From Maiden Castle to Lebanon – playing sport whilst on a year abroad

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“Chaque semaine, dans cette ligue, c’est la guerre! La GUERRE!” (Every week, in this league, it’s war!), screamed the small, very angry, Moroccan coach, flecks of spittle showering those unfortunate enough to find themselves closest to his end of the changing room.

The aim of this piece is not to reminisce on times when such behaviour was not made impossible by masks and social distancing, but rather to shed some light on what a Durham student might encounter if they were to try and play sport on a year abroad.

Despite the curtailment of my travel in March, I was fortunate enough to spend four months working in the south-west of France and a little over two months studying in Lebanon. As a keen member of a number of teams in the Durham college sport system, my priority in both countries was to find some team sport so that I could show the world my sporting mediocrity. The experiences I had in the two countries were vastly different but, looking back, both highly valuable.

The goal was simple: playing football or running with a local club (both sports being fairly universally popular) would help to meet people and make friends in the target language, while also keeping me active.

Shortly after arriving in Pau, a small city a stone’s throw from the Pyrenees in the south west of France, I came across sign-ups for Les Bleuets de Pau, a club based not five minutes from my accommodation. This being France, online information about the club was almost non-existent, meaning any questions I had (Was the standard too high? Was I welcome to join? Do they hate the English?) would only be answered by engaging in conversation – a concept terrifying to most of us language students in the relative safety of the classroom, let alone in our first week in a foreign country.

Any questions I had would only be answered by engaging in conversation.

Looking back, forcing myself to go and ask was one of the most important steps I took in improving my French. There can be little doubt that my ability to communicate improved immensely by playing football three times a week in an environment in which English was all but non-existent. I did quickly realise that trying to understand the coaching staff’s unique combination of colloquial French and Moroccan Arabic (a dialect very different to what we learn here at Durham) was futile; I still wonder how much of their coaching wisdom I may have missed out on as I ran about trying to look involved. Despite that, I now feel well prepared for any listening exercise that the university or a potential future job could dream up.

The time I spent at the club was not without other challenges. There were times, such as during the scene with which I opened this account, where I found myself wondering why bother. The above episode took place in the middle of a first team game (in the French eighth tier, so a moderately competitive amateur level) to which I had been dragged along at short notice. Having spent two hours on the bus, then sat and shivered on the bench, watching a bleak 45 minutes of football in the driving rain, I did question whether it was really worth my while to be there.

I remember the game fondly now, almost a year on, as the game which earnt me a regular place in said first team. We came away with a hard fought 1-1 draw despite ending the game with two players sent off and the nine who remained defending our box for our lives (given the coach’s half-time antics, this may not be complete hyperbole).

Red cards, for that matter, felt like something of a weekly occurrence. It is easy to forget, in the largely amicable environment of Durham college sport, just how unsavoury the attitudes and behaviour of players can be on occasion. While, for the vast part, my experiences were overwhelmingly positive, I would recommend being mentally prepared for some cultural differences.

On the subject of positive experiences, the Mankitail running club in Lebanon was almost too supportive – “remember to #rehydratefeelgreat” being a potent example of nauseating feel-good.

While my experiences were overwhelmingly positive, be mentally prepared for some cultural differences.

To provide some context: with the country in the throes of a minor revolution and experiencing economic turmoil since October 2019, sport was not necessarily the focus of national attention when I arrived in January of this year. Despite such issues, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and the recent Beirut port explosion which left a large part of the city in need of repair and many of its inhabitants homeless and poverty-stricken, this group of Lebanese runners ceaselessly encourage others out into the streets to stay active.

Running amidst the thick smog of a city where the public transport system consists entirely of taxis may not have done my lungs any good, but the exposure to willing helpers with the Arabic language was extremely useful and regularly passing the epicentre of the protests allowed a first hand perspective of the scale of the nation’s ire.

Craving football after my exploits in France, my opportunities to play came in the form of friends and friends of friends, most of whom I simply annoyed enough until they invited me along to a kickabout at one of the rare and extortionate artificial pitches dotted around the city.

I consider this last example the most important point to take from this self-indulgent reflection on my experiences over the past year. Arriving in a new country, one can easily find oneself isolated at times – a fact I’m sure plenty of Durham students can attest to – and so trying to establish common interests with anyone who gives you even the slightest opportunity to talk is, at least in my view, fairly essential.

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