A familiar face in an unfamiliar place

She knew she had seen him before. But where?

Crowded street: People shop along Grafton Street in Dublin, Ireland.

We weren't moving to Scotland but to Ireland, a mere half-inch away on the map. As a 13-year-old Jewish girl in suburban Cleveland who'd swooned over "Brigadoon," I was disappointed – until I learned that Ireland, like Scotland, had tartans and mists. I was also happy to learn that it was nicknamed "The Emerald Isle," which gave it a connection to my birthstone. Then, things started looking up.

After our family had moved from New York to Florida to Cleveland, people began to assume that my father was in the military. Actually, Dad wove in and out of encyclopedia sales management and free-spirited entrepreneurialism – his true vocation. Ireland would be our first overseas move and the first without my older brother, who would be starting college in Oregon.

To prepare, I went to the library and took home a stack of books on Ireland and Dublin, where we'd live. My favorite book was "Dublin: A Portrait," by V.S. Pritchett and Evelyn Hofer. As I read this book, I drank in the moist, earthy cityscapes of sooty buildings and cobbled streets. Staring at the photographs of the Dubliners – Trinity College students, tinkers, aproned housekeepers, and tweedy horse brokers in Wellington boots – I would meet their gazes and hold them for what seemed like forever.

After we moved, my twin sister and I landed at a Protestant girls' school, an Anglo-Irish outpost requiring green gabardine attire, the study of "maths," learning about the 12 counties' agricultural products, and attendance at daily chapel where we guiltily sang Anglican hymns.

It wasn't easy making friends. My sister and I were together in a tiny class, which probably made it harder for classmates to get to know us and definitely made us self-conscious as foreigners, and Jewish ones to boot.

Caroline was one of the few friends we both made. She was a jolly girl with an auburn bob and a comforting layer of baby fat. One weekend, I was invited to her house in Wicklow, just outside Dublin. Nestled in the mountains, it was a grand, genteel home of inherited, shabby-chic style. There was chintz, china, orchards, and a full stable.

At supper, I joined the conversation when I could; otherwise I stole glances at Caroline's father, who looked familiar. Finally, I asked, "Has your picture ever been in a book about Dublin?"

Palms pressing the table, he turned and stared at me. It seemed as though an eternity passed before he said, "Yes."

I was right in my recollection: The long, aristocratic nose and thin-lipped mouth were those of the horse broker from Hofer and Pritchett's book.

As I explained it all, something in the room changed. A bonhomie of chirping, chuckles, gasps, and easy smiles came from those around the table.

During the five more years we lived in Ireland, I didn't give the incident much thought. Family troubles and the muddle of my adolescence took over. But after several more years, the event resurfaced in my mind. I found myself talking about it at parties. It was an anecdote that showed off both my traveled past and my memory for faces. This skill was one of few I felt confident about. But how trifling, like being double-jointed. "If only I could make a living with it," I'd say with a sigh after telling my tale.

Thirty-plus years later, I think I did make a living with it that night in Wicklow. Sure, it was nothing to pay the rent with, but it was a different kind of reward from cash in the bank. Uprooted and adrift, placing Caroline's father gave me a foothold. It helped me grasp, somewhere in my subconscious, that without my being there, in that moment, in that place, the coincidence – and the connection – wouldn't exist. Maybe things weren't as random as they had seemed to me.

This quirky knack for recognizing a face has continued to serve me and those around me, making us less like strangers to one another and more familiar. And because of it, I've been able to see a world more richly patterned than any I could have dreamed of at 13, when I was lost in a book of photographs that would take me far away and back again.

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