Walking home after enjoying a delicious pizza at the truly Neapolitan Bravi Ragazzi in the days between diagnosis and my being admitted to hospital, Mariacristina and I were confronted with a road sign held up by two poles on the pavement. For years now, I have avoided walking below such signs, after Mariacristina told me that if I did so, I’d never get married. Given that most people don’t even notice when they walk under such signs, and yet many do get married, I scoffed at the idea, but in deference to Mariacristina’s superstitious belief, I picked up the habit – even to the extent of sometimes squeezing myself embarrassingly through small gaps between a wall and a pole, for example.
I started to avoid going under these signs not just when Mariacristina was around, but even when she wasn’t there – despite not believing a word of it, I felt I would be betraying her if I failed to make the small effort of walking around the outside of the poles. But after a while, it becomes more than that: although I was confident that I’d be the one deciding whether or not I got married, not the collective signposts on pavements of the world, it became almost impossible for me to even contemplate walking underneath them. Superstitions grow on you like that: even if you are absolutely certain they are a load of cobblers, they become habit, and you can’t help but follow them anyway. Perhaps it’s like having an OCD – you may know it’s unnecessary, but you do it anyway.
In 2011, of course, we got married, which a true believer in superstition might suggest was only possible because of our fastidiousness in walking around the signs. I’m not convinced. But we continued to avoid walking under the signs, as Mariacristina suggested it could only bring bad luck to do so – until we were walking back from Bravi Ragazzi last month. Mariacristina marched between the poles, on the basis that we’d just been hit with a pretty large dose of bad luck anyway, so yah boo sucks to that superstition. I’m not sure she ever believed any of it either, but growing up in southern Italy gives you a natural feel for the that sort of thing.
I first made a conscious decision that superstitions were a load of nonsense when I was a fairly small boy and was confronted by a ladder up against a wall. After some deliberation, I decided to walk around the ladder, only to trip up as soon as I’d cleared it. There are many reasons why it’s probably best not to walk underneath a ladder (particularly if there’s somebody on it), but from that moment on I was certain that avoiding bad luck wasn’t one of them. Since then I’ve avoided any other ladder-related incidents – touch wood.
Here in hospital, ‘touch wood’ has been even more common than it is already in everyday life. The phrase is a great example of a superstition that most people will automatically turn to when not wanting to jinx some happy news or positive event, but I’m sure few people really believe it will make any difference. But whenever I mention that I’ve taken this round of chemo pretty well, with fewer side effects than might have been expected, almost everybody seeks out the nearest piece of wood to make sure I’m not condemning myself to a terrible second round.
I do it, too – and although I like to tell myself it’s only for the benefit of the other people in the room, I do still feel an irresistible urge to follow the superstition. I know full well that the smoothness or otherwise of my subsequent treatment will not depend in the slightest on whether everybody remembered to touch wood or not – but then again, what’s the harm in a small gesture that might make us feel even just a tiny bit more protected?
I’m ready to retrain myself to walk underneath the signposts, though.