We were sitting at at a table in Manila in front of a young man who had no idea just how his first minutes and hours on earth had unfolded. He began making his way into the world outside the apartment block on Ullevålsalléen in Oslo before being born on the bathroom floor inside the apartment, and just minutes later found himself inside a plastic carrier bag in a churchyard.
We had to tread carefully, to do this in a dignified and respectful way. It still wasn’t our job, we felt, to expose all the details of the story – details that he obviously wasn’t aware of himself. Because whose job was it really – if anyone’s – to tell him that he had been abandoned in a graveyard immediately after his birth? It would be too brutal, too cruel, we concluded in that moment. We had no desire to upset him unnecessarily.
In our attempts to reach him, we had considered that he might not know very much, even though his mother had expressed in interviews at the time that she would tell him everything when the time was right. But we didn’t know, not for certain, and as such we were careful to use wording such as:
“The special, touching and powerful event that took place in 1991, around the first days of your life.”
Words that alluded to the story without revealing any detail.
It was precisely this tone that we had to uphold now, sitting here with him.
“So… Victor Olav… What did your mum tell you?”
He looks down at the photographs from his baptism in Oslo once again.
“I don’t know if there’s more to this story than I realise? Perhaps there is. I suppose it’s possible… but she’s mainly told me that I was born in Oslo, baptised there, and that we were given a lot of help before we left for the Philippines two weeks later. And I know that I was named Olav because Mum wanted to give me something to remind me of Norway for the rest of my life. She said that it was also because I was baptised in St. Olav’s Cathedral. Olav is a Norwegian saint, isn’t that right?”
“That’s right, yes.”
“I did some research when I was old enough to take an interest in such things. As a matter of fact, my mother wanted my name to be completely Norwegian, to preserve the spirit of the country in me somehow. She wanted to spell Victor with a k, because it’s more Norwegian that way, isn’t it? But a nurse at the hospital told her that Victor with a c was better. Either way; Olav is pretty Norwegian!”
“We noticed that you said your name was ‘Olav’ when you ordered your coffee up there?”
“Ha, yes. A lot of people here are called Victor, but I’ve never come across anyone else in the Philippines called Olav. It’s more unique. More special. It gives me more personality.”
“Has anyone ever told you that your name is strange?”
“Yes, and do you know why?” he replies, smiling.
“Because it sounds like the English word ‘love’. Some girls think it’s a little bit awkward, for example, when I say Olav and they think they hear the word ‘love.’”
He laughs. He asks us exactly how his name is pronounced in Norwegian. He tests a few variations with us, including Olav ending with an f, because he’s heard that it can be pronounced that way, too.
We tell him that there have been many Norwegian King Olavs throughout the years, like King Olav V, who died just a few months before Victor Olav was born in 1991.
He nods. He likes discussing these things.
We ask him more questions:
“Has your mother told you about who helped you both?”
“Not in detail. She only told me that in the first few days after my birth, there were good people with big hearts who helped us out and were there for us in extraordinary circumstances. Were they Norwegian, too?” he asks.
“Oh yes. Doctors, priests, a lawyer, and a few people who were there quite by chance.”
We say that one of them who helped him commented that “this boy chose life.”
“He said you were strong.”
“Hmm, maybe I am.”
Victor Olav grins briefly.
“We’ve heard that it’s one of the reasons that you’re called Victor. After Victory. That you triumphed in the face of quite a significant physical challenge when you were born and in the hours that followed.”
“That sounds exciting, I have to say.”
His inquisitive gaze confirms what we realised moments ago: he knows very little. We feel as if we ought to say something else, take things just that little bit further, all whilst holding back on almost everything we know. But in spite of everything, he’s also read our long initial message to him, where we heavily suggest that “something significant happened in Oslo.”
“Would it surprise you to hear that there’s more to the story of the days following your birth?”
“I suppose I would say maybe.”
Victor Olav glances at the pictures again, the first ever taken of him, before asking:
“You mentioned that my mother and I were in the news at the time?”
“For a few days, yes. It was a complicated story, but it ended very well. You never asked your mother why and how she ended up giving birth to you in Oslo?”
“I asked her, and she said that she had a job in Oslo at the time. That’s why I was born there. When she travelled to Norway, she hadn’t realised that she was pregnant with me.”
“How did you react when she started telling you?”
“I wasn’t surprised. Since I was a child, my mother had told me that I was unique. I felt special when I was young, the only one in the flock born outside of the Philippines. There was always something different about me.”
“By the way,” he says, studying one of the pictures of him.
“Is this the priest that baptised me? Is he still alive…?”
“He is, yes. We met him last week. He helped your mother a lot back then.”
“What’s his name?”
“Father Claes Tande. The two nuns in the picture are your godmothers.”
“‘Nino’ and ‘Nina’; that’s what we call godfather and godmother in the Philippines. So I have Norwegian ‘Nino’ and ‘Nina’, then?” he says, smiling.
“I want to return to my birthplace – Oslo, Norway.”
Before long, he leads us out onto the streets of Manila. He lives not far from here with six of his seven siblings as well as his mother and father, in the part of the city known as Paco.
He tells us that his mother and father are well. They run a catering business in Manila.
He takes us towards the university he attended for four years. He stops, looking somewhat concerned.
“I don’t know if we’re allowed to cross this street here? Perhaps it’s not quite time to risk our lives yet? Perhaps we ought to take a rain check on that?”
“There are only five million people living in the whole of Norway, aren’t there? This city alone has twelve million inhabitants. Imagine!” he says.
He sits on a wall to be photographed in his hometown. We ask him what he dreams about. It takes him ten seconds to answer us.
“I dream about… returning to Oslo. Seeing the place I was born, the place I was baptised, meeting the people who helped me and my mother, those still alive, that is, especially my godfather and godmother, and the priest who baptised me.”
We remark on the fact that on Facebook, he’s liked the pages ‘Oslo, Norway’, ‘St. Olav’s Hospital’ in Trondheim and the group ‘Norway’.
“Hehe. Yes. I thought about Norway a lot when I was young. Even then I decided to travel to Norway as an adult. It’s almost time. When we can afford it, I’ll do it.”
The sounds of Manila surround him, a charming sense of chaos even on a Sunday, with horns beeping and people shouting, some even at Victor Olav.
“Are you famous, man?” they call out to him, laughing.
Victor Olav smiles self-consciously and laughs their comments off.
“Here I stand in the middle of the street, being photographed by two Norwegians. I think it’s a bit embarrassing being noticed like this. It makes me feel shy.”
He likes watching films, he tells us, particularly action adventures”, as well as video games and the opportunity they offer to delve into other realities. More than that, he loves to run, up and down the streets of Manila, an activity organised by his church.
“I attend church every Sunday from 9 to 12. We’re born-again-Christians.”
“Your mother was interviewed in a Norwegian paper before you left the country, she said ‘my greatest dream is that Victor Olav becomes a priest, or perhaps comes to lead the country, like President Cory Aquino’. She said the last part with a smile.”
“Haha, well I certainly didn’t become a priest. I became an accountant.”
But he likes to cite Colossians 3:2, he tells us: “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.”
Victor Olav often quotes 1 Corinthians 2:9, including on social media:
“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived, the things God has prepared for those who love him.”
“I live my life by that verse!”
“What do those words mean to you?”
“For me personally, they mean that God always surprises me. Even when you might not believe or expect it, God is there.”
We talk about his earliest childhood memories and the most important moments in his life.
“The most important thing to happen to me? Being born in Norway, maybe. Even though I wasn’t aware of it!”
Because it was in Oslo, he tells us, that he took his first breath, in Oslo that his life began.
“Another important moment was my graduation, when I received my bachelor degree and passed the exams to become an accountant,” he adds.
Olav stands down by the Manila Bay.
“Thank you so much,” he says. “Thank you for tracking me down. I’ll always be so grateful to you.”
“There’s just one more thing,” he says.
“I wonder if we could take a picture together? It’s not every day that I have visitors from Norway.”
He takes a photograph of us with his large smartphone, a picture of himself with “the two people who live in the city where I was born.”
At Ullevålsalléen number 5 in Oslo, to be precise.
Victor Olav waves goodbye and turns around. He walks down the street on his way home and quickly blends into the clamour and commotion of the city, one of 13 million inhabitants; none of the 12,999,999 others have that name, his name, but that’s just as things should be. He has felt unique and different throughout his whole life.
In the bag slung over one shoulder he carries the photographs from Oslo. He tells us he’ll frame them and hang them up in his room, the photographs from his baptism, and one in which his mother proudly holds him in the hospital, one hand safely supporting his head. Victor Olav is on the point of bursting with life and energy in the image, taken just a few hours before their plane lifted off from Oslo and they flew away on one Monday in October 1991.
Before long he posts the photographs on Facebook, the first ever taken of him in a baby care room and a church in Norway. Clearly excited, he writes in English:
He adds a few sentences in Google-translated Norwegian:
“Thank you for your time. Good luck and God bless. I hope I got it right.”
His friends and family are quick to comment on his post:
“Wow! There’s no doubting that you were cute back then, Olav! What’s all this about, then?!” one asks.
“OMG, Olav! From Norway?! Are they relatives of yours?” another friend asks.
“Thank you! Yes, wasn’t I cute?! Haha. So nice that you like my baby pictures. Fresh from Oslo”, he replies, among other things.
A new message arrives in our inbox as we wait at the airport in Manila, from Victor Olav:
“Have a safe journey home! I hope our paths cross again one day. If you have any more questions about my life or anything else at all, or if you just need help with something, don’t be afraid to ask or message me. God bless you. Take care, and keep in touch. Olav, Filipino born in Oslo, Norway.”
The otherwise fantastic meeting with Victor Olav had only partly clarified matters, and the thought of tackling the fact that he didn’t know more about his own story – and, in reality, knew a good deal less than we had first imagined – was quick to put us off.
We came up with a little plan: we hoped inwardly that his mother would fill in the blanks, telling him more when he came home after meeting with two Norwegian journalists who had also brought photographs taken at his baptism, as well as a few showing mother and son in the baby care room of the hospital in Oslo. Perhaps his mother would open up a little more now?
We write to him on Facebook a few days later, thanking him for our recent meeting and tactfully attempting to pose a few questions, including the following: “We wondered if you had spoken any more with your mother about your Oslo story. Has she told you anything else?”
A few days pass before we receive an email from him, a reply that comes in the middle of the night Norwegian time.
I’m well, thank you! My long weekend at Kabayan Beach resort was perfectly wonderful. I took advantage of life at the beach as the summer sun shone across the entire country. We’ve had crazy temperatures here, as high as 43 degrees. This is a tropical country, you see. Hehe.
Now for your questions. I don’t have my own room since I have so many brothers and sisters. I share a room with one of my older sisters (Ate) and one of my older brothers (Kuya). The three of us are in there together. Our house is also where we cook and prepare the food our catering business sells. On any normal weekday, our house is as busy as a beehive from dawn ‘til dusk…
Do I celebrate my birthday? Not really. Still, Filipinos have a tradition where the birthday boy or girl should treat their family and friends on the day. We call it ‘Libre’.
As for the pictures you gave us, she recognised some of the people in them, but not by name. Do you know a Torshu Nilsen? I’m not sure about the spelling. I heard from my mother that I was picked up by someone with a name along those lines in Norway, and that we met him later. She also told me that I was a miracle baby. That I was found outside and resuscitated, brought back to life, or something like that. I’ve heard quite a bit more now, but I’m not certain about all of the details. But if you have more questions for my mother, personal questions about our time in Norway and our experiences after that, you can ask her through me. Mum is always busy with the business, so we can’t disturb her too much. Hehe. Thank you and God bless you. Best wishes from Olav, Filipino born in Oslo, Norway.”
In the middle of this night in May, we know that Victor Olav has finally heard more about what happened when he entered the world in Oslo.
We thank him for his thorough responses to our questions. It was our turn to elaborate, and we felt that an invitation to do so lay in his response:
Dear Victor Olav!
I understand your mother when she says that you were a ‘miracle baby’. I don’t know exactly what else she has told you, but the miracle story went something like this (and was reported in the newspapers this way, too): your mother went into labour a few weeks earlier than expected. It started when she was out walking by the block where she lived, and continued inside the apartment. The birth was all very sudden, it took only a matter of minutes, and your mother was traumatised by what happened – as we can well understand. In her emotional and shocked state, she was convinced that the baby, that is you, weren’t moving. She left the baby somewhere nearby before running home, grief-stricken. In the meantime, someone walked by. Your mother remembers things almost perfectly when she asks if we know a Torshu Nilsen. Tor Schou Nilsen, as he’s called, heard you crying and followed the sound. He was the one to find you. It was Tor – with the help of two others – who managed to get you to a doctor, who then sent you to the hospital where your condition was eventually stabilised. This man, Tor Schou Nilsen, is now 82 years old, and he sends his best to both you and your mother. He’s a lovely man. We met up with him recently. He was asking about you. He was keen to know how you are doing in Manila. We told him that you’re doing well, that you’re an accountant, and that your mother has a catering business. I told him that your mother remembered his name after all these years. That really touched him. He welled up a little, we could tell, as if this is something that he’ll never forget for as long as he lives. He asked us again, as if to make sure he’d heard things correctly, to double-check:
‘So, the boy’s doing well?’
‘Yes, thanks in part to you,’ we added, smiling.
His reply was so quiet: ‘We had so little time. So little time.’
‘And do you know what?’ he said to us. He told us that sometimes when he closes his eyes, even a quarter of a century later, he gets the same feeling. ‘I feel something change inside me. A strange, powerful force,’ he explained. The same that caused him to turn around and follow the sound of your cries on that day.
We looked at old newspaper clippings together from those days back in 1991. We sat in a café in Oslo, just like you and I did together in Manila. He looked at one picture in particular for quite some time, printed on the front of a newspaper at the time. In it, your mother is hugging him with gratitude in the hospital while you lie in a little cot beside them, fast asleep. It was taken on the day you and your mother returned to the Philippines.
You were ‘a fighter, that’s for sure, a survivor,’ he told us.”
Victor Olav replies via Facebook with a crying face emoji, as if to tell us that he’s sitting at his computer on the other side of the world, his own tears welling up.
We hold back where the churchyard and the plastic carrier bags are concerned, in case his mother has skipped over those details. We carry on writing:
There were others who came to help out in the intense attempts to save your life, including a woman working in the church, a man who drove you to the doctor, and (of course) the doctors themselves, a lawyer and others at St. Olav’s Cathedral. We’ve met some of these people. They all recall it as a special, overwhelming moment in their lives; just being able to help you. Just as things ought to be if the world is going to work, in our opinion. Reaching out a hand. Helping wherever one can.
It’s possible that your mother has told you this already, but there were a few particularly coincidental things that led the police (who handled the case for a number of days) to finding your mother. One of the policemen who tracked down your mother in Oslo says that it was one of the most powerful moments in his career to date, being able to tell your mother that her baby is alive, something that she clearly hadn’t believed to be the case. Just like your mother, the police officers were moved to see her genuine, overwhelming reaction, not to mention her extraordinary joy. Then, after a short while, your mother was reunited with you at the hospital and everything was resolved over the course of the two weeks that followed, and you were baptised and the papers wrote about the ‘miracle’ with the fantastic ending. […] Your mother expressed her gratitude to the man who found you and everyone else who had helped her. We hope you know that we don’t mean to intrude by telling you these things. Olav, you are a special young man who has had a special start in life. Your story is unique. It ended well, and has so many good elements to it. Like a film with a happy ending.”
We tell him that we’d like to ask his mother a few questions. We ask if he can convey these to her.
The replies come quickly. Short, concise. He writes these up himself following a conversation with his mother at home in Paco, Manila.
“What do you remember about the day you first saw Victor Olav at the hospital? That must have been a fantastic experience?”
“Well, first and foremost I was happy to see my child, like any other mother would be. I was extremely surprised to learn that he was alive. Definitely.”
“What do you recall about the moment the police came to your apartment in Oslo to tell you that your child was alive?”
“I was completely astounded to learn that he was alive and well.”
Nobody could imagine the depths she had sunk to before they found her, she explained.
“Those days in Oslo must have been very emotional, at least before everything eventually ended well. Can you describe your thoughts over these days?”
“I just wanted to go home to the Philippines with my son, to be reunited with our family and to spend time with them.”
His mother also tells us that she recalls the moment she and Victor Olav met Tor Schou Nilsen, who had found her baby, before they returned to the Philippines. She says that the experience is too powerful and personal to talk about in detail.
“This remains a beautiful little miracle. Have you reflected much on just how everything ended so well?”
“Yes, we thank God that he resolved things and allowed us to be happy ever after.”
“How did you choose the name Victor Olav?”
“I chose the name Victor because it said something about how the baby had conquered death. He was a real victor. And Olav was a symbol of Norway for me. I wanted him to carry something of Norway with him forever.”
And now, now he knows a good deal more about a few of the people in Norway who had ensured that he had managed to evade death. They are imprinted on his heart, just like the old car salesman from Røa, Tor Schou Nilsen, who couldn’t ignore the sound he heard, the same sound that he had first thought to be a bird.
What would have happened if the baby had been left to lie there for 3 minutes longer than he was, crying to himself on the first day of his life before finally being discovered, allowing his life to truly begin? Nobody knows.
What we do know is that he turned 24 on 8 October 2015 at home on Singalong Street in Manila, when he treated all seven of his siblings, his mother, father and those he loves, just as one is supposed to do on one’s birthday in the Philippines. On Twitter, Victor Olav tweeted a verse from the Book of Revelation 3:20:
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
I will come in and eat with that person,
and they with me.
The Book of Revelation 3:20
We know something else, too. A message came in from Victor Olav just a few weeks ago.
He says that he wants to get himself a passport. That he plans to go to the passport office in Manila as soon as he can. He says that he wants to head out on his first trip abroad.
We wonder if he’s planning a tour around Asia. A trip to Australia, perhaps. A business trip to the USA, maybe.
But he has another plan altogether.
“I’d love to come to Norway, to see where and how it all began. To meet the people who helped us. Those still alive, anyway.”
“We’ll do our best to help you,” we tell him.
“Do you mean it? Do you think we can make it happen? Seriously?”
He sends an emoji back to us, a face with a tear falling from one eye.
“That’s how I feel. Thank you,” he writes.
But there are a few complications ahead. Victor Olav’s rough start in life is set to follow him. Will his dreams of meeting those in Norway who saved him be crushed?