History Made With Chance Encounters

WONDER • The Journal • March 21

You might have experienced that feeling, when a chance meeting with a stranger changes the course of your life. You know the scenario. You’re on a flight, wishing away the countless hours between you and your destination, on a platform waiting to board a train or perhaps dashing to make that ferry to Naxos. And you cross paths with a stranger. In some rare chance encounters the two of you then pass the time talking endlessly about all kinds of subjects and become more than strangers. Or, as sometimes life allows in fleeting moments, in that instance your eyes meet you already know there is a connection. Just think of that classic movie, Brief Encounter, where two strangers meet in a railway station and embark on a love affair with complications.

This is what we are missing now. Not necessarily the complicated love affairs, but those random encounters that make travelling so rewarding, whether these turn to romance (a chance meeting known as the meet-cute), friendship or simply make us think about life differently afterwards.

Let’s face it, we are most likely to meet strangers when we are on the move and out of our comfort zones. When faced with strangers we have to tussle with the question of whether to take the ultimate social risk, to smile at or talk to them. Much easier to choose the safety of silence. But what if we smiled?

Zöe Folbigg is one of those who chose to smile. While waiting for the 8.21 train from Hitchin to London train one morning she passed a stranger walking up the platform. In that moment she felt a great connection, a sense of safety with him. That coincidental meeting turned into romance and later the inspiration for her book The Note, whose byline reads ‘ one chance, two strangers, three life-changing sentences’.

Another chance meeting that changed the course of history happened back in 1851 on a New York street corner. Abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony bumped into each other that day. Stanton, a busy housewife, needed someone to deliver her speeches on the road and that person became Susan Anthony, the voice of the suffrage movement. Together, they went on to launch a suffrage newspaper, The Revolution, founded the National American Women Suffrage Association, and more, all because of that chance encounter.

Famously, a chance meeting at a garden fete in 1957, led to one of the greatest musical duos. 15-year-old Paul McCartney went along to the annual Woolton Parish Church fete hoping to find a girl and was drawn to the high school band, The Quarrymen, who were performing. Afterwards, he bumped into the lead singer, John Lennon and so began the journey towards the Beatles.

As novelist Scott Anderson famously wrote, ‘ History is often the tale of small moments – chance encounters or casual decisions or sheer coincidence – that seems of little consequence at the time, but somehow fuse with other small moments to produce something momentous, the proverbial flapping of a butterfly’s wings that triggers a hurricane.’

Let’s look forward to the time when we can soon start to make these chance encounters again.