My Dutch children don’t always comprehend that I had a completely different life before my expat one. Football has been a way to show them a little of where I came from, to share my English culture and background with them, and to give them a window into my own childhood.
My eight-year-old son is sitting next to me on the plane, immersed in a game he is playing on the iPad. We’re on our way from the Netherlands to London Heathrow where my dad will pick us up. The three of us have tickets to a football match at the weekend. Watford FC is playing Newcastle United in their last Premier League home game of the season at Vicarage Road.
There will be thousands of people there, but for us this is a special football match. It will be a special event for my Dutch son. It’s his first time at Vicarage Road. This is a little bit of history in the making. It’s a part of my English childhood and culture being passed on to my son. This is a window to a little part of the life I led before I moved abroad.
Saturday arrives. It’s match day. My son pulls on his bright yellow Watford shirt with his name emblazoned across his back. He wraps a red, yellow, and black striped scarf around his neck despite the summer temperature. He’s excited to get going as we leave the house and step into the car to make the (what should be) a 90-minute journey.
The navigation planner puts our arrival in Watford at 12.30pm. Enough time to look in the Hornet Shop before the match kicks off at 3 pm. My son has saved his birthday money for just this occasion.
But disaster strikes as we come to a grinding halt on the M25. My son gets to experience what so many other Brits have experienced – standstill on the motorway that circles London, otherwise known as England’s most expensive car park.
The arrival time on the navigation system creeps slowly but surely upwards. At 3 pm we are still sitting on the motorway, watching drivers and passengers in front of us opening their doors and getting out to stretch their legs.
We finally start moving. We finally arrive in Watford, park the car and make the walk to the stadium. As we approach we hear a huge cheer. A Watford goal. We have missed a goal. We make our way into the football stadium, find our seats, and sit. Most of the first half is over. But we are at least there.
Not Just a Football Match
I look around us. There is a sea of yellow, red, and black surrounding us. My son’s bright shirt blends in. The scene is a familiar one to me; one that was a regular part of my childhood, my teenage years, and then into my twenties when I grew up with English football culture.
Sitting here, it feels like home despite not having been here since 2014. That was when I brought my eldest child to Watford’s home ground for the first time to watch a match when he was seven. This has become a tradition, something I do with my sons. I have a six-year-old back home, and I will make this same journey with him next season.
It’s not just a football match, it’s like passing a little part of my childhood to each of my sons. This is the place I spent so many hours as I grew up. Week after week my parents and I returned to the terraces of Vicarage Road to watch the Hornets play football. We watched through the good and the bad. The ups and the downs. And we started following them around the country, regularly watching away games. Tuesday evenings in Ipswich. Saturday afternoons at Highbury. Exploring the length and breadth of England, one football match at a time. As part of something. Part of something bigger than our family.
Then my family went our different ways. My parents divorced and moved away from the Watford area. My brother found love in the United States and moved there to start his own family. I continued to renew my season ticket for a few seasons more before I headed to the Netherlands at age 27 to live in.
Culture and Memories
There are so many memories wrapped up in Watford football matches for me. And as I sit next to each of my sons on the terraces where those memories were made I am carefully unwrapping some of them and passing them to my sons for safe keeping. At the same time, my dad and I are making childhood memories for my sons – ones they will never forget.
Being on the terraces of an English Premiership club is different than sitting on those of a Dutch Eredivisie club. There’s a cultural difference. There’s a language difference. Two of my sons have experienced those differences now.
For me, as a mother, these journeys are special. I watch my sons smile as they spot the club’s mascot, Harry the Hornet, for the first time. They clap with the crowd as Watford are poised to take a corner kick. My sons cheer as the referee blows his whistle for full time, three points in the pocket for Watford. They applaud the players. As we leave the ground we shuffle our way around the streets of Watford back to the car, just as I did with my parents and brother decades before.
A Life Before Expat Life
It’s hard for my children to imagine I had a life elsewhere before I ‘turned Dutch’. These trips are a small window into that life. They see the town I used to live in, they see a part of the life I had before I moved to the Netherlands and became their mother. They get a glimpse of the culture that has formed me, and them too.
It’s something I could never have imagined as I sat on those terraces as an eleven-year-old watching my first live Hornets match at Vicarage Road — that one day I would return and bring each of my three Dutch sons with me. Magical moments.
Football. It’s not just a game.