A while back driving home from Schiphol (Amsterdam) Airport, the Captain and I experienced something which got me thinking about how we react when we meet fellow countrymen thousands of miles from home.
Our American home is New Orleans; I’ve written before about how the place gets to you, gets under your skin, and how it’s people are like no other anywhere in the States for kindness, generosity of spirit and open hearts.
See two New Orleanians meet outside Louisiana and it will be a noisy acknowledgment of a mutual city, a joyous bear-hug of an embrace, back slapping and beaming smiles and the ubiquitous “aww man, great to see you guys – who’d have thought it so far from home?”
The city has had much to unite its citizens over the decades in sorrow and joy, and one entity which has given the city both in equal measure is it’s football team the New Orleans Saints; the rallying cry for all fans “Who dat?”
Dear Lord, that team has bought the fans to its knees year after year, raising and dashing hopes, making and breaking promises, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory game after game. The joke of the NFL.
Until 7 February 2010 when the Saints finally gave back to the New Orleans fans. It wasn’t just a football game, it was a city crawling back from the brink of the abyss, the phoenix rising, the driving flame that had kept the city fighting back for nearly five years.
We watched that game here in the early hours of the morning, keeping the faith and the vigil with New Orleanians all over the world. Did we cry when they won? Bawled, both of us.
This wasn’t a about a football game, it was about the fighting spirit of a city determined to survive, despite the apathy of a system seemingly happy to watch the city sink into oblivion. It was about a people overcoming the odds and the Saints were the symbol of that rebirth.
Who didn’t feel that emotion? Missy immediately mailed a saints sticker home for my car, much to the eye rolling of Harry, the Times-Picayune (our local paper back home) and other memorabilia necessary to celebrate the victory.
Suddenly a car pulled alongside, horn blaring, full of people gesticulating wildly and pointing to the rear of the car. The traffic was quite dense so they pulled ahead and in front of us, faces pressed to the rear window obviously shouting, and waving frenetically.
We visibly jumped, wondered what we’d done wrong. Did we have a dead body hanging from the trunk, a tyre blown, were they just being rude and obscene? The latter thought when we realised they had French plates.
We knew no-one in France. Had no friends of friends in France. A mystery. We put it down to road rage and let the car in front get ahead of us. Except it didn’t; it slowed down so we were forced to overtake. As we drew alongside the excitement in the French car increased to manic levels; the Captain put his foot down and flew past eager to shake them off. They followed.
We pulled over, they drew alongside with front and rear passenger windows sliding down, horn bipping rapidly like an AK47 in action. Dear God were they armed? (Living in New Orleans gets you thinking that way).
Holding up two lanes of traffic people were hanging out of each window, behind them others trying to force heads and hands through any available space waving riotously, wind tearing at their hair, pointing to the back of our vehicle yelling “Who dat?’’, “Go saints!” and “wooooooo hooooo!”
They’d spotted the saints sticker on the rear bumper of our car.
We wound down our windows, yelled back, beaming animatedly and instinctively back, connecting in that moment with our people, our city. Yes, they were from New Orleans, living in Paris, ardent saints fans, all this gleaned from a windswept conversation yelled between vehicles on a Dutch motorway. Eventually the drivers behind us insisted by the angry detonation of car horns that we get back into line and stop being stupid. God forbid.
We drove in convoy down the A4 then the N44, till we reached our junction for home. As we turned off our cars were level again, we yelled and waved cheerfully for the last time, saluted each other with a final crescendo of horns and went our separate ways.
It made our day, that connection with a city 4000 miles away sweltering in a sauna of heat and humidity. That in this tiny, ordered, temperate country in northern Europe for one moment we were transported back to the heat, the suffocating heaviness of the air, the colour, the noise, the exuberance of the people.
Sometimes we need those moments, that connection to who we are and who we’ve been even when we’re settled somewhere new.
I tell all y’all, it made our day.