“It’s a drinking club with a running problem,” my British expat friend Francis told me, trying to explain what we’d be doing on a sunny Sunday morning by the harbor at Nice.
My wife and I are staying with Francis at his home in a tiny village north of there, and I needed a reason to be elsewhere while my wife devoted a full day’s “vacation” to her novel. Francis sold the event as something of a nice walk by the beach, followed by beer and food. I’m not sure I heard much after “beer.”
An improbably pleasant drive through impossibly narrow and crowded streets — this was a Sunday morning; I can’t imagine what a Monday rush hour might be like — put us on Nice’s southern harbor. We were right on time, but already a small crowd of maybe 20 had gathered. Mostly, but not entirely, of British and English-speaking expats like Francis. At 48 I was one of the youngest people there, and not exactly the most fit (ahem). I’d be pacing myself with the walkers rather than with the runners.
Gesturing across the water, one of my newfound friends said, “We’ll be making our way to the fort.” I pointed at the impressive, ancient stone structure on the other side of the beach. “Just that far then?” I asked. “No, not that fort — the one up there.” He pointed to Fort du Mont Alban, about 200 meters up a steep, rocky hill overlooking both sides of the harbor. I winced and inwardly hoped I’d be able to keep up with the walkers.
“A nice little walk by the beach,” Francis had told me. I’m still not sure if he was putting me on or not.
This was my introduction to the Hash House Harriers, a distinctly British yet completely international amateur group of runners and walkers from and in maybe every nation in the world.
But back to Nice.
Did I mention that I was comically overdressed? I hadn’t planned on any activities more taxing than opening a third bottle of wine, so there I was, surrounded by runners in their running gear, dressed in my daily uniform of Levi’s, button-down, and sensible shoes. Yes, I was the butt of many jokes. Yes, it was all in good fun.
But more than just that, over the seven-mile course of streets, stairs, hills, rocky paths, etc., I made conversation with:
- A retired Italian gentleman who’d spent his career helping to drill oil in West and East Africa, and who was just getting back into hashing after having a knee replaced.
- An older New Zealand woman who had lived most of her adult life in Italy, married to a film director about whose name and movies she was completely discreet. She had to have been 75 or so, and by all appearances sweated less than I did.
- A retired British Army warrant officer who had been stationed in West Berlin (and not for the first time) when The Wall came down. He wasn’t just among the runners — he might have been the fastest.
- A delightfully unserious Romanian lady who had lived in France since about forever and served up an empanada-type dish at the picnic.
- A hypercompetitive-yet-unflappable British woman about to celebrate the Big Five-Oh with stoic good cheer
And so on. In the morning they were welcoming strangers. By the afternoon we’d all shared countless jokes (and not a few beers) at each other’s expense. Did I mention the beers? Or the drinking songs? Or the awards (and the punishments) which all seemed to involve beer?
During the walk-run itself, I got a look at some of the most beautifully famous (and famously expensive) real estate in the world, from vantage points most tourists never bother with. If it hadn’t been for Francis and his hashing friends, I almost certainly wouldn’t have. If my “nice little walk by the beach” had turned out to be anything but, it also turned out to be a potentially life-changing experience.
And this goes on all the time, all over the world, with groups I’m told are just as fun and friendly and cheerful and diverse (and naughty I hope) as this one.
The Hashers were started in British Malaysia between the wars by a group of colonial officers seeking to expand the fine Brit traditions of fitness, drink, and gentle hazing. The group came back together after the war (minus A. S. Gispert, KIA), and since then hashing clubs have sprouted up virtually everywhere.
There’s even, I’m assured, a Pike’s Peak Hash on the Front Range where I make my home. If they turn out to be anything like the warm and diverse group I met on Sunday, I might have to join up on a regular basis — but I’m going to bring along my own tradition, born right here in the south of France.
So if you ever happen to see a comically overdressed hasher making his way up the Rocky Mountains in the company of much better and more serious athletes, hand me a beer, would you?