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2011 November — The Meaningful Traveler

November 2011

Old friends, meaningful travel and trolls – Part 2

by Steve Brock on November 28, 2011

Last time we saw how you can pick up where you left off with old friends – especially ones with whom you’ve traveled – even after years of not seeing each other. And when you do so, certain stories always come back to you that define the moment like a secret code or handshake.

Such was the case when my friend Mark recently called me and we reminded each other of our time in Vienna together, eating way too much strudel and drinking far too much liquid and how we discovered…the troll.


How can a city like Vienna, Austria with an opera house this beautiful have trolls living under its streets?

As we’re using the urinal in this underground restroom in Vienna, this voice bellows out from our left. We turn and standing there – as if out of nowhere – is this very large troll.

OK, maybe she’s not a troll. Maybe. Others might describe her as a very large woman who could have been 40 or 70, sort of a babushka with biceps bigger than my waste, and she’s telling us in German that we have to pay if we want to use the toilets.

We’re in no position to argue. In fact, the position we’re in is trying to turn our backs to her as she’s by our side demanding payment at a moment when we can’t exactly reach into our wallets. We’re more than a little embarrassed to have a strange woman – and I use the term loosely – haranguing us for pocket change at this awkward time.

As we finish, she informs us that we don’t have to pay to use the urinal, just the toilets. But we don’t need to use the toilets we explain. She nods but lets us know that if we did, we’d have to pay. Hmmm. Got it. We figure it’s troll logic or something.

As we’re washing our hands, wondering if that will cost us as well, we turn back to where she was…and she’s gone. Almost as if she had a secret door to a secret place, like a troll lair or something.

Think about it: living under a bridge (well, a road), coming out and terrifying poor passersby and demanding money: troll. Clearly troll.

So when Mark calls me last month, we get maybe 15 minutes into the conversation before the subject of Viennese trolls comes up.

If anyone else were to ask me about that experience, I’d explain how I see this woman so differently now, having a huge sense of compassion for someone who has to hang out in the men’s restroom and exact change from desperate-to-go males. And thus, even if I can see her now as a real human being, when I talk to Mark, we revert back to our shared script in which case this poor woman is relegated to the role of troll.

Tales like this one shape our experience, past and present, and define the overall story of our friendship. Whether it is trolls in Vienna with Mark or coincidences in Taiwan or Boston with Bruce, these are the narratives that guide us, connect us and add meaning to our respective lives even after many years apart.

Such moments remind me that there is always more beneath the surface that we don’t see, whether that is in relationships…or in Viennese restrooms.

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Old friends, meaningful travel and trolls – Part 1

by Steve Brock on November 23, 2011

On the surface, Vienna seems so normal. But once you get beneath the surface...

I noted last time that I had no idea why I ran into my friend Bruce while on a family vacation to Boston.

I lied.

I still don’t understand all the reasons for such chance encounters, but I do have a theory in addition to my belief that such “coincidences” remind us that wonder and mystery still occur in our wired world.

Here goes.

The reason for the chance meeting with Bruce in Boston may be as simple as this: It makes you aware of the value of your friends.

Good friends don’t change over time. Or rather they may change, but your friendship doesn’t because you find you can pick up right where you left off even if that was a decade or more ago. In particular, friends with whom you travel share a unique bond. You experienced something together that is forged between you and is deeply imprinted on your hearts and minds.

Such was the case with Bruce: all we have to do is see each other after 15 years and immediately all the old shared stories and experiences together come flooding right back.

Such also was the case with my friend Mark. Other than the periodic Christmas card, I haven’t connected with Mark since we were in college together. And then one day several weeks ago, out of the blue he calls. We chat and within minutes we’re telling old stories and updating each other on the highlights of life since graduation.

Of course, it didn’t take long for one particular subject to come up, one that formed a bond between us many years ago and sustains that bond to this day: trolls.

You read that right. Trolls. I’m not talking about Grimms Fairy Tales here. No sirree. The real thing.


Or so we like to tell ourselves.

When I was a junior in college, I was about to begin the spring semester studying in Germany. Mark was already over in Vienna, Austria at a university there. So I took a week in early February and visited Mark and other friends in Vienna.

Mark and I had one long afternoon together that started as a quest for the best apple strudel in Vienna and ended in something rather unexpected. After all, who goes to Austria expecting trolls?

We’d already visited three or four cafés and bakeries in our quest and all were good. But you get mighty thirsty consuming all those pastries, so we were washing down our tasty treats with a good deal of beverages. I’m sure there’s some law of thermodynamics or something that states that the human body will have the need to eliminate excess liquids at the very point in time when restrooms are least likely to be available.

So there we were, hunting for a restroom when we gratefully spied the two letters that, to us, spelled relief: WC (for Water Closet). Curiously, the sign hovered above some stairs that led down, down, down, under a busy Viennese boulevard. Rather ominous we thought, but when you gotta go…

We made our way into the shadowy depths to find a 1920’s era restroom. But you don’t worry about décor when you need relief. So we rushed over to the row of urinals and…I’ll spare you the details except to tell you this:

As we’re standing there “making our bladders gladder” as they say, we heard this voice. We didn’t think anyone else was in the restroom and no one followed us down the stairs. And yet, at that moment – that rather vulnerable moment – we realized we were not alone.

To be continued…

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It's a small world after all – Part 2

by Steve Brock on November 18, 2011

 Last time I wrote of how my friend Bruce and I met an elderly man in Taiwan who had attended our grad school long before it was a school. Nice, interesting coincidence.

It is a small world, after all, so chance encounters like that happen. In fact, they probably occur more than we realize. On a trip, however, we take better note of them. We see connections we might otherwise miss at home. We do so in part because we pay better attention. We notice more.

But trips also create greater opportunities for these chance encounters because we’re out and about more, mixing it up with a wider variety of people. Thus, a chance encounter with someone you have a connection to is likely just a matter of statistical odds, mathematical probability, six degrees of separation and all that.

Uh huh.


I’m on a trip with my family this summer to Boston. We’ve just visited King’s Chapel on The Freedom Trail. As we’re walking out, guess who comes walking in?

The elderly gentleman from Taiwan? Nooooooo. Nice guess.

It’s Bruce.


Bruce, Eric and Xu outside King's Chapel, Boston

He, his wife Xu and their son Eric are in town for a football camp for Eric. They are taking one day to see the sights. Bruce and family live in Chicago. I’ve seen him once in the last fifteen years and now, here he is.

In Boston.

In a place where I would have missed him had I arrived or departed just two minutes earlier.

I’m not all wigged out in a Twilight Zone doo doo doo doo way, but I am struck by the extreme curiosity of it all. What, exactly, are the mathematical odds of this occurring? I’ve wondered about that since then, trying to figure out not the probability of the event, but the meaning behind this coincidence. I regularly quip that my theology does not include the word coincidence, so there has to be a reason for this chance encounter, right?

So after pondering it for quite some time, here’s my conclusion:

I have no idea.

It was later that day that I met Tony and helped him get a train ticket to Portland, Maine. So maybe it was God’s little joke about meeting an old friend and a new one all within a handful of hours. Maybe.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter why. It was just good to see an old friend in an unexpected place and thus add meaning to both the location and the relationship.

Also, in many ways, I don’t really want to know why. I know why planes fly and how microwave ovens cook but that doesn’t enhance my experience of flight or of defrosting food rapidly. Instead, coincidences like this one remind me that there’s still mystery and wonder in the world.

In our sophisticated culture where answers to practically anything are a Google search away, I find that wonder and mystery take a hit. I simply don’t acknowledge or value them much.

But running into Bruce in a place miles from each of our homes helps me appreciate that mystery and wonder still abound.

In Boston.

In Taiwan.

And in friendships that transcend both time and distance.

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It's a small world after all – Part 1

by Steve Brock November 15, 2011

The more you travel, the more you realize – as I found out one evening while visiting a family in Taiwan – how small our world really is.

Read the full article →

What do you think?

by Steve Brock November 9, 2011

A summary of Daniel Kahneman’s new book on how we think has some interesting implications for how we travel meaningfully and the assumptions we regularly make in daily life.

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Rest and relaxation – Part 2

by Steve Brock November 3, 2011

Too often, what prevents us from relaxing on a trip is the lack of peace of mind. But where do you find it amidst the rush and excitement of travel?

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