Serendipity is a wonderful thing. When things happen by accident in a happy way and when they lead to new insights and new friendships, that’s hard to beat — especially when they involve people on the other side of the globe.
In recent weeks, through wildly differing circumstances, I’ve made one-to-one connections with fascinating individuals living in Europe, the Middle East and Africa — an aspiring actor in England, a novelist in Palestine, and an academic researcher in South Africa. (More on each of them below.)
These budding relationships on different continents have me thinking of the world as a smaller, more humane place. A world where we can discover common interests — food and film, history and travel, literature and pets — and learn from each other in a way that goes beyond textbooks.
These conversations, both virtual and in person, are not only fun but meaningful. I would even argue that they have the potential to shrink the world and help us better understand each other as fellow citizens of planet Earth.
If that seems like a stretch, hear me out.
In a previous blog post (“Global studies from my home”), I wrote about how much I enjoyed a recent college course on international studies that I audited. Since then, I’ve become hyperaware of all things international — where the food I eat comes from; where the clothes I wear are manufactured; where much of the music, movies and TV shows I consume are created; and, not least, why the world looks the way it does as a result of colonialism’s legacy.
It’s one thing to study these things in a broad sense — for instance, to learn that Brazil is the world’s leading producer of premium arabica coffee beans. But it’s another thing to learn from a new friend that coffee in Brazil is like water and have her share a childhood memory of drinking it with milk, as well as a lovely poem that she wrote as an ode to her favorite beverage.
Similarly, I can study the history of imperialism and globalization, but it’s another thing to hear the perspectives of people 8 to 10 time zones away with first-hand experiences visiting or living in places still so sharply divided by race, religion and nationalism.
So how did these connections come about? And what role did serendipity play?
I chalk it up to two things: one, the fact that things live forever on the internet; and, two, how graciously people respond when you reach out in a respectful way.
In July, I published a “Faces from the UK” blog post that featured a photo gallery of people that Lori and I met a year earlier at the end of a study-abroad program I taught in London. I sent a link to someone in one of the photos, a young woman named Anna we’d met at a cafe near our flat, but didn’t hear back until a month ago, just after Thanksgiving.
Turns out that Anna actually remembered us — and quite fondly — from our visits. Also turns out that she’s no longer working at the cafe but studying to be an actor; we were delighted to learn her “aunty” is Tilda Swinton, the Academy Award-winning actress. We’ve exchanged a flurry of emails since then and discovered much in common involving favorite actors and authors. And not only that. She lived in east Africa for a year working for a charity; wrote her university thesis on a linguistic aspect of imperialism; and returned last year with family to visit Kenya. (Below are some photos from that trip.)
With so much to talk about, we even connected on Zoom this weekend. Among other things, we chatted about holiday plans and how our respective families are dealing with different degrees of lockdown during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, an even more remarkable story. Just days after I heard from Anna, I heard from someone I reached out to after discovering a comment she’d left on my blog three (yes, three) years ago about a Roddy Doyle book I’d reviewed. I’d just finished another book by Doyle and wanted to refresh my memory of what I’d written before. Well, she wrote back — noting, coincidentally, that she’d also recently come across a 2-year-old comment on her blog that she had yet to respond to.
Long story short: that’s how I “met” Jina, who described herself as “freelance writer, a blogger, a mother, a baker, a chocolate fiend, a coffee enthusiast, and sometimes a poet.” Turns out she’s published several fantasy fiction novels under the name Jina S. Bazzar. She’s the one who shared the anecdote about coffee in Brazil, where she previously lived, and was kind enough to share her take on environmental threats to the Amazon rainforest. (Yes, I asked.) She’s now in Palestine.
We’ve been talking about reading, writing, food and family. Our literary tastes don’t match at all, but that’s fine. Jina has a nice sense of humor (I was amused by her description of Brazil as similar to Florida “including the nutties, and minus the hurricanes”) and I look forward to more conversation.
And then there’s Elsa, a postdoctoral researcher at a university in Johannesburg. I actually met Elsa through a mutual friend when she was living here in Portland a few years ago, but I didn’t get to know her well. I came across a recent photo of her on Facebook and it reminded me she was down there in South Africa, where summer is about to begin. I reached out via social media and was delighted when she responded last week.
These things I already knew about Elsa: that she grew up not far from me in San Jose, California; that she was recruited to play basketball at the University of Oregon; that she was of Portugese heritage and had lived in Angola, a Portuguese colony, for a few years; and that she had relocated to South Africa to pursue her academic career.
What I didn’t know is that her research is centered on Migration and Displacement, two issues that loom large over the African continent and, indeed, many other places in the world where imperialistic powers have exploited people and resources and left behind a tangle of economic, political and social problems.
As with Anna and Jina, I look forward to more conversation with Elsa.
Likewise, I hope to cultivate two more international connections I’ve made in my own neighborhood. Purely by chance and just days apart, I met two women from Germany at the local schoolyard where we gather to let our dogs run. Both ladies have studied or worked in Berlin, where I hope to teach another study-abroad course next summer. And both have offered to share sightseeing tips and connect me with people they know there.
Interestingly, Julia, who is a journalist, and Miriam, who’s taught German and worked as a linguistic tester, don’t know each other, so I get to be the one who makes introductions.
All of these serendipitous connections happened in just three weeks. Taken together, they make the world feel like a smaller and friendlier place. They stir memories of the six exchange students we hosted through the years and make me eager — whenever the pandemic lifts — to do more international traveling with Lori. So far, we’ve been to Mexico, Canada, Italy, Slovenia and England.
No one knows what the future will bring. But for the moment, it feels great to be in contact with interesting, intelligent people in such far-flung places. Brings a feeling of hope to a year that’s been marred by so much darkness.