“Stop pushing me!” Joani yelled in anger with frowns on her forehead. “It is very simple! Just move your feet to the left. How difficult can it be!”
“Joani, I am trying my best to speak to you calmly,” Nathan replied trying to control his frustration. “I have no room on my left. I am just sitting straight against the back of the seat. I am not pushing you.”
“Your shoulders are bumping into me,” Joani snapped back at Nathan whose arms have widen considerably after he started doing push ups twice a day since two months ago.
“Is there something to eat, mom?” Olivia asked from the back. “I am really hungry.”
We were on our road trip in Western Europe. Joani, Nathan, and Olivia had been sitting for more than 3 hours straight shoulder to shoulder in the back of the Nissan Primera station wagon that our cyclist couple friends Szymon and Ania lent to us from Poland. Joani sat in the middle with her iPad trying frustratingly to finish her math homework. Nathan sat on the left next to the windows with a laptop working on his Human Geography AP questions, squeezed by his school backpack on the floor of the car. Olivia sat on the right, with her backpack on her lap, trying to play the role of the teacher, police, and friend for Joani and Nathan all at once. Together they occupied a space around 1.5m x 0.5m x 1.0m or basically the space of a refrigerator sideways.
“All the fights, Nathan is too big, Joani’s leg was there, I am sitting between them, let’s move the bag this way, let’s move the bag that way, why is your shoes on my side, why don’t you try sitting in the middle…” Olivia recalled the horrors of our car ride.
“Siblings are not meant to fit inside a car!” Nathan concluded.
The front was equally as cramped. Annie had three bags in front and on top of her lap. It was as if she was straddling on a horse every time she got in and our of the car. The trunk of the station wagon was stuffed to the ceiling with a spare tire, five oversized backpacks, two large food bags, camping gear, and two grocery bags of food. There was no room for our small backpacks so we had to carry them in the passenger seats. When I looked through the rearview mirror, all I could see were bags and frustrated children.
Meanwhile, my eye lids felt heavy after staring out of the windshield for hours. I tried everything I can think of, like Mr. Bean in our favorite movie “Mr. Bean’s Holiday”, to get myself our of my drowsiness, including slapping myself on the face or pinching my arm.
“Honey, are you falling sleep?” Annie asked me after she saw me yawning loudly repeatedly. “Do you want to stop and sleep a little?”
“Just one more hour to go,” I replied trying to be optimistic. “We need to get to the campsite before it is dark.”
When we picked up the car in Vienna after my mom travelled with us for a month, we began our long-anticipated road trip through Western Europe. The plan was to drive through parts of Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France, Monaco, Italy, and Czech Republic visiting friends and famous sites. Given that five of us fitted exactly into one car, it was more economical to drive than to travel by bus or train. Plus, the car allowed us to visit rural areas and camp along the way, saving even more in accommodation. However, what I didn’t anticipate was the challenge of keeping a family of five happy for hours inside our “mobile den”.
“Look outside the window!” I yelled excitedly to the children as we entered the Mondsee Lakes near Salzburg, Austria. “This is where Sound of Music was filmed.”
“Ooh…Wow…” the children cried out in admiration at the picture perfect scenery of Austria with blue sky, white cloud, snow capped Alps mountain, aqua blue lake, and large expenses of green pastures.
“It does look like Sound of Music!” Olivia exclaimed who played the role of the 6-year old Greta in her high schools musical, The Sound of Music.
“I thought those drawings of the alps mountain, green pastures, and dairy cows on milk cartons were fake. But now I know they are real. I am looking right at them!” Nathan exclaimed in disbelief.
“Doe, a deer a female deer. Ray, a drop of golden sun…” we all sang at once the famous Do, Re, Mi song without any prompting, forgetting the drama of bickering, complaining, and sleepiness that engulfed us just few minutes earlier.
After experiencing such incredible sceneries, I didn’t think we could be more amazed that day. But I was wrong.
“We have toilets, showers, kitchen, hot water, and electric cooking stove by the side of the house. Would you like to have electrical hook up?” the camp owner asked me as I filled the registration form.
After camping in the wild in the Dunhuang sand dunes of China, 3000 meter alpine lakes of Kyrgyzstan, desert wadis of Oman, and the Dead Sea of Israel for a total of 26 nights, mostly with no electricity, toilet, or running water, our expectation of comfort when tenting was very low.
“You got to see this,” Olivia beckoned us over as we were checking out our campsite right next to the lake. “Look at the bathroom! It’s heated. It’s so clean! I can sleep without a pillow, without a sleeping bag, without nothing in the bathroom. I can almost sleep naked!”
“Everything has motion sensor!” Nathan said excitedly. “The lights, the flushing, the soap, and even paper towel!”
That night we felt we were living in a five star hotel. There was no need to set up the portable petrol stove, no need to cook with foil tray, and no need to eat sitting on the ground. We could even charge all our electronic devices inside the tent! The slices of marinated pork were quickly pan-fried, the Greek salad was prepared by the children who fell in love with it in Greece, and the pasta was cooked in no time using the electric stove. We ate outside around the picnic table enjoying the view as the sun set against the magical backdrop of lake, pasture, and mountain.
For 40 days, we drove through 8 countries covering a total of 6753 kilometers. We followed the footsteps of the Sound of Music in Salzburg. We visited the underground tunnels of the Eagles Nest in Germany where Hitler headquartered. We walked through the Swan Castle in Bavarian Germany which inspired the castle of Disneyland. We fell in love with the tiny country of Liechtenstein. We hiked up the Swiss Alp in Interlaken and admired Mt. Eiger, the highest peak in Switzerland. We savored all-you-can eat chocolates at the Callier Chocolate Factory of Gyere, Switzerland. We toured the largest sub-atomic particle collision track of CERN in Geneva. We skied at Mt. Blanc in Chamonix, the outdoor capital of France. With our friends, we visited organic goat farm, bread workshop, and vineyards of Province, France. We camped along the aqua blue beaches of Canne and Nice of the French Rivera. We drove through Monaco on the road of the Formula One Grand Prix. We were enchanted by the romantic Italian cities of Cunea, Verona, Padua, and Venice (Joani was so happy to be serenaded on the bridge by a singer passing through on a gondola in Venice). We hiked deep into the largest ice cave in Europe with a torch. We found the most beautiful medieval city of all Europe at Czesy Krumlov (little Prague), Czech Republic. We touched the mural-covered wall that divided Berlin, Germany for more than 20 years and served the Syrian refugees that lived in there. The list goes on.
OUR MIRACULOUS ENCOUNTER
A highlight of our road trip was the miraculous story of how we entered a campsite in Southern France as strangers and left as friends. While Olivia, Joani, and I strolled along the sandy beach of our campsite, we noticed a beautiful, shiny Volkswagen California camper van. We were attracted by the van because originally we wanted to buy a second-hand camper to drive around Europe. A tall dark-haired man came out of the van and saw us staring and smiling at the van. He smiled back, which made us laugh embarrassingly.
“Why are you all laughing?” the stranger asked us curiously with a smile.
“We were admiring your beautiful van. It looks very comfortable,” I replied as I walked closer to the van.
“See, here is the bed. Here is where the table and chairs are stored,” the man explained as he happily lifted the back door to show us all the features.
“Oooh…Wow…” we all exclaimed with genuine deep admiration as the man continued to demonstrate all the features of the car.
“Do you think we can come inside to have a closer look?” I asked hesitantly not sure how he would respond to this unusual request from a strange Chinese family.
“Sure,” he responded gladly.
The man was Alessandro and his wife was Sonia. They are an Italian couple living near the city of Cuneo, in northwest Italy. Alessandro went on to awe us with more features of the vehicle. Compared to the way we camp, the difference between his camper van and our tent was day and night.
“You are welcome to stay with us if you ever visit China,” we invited the couple.
“When you visit Italy, you are welcome to our home,” Alessandro replied politely.
“…Actually, we are visiting Italy tomorrow…” Olivia replied softly feeling both the excitement and embarrassment of asking to stay with these newly met strangers.
However, Alessandro didn’t ask us further details about our travel so we didn’t continue to follow up on this seemingly ridiculous request.
When we got back to our tent, I told Nathan and Annie to have a look at this incredible piece of engineering. They went quickly and came back just as awed.
“Alessandro asked me our plans in Italy. I think he is welcoming us to visit them,” Annie told me excitedly. “Go over and talk to him.”
So I went and told him our plan and got his email address and phone number. Alessandro and Sonia were very sincere and asked us to call him two days later when we are close to his home town.
The two nights we stayed with this incredible kind, fun couple we just met were some of our best two nights of our one year trip.
“Alessandro and Sonia were really excited. Alessandro took a day off his job because we woke up late and he wanted to bring us to the cafe for breakfast,” Olivia recalled. “Even though he did that, I didn’t feel he had to do that and he didn’t feel bad missing work. I felt that he wanted to show us his town and to spend time with us. It was just an amazing feeling!”
“I was so touched that Sonia’s father kept calling Alessandro over and over to bring us over to see him. His extended family wanted to see us, too,” Annie shared. “It’s a nice feeling where you felt wanted and welcomed.”
“…And they have a cat, which makes everything even better!” Joani added still missing her cat Zoe who passed away half a year ago. “Cats are the most amazing pet ever.”
“And they love food!” Nathan added.
“Yes, we went to two cafes for breakfast, we had an authentic spaghetti lunch with dessert, and for dinner we had two gigantic plates of oval shape pizzas and more delicious desserts,” I shared. “My stomach was bursting with joy!”
The story of meeting Alessandro and Sonia typifies our experience as we drove through Western Europe. When planning the road trip, Annie and I made the conscious decision to focus more on building relationship with old friends, rather than sightseeing. At Zurich, we stayed with Annie’s friend Esther from Vancouver and met her old high school friend Stefan. At Bern, we were introduced to a charismatic Christian couple Christian & Lillian by our old friend in Kunming. At Charmonix, we stayed with the couple Julian and Laura whom we met while trekking in Nepal. At Provence, we stayed with the first Couchsurfing guest Sabrina whom we hosted in our rural town in China 5 years ago. Near Venice, we stayed with the honcho Silk Road Italian motorbiker Albertino whom we met in a small town in Kyrgyzstan 8 months earlier. In Berlin, we stayed with a German young lady Anninka who co-worked with Annie for many years in China in a shelter for former sex workers.
I really enjoyed meeting old friends for a change especially after constantly meeting new people throughout the trip. There is a special type of connection that one only gets when one builds upon a foundation of previous relationships and common experiences. Through these old friends, I and the children got to enjoy authentic local food such as Swiss fondue, French Rabbit Civet, French wine & cheese, and Italian pasta & pizza. Through these old friends, we met new ones, such as how Albertino introduced his closest biker comrades to us every meal as if he was showing off his girlfriend. We were even invited by his friend to dine in a 800 year old castle on top of a hill near Venice.
HOW WE SURVIVED IN THE CAR
Throughout the trip, there were still fights among the children out of frustration and tiredness and I had to stop many times to take short naps. However, day by day, we began to learn how to survive in the car.
“The road trip turned out a lot better than I expected,” Joani reflected. “I thought I would be completely ‘dead’ from being crowded and get ‘super fat’, which we did, but not as much as I thought. But Italy really ‘killed’ my diet. I like playing card games in the car and even won a few ice creams! And our favorite time was when we went to supermarket.”
Nathan agreed, “Mmm, supermarket is our highlight of Europe. City centers are cool but they look all the same, but supermarket…”
“…they look different every time!” Olivia finished Nathan’s sentence with a big smile.
“…the sections are different. The special deals are different. And we get to eat steak every meal,” Nathan said happily finishing his sentence.
“I love buying cheese and bread that I can never get in China. There is such a deep satisfaction looking at all kinds of cheese, wall to wall. Ahhh…my life is complete,” Annie smiled dreamily.
“One of my favorite part of the road trip is that we had routine,” Nathan shared. “The routine was ‘sit on the car’, ‘get to a place’, ‘check out the place’, ‘sit on the car’…I like that routine. There was a sense of stability.”
“One of the reason that I have a higher salary (from tutoring Nathan & Joani) this month is because we were in the car!” Olivia shared happily. “I feel we are more productive in the car. No wifi and we have this mentality of ‘now it’s time to do homework’.”
“Plus, I can’t do anything secret because we are all so close to each other,” Joani added.
“So you basically have four to five hour stretches every other day of just working,” Olivia continued. “I would sit in the middle and teach Joani and Nathan both at the same time, teaching the whole time while they do work the whole time. It was a stable schedule.”
“Someone should invent a classroom where the classrooms looks like the inside of a car!” I joked.
THE BEST NIGHT ON OUR ROAD TRIP
One night while we were camping at a beach in the French Rivera, we watched in our tent a Christian documentary called Furious Love. Using real stories around the world, Furious Love showed how God pursue people back to Him through people obeying God and sharing their love unconditionally even to satanic witches or those hurt by wars. Miracles happened.
“Do you think you guys can pray for me?” Joani asked after we finished watching and sharing about the documentary.
So we gathered around her inside our little tent and laid our hands on her. We each took turn to pray for Joani according to the leading of the the Holy Spirit. We sensed Joani’s bitterness against Nathan and her need for her faith to be strengthened.
“Dear Lord, in Jesus’ name, I invite your presence to be with us…” Olivia began.
“Dear Lord, I asked that your love will invade her and that your love will pursue Joani furiously…that her love will be so overflowing that it will flow to everyone around her…” I prayed next.
As I prayed, I felt the Holy Spirit moving in me and I prayed more and more fervently. Annie, Olivia, and Nathan also prayed fervently. Then a breakthrough happened.
“Lord, I would like to pray for Joani and for myself…Please forgive me Lord for picking on Joani and the things I don’t like about her because it reminds me so much about myself, Lord. Please pray that you can cleanse my heart and cleanse Joani’s heart, Lord, that we can both be true to you. Pray that I will pursue you and want you and be with you, and even more for Joani to be with you…There is nothing greater than you, nothing better than you. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”
As Nathan prayed, he began to weep and confess his sins and the angers he had inside his heart. Joani wept. Then we all began to weep and asked for forgiveness from each other.
“Lord, I am so sorry for judging those that are so close to us. I am sorry for judging Nathan, mom, Joani. I ask for forgiveness. Fill me with love instead…I am sorry for not being able to be with Nathan or helping him…I am so sorry for doing that to Nathan. I hope you can help me to reconnect with him again…” Olivia confessed.
We prayed for Nathan. We also spoke our blessings for Joani. We spoke blessings for the people we had met on this trip. And then I thanked God for touching us today, for this special gift He has given us to remember.
“I love you, Olivia,” Nathan said and hugged Olivia.
“I love you, Nathan,” Olivia responded and hugged Nathan back.
We began to hug and said “I love you” together as we ended with singing together “You Make All Things Beautiful In Your Time”.
WHAT WE LIKE ABOUT OUR ROAD TRIP
“So what did you like about our road trip?” I asked the family as we entered the beautiful yellow fields of Poland bursting with rap seed flowers, ready to returned our beloved car after 40 days of driving.
Olivia shared first, “I like we didn’t have to carry ‘anything’ for a whole month. I love it how as we travel more in car, the more things we have, the more space we had. It was a miracle! In the beginning, both Joani and my small backpacks are in the front. Then Joani’ bag can go in the back. And then as we have ten thousand groceries, there is more space! So we put my backpack in the back, too!”
“I am also surprised how we can stuff everything in our ‘magic’ trunk,” Joani laughed. “Including a spare tire!”
“I used the front glove compartment like a storage shelve!” Annie added. “I also like the sense of freedom, flexibility, cosiness of having a car.”
“I like reading our book in the car,” Nathan shared next.
“We read the book the most during our one month in the car than our entire year traveling,” Olivia added. “It was really nice. We got to do it regularly. We are almost done with one third of the book! We all took turn reading. We kept dad awake…”
“Yes, that was when I had the freedom to yell as loud as I wanted in the car: SHAKE IT OFF! SHAKE IF OFF (Taylor Swift’s famous song) to keep dad from falling asleep. Or we would do the UCLA cheers: UCLA, UCLA, fight, fight, fight!” Joani laughed. “I was losing my voice.”
“Another thing I like about our road trip was that we got to see friends and all the places we normally wouldn’t go to,” Nathan added.
“Yes, I like how we were able to go to small towns and country sides and to camp in the most amazing scenic places, along the lake, the sea, the mountains,” I shared dreamily. “While you were all sleeping in the car, I had to be awake the whole time so I got to see all the sceneries. I really like all the new spring leaves and flowers along the road.”
We started our road trip in Western Europe wanting to experience the countryside and to reconnect with old friends. The challenge of living out of the car became often too much to bear. But somehow we managed to adjust and to survive…Thanks to God, we not just survived, but we thrived.