ fail; one of an infinite number I have been sucked into over the years. This was indeed a final I was going to watch, yet rather than it be about football, it turned out to be all about very ancient and revered spot of oil wrestling. That’s right…oil wrestling.
Being made to feel like an honoured guest meant that no matter how much I was dying to run away, I just couldn’t. There was no way I was going to offend this many people simply because I was talking about a different sort of ‘match’. So I sat there and watched as men groped and hurled each other around for a while, and kept secretly texting my brother to get updates on the game. I soon gave up on that too.
As it turns out, Turkey had not even qualified for the World Cup and, in retaliation to the offence, refused to show many of the games. I gathered it was probably due to locals’ disinterest in the sport altogether: Turkey has actually only qualified twice in the last 80 years, so it’s safe to say the Turks ain’t too fussed about the sport.
The old man sitting next to me, who spoke a little English, was quite intent on teaching me the rules of the sport and the details of this particular tournament. The Kırkpınar, as it is known, is ‘the world’s oldest continually sanctioned sporting competition’ according to all accounts and has been held in Turkey since about 1362. Even a football-mad fan would have to agree this is rather impressive. This was the favoured sport of Sultans and Sheiks!
So I ended up spending the entire afternoon in great company watching a sport I never knew much about and learning lots of incredibly interesting things along the way. Needless to say, I have never been able to look at a bottle of olive oil in the same way again.
When I finally made my way back to Matilda, I was beaming from ear to ear. When Chris asked me how the game went it took me about five minutes to stop laughing hysterically before I could reply and recount the whole saga to him.
Italy ended up drawing 1-1 with Paraguay and was eventually booted out of the comp altogether. I barely remember the other games I watched in the coming weeks, but I distinctly remember the slight hesitation I felt whenever a campsite owner said ’Sure…we’ll show the game!’
My brother recently asked where we think we will be in June 2014. ‘Are you going to be able to watch some games?’ he asked and after some calculations I replied that, although we should be somewhere in Kazakhstan, my chances of watching the right game or even the right sport are anyone’s guess. Then I smiled as I thought of Turkey.
My memories of Tardelli have not been erased completely, yet they have now been complemented by scenes of cheering half-drunk men watching nearly naked athletes throw each other about the field.
Travel has a way of altering everything about you and changing you irrevocably, more than any other pursuit. Your opinions, memories and prejudices are there to be reshaped and, at times, even completely obliterated. Nothing is sacred. You’ll be surprised just how many of one’s habits and beliefs are inherited rather than created. Spend a few years away from your country, and the comfort of your life bubble, and you’re guaranteed to return with a whole different perception of your life and your priorities. Everything you’ll love and for which you’ll have a passion will be uniquely personal and unrelated to anything you may have been brought up or programmed to follow. This is YOU…and only you.
And that’s why I travel.