Saturday, 22 October 2011

Serendipity or the law of averages?

On a recent trip to New York I was casually wandering down a street (on the hunt of the city's best donuts for breakfast) when a vaguely familiar chap cycled towards me.  I dismissed the likelihood I really knew him, given the fact that I was in New York City; bar my family I don't know many people in this densely populated city.  Yet a few metres behind me the bike stopped and the rider called my name.  Peculiarly I had indeed bumped into a former work colleague who had worked for the same company as I but who had been based in its San Francisco office. He was on his daily cycle route to university (he evidently no longer lived in San Francisco) and I was on holiday, visiting family and seeking donuts. Small world eh? I relayed this story to a native New Yorker who responded with a smile; 'That could only have happened in New York', she said. But I'm not sure that's true.

I've had plenty of similar experiences in London. In the last week alone I have bumped into two people I went to school with, one of whom I probably haven't seen in the nine or so years since we left school. I have bumped into colleagues in restaurants, old university mates in bars and had the odd awkward run in with an ex or two in the street.  Just last night the former Accidental flatmate was making me squirm with a tale of an afternoon spent dodging her old boyfriend's flatmate.  One is just as likely to bump into someone random in London as you are New York, and I'll wager Paris, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro...ok, maybe less in Rio, but you get my point.
One isn't even safe from the surprise encounter in one's own bathroom!

So why are we surprised when it happens?  Surely it is less remarkable to bump into someone you do not expect to see in a big city than in a smaller place. Why is it that therefore, despite knowing vaguely that someone lives in the same place as us, we will still produce that high, shrieky 'Oh hi! How weird seeing you here!' when we bump into them in the street?  In a vast population there must be a higher statistical likelihood that we may know our fellow pavement-pounders, gig-goers and frantic post-work beer imbibers.  Maybe we are so wrapped up in our personal networks of people and socialising, which takes complex scheduling and juggling to maintain, busy as we are, that anyone we have not prepared ourselves to see appears as an irregular and surprising interruption.  But in the past a couple of surprise meetings in an unexpected place in this city have led to exciting opportunities, like a spontaneous dinner or a night out.  Those are the sorts of happy encounters which one doesn't mind.  But I wonder how many other chance meetings we narrowly miss, simply by taking a different route to work or going to the supermarket at a particular time.  If we had spent a little more time at home putting on make-up and removing our ugly but oh-so-comfy jumper with the hole in it would we have avoided the excrutiating moment when we bumped into our ex-boyfriend?  Should we, as dwellers who share our city with hundreds and thousands of others, start to expect the unexpected?

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