Sometimes the briefest encounters in life can leave incommensurately larger impressions on you. I recently had one such encounter.
I was spending the afternoon in Schlosspark Nymphenburg, the gargantuan backyard of the former Bavarian royal family’s excessive “summer palace” (now an urban park). I had gone to do “research” for an article I am attempting to write. So, naturally, my notebook and pen were in my hand throughout the afternoon, and I erratically stopped here and there to take notes.
On one such occasion, I had stopped in the middle of a wooded path, unaware of the curiousness of this action. As I was scribbling, I heard footsteps behind me slow and then stop right next to me.
I looked up to the smiling face of an elderly man. He immediately exclaimed, “Oh, Sie schreiben in einem Tagesbuch!” (Oh, you’re writing in a journal!)
I smiled hesitantly and answered a mere, “Ja,” afraid he would ask me more questions, thus forcing me to reveal my still-poor German speaking ability.
Then, without hesitation, he asked me if I would like to accompany him on his way to the palace.
In a split second I weighed my options. This old man—with his glasses, visible tooth work, and old-man uniform of khaki shorts, white socks, and a slightly baggy striped polo short—didn’t look predatory. So he probably meant no harm. But, aside from the fact I was not walking in the direction of the palace, my gut instinct compelled me to answer, “Nein danke, ich gehe allein.” (No thanks, I’ll go alone.) Then I told him to have a nice day in the nicest smile I could muster from my perplexity of his invitation, so that it didn’t seem like I thought he was just a creepy old man hitting on a young woman in the middle of a heavily wooded park.
He didn’t seem offended by my decline, just a bit disappointed, and he wished me a good day in return.
As I watched him walk away, I actually found myself feeling bad that I had turned him down. I wondered two things: why did he want to walk with me to the palace, and why was my instinctual reaction “no.”
While I will never know the answer to my first question, I think the answer to the second one has something to do with the distrust in strange men that has been socially engrained in me, for better or worse. Even a kind-looking, curious elderly man is still a stranger and triggers the self-protection instinct.
But, still, I wondered if this encounter had become a lost moment to make a random, but meaningful connection. If I had accepted his invitation, would we have had this unforgettable, life-altering conversation? Or would we have awkwardly fumbled through chit-chat? Or would he have turned out to be really just a creepy man, whose age gives him the façade of kindness?
As I am writing this post, reliving the encounter in my head, I am led to ponder whether we sometimes just look for meaning in fleeting encounters—whether or not any is actually there—in an effort to feel connected to people. Or, at the risk of being over-philosophical, perhaps the randomness of life is what you make of it.