The joy of travel: finding the unexpected

I had experienced serendipity while traveling before, but mostly as a youth. During a college semester abroad, carrying nothing but a small knapsack, I boarded a train in London shortly before Christmas and spent 30 days touring Europe with a friend. I had known very little about the places we visited until, wandering on foot, I learned about them firsthand - reading historic plaques, assimilating architectural shapes, and observing people, listening to their speech, and tasting their foods.

In a sense, it was all surprising, but one experience in particular thrilled me.

We were in Vienna, walking along the boulevard that rings the old part of the city, when I paused before an ornate building. The sidewalk sign before me was in German, but one word was unmistakable: "Nussknacker."

"Phoebe!" I called to my friend. " 'The Nutcracker!' It's being performed here tonight." I could hardly believe our good fortune.

That evening, still dressed in jeans and a dirty parka, I stepped through the heavy doors of the State Opera House and glided past polished marble columns under the foyer's vaulted ceilings. An usher greeted us warmly despite our dress, bringing the grace of the building alive.

From the "standing room" area of a sloping balcony, I watched in wonder as skilled dancers in dazzling costumes performed Tchaikovsky's holiday ballet. The opera house itself also made a striking impression on me, sumptuous with red velvet, gilded ornamentation, and five balconies under an exquisite chandelier-adorned dome.

The thing that excited me most, though, was that it was all so unexpected. Since then the travel I've done as an adult has been more predictable. My husband makes advance hotel reservations for every trip we take. Taking advantage of the Internet as well as the library, we read up on places to visit and have full itineraries before we leave home.

Even so, there is always a sense of discovery as we explore places for the first time, seeking out what is new to us in others' cultures. And occasionally we run smack into something serendipitous.

That's how it was when we went to Zurich a few years ago. We visited the old church, Grossmunster, and climbed the 187 steps in its tower for a bird's-eye view of the city. We relished a boat ride on breezy Lake Zurich and fingered fine embroidered clothing at a Swiss handicrafts store.

Finally, we visited Fraumunster, the other of the two age-darkened churches that guard the city. It was very quiet in the church. We climbed the worn wooden stairs to the choir loft to get a good look at the stained glass for which this church is known.

Tourists filled the ladder-back chairs in the loft, but there was no talking. We sat silently gazing at the rich hues and comforting scenes of the stained glass.

As I contemplated the artist's image of heaven - an alpine field of wildflowers - soft singing filtered through the air around us.

At first I couldn't figure out where it was coming from. It seemed the very walls were projecting the music. The sound certainly fit the place - ethereal, sweet, and pure.

I glanced over at my husband and noticed the girl on the other side of him was singing. So was the girl beside her and the one behind her. All around us, teenage girls wearing hip street clothes were singing sacred music in orchestrated harmony. Their clear voices filled the arched spaces above us and resonated in my heart.

When the song was over, we followed them outside and learned they were a choir from Hungary. They had come to Zurich to compete in a choir contest.

In the street they looked like any other teenagers. But when their director lifted his hand, they became a choir again, singing as they wound their way over the cobblestones in groups of three or four. People came out of shops and turned their heads to listen.

The girls drew many of us along with them, spellbound, to a small plaza where they arranged themselves more formally and sang for us again. When it was over, I sidled away reluctantly.

The experience was a highlight of our trip - not only because of the beauty of the music and the inspiration it brought, but because it was so unexpected, so unplanned - a surprise gift.

As I think about it now, I wonder: Does my daily agenda leave room for serendipity? Are surprisingly beautiful things unfolding around me every day, unnoticed? If I tuned in, would I hear in my daughters singing a holy sound?

I'm catching faint echoes of the link between the unexpected and the sacred, like those first sweet notes reflected off the walls of an old church.

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