It’s not an obvious place for museum catalogues piling up, the worktop near the kitchen sink. Nor is a kitchen wall the most fetching background for a postcard of a Bellini sunrise at Gethsemane .
But well, my kitchen is where, bleary-eyed after a bad night, I brew the tea needed to face the day. It’s a quiet place too, at the back of the building, where through the open window you can even hear birds singing and leaves rustling (instead of the gathering roar of early morning traffic).
So just the place to be for anyone with her nerves on edge. And you see, the catalogues, the Bellini sunrise - they’re all part of my Grand Tour programme to bear bouts of insomnia. This Grand Tour starts in fact in the bedroom, around 3AM, when I wholly uselessly wake up. Now 3AM is obviously not the time to start pondering one’s life in general (and especially not one’s limitations & failures in particular). Fretting over work problems is also best not done at that dismal darkest hour.
So that’s why, instead, I then go on a Tour, recalling with all my might moments of contemplative bliss, during purposeful flâneries in Europe’s cities, visiting these most sheltering of places: museums and art galleries. Thus, last week I was in Florence again, climbing up the staircase to the upper floor of the Fondazione Horne, where Giotto’s sturdy Santo Stefano dwells (a prime example of Berenson’s exhilarating tactile values ). That same night I also wandered through the miraculously empty corridors of the Uffizi, and with a burst of happiness suddenly found myself in front of Bellini’s fascinatingly still Sacred Allegory . The next night I was in Dresden, in an overcrowded Gemäldegalerie, finding peace however in front of a Claude Lorrain landscape bathed in cool morning light.
Now, beware, the demons of insomnia are not always that easily tricked. Sometimes the worn brain gets trapped in a chain of futile memories ill suited for transcending nocturnal restlessness. One night last week, for example, my mind’s eye couldn’t rid itself of the image of a tea bag in a cardboard cup of English breakfast tea, bought in Villiers street, on my way from Waterloo station to the National Gallery – thus, because of an obstinate teabag, memories of the gallery alas kept eluding me that night. And then, of course, self-willed escapism can only go that far – sometimes the elephant of anguish in the room is just too big.
Anyway, onto the final stage of the Grand Tour insomniac programme – this involves briskly getting up at five AM, showering, making breakfast in the kitchen, listen to the world awaking and (above mentioned) birds singing & leaves rustling. And then sit down quietly, intently looking at pictures, in the catalogues of the museums visited that night. A bit after seven one can then venture out into the world and join one’s fellow commuters on their way to work (not everyone looking as fresh as they could - statistics say that 1 in 3 people have regular sleeping difficulties and that half of those insomniacs eventually have to resort to sleeping pills) . And before eight one arrives whistling at one’s desk and switches on the computer to discover again the day’s calamities.
They say that this century, so uniquely focused on productivity and utilitarianism, is particularly unkind to the nervous & over-sensitive. But then, the struggle for life has been hard on most people most of the time (even much worse than now, one imagines). Unless perhaps one happened to be an over- privileged Renaissance-man? Or what to think of this 19th century blissful vision of the awakening of the young Montaigne – whose caring father sent in a musician in the morning to make sure the sensitive young man could face the new day without stress.
Hamman - L’éveil de Michel Montaigne (to be seen at the Gaasbeek-castle)