Tuesday, January 19, 2016

9/19 - London, Day 3 – Flea Markets and Rugby: Shoulder to Shoulder Day

9/19 - London, Day 3 – Flea Markets and Rugby: Shoulder to Shoulder Day
More pics here.

The RWC game we would be attending was at Twickenham Stadium in Richmond, a suburb around 40 minutes from London. We had a long morning to enjoy before we started down for the game, so we decided to get up early to avoid the crowds at the Portobello Road antique market in Notting Hill. I was curious to see what a British antique fair would be like, hopefully find some gifts, and show Ty this semi-famous part of town.  At 9am there were already more people than I’d like – but by the time we left around noon, it was wall to wall people (which we’d experience again later at the game). I found some fun gifts, and in an antique shop I found a treasure for me: wooden batik fabric stamps – both new (read: affordable) and used (read: expensive). I have a few new stamps that I found in Berkeley and was happy to find new intricate patterns, as well as a larger used stamp that was 1/3 the price I would have to pay at home. 

We had a nice stopover in a hipster gin bar (the Portobello Star) that I’d read about. It seemed appropriately British to trade in our bourbon cocktails for gin, and they had a menu that read like a book, plus their own home brewed gin. We enjoyed a rest and a drink, and then headed home for lunch – leftovers from Bombay Brassery on our hotel bed while watching another rugby game!

After a great indoor picnic and rest, we headed out for the rugby game. We took a tube ride to a train station, then a short train (nothing like train rides at home) to Richmond. We were surrounded by rugby fans – mostly French who’d chunneled over, but also Brits and Australians now rooting for Italy (really, rooting against France). We tried to find a pub in Richmond for pre-game dinner and excitement, but wound up in a tiny, quant Italian restaurant eating pasta with locals who didn’t really care about rugby. At least it was theme-appropriate to be eating Italian! We also stopped at the Richmond RWC Fan Zone. The organizers kindly created these places for locals to watch the games on giant outdoor screens, since most folks can’t afford the expensive ticket prices (but do have to put up with all of tourists flooding in for the games). The Fan Zone looked festive but chaotic – much like a county fair with giant screens showing rugby. We watched a few minutes of Japan vs. South Africa, not realizing that this would be the upset game of the whole tournament. 


Richmond is a nice suburb town along the river, which we’d hoped to walk through on our way to Twickenham Stadium. However the crowds and chaos were much more confusing than we’d imagined, and we opted to play it safe and take a shuttle bus straight to the stadium, where we were amazed to see such a giant venue dedicated to rugby. And so, so many fans! We popped into the gift shop for theme clothing and made our way to our seats. There were fans everywhere. It was unreal. 


The game was great fun. There was a laser show, national anthems, and the usual pomp and circumstance. Fans were dressed up and enthusiastic, but everyone was positive and friendly. There were more crying men than I was used to. The match was not particularly close (French is much better than Italy so this was expected) but not so much of a blowout that we didn’t enjoy the tension. The fans of each nation would break out in patriotic songs of their homeland to rouse the teams – of course France’s songs were louder and more common since most of Italy’s fans were not actually Italian, but it was a unique way to see the European identities as Americans! We were impressed by the incredibly orderly fans, how clean everything was, and how positive everyone was. We were told that beer is served at rugby matches because everyone behaves themselves – much like the reputation of rugby players themselves congratulating, hosting, and befriending their rival teams after matches. Apparently the same stadiums won’t serve beer at soccer matches. 


The Twickenham Stadium holds 80,000 people, and we heard attendance was in the 76,000 range for this game. We estimated that 74,000 of these fans came by public transit – and while we came at various times throughout the day, we were all leaving at once. Poor Richmond’s system couldn’t handle us. We filled the streets of Twickenham, making our way by foot the mile or so to Richmond and the train station. Everyone was singing, cheering, well-wishing, and generally enjoying ourselves, but as the trains filled up we became more and more congested, until we were shuffling slowly shoulder to shoulder, sidewalk to sidewalk through the streets. It was the most people I’ve been in contact with in my life, and the safest I’ve felt in a public setting. It’s hard to describe the sense of camaraderie we felt – I am not sure it really happens in America to this degree or with this many people. 

While it seemed the RWC did not plan the public transit exit strategy very well, they did at least put out porta-potties along the route, and some enterprising street vendors had food. Residents would watch us from their windows – we were mooned once (which brought cheers from the crown) and then frontal-ed (which brought jeers)! I’m sure we were a multi-national spectacle for the residences as much as we’d enjoyed the spectacle of the game. It’s hard to imagine another sporting event with so much love and respect and shared enjoyment. 

We did end up just standing for about an hour just one block from the station. We’d spend nearly an hour shuffling one mile before this. People were sobering up and grumbling a bit, but still nothing unsavory. Mostly folks were worried that we would all not make it on to the trains before they closed at midnight – but officials promised us the trains would run until we were all home. We made it from train to tube, and watched as international fans commingled with London local young people taking the same tube ride into the city for Saturday night partying. It was an interesting version of international relations!

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