One evening, three days after we moved into a studio apartment in Venice for a month, my husband became ill. He vomited all night, until we fell into an exhausted sleep around 5.30am, only to be woken by the bells of the church next door at 7am, then forced up by the whining dog for breakfast. We began to work wearily, with reeds gnawing in a tiny space. A few hours later, as my husband started his third speaker phone call of the morning, my noise canceling headphones died. Was our dream trip the funniest idea ever?
We needed an adventure to celebrate our newly empty nest when our young son went off to university last autumn. I had a clear idea: the pictures of Venice that were spreading under lock (calm, clear waters, heart-swellingly beautiful) filled me with nostalgia. We both work remotely anyway, and the 40m deep diving pool a short drive away sealed the deal for my freediving husband. We started plotting.
The sailing was less smooth there. After Brexit, bringing the dog (too old to leave behind) was difficult, expensive, and stressful. 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 late-night weather crawl over the Alps when we realized the Mont Blanc tunnel was closed . The baffled dog decided that the car was now his home and refused to leave, he had to be taken in and out, like a Jane Austen heroine.
Furthermore, shortly before we left we realized that our wonderful canal view rental apartment was 48 ancient stone stairs above street level – impossible with an arthritic dog. We panicked – we picked another one out of the few we could afford, realizing too late that it was a one-room studio. Could we survive, confined to one room for a month? It felt like an empty-nest passage.
Was our dream trip the funniest idea ever?
More and more of us want these kinds of adventures: one of the few blessings of Covid is the way it has shattered rigid ideas about where and when work happens. The digital nomad lifestyle has exploded – one estimate suggests there are currently 35m, and around 50 countries offer specific visas to those who only need wifi and a laptop to work.
Venice is getting in on the act. Upon arrival, I met Massimo Warglien, a professor at Ca’Foscari University, who leads the innovative project “Venywhere”, offering a one-stop shop service for a flat fee, dealing with visa formalities, finding accommodation and spaces work. Venywhere also organizes social events and introduces remote workers to local charities and businesses to engage them within the community.
The city is an “interesting laboratory” for remote work, explained Massimo – it’s so small and navigable that it’s easy for wanderers to work from museums, cafes, bars, beaches and libraries according to their daily needs. That makes remote work fun. “It’s not that people want to work in their kitchen rather than their office – they want something else.”
Vomiting was the lowest point. It was the only low point really, except being mugged by a giant Venetian seagull for my sandwich (and that felt like such an honor). We quickly developed a routine – up at 7am with the bells of San Giobbe church, coffee, walk the dog, then work, my husband at home, me out. Venice is not designed for remote work – there is a lack of specific spots to hang out, have a coffee and use the wifi – but when the principle “the city is your office” is accepted it was beyond a be satisfactory. I fell hard for Querini Stampalia’s library, a warm, wood-paneled sanctuary on the first floor of a palazzo-turned-museum, a short walk from town. Lined with portraits and lit by multi-tiered Murano glass chandeliers, it was a studious cocoon whose silence was broken from time to time by the merriment of 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 cafe of the Ca’Pesaro museum, with its Grand Canal view terrace with power points and wifi.
The silence of my library was broken by a gondolier singing on the canal
The work, for the most part, worked. I did one interview with the BBC late one night crouched on the bathroom floor (“It’s an echo,” the producer said suspiciously, “are you on speakerphone?”) and arranged a session with life coach Cindy Crawford during my husband’s dive. sessions. I only had to hear his meetings once after that first time, a surreal experience, I couldn’t resist transcribing: “We’ll all sleep easier when the chicken is safe”; “We’re going to dive in to see if there are any choking hazards”; and “The whole room agrees that the carrots are good” are my favorite quotes (no, I don’t really understand what he does).
It helped that, even in winter, Venice is an outdoor city – a place where an after-work stroll, shop and drink can slowly linger into the evening. We cooked plenty of pasta in the small kitchen and watched Netflix on my laptop, but we spent cicchetti evenings exploring our neighborhood in Cannaregio, or going out further, hopping on a vaporetto home there.
The hardest thing, really, was to convince myself that I wasn’t on vacation. The sun had been shining all month and it was a regular battle to ignore the glittering beauty of Venice when it was quiet focusing on my laptop. The library mostly worked its magic, facilitating a flow that 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 waste, I would walk out of the library for 20 minutes and walk through the children playing after school in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo to watch the sun set on the lagoon. I never do that kind of thing at home, but in Venice, it felt like madness without it.
A month was short enough for that carpe diem feeling, but long enough to be relaxed. We had the time not to remember bad meals or aborted trips. And to encounter giant sweet biscuits shaped like a horse and rider in shop windows, discover they were for the San Martino festival, then watch gangs of Venetian children march 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 basilica of Santa Maria della Salute for the Festa della Salute. It’s a festival that commemorates the saving of Venice from the plague in 1630 and with many older Venetians still covered in the streets and covid livid scars 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 coffee on the way, working in peace, returning through the pressure of the Rialto, then slipping into the dark silence of the back canals of Cannaregio, I often found myself at say out loud, confidently, “I’m so happy.” I bought cheap paper bags of Sicilian clementines, eating them as I walked, in part because I wanted a meaningful memory associated with that expansive feeling of happiness.
Now back home, when I train clammy skin, I am inundated with the smell and slosh of water on ancient stone, a pile of curving purple radicchio and white radicchio at the greengrocer, a 16th-century altar still luminous with life and garnet glitter. of a spritz of Campari. I had forgotten, in these past few years of mid-life pragmatism and worry and more work, what it feels like to be filled with quiet joy. Venice gave me that back.
And how did we get along, a loud husband and a noise-intolerant wife? Great, really – no blow-ups and barely even a niggle. A month in a beautiful place, even in the smallest room, is not a test of a relationship. It reminded me of how much fun we can have together, and it’s nice to be reminded of that back home in grey, freezing Yorkshire. What else is left? 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 towards work (let’s see how long that lasts). And thanks, Massimo for giving us a lasting connection with the city and for his best brioche à la crema tips. To my husband, for being the type of person who always says yes to adventure. To Venice.