Hello – you must be my wife!

Poitiers town hall

Poitiers Town Hall in France – I met my wife on the front steps 28 years ago today…

Ever since I started re-reading my diaries for followthehumming, I’ve been counting down to the day I met the girl I would one day marry.

And so here we are. 26th October, 1986.

28 years ago, today’s the day.

Just for the record, here’s the ‘how did it happen?’ bit:

Back in 1986, I was about to start a year abroad in France, teaching English in a junior school in Royan. Unbeknown to me, my equally blissfully ignorant wife-to-be was going to be doing the same thing in the nearby secondary school. We met on a basic teacher training course in the regional capital, Poitiers, and were both immediately disappointed to find out that another English student was going to be living in what we had already separately decided was going to be ‘my’ town. My (as it turned out, entirely inaccurate) diary entry for the day we met tells me this unwanted female interloper was “a year older than me, and quite serious” and that – on the train journey we took together to Royan once the course had finished – she was not terribly talkative. This was October 1986, yet by Christmas not only had there been a bit of a turnaround, but we’d set out on a relationship that has now survived 28 years and three children.

The tiny, insignificant events that all had to come together perfectly for us to meet still amaze me – as do the ever-widening impacts that our life together has had (yes, I’m talking about you, kids!). If ever there was a moment of singularity in our own personal universes, our meeting was surely it.

Identifying the absolute key moments in the randomness of our lives before we met is impossible. I asked to be sent to that particular town in France because of a previous family holiday nearby – the only overseas holiday we ever had as children. But what were the events that conspired together to make my parents choose to travel to that specific location when they did? My wife’s request to teach near Royan was similarly based on the flimsiness of chance. She’d had previous experience nearby as an au pair, something that could have taken her almost anywhere.

In some ways, the odds that we would ever meet at all seem vanishingly small. But of course that assumes she is The One, and that no other Ones could possibly exist – a theory that neither of us – rather unromantically, I’m afraid – subscribes to. Perhaps a more interesting question might be to ask what the odds are of meeting someone who it’s highly likely you could end up spending your life with.

Well, it turns out someone has already given that particular question a decent amount of thought. Researcher Peter Backus published a rather tongue-in-cheek paper in 2010 entitled ‘Why I don’t have a girlfriend‘ in which he used Drake’s equation (suggested by Frank Drake in 1961 to estimate the possible number of alien civilisations in our galaxy) to work out the size of the pool of his potential partners. By focusing on a variety of measures of compatibility and practicality (things like age, education, location and mutual attractiveness), Backus determined that there were 26 women in London at the time that he could possibly have a ‘wonderful relationship’ with, and that the odds of meeting one of them on a given night out in London were about 0.0000034%, or 1 in 285,000. This may sound rather depressing, but in a very satisfying and odds-defeating postscript, Backus ended up meeting someone and marrying her last year. Here he is describing his paper:

My conclusion? Well, I’m not sure there is one, other than to confirm that life is full of tiny moments of coincidence that almost all have the profoundest possible impact, however insignificant they may seem. And that sometimes, if you’re as lucky as I have been, they can work their random magic in a way that transforms your life.

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