I was sitting in a train station in Germany. It was after 9pm. It was cold and damp, and I was hungry. My train had been cancelled and there were two hours to kill until the next one. The only open shop was a kebab place that wasn’t exactly vegetarian-friendly. I had a beer to try and boost my sour mood.
Tired and bored, I stepped outside. All I could see through the rain were a few desolate hotels. That’s when I declared my judgment of the place: “What a dump.”
This past week, though, I had a wildly different experience. I walked from Bregenz to Lindau along the Lake of Constance, about 7 miles. I had never been to either town. I could see the Alps in the background, and caught myself humming songs from the Sound of Music. (An “American thing” I was told later.) The sun was glinting off the lake and there was a wide variety of birds everywhere. When I reached Lindau, I walked through the historic old town and up the steps of the lighthouse where I was treated to a breathtaking panoramic view. Everywhere I turned there was a beautiful vista or building or image I wanted to capture and take home with me. “What a stunning place,” I remember thinking. “I have to come back.”
The next morning, I needed to take several trains to get to my destination and my first transfer was at the Lindau train station. As I wheeled my suitcase towards the other platform, a jolt of recognition hit me. “I’ve been here before!” It’s the same train station, the same town, that I had declared a “dump” a year earlier.
I can’t believe it. I walk up to where I sat in the cold with my bad food and beer. I step outside and see the same hotels which now, bathed in warm sunshine, look beautiful. I turn right and I see the lake and the lighthouse right from the station. Somehow I missed them both last time in the dark and rain.
Same town, two fundamentally different experiences. Just based on what I happened to see or not see. I stop and think: If I can be so wrong about an entire town, what about people? What judgments do I make based on a passing glance or scraps of information, missing oceans of stories and wonder beneath the surface?
A beautiful lesson on multiple levels.