“The flight is cancelled,” the lady at the Pegasus Airline counter at Georgia’s airport informed me. “Here is your new flight schedule.”
“The date says Feb 20th. That is three days from now. Is there no earlier flight?” I asked with a shocked look in my eyes.
“That’s our earliest next flight, sir,” the lady replied as Pegasus only flies to Norway twice a week. “There is a flight this afternoon from Georgia to Turkey but no flight from Turkey to Norway until 3 days later.”
I was desperately spinning my brain trying to think of different options. Our AirBnb had already been booked and paid for in Oslo, Norway, which was our destination. We planned to be in Oslo for 3 days, which is when the earliest flight will arrive.“Can you book us on other airlines?” I asked the counter staff hoping for the best.
“Yes, I can help you with that,” the staff said with a smile. “But because the cancellation was due to bad weather and not due to the airline’s fault, you would have to pay for the ticket….Let me check…It would be 250 Euro per person.”
“What other cities does Pegasus fly to? Like Copenhagen or Stockholm?” I asked with even more desperation given booking with another airline was obviously out of our budget, especially since our flight to Norway was only 95 Euro per person.
“There is a flight tomorrow to Copenhagen and to Stockholm,” the staff replied. “You would stay one night in Istanbul and leave the next day.”
At that point, I went back to the family, who were resting on the floor surrounded by our backpacks, to ask for their opinions.
“Here is the situation,” I told them. “We can stay 3 more days in Georgia or 3 days in Istanbul and not see Oslo, or take a risk and fly to Stockholm, spent one night, then find a way to get to Oslo before our train which we had already booked leaves.”
“Whatever makes you less stress,” Joani replied sweetly. “Your forehead is all wrinkled and your eyebrows are squeezed together.”
Indeed, I was very tired. That morning, we woke up at 3AM to take the taxi in heavy fog to the airport for check-in. I only had two hours of sleep that night before trying to figure out the most economical way to get from the Oslo airport to the city center and from the city center to our rented apartment. I also researched into things to do in Oslo during our 3-day stay. Now, all the researched seemed to be all for nothing.
I was sitting on the floor with my laptop, iPad, and iPhone, busily looking into how to cancel our AirBnb accommodation, alternate air flights, possible hostels or apartments to stay in Stockholm, and different modes and prices of transportation from Sweden to Norway. Scandinavian countries are definitely very expensive.
“The cheapest option is to just stay at Istanbul. The airline will pay for our hotel and food for the 3 days,” I suggested. “Plus, Turkey is Joani’s favorite country. But we will not see Oslo at all. Or we can spend one night in Istanbul, one night in Stockholm, one night on the night bus to Oslo, and one day in Oslo before taking the train to Kristiansand to stay with the Andreassens.”
“Why don’t we pray, darling,” Annie reminded me.
The children and us all prayed and asked God for wisdom and energy.
After praying, Annie shared, “I don’t think we should stay at Georgia or Istanbul for 3 more days. We have already been there and I felt God telling us to move on to a new place.”
The children and I also felt at peace to take the risk, to pay the extra costs, and to head to Stockholm, Sweden, where we had wanted to go but didn’t have time to go.
“Surprise! Sweden, here we come!” I announced to the family.
As a matter of fact, it was a big surprise to travel to any of the Scandinavian countries in the first place. To keep to a low budget, we planned to travel only the eastern part of Europe, where it is the cheapest. Northern Europe, such as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, is known as the most expensive region in the world so it was never on our radar of possible countries to backpack. According to the “MacDonald Big Mac Index”, Norway has the distinction of having the most expensive Big Mac in the world, USD 12. Even our Couchsurfing host in Istanbul, Engin, told us that he dined out in all the countries he visited except for Norway because it was just too expensive!
However, while I was having trouble figuring out the best way to cross by land from Georgia through Turkey to Eastern Europe, I saw that the cost of flying to Norway was the same as flying to Bulgaria in Eastern Europe, even though Norway is three times as far! Then we remembered that we have a good family friend, the Andreassens, in Norway whom we really wanted to see. The children were dying to have some teen social life instead of their parents. Although it was a big change of plan, everything seemed to click so we couldn’t resist but to change our plan to heading to Northern Europe then down to Eastern Europe afterwards.
When making this big change to go to Norway, I didn’t foresee having our flight cancelled at the last minute. However, we were thankful that we got to stay free at a five-star hotel in Istanbul for one night with complimentary high class buffet breakfast, have a bathtub to bath for the first time on our trip, and for the opportunity to visit Stockholm.
As soon as we landed at the Stockholm airport, we knew we were in Scandinavia because we felt we were walking into IKEA, our favorite store.
“Wow, look at the pine wood floor,” Nathan exclaimed as he bent down to take close-up photos of the airport.
“This is amazing,” Joani cried out as well. “Isn’t the Europe just so nice? I told you that I will like Europe.”
The Berka Hostel that we booked was just as amazing.
“You got to come and see our room,” Olivia and Joani beckon me to come in. “You see these wooden bunk beds and mirrors on the walls? Isn’t it so nice?”
However, I was most impressed with how efficiently the hostel was managed compared with the other hostels we had stayed in. To enter, you use the access code given in the email earlier and every room has a magnetic door lock and each person is pre-assigned to a bed. There was a shared kitchen with all you can have pasta, coffee, and tea for free, 24 hours a day. Although supermarket was very expensive, we found relatively reasonably priced Swedish meatball, fish caviar in a toothpaste tube, and tasty pork sausage. The children and I were fascinated to see that for each can or bottle returned, one can get cash of 1 to 2 Krona. So we had lots of laughters as we looked through every trashcan we passed by. And there were many, many trashcans in Stockholm.
The next day, on our way to the Skansen Open Air Museum at a nearby island, we got another big surprise.
“There is still time before the museum open. Let’s get off early where the tour group is getting off,” I announced suddenly to the family thinking that the tour group knew where are the good places to go. “Hurry before the door is closed!”
When we got off, we lost the tour group but we saw the sign “Abba Museum” and we saw four persons sticking their faces out four holes and sing merrily while a video camera was recording them.
“Who are they?” I asked someone there. “Are they a singing group?”
“No. But they are the Final Four in Israel’s version of the “American Idol” (The Next Star Israel). The winner gets to represent Israel at Eurovision!” The person told me.
“Israel! Shabbat Shalom! Today is Friday.” Annie immediately greeted them. “We were just in Israel.”
The producer was either not prepared to have a bunch of Chinese in Sweden greeting them in Hebrew or he was not religious. So he didn’t know how to respond to our greeting.
“Hey, Joani and Olivia,” I called out to them. “You got to come. They are the final four of the Israeli’s version of the American Idol!”
Joani and Olivia really like to watch these music reality TV programs, such as the American Idol and The Voice. Never did they expect that by coming to Stockholm, they would see such people up close and in person.
The producer saw how excited we were listening to them, so he asked each of the final four to sing a short song for us and began to film us. Nofar has a beautiful oriental sound, Hove sang like a diva, Ella sang jazz, and Gil sang a traditional Jewish song. One by one they sang for us while I took many photos and videos. After 20 minutes, they went inside the Abba Museum.
“That was so special,” Olivia sighed afterwards.
“Wait, don’t leave yet,” Hagai, the producer urged us. “Now that they are inside the museum, I want to ask you a special question…who do you think sang the best?”
We were surprised at the question. We looked at each other but didn’t know what to say.
Hagai continued, “Only for the final competition, which is now, we will ask one person in each of the 10 different European countries to vote for who gets to represent Israel at the Eurovision. We want you to represent Sweden. So who should win and represent Israel?”
We were shocked again to learn that five Chinese from Los Angeles who lives in China are going to represent Sweden to vote for someone in Israel to sing at Eurovision. It was just mind boggling and a bit crazy.
The producer filmed us for over an hour debating among ourselves who should get our vote, singing the Israeli national anthem, singing badly the Swedish Abba group’s famous song, “The Winner Takes It All”, and all sorts of important and not important conversations. We also took countless photos with them. When we finally left the sidewalk, we were just so giddy with joy, praising God for this fun surprise and not believing that the Final Four each sang a song for us and we got to be on TV for the third time during this one year trip!
“For me, the highlight of coming to Stockholm was seeing the Israelis. We lived in Israel for one month. We understand their lives. We value what their ancestors value. For them to encounter foreigners who are so passionate about Israel must have been impactful. God might want us there to outreach to that group of people. We love your country. We believe in you as a people group,” Annie shared afterwards.
After a fun day of exploring traditional Swedish villages and towns at Skansen, strolling through the Modern Museum, skating at the King’s Garden for free (except for the skate rental), and learning to dance Latin Salsa through Couchsurfing for the evening, we got on the night bus for Oslo, Norway.
We woke up in Oslo at 5AM in the morning to not just a raining weather but also a sticker shock: USD 2.50 for toilet, USD 5 for a bottle of water, USD 6 for a muffin & a coffee, USD 6 for the cheapest Burger King hamburger a la carte! Most set meals are USD 15-20.
Each one of us was trying hard to not use the toilet even after a night on the bus.
“Remember the consequence: think before you drink.” I warned Olivia as she was about to take a sip of water.
It was depressing to see how high the prices were. As we walked around the nearly empty bus and train station early in the morning, we spotted a large supermarket, Coop Prix. Immediately we went into reconnaissance mode, scanning items and collecting data on the prices.
“Hey, look. This box of cookies cost only half of the cost of using a toilet!” Nathan exclaimed happily.
“Guess what! I found salmon and for half a kilo it is only twice the cost of using a toilet! On the advertisement it is written, ‘God Deal’. (‘God’ in Norwegian means ‘Good’) So it must be great!” Joani happily reported.
Our spirit began to pick up as we realized that although most items were “untouchable”, there were specials that were quite reasonable, even cheaper than China. With careful selections and deliberations, we forged our food for breakfast: half kilo of raw salmon sashimi, a can of sweet corn kernels, 4 free plastic forks from the salad bar, and a bottle of soy sauce, all for around USD 7! The food was everything we had hoped for coming to Norway. Simply heavenly!
“When you go to the toilet, get your money’s worth by filling these bottles with water!” I told Olivia when she finally gave in to using the toilet.
“This is call ‘hacking’ Norway,” I laughed seeing how we survived our first morning in Norway, the most expensive country in the world.
After squeezing our 10 backpacks into two luggage lockers at the bus station, we headed out into central Oslo for few hours before catching our train to Kristiansand at 4PM. It was cold and wet.
“I found an umbrella on top of the trash can. And there is a pair of black gloves lying on the empty bench. I passed by them several times but no one picked them up. Let’s have it. They don’t look expensive. No one is going to come all the way back to the station just to find them,” I suggested to the family.
“No dad, that is not right. You can’t just take it,” Nathan said with indignation. “I wouldn’t want someone to take mine.”
“Okay…we will use it for the day and return them to the lost and found,” I conceded.
So with the surprising provision of an umbrella and a pair of gloves, we headed out again into the city center. It rained at times and it snowed at times. The harbor was quite pretty but there were few people walking outside in the wet and cold weather. The free open ice skating ring at the park had snow on top and was closed.
At that point I prayed to God, “You surprised us in Stockholm when we met the Israelis. Oslo does not feel so exciting. You must have a reason for showing us Oslo. Please surprise us again here as well.”
Shortly after, I saw a man opening up the rain shade in front of a store. I was curious and stopped. Behind the store window were stuffed reindeer and rabbit and hanging on every inch of the rafters were all sorts of delights such as dried sheep ribs (pinnekjott), cured leg of lamb (fenalar), pork ham, and dried fish of all sorts. The place felt like part food shop and part museum. I asked if we can come in and the man replied, “Please come in.”
The man named Eirik immediately invited us to sample some dried meat.
“This is reindeer meat and this is elk meat,” Eirik explained. “Try. They are tasty.”
As a family who loves exotic food, we did not hesitate. Maybe it was the expressions on our face, Eirik just continued to give us more and more samples. We had small pieces of the dried sheep rib, the thinnest slices of cured lamb, and soft cheese over crackers. Feeling bad, we kept telling him not to give us anymore. However, the more we told him not to, it seemed like the more he gave us.
“You see the dried cods hanging there. Norwegians have been drying fish like that for a thousand year and they can last for a long time,” Eirik shared proudly. “These were money before money was invented. The more dried cods you have, the more rich you are.”
Seeing our amazed look on our faces, he continued sharing this philosophy on food, “You can know a lot about a country by its attitude towards food. In Norway, food for Christmas are such that all the preparations are done before 5PM on Christmas Eve. This way, the whole family can sit down and enjoy together. Christmas is for everybody.”
“Are you a chief? It seems like you really understand about food,” Annie asked Eirik.
“Yes, I am,” Eirik said proudly. “Some people say they like football. But how often do they play football, once a week? I like food and I eat three times a day.”
We must have listened to Eirik’s dissertation on food for what seemed like hours. Even when other customers came in, Eirik continued to showed us more things. He showed us different types of cheese and crackers and even whale meat.
When we finally came out of the store, we looked at each other and laughed. There was no need to explain why. Visiting that part store part museum had already made our day in Oslo. Praise God!
The icing on the cake was that at a nearby mall, we finally found a free toilet!
“Everyone can drink now!” I announced happily.
Immediately Olivia and Joani took out the water bottle and drank to their heart’s content.
After witnessing the number one free things to do in Oslo, the changing of the guard, and the Nobel Peace Center, we hopped on the high class train of Norway in the family section, and arrived at the Kristiansand train station late evening. The snowy sunset scenery along the way was out of the world
“Tap…tap…tap,” before we had time to bring down our large backpacks, we heard the knocks outside of the large train window.
It was the Andreassen Family coming to pick us up!
Olivia was so excited to be here because this was her first high school reunion since graduation and the first peer classmate she visited on this trip. We were excited as well because the Andreassen was our family friend who left Kunming two and a half year ago to join the African Mercy Ship. They were the main reason why we changed our plans.
For four days we felt we were home again enjoying laughter, fellowship, nature, and of course the best Norwegian foods.
“Cheese, cheese, and cheese,” Olivia summarized our food experience with the Andreassens. “It was amazing!”
“I was surprised at how much they liked us. I was so happy when Amanda drew the sign, ‘Welcome Su Family’. They picked us up and made waffles for a whole hour for that very first night. They were so enthusiastic. They tried all these food we cooked that they didn’t venture out to try in China: straw mushrooms, exotic seafood, tofu skin…the hotpot had more than half the things they rarely had exposure to in China,” shared Olivia.
“We needed them and they also needed us too. They left China for two years and they needed that connection with someone who knows them. They miss their friends in China. It gives them new energy to start their new life in Norway. For us, we needed to see old friends and rest so that we can continue on this one year trip,” Annie shared.
“Especially for Elizabeth, she felt like lots of people said they were going to come visit them in Norway. But that’s hard, right? It was like seeing someone you thought you would never see again. And that’s really special. Elizabeth kept saying to have someone who really understands her and what she is talking about was so nice. I know that she had a hard time settling back in Norway. She loves KIA (Kunming International School). I had a chance to share with her that how it was so nice to see mom’s old high school classmate in Turkey. But it was also sad that the classmate kept saying that his time in high school might be one of best in his life. I love KIA and that is a great time in my life. But I will be so sad if that was the best time of my life, forever. I don’t want that. I want to keep going, I want to keep having best times,” Olivia shared.
“I needed the refill. Everyday I slept until 9 something. That was so refreshing,” Joani shared. “I was surprised I could sleep so long.”
“Seeing Samuel was a really eye opener. At Mother Teresa’s House, I saw many special needs children and I thought Samuel would be like one of them, can’t do too much or understand that much. But the Andreassens said that Samuel understands four languages, can say yes and no, can swim, can do horseback riding, and pull on chair to stop them from playing music he doesn’t like. I am like, this is crazy. And he gets our jokes! He laughs so hard! The way Samuel interacts with them was like super cool.” Joani recollected.
“I was sitting in the van and he wanted my attention so he puts his hand on me. He smiles,” Nathan recounted as well.
“Jasmine told me the other day that their hope is that Samuel can graduate from high school,” Olivia said surprisingly.
“It was nice for me to talk to Jasmine because I’ve always like her since KIA and we were not in the same class…You know her personality, the way she talks, so refreshing. Just fun to listen to her. When she talks, she often keeps sharing about the cool things God’s doing so naturally.”
“I was surprised at how nice is Auntie Solveig,” Olivia shared. “I actually never really interacted with her in Kunming but she is so sweet. She’s so nice, so gentle, so funny.”
“Anita was another interesting member. I really like her. She is so funny,” Nathan shared. “She says she hears them talking all the time about how much they miss China.”
“She was the first person from Zimbabwe that I have met,” Annie shared. “And listening to the clicks and pop syllables of the language was so amazing.”
“I only saw the serious side of Curt back in China,” Annie shared. “I never saw the goofy side, because we lived with them 24×7. They are all so funny.”
“Amanda is so cute and surprisingly mature!” I shared. “She is such a great geocaching partner. She was so enthusiastic. Even when I gave up, she didn’t give up! She actually found most of the geocaches.”
“What you watch really influences you. Instead of watching Nickelodeon cartoons which are really bad, Amanda watches like the theory of sun and different experiments,” Joani shared being so impressed by Amanda’s maturity.
“Why do you think God cancelled our original flight to Oslo?” I asked the family
“Because God know Stockholm was better for us…You don’t have to pay 20 Krona (USD 2.5) for toilet!” Joani answered correctly.
Nathan also answered my question, “I never really knew the Andreassens before this visit. But it was really nice to know them better and knowing them as friends. I think God has His timing. God did a lot of drastic things so that we were able to continue on to Kristiansand. Our flights were changed and we did all these complicated things to get there. We needed rest and the Andreassens needed us as well. How it just happened worked out for both of our families. We came as acquaintances and left as friends.”.
For five days, we passed through five countries, not on purpose but it just happened. We encountered so many surprises, some bad but mostly good. Like what Joani shared, “You know, we might never know why God brought us here to Sweden and Norway. But that’s okay.”
Yes, that’s okay. Whatever God brings before us, we just learn to continue to live and enjoy our life the way He wants us to. That’s okay.