Learning About Me

Ejo #89 – Airbnb & Me

David and I stayed in our first ever Airbnb apartment in San Francisco in May 2011. Since then we have stayed in 59 houses, apartments, cottages, studios, pool-houses, a houseboat, a palazzo and even a converted hospital.

Pool-house

The pool-house we stayed at in Adelaide on our most recent trip to Australia.  We had free run of the pool which was nice coz it was HOT!!!!

Palazzo

A palazzo.  In Barcelona!!!!!

It’s no exaggeration to say that we love Airbnb. But I’m not here to sell it to you – I know it’s not for everyone. One of my closest friends loves staying in five-star hotels and there’s no way I can convince her that staying in someone else’s pad could be better than 24 hour room service, someone making your bed every day and fresh towels on demand. So, this ejo is for people who may have heard a little about Airbnb and are interested in trying it but would like to know more before they commit.

Our experiences have, for the most part, been excellent*. One or two have been mediocre. And one was absolutely awful, but more on that later. Each and every one of the dozens of Airbnb dwellings we’ve stayed in has been a learning experience, and over the years I’ve got better and better at picking the right place. And I’d love to impart some of that knowledge onto you.

This isn’t a tutorial. I’m not here to tell anyone how to suck eggs. The website is very easy to navigate. You put in your desired city, your dates and your budget and voilà, you get to delve into the lives of people willing to open their homes to you, allowing you sleep in their bed, eat the food from their fridge and shit in their toilet. Oh, it’s intimate, folks. Before you gasp in horror and refuse to read any further, you should note that these days most places get professionally cleaned, before and after your stay. Of course you pay for the convenience but it is nice to know that the toilet has at least been scrubbed before you sit down on it for the first time.

And that leads me to my number #1 rule when making a selection. Cleanliness. If a listing has even ONE review saying anything negative about cleanliness, I nix it, right then and there. Even if it looks like my dream rental. I used to be a little more relaxed about this, giving hosts the benefit of the doubt if I read an iffy review, but then I got burned. So it’s become a very firm rule. Unfortunately, the only way to know if someone’s had anything bad to say about a listing is to read the reviews. All of them.

Unlike on TripAdvisor, the Airbnb host also gets to appraise you as a guest in return. And they can also comment on your review. Because of this, reviews on the website tend to be a little on the, shall we say, diplomatic side. Which is exactly why you need to pay attention to any negative ones. Someone is trying to tell you something, and sometimes that hint can be subtle, so it behooves you to read the reviews carefully.

OK, so not everyone has the time to read pages of reviews. If you find yourself stuck for time you can still get an idea of what previous guests thought of the state of cleanliness of a listing just by looking at the star ratings (though of course, it’s not as accurate). If either the cleanliness rating or the overall rating are lower than four, I move on. So should you.

Ejo 1

I don’t think we’ve ever stayed anywhere with less than a 4.5 overall rating. 

 

Something else I look for in a listing is the response rate and time of the host. I like to see a 100% response rate and “within a few hours” response time. I will persist if these are just a little bit off the mark, but I don’t even bother with hosts that respond only 34% of the time or “within a week”. I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to sit around waiting for some faffer to get back to me – or leave me hanging in the wind.

I also look for these auto-posts in the review section. So ominous.

Ejo 2

This has never happened to us before – because we stay away from hosts that cancel a lot. 

 

Even more ominous:

Ejo 3

Shudder.  I just can’t even with this.

 

Can you imagine booking a very special place to stay for your honeymoon, and then finding out when you arrive at the airport that you’re homeless??!! Of course sometimes there’s a very good reason for a reservation to be cancelled, and hosts are now able to leave a comment explaining why they did so. So one or two cancellations are fine, but if you see too many in a single listing, think twice before booking.

Let’s move onto photos. There are a lot of things to look for in the photos. Firstly don’t be fooled by the Airbnb photographer’s wide-angle lens and over exposure. They can make a couch that is this wide:

Ejo 4

 

look this wide:

Ejo 5

Same room!!!!  Look how wide the couch (and the map of Australia) looks in comparison to above.  Very deceptive. 

 

So, it can be a little misleading. I like to look at all the pictures, and then try to reconstruct the layout of the apartment in my mind, before looking at them again. You can usually get a better sense of scale that way. I tend to be drawn to the places that have had verified photos taken by Airbnb’s photographer. It shows the host’s professionalism and commitment to providing great accommodation. And I can usually tell from the cover photo if a listing is worth clicking on to inspect further. If I see a picture like this:

Ejo 6

C’mon, why is that cabinet door open??

 

or this:

Ejo 7

Where am I going to put my shit???

 

or this:

Ejo 8

I hate when a host leaves ALL their toiletries in the bathroom.  And WHY is the toilet seat up?  

I steer clear. It shows a lack of engagement, and if the host can’t even go to the trouble of tidying up and taking a nice photo of their place, it doesn’t bode well. Some better examples (of places we’ve actually stayed):

Ejo 6a

What a beautiful living room.  An apartment in Madrid. 

Ejo 7a

Look at all that space – and none of the host’s personal belongings.  An apartment in Amsterdam. 

Ejo 8a

No clutter.  Room for me to spread out.  A bathroom in London. 

Also, I like to see at least one photo of each of the main rooms. The living/dining area, the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom. If any of these are missing it raises alarm bells and I move on. No point lingering – there are SO many other options out there. For instance, I have NO idea what this place really looks like. It might be super nice, but I’m never going to find out.

Finally, be wary of close-up images. These tend to mask a problem with the bigger picture – otherwise there’d be a photo of the bigger picture, right? I learned this on a trip to Copenhagen when failed to properly inspect this photo:

Ejo 9

 

Unfortunately the only way to get to the shower was to climb over the toilet (ew!). And you can’t really tell that from the photo. Rookie mistake. Don’t make it.

So, it’s time to hear about our one crappy Airbnb experience? OK, so here’s how it went down. Airbnb #21. Hackney, London. April, 2014. We checked into the place and I immediately felt that it hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I honestly don’t mind if there’s a little dust here and there. It happens. But we had paid £40 for cleaning, and that gives you some expectations. The couches were absolutely covered in dog hair and when I tried to brush it off with my hand, plumes of dust rose up. Now, I am not a fussy person, but there was no way I was sitting on those couches. So, I set about cleaning the place. I intended to do a quick sweep and dust, thinking that would be sufficient.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a broom and dustpan so we had to walk to the local store to buy one. Yep. Also, it turned out that the problem was more extensive than I first thought and it took me over two hours to clean it to a level where I felt comfortable to sit down on the couch and walk around barefoot. Oh yeah, and to add insult to injury, when we opened the fridge there was a plastic container full of mouldy mushrooms that made the whole place stink.

Ejo 10

Here’s the dirt I collected in just this small area.  The whole house was as filthy.

I kicked myself as I swept and dusted because I remembered stupidly ignoring the warnings of a couple of reviewers, one of which had mentioned that the place “needed a bit of a hoover”. The other one was from a woman who had said that there was dog hair throughout the house. But the real clue that I glossed over when I made the reservation was the host’s response to that woman. He attacked her personally, calling her “bizarre” and claiming that she was being unpleasant towards him because he’s gay. He insisted that other hosts not “deal with this person”.

Unfortunately for me, after our trip was over, he did almost the exact same thing to me. I left him a pretty nice review, considering the state the house was in. And in “private” feedback to him I made the comment “I’m not OCD, but I like a clean house.”

Here’s the review he left for me.

Chryss, in your extensive private feedback you sent me you mentioned OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Perhaps this is something you should explore with a professional. Sadly, I cannot say you would be welcome in my home again, at least not until you’ve addressed your OCD.

This really, really hurt me. I had 20 amazing Airbnb reviews under my belt and it just stung to know that there would be an incorrect, but public, record of me being a shitty guest. Potential hosts might see it and decide it’d be too risky to let me to stay in their homes. My reputation in the Airbnb community was tarnished and I was pretty devastated about that. I remember posting a woeful status about it on Facebook and being inspired by some of the comments to actually write to Airbnb and ask them to delete the nasty review. I knew they had a policy of not doing this, but figured it would be worth trying because the comments made could actually be deemed libellous. This was the response I got from them:

Airbnb

 

Amazing. It made me love Airbnb even more than I already did. And we went on to have another 38 wonderful experiences. I know we’ll have many, many more and I hope that you do too.

* One was particularly excellent. We loved our 41st apartment, an Amsterdam pad, so much that we asked the owner if she was interested in selling it. The answer, sadly, was no.

Ejo #88 – My Diary: Who’s The Boss?

Day #1
I’m not drinking for 25 days.

Huh?  Well, the Department of Health in the UK has recently decreased the recommended daily intake of alcohol, and as air traffic controllers we are subject to these guidelines. I recently had my annual medical examination for work, and it turns out that I should probably reduce the amount I drink. What better way to do that than to go cold turkey? So far today I’ve only felt an eensy weensy yen for wine. Nothing major. More out of habit than anything else, I think.

Day #2
Today I woke up feeling sluggish, stiff and swollen. Exactly like a hangover. What the hell? After getting out of bed though, I felt a lot better and I’m hoping it was just a vestige of the last few days of drinking. I’m actually committed to doing this, which is a new thing for me. I usually say to myself, “OK, I’m not going to drink today”, and then halfway through the day I’m gagging for a gin and tonic. What feels different this time is my attitude. I’ve decided. Like a switch has flicked in my mind, and it ain’t no thang. Of course it’s only the third day, so let’s talk on Day 18 and see how I feel.

Day #3
I’m wondering when the morning clarity and freshness is going to come, because today I woke up bloated and groggy again. What gives?? Is this detoxing? Is my body getting rid of all the shit from processing alcohol in my liver? Let’s go with that. Hopefully I’ll be bounding out of bed in no time.

Day #4
Today I had a pang, just a tiny little pang, for wine. Out of nowhere. It disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared, but it definitely stood out, as it’s the first time a craving has shown its face since going on this crazy journey (oh yeah, I’m living on the edge with my 25 day booze challenge!!!).

I feel good. I feel clear. I actually think that sometimes I drink to make myself more interesting (if only to myself) but it’s nice to see that I’m pretty much the same and don’t need alcohol to feel good. I still write silly emails, laugh like an idiot at funny videos on YouTube and jump up to dance when a good song comes on. I’m still enjoying life, sober. And that is pretty great.

Day #5
The end of day five and just as I suspected, being sober on a day off work was hard. There were several times throughout the day when I could have killed a glass of crisp rosé. And I know that David felt the same way. Extra kudos to him because he never actually signed up for this and he’s coming along for the ride anyway. Maybe to be supportive, maybe because he knows it’s probably good for him too. Either way, I appreciate the hell out of it.

Day #6
Well, this is really sucking right now. There are so many reasons I drink – to relieve boredom, to reward myself, to inspire creativity, to relax. And suddenly my outlet for all that jazz is gone and I have to find something else to fill all those little holes. So far I’m having trouble finding a suitable substitute.

I can’t be bothered cooking dinner.

Day #7
So, last night we ordered Indian for dinner, but what I realised is that ordering takeaway (especially when I’m supposedly trying to be healthy) is a substitute for drinking.

Mind. Blown!!

I’m just finding it a little boring not drinking right now. But, I need to get over that and recalibrate my boredom meter. That’s what this whole challenge is about.  It’s been a whole week, and I’ve noticed rather amazing changes. I’ve always had oily skin, but lately it’s been some serious Deepwater Horizon shit. Seven days later, this has improved noticeably. I’m also sleeping a bazillion times better. And not waking up in the night as often. Getting up in the morning is still harder than I’d hoped it would be but the quality of sleep I’m getting is markedly better. Which is pretty awesome.

These things keep me motivated.

Day #8
It’s getting easier. New habits are forming – old habits are breaking. I’ve read that a habit takes 21 days to catch. To become automatic and natural. I’m already feeling something changing in my brain. I’ve never been physically dependent on alcohol – and if I was I would give it up completely. But I definitely have an emotional attachment to it. And it is this attachment that I feel softening, cracking, melting away. Huzzah.

Day #9
Uh, so why am I putting on weight? I mean, come on. Normally, if I skip the booze for a couple of days I see a drastic reduction on the scales. But no, in the last nine days I’ve actually gained weight. Sure it’s only 200g but… what the fuck? I don’t get it. I was really hoping to see some weight loss. Having said that, my clothes are definitely fitting a little bit better, so I guess something is going on. I just have to persevere.

Day #10
Today I was nostalgic. For some reason pear juice popped into my head, and I remembered this amazing organic pear juice we once bought in Amsterdam. We brought it back to Dubai, and made incredible cocktails with it. Good times. These thoughts differ from the ones I had a week ago, when I was craving booze. Today, it crossed my mind, pleasantly, and then faded away with no real urge to follow up on it. Progress.

Day #11
Today I woke up feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. It’s frustrating because I’d always imagined that a long stretch without alcohol would be some kind of panacea for my health.  So why aren’t I waking up feeling good?

I am definitely noticing improvements though.  My days are just better. I feel sharper, and more engaged. Which is a really nice feeling. I’m starting to have little mini-fantasies of continuing with this booze challenge once the 25 days are up. Today I even (just for a second) had a fleeting thought: maybe I’ll never drink again!!!!! It was summarily dismissed, but it actually felt like a plausible option. This would not have been the case 12 days ago.

Day #12
Another day down. It’s getting easier and easier. I feel like the habit’s back has been broken. Tonight, at 10.30pm I kind of wanted a nightcap to unwind after a long day at work. But this was less a physical urge than a mental one. The physical urges have essentially disappeared, but I guess the mental ones might take a bit longer to tame. We have another 13 days.

Day #13
Being teetotal is a completely different mindset. It kind of simplifies life, and makes a lot of things easier.

Day #14
We are nearly halfway through. How do I feel? Fucking great. When we first started not drinking I thought I would miss it every single day, all day long. But that’s not the case. I honestly thought my life would be taupe without booze, but it’s just as colourful, if not more so.

Day #15
I’ve been toying with the idea of giving up alcohol for a while. I don’t think I have a drinking problem, but I do like the idea of being completely in control. And then, out of the blue, a friend declared on Facebook that she was giving up booze for a whole year (shout out to Nancy). Twenty five days seemed easy in comparison. It was perfect timing.

Day #16
As part of our job, David and I are subject to random drug and alcohol testing. So this isn’t just a health-kick for us, it’s something we need to do in order to ensure we keep our jobs. This is serious stuff.

Day #17
I thought that giving up alcohol would make my days drag, stretching out empty and bland. But in fact, they are filling up because I am being more productive. I am ticking things off my ancient to-do list like a demon. There just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that I want to do. Shit is getting done!

Day #18
I am so frustrated that I have been alcohol free for 18 days (COUNT THEM) and I have not lost a single ounce of weight. I mean come on!!! I am not eating any differently, in fact I’m eating better. I am active. I’m getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of water. I’m really bloody pissed off about this.

Day #19
Not drinking is the norm now. I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to fight the urge anymore, because the urge is gone.

Day #20
Here’s my dilemma. I actually really enjoy drinking. I like inventing cocktails. I appreciate a fine wine. When it’s hot, I like nothing better than a cold beer to cool me down. And I actually trained myself to like whiskey (how’s that for dedication). I don’t like all booze – you couldn’t pay me to drink Jägermeister or Sambuca (blech). But for the most part, hell yeah, I like it.

What I don’t like is being really drunk. I don’t drink to excess, because I’ve been there and it’s shit. I know where my line is and I tend not to cross it. I love being in that glorious tipsy zone, and I manage my alcohol intake to ensure I stay there.

Day #21
Three weeks. The challenge is nearly over. So far I can’t say that there has been some kind of profound lesson learned or epiphany experienced. The challenge has done exactly what I’d hoped it would do, which was to break the spell that alcohol had on me and to prove that I could do it. To show alcohol who was boss.

It’s me.  I’m the boss.

Day #22
I feel so good about blitzing this challenge that I’d like to focus my newfound discipline towards other areas of my life, like diet and exercise. A lifestyle change might be in order.

Day #23
Today I had a bit of a sad spell in the afternoon, and in the past I might have been inclined to have a little glass of something – a drowning of the sorrows, if you will. I only realised afterwards, that the thought never even crossed my mind.

Two more days.

Day #24
It’s lovely, and somewhat surprising, how easy it has been to adjust to life without booze. We are fast approaching the end of this challenge and I haven’t really started to process how I feel about that.

On the one hand, I feel like I could continue not drinking. That, perhaps, I should continue not drinking. On the other hand, I’m really looking forward to a drink. On the third hand I’m a bit scared of drinking again. And on yet another hand I almost feel as though having a glass of wine will mean the undoing of all the hard work I put in to get to this point. And it will have all been for nothing. So many hands. Only one more day to figure it all out.

Day #25
Well, that’s it. The end of my no-booze challenge and I’m about to go to bed, having not allowed a single drop of alcohol to cross my lips. I have actually really enjoyed not drinking – the physical improvements to my life and also the mental improvements. It really does feel like my body and mind have had a nice little vacation in the last three and a half weeks.

It’s almost a shame to subject them to alcohol again, isn’t it?

Ejo #87 – Let’s Talk About Death, Baby

As a society, we are crippled by the concept of death.  Grief, following the death of a loved one, can be such a lonely challenge to endure – but it needn’t be.  Having the support of your friends can help to take the edge off the pain.  But they don’t teach this kind of stuff in school so sometimes, despite their best intentions, the well-meaning remarks of friends can actually make things worse.  The last thing you need to hear when you’re in the depths of despair is “You’ll be OK”.  Yes, of course you will be OK.  But at that very moment you are not.  What you need is compassion, not a meaningless cliché.

When my father died, it almost destroyed me.  I’m not joking.  I honestly don’t know how it’s possible to feel as bad, as empty and as crushed as I did and to somehow still survive.  I was trapped in a black hole.  I felt completely alone, but I didn’t want anyone to reach into my darkness either.  I pushed people away.  It’s such a confusing, bewildering and miserable thing to experience.  I remember after a couple of months, going on a weekend away with some girlfriends.  I managed to keep the black hole contained, most of the time.  But there was one occasion when I could no longer fend it off, and the darkness just flooded out.  We were walking along, and without warning I started bawling uncontrollably.  My father was dead, and I just couldn’t stop crying.  I apologised to my friends and walked away, looking for a place to retreat and get a hold of myself.  I turned a corner and sat down on a bench, but instead of subsiding I was engulfed in sadness, collapsing in a heap of body-shaking tears.  My friends peeked around the corner, their faces contorted with anguish.  I could see they wanted to help me, to comfort me.  And even though that’s exactly what I needed, I was sending out a powerful force-field signalling them to stay away.

I finally got my shit together and we carried on walking, as though nothing had happened.  And I know it was just as bad for them as it was for me.  I’m not telling this story to shame my friends.  It was a terrible moment for all of us.  I tell it to demonstrate how tricky a minefield grief is, even amongst the closest of friends.  It is a harrowing abyss of ugly, difficult emotions for the person experiencing it.  And a sickening feeling of impotence and helplessness for the people around you.  Even though I know what grief feels like, I am still completely at sea when a loved one loses a loved one.  I still don’t know what to say or do.  I still feel helpless.  And I know that many others in that situation feel the same way.

I can’t write anything that could ever take away the pain of someone’s grief.  But I do want to try and alleviate the debilitating feelings of inadequacy most of us feel in the face of someone else’s bereavement.  I want to open a dialogue, to start talking about it, in the hope of making it less scary.  There is no “etiquette” handbook for what to say (or not say) to someone in mourning.  No two situations are the same, and everyone will react to the death of a loved one in their own way.  But I feel pretty safe in saying that there are a few things you should try not to say.  Each heading in this ejo is something that was actually said to a grieving person.  I know they were heartfelt thoughts from people struggling to know what to say, but these platitudes are just not helpful to someone who is in pain.

 “Be strong.”

The day my father died, the worst day of my life, someone told me, ‘Your Dad would want you to be strong, for your Mum.’  Wow, thanks, but I really didn’t need to hear that.  What was said stayed with me through the years.  Now, if I’m comforting a friend experiencing the heartache of grief, the one thing I do feel comfortable saying to them is, ‘You don’t have to be strong, it’s OK to fall apart if you need to’.  Because the reality is that you are going to fall apart in some way.  I spoke with several friends who have all lost someone close to them – a parent, a friend, a spouse – and they were kind enough to share their experiences in the hope of helping you (and me) next time someone is in need of support.

*          *          *

“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

“My first experience with death was when I was 14 and one of my best friends died.  My mother was deeply unhelpful.  ‘These things happen’, ‘he wouldn’t want you to be sad’, etc.  All I wanted to do was shout and scream and listen to self-indulgent indie music with a roll-up between my fingers.  A couple of decades later my father, also my best friend, snuffed it.  I wanted to just talk about my amazing father and cry and mention his name more than once without people all looking a bit shifty and looking at the floor and not knowing what to do.  I did not encounter these problems when I was 14. Apart from people also saying when dad died ‘he wouldn’t want you to feel like this’.  FUCK HIM, HES DEAD!!  I’m sad.”

 “I understand how you feel.”

“I think the worst thing a friend said to me after both my parents were killed was, ‘I understand’.  I know they thought it was comforting, but it wasn’t.  They didn’t understand.  How could they?  I didn’t expect them to.”

 “At least she’s no longer in pain.”

“When someone is grieving, say something meaningful or don’t say anything at all.  The number of trite, hallmark kind of statements I got after my mother died made me want to punch people in the face.  Yes, it’s true that ‘these things happen’, ‘it was for the best’ and ‘now she isn’t in any pain’ but it lacks any empathy at all to say these things. 

“It will get easier.”

“What didn’t work for me was being told that someone knew exactly how I felt, and then getting advice on when I should feel better.  Being told how you should feel, or how you will feel, is not helpful.”

“Life goes on.”

“Life goes on for you, but I just lost someone and life has stopped for me.  Also, don’t push someone to talk about it unless they want to talk.”

“It’s time to get over it.”

“Even though time passes, grief doesn’t.  You just learn to manage it better.  I think once the funeral is over people just forget and move forward – but clearly not those who were deeply affected.  There is almost an expectation that you should just move on and get over it, not understanding how deep and prolonged the impact can be.  I think we need to all be more mindful, especially in the first year after someone has died, how hard it can be for those left behind.”

 “Time heals all wounds.”

“I don’t believe that time heals.  For me it’s a constant thing I carry with me every day and no matter how much time passes, it never gets easier.  Especially important events in your life when you wish your parents were there to share it with you and hold your hand and tell you that they love you.  They never saw me or my brother get married, or had the opportunity to meet their first grandchild.”

“These things happen.”

“Some people can be dismissive.  The ones that reacted as if I had just told them that I’d lost my handbag.  I don’t blame them for reacting like that.  I guess some people don’t know how to respond or act in tragic circumstances.  But it’s not helpful when you are grieving and upset.”

 

As you can see, hollow adages don’t work.  So if you can help it, please don’t use them.  What stood out after talking to my friends was that all everyone wanted was to have their grief acknowledged.  Here is what they told me:

 

“The best way to help is to just be there.  Offer some food, your company, your time.  Ask what they need and be willing to listen.”

 “Amongst the confusion, the numbness, the tears and anger I remember something one person said to me when I lost my parents.  It was exactly what I needed to hear at that time.  He said, ‘I have no idea what you are going through.  This is the hardest thing you will ever have to go through in your life.  I am here for you if you need me’.  That was all I needed to hear.  I wanted someone to acknowledge that it was hard and that they had no idea how I was feeling.  I wanted someone to just hug me and not speak.”

 “Just agree that the situation sucks and is incredibly shit.”

“One of the nicest (if you can call it that) things someone said, and they were a work colleague who I wasn’t good friends with, was “I heard your mother died and that’s really terrible.”

 “People don’t know what to say or what to do.  The answer is, just let them be.  If they want to shout and scream, just hold them and let them.  They don’t want any answers from you.  You can’t give them any.  Just listen, patiently, for as long as they need.  There is no solution.  Let them remember, let them tell you the most boring anecdotes, let them bore themselves with the memories, and most importantly let them be what you might consider a drama queen.  Because when it happens to you, you’ll see that it’s not that dramatic after all.  It’s life.”

 

What have been your experiences with offering or needing support after someone has died?