The Story of Nils


The long beautiful wide and majestic Danube river stretches itself lazily along the border between Romania and Bulgaria for kilometers, before throwing itself into the river delta and finally into the Black Sea. Many stories have happened along this river. Many lives have been made and some hurt or destroyed. As for many places in the world, here on the Danube, it becomes more peaceful as the sun sets in splendid array of deep color.


Sophos did not expect to come live here, on the banks of the Danube. Nor might I say did we expect to come meet him here. Last night we wild camped on a hillside above the Danube, ducking down in the tall grass below the road in order to avoid being discovered by gypsies, the local traveling people of Romania. A splendid evening above the majestic river Danube. Tonight we turn down into a small side road, coming down closer to the river. Storks. A farm. A young calf all too enthusiastically licking the sweat from my legs with his sandpaper rough tongue.
A big farm and one lone, rough yet kind enough farmer, offering us a shower in the cow barn and a place to pitch our tent. Somehow, as often happens, we become a spectacle. Although today we are in a rather deserted place. Unexpectedly, a man with amputated legs, rolling around in a wheel chair, is watching us with interest, talking with us, giving us vegetables. Of course we do not understand a word of Bulgarian. Nor does he understand a word of the several languages we get along with. Good intentions though, are an international language.
It is not long before Sophos invites us in for coffee. Inside a gated community it turns out. Not gated because the people here have money and want to keep others out. The Bulgarian government has created a "home" here for handicapped people, mentally as well as physically. They are taken from normal society and thrown in here together in a place rather far from the next village or city. Sophos lives in a house with two rooms. One room is his, the other for his housemate who is a severely mentally handicapped man who lies in bed all day, drooling from his mouth. The doors are open between their rooms and as we enjoy coffee with Sophos in his miniature home, we can see his housemate lying in bed.
In spite of the very sparse conditions here, Sophos seems happy. He is especially happy though, to have guests this evening. He shows us photos and tells us stories. Of course all in the language of "hands and feet", as they say in Dutch. But in this case mostly hands. Sophos lost his legs in an accident some years ago. He had a normal life before he was marginalized and "thrown away" by society.
We had a wonderful, interesting yet short evening with Sophos. It is already years ago now. Memories of Bulgaria. Sophos spoke to us of his son, who does not often visit. He showed us photos. He told us about life in this quiet place along the Danube. I still remember so clearly the bright florescent green frogs that watched as I showered in his bathroom. Sophos' courage to be happy in spite of his circumstance has remained with me in the years since we left our camp spot there on the banks of the Danube. Were we ever to return to Bulgaria, we would surely go visit Sophos again.


Meeting people is always so simple. It starts with a simple hello. For us, we often need some water or perhaps a place to pitch our tent. Mrsta Sweden is a small rather non-descript place only a few kilometers from Sweden’s busiest international airport. Of course Nils standing by his beautiful typically red Swedish house, is more than happy to let us fill our Ortlieb bags with water. He seems like a nice man. There is short nicely cut grass, a big lawn, huge pine trees. It seems too perfect to let go by without asking. “May we pitch our tent here for the night?” Nils is rather pleased. With a smile, a laugh and some nice conversation, we pitch our tent a few meters from the cherry tree and the apple trees, the long line of large pine trees protecting us from the other side.
What was meant to be a night before moving on becomes two and then three and then six. Each day we are off to Mrsta centrum library to work on the internet, have lunch or a coffee. It is the first time we have ever seen most of a whole city center mostly inside of one modern looking brick building. What started with water and a place to sleep has become a very nice connection. Nils is always laughing, making a nice joke, asking interesting questions about our trip or our lives. Each morning we have breakfast under the cherry tree, in the shade from the ever shining warm sun.
Of course Nils has also invited us to go swimming in Sweden’s fourth largest lake, just a few kilometers from here. Nils? wife is gone to France, to Teize for a week. He is taking advantage of the time to rebuild the floor upstairs. He is a self-made man. A bathtub in the back yard, filled with hot water coming from an old water heater standing next to the tub, painted black, turned into a solar bath tub water heater. Nils? home as well as water is heated by wood fire. Offering us a shower, he asks us to wait half an hour as he runs down into the basement to start a fire, while the burning wood heats the water system. Of course I love Nils? kingdom, his gadgets, the wooden floors and walls, his hand made furniture, the smell of bees wax from the freshly re-finished table in the glass surrounded porch. Always though, a laugh, a smile, a joke. I feel like we have met a man who is happy. Nils always seems present, always has time. I guess I feel like I can really get along with him. In the mornings sometimes he comes to greet us under the cherry tree. “Please, pick the cherries or some berries and apples.”
Nils is a runner, a serious runner. He seems so healthy. He has run fifty marathons and twenty or thirty or perhaps even more half-marathons. He ran 100 kilometers per week. Wow! At least he was doing that until some time ago, when he stopped running. “I don’t run anymore”. This over dinner conversation outside together on a nice sunny evening. He explains to us about the excruciating pain, how the doctor did not research it so well. It is cancer. Bone marrow cancer. Nils can run no longer. He has had the weakness, a bone marrow transplant. Often his mouth is dry. He feels like he must sound like Donald Duck. Not to us. I am amazed. A man who lives so fully, with such gusto and force, with such ingenuity and happiness. He seems to have no fear of what is to come. He seems to have no sadness over what is lost and left behind. He lives today. He was sad when we left. He is going to miss greeting us under the cherry tree in the morning. What a memorable moment with a man who can be an example to all. We will miss waking in his lawn and chatting with him.


What do a man we met in years ago in Bulgaria and another man we met a few weeks ago in Sweden, have to do with each other? Both have made an impression. Both are alive and courageous and happy.
Here we are now, a few kilometers from Vilnius Lithuania, heading south. Sweden is somewhere over the horizon behind us. Bulgaria is somewhere over the horizon ahead of us. The Black Sea is not so very far away, coming slowly closer.
If these men from north and south were teachers, then I would be the student, coming from one horizon and going to the other.

1 Reactions to: “The Story of Nils”

  1. 1 Marian Febvre

    Beautiful stories of courage and the happiness of just getting to alive! You are the learner—and a teacher, as well, as you put these stories together, make sense of them, and pass them on to us.
    Thank you!!
    I’m glad to “hear your voice” again as you write.
    Je t’aime,

Leave a Reaction

You must login to post a comment.