essay: Decoding Your Airbnb: Adventures in Voyeurism

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He met me at the door holding a glass of wine. “Welcome,” he said. “You’re shorter than I thought you’d be.”

I didn’t understand how my height was relevant, but in truth, his appearance was not what I’d been expecting either. He bore a striking resemblance to Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” — large, shiny bald head, and wearing a black caftan that looked ecclesiastical. When I turned down his offer of a drink, he nodded sympathetically and, making an erroneous assumption, said, “I have a lot of friends in A.A.”

To be clear, this was not a meeting arranged through a dating app or website. I’d booked accommodations in a seaside town north of Boston through Airbnb, that chaste distant cousin of Match.com. It was 2009, only one year after the website launched and started a revolution of sorts — in the world of vacation travel and, in many ways, in my own life and writing career.

It was the first time I’d used Airbnb and at that point, I hadn’t yet learned how to decode photos and read between the lines of text. This place had been described as “unique and tranquil” with “romantic lighting” and a “dark, cozy atmosphere.” That was all true in a sense, but not in the sense I’d imagined when I read the listing. The bedroom had no windows, the carpeting was not only wall-to-wall but also floor-to ceiling, and the bathroom was separated from the living room by a set of sliding glass patio doors. My nose had been rendered useless by a sinus infection, but when two friends came to visit, they asked, “What’s that smell?” as soon as they walked in.

None of these disappointments mattered. Within moments of meeting my host, I was in love. Not with him, not with his eccentric and shadowy accommodations, but with the opportunity to step outside of my own life and, for less than the price of a motel room, step into someone else’s in a seamless way. I was hooked.

I’ve always been ambivalent about travel. This was true when I was a student living in France for a year and spent more time exploring Europe and North Africa than I spent in lecture halls. It was even true in my 20s when I worked for a few years as a travel agent and took full advantage of the steep discounts then offered to visit South America, the Middle East and — among many other places and for reasons I’ve now forgotten — Dallas. In this early career path, I sometimes found myself subtly trying to talk people out of taking far-flung journeys, a fact that partly explains why I didn’t last too long.

Yes, I like seeing new places and meeting people and having experiences I wouldn’t have at home. But I hate the feeling of being a displaced person in the world of a region’s residents. This hasn’t prevented me from traveling, but it’s made me reluctant to do so. In theory, there’s something exciting about the anonymity of hotel rooms (you can be anyone you want!) but I usually find the generic nature of even the nicest hotel décor depressing. I feel alienated enough in my own surroundings, never mind in a room that’s meant for everyone in general and no one in particular.

Discovering the concept of short-term rentals in houses, apartments, and rooms with “romantic lighting” meant for very specific people with individual taste solved many of my problems with travel-induced anomie. It doesn’t always matter if the aesthetics of my host are ones I find pleasing. When the Brando-esque gentleman in that first rental asked what I thought of the peculiar, three-dimensional artwork (eyeballs floating in oatmeal?) on the carpeted walls, I sensed a trap and praised their originality. “That was when I was doing a lot of acid,” he explained.

From then on, short-term rentals have become my preferred way to travel — in Florida, California, Canada, and Europe. The problem of alienation in a place where accents, habits, and languages are different than my own is ameliorated by renting a room in a resident’s house, sharing their kitchen and sometimes even their bathroom — although I confess I usually avoid these more intimate arrangements. It’s easy to feel like you belong in Montreal when you’re sharing the cupboards of a fifth-generation Québécois.

There are professional advantages, too.

As a writer, I find blank spaces are as distracting and uninspiring as the walls of my own study, a quiet, sunny room in which I have never been able to write more than an email. I need the visual excitement of the new and unexpected. Sometimes of the ugly. (Floating eyeballs.)

Décor is only the most superficial layer of what I find motivating about staying in Airbnbs and short-term rentals in general. The other is, of course, moving into a stranger’s domestic life — conflicts with children, marital complications, and (a common theme) financial woes. As a fiction writer, my livelihood depends, in part, upon an impartial, nonjudgmental form of voyeurism, and people never reveal themselves with as much unguarded honesty as they do in their own surroundings. Over the years, I’ve been privy to several stories of affairs, two confessions of bisexuality, and many complaints about aberrant teenage behavior described in surprising detail. Several of these have wormed their way — in altered form — into my fiction.

A lot has changed in the past 10 years of Airbnb and not all of it has been positive. On a broad scale, the site’s growing influence has worked to undermine neighborhoods in cities around the world, driving up rents in tourist areas and gentrifying neighborhoods. In some cases, low-income residents have been displaced. Long-term occupants of a building can be inconvenienced by the comings and goings of short-term tenants who are sometimes less respectful about noise and less invested in the upkeep of common spaces. A 2016 report by Harvard professors showed that people with traditionally African-American names had a more difficult time renting through Airbnb, and the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack was established. (The company has been working with the NAACP to address these issues.) An increasing number of laws regulate or prohibit Airbnb’s presence in cities from Paris to San Francisco.

To the benefit of Airbnb hosts, cameras have become more sophisticated along with the awareness of what looks good online. It’s wise to remember that the smaller a room is in reality, the larger it’s photographed to appear. Conversely, rambling, uncozy rooms are usually shot to appear more snug. Pictures that reveal little more than a single chair, a coffee maker, or (in one case) the hangers in the closet, should be taken as red flags. (What aren’t they showing?)

Also wise to be aware that there are messages hidden in even the most detailed descriptions. I knew something was up in the garden apartment of what was described as “the home of an active, artistic family” and thus wasn’t completely shocked to find out I’d be living in the basement, of what sounded like a children’s dance studio. The page for a cottage I rented in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles emphasized, in more than one sentence, that although I’d have the entire place to myself, the host would be “nearby and always available for help or suggestions.” This turned out to mean he was temporarily displaced to a cot in the cottage’s unfinished basement, something between a man cave and a crawl space. On the third day of my stay, I came home from a walk and found the host in the living room of the cottage, reading a magazine. “I’m doing a load of laundry,” he explained. “Please, have a seat.” Nearby indeed.

Among the many changes that have taken place since 2009 has been an increase in prices and fees. It still can be a relatively economical way to travel, but when you spend as much time as I do in temporary lodgings (I estimate that in 2016, I spent approximately four months writing in short-term rentals, and close to three in 2017) it begins to add up. Faced with the possibility of having to curtail my adventures in voyeurism, I saw only one solution: fund living in the rooms of strangers by renting out my own. This did not happen overnight, but I now have several properties I rent short-term when needed. They’re all small and each was furnished largely with items purchased at garage sales and consignment shops. They were carefully photographed, and the descriptions include the words “cozy,” “romantic” and “tranquil” multiple times. I leave the decoding to you.

Stephen McCauley is the author of seven novels including “The Object of My Affection” and, most recently, “My Ex-Life.” He is the co-director of Creative Writing at Brandeis University.

Original Article

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