A few years back, it snowed in London. Not limp, half-arsed proto-slush that’s just ugly and annoying, but proper, knee-deep fairy fluff that turns everybody into chums. We headed to Regent’s Park, which was just swathed in the stuff, immaculate and bewitching. Now, there are two ways to react to the prospect of a square-mile of manipulable raw material. One is to build podgy little figures with carrots stuck in their faces, and take jolly snaps and delight in the novelty of it all. The other is to immediately make projectiles and commence pitched battles. Soon enough, we had a base of operations and a hierarchy of command, led by a fearless and fearsome Bulgarian accountant. It was, by a country mile, the most fun you could have with a bunch of people you don’t know, in a field, with no booze. At one point, a lad in a leotard unwisely sprinted through no-man’s-land, and was battered so mercilessly his legs were the colour of beetroot. At another, an unwary jogger caught a snowball so squarely in the face it knocked him flat. This was, of course, a little unkind, but he took it in giggling, commendable spirit. That’s the snow effect. Imagine if, on any other day, somebody had floored you with an improvised missile. You’d go berserk. But on a ‘snow day’, everybody has a wonderfully robust sense of humour.
I’ve wanted to write this piece for a while; to be precise, since I first stumbled, gawping, into the Piazza del Duomo, Florence, about this time a year ago. The trip came on the back of a tough few weeks in London. I had to miss a day of it because of a sodding interview in the City, and I’d brought a little keepsake from home: a malicious, bulging ulcer searing angrily at the slightest brush. I was tired and thick-headed, with chewed fingernails and prickly red eyes. And the very instant I got to Florence, none of it mattered.
We took proper, bitterly delicious coffee at sundown. The hulking Duomo sat beside us, enormous walls drenched in fleshy pink and deep emerald and white mellowing into the dusk, and crusted with fleurs-de-lis and figures of stone. There was a grand old café across the road with shimmering chandeliers, vibrant gelato and slender, waistcoated baristas. Aged Florentines deftly wended tinkling bicycles over the cobbles. And the whole thing was set against the most glorious score: quiet, day’s end Italian chat, and a soaring oratorio of church bells. I gulped it all down as I did my restorative cuppa, and England became a remote, sodden, puddle-grey memory. Nothing else mattered but this mesmerising place of marbled, rococo class.