Fa­mil­iar­ity breeds con­tent­ment

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Jonathan Self is an au­thor and raw dog-food maker (http:// hon­eysre­al­dog­food.com) who lives in Cork, Ire­land

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’

Jonathan Self

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