Can two busy homeworkers trade an empty nest for a room in Venice?

One evening, three days after moving into a studio apartment in Venice for a month, my husband fell ill. He vomited all night, until we fell into an exhausted sleep around 5:30am, only to be awakened at 7:00am by the church bells next door, then awakened by the dog wailing for breakfast. We began working wearily, cheek by cheek in a small space. A few hours later, when my husband started his third hands-free call of the morning, my noise-canceling headphones died. Was our dream trip the stupidest idea ever?

We had wanted an adventure to mark our newly empty nest when our youngest son left for college last fall. I had a clear idea: the photos of Venice circulating in lockdown (still, clear water, heartbreakingly 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 freediving husband. We started plotting.

Getting there was not exactly a cinch. Post-Brexit, bringing the dog (too old to leave behind) was a costly, stressful hassle. The drive — over 1,000 miles — took three days, punctuated by annoying charging stops for the electric car we grew to hate, a cracked windshield, and a tense nighttime crawl across the Alps when we realized the Mont Blanc tunnel was closed. The stunned dog decided that the car was now his home and refused to leave, having to be lifted in and out, like a Jane Austen heroine.

Plus, we realized shortly before we left that our idyllic looking rental apartment overlooking the canal was 48 old stone steps above street level – impossible with an arthritic dog. We panicked and chose another one of the few we could afford, realizing too late that it was a one-room studio. Could we survive locked in one room for a month? It felt like an empty nest rite of passage.

Was our dream trip the stupidest idea ever?

More and more of us are ready for this kind of adventure: one of Covid’s few blessings is the way it has broken down rigid notions about where and when to work. The digital nomad lifestyle has exploded – one estimate currently numbers 35 million, and about 50 countries now offer specific visas for those who only need Wi-Fi and a laptop to work.

Venice joins in. After arriving, I met Massimo Warglien, a professor at the University of Ca’Foscari, who heads the innovative project “Venywhere”, which offers a one-stop-shop service for a fixed fee, deals with visa formalities, housing and workspaces. Venywhere also hosts social events and introduces home workers to local charities and businesses with the aim of embedding them in the community.

The city is an “interesting laboratory” for remote work, Massimo explained — it’s so small and navigable that it’s easy for nomads to work from museums, cafes, bars, beaches and libraries every day according to their needs. That makes working remotely fun. “The story isn’t that people want to work in their kitchens rather than their offices — they want something different.”

The vomiting turned out to be the nadir. It was really the only low point, except for being robbed by a giant Venetian seagull for my sandwich (which felt like an honor of sorts). We quickly developed a routine – up at 7am to the church bells of San Giobbe, coffee, dog walk, then work, husband home, me out. Venice wasn’t designed for remote working – there’s a distinct lack of places to hang out, have a coffee and use WiFi – but adopting the “the city is your office” principle has made it hugely rewarding. I fell hard for the Querini Stampalia Library, a warm, wood-paneled sanctuary on the first floor of a palazzo-turned-museum a short walk from home. Lined with portraits and illuminated by multi-tiered Murano glass chandeliers, it was a studious cocoon whose silence was occasionally delightfully broken 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 cafe, with its terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, power outlets and Wi-Fi.

The silence of my library was broken by a singing gondolier on the canal

The work worked, mostly. I was doing a BBC interview late one night, crouching on the bathroom floor (“It sounds a bit reverberant,” said the producer dubiously, “are you on speakerphone?”) sessions. I only had to overhear his encounters once after that first time, a surreal experience, I couldn’t resist transcribing, “We’ll all sleep easier when the chicken is stuck”; “We’re going to dive in to see if there’s a choking hazard”; and “There is agreement in the room that the carrots are good” were my favorite quotes (no, I don’t really understand what he’s doing).

It helped that, even in winter, Venice is an outdoor city – a place where an after-work stroll, shopping and drink can last languidly late into the evening. We cooked a lot of pasta in the little kitchenette and watched Netflix on my laptop, but we also spent cicchetti-filled evenings exploring our neighborhood of Cannaregio, or ventured further afield and then hopped a vaporetto home.

The hardest part was actually convincing myself that I wasn’t on vacation. The sun shone all month and it was a regular battle to ignore Venice’s shimmering beauty at its seductively quietest to focus on my laptop. Most of the time, the library worked its magic and provided a stream that I have a hard time finding even at home. But some days I stared at tourists drinking sprites in the sun and wished I could join in. When the golden hourlight was too good to miss, I snuck out of the library for 20 minutes and walked among the children playing 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 worry about bad meals or failed trips. And to puzzle over giant biscuits with sweet studs in the shape of 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, beating pot lids for sweets.

One evening we joined a crowd making the pilgrimage across a temporary bridge over the Grand Canal to light candles in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute for the Festa della Salute. It’s a festival commemorating Venice that was saved from the plague in 1630 and with many elderly Venetians still masked in the streets and the scars of Covid raging all over Italy, it felt poignant.

I bought paper bags of Sicilian clementines and ate them as I walked

Walking up to the Querini in the morning, stopping for a coffee along the way, working in peace, returning through the hustle and bustle of the Rialto and then slipping into the dark silence of Cannaregio’s back channels, I often found myself saying aloud and in wonder: ” I’m so happy.” I bought cheap paper bags of Sicilian clementines and ate them as I walked, in part because I wanted to associate a sensory memory with that extended sense of happiness.

Now that I’m home I’m inundated with the smell and the sloshing of water on ancient stone, as I pierce a clementine skin, piles of curled purple and white radicchio at the greengrocer’s, a 16th century altarpiece that still glows with life and the garnet glow of a Campari spritz. I’d spent the last few years of mid-life permacrisis work and anxiety and more work forgetting what it feels like to be filled with quiet joy. Venice gave that back to me.

And how did we get along, noisy husband and noise-sensitive, intolerant wife? Brilliant, really – no blowouts and hardly a niggle. A month in a nice place is not a test of a relationship, even in the smallest room. It reminded me of how much fun we can have together, and that’s a nice thing to remember back home in grey, freezing Yorkshire. What’s left? Photos – I took hundreds of them – library cards and a vaporetto pass that I’m determined to reuse before it expires. A new sense of possibility. A healthier work posture (let’s see how long that lasts). And thanks to Massimo for bestowing a lasting sense of connection to the city and his best brioche à la crema tips. To my husband, because he’s the kind of person who always says yes to adventure. To Venice.

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