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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