Thursday, January 22, 2009

Kai Larson
Paris Arts Survey

Aller Paris !

I may not look like it now, but in reality I am a jock. I have played soccer for as long as I can remember…first just kicking around at school, then with competitive boys teams (the girls at that age spent more time applying stickers than training), and finally with a traveling girls club team and high school Varsity squad. I have also been going to soccer games as a spectator since I was really little; my family lives in Charlottesville, so we went to all the University of Virginia soccer games, both men and women, and I loved it. I also have been to a couple DC United games, and I have watched the USA women’s Olympic team play. But none of this prepared me for going to the Paris-St. Germain (PSG) match on Sunday.

I have always heard that the French, and particularly Parisians, are crazy about soccer. I didn’t really understand. Yesterday the metro was so packed that no one was sitting down, and everywhere there were France-colored scarves, hats, jackets, gloves. I caught the metro by myself, and pushed my way into a corner of the car. I got more and more excited as more and more Parisians packed onto the train, and I was cursing myself for wearing black and gray because I wanted to be identified as part of the “football” mob. All I could think about was how if everyone on the train, just my train, piled into the DC United stadium…we would probably set a new record in attendance.

Once I met up with the other students who had planned to attend the game (Michael, Andrew, Jen, Kerstin, Aleema, and Midori) and we found our seats, the real cultural adventure began. Parisians are crazy! I absolutely love it. There are two main fan sections at Parc des Princes, behind each of the goals on the field. We were in the section just below and to the left of one of them…and what an amazing experience. No one there sits down, there are sheet-sized banners hanging off of the balcony, lit flares, people wave flags the size of a small apartment, and every once in a while it rains phonebook confetti. But what was most incredible to me was the organized cheers/chants/songs.

It seemed as though the fans were taking part in a stadium-sized dance routine, choreographed, not by anyone specific, but by culture and history and love of the game. At one moment I looked across the field and everyone on the far side had lifted their hands above their heads with their PSG scarves stretched between. No one moved, no one made a sound, just stood with hands and scarves outstretched. A few minutes later, the same crowd was yelling and chanting and looking like ocean waves as each line of spectators linked arms and jumped sideways first one direction, then the other. After the opposing team’s keeper got penalized for side-tackling a PSG forward, whenever the keeper had the ball the entire stadium started whistling. The whistling grew higher and higher in pitch until he released the ball (either with a kick or a punt) at which point the fans shouted in unison something unintelligible but undoubtedly frenchly derisive. This happened honestly every time this player touched the ball until the game ended. There were easily at least fifteen or more different cheers, and I only managed to figure out one of them (aller Paris!). Apparently the PSG fans have gotten so out of hand in the past that it was necessary to surround the section for the opposing team’s fans with high spiked walls and a net that hung down from the very top of the stadium.

Being at that game was, for me, incredible. I was in a place with thousands of other people who shared and even exceeded my passion for the sport, who were all there for one reason and one reason only – love of the game. I found myself looking up at the fan section and wondering who these people were during the week. Bankers? Lawyers? Janitors? But it didn’t really matter at all, because at Sunday at 5pm they were all the same. Everyone knew the cheers, knew the movements, knew when to whistle and when to jump. It’s a convergence of humanity, a manner in which you can feel connected to everyone around you, and I wished that I was standing with them instead of sitting below with the sane people. Although even if I had been in either fan section, I still would have felt out of place because there were so few girls at the game. I realized as I was walking towards the stadium that the crowd took note of me because I am a girl, and as such I stood out. Just as I had heard that the French were crazy about soccer, I also heard that French girls were just not as interested in sports as American girls, which, alas, also turned out to be true. On the upside, the security line for women was nearly nonexistent, so I got to bypass a lot of frustrated-looking French men at the door.

I think that the most interesting cultural note for me was the juxtaposition of the passionate PSG fans with the calm and polite manner of being in Paris. French is all about speaking delicately, being composed, and always being conscious of yourself and others. At the game, the same delicate Parisians turned into a PSG-loving mob, and you would think that nothing else existed in the world for them. Perhaps, in that moment, that was the case. Nothing exists but the game. I suppose even the ever-proper French need some kind of release, and if soccer is how they do it, that’s just another reason for me to move to Paris.

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