Now before I start, I am fully aware that (for some reason that I am extremely grateful for) a large number of American people read this Blog. So, for the sake of clarity, and in no way trying to be derogatory, I need to explain that 'football' in this instance is 'soccer'.
The match that we were about to see was going to be between a Romanian side called 'Cluj' and an English side who you may have heard of 'Manchester United' (You know, the one David Beckham played for before he became an American), so it was, for some, a big occasion. Big teams like this don't visit lowly Romania very often.
Now John's isn't a 'sport bar'. There are other bars in town that concentrate more on sports, but John's feels almost like home from home for us, and we know the people there.
When we arrived the place was empty, just Gelu behind the bar. We shook hands and and said hello. He is a quiet understated sort of a person, and he always smiles at us in a way that seems to say 'Uh-oh, the mad English have arrived', but that he is prepared to tolerate us, and have a laugh with us.
It was a quiet start to the evening so we just settled into a corner right next to the bar, it was a perfect spot for me because I could see 3 TV's (just in case anyone blocked the view).
Gelu gave Boz and I our beers (Ursus, of course, 'The King of Beers in Romania') and Alison took an age looking at the drinks menu before deciding that she would have her usual drink, a 'Long Ice' (a deadly mixture with only a dash of Cola that you could fuel jet engines with!)
|Me, intent on the football and enjoying my 70p a pint beer|
John's Bar is modeled very closely on bars that John got to know when he lived in America. Dull lighting, a bit of a sleazy, grubby feel, bric-a-brac all over the walls with adverts for American beer, registration plates, flags, guitars, old records (you know, the type with the hole in the middle), etc etc, there isn't a clear space on any wall.
There are also hundreds of pictures of regular and past clients of the bar which I don't think have been changed for about five years, so I took this quiet moment as an opportunity to look at them and I recognised many people in them. These are people I now have the privilege to call friends.
Unlike the way it would be in many other countries, there was no loud raucousness about the football in the town last night. The city the match was being played in is only 2 to 3 hours drive away by car, but the streets of Deva were quiet, a normal Tuesday evening.
It's unfortunate to say that support for sport in Romania is understated and usually pretty negative. To the outside observer, more accustomed to the passionate support for sport seen in England, it appears that there is no optimism, no expectation of victory, only a resigned acceptance of more failure, unless it is a local 'internal' match. That's exactly how it felt last night. John, the boss, and not a big sports fan, didn't even know who was playing when he arrived.
As a few more came into the bar we sat and nurtured our drinks. We had arrived at about 8.30 and the match didn't start until 9.45 Romanian time, so we sat chatting and another friend, Adi, arrived and sat next to me and practiced his English on me.
Adi is a person who, if you were to enter the bar on your own as a stranger, you might decide to sit as far away from him as possible. He is well over six feet tall, and has muscles built by constant training and lifting of weights, and maybe the odd steroid!. He has short cropped bleached blond hair, and when you walk in, he has a way of looking at you that almost seems to say 'Danger - Keep Away'. I have been seeing Adi in John's for over two years now, and to my shame that is how I treated him, I stayed away. About six months ago though, I saw him in the bar one night and deliberately walked over to him to say 'hi' and shake his hand, and from that moment on we have been talking, and he is a real gentle giant, softly spoken and seemingly quite lonely.
It really does go to prove the old adage of not trusting your impressions at first sight, and it has taught me, yet again, to get to know people better before I judge them.
Adi has only been learning English for a year, and he is entirely self-taught. Every time I meet him his English has improved enormously. It impresses me so much that he is learning so well, I just wish that I could be as good as him at teaching myself Romanian. Whilst talking though, Adi just looked me in the eye and asked,
"When are you going to learn Romanian properly?"
Looking at him, and at how well he is doing with his English, I felt ashamed of myself for not making a greater effort. My answer was a simple but honest and heartfelt one, I feel so inspired by what he has done,
"I promise you, over winter I will learn properly, and by Spring we will be able to sit and speak in Romanian too"
He looked at me, smiled slightly and we shook hands, making this a binding promise that I cannot let him down on. So that will be my task over winter, and at those times when I feel tired of looking at my books, or fed up with listening to my CD's I will think of Adi, and I know that just the thought of how well he has done with English, will give me the kick in the pants I need to learn better.
As we waited for the match to start, another 'permanent fixture' of the bar arrived. This was Coco. Coco is a man who I have seen in John's since I first came in with Alison nearly four years ago, and who I have seen in there in every subsequent visit. I couldn't tell you how old Coco is, whether he is older than me, or a little younger. He always wears sporting clothes, and has an attitude to life which comes more from youth than age. I also know that he isn't a well man, but you could never tell this from his smiles and his cheery attitude. I know that Coco will be frequently mentioned as my Romania story continues, so I won't dwell on him now, there will be more to come.
As Boz and I sat there and chatted with Adi and sipped our beers, Ali scribbled into her journal. Adi asked me what she was doing, so I told him that she was writing all about the evening and about us, he just raised his eyebrows, shrugged his enormous shoulders and carried on with our conversation ('of course she is writing about me, I'm special' was how it came over)
John and his girlfriend, Anca, arrived before the match started, and we spoke about the book he has written and I am helping him to translate. We also spoke about a small piece that I have written and asked him to read, and he also told me a little excitedly that he has upgraded the sound system for the karaoke, in time for this Thursday evening. Telling me that he has installed a better amplifier, some clever piece of kit that reduces feedback, and that singers voices should be heard more clearly from now on. I looked at him and asked that if that was the case, can he turn my microphone down when I sing in future,
"I don't really want people to hear how badly I really sing!"
By the the time the match started there were about a dozen people in the bar, some sitting alone in a corner to watch the match seriously, but our little crowd stayed where we were, next to the bar, to watch it together.
As the match kicked off I shouted,
"Hai La Cluj!"......which means 'come on Cluj'
I got some odd looks, as I am English, but I explained that I have never been a Manchester United fan, but keeping to myself the fact that I really did want this lowly Romanian side to win, because it might engender some hope, some optimism in the Romanians surrounding me, and, because, I really wanted Cluj to win.
We all watched quietly, only the odd comment being made about how the match was going.
It started nervously, both teams seeming to be feeling each other out before they got going properly. After about 15 minutes though, the Cluj players moved forward towards the Manchester United goal, one perfect cross-field pass left another player free to cross into the centre to another Cluj player who deftly placed the ball into the Manchester United net.
I was standing on the footrest of my bar stool, arms in the air, shouting triumphantly, but quickly became aware that I was being watched, all of my friends were staring at me as if I was completely mad.
The look in their eyes said it all.
While I was thinking,
'This could happen, Cluj can win!'
They were obviously thinking,
'It's only one goal, we will still lose'
I sat down, slightly deflated, but also hopeful that they would be proven to be wrong and Cluj would win.
At half time some French friends of ours came into the bar and after introducing someone new in their group, they went into another room to sit on their own away from the football, and away from us.
Sadly, I was to be proven wrong about the football. Manchester United slowly asserted their dominance and went on to win 2-1, even though they never really took control of the whole match, Cluj were always a danger to them. Ironically, both goals were scored by a Dutchman, which only seemed to reinforce the 'international nature of the evening.
But afterwards, Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United paid Cluj a big compliment when he said words to the effect of,
"We had to 'dig deep' to get that win"
In other words, Manchester United, who had expected to come to Romania and gain an easy win had to really make and effort and use all of their multi-million pound skills to beat this lowly side. Coming from someone with his knowledge and skill it is a real compliment, but I doubt that many Romanians have heard those words, to them it would just have been another inevitable defeat.
In the end the evening wasn't really about the football though, it was simply an evening spent quietly with friends. One of those evenings that you can return home from feeling relaxed, happy and content with your life, and sleep deeply and relaxed. Relaxed in the knowledge that you are surrounded by the type of really good friends to whom you have to prove nothing, and be nobody but yourself.