Could two busy homeworkers swap an empty nest for a room in Venice?
One evening, three days after we moved into a studio apartment in Venice for a month, my husband got sick. He vomited all night, until we fell into an exhausted sleep around 5.30am, only to be woken by the church bells next door at 7am, then forced up by the dog whining for breakfast. We wearily started work, cheek by jowl in a tiny space. A few hours later, as my husband started his third speakerphone call of the morning, my noise-cancelling headphones died. Was our dream trip proving to be the stupidest idea ever?
We had wanted an adventure to mark our newly empty nest when our younger son headed off to university last autumn. I had a clear idea: the pictures of Venice that circulated in lockdown (silent, clear waters, heart-swellingly beautiful) had filled me with longing. We both work remotely anyway, and the 40m deep dive pool a short drive away sealed the deal for my free-diving-mad husband. We started plotting.
Getting there wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Post-Brexit, bringing the dog (too ancient to leave behind) was a costly, stressful hassle. The drive – more than 1,000 miles – took three days, punctuated by tedious recharging stops for the electric car we grew to hate, a cracked windscreen and a tense late-night crawl over the Alps when we realised the Mont Blanc tunnel was closed. The baffled dog decided the car was his home now and refused to leave, having to be lifted in and out, like a Jane Austen heroine.
On top of that, shortly before leaving we realised our idyllic-looking, canal-view rental apartment was 48 ancient stone stairs above street level – impossible with an arthritic hound. We panic-chose another from the few we could afford, realising too late it was a single-room studio. Could we survive, confined to one room for a month? It felt like an empty-nest rite of passage.
Was our dream trip proving to be the stupidest idea ever?
More and more of us are up for these kinds of adventures: one of the few blessings of Covid has been the way it fractured rigid notions about where and when work happens. The digital nomad lifestyle has exploded – one estimate suggests there are 35m currently, and around 50 countries now offer specific visas for those who only need wifi and a laptop to work.
Venice is getting in on the act. After arriving, I met Massimo Warglien, a professor at Ca’Foscari University, who heads the innovative “Venywhere” project, offering a one-stop shop service for a flat fee, dealing with visa formalities, finding accommodation and workspaces. Venywhere also organises social events and introduces remote workers to local charities and businesses with the aim of enmeshing them within the community.
The city is an “interesting lab” for remote work, Massimo explained – it’s so small and navigable it’s easy for nomads to work from museums, cafés, bars, beaches and libraries according to their needs each day. That makes remote work fun. “The story is not that people want to work in their kitchen rather than in their office – they want something else.”
The vomiting turned out to be the lowest point. It was the only low point really, except being mugged by a gigantic Venetian seagull for my sandwich (and that felt like an honour of sorts). We quickly developed a routine – up at 7am with the San Giobbe church bells, coffee, walk the dog, then work, my husband at home, me out. Venice is not designed for remote work – there’s a distinct lack of spots to linger, eking out a coffee and using the wifi – but adopting that “the city is your office” principle made it hugely rewarding. I fell hard for the Querini Stampalia library, a warm, wood-panelled haven on the first floor of a palazzo-turned-museum a short walk from home. Lined with portraits and lit by multi-tiered Murano glass chandeliers, it was a studious cocoon whose silence was occasionally broken, delightfully, by a gondolier singing on the canal outside the window. When it was closed, I tried Massimo’s tips, working from other libraries and twice from the incredible Ca’Pesaro museum café, with its Grand Canal-view terrace with power points and wifi.
My library’s silence was broken by a gondolier singing on the canal
Work worked, mostly. I did one BBC interview late one night crouched on the bathroom floor (“It sounds sort of echoey,” the producer said dubiously, “are you on speakerphone?”) and scheduled a session with Cindy Crawford’s life coach during one of my husband’s diving sessions. I was only forced to overhear his meetings once after that first time, a surreal experience, I couldn’t resist transcribing: “We will all sleep easier when the chicken is secured”; “We’re going to dive in to see if there are any choking hazards”; and “There’s agreement around the room that the carrots are good” were my favourite quotes (no, I don’t really understand what he does).
It helped that, even in winter, Venice is an outdoor city – a place where a post-work stroll, shop and drink can stretch languorously into late evening. We cooked plenty of pasta in the tiny kitchenette and watched Netflix on my laptop, but we also spent cicchetti-fuelled evenings exploring our Cannaregio neighbourhood, or striking out further, then hopping on a vaporetto home.
The hardest thing, actually, was convincing myself I was not on holiday. The sun shone all month and ignoring the glittering beauty of Venice at its alluring quietest to focus on my laptop was a regular battle. Mostly the library worked its magic, facilitating a flow I struggle to find even at home. Some days, though, I stared at tourists drinking spritzes in the sun and wished I could join them. When the golden-hour light was too good to miss, I would sneak out of the library for 20 minutes and walk through the kids playing after school in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo to watch the sunset on the lagoon. I never do that kind of thing at home, but in Venice, it felt like madness not to.
A month was short enough for that carpe diem feeling, but long enough to feel relaxed. We had time not to mind bad meals or abortive outings. And to puzzle at giant, sweet-studded biscuits shaped like a horse and rider in shop windows, discover they were for the San Martino festival, then watch gangs of Venetian children marching through the streets, banging pan lids for sweets.
One evening, we joined crowds making the pilgrimage over a temporary bridge across the Grand Canal to light candles in the Santa Maria della Salute basilica for the Festa della Salute. It’s a festival commemorating Venice being saved from the plague in 1630 and with many older Venetians still masked in the streets and the scars of Covid livid across Italy, it felt poignant.
I bought paper bags of Sicilian clementines, eating them as I walked
Walking to the Querini in the morning, stopping for a coffee en route, working in peace, returning through the bustle of the Rialto, then slipping into the dark quiet of Cannaregio’s back canals, I often found myself saying out loud, wonderingly, “I am so happy.” I bought cheap paper bags of Sicilian clementines, eating them as I walked, partly because I wanted a sense memory to associate with that expansive feeling of happiness.
Now back home, when I pierce a clementine skin, I’m flooded with the smell and slosh of water on ancient stone, piles of curly purple and white radicchio at the greengrocer, a 16th-century altarpiece still luminous with life and the garnet glow of a Campari spritz. I had forgotten, in these past few years of mid-life permacrisis work and anxiety and more work, what it feels like to be filled with quiet joy. Venice gave me that back.
And how did we get on, loud husband and noise-sensitive, intolerant wife? Brilliantly, really – no blow-ups and barely even a niggle. A month in a beautiful place is no test of a relationship, even in the smallest room. It reminded me how much fun we can have together, and that’s nice to remember back home in grey, freezing Yorkshire. What else remains? Pictures – I took hundreds – library cards and a vaporetto pass I’m determined to use again before it expires. A new sense of possibility. A healthier attitude to work (let’s see how long that lasts). And gratitude, to Massimo for gifting us a lasting sense of connection with the city and his best brioche à la crema tips. To my husband, for being the kind of person who always says yes to adventure. To Venice.