Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Not So Small World

I felt sluggish yesterday but went to the gym nonetheless. I had a boring drinks reception at a big American bank to attend, but decided to squeeze a quick run in before. I’d get my endorphins pumping, have a shower, change clothes, go along for an hour, sip a perfunctory glass of bubbles, eat some canap├ęs and then head home and hit the sack early.

Even walking to the gym felt like a drag. My hip’s been aching recently, which I blame on the worn-out soles of my old running shoes, and my knee still hurts a bit from walking into a stepladder a few weeks ago. Story for another day.

I changed briskly, but not before discovering that my loose-topped water bottle had drenched the contents of my handbag, and quickly got on the treadmill quashing a vicious wave of frustration that was coming dangerously close to breaking.

I wasn’t in a good mood.

It had been one of those clock-watching days on which the evening can’t come fast enough but the pile of things to do just keep growing. It had started with computer problems and a tube failure and basically had gone downhill from there.

But now I was on the treadmill, headphones in, the opening music of some poor-quality quiz show blaring, and the sound of ringing phones, clattering keyboards and self-adoring bankers miles away.

Unfortunately though, the running was hard, my legs twitchy and unable to settle into a rhythm, and I found myself reducing the tempo repeatedly.

I couldn’t focus on my breathing or the quiz and when a tall broad-shouldered trader-type mounted the treadmill next to me, ramped the speed up to 15kilometers an hour and started pounding his feet into the conveyor belt like he was running from a pack of salivating hyenas, my paltry motivation faded to zero.

It got worse when he started glancing over at the display in front of me as if to say, really? That slow? Can’t you do better? I contemplated hiding it from his view with a towel but decided that that would be admitting to embarrassment. I may not look like it today, but I’m training for a marathon you fool!

But then it caught my eye: on the front of his right thigh, patched onto dark blue shorts, something very familiar indeed.

I adjusted my pace to run nearer the front of the treadmill and took another long hard look. Yes, there’s no doubt – his shorts had an FC Basel flag stitched on them. A flag belonging to the football team that represents by dear hometown in Switzerland.

Now I’m not a huge football fan, but I have been to a few games, and seeing FC Basel represented in a generic East London gym, usually overrun with people who probably couldn’t even point to Switzerland on a clearly labelled map, was quite something.

Amid all the sweaty calorie-burning city workers, the patch looked up at me like a small beacon of light – like a little message from home – from my mum and dad, my childhood bedroom, the smell of home-cooked soup,  the sound of the crackling fire, silky touch of the cats fur.

And weird as it sounds, I did feel some of the negative energy that had been stowed up in my body evaporate as I thought about striking up a conversation with this kindred spirit and countryman.

We could talk about the smell of roast chestnuts on the central market square, the bustle of shoppers and tourists along the banks of the river Rhine on a sunny summer’s afternoon. And of course we’d speak in Swiss German, the throaty dialect – alien to everyone in London.

Then we’d speak about the team – about the players of past and present who have done Basel proud, elevating us above Zurich in the league tables, and helping us win the Swiss cup time and time again. Oh how we’d laugh and smile as we reminisced about sporting success and defeat. I’d tell him about the time I saw the coach having dinner in a local pizzeria and perhaps even how my mum thinks that the cashier at the supermarket looks like the captain. He really does, you know!

My treadmill switched into cool-down mode and almost immediately his did too. Both walking now - me recovering from my not so satisfying trundle, him snatching mouthfuls of air after all but sprinting 5k – I waited until he slipped off his headphone before mustering up the courage to ask as casually as possible:

"So, you’re an FC Basel fan?” Images of victorious goal replays flashing through my mind.

“FC what?” his answer in the most chiselled of cockney accents.

A little flustered now, I point to his short.

“FC Basel – your shorts. The football team. Are you a fan?”

I try not to sound desperate.  Unimpressed he slows to a halt and turns to face me full on.

“Cheapest I could find in a charity shop over in Hackney,” he shrugs.

I smile wistfully, almost trip off the treadmill and head for the showers.  I couldn’t care for football anyway.

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