A friend reminded me of this story, and sometimes a good story is what is called for:
The October day in München (Munich, Germany) was dazzling. Blue, crisp, and amazing. I was there on business mixed with a little sightseeing. Right before noon, I found myself in the center of town at the Rathaus (rhymes with naught-spouse) and translates, literally, as ‘advice house’, or city hall. It is located on a huge square, complete with fountain, cobblestones, a bookstore and several restaurants. At noon, the Rathaus tower comes alive with a giant Glockenspiel in which music plays, mechanical figures enact scenes and then a bell tower strikes 12 times. It’s impressive. And loud.
Having arrived early, I picked up a mystery novel in the bookstore. My German vocabulary needed some work, and a good mystery always keeps my interest.
As noon approached, I took the book and wandered over to the fountain, leaned against it, and alternately dipped into the book and people-watched. As business trips go, this one was ending well.
“What a tourist you are,” I thought to myself. Unlike the German women, who dressed in smart suits and walked steadily across the uneven cobblestones in sensible heels, I was dressed in a trench coat and black sneakers, an obvious outsider. Oh, well, I am an outsider now. I opened the book and got lost in the story.
With five minutes still to go, and buried in the German mystery, I didn’t hear what the man who had come up next to me had said. Thinking he must have asked me the time, I turned and said, “Bitte?” (Pardon?)
He was taller than I am, maybe 6 feet tall, stocky but not fat, and had on a trench coat similar to mine. He wore a hat and dark glasses. He looked at me and said, “There is an excellent eye doctor in Switzerland.”
He had spoken in English. I had no idea what he meant. I checked the cover of my book to see if he was referring to something there. No luck. I looked at him and said, “I’m just here to see the Glockenspiel.”
The stranger nodded and said, “The eye doctor will be leaving soon.” It made even less sense than his last statement.
Suddenly a tiny voice in my head said, “This guy is a spy. He’s meeting someone who looks like you. And you just gave him the countersignal.” That possibility was really far fetched. But nothing better came into my head.
Before I could make up an answer, the clocktower sprang to life. I jerked in surprise at looked at the direction of the clanging of the mechanical doors as they swung open and the music started. The split-second was enough. When I turned back to the man, he was gone. I never saw him again. And while I’m sure there is an excellent eye doctor in Switzerland, I will never know where he is.
—Quinn McDonald is a non-fiction writer. The story is true.