This article was originally published on VICE Netherlands.
I was pretty disappointed when Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte announced that working from home would continue beyond September.
For me, this meant many more months of being forced to listen to my roommate’s favourite YouTubers and my neighbour using every power tool he owns. Many more months with this view:
I never thought I’d say this, but here it goes: I miss the office. There’s nothing like working in a place that’s actually designed for work. Or being surrounded by others who are also working, or at least seem to be.
But working from home does have an advantage I hadn’t explored up until recently: you technically don’t have to do it from your actual home. For one week, I searched for the best places to work beyond my cursed walls.
Here are the highlights:
A quick Google brought me to Kay and Esther, who have ditched office life for the road. They met while working at the same marketing agency in Amsterdam, fell in love and, in 2018, decided to quit the 9 to 5 and embrace #VanLife. They explored New Zealand for six months – in a hired van – and recently returned from the Swiss Alps.
For now, their van is temporarily parked in Esther’s parents’ driveway in Assen, northeast Netherlands, while they’re staying in the house. To them, this feels like a holiday. “Living on the road, always being on the move, it’s definitely stressful,” said Esther. “You get to see the most beautiful places on Earth, and I wouldn’t want to miss out on any of it. But it’s not a holiday. It really is a lifestyle.”
They discovered early on that a comfortable van is a must. “By now, we’ve created a good working space. We levelled the table so we can sit up straight and there is enough power,” Esther explained. They’ve also added the luxury of air conditioning.
Having a sense of structure is also important. The pair work from their van five days a week, from nine to four with a one-hour break. They update their blog, do some freelance marketing and create manuals for building your own caravan. “When work is finished, you close your laptop and go enjoy the mountains. That’s the great thing about living in a van. You can choose the view from your window,” Kay said.
Unfortunately, right now that view consists of a brick wall in a suburb of Assen – and despite Kay and Esther claiming they’re both great co-workers, I’m currently not allowed to share a space with them due to the pandemic. With that in mind, I spend the next few hours typing away by myself. I can’t say the view is an upgrade from home, but ergonomically speaking my situation has improved. After sitting on my old, wobbly kitchen chairs for months, van life is surprisingly comfortable.
THE LUXURY HOTEL
The van was nice, but if I can truly work from anywhere, I’d rather somewhere a little more upmarket. Amsterdam’s famous Amstel Hotel also provides a great view, but here, you can enjoy it from a gorgeous room with lush green carpeting.
The only issue is the abundance of tableware: a sugar and milk-set, napkins with a silver ring around them, a small candle in a porcelain holder, pink flowers in a tiny vase. There’s so much stuff on the table, there’s barely any room left for my laptop. In short: things could be worse, and minor annoyances are easily smoothed over by the free butter cookie served with every cup of drip coffee (at €5 apiece) and the delightful easy-listening jazz in the background.
Everyone here seems to be having an equally good time. The couple next to me round out their lunch with champagne and a macaron tower. An older gentleman in a turtleneck is being fed by his wife (or mistress), and a group of women dial up the volume after each consecutive glass of wine.
The longer I stay, the more I feel my laptop and I are sucking the fun out of the room. My typing sounds like a passive aggressive counter-soundtrack to the laughter and clinking of glasses. It’s like I’ve been planted here to remind guests of the real world, where people have to work during the day. I don’t want to be that asshole. As I pack up after my third cup of coffee, my heart breaks a little.
I end up somewhere only goths and doggers have fun: a cemetery. The dead certainly make for quiet co-workers, plus it smells like pine trees and I’m surrounded by squirrels and butterflies. Like computer monitors in an office, the neat rows of headstones provide a sense of calm. Mourners walk past me as I sit alone on a bench. I’m in the perfect mood to write, but suddenly feel bad about opening my laptop. Here, the sound of my typing wouldn’t ruin anyone’s party, but it would definitely disturb the silence.
So, instead, I fire off a few emails, all tinged with melancholy, until my sense of focus is disturbed by someone across the street mowing their lawn. Almost simultaneously, the ringtone alerting people of visiting hours blasts across the grounds. Even among the dead, silence is elusive.
THE IKEA SHOWROOM
The office section of IKEA’s showroom is the perfect work environment. There’s a power board for my laptop charger, the Järvfjället office chair is ergonomic perfection and the Bekånt room divider enables me to pound the keyboard in relative privacy.
The endless stream of customers passing by gives me a comforting feeling of normalcy: people are still livening up their living quarters with new furniture. It’s like having a front row seat at the revival of our economy. A woman bends over my desk while talking to someone on the phone. “It looks good, and you can adjust the height!” she says of my setup.
She’s right! It is a good desk. Her positivity works wonders on me, as does the motivational slogan right above my head: “Let’s talk business, we’re here for you!”
Before I know it, more than an hour has passed and I’ve written half a story. I wonder what I should tell people when they ask me what I’m doing here. If I answer “I work here” they might rope me into helping them pick a cupboard. But saying “I don’t work here” would be a lie. These are the challenges of life as a digital nomad. Luckily, nobody asks me anything and it’s ultimately the rumbling of my stomach that propels me to the IKEA restaurant.
Waiting in line for food, it’s lunch hour at the office all over again. Ahead of me, three guys in their fifties are laughing about the daily special: chicken balls. Bad jokes – I’ve missed those, too.