I remember my first trip abroad in the summer of 1984, between my junior and senior year of college. I bought airmail stationery and stamps and mailed off a reservation request months ahead of time for a place to stay when I landed. (I have no idea how I found the guest house I made the request of. Probably the library.) Or you could just arrive, walk around, find a hotel or bed and breakfast you liked and stay. Now of course it’s all via the internet, and lots of Airbnbs.
Damn. 100 Airbnb apartments in the 10 years (!) since I retired and we became long-term travelers. A lot has changed since then. It has gone from individuals renting out their place when they’re not there, to corporate entities buying up apartments, furnishing them with Ikea crap and renting them out nightly, to the detriment of locals. It has changed entire city centers. Just ask Lisbon or Barcelona. I try not to rent these Ikea boxes, but it’s not always to easy to spot them. They are often distinguished only by their soullessness.
But as much as I decry and complain about the impact Airbnb has had on cities (and I support its regulation), I guiltily admit we couldn’t do what we do without them, that is long-ish term apartment stays around the world. Or at least we couldn’t do it as easily. Plug in your dates, look at reviews, check out the pictures. Bam. Done. No shoe leather required. We sometimes stay in hotels, but the hotel industry has missed a big market niche that Airbnb has filled, that of the slower traveler. Or really just any traveler who doesn’t want to eat every meal in a restaurant or work from a bed.
You have to read between the lines with the reviews. Most people hate to leave a bad review, especially if the host gave them a welcome gift. It’s human nature. So I look out for the damning-with-faint-praise reviews. I’m on team guest when it comes to writing them. I write what I want to know about: how’s the noise, the bed, the kitchen? What was good, and what was bad? C’mon previous guests, tell me! Don’t just say it was fine.
The majority of places we’ve had have been good, some quite good. And when we get one we don’t like, at least it’s temporary. We’ve only left one or two early. But for the most part, bad just means not to our liking. We have a phrase for that: it’s what’s for apartment. Like when we get a meal we’re not crazy about: it’s what’s for food. Not that we don’t have preferences, but we don’t get bent out of shape when we don’t get them. It’s not a commitment, it’s just what’s for right now. Sometimes the whole thing is going blooey and we have to say it’s what’s for travel. Chalk it up to experience and move on. Literally.
Our first apartment was in Bologna, 2011. At that time, there were 4 Airbnbs in town to choose from, now there are hundreds. It was a garden apartment, belonging to the son of our host, who traveled for work. It was in fact a half-underground basement, complete with a stone vaulted ceiling. There were plexiglass panels in the floor displaying the roman ruins found during renovation. It was deeply quiet and had the very pleasant quality of being warm when it was cold out and cool when it was hot.
Among the good (the very, very good!) was our apartment in Rovinj, Croatia. We had the apartment across the hall from our hosts. The wife was a chef, the husband ran a small farm. During our 2 week stay we would come home to baked treats, fresh veggies, and sometimes even entire dinners left for us on the little table in the hallway. Our hosts cleaned the apartment halfway through our visit and decorated it for Easter. When we left, they gave us bottles of their homemade wine that we drank at our next stop, Zagreb. (Thankfully we had a car and weren’t schlepping to the train that time.) It was fantastic.
Pre-covid, we would book a room in someone’s place if we were only staying a short while. I think that’s more true to the spirit of the original idea of Airbnb, or at least to the image they would like to present, that of connecting people. In Valencia, we stayed in a large 4 bedroom apartment when we were traveling with my sister. Our hosts were empty-nesters who made extra money by being a host family to a local language school, renting out the kids’ old bedrooms to travelers if they weren’t taken by students. There was the three of us and a Swiss woman. Our hosts didn’t speak English. The husband spoke only Spanish, the wife spoke Valenciano, Catalan, Spanish, and some French. We had a grand time. She told us stories from her family about the Spanish civil war and its aftermath, not to mention the still ongoing effects of the Franco regime. It remains one of my fondest travel memories.
The bad: the truly bad are few and far between, but the worst was our apartment in Lille. The bedroom was on the north side of the apartment and the windows were old. The glass and the walls around it were damp. I had caught a cold before we arrived, and I wasn’t getting better. In fact, I was getting worse. So much so that Mark slept on the pull-out couch because of my coughing. One day I decided to pull the headboard away from the wall and discovered the wall was moldy. Yuck. Cleaned that up. Then I looked under the bed. Covering entire underside of the mattress was a thick layer of mold. That was an apartment we left. Indeed we left the whole rainy region, changing plans abruptly to get ourselves to sunny Provence.
And the ugly: oh good lord, the apartment in Kyoto! We arrived late at night, tired from our flight from Cambodia. Found the apartment, upstairs from a laundromat. We walked in and choked. How did we not notice from the pictures that we would be staying in a 1980’s office cubicle? Suspended ceiling, big fluorescent lights, beige nubby fabric everywhere. The water-cooler area was adapted into the tiniest kitchen you’ve ever seen. The bathroom was a plastic insert with a little bathtub that you filled by swiveling the sink faucet off to the side. We forgot about our disappointment the next day when we went out to take a look at the neighborhood and realized we were right around the corner from one of the most beautiful and historic streets in the city, Hanamikoji. Surprise!
We’re leaving our what’s-for-apartment apartment here in Nice shortly, off to Italy for a while. Looking forward to the next 100!
Cheers until next time,