moments of serendipity


We had wandered off of the map. Chris and I were in Lisbon, both escaping to warmer climes during our Spring Break–I from Scotland, she from Sweden. We balanced our interests: medieval castles for me, modern art for her. Today was her day and we had already been to one art museum. Now we were trying to find the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. Our map, it seemed, did not include all of Lisbon. Despite my (mostly) impeccable guiding skills, we were lost.

Somehow, we ended up in a park, where we gladly took the opportunity to rest our feet. The park was on a slight hill and we could look back the way we came. Gesturing vaguely in the general direction we wanted to go, we planned our next attempt. Behind us, a pair of lovers whispered to each other, oblivious to us or anyone. The path around them was thick with daisies and orange poppies. We chose our direction, leaving by the flowered path.

And promptly got lost again.

I suggested at this point that we ask for directions, even though neither of us spoke Portuguese and between us only I spoke Spanish. Just when decided upon this course of action, the streets seemed to empty. There was no one we could ask. So we kept walking.

We turned down another street and, at the end of it, was a person! He sat on the steps in front of a door, his long white tunic bright in the afternoon sun. A blocky spiral towered over the building, topped with blue and white tile, just barely in our line of sight from where we stood on the street. We paused, deciding which one of us should ask and what to say. Then Chris crossed the street and asked, in Arabic, “Excuse me, but where is the Gulbenkian museum?”

He stared at her in surprise. Here were two tourists, American women, both with blond hair and wearing strappy sundresses in the Portuguese heat–and one of them walks up to him and asks a question in Arabic?

He went inside and came back with the imam, a large and friendly man, who also was bemused to find himself giving directions in Arabic to an American tourist. He walked with us down the street and another man asked him, jokingly, in Portuguese, “A couple of converts?”

It turned out that we were only a few blocks away from the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. We had also found the only mosque in Lisbon.

Travel is full of these moments of serendipity: of course we would get lost, of course Chris spoke Arabic, of course we would find the only mosque in the entire city, and of course we would be near our destination. It is these moments of serendipity that makes each journey unique, an experience shared only by those in that moment, to be told as stories later.

Photo: A statue in Lisbon, Portugal, possibly in Jardim Amnistia Internacional.