Many years ago, I made a fateful decision. I didn’t realize it as such at the time, and indeed, I’ve only just recognized it. But it was one of those “paths not taken” moments and it has everything to do with the way I see the world now. As a third year student at the University of Toronto, I came this close to becoming a Roman historian, because of a single wonderful seminar taught by Prof. Elaine Fantham, not because it was her field, but because the person who was supposed to teach it had suddenly expired, and Prof. Fantham could do anything. Because of her, and the presence of my best friend Michael, and that of a mysterious South American student with narcolepsy (very amusing if you’re not the one who has it), the class was great fun, and I fell in love with Tacitus, even writing a long paper on the movements of the Batavian cavalry (don’t ask) in the Histories. “Roman history!” I thought. “Perhaps I’ll just do this from now on!”
I came to my senses the following year, due to long immersion in the poetry of Catullus, and to my first serious encounter with Chaucer. Finally, I’m glad I did not become a Roman historian, because I’m married to a Greek historian and that would have been… well, weird. But even more importantly, I realized that I really care very little about what actually happened and when; I’m far more interested in what might have happened, whether it did or it didn’t. Legend is my avocation, not history. I prefer imaginary saints, for instance, to real ones. Gregory of Tours is all very well, and I suspect he would have been an amusing dinner guest (because he tells a lot of surprisingly funny stories in his books, about heretics falling into privies and the like), but isn’t Saint Christopher, the giant with the head of a dog, really more interesting? He never existed, but he was somehow so essential that he had to be invented anyway.
All this is really by way of warning you that whatever I tell you about the village I live in may participate more in legendary truth than in historical truth. None of it may be provable. This doesn’t mean it isn’t real.