Thursday, July 24, 2014

It's a small, small world

Three times in the past year I have had or heard about one of those "Wow! It's a small world!" moments, and they all have to do with international travel. Every time I experience one of these I wonder how many near misses must be happening all the time as well. How many times do we miss by moments bumping into someone we know who happens to be in the same place we are, far from home and surrounded by strangers? I have even wondered if some cheeky angel is up there playing with us: "Ooh...I'm going to put these old friends in the same remote village in Italy, and have them meet at a hotel while one is checking in and the other is checking out!"

Since I'm packing for a quick trip stateside, I'm going to cut the dull introduction short and get to the stories.

Just hanging out in Dresden

A few weeks ago my parents were on what was supposed to be a river-and-bus cruise trip from Berlin to Prague. It turned out to be mainly a bus trip since the water level of the Elbe was so low that the little riverboat could hardly get out of drydock. 

One of the cities they visited was Dresden. At one point my mom was waiting for the rest of the group near the Residenzschloß  (Royal Palace) in the shade, sitting on a wall. All of a sudden a woman came up to her and said, "Hello Ann, I'm Grace*!" Grace was with a church choir group traveling through Germany as well, and that day's stop was Dresden. Not only is Grace originally from the town in Wisconsin where I grew up and my parents still live, but she was one of my babysitters when I was little. I don't know about my mom, but I would not have recognized her that day although I knew her and her family well.

I'm not at all surprised that Grace recognized my mom, because she hasn't changed much in all those years. But had she not, or had either one of them had a schedule that differed by 30 minutes, the meeting would never have happened.

WHO is your brother??

Earlier this week I attended a welcome party for the middle school exchange students who are spending three weeks in Esslingen before they and their German partners fly back to Wisconsin for three weeks in America. This is the fourth or fifth time I have met with the German kids and parents as we've been preparing for the exchange experience, and we've all communicated via email during the last 5 months.

At the party I spent some time chatting with one of the mothers, and she mentioned that she had a friend years ago from Sheboygan (my hometown and Esslingen's sister city) who played American football and tried somewhat unsuccessfully to explain the game to her. Well, that's not so unusual that she would know someone from Sheboygan, since every year from 1970 to about 2001 there have been high school students from Sheboygan participating in the exchange. I asked her what year that was, and she thought maybe around 1983. She also said this boy and two other Americans participated in ballroom dance lessons, which was a pretty popular activity in the 80s. I did it, too, and loved it!

But if it was really 1983, that was the year my brother was in Esslingen. I asked her what her friend's name was. "Jack," she said. "Jack Ro..." 
"Jack Rodenkirch*!?" I couldn't believe it.
"Yes, that's right."
"That was my brother's year. He was with Jack."
"One of the other boys was Steve. And Alex*.  One of the boys' host families had a swimming pool, and we often went swimming there."
"Steve is my brother! He definitely took dance lessons, and his family was the one with the pool."
So here I am talking to the mother of one of this year's exchange students, whom I have known for several months, and I just find out she happened to be friends with my brother back when this whole "international exchange" business started with my family and changed the course of my life.

The next day she emailed me a few photos. If I'd had any doubt (which I did not), that proved it.
My brother is the one on the right.

Lucille!  Hey Lucille!*

Last year I was the chaperone for the six Esslingen students who participated in the six-week middle school exchange between Esslingen, Germany and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I flew with them to Milwaukee and back to Stuttgart, and during our three weeks there we toured Sheboygan, went to Six Flags Great America amusement park, took the train from Milwaukee to Chicago and spent the day touring Chicago on the Hop on Hop off bus, and went to some picnics and parties.

While in Chicago at one bus stop waiting to board the HOHO bus all wearing our matching T-shirts with the German and American flags on the front and the names of our towns, I heard someone yelling, "Lucille! Hey, Lucille!" Lucille was the name of one of the chaperone mothers from Sheboygan, and since it's not a terribly common name, it caught my attention. I was standing next to her, and when I located the sound of the voice - a man on the top level of the open double-decker bus waving in our direction - I tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Lucille, someone's yelling at you."  She looked up and screamed, "Oh my God! Sven!" Ok, crazy that in the middle of Chicago, a city with a population  of 2.7 million and God knows how many tourists, two people who know each other from elsewhere would bump into each other.

But then she looked at me and said, "That's Sven Neuer*!"
"Sven Neuer? From ESSLINGEN?" I was dumbfounded.
Lucille and Sven participated in the 5-month high school exchange the year after my brother did. I participated two years after that. I met Sven in Esslingen because we attended the same school even though he was older than I was. Lucille would have had no idea, actually, that I knew who Sven was. Had it been any of the other five students from her year, I would not have known him or her.

We boarded the bus and sat near him, ignoring the Chicago attractions we passed. He had his wife and children with him, and they were touring Chicago that day. They live in Germany, of course, but they just happened to be in Chicago the same day we were, and on the same bus. Apparently Sven's son had noticed our t-shirts and said to his dad, "Look - German and American flags! Hey! They say 'Esslingen' and 'Sheboygan'!" Sven looked down and said, "Oh my God, that's Lucille!"

Fast forward about three hours, and our group was at the Hancock Tower. I was waiting with another parent chaperone for the group that had gone up to the top, and she says to me, "Isn't that your friend from Germany?" Sure enough, Here come Sven and his family again - they had finished the bus tour, had a meal, and they decided to have a closer look at the Hancock tower. I'm a smalltown girl, so I don't know how often that happens. But I was pretty darn amazed that we would bump into someone we knew from Germany in the middle of Chicago twice in one day several hours apart without planning it.

And here's the thing. Although I had met Sven in Esslingen, we didn't know each other well. Had it not been for him noticing the t-shirts and recognizing Lucille (or had she not agreed to be a parent chaperone that day), Sven and I would have been on the top of the same bus in downtown Chicago and would never have known it. That's what I mean when I wonder how many times this kind of thing happens when we are not aware of it. A whole bunch of decisions had to all be just so, in order for these chance meetings to have taken place.

So it is indeed a small world, which in these instances has nothing to do with technology, the internet, or social media, but rather just being in the right place at the right time and  being aware of the people around you. Crazy.

*names have been changed

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