(Days -12 through -9)In Which Brian Does the Full Monty
The city of Sheffield is a city in transition. As fans of the (1997) movie, The Full Monty will recall, Sheffield made a name for itself as the steel capital of England. Between Steel and coal, Sheffield was booming. But by the 90’s, the steel industry had left for oversees, and coal was on its way out. And while stripping may have been a viable option for the blokes in the movie, the rest of Sheffield continued to struggle.
Some 25 years later, Sheffield seems to have found its industry: education. Some 10% of the population are students, and the other 90% are trying to figure out how to make money off that 10%’s parents. Construction is booming as the universities realize they can make money by charging students for room and board (before this, students just rented apartments). Pubs now host regular trivia nights, karaoke nights, and dance parties. Traditional mom and pop shops are being replaced by flashy chain stores, and the old brick and stone Victorian buildings are being torn down to make room for modern glass and steel.
However it is clear that everyone is late to the party. While Sheffield has a steady influx of young people, the city still more or less shuts down by 10pm. A quick google search of “What to Do in Sheffield Tonight” retuned a “Page not Found”. Not even the internet can figure out Sheffield.
My rugby buddy, Rich, agreed to give me a hand getting the Rascal ready as well as be my guide. We struck up a friendship on my rugby team, and it has survived him moving half-way across the world. Rich has been in Sheffield for about 6 months now, studying the psychological effects of video games on the stress levels of university students. This means he gets to spend a great deal of playing video games for “research” purposes. But, he agreed, it isn’t like there is much else to do in Sheffield.
While Sheffield has always been an important economic center for England, it really drew the short stick when it comes to cultural and historical significance. In short, when the steel and coal left, everyone kind of stood around and said, “Now what?”
Rich and I enjoyed a pleasant afternoon at a pub out on the Moors. He lamented the lack of decent food in Sheffield. “Most pubs,” he opined, “just serve pre-packaged, re-heated food.” My quest to have a ploughman’s meal and decent fish n’ chips just took a serious hit. I couldn’t argue with him. All of the pubs I had visited so far had laughed when I asked about food and just pointed to the bags of crisps and suggested I order takeout from the pizza shop down the street.
Pubs are a multi-generational affair and are still at the heart of the social life of Sheffield. It is not uncommon to find entire families (grandparents, parents, and kids) congregating in the pubs to share pints (not the kids) and argue over what music is being played (definitely the kids). A good song on the jukebox can result in the entire pub singing along, septuagenarians and seven year olds alike. A bad song? It is really difficult to have a conversation shouting across an over-produced ballad. However the Sheffield folk seem to have mastered the art. It is slightly discordant, however to be sitting in a pub with plaid carpet, art and photos on the walls that would be at home in your gran’s house, and N’Sync blaring from the jukebox.
Everyone has their local pub and they visit it religiously. It is the same crowd every night ordering the same drinks. It is a wonder that so many pubs manage to stay open since there never seems to be more than a dozen people in the pub at any given time. It may be bad for business, but it is great for me! Where else am I going to find a place to sit, people watch, drink beer, and blog at the same time?
“You all right?” (Or some variation thereof) is the standard Sheffield greeting/conversation starter/ introduction. The proper response is, “Ya, all right, you?” I had to have Rich explain this to me. For the first few days I had figured that I just looked like hell and everyone wanted to make sure that I was not about to keel over right then and there! It is used in every situation and by every person. Ordering a pint? “You all right?” Paying for your crisps? “You all right?” Coming home form a long day of work? “You all right”. I shudder to think what kind of horrors people had to endure in the past where the greeting went from some sort of pleasantly to what sounds like a genuine concern for one’s immediate health and well-being! One has to be careful or it can devolve into a feedback loop of “All right”’s. This is the actual conversation between the person I bought a camp stove from and his wife.
Stove Seller: “You all right?”
Wife: “Ya. All right. You?”
Stove Seller: “Ya. All right. Just here selling the stove.”
Wife: “Ya? All right...Wat stove?”
Stove Seller: “Ya. Right. Me mum’s stove, right?
Wife: Ya, right! All right then?”
Stove Seller: “Ya. Right. Be right in.”
Wife: “Ya. Right.”
I think this is the the Sheffield viersion of the “Meow Game” where people try to figure out how many times they can fit the words “all right” into a conversation.
Another curiosity about Sheffield is the pecular hours of operation for most dining establishments. In the States, the house of 3-5 (or even 6!) pm are generally referred to as “Happy Hour”, the realm of half-priced well drinks, dollar-off pints, and cheap food. In Sheffield the hours of 3 - 6 pm are referred to as “Closed”. On a separate afternoon, Rich and I visited several restaurants trying to find something to eat before tossing up our hands and getting marginal takeout from the supermarket deli counter. Most establishments do not open until 6pm, and those that do, take off the hours between 3 and 6 to...well, I don’t know. Go to the bank? By 10 pm most of the restaurants are closed, so you have to time your food consumption carefully. There are plenty of things Rich is still getting used to, but he may never get over this one. (That and the disturbing lack of Mexican food!)
This is not to say that Sheffield is not without its merits. It is surrounded by truly gorgeous lands. There is plenty of hiking and outdoor activities if one is so inclined.
The Sheffield Wednesday Owls are a second level football club and have quite a nice stadium, but I’m partial to the Sheffield FC team (the one I saw on the 4th of July). Turns out their pitch is withi walking distance of Rich’s house. I think they just gained a new fan if for no other reason than he is going stir-crazy!
I also appreciate the inventiveness of Sheffieldians. The streets here are ridiculously narrow. Even though the majority of the vehicles on the road would qualify as “sub-compact” back in the States (the Rascal towers over most cars here), the simple fact of the matter is that the roads here cannot acommodate one vehicle in each direction as well as vehicles parked on one or both sides of the road. Some bright Sheffield resident realized that there was all kinds of space “not being used” right next to the road. So, most people park their cars with two wheels on the road and two on the sidewalk. It doesn’t really matter which way they are facing, as long as they have a place to park!
The true heart and soul of the city, however, is its people. To a person, everyone has been friendly, funny, and incredibly helpful. A lot of places back home could learn from the easy laughter and willingness to engage in conversation with perfect strangers that is on display here. Maybe we need to change the way we do things. So, next time you see someone, instead of glancing away, smile and say, “You all right?” See what happens!