Back in 2003 when I moved to İstanbul from the States, my Turkish friends were eager to take me to my first soccer match. Not just any match, but a Fenerbahçe-Galatasaray match, filled with rivalry and high emotions. My friends supported Fenerbahçe, and it was an easy thing for me to come up with blue and yellow colors to wear given that those were the same colors as the University of Michigan, whose football and basketball teams I supported in my native land.
The match was eventful, as it usually is when those two teams compete. Held in Fenerbahçe's stadium, the small amount of Galatasaray fans allowed in were in a caged in section, cordoned off by the police to ostensibly keep things from being thrown in and violence at bay. For once, my red hair went unnoticed as every male was so fixed on watching the game that I was not harassed at all, contrary to what other friends had warned me about when I told them I was going. Since I was wearing the right colors, I really had no problems but also attribute that to attending the game with five friends, four of whom were male and made sure to keep us two girls safe. It was fun to stand on the seats shouting with everyone else. Jumping up and down when a goal was scored. Listening to the buzzing sound a whole stadium full of people munching sunflower seeds obsessively makes. Weirdly, it made me homesick.
Why? Well, it was nice to just be at a sporting event and to feel the overall excitement and adrenaline of competition. In the US, most high schools and universities have athletic programs, with teams in various sports competing all over the state and country. While this is controversial, it nonetheless defined much of my school life when I was young. Before everyone reading this sounds off that Americans turn everything into a competition (another article for another time), most countries the world over have competitive sports that people unite to support. Cricket, rugby, soccer, baseball, just to name a few. One of the first things I noticed amongst the expat community when I moved here was how homesick everyone felt in regards to keeping tabs on their favorite sports teams from back home. Many British and Australian friends of mine would flock to a bar in Sultanahmet that used to air rugby matches live. Rumor had it, the bar would even open at times to catch a match that was airing at an odd hour so that expats and tourists could watch it live. This was all way before the days of live streaming, when one had to do some real legwork to watch games in real time. Given the seven-hour time difference between İstanbul and my hometown, that meant I would have to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning to watch my favorite teams play. Not an option back then, when I worked. Instead, I would just read the recaps of the games online the next day.
In my part of the US, the population is generally blue-collar or rural. The only outlet we have is through sports, and people take it very seriously. My friends from Indiana were nuts about basketball, everything coming to a stop when their beloved Hoosiers played. The basketball rivalry with Michigan was fun, and there was a lot of good-natured ribbing back then. My friends in Ohio were mad about football and the Ohio State University Buckeyes in particular. Living in Ohio was great 364 days of the year, but a nightmare on the day they played against Michigan. That rivalry is extremely heated, and life stops for the game. Back when I was in high school, Michigan generally won, and I loved going to my Ohio high school on Monday proudly wearing my maize and blue colors, head held high. Last year and this year my son Eren and I have been home for the infamous OSU-Michigan match, and it has been a lot of fun. I didn't realize how much I missed it. The good-natured trash talking with my Buckeye friends. Going to a friend's or family member's house for a party to watch the afternoon match together. Both years the games have been very close, lots of adrenaline and excitement. All in all, a lot of fun. Although I was never part of a football or basketball team, I still enjoy them as a spectator. The togetherness you feel when you are part of the crowd, cheering on your team. That is something that is not cultural, but can be found the world over.
In Turkey, much the same is in place particularly in regards to soccer or “football” as non-Americans call it. I may not feel much affinity for the Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, or Galatasaray teams, the main three, but I understand and enjoy the part they play in Turkish culture. Three years ago I was in Bursa when Bursaspor won the national championship. It was amazing, and exciting to see a team outside the main three take the well-deserved title. My Bursa friends, who generally support Beşiktaş, surprisingly threw their black and white colors to the side and donned green and white. There were parades in the streets and fireworks. It was really fun to be a part of. The world over, sports create a diversion from a lot of the realities that people deal with everyday. Watching or playing provides a great outlet for pent-up energy. While sometimes things can turn violent, in general rivalries and events are friendly. As an expat, whenever I missed watching sports I would go to a soccer match or a basketball game. It wasn't the same, but it was fun nonetheless. It's a way to forget a lot of your present worries. While it is just a game, it can be more than that for the people watching. Many players come from backgrounds very relatable to many spectators. They don't all come from one class or one segment of society. The athletes got there through hard work and discipline.
For me, I have found that I can learn a lot about a different culture through food and sports. Learning about a country's cuisine and also what sports are popular can provide a great way to fit into a new culture. My Turkish friends that studied at my university in Michigan learned quickly our love of basketball, hockey and football. Hockey was a bit unusual for them, but they became fans in the end and now miss watching some of those games since they returned to Turkey. In turn, I check on how the soccer teams in Turkey are doing while I am in the US. It's not only fun, but a great conversation starter. Cable and satellite packages have changed drastically since I first moved to Turkey, and now it is possible to watch many of my favorite teams play live from my house. Of course that sometimes means I wake up at 3 a.m. to watch an important basketball or football game, and my husband just shakes his head in disbelief. Ah well. The things you do when you have your feet planted in two different places!
*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer, and mother living in İzmit. Contact her at [email protected] for questions or comments.