“You know something about French football!” Exclaimed Francis, one of the regulars at Le Pataquès.
Sitting across the street from one of the hidden gems of Paris, the restaurant La Baratin, Le Pataquès serves both as a classic dive bar and a mini United Nations for the troupe of devoted multi-nationals that meet there regularly on Tuesdays. Slipping in for the first time during the World Cup quarterfinal, it was my hope that the cagey proprietor of La Baratin would save my seat at his TV-less bar so that I could return for dinner during the half-time interval.
I love a good seedy side-street joint. They rarely harbor the insufferable pretentiousness that you find in a place too popular for its own good, having had its soul eroded by the constantly lapping wave of new consumers. Samir, Le Pataquès’ French/ Tunisian proprietor, is pure-charm filtered through a steady stream of smiles. When I first found his bar, I knew I’d found my tiny oasis of humanity in an imposing and at times dizzying city.
Paris, like so many big cities, has a propensity for swallowing travelers up. It is easy to get lost in the charm and romance of it. Love letters to the city, from Amélie or Faubourg 36 to Paris Je t’aime have painted fondly, if not idealized, the French Capital. It’s true, your life’s best croissant is only a corner away, but finding your private Paris can take longer than finding an operable green city bike.
Fortunately, when I step into a local’s join like Le Pataquès, I arrive speaking the language. Not French, in this case. I’m talking about the language of soccer.*
*Before pointing out that soccer is strictly an American term, please remember that it is actually a British reference to association football, as opposed to gridiron football. I’m American, so that’s what I call it. Australians have adopted the same word. Italians call the sport “calcio.” It’s all fine, really.
Maybe more than any sport the world over, soccer has its own lexicon, grammar, and dialects. Understanding the nuances of different soccer cultures can take years to develop. A baccalaureate in the history of the game would be a serious undertaking, spanning centuries, political movements, and the intervening changes to the geographic landscape. Luckily, that depth of knowledge isn’t a prerequisite. Like an appreciation for food, music or the local language, cursory interest in a community’s soccer culture shows that you have taken the time to be interested in them. Even a loose knowledge of the players — in this case, where they play club football, where they are from in France, their best position — can be enough to invite intrigue.
I’ve had people offer me their homes stemming from a conversation about soccer. I’ve been invited to dinner, met mom, and offered free travel to another country. In 2005, I was adopted and apprehended by a group of Portuguese architecture grad-students on a group field trip to Barcelona because I was wearing a Cristiano Ronaldo jersey.* I didn’t pay for a place to sleep the entire two weeks I was in Portugal.
*Not my proudest moment, however, I would point out that this was prior to his super-stardom. The number on the back was #17, if you get my drift.