Prisoners in an Airbnb Apartment

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We were locked in. No way to get out. The stubborn lock would not budge. We were on floor 4 1/2 by US standards.   Jumping out of the window was out of the question. Scream for help – would anyone hear? Despite many phone calls and promises, no one came to our assistance.

One hour. Two hours. Three hours. Frustration turned to panic.  During our incarceration, Bob tried numerous times to unlock the door. He was angry. I was a nervous wreck…

I had booked an Airbnb apartment in Paris for two nights between our trips to the US and China.   On the Airbnb site this “lovely flat in the Marais” looked gorgeous: bright, roomy, gleaming. At 319 euro for two nights, it was more than we usually spend. But, we would be tired after the all-night flight from the US. We wanted to see more of the Marais. And, although this was a new listing with only two reviews, they were basically positive.

When Angela, our greeter, met us at the door to the building and led us up a narrow, shabby, dirty staircase, I was crestfallen. Could that beautiful apartment be in this rundown building?

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Section of wall in the “lovely flat”

There was no elevator. We were loaded down with clothing for five weeks and different climates. Bob made several trips up and down the 4 ½ flights, struggling to get the suitcases up the narrow passages while Angela struggled with the lock. Perhaps I have the wrong apartment; she lamented, and then went up and down to try other doors. No luck. She made several phone calls – I assume to an agent who managed the apartment. Owner Franck had told me he would not be in Paris when we arrived.

This must be it, she said at the first door she had tried, and asked Bob to try. He wiggled the key back and forth many times. He pushed and pulled, but the lock would not give. More phone calls. More tries.  Forty-five minutes had gone by, and we were still standing in this dismal hallway. We were exhausted and had longed to relax, take a short nap and then a fun walk. Bob tried the uncooperative lock one more time. Success. We were in.

Angela was elated.   We were not. We surveyed the surroundings.   Photoshop obviously works wonders. Instead of a bright and spacious apartment, the “lovely flat” was dark, crammed, depressing. The furniture was the same as in the photos, but not much else.

Before Angela left, Bob went outside to test the door. It opened. However, we insisted that someone, preferably a locksmith, come to verify that the lock was in working order. We needed to be sure that when we went out, we could get back in and not end up stranded on that dreadful staircase. She made a call and assured us that someone would show up in 20 minutes to check the lock.

We felt it best to wait before settling in and taking that nap. “We better make sure we can get out,” Bob announced at one point. OMG! Sacre Bleu! The door would not open. We were imprisoned. This can’t be true.  But, it was.  (Keep reading.  It gets worse before better.)thief-jail-illustration-theif-white-background-32201960

I called Airbnb. There were many options: press 1,.2, 3. I tried all, but  always got a recorded message and was put on hold. The relaxing Paris afternoon we had anticipated had become a frantic nightmare.

Since I had no luck with the regular channels, I tried the  English language assistance option.  Someone answered: A man in Ireland. Hope at last. I told the sorry story. He said he could help and asked various questions about our reservation: address, birth dates…and then the last four digits of the credit card used to make the booking. We have several credit cards. I gave him the numbers of the cards we had with us. No match. I must have used the French card to book. I explained that we did not have that card with us. He was adamant. Without those numbers, he could do nothing for us.

I was incredulous. This was too much. No more hope. Would we ever escape?  I blew up. I cried. I used nasty language. He hung up.

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These wires made me nervous. Fire hazard? We had no means of escape.

Now what? Call the police? The fire department? I went to the window, hoping to find a fire escape, although I doubt I would have had the skill to navigate it.  Nothing there.  So, back to the French Airbnb number and alas, after a wait, I reached Emeline, a real person who was sympathetic, patient, understanding. She said she would arrange for someone to help us get out, that we did not have to stay in the apartment, that she would email me listings of other Airbnb apartments that had availability, and that we would be reimbursed for the sum we had paid for the apartment, as well as the taxi fare to our new accommodation.

We were making progress. Surely someone would come to break the lock and rescue us soon. I was getting claustrophobic.  I needed to escape –soon.

While I looked over the listings, Bob continued trying to open the door. He is usually very patient (not like me), but he was losing it. He was infuriated. Our nerves were frazzled. I looked around, hoping to find a bottle of something potent and alcoholic  left behind by a previous guest.  We needed it desperately, but not even a tea bag to be found.

It was close to 5 p.m. We had arrived at the apartment at 1:15 pm, and we were still prisoners in this “lovely flat,” still waiting for a savior to come and free us.

Bob tried the door yet again. Eureka!  He had the magic touch.   It moved.  It opened.  We were free. We fled.

I had booked an apartment in Montmarte chez Sacha and Sydney which appeared beautiful, and cost just 233 euro for two nights, 86 euro less than Franck’s place. Although we had already given Airbnb 319 euro, we had to pay for the new booking. With too much luggage, we trekked to the corner café, got a taxi and set off to the new flat which was even better than the photos: huge, light, inviting. This time I had picked a winner.

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Chez Sacha and Sydney — truly “lovely.”

A few days later I checked our credit card details online. We had been given a refund of 3 euro. I was furious, but by this time we were in Hong Kong. I sent an email to Airbnb and learned that to obtain a refund, I needed to proceed with the resolution process and was entitled to a maximum of 275 euro, not the 319 we had paid.  Why the 3 euro?  A mini reward for all our suffering and a lost afternoon?  That remains a mystery

First step for a refund is to fill out an on-line form stating your grievance which is sent to the owner. I did, confident that he would surely grant the refund in these circumstances. Wrong. He refused.

’You insulted me and Angela instead of letting us one hour to manage this issue with the door – which is not a big issue…. It just happened to be a bit difficult to open and needed a bit of oil, nothing I could expect and nothing to be that aggressive… People are not your servants. A host is not your slave Leah, and I will refuse any refund as you were aggressive and made a scandal when there was no real reason to act as you did. You didn’t have to cancel this booking, especially not the way you did …”

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“Not a big issue” if the door won’t open???

One hour? We waited three hours. One should carry a can of oil if booking an Airbnb apartment? No real reason to be upset? It’s acceptable to be locked out — and then locked in– a rental  apartment? Cancel the booking? Emeline had done that for us.

I sent Airbnb a response, stating that I did not accept Frank’s decision and explained that I would follow up upon our return, asking them not to close the case.

After returning from China, I filled out yet another form requesting that Airbnb review both sides of the story and make the final decision. I kept receiving computer generated responses which indicated no one had ever read my response. I was getting more than fed up with Airbnb. Back to the phone. (I want a decent hourly wage for all the time I spent on hold listening to Airbnb background music.)

I was patient, and fortunately, eventually, I reached  Ellie, an Airbnb case manager. She was understanding, sympathetic – and did not demand the last four digits of the credit card. She checked into the case. Despite my instructions to wait for my rebuttal, Airbnb had closed the case.  I had to go back to square one and begin the lengthy process all over.

The entire story would not fit in the space allotted on the Airbnb online form.  Ellie said to send her an email with the details and she would forward it. But, it had to go back to Franck first. Again he refused and asked me to stop harassing him.  What planet was he on? Did he realize how much harassment his defective lock had caused us?

When you speak to an Airbnb rep/case manager, the person is not permitted to give his or her last name, nor a direct number to reach him/her, not even a personal email address. You have to reply to the general Airbnb email address. I did, but added: “Attention Ellie” to the subject line. My messages did reach her. She responded, but said she could offer no further help and sent our case on to someone else.

That someone was Danny in Dublin. Like Ellie and Emeline, a decent human who was understanding — and extremely apologetic.  He called our tragedy an episode of “miscommunication that had gotten out of hand.”  Is there such a thing as Irish understatement?   Whatever, he assured me that we would get a full refund, 319 euro, plus the taxi fare. Thank you, Danny. We did.

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Instead of an enjoyable afternoon ambling through the Marais, we were imprisoned in a non-too lovely apartment.

Meanwhile I had gone back to the Airbnb site and noted that the price for “the lovely flat in the Marais” had been slashed, from about 159 euro per night to 60 euro per night. I asked Danny about this. He explained that Airbnb does not inspect properties listed and hosts can set rental prices as they desire. Why did Franck drastically drop the price? Perhaps because he was not getting bookings, he surmised. Hmm..I suspect there is more to it.

Airbnb lesson learned: Be wary of booking a new listing. Look for listings with lots of positive reviews. Just in case, take a can of oil.

This was our second Airbnb experience. Two years ago we booked an apartment in Paris’ 16th district. It was exactly as described and ideal for us. Hostess Nathalie met us, greeted us, had a welcome gift for us, and provided all sorts of helpful information on the area – shops, restaurants, public transportation.

We expected much the same with the booking in the Marais. Franck, it appears, has more than one apartment listed with Airbnb.   The same with Sacha and Sydney, hosts at the second apartment whom we never met.

According to an article in The Guardian, the number of Airbnb hosts “has doubled in the last year with revenue up 60%.” Investors, perhaps like Franck and Sacha and Sydney, are buying up properties to rent through Airbnb. “ With that growth has come an ecosystem of support companies, typically property management firms that submit the advert for the property onto the website and then may manage guests arriving and leaving, dropping off and collecting keys, for example,” states the article.

So, don’t always expect personal contact with the owner which was originally one of the drawing cards of Airbnb.

We have not given up on Airbnb. I just booked an apartment in Ventimiglia, Italy, which has numerous glowing reviews, plus lots of kudos for the owners who are on the scene.  Nonetheless, Bob insists we not forget to take a can of oil.

Isolated oil can on white

China followed Paris, where, sadly more misadventure awaited.  Yet another crash, but far worse than the one in India I wrote about in a previous post,  “Adventure — and a CRASH –in Kashmir.”

Details on China in a coming post.  Don’t miss it. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.

I am on the mend, but slightly handicapped (broken collar bone). No new recipes until I can get back in the kitchen and cook with two hands —soon I hope.

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Paris in December

Place des Vosges, Marais
Place des Vosges, Marais

We went to Paris to visit the dentist, but not just any dentist. An American dentist, fabulous Dr. Jane. Sure, there are plenty of dentists in Provence. But, the profession of dental hygienist does not exist in France.  Here cleaning is merely detartrage, scrapping the tartar off the teeth, a procedure carried out by the dentist which takes all of 10 minutes or less.paris.14b

Not good enough for Americans who have been brainwashed about the importance of a thorough cleaning by a hygienist every six months.  In Germany where we previously lived most dentists have hygienists. After moving here, we’d trek back to Germany once a year for a proper cleaning. (Since it was such a long journey, we made due with one cleaning per year.)  Fellow American and friend Lynne came to the rescue. She found Dr. Jane in Paris.  Our teeth have never been so clean.

Dr. Jane Matkoski, who hails from New York State, does high tech teeth cleaning, first with ultra sound followed by a special process called Air Flow.  She covers your eyes with a cloth, then puts goggles on top of the cloth and air polishes the teeth. “Today’s flavor is cassis,” she told me.  I like cassis, but this was salty and none too pleasant. BB likened the procedure to sand blasting.  Whatever, it does the job par excellence.

One fourth of Dr. Jane’s  patients are Americans.  She also has many international patients who are used to a real teeth cleaning.  “The French just don’t get it,” she said.

While teeth were the main reason for the trip, it was a good excuse to visit my favorite city. We had time to see friends, to visit Le Café des Chats, to tour the Marais district with a Paris Greeter, to apply for visas for our upcoming trip to Myanmar – and to check out the Christmas lights in the City of Light.Paris16b

On a previous trip to Paris in December, I found the holiday illumination on the Champs Elysees  spectacular.  This time I was underwhelmed.  Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but lots of colors and flashing lights are not my cup of tea. This year giant hula hoops that change from blue to red encircle the bare trees lining the legendary boulevard.  Tacky – in my opinion.paris.4

There’s nothing tacky, however, about the wondrous windows at Galeries Lafayette.  Amazing, moveable scenes, five from the tale Beauty and the Beast. Mesmerizing for both children and their parents.  The classy windows at Au Printemps, this year sponsored by Prada, are also dazzling.Paris.15b

Thanks to Satié, the cousin of my Japanese sister-in-law Yoshie, we did not miss these Parisian holiday highlights.  Satié lives in Paris. After dinner together, she suggested we stroll by the windows.

BB and Satie
BB and Satie

As a cat lover, I had to visit Le Café des Chats which opened in September, modeled after a cat café in Tokyo. Cats, 12 of them, all colors and sizes, lounging in windows, on chairs, benches, and in kitty beds.  Some are sociable, but many were soundly sleeping, the favorite pastime of felines.paris.2b

Upon entering rules are recited by the café host: Don’t feed the cats.  Don’t let the cats drink from your cup or glass.  Don’t disturb the cats if they are sleeping. Photos allowed, but no flash.  Before entering the rooms with the cats, you must disinfect your hands – a dispenser is on the counter.paris.1

The two-level cozy café in Paris’ third district was packed during our visit.  The café has generated a lot of publicity and is popular with locals as well as tourists. Reservations are a must.  Coffee, teas, wine, desserts, salads and tartes can be savored while watching cats. It was fun but frustrating. My pathetic photo skills required flash in the poor light. So, no super kitty pictures.  The food was good –a seafood salad for BB and a tarte with caramelized onions, blue cheese, cranberries and pecans for me.

A blog (http://aixcentric.wordpress.com)  led me to Paris Greeters, an organization of volunteers who give guided tours of their neighborhoods.  There is no charge but you are requested to give a donation. Sign up on line before visiting Paris, specifying your interests, and you are matched with a greeter.

Claudine in front of her favoirte tea shop, Mariage Freres, a must for tea aficionadas.
Claudine in front of her favoirte tea shop, Mariage Freres, a must for tea aficionadas.

Claudine Chevrel, who has lived in the Marais since 1972, led us through this beautiful district.  Historic buildings, her favorite shops, churches and monuments were on the tour.

Le Marais, literally “the swamp,” was mostly farmland in the Middle Ages, producing vegetables for the city on the Seine.  By the 16th century, the nobility and upper middle class bought up the land and built great estates. For the next  couple of centuries,  family palaces and grand buildings found their home in the Marais.paris.9b

The arrondissement (administrative district), which is now very expensive and chic, was not that way when she moved there many years ago, Claudine said.  “I prefer the Maris 10 years ago. It used to be a real neighborhood.”   There were lots of local shops and groceries, she explained.  Many have been replaced by expensive boutiques and art galleries.  “Everyone knew everyone.  Now lots of foreigners who don’t live here year round have bought apartments.”

Hotel de Sens, Marais
Hotel de Sens, Marais

The Marais has both a large  Jewish community and one of the largest Gay communities in Europe.  We especially liked the Jewish area. Numerous shops tout that they offer the “best falafel.”   Claudine says the best is at the restaurant Chez Marianne  which also has a bakery where BB bought a thick slice of nut strudel – they offer 12 different kinds for 3 euros per slice.

St. Gervais and famous elm tree
St. Gervais and famous elm tree

“I always meet interesting people who want to see Paris in a different way,” says Claudine.  “Americans prefer this type of tour. They like to meet Parisians.  They ask lots of questions, about everyday life, taxes, schools.”

After the two-hour plus tour we set off to find her favorite restaurant, Le Louis Philippe,  which we had passed during our walk.  En route we came across Caruso.  As we have a weakness for all things Italian and there are few Italian restaurants in Provence, it was our lunch stop.  Buonissimo! Exquisite pasta,  and BB’s dessert, Cassata Siciliana, was deliciously decadent, cake smothered in a mascarpone-cream-candided fruit-alcoholic combination.  I found several recipes on line and will try to duplicate it soon.

Leonard, Claudine et moi
Leonard, Claudine et moi

Before boarding the TGV for a fast train ride back to Provence, we met friendsLeonard and Claudine for lunch at L’Epigramme, a restaurant in the 6th district which is included in “Best Restaurants Paris.” I had a very juicy and tender piece of beef.  The others went for dorade, a popular fish in France.  All were happy.

Next visit to Dr. Jane, we’ll go back there, and to Caruso, and tour another neighborhood with a Paris Greeter.

Happy Holidays to all Tales and Travel readers!Paris16.b

Dr. Jane Matkoski,  12 rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre (5ème), 01 46 34 56 44 drjane@orange.fr

Le Café des Chats, 16 rue Michel Le Comte (3ème).  Metro: Rambuteau or Arts et Metiers.  Make a reservation at reservation@lecafedeschats.fr

Paris Greeters, www.parisgreeters.fr

Caruso,  3 Rue de Turenne (4 ème). Metro : St. Paul, www.ristorantecaruso.fr

L’Epigramme, 9 rue de l’Eperon (6 ème).  Metro : Odeon,  01 44 41 00 09

Hotel de Ville
Hotel de Ville

I love to hear from readers.  Please post a comment. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right.

 If  you have suggestions for Paris restaurants, please pass them on.  I have not posted any recipes lately, but for your holiday cooking, check on Holiday Fruitcake and Holiday Pork Roast in the recipe column at right.