The magic of serendipity

Yesterday, 20 May 2015, I decided to visit Geneva for the first time.

I also tried an experiment in travel I had never attempted before…

Travelling without a guidebook.

To be fair, guidebooks are written and published by people who are passionate about the destination and are only trying to be helpful, but the problem is that guidebooks create a structure that leaves little chance for serendipity (the wonderful ability to encounter wonderful things by accident).

These well-meaning books take away the mystique and personality of a place and reduce it to a list and a series of pigeonholes.

Travel guides concentrate on short cuts that allow you to experience something foreign, but without any real immersion in these places.

While you rush from one must-see site to the other you miss the secret side, the subtle side, the true seduction that makes a place memorable.

I cannot count how many churches I´ve seen but cannot remember, how many museums I´ve visited but are now forgotten, how many restaurants and pubs I´ve eaten and drunk in yet cannot recall the slightest details.

They were checked off a checklist and some souvenirs were purchased, but did these places leave impressions behind.

Did they teach me anything?


In the rush to see..I did not observe.

Admittedly, I went to Geneva with an alternative motive…to scope out a possible future of living there for a time, to investigate my chances of working there in my chosen profession, to get a feel for the place, to get the lay of the land as it were.

I had printed addresses of the schools I wanted to visit and with a simple map from the Tourist Info I mapped out where each school was and then walked from place to place with no regard or conception of where the tourist sites would be.

I was determined not to visit the sites but instead I would commit to memory what sites I would encounter serendipitiously.

Henry David Thoreau said it best:

“An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness.”

Rebecca Solnit, the author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, recalled an ad she found in the Los Angeles Times for a CD-ROM encyclopedia:

“You used to walk across town in the pouring rain to use our encyclopedia. 

We´re pretty confident that we can get your kid to click and drag.”

I agree with Solnit that it was the kid´s walk in the rain that constituted the REAL education, that of the senses and of the imagination.

“It´s the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value.”

The day remained stubbornly overcast.

On the trains all the way from Landschlacht to Geneva and return, passengers slept or their eyes were glued to a mobile screen.

Not one person looked out the window.

Oh, the things they missed!

A log cabin near Landschlacht station…

Imitation Chinese terracotta warriors outside an Uttwil house…

A cyclist with a foldaway bicycle and transport wagon he carried as hand luggage…

A young man with huge headphones standing on Gleis 2 in Solothurn eyes closed, his entire body gyrating to his private music as if he were dancing in a crowded discotheque…

The beauty of the scenery near Olten…

The mystery of the Cafe Jura Lady Night Club sign…

A Thai pagoda west of Schönenwerd near Aarau…

A convoy of military vehicles with amber lights a-flashing…

SBB rail maintenance men repairing the lines under torrential skies in the glow of lamplight…

Oh, the things they missed!

We all seem to be rushing through life without living.

Leo Buscaglia, one of my favourite writers, told a story about his father´s rule that before anyone could leave the table, they had to tell Papa something new that they had learned that day.

I love this idea and wish I could apply this rule not to just every day but to every moment.

I suppose that there are those who do use their electronic brave new worlds to indeed learn things, but I suspect that many of us use these gizmos to fill the space between destinations, as if this time is somehow wasteful, so it must be filled with music and conversation as a buffer against solitude, silence and encounters with the unknown.

Oh, the things they miss…


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