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Four Things I Learned on Family Vacation

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Some people deride cruises as a poor form of travel—one where you are sequestered from the cultures you visit. I might have been one of those people before my visit to Norway. Some people deride family vacations as well—since how much “vacation” can you get with your family? I might have also been one of those people before my visit to Norway. But my latest vacation changed all that, and I don’t think it was just the clean fjord air that cleared my head. Here are four things I learned on my family cruise vacation:

 

1: Respect Everyone in Life

Life is hard for everyone. Who knows what the guy driving in front of you in traffic deals with daily? Maybe he’s struggling with a broken heart, he could have been left by his wife of twenty years. Who knows what the group of pedestrians readying to the road are worrying about? Maybe about a family member on their deathbed, terminally ill. Who knows what the girl in front of you in line at the grocery store is thinking about? Maybe about a serious health problem, and she doesn’t know how much time she has left. Who knows what the man you’re walking in front of is thinking of? Maybe about how to make ends meet and bring food home to his family. So then how hard is it to let someone go, stop at a crosswalk, wait a little bit more patiently in line, or hold a door for someone? It’s not hard. We all face problems that others may not be able to understand, so lets just try to make things as easy as possible for fellow human beings when we can while interacting in the most banal of everyday situations.

This really rang true in Norway, where cars stop for you even if you’re just paused on a sidewalk near a cross walk chatting to the person next to you. I learned it when I saw a basket of raspberries being sold on the honor system–take your basket and leave your money on the table. There is no one in sight, only your conscience can guide you here. I learned that on a cruise ship full of retirees with an average age of what seemed like 70 but where a small gesture like holding a door or making room for someone at a dinner buffet can light up a face.

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2: Nature is Cool—Never take it for Granted

Hanging out in nature is fun. Sure its healthy, and its beautiful, but it is so much more than that. It is also a way to get in touch with yourself, and your own inner feelings. The trails in both Geiranger and Flam are beautiful and manageable for anyone who is decently athletic, climbing to altitudes where the air is cleaner than anything I have experienced before.Both trails are also dotted with waterfalls one can drink from (saves a lot of money in the long run). The light rain that fell in Flam made for some beautiful pictures and proved to be relaxing—a few drops of summer rain falling on your back when you’re thousands of miles from home is one of those feelings that one needs to live.

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And as a side note I have to say that I respect the citizens of Flam for their anti-cruise ship signs that dot the landscape in silent protest. They’re right, after all. I would hate to live in a remote village and have cruise ships with populations five times of the village descend on me during the summer months.

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While the waters of the fjords are undeniably beautiful, you don’t need to go that far to get that feeling of true human contentment in the midst of nature—just go to your local park. Wherever you live support the local green spaces, its all we can do as individuals when living in a world gone crazy with building more office spaces for people to work and make the money to spend in the commercial spaces that are being built at an equally fervent pace.

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3: Family is Family

Regardless of who they are, what they might do, or what they may say your family is your flesh and blood and all time you spend with them is to be cherished. True family time is rarer than any football shirt, that much is certain. Before this trip I never thought that I could even remotely enjoy seven days on a boat with my family. How wrong I ended up being. I not only enjoyed it, but I also learned a lot about who I am and who my family is. That feeling of being able to truly understand the people who are your only real bonds to the world is special. Take a chance and go on a long trip somewhere far away from home with your family, it may just give you a different point of view on a lot of things.

 

4: Life is Random

Life is random. So take a few chances here and there, and embrace the fact that you can control very little in life. There are just too many variables, and attempting to control them all will drive you out of your mind. As we boarded the return flight back to Istanbul at the Brussels airport I learned this very clearly. As I sat chatting with our tour guides at the gate we learned that a family of four was missing. They had checked in, so the plane would wait until the family cleared passport control. We waited. Everyone from our group save myself and the two tour guides had boarded. And we continued waiting as the tour guides got a little nervous. After all, it is their responsibility to ensure that all members of the tour group board. Then I see them running, a father with his wife and two boys. Being a family man might just be one of the most difficult things in life.

They arrive out of breath, excuses flying out of the father’s mouth at lightning speed—a malfunction at the left luggage lockers, a misunderstanding with a taxi driver. The tour guides just tell them to get on the plane as fast as possible. I lead the group aboard, and everyone is staring at me. I suppose I look like just the type to hold up a plane. Later I learn that they thought I was the missing passenger. Sometimes in life you just have to grin and bear it.

Midway through the flight the beverage service has to be suspended due to extreme turbulence. I can barely hold my tray steady, whiskey and water splattering everywhere. Then comes that crackling announcement through the loudspeakers, the one you think only happens in the movies.

“If there is a doctor onboard could they make themselves known to the cabin crew?”

Like everyone else I am rubbernecking, looking around at the seats. Someone must have been affected by the turbulence. One of the stewardesses staggers up to a seat 15 or so rows up. The man who stands up has curly hair greying at the sides and I immediately recognize him. It’s the father of the family we waited for. The cabin crew provide him with a first aid kit as he gives some instructions.

So the last passenger on is the doctor. I lie deep down in my seat and stretch my legs out in the emergency exit aisle and take a sip of the Ballantine’s as we rock and roll ten thousand feet above the earth, that earth that is full of random coincidences every single day.

Never stop learning. Never stop adventuring.

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Brann Stadion, Bergen, Norway – Brann Bergen

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Here are some extra shots of the Brann Stadion, to supplement the story about my Brann Bergen shirt. Brann Stadion is a vintage stadium, built in 1919. It has undergone many renovations through the years, so it is not quite as historic as the old Stockholm Olympic Stadium but it is still a marvel to see a stadium defying the years. The current capacity is 17,686 although the record attendance came in 1961 when ticket polices weren’t quite as stringent. The stadium is a forty-five minute walk–three kilometers–from the city center. Of course, if you’re not up for that, there is a tram from near the main street of Bergen that will take you there in less than ten minutes.

 

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Brann Bergen 2013 Away Shirt

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The houses of Bergen’s Bryggen remind me of home in Providence, Rhode Island, except the houses are a little bit (!) older—Bergen was established before 1070! The quay and fish market are picturesque and I imagine how difficult it must have been for my great grandmother to have left the city for the New World so many years ago. The girl working at tourist information is as helpful as her smile is bright as I listen to her give directions to the Brann Stadion. My options are tram, or to walk along the tram line for 45 minutes. I go for the latter—after all, walking is the only true way to understand a city.

I head out of the city center, passing the train station and the bus station, and eventually find myself on the side of a small highway. Hairdressers, pizza parlours, and grocery stores selling six dollar bottles of water are what dot the landscape as the urban commercial districts give way to residential sections of the town. This is where the tram stop “Brann Stadion” is located, but there is no stadium in sight. Just toy-like wooden houses built in the European manner. That’s what happens when a team is as old as Brann. The team soon becomes one with the community, entrenched and camouflaged between the homes. I hope it never changes, and from the looks of it things seem to be going well. Brann were founded in 1908 and they have called the 17,686 capacity Brann Stadion home since 1919. The fact that the stadium itself is the brainchild of a single man and was completed with funds donated by supporters goes to show the awesome results possible when an individual’s vision combines with community support.

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The directions from a local grocery store send me down a residential street, denizens staring at me like an alien—but by now I’m used to being stared at, its just part of the jersey adventure. Once I find the stadium I make my way to the store by instinct (its usually around the next curve).

Inside the store I ask for prices—Its 700 Norwegian Kroner for this year’s shirt but 350 for last years. At 60 US dollars, its almost a bargain. Almost, but I’m trying to save some money where I can. In trying on the long-sleeved shirt and trying to decide between a European Large and US Large (I never knew they were different sizes) I end up falling in conversation with Tonje, the proprietor. She assures me that the European large fits best by saying “I know a lot about football shirt sizes”. I can’t help but tell her that I know a lot myself. It comes with the territory, after all.

“What do you do with 400 shirts?” she asks me with an incredulous look on her face after I finish explaining.

“I wear them. I suppose its kind of like Gatsby,” I say laughing as the conversation flows to the countries I’ve visited, the stadiums I’ve seen, and the jerseys I’ve worn. In turn Tonje tells me how she’s become like a mother to the players after working at the team so long—they call her about starting and not starting and all the other tribulations that come with being a professional footballer.

Since I’m so interested in shirts I get a small history lesson: The anthem of the city of Bergen is written inside the collar below a design of the seven hills of Bergen; it is written in an old form of Norwegian—a hybrid of modern Norwegian and Danish. She tells me that the fans sing this anthem in unison at every home match, and that I need to come to see it—the atmosphere is like a Latin match.

I explain that I know a bit about “atmosphere”—I talk about Turkey and last year’s Scandinavian derby in Stockholm. We walk to the front of the store and she shows me something that is admittedly cute. It’s an infant jersey, made by Hummel and it looks just like the real thing—except it’s a onesie, complete with buttons. Apparently the bond between Brann and their fans is so strong in Bergen that people will stop by the shop immediately after leaving the nearby hospital so as to cement their newborns in Brann’s culture of fandom. I feel like this is what football is all about, its ability to transcend sport and become a culture in and of itself. My need to support this grassroots culture makes me grab a two pack of pacifiers from the rack as a present for my friends who just had their first child last November. Life goes on as Tonje and I continue our talk about life.

She assures me that she can find me a matchworn shirt signed by the players, so I ask for her business card in the event that I ever return to my ancestral homeland.

“Ahh, there are no business cards—the economy is so bad, that no one is buying anything”, she says as she rearranges items on her desk.

“Well, if a water costs a small fortune its normal for no one to be buying anything!” I say laughing, raising my empty bottle (I haven’t been able to part with it). She then writes her email and name on someone else’s business card and gives it to me. I feel like the hangman at the gallows as I take the card, and hesitantly take out my wallet—after an hour of scintillating conversation I’m looking at a bill over one hundred dollars. As I take out my wallet she stops me.

“No—I cannot take money from you. It is my present.”

“What?” Im genuinely surprised. “No, no that’s not possible. Please”. I feel like a Turk at the end of a long night, haggling with friends over the bill.

“No, you are one of the crazy people. I like that. Every year we have one or two like you who come by, people who either collect shirts or visit stadiums.”

It isn’t the first time I’ve been called crazy and it certainly won’t be the last but I’m not sure how to react and I suppose my face exudes confusion. Tonje elaborates.

“Don’t be offended—crazy is not a bad thing. If you’re not a little crazy it means you’re dumb.”

Now these are the sanest words I’ve heard in a long time.

“I’ll try to come back for a match,” I say, still numb from the generosity and true feelings I have encountered in Norway.

“Inşallah,” says Tonje.

“Inşallah is right! You know Turkish?”

“Az Türkçe biliyorum,” she says and my mind only gets number.

“How?”

“Now please go, or I will talk to you all day and won’t be able to do my job!” she says laughing as the phone rings. “That’s the team, they’re calling from Oslo.”

“Ok, go for it. Thank you again!” I say it simply, waving my hand, since I have no words left. Then I turn and stagger out into the bright summer sun, my head spinning but jersey–and a true love for Norway and its people–acquired.

 

My unending thanks to Tonje for her generosity since this is indeed a beautiful piece. Hummel are known for their unique designs, and this is no different. The denim-like grey is stunning, and the chevrons down the arms made the long sleeve version the obvious choice. Another interesting detail is that the shirt was actually designed by a football shirt designer who is a member of Football Fashion. Haute couture in a way I suppose.

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Stavanger Stadion, Stavanger, Norway – Currently No Tenant (Formerly Viking FK)

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The old Stavanger Stadion has now been reduced to a track and field stadium following the construction of the new Viking Stadion in 2004. Stavanger Stadion was built in 1917 and at the end of its tenure as Viking FK’s home stadium it had a capacity of 17,555. This is the stadium that saw Viking FK’s famous elimination of English giants Chelsea FC in the 2002-2003 UEFA Cup. Like most old stadiums this one is located just above the center of Stavanger, it is about a 10-15 minute walk. The first picture below comes from the offices in the new Viking Stadion, the others were taken by me on my recent visit.

 

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Viking Stadion, Stavanger, Norway – Viking FK

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Here are some extra shots of the new Viking Stadion, to supplement the story about my Viking FK shirt. This modern stadium was built in 2004 to replace the old Stavanger Stadium. The seating capacity is 16,300 although the record attendance is 16,600, reached during a match against fellow Tippeligaen stalwarts Brann Bergen. The stadium is easily accessed from Stavanger’s central station via the Jæren Commuter Rail by disembarking at the Jåttåvågen Station–just over seven kilometers from the center of Stavanger.

My thanks to Morten and everyone at Viking FK for allowing me these pictures.

 

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Viking FK (Stavanger) 2013 Away Shirt, 7

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It’s a rare 8am wake up call for me, but sometimes duty calls. Outside the window of my cruise ship cabin I can see the port of Stavanger. The houses look like toys, and I know I can be nowhere but Northern Europe. After a quick breakfast I disembark, heading towards the city center. On the hill to my right swarms of seagulls fly over the whitewashed facades of houses in the old town, the view looks almost Mediterranean.

I head towards tourist information with what seems like half the cruise ship’s population. The streets of Stavanger are empty and I explore the back alleys as a throng gathers, waiting for the tourist bureau to open at 9am. There is a 7 11, an H&M, and a Burger King. It seems that the more a country advances economically, the more it looks like America. It disappoints me and I’m eager to get to the stadium, away from the tourist crowds and tourist prices.

Not that the latter would change. Norway is one of the world’s most expensive countries. With a minimum wage of 3,500 Euros everything is prohibitively expensive. A bottle of water at 7 11 costs six dollars, at the ATM the minimum one can take out is the equivalent of forty dollars. It is almost unreal. And I learn how unreal it is moments after seeing the eyes of the tourist bureau’s employee light up at the mention of “Viking Stadion”. Apparently it will take a short train journey outside of the city to Jattavagen. That and fifty dollars.

The change office wants 16 dollars commission to exchange 100 dollars. I choose the ATM as a better option, they will only charge me a foreign transaction fee. It is the best worst option, as I see it. Then it’s off to grab the ticket, fourteen dollars round trip. Seeing as how it is an eighteen-minute journey in total, I’m relieved (in a way) to not be spending a dollar a minute. A can of Swedish Snus and a bottle of water later and I’m out twenty more dollars. Within a matter of five minutes I’m down fifty dollars. At the rate of five dollars a minute I feel like I am in some sort of nightmare.

 

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I forget about it all as I watch the fjords through the train window. I’m nursing my water, I feel like every little minute needs to be soaked up and lived to its fullest. Norway has a way of doing that to you, and it is not just about the money. Its that feeling of being somewhere you may never return to in this all too big world that we live in. I disembark at Jattavagen to find the club’s stadium. Luckily, it isn’t hard—the stadium is basically attached to the train station. It is nine thirty, and the club shop won’t open until eleven so I spend time exploring the area. Viking Stadion is modern, with offices and even a small shopping mall part of the stadium complex. The day is just starting, and I walk among bleary-eyed employees ready to start their day of work. I comfort myself, thinking that—in a way—this is my work.

As I walk the stadium’s perimeter I take in the smell of freshly-cut grass emanating from the nearby practice field. It’s a comforting smell, and again I know it is summer in Northern Europe. Just as I’m about to complete my circumnavigation of the stadium I get lucky. Three men in team issued polo shirts are coming out of the team offices.

“Hey, is there any way I can get a few pictures of the stadium?” Sometimes, in this line of work, you need to be equal parts aggressive and assertive. And you can never be shy. Ever.

“Oh yeah, sure. Just go upstairs and find the bald guy. He’ll help you out. Tell him ‘hi’ from the boys downstairs”. I thank them and move on in. I also thank Norway for educating their citizens to the point that all are basically fluent English speakers.

I head up the stairs and am met with a modest trophy case as well as a full size photograph of Viking Stavanger facing Chelsea. This is Viking FK’s finest hour in the modern day; they knocked the English giants out of the 2002-03 UEFA Cup. I spend my time with the other curiosities, including a poster of what I assumed to be the team’s historical XI with faces that span more than a century—Viking FK were founded in 1899.

Inside an office I find two men engaged in conversation and I introduce myself, telling them that I have come to “see a bald man”. One of them—who is not bald just laughs at me. I can understand him, it isn’t the most tactful way of introducing oneself.

“Just a moment, I’ll be with you shortly.” I nod and step out, relieved that I didn’t commit too much of a faux-pas. I amuse myself by looking at the trophy case again and flipping through some old match programs. I feel like I’m in someone’s living room, and I’m careful to not disturb anything.

Just as thought I had been forgotten in my hosts’ living room the man I had spoken with earlier appears and introduces himself as Morten. He happily escorts me through two double doors and we head out onto a concourse before another set of doors opens and I feel as if I’ve reached some sort of Promised Land. Beyond me is the green of the Viking Stadion pitch, looking as pristine as can be. It is definitely summer in Scandinavia and I shudder at the thought of winter.

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As I snap my pictures I explain to Morten my travels around the world in search of stadiums and shirts, and tell him that I will be going to visit Brann Bergen on the last stop of my tour. Since Brann are one of the oldest teams in Norwegian football (like Viking) Morten gives me a small history lesson. Apparently Viking FK are the team to have played the most seasons in Norway’s top league. “In fact, just recently Rosenborg passed us as the team to have collected the most points in the history of the Norwegian top-flight. Not a good thing,” he adds, with a grimace.

“It’s normal. Football is all about money these days—I mean look at Rosenborg. They used to be in the Champions League every single year . . . but not anymore. Its all about Barcelona and Real Madrid.” Morten nods along as I attempt to explain my views on industrial football and the changes it has brought. There will never be the Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, Paulo Maldinis and Francesco Tottis, or even Bulent Korkmazs of my childhood. One club men who played for the love of one game, one city, and one club. It’s a bygone era.

For that reason the amateur spirit of Norwegian football warms my heart—here, in one of the world’s most expensive countries, football is not about money. It is about people. I tell Morten about my visit to Stockholm last year, and the derby between Djurgardens and AIK. Even in a neighboring Scandinavian country that amateur grassroots feeling is lost. Morten tells me that I need to see Viking FK face Brann Bergen. I certainly hope I get the chance.

After asking Morten for a Viking FK shirt (since the club shop is closed at this hour) I learn just how real the true spirit of football is in Norway. But first I learn some more about the stadium. We leave the stands and head back into the offices where Morten asks something in Norwegian to a co-worker regarding the shirt. I stand like a child, helplessness belying my 28 years. For some reason, football shirts leave me weak in the knees. Looking at pictures of the original Viking Stadion taken during the Chelsea match I learn that the old stadium had a capacity of only 5000 in the main stand—the rest was standing only. Since UEFA regulations prohibit standing the team decided to build the new stadium. The catch was that the team couldn’t buy the land surrounding the old stadium from the city; the new stadium had to be built on the outskirts of Stavanger. That explains the offices and attached mall—Morten tells me that the goal was to make the stadium useful seven days a week, instead of just one day every other weekend. It is sound reasoning—very progressive Northern European.

Following a walk through the VIP sections and a look at some great aerial photos of the old stadium taken circa 1970 we’re back in front of the giant touch screen that displays the team’s website. It is truly a technologically sound European office—if only my two countries could do technology this well is all I can think. My attention only strays from the screen when Morten’s friend arrives with a beautiful Diadora shirt, a pomegranate color somewhere between red and orange. One of those colors that words cannot describe—you have to see it. I attempt to pay for it but Morten and his friend rebuff my efforts. What can I do?

I do all that I know to do. I thank them both profusely. My heart is warmed by their generosity, and they only smile. Before I leave Morten asks me where I am from in the US. He’s been to Boston, and loved it. He’s lived in Texas, where the heat got to him (as it got to me). He jokes that he can’t even go outside in Norwegian summers due to his light complexion—thus the underground tunnel system in Houston worked for him (it didn’t for me). I keep reiterating my thanks and appreciation of Norwegian hospitality and he gives me his own impressions of the United States.

“It’s a great country—although I did get flipped off twice.” My shock soon gives way to anger—although flipping “the bird” is a time honored tradition in New York I’m shocked that it happened in . . . San Francisco of all places. Not once, but twice. I guess the look on my face makes Morten feel the need to elaborate.

“Well, the first time was from a taxi driver. I couldn’t explain to him the location of our hotel so he just told my wife and I to get out. He left us standing on the sidewalk and gave me the finger as he drove off. Then we tried to get on a bus, from where we were left, and when I didn’t have the correct change the bus driver flipped me off as well.” He just laughs and I have too as well. It’s all we can do sometimes in a world inhabited by more than a few disrespectful people. Because if you don’t laugh, you will never be able to appreciate the good people—people who can just give you a football shirt free of charge in the world’s most expensive country.

Still laughing Morten wishes me luck as he leads me to the door—I have to move fast in order to see the old Stavanger Stadion; my promise to Morten and the rest of the folks at Stavanger FK in return for their generosity. It’s all I can do.

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The old stadium sits in a peaceful residential area above the town near an old cemetery, beautifully blanketed in all the brilliant colors of summer flowers. Walking past the cemetery and listening to the crunch of leaves beneath my feet I think about industrial football and the setting of the new stadium—it is basically a business park far from the neighborhoods that support the team. I later learn that Brann Bergen’s stadium is in a similar residential setting. I suppose its fitting—stadiums and cemeteries are two staples of urban life, just as life and death are certainties in our time on earth.

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After a few pictures of the stadium—reduced now to a municipality owned exercise-park with a green field and running track—I decide to walk back through the cemetery. Mourning, in my own small way, the death of the old Viking Stadion. Money seems to subsume everything in the end. Viking FK were never—and will never—be Barcelona or Real Madrid, but they can still play them (as they played Chelsea). Football in Norway harkens back to an earlier time, when neighborhoods and personal connections mattered. I learn this in one of the world’s most advanced countries, and that is something I will cherish forever for its odd beauty. The beauty of my great grandmother’s country lies in its small town feeling, where football shirts with three figure price tags can be given for free, where people want to meet you, where people want to care about you.

 

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