I had a longish, sc. longer than short but shorter than long, talk with a friend this week about taking chances. He was on the verge of taking a chance—doing something entirely out of the ordinary for him here in Italy—meeting up with a relatively famous person and having an extended conversation with the person, a well-known doctor, about the practice of medicine in Italy. He wanted to do so because he will be practicing medicine very soon in the U.S. So it was a chance for him to compare notes, as it were, with this doctor, a neurologist, about neurology back home in America and neurology here in Italy. But he was, naturally enough, a bit concerned. For one, he didn’t speak Italian. Second, he wasn’t yet familiar with the Italian train system, particularly the not-always-easy-to-use local trains that too often run “in ritardo.”
But he took the chance anyway. Not that he needed my encouragement, for we talked about this only as we were both, coincidentally, already walking to the train station at 4:30 a.m. Little did he know that he would meet up with a doctor who, though quite famous, couldn’t have been any kinder and that that same doctor would have called upon his niece, a college student majoring in English, to serve as an interpreter. On the train, as I dozed in and out of conscientiousness, I thought about how often I have taken similar chances, and how often they have worked out. I will here relay one anecdote as a kind of synecdochic exemplum.
Well over a quarter of a century now, I decided to study archaeology in Rome. I was in college, green, excited about liberal studies—for I had chosen them over the practical arts—and pretty certain that I was pretty good at these liberal studies. I could read ancient Greek, at any rate, which to me was the litmus test of anyone’s dedication to the liberal arts. (I have since then broadened my view, though Greek remains, as Winston Churchill once said, “a treat,” and Latin, “an honour.”)
There I was in Italy with only high-school French, some ancient Greek and Latin but no Italian, no iPhone (of course), no way of getting around the town save an incredibly-difficult-to-read bus map; and no knowledge of the Italian bus system. But, as I said, I took a chance, and within 12 hours of arriving, I had found my way to the center of study where I would be based for the fall semester and—and this is the amazing part—I had met the woman whom I would some day marry, though then I knew it not. All because I took chances.
You won’t be surprised to read that getting to know her required more chance taking. She had no romantic interest in me and, in fact, thought of me as rather uncouth. Some days I think I even seemed to her a ne’re-do-well scallywag in comparison to the other students; (she has since confirmed that this was her initial assessment of me). Such an impression may have arisen because of the overly casual way I dressed or my cavalier (at least when it came to grades) attitude; or maybe it was just because I tended to sit in the position furthest from the professor in class—always against the back wall; never was I the smiling student on the front row. Of all this, I am not sure. In any case, I recognized that the chances of us ever dating were not good, and to change that I had to take even more chances.
After slightly improving my attire—tasteful shoes and a new shirt can do a lot for a 20 year old—evening by evening I walked her home, as her residence was off campus. We chatted about topics from God to the stars in the sky to poetry, art and even joy of family life. Did these things win her over? Well, not any one by itself, I’m sure, but after many a walk home I think they collectively had some effect. Within two years, we did, after all, get married and wound up having that family we (at least I, at the time) had dreamt about so many years before. All because of a willingness to take chances.
And that one story, I think, can stand in for many others. I won’t tell how eventually I asked her out for dinner, or how I once brought her a rose, even though we were just friends, as we stood next to Bramante’s Tempietto on the Gianicolo, or how those “friends” finally kissed, right there by that selfsame Tempietto, just a few days before the program ended. She would stay on in Rome for another seven months until, after what seemed to me an eternity, even though I wrote her a letter every day, I would see her again. No, those things I leave aside in the name of good taste. But, although I won’t mention them, I will say this: none of them would have happened unless I, and she too, had been willing to take some chances.