Nor­way trip opened up teen’s eyes

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES My teenage

I’ll never for­get my first trip to Europe. I was a gan­gly 14-year-old, dragged to the old coun­try by a con­spir­acy of grand­par­ents and par­ents solely to visit Nor­we­gian rel­a­tives. I didn’t want to go. It just didn’t make sense.

Jet lag wasn’t the prob­lem. It was teen culture-shock: No Fanta. No ham­burg­ers. But af­ter a few days I was wild about Solo (Nor­way’s orange pop) and ad­dicted to “polser” wieners. Notic­ing stun­ning women … with hairy armpits … I be­gan to re­al­ize that our world is in­trigu­ing, and ex­plor­ing it can be end­lessly en­ter­tain­ing.

Vis­it­ing the house of my great­great-grand­mother’s birth, I imag­ined the courage it must have taken to leave Nor­way and her en­tire fam­ily for Amer­ica a cen­tury ago.

Sit­ting with my cousins on their living room floor in 1969 to watch the Apollo moon land­ing, I be­gan to see the world dif­fer­ently. Hear­ing them trans­late Neil Armstrong’s words (“Ett lite skritt for et men­neske, ett stort skritt for men­neske­heten”), it dawned on me: that first big step was more than just an Amer­i­can cel­e­bra­tion. This was a hu­man ac­com­plish­ment.

In Oslo’s Vige­land Park, I was grossed out by the nude stat­ues (by the great Nor­we­gian sculp­tor Gus­tav Vige­land). But I also ex­pe­ri­enced an im­por­tant reve­la­tion in that same park. As I watched tow­headed kids splash­ing with their par­ents in a foun­tain, I re­al­ized those par­ents loved their

kids as much as mine loved me. It hit me: This planet is home to bil­lions of equally pre­cious peo­ple. Travel was pry­ing open my home­town blin­ders.

Later, as an older teenage vagabond slum­ming through Europe, I’d reg­u­larly pop in on rel­a­tives in Nor­way. It was a much-needed rest stop for a bit of fam­ily warmth and good food. Now, as an adult, I find ex­cuses to re­turn to Nor­way ev­ery few years. Four decades later, Un­cle Thor still meets me at the train sta­tion in his lit­tle town of San­de­fjord. While I no longer need the free food, I en­joy Thor’s warm hos­pi­tal­ity as much as ever.

Re­turn­ing to Nor­way, I find my roots. My grand­fa­ther — fa­mous in the 1930s in Leav­en­worth, Wash., as a rowdy ski jumper — was a Rom­stad. So, although my last name is Steves (af­ter a step-grand­fa­ther), my blood is Rom­stad and that branch of my fam­ily comes from a scenic val­ley called Gud­brands­dalen.

But I don’t visit Nor­way just to read my fam­ily name on tomb­stones. The roots I seek are also cul­tural. It’s stim­u­lat­ing to learn about dif­fer­ent so­cial sys­tems (many of which con­found Amer­i­cans). A friend in Oslo in­tro­duced me to the ideas of Nor­we­gian philoso­pher Erik Dam­mann, who in the 1970s started a move­ment called “The Fu­ture in Our Hands.” Dam­mann ar­gued that a suc­cess­ful so­ci­ety can rise above ma­te­ri­al­ism and that be­ing con­tent was a good thing. His book (by the same ti­tle), lit a po­lit­i­cal fire in my belly that burns to this day.

Vis­it­ing Nor­way caused me to be re­flec­tive … to chal­lenge my cul­tural norms. In Nor­way, where city halls are as grandly and lov­ingly dec­o­rated as churches, I find peo­ple al­most evan­gel­i­cal about their be­lief in or­ga­niz­ing so­ci­ety for the ben­e­fit of all.

Nor­we­gians are tal­ented lin­guists. I speak only English, and of all the places I’ve worked (shoot­ing TV shows, lead­ing tour groups, and re­search­ing guide­books), com­mu­ni­cat­ing in Nor­way has been a breeze. Not long ago, I was at a cousin’s din­ner party with a dozen peo­ple in Oslo. In def­er­ence to me, ev­ery­one sim­ply spoke English.

The top­ics were fas­ci­nat­ing. One man, an au­thor who had just com­pleted a book on Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, talked with me about the in­tri­ca­cies of Amer­i­can post-WWII pol­i­tics. Two new par­ents gen­tly de­bated the var­i­ous ways to split their paid ma­ter­nal and pa­ter­nal leave. Peo­ple seemed very con­tent — these Nor­we­gians were just lov­ing their salmon, shrimp and goat cheese.

Dis­cus­sions with rel­a­tives and new friends alike of­ten lead to com­par­isons of our two very af­flu­ent but very dif­fer­ent so­ci­eties. Take at­ti­tudes to­ward cars: When­ever I am in Oslo, I am struck by how peace­ful the big city feels. That’s partly due to a con­ges­tion fee that keeps most ve­hi­cles from the cen­ter of town — they’re routed through a tun­nel in­stead. To en­cour­age clean elec­tric cars, the gov­ern­ment un­der­writes car charg­ing, park­ing, tolls, and taxes — mak­ing even a U.S.-ex­pen­sive Tesla an at­tain­able ride (and this even though there’s a lot of North Sea oil in Nor­way’s econ­omy).

My “Europe Through the Gut­ter” days are long gone, but I still love drop­ping by Nor­way for an oa­sis of warmth, love, and lots of food. Just as im­por­tant is the chance to rein in my U.S.-cen­tric­ity, and to ad­mire other ways of do­ing things. If you have rel­a­tives any­where in Europe, by all means look them up. And re­gard­less of where your roots are, we can all travel with the joy of get­ting to know the whole hu­man fam­ily. Be­cause, in a sense, that’s what good trav­el­ers do.

Rick Steves’ Europe/RICK STEVES

self, on the far left, wasn’t wild about trav­el­ing to Europe in the 1960s, but I fell in love with my Nor­we­gian rel­a­tives.

Par­ents and Rick Steves’ Europe/RICK STEVES

kids around the world find joy in park vis­its, such as in Oslo’s Vige­land Park.

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