Don’t Expect Benevolence When Traveling

Benevolence: 1. disposition to do good 2. a. an act of kindness b. a generous gift.  

Merriam-Webster Dictionary´╗┐

I’ve recently completed planning an upcoming trip to Spain. I’ve inevitably said it before. I love Spain. Specifically, I love Barcelona and Catalonia. One day, I plan to own property and spend as much time as possible under the Catalan sun. I could drone on and on about it, but I’ll spare you. This post, rather, is a story of lessons learned in the pull-no-punches world of travel.

March 2 or February 3?

It all started with the date. My birthday is March 3. My better half and I tend to travel on or around my birthday. This past year, we opted for other locations rather than our beloved Spain. It has left a hole in our hearts that we aim to fill post haste. So this year, we’re headed back. As a huge football (soccer) fan, and having chosen FC Barcelona in 1978 as my club of clubs, we prioritize games at Camp Nou. We’ve been many times. We’re accustomed to searching the schedule and selecting games. We know, for instance, that European dates are written as Day-Month as opposed to Month-Day. Or are they? Earlier this year we looked on the website and saw the schedule that Valencia will be in town to face our blaugrana on 2/3. Perfect! I haven’t seen Valencia play in person and its a day before my birthday. Except that it isn’t. When we recently logged in to buy tickets, we came to realize that the website had transposed the dates for us American folk and Valencia will in fact be playing not on 2-Mar, but on 3-Feb. Of course, the game has now moved to 2-Feb because of other midweek fixtures, which will highlight my next point. But not so fast. Instead of playing a home game on 2-Mar, the current rendering of my childhood heroes will be on the road playing their bitter rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on 3-Mar. So if I want to see the game – and of course I do – we now have to travel to Madrid, which we weren’t planning to do.

Moving Targets

Having realized our folly, my wife and I shared a laugh. It really didn’t matter. We weren’t changing the dates of our travel just to see FCB play a home game. And, come on. If we can make the budget work, we’ll get to see another El Clasico, this time in the Bernabeu, which we have never visited. On top of that, we LOVE traveling by train in Europe. We often figure out how to visit another city simply to enjoy the train for a few hours. So, we checked our budgets and figured out how to get the tickets for the big game. Tickets now procured for the big game on 3-Mar (happy birthday to me!), it was time to get train tickets. I dutifully logged into Rail Europe and bought tickets at a great price. I was more than two months out, so tickets are quite manageable. I opted to not double the cost of the tickets with insurance because, come on, how could the date of El Clasico change? I then logged into Airbnb to find us a spot near the stadium for the night. It was a night game and we knew we would want to sleep in Madrid instead of chancing a busy night train back to Barcelona. I found an incredible little place at a great rate within a few blocks of the stadium. I am lucking out! It was available, which Airbnb tells me is a bit rare for game weekends and it auto-books as soon as I hit the go button – no negotiations. That is about the point where it all started to fall apart.

To my utter dismay, we got an alert from the ticket agency. Due to a midweek match in the Champions League, the date of El Clasico was moving from 3-Mar to 2-Mar. For any American readers who don’t appreciate European sports, this is like moving the NFC playoff game from a Sunday to a Saturday. Simply unheard of. Yes, yes, the European club schedules all have the asterisked liner note *subject to change*, but seriously? Who changes El Clasico? LaLiga, that’s who. With one stroke of the pen, my Airbnb reservation and my fast-on-the-draw train tickets were rendered useless. Surely not. There is plenty of time, and I know my way around the negotiation table. I’ll make short work of this. It is a simple change of the date for reservations that are more than a month away. Just a few more conversations to take care of. Minimal complications for an experienced traveler.

Not so fast Mr. Negotiator

First up, the train tickets. I logged into the website to figure out the contact point. Often European travel companies such as the rail system have a US number so you can call and talk to an actual person. But I see they’ve added Live Chat as an option. Perfect. I’ll state my case, strike a fine balance between self-deprecation and skillful logic, and voila, we’ll have new tickets issued, perhaps for a minimal change fee. If I’m on my game, I could even negotiate my way out of those pesky fees. After all, who changes the date of El Clasico? As things would have it, I apparently was not on my game. Not only did I fail to get my reservation moved by a day for a change fee, I had no success whatsoever. I asked what they would do with the now useless tickets we had purchased. Did they need me to at least confirm that they would not be used so someone else could buy them? No, my delightful little chat agent told me, “Simply, don’t show up. We don’t track how many tickets go unfulfilled.” My inner Process Engineer was balking at the waste in this process. But all for nought. My indignation and roughly $150 were able to purchase a new set of tickets at a time when we’d be able to actually see the game. Ok, unlucky at cards, lucky with the bed. I’m certain I’ll do better with Airbnb.

Airbnb is different. It isn’t some cold hotel employee who could care less about your silly needs. Airbnb is run by people – real people like you and me – who will appreciate the scrambling caused by the date change of El Clasico. And besides, this is Spain, where they run the Teleferico for an extra 90 minutes after closing because people are standing in line. I’m sure my Airbnb hosts will have a good laugh with me and we’ll get this all sorted out. Simple date change and we’re good to go. After several back-and-forth messages, here’s the deal that I was offered: “Good morning Troy, March 2 is available but it’s needed booking 2 days or more and it’s more expensive for the match and weekend day so we understand if you don’t want to book.” So instead of simply moving the reservation by one day at the same price, I now needed to book at least two days and pay a higher price per day than the one day I had previously reserved. In this case, I did not take the bait. The Airbnb host and I mutually agreed to cancel the reservation (for a minimal fee, of course) and I did business elsewhere.

The universe does not care about your silly travels

I have to admit that I was feeling a bit daunted by this round of failed negotiations. I’ve been extra busy at work and simply committing the time to make the adjustments was a fairly big effort. Figuring out new days and times, where to be and when, how to coordinate with other plans during the trip were all complications before the matter of money hit the table. A few weeks ago, I observed in Why We Travel that we travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. I think this is part of that very same message. I’m not special. The world doesn’t owe me anything. If anything, I should thank my lucky stars that I’m privileged to have these complications. My attachment to the way things should be is just unskilled thinking. In the end, it will all work out. So far it has cost more time and money than we wanted, but we’re still going to have a great time. And the uniqueness of this new experience has pulled me out of my routine and challenged me to think differently about the world around me.

Wishing you great travels filled with less folly than mine.

Cheers!

American Dreams

I first met Abdi and Omar Mohamed in 2006, or maybe it was 2007. I can’t remember the exact date. I didn’t record such things back then. It was through our local soccer club in Northeast Columbus, called Blast FC. My son Xavier played for the Blast, which brought together the more competitive and skilled recreational players whose parents were willing and able to fork out the extra fees for some great coaching and more competitive games. Lesh Shkreli, a former professional soccer player from the former Yugoslavia, ran (and still runs) the boys’ side of the club. Lesh was always generous with his time and offered a few scholarships to talented kids from the neighborhood. Enter Abdi and Omar.

My son’s age group featured a duo of Somali boys, which later became a trio, who lived nearby and loved soccer more than anything. Abdi and Omar Mohamed (unrelated, although they claimed to be at first) were both extremely shy and polite and they each had smiles that would disarm a would-be bank robber. These characteristics made it easy to offer them the occasional ride home from practice when they needed it. Little did I know that this simple and minimal act of kindness would enrich my life for years to come.

The occasional ride home turned into the occasional pick up for practice or for a game, which then led to me providing rides for the boys to tournaments, which then gave rise to me signing off on parental forms and handling birth certificates and all kinds of other ancillary matters. I became a surrogate soccer dad. I don’t say this because it was a hassle or a burden of any sort. I always wore it like a badge of honor. To earn this right, I needed to go to each boy’s house and meet his father. To shake hands and look the patriarch in the eye, because both Abdi and Omar were (and still are of course) well-loved and well-cared for by their respective families. However, as part of a wave of Somali immigrants who settled in Columbus, Ohio, their families often took working class jobs (sometimes multiple) and simply didn’t have the luxury of taking the boys to their events. In Abdi’s case, his father was (and still is at an advanced age) a hard-working small business owner. Omar’s father was working in a factory on third shift. The families greeted me kindly, offered me food and drink, and thanked me for my service. Just like that, I had a bigger family. I became the boys’ primary provider and decision-maker for soccer concerns.

Soccer concerns dominated most of our free time in this age bracket. The boys diligently practiced throughout the year often 4 days a week in addition to games. Lesh always found indoor spots for his teams to practice, so skills training went year-round. We played in indoor leagues in winter and outdoor leagues in spring and fall. Now having been around the game for 40 years, I can say that Lesh offers some of the best youth training around. If a player was serious, he could potentially go far. My own son thrived in this environment with his own accomplishments. But his is another story. This is a story about two of “my” other boys who took their training seriously and went all the way.

As our team aged, some boys developed their skills beyond others. Omar certainly stuck out from the rest. He displayed skills and creativity in games that impressed everyone, including the opposing team coaches and parents. Abdi was always incredibly talented and smart, but he lagged behind in size, which made it easier for bigger kids to knock him off the ball. Omar was our superstar. Abdi kept working. A couple of years later, we picked up a third Somali boy, Mohamed Adam. Mohamed was a big boy and he carried himself authoritatively. He became our midfield enforcer and garnered a lot of attention. Omar kept shining. Abdi kept working.

Often, we would have to stack the four boys in the back of my small sedan to get everyone home. My son and Abdi were the smallest. Inevitably this led to shenanigans. The bigger boys wouldn’t pick on Xavier as much even though I encouraged it. If we’re going to be a family, everyone is going to get equal guff. But the reality is that Abdi took most of the ribbing. Just when I could see the frustration on his face, I’d verbally slow down the shenanigans and tell the bigger boys to watch out because Abdi is going to be bigger than all of them one day. Abdi would figuratively thumb his nose at them and sit a little taller, smiling. Don’t get me wrong here, the boys were all respectful and treated each other like – well – brothers. They may pick on each other in the car from time to time, but let someone from the opposing team step on Abdi or whack my son from behind. Paybacks are hell. Usually, that came from Mohamed.

As the boys aged, we did like all families do. We started to drift apart. Soccer club politics, playing opportunities at other clubs, high school interests, all kinds of things set in. But even when you don’t see your teenagers all the time any more, there is still a bond. Every now and again, we’d run into each other around town and catch up. It was – and continues to be – great. We keep contact through social media and I have followed the boys’ soccer careers ever since.

Dreams Come True

Everyone from the team is now in his early twenties. Three years ago, Omar signed his first professional contract to play for FC Cincinnati. Since then, he’s moved to the Portland Timbers, spent time on loan in Sweden and Switzerland, and if all goes right, he’ll be joining his old manager back in the US for another pro team this fall.

Omar and I share a friendly hug after a rainy game in Cincinnati

Abdi joined The Ohio State University out of high school in 2015 and started as a freshman at center mid, where he played for three seasons. For his senior year, he transferred to the University of Akron and changed to the position of right back. Akron is a smaller college than OSU, but their soccer program is much bigger. This past season, the Zips went all the way to the final in the College Cup and I cheered Abdi on from my living room. Abdi’s performances in college earned him a spot in the Major League Soccer (MLS) College Combine. We got together for a good luck dinner prior to Abdi’s departure, a photo from which is the lead picture in this post. I presume he did well because this past Friday, January 11, 2019, he was selected by New York City FC in the second round of the MLS Super Draft.

Abdi Mohamed selected by New York City FC (NYCFC) on Friday, January 11, 2019

Beaming with Pride

As I watched the video on my phone of Abdi being selected by NYCFC a sense of pride welled up inside. Not because I had anything to do with Abdi’s success. No, his work is all his. Just like Omar. For that matter, just like the other successes that other boys from the team have had. Rather, the sense of pride that I have for Abdi as he hugged his father in that ball room in Chicago after being drafted was my sense of pride in America. Say what we will about all the negative headlines and the three ring circus that we call Washington DC. But the fact remains that this country, warts and all, still provides a chance for a young man who came as an immigrant from war-torn Somalia to settle into sleepy Westerville, Ohio and to “make it.” Obviously, Abdi has a lot of work ahead of him. Getting drafted essentially means that he’s earned the right to put his head down and keep working the way he’s always done. But just for a moment, let’s celebrate this young man. And yes, let’s celebrate America, which is still the land of opportunity.