Sometimes you just have to write…
We looked into renting an RV for this vacation. And we looked into hotels and bed & breakfasts. Given that we recently bought a house, those options were all too expensive. So we arranged most of our accommodations through airbnb.
(When I say “we,” by the way, I really mean “I.” My husband isn’t much for planning a vacation. He’d rather just take off and find places to stay as we go along. I’m too much of a worrier for that, so I go ahead and plan.)
Airbnb, it seems to me, is a step up from couchsurfing (free, but you may literally be sleeping on a couch) but a step down from a real bed & breakfast (ends up pricey because you have to eat out at restaurants). I think that the original idea was for people to offer the extra rooms in their houses as unofficial, amateur bed & breakfasts. But if you look at their site, you’ll see it’s expanded a lot from that original idea.
So as I explored their offerings, I noticed that many people were offering whole apartments or houses for rent, and the prices were often distinctly less than, for example, hiring a caravan in a campground. And since we could save money by cooking our dinners rather than eating in restaurants every night, it made sense to me.
So that’s what I did. We’re now on our second airbnb booking this trip, in a very small house in Normandy.
What makes this feel different than just renting what they call a “self-catering” house or apartment, is that it isn’t empty. A self-catering place has the necessary furniture, and minimal decoration. The fridge is empty, as are all the cabinets and drawers except for a basic set of dishes and cooking utensils.
The house we’re in now and the one we rented in Gent are both someone’s home. In both cases, we never met the people who live there. All communication has been by e-mail or text.
It’s strange to stay in the home of people you don’t know, surrounded by their possessions. The one in Gent had some fascinating and artistic photos on the walls. This one has a mish-mash of assorted odd objects. It gives an impression of the absent person that may have no relation to who that person actually is.
What I can guess about the people in the Gent house (if more than one person lives there, which I don’t even know) is that they are very open with each other. I say that because the bathroom is open plan, just like the rest of the house. Anyone walking by in the hall on the way between the second floor and the first floor would have a full view of a person who happened to be sitting on the toilet or lying in the bathtub at that moment. There’s not even a window between; it’s a cut-out wall.
What I can guess about the woman who lives here, I think, is that she must be quite short. It’s a tiny place, and while the downstairs has normal ceilings, the upstairs has been carved out of what must have been storage space in the past. So both the bedrooms and the bathroom have slanted ceilings. That means, in the bathroom, that my son and husband have to sit to pee because there isn’t enough head room for them to pee standing. The shower is a hand shower and there isn’t room to stand under it anyway, so we have to sit or kneel to bathe. And in the bedroom I have to be very careful not to bump my head when I get out of bed. I’ve nevertheless bumped my head on the doorway several times.
And then this sort of rental raises the question of etiquette. What are we allowed to use and what aren’t we? In both places towels were left out for us to use and the beds were made. Both descriptions on the website included use of the kitchens and washing machines. Does that mean we can use the laundry detergent? Can we use the dishwashing liquid? What about spices? Shampoo and soap?
All of this woman’s belongings are here. We’re trying not to invade her privacy, though, and we haven’t gone peeking into cupboards, except in the kitchens. Well, I’m not. I can’t guarantee my husband or the kids aren’t. It’s so incredibly trusting to let strangers into your house this way. I don’t think I’d ever do it, though we do get a housesitter when we go away, to water plants and pick up the mail from the mat. The difference, of course, is that we know the housesitter, or we know his or her references.
Speaking of trust, I broke this woman’s teapot yesterday. I’m planning to leave some money with a note saying that she should let me know if a replacement costs more. But again, I don’t know what the etiquette is.
We’re also not sure what level of cleanliness it needs before we leave. Normally, when you rent a place, you just leave it afterwards, and the owner is responsible for cleaning it up. But this feels more personal, as if we’re guests rather than renters. Should we vacuum? Should we put the sheets in the washer?
This house comes with a pair of cats as well. A neighbor is feeding them, but they seem to have happily accepted us as their new pets, and don’t seem to mind our presence at all. One of them came in the other morning and climbed into bed with my niece to have a snooze. And one is purring on my son’s lap this very minute. Fickle beasts!
Despite all of these questions, it’s been great staying in a “real” house in a “real” neighborhood rather than in a tourist ghetto. And the prices are distinctly lower.
Would I do it again? Definitely. But more for the prices than for the fact that it’s a real home. That raises too many questions for me.