This Is Us

Serendipity vs. iPhone

Why stumbling upon something meant something

Paul Greenberg
Human Parts
Published in
3 min readSep 10, 2022

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Illustration from Goodbye Phone, Hello World

Here are some moments from before the iPhone:

Due to a train strike I have ended up in Luxembourg. I have no friends, no connections, no map of the place. I meet a Canadian who is about my age at a youth hostel. We decide to go to a discotheque. We start following signs for a disco called Sens Unique which my high school French tells me means One of a Kind. We make circle after circle of the city. We go down alleyways and backroads. We ask directions of strangers and strike up conversations everywhere. Along the way we talk about our estrangements from our parents, our obsessions, our dreams for the future. We realize, eventually, that Sens Unique means “One Way.” We have been following one way signs all over the city for more than two hours.

I arrive in what was once called Leningrad by train with no Soviet money. I learn that the only way you can make a phone call is with a 2 kopek coin. This coin is worth about .000001 cents. I have plenty of dollars but no way of acquiring this nearly valueless piece of currency. Though I studied Russian throughout college, I have this idea that I can barely speak it. It’s embarrassing. I ask a stranger. She listens to my odd sputter of words. She takes pity. We talk for a while. I start to realize, maybe, I can speak Russian. She helps me find the person who is due to pick me up. We speak Russian the whole way in the car to my apartment. I end up working in the former Soviet Union for the next decade.

Springtime. My friend and I are biking through Portugal. It is hot. We are thirsty and hungry. We would like to find a restaurant but have no way of searching for one. We keep going. My friend has tried to learn Portuguese by studying a textbook. My friend is a student of ancient languages by profession and he can pronounce Portuguese so accurately that the replies come quickly, as if in answer to a native speaker’s inquiries. Actually, though, we can’t really make out what anyone is saying. We get the impression that a cafe is up around a bend. It is. We stop. I try out my own rudimentary Portuguese and ask for a hot chocolate. I am served a ham sandwich instead. It is the best ham sandwich I have ever eaten. We eat ham sandwiches every time we stop for the next seven days. Dozens and dozens of ham sandwiches.

A woman I am in love with is traveling in Italy. I wonder where she is, how to find her. I think she is in Florence. I write her a letter with the following address: LAURA D/FERMOPOSTO/FLORENCE. Literally I have written “Laura, The Post Office, Florence.” She gets the letter. She writes back. “Dearest Paul, I was feeling so lonely and then I went by the post office and found your lovely letter. I was so thrilled.” The next time we meet we kiss for the first time.

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Paul Greenberg
Human Parts

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org