In the era of FaceBook and LinkedIn and Classmates and every other site that allows you instant connection to those that would be long-lost to the past in a previous day and age, there is something so magnificent in the shock of a random encounter with a once-familiar face in an unexpected locale. Imagine, you are walking down the street in a small village in Romania, and you catch a glimpse of someone through a shop window, and the tilt of their head and angle of their shoulders makes you pause. Some dusty synapse in your brain flickers in recognition, and you walk inside and there they are, a person you’ve not seen nor even thought of for years. What are the chances? It’s almost enough to make you believe in fate.
The more distant the location and connection, the more miraculous this meeting seems. After all, running into an old high school classmate at a restaurant the same weekend as your reunion is a happy bit of coincidence (or a heart-swallowing disaster, depending on the circumstances), but certainly not shocking. Likewise, flying to Texas from Boston and discovering you’re on the same flight as someone you met at a college party or networking event the previous weekend is amusing, but hardly earth-shaking serendipity. There’s already some established common ground that increases your likelihood of a meeting with these people who are moving within similar orbits.
I recently ran into someone I had not seen in a long time, and it got me thinking about some of the more amazing meetings I’ve had over the years. When I thought even more about it, I realized that four of my most extraordinary encounters are actually linked to one person, the Swedish boy I met in France at age 16, who I still self-defeatingly refer to as the Love of My Life. And as a logical person with some understanding of coincidence and a more-than-moderate dose of skepticism, I still can’t help but want it to mean something. Here are those four encounters, in order of occurrence:
1) Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. I was spending a few days in Paris with two other AP French students from Texas and our trip sponsor, seeing the sights before we took the train to Royan, a small seaside town with an international language school, for six weeks of study of the French language and culture. The girl I was traveling with, Elizabeth, lived in Austin, but was born and spent her early childhood in Venezuela. We strolled around, taking pictures at the graves of Colette and Jim Morrison, and an older couple approached us with a map to ask directions. As they began speaking to our small group, the woman and Elizabeth looked at each other and visibly whitened, before breaking into rapid-fire Spanish.
After the initial confusion was cleared up, they excitedly explained that the couple lived next door to Elizabeth in Venezuela, and often baby-sat her as a child. We talked about this coincidence the remainder of the trip, and Elizabeth was delighted and thrilled by the chance run-in. While I was merely a witness to this event, it was only days later in Royan that I met the boy, who I’ll call Jan, with whom I maintained a trans-Atlantic relationship for the next two-and-a-half years, and a common link in the next three encounters.
2) Texas, Italian Restaurant. Two summers after that trip to France, I was home from college for the summer and waitressing at an Italian restaurant in town, saving up money for a trip to Stockholm to see Jan. He had spent those two years, after graduating from his university in Sweden, working on his master’s degree in Paris. I had been to see him there, and he had been to visit me at school in Massachusetts. We saw each other every six months, usually for nine to ten days, and I was looking forward to visiting him in Stockholm.
We often had a glass of wine at the restaurant after a dinner shift, and one evening I was cleaning up the bar area and chatting with a couple of pleasant guys. One of them was French, and always happy for the opportunity to exercise my skills, we struck up a conversation. He complimented my accent, and I went through my routine breakdown of my French studies. When I got to my time spent in Royan, he smacked his hand down on the bartop and exclaimed. He was from Royan! A small town, we were both excited, and I listed the places I’d been in the area. When I described the small cafe that I frequented after school – a quickly established favorite of mine, where I often drank coffee and chatted with the owner, who helped me with my homework – the connection became surreal. Not only did he know the cafe well, his brother was the friendly proprietor. A quick comparison of names and street addresses confirmed it. Again, what are the chances?
3) Stockholm-Arlanda Airport, Sweden. Weeks later, I was at the airport at 6:00 am for my flight back to Texas. I’d spent an emotional ten days with Jan, meeting his family and friends. It was a devastating, exhilarating, life-changing trip. He’d developed a fever the evening before my departure, and I’d stayed up all night cooling his head with a damp washcloth, too worried to sleep in case I missed my early flight. I too, was sick, with the desperate feeling that I might never see him again, and my heightened emotional state combined with the lack of rest made me woozy.
So it is understandable that, waiting in the lounge for my gate to open, I thought I was hallucinating when I saw Holly, a best friend of mine from childhood. We blinked across the room at each other before shrieking and embracing – she was returning from a trip to St. Peterburg, Russia and a cruise with her family. After a week traveling around Sweden, in a foreign culture with a strange language, it was shocking to touch such a vivid piece of my life at home, to which I had been avoiding the thought of returning.
4) London, England. Jan and I stayed together until he ended it on December 26 later that year. But in October of that year, I went to visit a close friend of his, Johan, who was living in New York City with his girlfriend, Linda. I’d met Johan and Linda when Jan and Johan were studying in Paris, and enjoyed their company. So in October, I took the bus from Massachusetts to New York and spent a long weekend with them. I still have pictures of our trip to the Statue of Liberty, where Linda and I purchased oodles of touristy crap and forced Johan to carry it around the island, as he became more and more tight-lipped and we laughed at his embarrassment.
That was nine years ago, and I have not seen them since or stayed in touch. Two months ago I was walking down the street at 7:30 in the morning, when Johan passed me. A little paunchier, a little older, a little grayer, he walked by me and despite the years, I turned and instinctively called out his name. I couldn’t be sure that my mind wasn’t playing tricks, as I often think of Jan when I walk to work in the mornings. I can’t help it. Since the man didn’t respond, I was uncertain, so I called out again, louder. Thirty feet away, he turned, but so did two other men on the street, and embarrassed, I let it go. It tugged at my mind, though, and so I emailed Jan. Although I was eager to sate my curiosity, I was also thrilled to have a reason to initiate contact with Jan. And it turns out, I was right. Johan had moved to London, and had a girlfriend and a baby, and I believe he is probably working in offices very close to my own.
From Paris to New York to London, a city of 7.5 million people, what are the chances?
What are the chances of meeting anyone important to you, really? And them meeting them again unexpectedly? I am fascinated by the way our lives intersect, so please share your own extraordinary encounters in the comments, or tell me what you make of fate and happenstance.