“Let’s plan where we’re going to stay so we have it sorted,” my friend told me, who had purchased her ticket a month after completing the teaching program in August to return to Spain in May 2013. “It’s March,” I said to myself but carried on with searching for accommodation knowing she wasn’t as spontaneous as I when it comes to travel. We scoured places to stay and turned to Airbnb, a website where locals can rent out a room in their house, or an apartment to fellow travelers, when pensiones or backpacker focused hostels couldn’t be found. Using Airbnb both in California and in Spain, I knew having our own private room with an Airbnb host would likely be more cozy and a better deal all around.
When our first picks didn’t respond to our booking, we went with our second choices carefully reading the reviews of previous guests to ensure descriptions by hosts matched the actual experience of the travelers. My friend felt a sense of relief once our 2 weeks of planning and booking was complete and it wasn’t until a week before we were due to arrive in Biarritiz, that we questioned if it even made sense to try to dodge out of “OMG, it’s sunny in San Sebastian to try to take 1 of 2 daily buses to Biarritz. Biarritz, a coastal town in French Basque Country that became a posh town when the wife of Napeolean III built a palace on the beach in 1854 and the palace has since been converted into the stylish Hôtel du Palais. Biarrtiz is only 30 minutes by car but an hour and 15 minutes by bus when our hosts weren’t getting in touch with us. Neither of us really wanted to lose money on our reservation and we decided, we’ve planned it, we’re going.” We arrived by car; by an unexpected opportunity of being offered a ride by an acquaintance I had met sampling pintxos a few weeks prior with my mom. We arrived to Biarrtiz later than we had planned due to scenic pit stops in neighboring French sea side towns and then spinning around in circles trying to find where our hosts lived. Grateful to my friend, who’s a Native French speaker, to could sort out the confusion and explain to our unhappy hosts of our late arrival.
Turns out our hosts didn’t live close to the center as implied nor is the address posted on their profile where they live. They greeted us with a tone of annoyance, the only thing I could decipher without knowing the language but were kind enough to drive us into town, where we had just come from to avoid missing dinner. Meal times are several hours earlier than they are in Spain.
We dropped our bags in our room and glanced at each other saying with our eyes, “Do you see how damn small this tiny 2 bedroom apartment is? Ahem, there are kids/teen books on the shelf… this is their young teen daughter’s bedroom who is playing on the laptop on the couch right outside this room in their tiny living space.” Hmmm.
Quickly changing our shoes and adding a few layers of clothing to our outfits, we followed the host down a flight of stairs we had walked up only 10 minutes before. He drove us the long way round to the center of town, to show us our route to walk home if we didn’t feel like shelling out money for a cab. The town was dead at eight o’clock and I realized I had been to this very town for a couple of hours in October en route home to Vitoria-Gasteiz from Toulouse.
All the ritzy boutique shops adorned with green shutters were closed and we roamed in search of an open restaurant as mist gently fell from the sky. Five minutes later, when we stumbled upon a plaza full of restaurants, I stared at the chalk boards with colorful handwriting full of specials as I tried to decipher some of the French words that seemed vaguely familiar. Despite being in France, we choose a Venetian decorated Italian restaurant, splitting a pizza and salad that we devoured. Being one of three tables occupied, we kept our eyes on who was the last to leave. When we were the last ones, workers pumped up hip-hop beats as a signal to say, “time to go” but for us it was a sign that ” the party is right here.” Yet we knew we couldn’t’ stay, paid and left as the rain drizzled on our vibrant umbrellas and the ocean roared. “Let’s go see if there is anything happening on a Monday night,” we said, neither of us eager to make our way back to our slightly depressing room. The lighthouse light illuminated the rough sea and we peaked in every bar and restaurant we passed by in search of some life. We saw a handful of people in one bar and a few guys in another and though we awkwardly peaked inside by pretending to glance at the menu, neither of us knew just what we’d say to them, so we carried on.
Exciting times in a small, upscale French town.
As we came back to the center and just about to call it a night, I joked, “Let’s do a social experiment. We should walk into the most crowded bar and see how long it takes before someone offers us to buy us a drink.” A ludicrous idea considering we had just seen how few people were out in this town and unlike the States, buying women drinks isn’t as common in Spain and France. As we approached a pub with several people outside chatting, a middle-aged guy beckoned a gal in French, who was crossing the street and my friend laughed. I don’t speak French so felt left out assuming his words for humorous, until she told me later she laughed at the situation.
The Classic. Guy calling out to a woman and she ignores him.
“Don’t laugh at me, he said to us, Let me invite you both to a drink.” We looked at each other dumbfounded shrugged our shoulders and said why not? as we walked in both a bit surprised at how powerful my words had been and how fast it happened in the least expected of places.
Another example in the life of Lauren, where what she thinks happens.
The man who invited us spoke with my friend in French and she leaned over when they’re conversation ended to tell me, “you know what he asked me, “ Do you think you need to know suffering to know happiness?” Not what you’d expect, right?
A deep question for a Monday night at a pub in a town without many people, you just never know whom you’re going to meet. He had been born in France, and had spent a lot of time in Western Africa; certainly where his profound question had spurred. I spoke with him for a bit sharing a few tidbits of my time in Africa as he kept apologizing for his bad English, which I told him wasn’t important. The goal of language is to communicate, I reminded him, grateful he could express himself enough for me to understand. (As I write this, I realize I need to take my own advice and be less hard on myself about my Spanish abilities.)
His friend from Sahara had lived in Spain for 20 years, studied agriculture and had lived for many years in Logroño, an hours drive from Vitoria- Gasteiz where he kept bees and made honey until the economy sent him looking for work in France. Out of all the people we could possible meet at this bar, let alone invite us for a drink it would be men that I could relate to on some level- bees, agriculture, and travel in Africa. My friend spoke with the third friend who had been married to a Congolese woman and praised the country, my friend’s country. Coincidence?
What an incredible reminder not to judge as it’s so easy to do and be open to possibilities and getting to know people. You never know just how fascinating their story is.
After an hour, we decided to call it a night, hoped in a cab and made it to your awkward residence. Thankfully I recognized their apartment building, I had only seen for a few moments a handful of hours before as the cab passed by and we had to give him directions in our new town. We entered the building and then my friend turned to me, “Oh shit, do you know the apartment number?” “Ah no,” I replied. We were so quick to change our clothes and get a ride, our hosts had forgotten to give us the basics, what apartment we were staying in. At nearly 1am, we didn’t want to try unlocking each door on every floor so we walked down in hopes the mailboxes would give us a clue.
No such luck.
I walked back up one flight of stairs and said, I know it’s this one. It’s on the left. I knew we had only walked up one flight of stairs but my clue was the chicken rug. I remember seeing another blue and yellow chicken cartoon rug near their bathroom and figured they must like chickens. It’s got to be it. I put the key in the doorknob and it unlocked! Like teenagers entering after curfew, we quietly and on tip-toe crossed the tiny living space into our room. We laughed about our situation and cracked jokes for a 30 minutes surprised that we’d find ourselves in this strange airbnb rental in a posh French town when we could have had a better Couchsurfing experience, until we fell asleep. We kept wondering, though we knew the answer, We’re they really renting out their daughter’s room? But more importantly, Why were all the reviews positive?”, we couldn’t be the only ones who wondered if they were renting out their daughter’s room.
We avoided interfacing much with the family the next day but we promised ourselves we’d write an honest review for feature travelers like ourselves who wanted a home away from home but not what we experienced.
p.s. We checked the reviews and the first few pages we’re very positive, so it wasn’t my friend who had made the mistake. On the 4th and 5th pages of reviews some explained it wasn’t the best if you wanted to spend time in the center. We left an honest and fair review mentioning you share the flat with a family of 3 and it’s 40 minutes walk to the center, not the 20 they had mentioned. They were quick to post a reply in French that it was “surprising” that we would leave a review since he “tells us everything in his short description.
Clearly, this is how they earn they’re living but the last thing we want to think about while on Vacation is someone else’s lack of employment or monetary struggles.
Have you ever had a weird experience with Airbnb?
Have you ever said something and then it happened? Or done a “social experiment”?
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