They touch your life for a moment, and you become family. Then they are gone. Axin, Hans, Penille, Rana, Mousa and Gary and I found each other on June 24 in the Copenhagen, Denmark train station after learning that our train to Stockholm was canceled because of electrical problems from severe thunderstorms the night before. And on the national Midsummer holiday, of all times! Little did we know that our lives would intermingle for the next eight hours in a way we would never forget.
The focus of the Midsummer celebration is the maypole (or Midsummer Pole), which came to Sweden from Germany in the late Middle Ages and is decorated with greenery and flowers. Since spring comes later to Sweden, greenery was difficult to find on the traditional date of May 1, so the tradition was moved to June. Midsummer is now on the Friday closest to the summer solstice.
Gary and I had planned to get off the train in Linkoping to celebrate Midsummer with a Swedish friend whom we had not seen for thirty-seven years. Unfortunately, when Gary and I reached our track in Copenhagen, a train official informed us of the cancellation. Five other people arrived at the same time, and we engaged them in conversation. We soon became as one in our quest to reach our destinations.
Axin is a forty-year-old single man from Taiwan who is taking his summer off as a teacher to travel throughout northern Europe and Croatia. Hans and Doris, a surgeon and bookkeeper from Copenhagen, are planning to visit friends in Stockholm for the weekend. Vacationers Rena and Mousa are from Lebanon and Turkey respectively and are both studying for advanced degrees and living in Brussels, Belgium.
We are given no instructions for getting to Stockholm on this national holiday other than: 1) take the metro from downtown to the Copenhagen airport, 2) find a bus that will take us over and under the sixteen kilometer Oresund Straits into Malmö, Sweden, 3) find a train to Linkoping and Stockholm, and 4) Good luck!
It is the blind leading the blind, with Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Turkish, Danish and English as our native languages. The seven of us make our way to the airport, then stand in line for an hour in the hot sun to get on a bus to Malmo along with hundreds of other stranded travelers. We endure a bus driver who gets lost finding the Malmo train station, sit through several hour-long delays and finally board a train for Stockholm, five hours after our scheduled departure time.
But that’s not the story. Not by a long shot. Over eight hours, seven people from different countries, languages and cultures bond in a way that none of us ever dream could happen. Vowing to stick with each other no matter what, we become pilgrims, brought together by God for a brief time and leaving each one transformed. Here’s what we learned.
The journey matters more than the destination. In sharing our lives with each other, we discover that human hopes and dreams are the same around the globe. We want a good education, a safe place to live and raise children, meaningful work and the opportunity to make this world a better place.
Axin is often asked why he travels so much. His friends wonder why he does not stay in fancy hotels or buy expensive clothes or bring souvenirs home. This sensitive young man says that he is not interested in making a lot of money. Staying in hostels and Airbnb’s gives Axin the opportunity to learn about this beautiful world and its diversity of cultures and peoples.
Mousa’s family still lives in Turkey. After he completes his master’s degree in international relations, a job awaits Mousa back home where he will become a difference-maker. He already has a degree in engineering and a MBA. Rana is an attorney and is now working on a PhD in economic theory at the Brussels campus of the University of Kent, England. They have been together for less than a year and are not sure what the future holds for them. Mousa and Rana’s articulate and compassionate voices give me hope for the world.
Hans is a surgeon in the Copenhagen area, and Penille is a bookkeeper. Their kindness, knowledge of Danish and Swedish and local travel savvy help us navigate a potential travel nightmare. And their commitment to world peace and being good global citizens is touching. Remembering that the word “companion” literally means cum panis (“with bread”), none of us complain about the incessant delays because we all share our bread and have each other as companions on the journey.
We are all in this together. If peace is ever to come on this earth, each one of us will have to do our part, no matter who we are or where are come from. A primary subject of conversation in Europe on June 24 is the vote of Britain to leave the European Union. Everyone in our group is saddened by the vote, especially those living in the EU, who are convinced that Britain and the other EU countries are much stronger together than apart. Rana wonders how her school will be affected because her university in Brussels is a branch of the University of Kent in England.
Penille believes that the Syrian refugee crisis and burgeoning number of immigrants flowing into EU countries played a role in the vote. The refugee crisis is placing great stress on all European countries who welcome immigrants, as social services are stretched and people wonder how many refugees their countries can realistically accommodate. As we wait in line in the hot sun to get on the bus to Malmo, we imagine what it must be like to wait for years to be resettled. Hans and Penille express how important it is that all countries do their part to welcome refugees in their midst.
After our bus stops for Swedish passport control in Malmo, we experience a reality check when a teenage boy near the back of the bus cannot produce a passport. His mother sitting next to him also has no valid papers. After a supervisor escorts the mother and son off the bus, we are informed that they are undocumented Syrian refugees. Silent prayers flow for these two precious children of God.
After spending hours together, our group of seven does not lack for conversation. We remember how Sweden remained neutral toward Germany in World War 2, but Denmark was occupied by Germany on April 9, 1940. The Nazis left the seven thousand Danish Jews alone until 1943, when plans were made to transport them to holding camps in Germany.
In a heroic show of courage, almost all of the Danish Jews were hidden by Lutheran families in their homes and churches, except for several hundred taken to the holding camps. In the middle of the night, with German boats searching the waters, the Danish Jews were ferried by ordinary citizens in small boats to Sweden without incident. The Danish government guaranteed the Jews their jobs and homes back after the war was over.
Enjoy every moment. You will never know how long it will last. It isn’t until shortly before Gary and I get off the train in Linkoping that Rana shares her story. Her family lived right next to the one of the embassies in Beirut, which was attacked two different times by suicide bombers. Their home was also destroyed. Rana commented how strange it seemed the night after the bombings when everyone gathered in the bars and clubs again as if nothing happened. She learned in a tragic way how life goes on.
After the second bombing, Rana’s family left Lebanon and scattered to different parts of the world. Ironically, Rana and Mousa were in Brussels at the time of March 22 ISIS bombings and had to stay inside for several days. It was a terrifying time for both of them.
Rana and Mousa are both Muslims, although not of the same branch. Axin is a Buddhist, and Hans and Penille are Lutherans. When I give my card to Rana, which contains my blog website, she says, “Why do you blog?” I answer, “I feel led to share with others how I see God working to bring hope, joy and peace to our world through the everyday lives of people who chose to stick together.”
Axin, Hans, Penille, Rana and Mousa, thanks for sticking together with Gary and me on June 24. And Mousa, my heart goes out to you and your country after the senseless suicide bombings at the Istanbul airport last week. May God bless each one of you on your journey as we continue to work for the day when love is stronger than hate in every corner of our world.