How can people you’ve never met before change your life after only one encounter?
Dateline: Europe, 15 March 2022
It was close to midnight this past Saturday when they finally arrived. In our little rooms at Holmavatn Misjonssenter in Varhaug, Norway, we heard the rumble of tires as the bus pulled into the center where our group of women from various churches in Stavanger were on a spiritual retreat.
We switched off our lights and watched silently from upper windows as women and children emerged, dazed and disoriented from days of traveling across Europe to reach sanctuary in this Nordic country. A large blue and yellow poster covered the back window of the bus. A politibil – police car – followed, ensuring their safety. The center director, Olav Andreas, and his staff came out to greet their new guests waving giant flags.
The day before we were scheduled to go on retreat last week, just two days after Mike and I arrived in Norway, we learned that several dozen Ukrainian refugees would be housed with us. Our group relocated to a smaller building, the better to allow families – minus their menfolk – to stay together. A new friend directed us to a local store to purchase toys, games, and sports equipment for the children. Another put together a donation box to collect our dollars and kroner.
Then we waited.
It’s amazing, is it not, how people completely unknown to you can change you profoundly upon first meeting?
Shortly before we left the United States, Mike and I accepted one last reservation for the guest apartment on the ground floor of our home. Peace Ridge was just the right size for Mike, Mom, and me when we purchased our home four years ago in the mountains of western North Carolina, but now that we are only two we have room to spare.
I don’t know how Andrew and Amanda found us on Airbnb, but their request simply stated that Andrew’s granny had once owned a home on our road, and they were eager to visit the area he had loved as a child nearly a half century ago.
When they arrived, Mike and I barely got out a greeting before Amanda pressed a red leather-bound album into our hands. Embossed with gold letters, it read “Blackberry Hill – Happy and Bill Simmons.”
“Your grandparents built a home here in the mountains?” I asked. “Is it still here?”
Andrew, burly and blonde, said quietly, “You’re living in it. This is Blackberry Hill.”
Flipping through the album, he showed us photos of a little boy standing near our front door with his parents and sister.
“This is where I learned to ride a bike,” he said wistfully. “And I caught my first fish in their pond – yours,” he corrected himself.
When we toured the house, Andrew stopped short in the room that served as Mom’s sitting room. “This is where I slept!” he exclaimed. “Granny would pull a rollaway bed from that closet, and I’d fall asleep listening to the rain on the roof.”
I thought of Andrew again this past weekend. When the Ukrainian refugees arrived, a little blonde boy bounded down the steps of the bus only to stop short and burst into tears. The translator told us that he cried, “But where are we? This is not my home. I want to sleep in my own bed!”
None of us knows how many weeks or months our new friends will live in Norway, the country that has opened its arms to welcome them. None of us knows whether that little boy will return to Kyiv or Maripol or Odesa to find his home intact or his bed buried by bombs.
But one day many years from now, that little boy might find his way back to southwestern Norway. Perhaps he will search for the place where kind older folks gave him toys or taught him to fish and ride a bike. The place where he fell asleep listening to rain on the sod roof. The place where he found safety in the midst of the terror of war.
Our new American friend, Andy, came searching for Blackberry Hill and found Peace Ridge instead. I laughed when I read the review he left with a wink on Airbnb:
“Peace Ridge – a place full of beauty with a mountain stream, pond, the sound of birds chirping, and a porch swing we loved. Come with the expectation to relax and connect with God’s Creation. We had the best time and to top it off, it reminds me of my Granny’s mountain home!”
Perhaps that little Ukrainian boy will search for Holmavatn one day only to find it has a new name. Just as we welcomed Andy and his wife to return anytime as our guests, I know the residents of Holmavatn, whatever it may be called a half century from now, will welcome a tall Ukrainian man, blonde and burly, to its doors.
Unexpected guests change the world.
Maybe even our own.
(c) 2022, Maggie Wallem Rowe