What follows is a brief and amazing story that occurred to me a little over a week ago. Most of the time, I write my blog entries with a lesson in mind, sometimes focusing on business or leadership, and other times the entries are more centered on lessons of life. As a brief departure from that approach, I have written this without a clear lesson in mind as of yet. Take a read and let me know what you think the lesson might be!
I hadn’t been to London for a few years and as my recent trip got closer, I became more and more excited. While a business opportunity was taking me to that fair city in the midst of a cold and wintry January, my energy and enthusiasm continued to grow. It was planned to be a quick trip, arriving early Wednesday morning and leaving early Friday. My business obligations were to take up Wednesday evening and most of Thursday, but I was looking forward to a few hours on my own wandering the streets, doing some “strategic “ gift shopping, uncovering a new pub or two, and just all in all getting reacquainted with an old friend, The city of London.
As I have mentioned in previous entries (most notably in “Act with Intent”), I believe in planning. With that spirit in mind, I had laid out a bit of a plan, which included not only my non-work hours in London, but also what I hoped to do (sleep/read/write etc.) on each leg of the flights. Sitting in Atlanta, after arriving early for my departure, I boarded the flight and got ready for an interesting trip across the Atlantic. My book was pulled, my computer handy, I-Pod fully charged, and I was ready for the 8+ hours ahead. The seating arrangement had me on the aisle (perfect) with a single seat to my right, which was at the window. While the flight boarded, the window seat remained open and I stared to have irrational aspirations of an open seat. A few minutes before the boarding doors closed, someone came up to my row, put down their bags, and said, “Bill Levisay, I can’t believe I’m sitting with you!” I looked up in alarm, and saw the smiling face of an old work mate from my days at Coke who I hadn’t seen in possibly five years. Unbelievable! I quickly bounded up, helped her with her bag, and allowed her into her window seat. It was good to see her, but I started to think about all my plans for the trip. My reading time, then dinner, maybe a movie, and then falling asleep listening to music and waking up upon descent into Gatwick airport. Regretfully, I felt out of sorts rather than excited to see an old friend. I guess I had hoped for a silent stranger as my travelling companion, not a long lost friend. Regardless, we settled in, caught up on old stories and acquaintances and proceeded to have a wonderful flight. We talked for a while, had our dinners (the Mark West Pinot Noir was a good call) and while she fell asleep, I read a bit, listened to music and eventually grabbed a couple of hours sleep my self.
As I awoke, my attention was captured by an announcement from the pilot saying that due to heavy snow, Gatwick Airport was closed and he was working on getting re-directed to Heathrow. Others on the plane began stirring with frustration, wondering how they would rebuild their connecting itineraries. For me, my London adventure just expanded. I hadn’t flown into Heathrow for over 30 years and I was ready to work out how to get to my hotel using public transport. My seatmate also looked on the news a positive, seeing that she lived in central London. After a few hours circling, we did indeed redirect to Heathrow and landed perfectly in the midst of quite a snowstorm. De-planning via icy stairs pushed up to the aircraft, packing into busses, we were transported to the terminal heading toward customs. Upon entering the airport, I said my goodbyes to my old friend, glad to have been with her, wished her well, passed along my business card, and headed into the customs hall.
As is true in many airports around the world, customs that morning was a bit of a madhouse. I got into the line (or queue) and stated fishing around in my briefcase for my London Underground map (remember, have a plan!) As I opened up the map, I looked up and those familiar words rang out in the air…”Bill Levisay, I can’t believe its you!” While unbelievable the night before on the plane, this was incredible. It was Nina, one of my oldest friends from my days when I live in Wisconsin, coming toward me in the customs line at Heathrow. Nina and I first met in 1985 when her husband Steve and I started working for Kimberly-Clark at the same time. Nina was also a good friend of my dear friend Bruce Paynter, about whom I have written a number of entries. I last saw Nina this past summer at Bruce’s funeral and now here she is in the customs line at Heathrow, an unlikely spot partly due to the fact that this airport was not even on my itinerary (or in my plan) until an hour before. Beyond unbelievable! We hugged and agreed to find each other in baggage claim. After the normal horsing around with a busy customs hall, I found Nina at her baggage carousel. She was over for about a week, visiting a cousin and her sister Bess (who I hadn’t seen since 1987) and was heading into the city. My solo adventure quickly became a partnership and Nina and I caught up on District Line of the underground as we travelled by “tube” into the city. It really was unbelievable! Sure the small world moment of having an old work mate seated next to me seemed hard to believe, but this was unimaginable. Nina and I caught up on the train and as we neared her station, she invited me to tag along to her cousins home in West Kensington (very lovely) and while it seemed a bit crazy (and certainly not “on-plan”), I said “sure!” We exited the station and who was waiting at the top of the stairs but her sister Bess. Having no idea of my presence, Bess wondered why a strange man (me) was talking to her sister by name, and asking to help with the bags (very steep and slippery stairs!) After a moment of complete uncertainty, I “reintroduced” myself and gave her a hug. Again…unbelievable!
We trudged through the snow to her cousin’s home, retold the story a few times, had a great warming cup of coffee, and relaxed for a few moments. After a lovely conversation with Nina and Bess’s cousin and Aunt, I headed out, needing to get to my hotel by mid-day. After a few hurried goodbyes, I gave Nina my card and said that if they were open for dinner Thursday night, they should give me a ring. Not being too sure what to think with a bit of jet lag settling in, I found my way to the hotel, checked in, ordered a pot of tea and immediately drew a hot bath. I have developed a habit that when I travel to new time zones, I use a tub, some tea, and a brief nap as a way to transition to the new landscape. After two hours or so, with fresh clothes, I set out to explore my new surroundings and to insure that I knew how to find the offices for my business obligations. I set off in the tube, heading from the Embankment station to Black Friars, just a few stops down the line. As I entered the train, a notice read that Black Friars station was closed and offered to close by alternatives. No problem, map in hand, I exited at the Temple station and headed forward on-foot. I had never walked along the Thames in the snow; the buildings and the boats were so beautiful. I was paying more attention to the sights than the passersby, because as I looked down the sidewalk towards my destination, who was walking straight towards me but Nina and Bess. I stopped dead in my tracks…Unbelievable! They were equally blown away; we all thought it was unbelievable. We were headed in opposite directions but we discussed again the idea of getting together Thursday night.
I won’t go into too many details, Nina and her cousin invited me to their home to have takeout Indian Thursday night and it was delicious! (Nina, the eggplant was really tasty.) It was so generous to be invited into someone’s home, and I had the chance to meet Nina and Bess’s two charming five-year-old nephews, Michael and William. As I sit on the return flight drafting this entry, (yes, the Indian dinner was last night) trying to capture the events of the past few days, I myself am amazed and wondering what the moral of this story could/should be. As I ponder that question, I will explain the drawing above. Before dinner, Michael, Nina and Bess’s nephew, drew me a picture. He didn’t say too much, he just brought it over to me and put it in my hand. I asked if it was for me and he said yes, and that it was a picture of him and the sofa in the family room. I have no idea what motivated the artwork, but I plan to keep it in my briefcase to remind me of this amazing trip to London. Maybe more importantly, this little drawing will remind me of the marvelous delights that can come from unexpected encounters.
Postscript: Upon return to Atlanta, my home for 20 years, the customs hall was a madhouse but no one surprisingly called out me name. Maybe the best-unexpected encounters are found at the start of journeys!