For the last week my residence has been the Villa Margherita in Mira, a commune of Venice. I shared this space with sixteen writers from the US, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Spain and England and the reason for our happy meeting was the Writer’s Retreat, a week featuring workshops and seminars lead by Sophfronia Scott and lagoon tours and Palladian Villa viewings guided by my mother, Janet Simmonds.
What I loved most about the workshops was the confidence it has given me to write. I’ve not been writing diaries and journals and blogs for as long as I can remember. I think my first diary was yellow and had Winnie the Pooh on the cover and it might have been a present from my childhood friend Emma. It definitely had a lock on it. Lil was our nanny at the time because I remember her retrieving it from my brothers, gaining my revenge, when they’d nicked and hid it from me.
On our last evening in Mira we looked at what we would take away from the week and what we would change to benefit our writing. After a week in a room full of wise and powerful writers I’ve found a longing to write more and place value on the time I spend writing. I don’t want to push it away because it calms me.
On the day we were given those questions I wrote some things down: “This week I’ve been processing that feeling which we all almost definitely know when the web of our carefully thought out plan, but not carefully enough, frays and loses its integral structure. It looks like it’s being held together but this is no longer a safe place for a spider to live. So I’m picking up my legs and running onto the next thing. I want to be smart about it and that means giving myself what I need. According to one of the writers, that would be time. I often find myself with others who distract me beautifully with laughter and conversation. This is often welcomed but I want to be disciplined in writing most days and seek the time to do so”.
The “plan” I referred to was to study a Master’s course at the university in Marburg. A week before coming to Italy I received my rejection letter and after a full of week of back and forth emailing and phone calls I’d given up on the idea of being a student and started looked for jobs. As I wrote this diary entry I felt very conflicted by the choice of returning to Marburg after the event or staying in Mira. I’d booked a train and everyone was heading off but I couldn’t bring myself to go back without a plan. “I don’t want to be a nomad travelling around aimlessly, I want to settle somewhere, be settled, have friends, be in a community and I feel like I’m putting that off if I stay here”, I wrote that morning. But I didn’t want to be on my own without a plan. “When I’m alone and have goals and a clear head, I thrive and get a lot done. “I don’t like that feeling of perpetual loneliness when evening comes and it’s mealtime and you’re alone and then it’s time to sleep and you’re still alone”, I wrote the same afternoon. “I can apply for jobs here”, I thought. “I’ll be with mum, I can help her move into her new place and I can write … and it is Italy … the week will be fresh and the writers will be whiling away their time elsewhere having travelled to different places for new impulses and adventures”. So I made the decision to stay, surrounded by the fascination of Venice.
The morning we moved to a house near Dolo, my alarm went off with a singsong reverie that suited my dream perfectly. I was in a house somewhere with Jacob and it was late. We desperately wanted to go to sleep but all the beds were full and sofas occupied. For some reason we couldn’t sit down and instead stood in an area that had the expectancy of a hallway. We were waiting for something, either a bed or for morning. Was this dream as simple as feeling someone’s absence or was it a feeling of flitting from place to place, looking forward to moving somewhere called “home”.
On our last day we packed up the car and I left the room I’d been staying in for the week. Jacob had left several days before me and it had felt quiet and empty for a day or two but then I resettled into what was my room and allowed it be mine, organising my belongings into various piles and napping happily before dinner. I assembled the paper materials that had made their way into my hands, bag and room: museum and art gallery tickets, snippets of writing, ideas and diary entries and ferry stumps from Fusina to the Fondamenta Zattere Ai Gesuati, the landing stage that welcomes visitors to the Dorsoduro. This area is one of the six sestieri of Venice. Uno sestiere is a sixth of something but the word is used to refer to Venice’s neighbourhoods, comparable to Paris’ arrondissements, districts which we have literally rounded (arrondir) into being.
As we arrived in Dolo, a large labrador was scooting amongst the wheels and our new landlord called out, amused, “don’t worry, he likes playing with cars, he’s fine”. We parked up and were welcomed into the house and offered coffee, a history lesson of the villa and a tour of the buildings. Though Gongo appears friendly with his sandy bottom and drool-encrusted mouth, we were informed that during his residency at the villa he had successfully taken out several neighbouring pets and many birds.
That evening we sat in the garden and enjoyed mum’s Italian inspired cooking. Gongo was at our feet, wagging his tail, slobbering on our forearms that were just the right height for his happy face. “Gongo is it?”, asked one of the writers whilst trying to get him to sit down and behave. Although she’d aimed these words at us, it could have been a direct question to Gongo himself. “Yes. It is I, Gongo”, said one from our group bringing us to a lovely laughter that added to candle and starlit homeliness. As we came and went over the next few days, Gongo was there, our new guardian doge. Friendly as can be to us, he placed himself on our front door steps and lay there peacefully.
I’m not too sure what brought me to this decision but the next day, I decided to try the university one last time. I rang up the student office and reeled off my speech. She asked me to call back later. I spent the day with mum and Nicole in the medieval town of Asolo, my eyes almost unable to stray from my phone. Occasionally I looked up at where mum was pointing to listen to the history or watch her conversation with a passerby. I wanted to be there but my mind was in Marburg. I rang back without large optimism. “Can you come into the applications office tomorrow?”, she asked. “And you’ll need to bring your Bachelor certificate and all the necessary documents with you”. It wasn’t until she told me I could already transfer the first semester’s fees that I believed that this might work out after all. “How soon can you come into the office?”, she asked again. Stood in the entrance hall of Villa Emo, seeing my mum and Nicole in the garden, it dawned on me that I’d be leaving this beautiful place pretty soon.
I couldn’t believe this turn around of events. A week ago I’d given up on the idea of going to university and had applied to all sorts of jobs (and received some prompt rejections). The week before that I’d had an email from the Berlin office saying that my application had been approved and sent on to Marburg. And this week, at the Writer’s Retreat, I was trying to keep it together whilst asking myself every minute what I should do and what I want to do, trying to enjoy being here and to not stare out into the lagoon in existential angst but seeing it as a deep body of opportunities. As I sat on our last night in Mira in our writing group, I heard the classical music in the background particularly clearly and saw colour everywhere. At the start of the week I didn’t notice the colour but now it’s everywhere.
I woke up this morning early in Jacob’s bed. It’s odd that he’s not here but I enjoyed the stillness of the morning and sipped my coffee cosily on his bed wrapped in blankets. The temperature change between here and Italy is sharper than I would’ve thought. I had two hours until the applications office would open so put on my running kit and sped off down the cold morning cobbled streets towards the Lahn. I relished the cool air that woke me up, rendering me alert and ready for the day, a clear sign that autumn is at the front door and change is on its way.