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Serendipity: Things Are Not Always As They Seem

Updated on January 6, 2009
Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole

English author Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity. He liked his creation, explaining that it was part of the title of “a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of....”

The word was created in 1754, the same year that the French and Indian war began. The jist of the war was that the British wanted to expand westward and the French wanted the rest of North America for themselves.



The French and Indian War
The French and Indian War

Who's Having the Braised Tongue?

The British said to the French, “Back off, you frog-eating Frenchy!”The French replied, “Tu me casses les couilles (You're busting my balls!) Va t'empaler encule (Go fu** yourself!) Vous les vousco chez avec moi? (Will you sleep with me?)”

To which the British responded, “Say what? Listen, you grape-sucking, stanko-Franco! I'll fill you so full of hot lead you'll be picking it out of your snail-filled belly for a week!”

“Mon Dieu, tu me fais chier (My God, you bug the crap out of me!),” replied the French. “Merde! Tu mangeras le tas! (Sh*t! You can eat the pile!) Voulez-vouz coucher avec moi? (Will you go to bed with me?)


George Washington and the horse he rode in on.
George Washington and the horse he rode in on.

George Who?

Or something to that effect. So a young Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia Militia named George Washington was sent to slap the French around a little, maybe break their thumbs, but instead he found them mostly asleep, worn out from all the sex they were having with each other I guess, and he decided to ambush them instead, firing the first shots of what became the French and Indian war. All this business made Washington famous. As you may know, the French eventually lost all North American possessions and Canada was ceded to Britain.

Soon after the start of the war, in hot water for killing a self-important French guy, the Virginia Militia was being broken up into smaller regiments. This would have meant a demotion for Washington to the rank of Captain. Finally, two years later in 1758, miffed at the British for not promoting him into the regular British army as he expected, Washington resigned from the army and spent the next 16 years as a Virginia planter and politician. It was 1774 when Washington was coaxed out of his semi-retirement to lead the American army against—you guessed it—the British, whom he now despised, and we all know how that worked out for him.


Photophool / flickr
Photophool / flickr

Sometimes, Fortunes DO Just Happen

The point is, serendipity or “fortunate discovery” stories teach us that things can change in an instant. That things are not always as they seem. Struggling and depressed one minute, and rich and happy beyond our wildest dreams the next. Sometimes people fantasize about these scenarios, which usually involve stumbling upon something of great value, like a group of sleeping French—if you're Washington, landing in America instead of Asia if you're Columbus, or penicillin instead of a petri dish full of mold if you're Alexander Fleming.

Of course, for most of us, the scope of our lives is a little smaller. Our fantasies tend toward something like taking possession of an old house and turning up something of great value left behind—perhaps a forgotten stash of currency, discarded coins that were common but now are worth a fortune, or a coffee can full of priceless jewelry stashed in an attic.

The Barn
The Barn

The Story

Such a story went around the Internet a few months ago. It is a great story and a perfect illustration of serendipity and the fortunate discovery scenario that we love to imagine could happen to us. If you have heard the tale, keep reading. There is a new end. Here is the story:

A man in New York retired. He was not poor, but he wasn't rich either, and so wanted to use his retirement money wisely and make it last. He wanted to buy a home and a few acres, but with a fixed income, found himself looking in foreign country for a nice place within his budget. He found a place in Portugal.

The farmhouse was modest, but it sat on several acres. The house had been vacant for 15 years. The previous owner and his wife had both passed away and there were no heirs, and it was being sold to pay taxes.

Several people had looked at the property, but there was a large barn with steel doors that had been welded shut and nobody wanted to go to the expense of cutting open the thick doors. Besides, the barn was ugly and an eyesore—not complementary to the property at all—so nobody made an offer to buy the place.

The New York guy bought it at just over half of it's worth, moved in, and set about opening the barn to see what was inside. He bought a generator, some grinders, and cut through the welds. What was in the barn? Here are just a few of the pictures:

The Cars

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Expect the Unexpected

The collection of classic cars had an estimated value of 11 million dollars. This is the kind of story we like to hear. After all, it could just as easily have been you or me. I decided to write an article about it, so I researched it, hoping to turn up some additional information, maybe his name or some follow-up story about how his life had been transformed, and so I did, and what I found out was this:

The story is a hoax.

And that is what I really mean by “things are not always as they seem.” There is a barn in Portugal and it is packed with these cars, but they belong to a retired auto dealer who simply had his collection photographed to determine it's value. The pictures were taken from an automobile website, the text written, and sent to dreamers around the world and now is an urban myth.

I think the next time I'll leave the story alone. I don't want to know if it is a hoax. I miss the dream. The fantasy. The sleeping French, America, and Penicillin. Things may not always be what they seem, but there can be meaning in a dream. So you didn't get a bunch of valuable vintage automobiles, but you've got a nice little farm in Portugal with an ugly barn.

Serendipity can happen to you. Dream on.



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