Saturday 7 December 2019

An airbnb in Berlin

Our gal Suzanne Harrington tries the service out for herself in Deutschland…

Suzanne Harrington
Suzanne Harrington

Suzanne Harrington

My boyfriend and I are off to Berlin for a long weekend. Neither of us has much money — he’s an artist, I’m a writer, and we are both single parents — so butler service at the Ritz is out, even if the idea remotely appealed. Yet the idea of a soulless budget hotel doesn’t much appeal either. There has to be another option.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, there is. A friend of mine is an Airbnb host in England. Every week she hosts all kinds of people in her spare room, and for the past couple of years has been regaling us with her Airbnb stories. The vast majority are positive — the lovely Greek family who brought her home-made olive oil from their farm; the Norwegian woman who became a friend; her online reviews that sing her praises as a host.

She says there have been a handful of trickier guests, but they are a tiny minority. Like the American who complained that her carefully chosen vintage décor “needed updating”; the guest who had a bipolar episode in the middle of the night; and the couple who left the door open and proceeded to have loud energetic sex when she was in the next room. Or the other couple who managed to get semen on the vintage wallpaper.

My friend remains undeterred. Almost all of her guests are lovely, interesting people, she says, and she, in turn, has travelled extensively using Airbnb accommodation from various European cities to the wilds of Canada. She has never had a bad experience — just plenty of interesting ones.

Airbnb works on trust and reputation. You review your hosts online, and they review you; these reviews are like old fashioned letters of introduction. Steal as much as a teaspoon and you have excluded yourself from the entire Airbnb community of half a million addresses worldwide.

I decided to go for somewhere in the middle, finding what looks online like a beautiful airy studio apartment in a Turkish neighbourhood three stops east from the centre of Berlin. Its photos are gorgeous — white, light, elegant, minimalist, and at €78 a night for the entire open-plan apartment, a steal. The host’s web page is clear and friendly — there are house rules (no parties, no smoking), and lots of chatty helpful stuff about the best cafes in the area, where to hire bikes etc.

Turning up outside the actual address in up-and-coming Kreuzberg (the equivalent of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or London’s Hackney) I see the most frightening addict I have ever seen in my life (he is quite literally almost dead) and wonder for a second if this is really such a good idea. But you pay on booking with Airbnb. What if it’s all a massive con?

It isn’t. Our host is waiting for us in an apartment even bigger, whiter and lighter than its photos promised. There is also milk and a tin of Illy coffee waiting for us, plus chocolate and fresh baklava from the Turkish bakery downstairs. Our guy is an indie film maker who says if we need anything, he is in his studio nearby. Oh, and there’s a prepaid mobile phone for all local calls we might need to make.

Our host points to an expensive looking polaroid camera — white, like everything else in the place — and asks us to take a photo each of ourselves, because he and his partner are making a book of their guests. Again, I am struck by the personal nature of it all. But it’s not intrusive — he is on hand all weekend if we need anything, but we don’t, and so don’t see him again until we leave.

The neighbourhood turns out to be a lot safer than either Hackney or Williamsburg. And cheap. Weapons-grade coffee in filigreed silver cups served on a silver tray with Turkish delight, fresh baked bread, intense savoury dishes, change from a tenner. A U-Bahn that runs like clockwork, and so much to do and see that you could walk the city for a month and still not see enough. Ugly concrete Soviet architecture everywhere, contrasting with old ornate pre-war buildings. And everyone walking around with open glass bottles of beer, the way other nationalities carry bottles of mineral water.

After four days, we are exhausted from culture, history and walking, but are sad to leave the white haven of our Airbnb apartment. Our host doesn’t even check the flat to make sure we haven’t trashed it, but meets us outside in the hallway to say goodbye. He knows that we know about the trust and reputation thing — we will want to use Airbnb again. Later, back home, we give him and his flat a five-star review, and he does the same for us as guests. It all feels really personal, friendly, civilised, and life affirming — not words I have ever used to describe staying in a hotel. Oh, and Berlin rocks.

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