A friend recently told me he was considering a romantic trip to Venice. I wasn't sure what to say. If you ask around, you will find people who think that Venice is a Bad Thing for couples to do together. Clearly, this is superstitious nonsense. And yet, and yet.
When I first met my wife, we booked a trip to Venice. She told a colleague of our plans excitedly. There was an indrawn breath. He said Venice could be ... difficult for couples. And hadn't she ever heard of the Venice wobble?
Now come on, we thought. A Venice wobble? A Venice ... curse? What rubbish! But of course, in the back of my mind was the thought that we sounded exactly like a pair of dopey ingénues in the set-up of a horror film.
We flew to Venice. In the queue for the plane, I met B, an old friend from school who was going to Venice with his new girlfriend.
It was my first visit and the place exceeded all my expectations. We wandered around, sighed at the palazzi, ate overpriced food, drank cocktails at Harry's Bar, and then we had our first ever spectacular argument.
At this distance, I have no recollection of what we actually argued about. But as night fell, I went for a walk by myself. I felt suddenly aware of the age of the city. The canals and twisting alleyways seemed no longer romantic, but malevolent. Not for nothing, I realised, was Venice the setting of Don't Look Now, or the implied backdrop for Ian McEwan's disturbing novel, The Comfort of Strangers. Suddenly, the foundations of my new relationship, which had been absolutely solid, resembled the marshy swamp that was gradually swallowing Venice itself.
In fact, we rallied and our relationship survived. B and his girlfriend were not so lucky. They split up soon after the trip. So do I believe in the Venice Curse? No, I don't. I believe there is a far more convincing and less Gothic explanation for the Venice Wobble.
What undoes couples is not a curse, but something more mundane: it's what statisticians call "regression to the mean" — the tendency of things to cleave to the average. An astonishing Scrabble score? A terrible day at the office? The dry mouth and beating heart of the early days of romantic love? Regression to the mean says these exceptional events will tend to give way to something much more ordinary.
Venice is a place couples visit as the self-conscious romantic pinnacle of their story so far. And, inevitably, the next thing that's going to happen is an argument, or a disagreement, or a moderation in the intensity of the relationship. This may feel, in the context of things, like a major blow, or as though it has something to do with Venice. It doesn't.
Our feelings are not a reliable guide. We are not natural statisticians. You may very well experience regression to the mean as a baleful force reaching out from the fog-bound canals to destroy your relationship, or a venomous person mumbling vague threats from under the hood of a red plastic raincoat. There is something spooky about the place.
So, a romantic trip to Venice? No, thanks. Not for me. But a trip to Venice? Now you're talking.