Familiarity breeds contentment
If I was forced to select a single aspect of modern life that gets right up my nose (and it’s a wide-open field), I would choose the current obsession with stepping outside one’s comfort zone. Avoiding risk, repeating the same thing over and over and eluding new experiences are not, to my mind, signs of fearfulness or lack of imagination. Rather, they are recognition of a universal truth, viz. there is enormous pleasure to be had from that which is familiar.
for the past few years, we have spent a month of our summer holidays in florence. Each stay has proved a more rewarding experience than the last. Why? Because we don’t feel under pressure to do anything new. As soon as we arrive, we settle into the same relaxed rhythm of the previous year.
We rise early and breakfast on the terrace, which is planted with dozens of scented rose bushes. Then, we take a bicycle ride or go for a swim in the public pool. During the hottest part of the day, we return home to read, write or, more usually, sleep. When it starts to cool off, we venture out again, perhaps to take afternoon tea in the farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella or to an exhibition.
As part of our ritual, we visit a different church every day and light candles for departed family and friends. A couple of nights a week, we eat dinner in a neighbourhood restaurant. This quiet routine suits the children as much as the adults. They are now old enough to wander out alone and take particular delight in shopkeepers, street vendors and, especially, the proprietors of the local gelateria and pizzeria, recognising and greeting them when they pass. It is all extremely predictable and we prefer it that way: ‘In returning and rest shall ye be saved’ (Isaiah 30:15).
If I had to live in a city, florence would be my first choice, if only because it’s so close to open countryside. A 15-minute stroll from our apartment in Santo Spirito takes you to a network of lanes and tracks that meander south through olive and fruit groves as far as the eye can see.
On Monday, I walked for three hours without passing more than half a dozen cars and even fewer pedestrians. My route took me past San Leonardo in Arcetri, a tiny, plain, 11th-century rural church that houses the pulpit from which Dante used to preach, onwards to Il Pino and back to Arcetri. Here, I ate a delicious supper in Omero, the only trattoria in the village, which enjoys the most glorious views of the Arno valley.
Exactly one hour after I paid my bill, I was with my family at the opera, having had time to walk home, shower, change and print off the synopsis.
Iwouldn’t go quite as far as the 18th-century religious writer Hannah More, who said: ‘Going to the opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it and that a very severe one.’ Still, I am no fan of The Barber of Seville and I only bought the ludicrously overpriced tickets because I thought the twins would enjoy it.
The Barber is supposed to be funny, romantic and full of memorable tunes. I’ll only say I have been to more amusing funerals and, despite seeing it quite half a dozen times, I couldn’t hum a single aria from it if my life depended on it.
Apparently, its first night, in 1816, was an abject disaster. A cat wandered on set, an actor fell off the stage and the audience couldn’t resist making meowing noises all the way through. Afterwards, Rossini, showing proper humility, locked himself in a dressing room. What we saw was one of those modern productions—as soon as the chorus came on in plastic mackintoshes, I knew we were in for a painful evening—but at least it was staged in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace so I could while away the time staring at stars.
We paid for this bit of culture in more ways than one— how right Molière was when he pointed out that, of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive—because, the following morning, we woke up covered in bites. Mine turned into something called lymphangitis, which requires industrial quantities of antibiotics and steroids to treat and makes me look like a red-andwhite zebra.
Happily, however, I am a redand-white zebra well inside his comfort zone.
‘As soon as the chorus came on in plastic mackintoshes, I knew we were in for a painful evening’