Expat Diaries: American Gladiators

When our tour guide mentioned that he hosts an NFL night at the local pub, I was imagining a quiet evening. I figured we’d find a couple Italians, maybe another homesick American, clustered in the corner of the pub, glued to the Italian commentary and cradling a pint. It turned out to be the opposite.

The Highlander Pub is folded into the alleys of Rome, mere minutes from the busy Via del Corso but humbly tucked away among some ivy and the otherwise quiet street. To enter, you have to duck underground down a steep staircase. It’s one of those dimly lit bars with a deceivingly large amount of rooms and arched ceilings, bursting with sound.

We slid down the stairs into the cavernous room that was packed with bustling people, faces tilted towards the blue light of the TV screens, cheering on the Jaguars in their opening touchdown against the Patriots. Our guide, Jobe, towered over the bar with a microphone, leading the attendants in chanting “SCORE!”

American Football is not a very popular sport on this side of the pond. In Germany, for instance, you can find a singular broadcast of the most popular games on Sunday evenings, complete with German commentators. Viewers interact online or occasionally meet at an American-style sports bar. The games are usually the ones they deem most important, so you’re limited to watching, well, the Patriots nearly every Sunday while keeping up with the Browns score online.

In The Highlander, the Italian version was on the TV, but they were also streaming the other games in the different rooms and broadcasting the American commentators over the sound system. As they set up each screen, we snagged a couple Tennant’s Scottish IPAs and watched the crowd thin out. It was a mix of young tourists fresh from a pub crawl, some locals stoically sitting in what appeared to be their usual places, and other visitors sneaking away from the reality of their Roman vacation into this space of American camaraderie. I found myself forgetting where I was, with only my tired feet reminding me of our long day trekking through the city and throughout the ruins by the Roman Forum.

A couple arrived and fell into the empty seats by the bar. They looked like Malibu Barbie and corresponding Ken on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. One boy next to us was saying he was from the UK, on a trip with family. He told us about his love for American Football and his dream to visit the States. He demonstrated more knowledge than we had about the various teams. With each sip, I felt my shoulders loosen, my voice get louder—leading to an audible “What?!” when the Jaguars scored a second touchdown in the first quarter.

“Why do you watch the Pats?” he asked.

“I adopted them,” I explained, “I’m from Ohio so…”

“Ah,” he nodded solemnly, “The Browns. That makes sense.”

“What was that?” Jobe laughed from across the bar, gesturing proudly to his shirt celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl win.”I get why you watch the Pats,” he grinned. “I love hating the Pats.”

I stepped closer and repeated, “Well, when you’re from Ohio…”

“O-H-!” the couple yelled next to me. The woman spoke as if every word ended with an exclamation point. “No! Way!” her eyebrows arched as high as the ceiling. “We’re! From! Ohio! Too!”

The night progressed and we all exchanged drinks, heartily shouted at the TV screens, shared our life stories and pats on the shoulder. This space felt separate from the plane of our reality, as if we had driven here from the American suburbs and were starting to dread getting up the next morning for our 9-to-5. As if we were a ten minute walk from our front porch, instead of a walk from the Trevi Fountain.

“We are all going to reunite,” Ken announced, putting his Heineken down to point to the tiled floor. “Right here, in one year! We have to do it! Are you in?”

We eventually dispersed, shaking hands and passing hugs, exiting the pub to find our way back to our place, already thinking ahead of what needs done for tomorrow’s adventure. I don’t remember many of the details of this departure.

When I think of the end of that evening, I’m filled with that feeling of home. I let my gaze soften on the images of the saturated crowds in the arena thousands of miles away, cheering on their gladiators.

Expat Diaries is a series of short essays about moments from my time living abroad. Stay tuned for more.