BRITAIN'S BEST-LOVED REPLACEMENT COLUMNIST

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BUON GIORNO. Actually, I mean the other one, the one for afternoon. What is it? I can never remember. Anyway, greetings from Umbria, which is in Italy, very near Tuscany and every bit as good, no matter what anyone says. In fact my brother's house, where I'm staying for the next two weeks, is so near the Tuscan border that I sometimes refer to it as Tuscany. What's the difference? It's all Italy.

The Tuscan way of life is, for someone of my temperament, very easy to slip in to. As the hot sun beats down outside and a gentle breeze stirs the lavender and rosemary beside the open door, I have been all week sitting in the relative coolness of this quaint farmhouse kitchen, eating a bit of rough bread, drinking a glass or two of vino rosso locale and watching the snooker on Sky Sports 2. In this atmosphere, the complicated, fast-paced, ugly world of Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, one-day cricket and a 2.6 per cent underlying rate of inflation seems far away indeed, no matter how many times a day I hear about it on CNN.

When you think about it, it seems odd that I can spend all day lying around eating and drinking as much as I please, and still get paid to rap out 750-800 words about what I did on my summer holidays, even though I'm not doing anything at all. Quite a scam! Not for the first time, I fancy, my regular readers are left wishing that they were me. Here at the Castello dello Mellow, as I call my brother's place, the living is easy, the pace is slow, and everything, including Oprah, starts an hour later.

Of course, as I mentioned last Sunday, I'm also supposed to be helping out with my brother's kids, but so far they've been no trouble. There was a bit of a scare on Tuesday when Ruby fell into the pool while I was asleep on the lawn, but luckily my brother's wife was just a few hundred yards away and heard her screams. Since then I haven't really had to look after them on my own, which is lucky since I've had some really criminal hangovers this past week. It seems that my brother now feels he wants to spend a little quality time with his children, which is lovely, but I hope he realises that he has to pay me anyway. A deal's a deal, after all. It's hardly my fault that his nanny can't travel because she's an illegal alien.

In fact, I don't understand why he's making such a big deal about a measly hundred quid (280,000 lira, approx); it's not as if he'll miss it. Fortunately for him, I have decided to adopt a Tuscan "what, me worry?" attitude to the whole business. In my experience these things usually work themselves out. My brother and I have certainly had bigger arguments than last night's.

Speaking of people who aren't speaking to me, my girlfriend Julie (not her real name) never did call, or e-mail, or anything, despite my direct and heartfelt pleas for contact in last Sunday's column. This is perhaps not surprising, since I found out from her mother (I do my Ned Sherrin voice, so she doesn't know it's me) that Julie is in Italy herself, staying with whatsisname and his parents! It's such an extraordinary coincidence that I can't help thinking that it isn't a coincidence at all, but fate's timely intervention. For a while I even imagined that I might run into her in the local village, where, of course, I would just say buon giorno, warmly but coolly, without taking off my sunglasses. A chance encounter seems unlikely, however, as the place where she's staying is right the other end of Tuscany. According to the map it's nearly 60 miles away, and there are only two buses a day, one at 10:17 and one at 3:44. I think I'll play it by ear. I don't want to do anything rash or foolish unless I can be sure it will seem endearing. For now it's important to stay cool, or conservare in luogo fresco, as the Italians say. In the meantime there's plenty of sun, plenty of wine, a bag of slightly weird Italian crisps and a classic episode of M*A*S*H starting in 12 minutes.

I could rattle on like this for several more hundred words, but I hear my brother's Mondeo coming down the track. They're back from Urbino, so I think I'd better grab a few beers and go to my room. Ciao!

Wallace Arnold is away.

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