Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Whole Air BnB Experience

When I was traveling extensively in Asia, I almost always stayed in 4-star hotels. In the major cities, they were very inexpensive, typically sub-$100, and the services, like laundry, followed suit. But once I was out of that phase, and Europe became our annual destination of choice, we began to rent apartments. Not only were they reasonably priced, but they offered amenities that made our trips more comfortable and less expensive. Having a refrigerator means as many meals in as you please, and a washing machine allows you to take a 4-week trip with nothing more than a carry-on.

Our apartment hunting has evolved as well. Initially we started with the two well-known internet rental sites – Home Away and VRBO. We developed a simply list of absolute requirements, that allowed us to filter through the hundreds of offerings found in most major cities. Washing machine, walking distance to where we want to spend our time, two lights by the bed for reading, lights in the living room for the same, an elevator, and a decent set of photographs depicting our demands. And we’ve always managed to meet those expectations, although sometimes there’s a bit of a fudge. Silly things like a single long pillow on the bed, or having to run the microwave plug across the middle of the kitchen. While we’ve had apartments, we wouldn’t use again, none of them has forced us to flee to a hotel. And several of them have become repeat rentals.

As we became more experienced, we started to notice a little sub rosa pattern. While VRBO stands for “vacation rental by owner,” it became obvious that the people doing the rentals were often not the owner. Rather they we professional rental agencies, representing the actual owner. On the plus side, this usually meant you were met at your rental by a competent professional who could solve problems. It also meant you could do the transaction with a credit card instead of (expensive) wire transfers or (unreliable) PayPal. On the other side, it often meant fees, and some of them were large. In several cases, we paid a few hundred Euros for the privilege of having the agency introduce us to the person who was representing the apartment. You do what you have to do to get what you want, but sometimes you get a bit confused about who you’re dealing with.

This year we broke the pattern and reserved apartments exclusively through AirBnB. It took a bit of rationalizing to get there, because we have this fixed notion, stemming from their initial services, that you’re renting a couch in someone’s living room. It’s true they started that way, but they have expanded their business to rentals of full apartments and houses for whatever rental period you might desire.

Their process was exactly the same as how we’ve done it in the past. Pick a city, pick the dates, select some candidates and then go through and see how they shape up against your basic requirements. When you find what you want, you book it with a credit card and the person offering the place gets right back to you. And they force the agent to act within 24 hours (one of mine hit the limit and was cancelled prompting the owner who’d been out of town to get back to me, full of apologies. I liked the process because it worked.

As it turned out, our first apartment was an empty vacation rental managed by an agency in Rome. In other words, right back to what we were used to. Their customer service was excellent with plenty of pre-arrival contact, an arranged driver to collect us at the airport and a cheerful young man to meet us at the apartment. On the third floor of an old building on a quiet street in the old city center, we were within minutes walking distance to everywhere including Piazza Navona, St. Peter’s and Castelo Sant’Angelo. A pleasant view of the period building across the way added a little ambience.

But like our past experiences, there were a few warts. Poor lighting on the bathroom mirror (quite common,) a less than fully equipped kitchen, a tiny shower and a well-worn sofa whose cushions slid out every time you stood up. Not deal breakers, but not endearing either.

The first few nights were fine, just the normal noises associated with living in a residential building with an air shaft. Some conversation, some kitchen noise, some food smells.
On the third night, an apartment below had a dinner party. Loud conversation followed by loud clean-up, followed by wine bottles being tossed in the common recycling bins in the courtyard. Up to about 1 AM. The following morning, we discovered that there was a walkway right outside our bedroom window that led to a couple of apartments in the back of the building. What tipped us off was the person standing outside our window having a loud phone conversation while smoking, and the slamming of their common door when they left.
The fourth night, another party downstairs, this one with what sounded like dozens of people talking loudly in the stairwell while smoking. The smoke got so bad that it crept in our apartment door and filled our place to the point where you’d swear the partiers were in your living room. Thankfully that event ended early.

The fifth night was something for my travelogue. We came home from dinner around 9:30 and were met in the building lobby by two polite young men in bow ties, bringing in cases of liquor and party supplies on two hand carts. They cheerfully allowed us to go up the elevator before them. We knew we were in for it. Around 10 PM, the professional DJ fired up his stereo, and our apartment began to shake. We normally sleep with some mild music on, and on this night, I had to turn it up to overwhelm the disco. And I placed floor fan in the doorway to our bedroom to avoid getting gassed again (it worked.)  I know it sounds preposterous, but it was no different than trying to sleep upstairs from a nightclub. I drifted in and out and was finally awakened by the lack of noise – the base had stopped around 1:30 AM. Then the singing began. Drunks belting out Italian pop songs. I’m not sure when they wrapped it up, but it was well after 2.

Our last night was a Sunday, so I had high hopes. And it started out quietly enough. No real noise until 10:30 when a family arrived to visit someone in the stairwell. They had a little boy with them who was allowed to run up and down the flights, yelling at his parents who were loudly arguing with whomever they were visiting. This went on for a half-hour or so and they left. It was quiet for a while until perhaps 12 when a group of men decided to have a drinking party below us, which naturally involved more yelling, loud conversation and recycling of wine bottles. And if that wasn’t enough, the person who had the apartment behind us came home around 1 and walked by the window smoking and singing, having turned on the hall light that shined directly in our window. The drunks downstairs knocked off around 2, and things were peaceful for an hour or so until one of them, no doubt having some sort of emotional tragedy began howling like a coyote. That only lasted for a few minutes.
Before leaving, I went back and skimmed the hundred or so reviews left by previous clients. Lots of references to the details I mentioned above, but nothing about noise. When I wrote my review, I sent a message to the agent, pointing out the irony of their rule about “being courteous to the residents by keeping the noise down after 9 PM.” Their response, “Hey, we can’t control the noise in the building.”

Number 2 on our adventure, our apartment in Milan was very nice. 6th floor in a good building with a great agent. It wasn’t clear if this was Francesca’s home, or if she was listing it for an absent owner. But it was clear that no one lived there. A sunny terrace, a nice kitchen, excellent bathroom and the only weak point, an oddball daybed instead of a couch.
Milan is an odd city though, there really isn’t an old part like Madrid or Rome, rather they seem to have plowed the old things under and left the major sites standing among modern buildings and streets. Due to that, this apartment also had a noise problem. Not with residents but with the busy street below. City noise isn’t pleasant, but you can sleep through it. At least until 1 AM when it appears that the Milanese motorcycle racers come out and conduct a moto grand prix each night. That was easy to overcome however, close the window and turn on the air conditioner. Francesca’s apartment was a “rent again” on all counts.

And then it was on to Zurich where our luck changed. We tried to find a place close to our friend Chris, just to make things easier for our visit. And luckily, we located one just 3 tram stops up the S18 line. The woman offering it was friendly and helpful and we were excited. Until we arrived.
First, we couldn’t figure out which building among a multi-tower complex was the right one. It only took two lobbies before I figured it out though. Then there was no indication what floor it was on. Chris and I put our heads together though and counted mail boxes until we gathered that 9 columns of 4 boxes meant this one was one of 4 on the 4th floor. Problem solved.
Until we opened the door and were confronted with the “real Air BnB experience.” A refrigerator full of food, a medicine cabinet full of sundries, every flat space in the apartment covered in candles and dried flowers and brick-a-brack and personal stuff. There was some sort of arts and crafts area covered with Indian bedspreads in the corner of what might have been a dining room in another house. The place reeked of incense which of course put me into allergic shock. No dresser in the bedroom, a spare mattress leaning against the wall in case we wanted to add some guests, and no pillows to speak of. A rolling coat rack served as a closet. It was clear that this woman simply moves out for a few days when she gets a rental offer.
Staying with family or friends amidst their stuff is one thing. Staying in a stranger’s home immersed in it is another. It was weird, and a bit creepy to boot. I was grateful that we only had to do it for 4 nights. On laundry day though, the other shoe fell – nothing in the apartment, only machines in the basement with a sign-up process for tenants that was fully booked. We ended up doing our dainties in the sink and laying them out to dry on the lawn chairs on the balcony.

And so on to Paris where our luck half changed. This apartment, in our favorite neighborhood in the 7th arondissement had a view to die for. The Eiffel Tower and the gleaming golden dome of Invalides right out the window, just over the roof of Le Bon Marché, our favorite grocery store in the entire world. The owner’s brother met us, explained a bit about the place and left us on our own. We had a look around and clearly, the owner had cleared out for us. But, he did so with considerably more consideration than the previous one. A few things in the fridge and the medicine cabinet, but all personal stuff locked away in two other rooms. The place was largely stripped bare, just the way we liked it. A washer and a dryer, a decent bed, a nice kitchen. All that in a super-secure building. AirBnB was thus redeemed a bit.

When it comes to Air BnB, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, we ended up with 3 of 4 apartments comparable to what we've rented in past. Rome, below standard but adequate, Milan about equal and Paris among the best. On the other, Air BnB turned out to be exactly what we feared – a rental portal for someone’s personal space and I would prefer not to repeat the experience of the Zurich rental. Camping in someone’s home is not my idea of an enjoyable vacation - it’s just too weird.

I’m not sure if the ease and thoroughness of the booking process trumps ending up in a place that someone fled as you were driving up to the door. We’ll see, but I have a strong feeling that we’ll be back to our old process next time around and perhaps Air BnB will fill the role of supplementing our choices. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Le dîner et le départ

Having one last dinner in Paris, we decided to continue our search for “real Paris experience” and took a medium walk down Blvd. Saint-Germain to a restaurant we’d seen on our long walk home from our dinner in the Latin Quarter.
That dinner – our second Raclette experience – was not as good as the wonderful version Chris had provided for us in Zurich to celebrate MLW’s birthday. It was however fun to eat in a touristy restaurant among travelers trying to make some sort of connection to their fellow diners via loud conversations about what they know in common. This part of the Latin Quarter is stuffed with restaurants, side by jowl, catering exclusively to tourists. Every type of cuisine available, in restaurants that try to appear authentic. But the real draw here is to eat in a place where you don’t feel like an outsider, a feeling too often conveyed by restaurants outside the areas frequented by tourists. Witness our coffee experience from earlier in the week – you’re not from the neighborhood so we see no reason to rush over.
The Raclette was fun, and the waiter funnier and so it turned out to be just what we wanted – a tasty dinner with no pretense. Leaving we were carried along by a crush of tourists trying to decide between kebabs and gelato. While I’ve never been to New Orleans, I imagined this must be what Bourbon Street is like.
For our last night though, we wanted an authentic Brasserie experience. A café on a boulevard with waiters in white shirts and aprons, lots of wood and brass and some genuine Belle Époque style. And so, we ended up in Brasserie Vagenende.
We were seated at a center table and mostly waited on by a young man in suit and tie. Their Magret de Canard had caught our eye the previous night when I had checked their outside menu, so we both selected that. And a demi-boutelle of a Grand Cru Meursault. The duck was served in a mild sauce with a big pile of mashed potatoes. And it was heavenly.
The restaurant though was a sight to behold. Situated in a building from 1878, the room had hosted a brasserie since 1905 when it was one of the premier eating spots in Saint-Germain-de-Prés. Given the locale just up the street from Les Deux Magots, it’s not hard to imagine that our Lost Generation authors tipped back a few here on the outside terrace. Designated a national treasure in 1973 under the urging of the author André Malraux, it was redecorated in 2011 by the present owners. Brass, dark wood, a separate dining area with mirrors on every surface – it was wonderful. We had wonderful time and complimented the waiter on the way out not only about the food but the experience. Just the right amount of haughtiness, humor and history.

When I checked in to our flight I received an ominous message back from American Airlines, “Due to increased traffic and security, please arrive at the airport at least 4 hours before departure.” Well, for those of you who know me well, you know what that means for me – multiple sleepless nights planning for where we’re going to go and what we’re going to do when we miss our flight. So, I gently negotiated with MLW about leaving for the airport an extra half-hour earlier. By “negotiate” of course, I mean I whined and she conceded, and so I called William the Chauffeur and asked him to come at 7:30 instead of 8:00.
When William picked us up last week at Garde de Lyon, he’d given me his card and said he’d be happy to do a return trip to the airport if we were interested. I decided to give him a shot and connected with him via What’s App (which I hate) and made the arrangements. He messed up both the time and the day in our communication which I corrected and so I was a tiny bit surprised when he texted me that he was waiting downstairs. Normally we’d use a roving taxi, but in Paris they are sporadic and more expensive. A hired car is the way to go.
The drive across town was quick and mostly traffic free, surprising for the hour on a workday. We arrived at the ring road (peripherique) and it was empty. We sailed along until we took the exit at Charles de Gaulle Airport and the traffic slowed to a crawl. Even so, we’d only consumed 35 minutes of the 60 I had allotted. “Lots of departures today,” said William.
Luckily, the exit to our terminal was mostly clear and we were able to improve on that by using the dedicated taxi lane. I tipped him generously and we went inside to the priority boarding line. The agent used a new kind of profiling on us, not the normal “did anyone talk to you, did anyone touch your bags” routine, but rather a lot of “tell me about your trip, which city did you like best, tell me about your profession ma’am, what do you do with the horses when you’re traveling?” It was interesting and less scary that what we’re used to.
Being priority flyers has benefits – special passport control, a separate line to security – but then you get dumped back in with everyone else. Both of our bags failed, mine for my camera, hers for who knows why, but we were on our way quickly. I left commenting on this security check being the most efficient I’d ever seen. Agents taking the bins for laptops and bags and pushing them along. Agents calmly checking bags that failed. Professional, polite and not the pawing you get from our TSA.
And then it was on to the lounge. Madrid Barajas has long held the record for best lounge in our travels, this one has surpassed it. Quiche, crepes, pain au chocolat, Nutella, fruit, bacon – if there were beds I’d stay here on our next trip.

For now, we sit and wait. One hour from getting in the car with William to sitting and having a coffee. Not nearly the 4 they’d predicted. So much for worrying about where to go and what to do. It seems we’re on our way home.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Last Day

Our last day would be devoted to loose ends, a couple of churches that had eluded us, a visit to the Louvre gift shop, and churros at La Tower.
We started once again at Secco, the neat little coffee shop slash artisanal bakery we visited yesterday. Today we had an English lesson for the clerk and a French lesson for me and lots of compliments and laughter to go around. We said our farewells and left heading off to Eglise Saint-Sulpice, passing what seemed like an endless string of patisseries, each one more beautiful and aromatic than the last.
It was easy to find. The morning was just beautiful – cool, crisp and sunny with a light breeze – and the light on the fountain in front of the church was lovely. Not many people at this hour, a woman with a small dog, a young couple taking photos, a man doing a panorama with his phone on a selfie-stick.

We went in and wandered around.

Saint-Sulpice is the largest church in Paris and was built starting in 1646 by Father Jean-Jacques Olier, the father of French School of Spirituality. Concerned that the city was not serving the people thoroughly, he attempted to create a parish that would provide the same level of care and devotion as a small rural church might. Of course, the project outlived the man, and the building was completed in 1745. Its most unique feature, one of the world’s largest pipe organ, containing 6,700 pipes. Sadly for us, our organ recital luck wasn’t working today and no one was playing.
Like its peers, it was huge and dark and imposing. In addition to the organ, there were a few other interesting stops on our tour. A painting by Delacroix titled “Jacob Wrestling with an Angel,” some beautiful stained glass from the mid-17th century, and a Gnomon with an exact Meridian Line used to calculate the date of Easter. The towers are not exact matches, because the construction of the south unit was halted due to the Revolution and never completed. The interior needs a bit of restoration though with obvious signs of missing plaster in the domes of most of the chapels.

Walking down Rue Bonaparte and past many of the chic boutiques that the district is known for, our next stop was Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Pres, the oldest church in the city. Dating to the site of a 6th century Benedictine abbey, today the oldest part of the structure is the Chapel of Saint Symphorien which was built in the 11th century. Unfortunately, it was closed today.
In the 8th century, Charlemagne endowed the abbey and ordered it renamed to its current title. In the 9th century, the abbey suffered from repeated Viking raids. In 990, it was rebuilt by Abbot Morard, beginning with the tower (that stands today) above the Saint Symphorien chapel. Pope Alexander III consecrated the choir in 1163.
I tried to visit in 2014 but it was closed due to renovation. Today it was open but large sections remained behind scaffolding and tarps. Nonetheless, the little array of chapels (a unique feature of the church, the western halves of both sides of the nave and the entire apse are ringed with them.) The heart of Jean-Casmir, King of Poland is interred in the Chapel of Saint-Francis Xavier and we were able to visit the tomb of the great philosopher (“I think therefore I am”) Rene Descartes in the Chapel of Saint Benedict. That chapel was stuffed with a bunch of non-religious junk, being stored there due to the construction, no doubt. Somehow, I think Descartes would feel diminished. Another unique feature is the medieval decorative paint on many of the columns and capitals. It was quite striking.

Off to the river and the Louvre which unfortunately was also closed so we were unable to visit the gift shop. Instead we wandered around the Carousals des Louvres, the underground shopping area associated with the museum. Here in addition to little stores and restaurant you can walk along extensive remnants of the original Tuileries Fortress, now modified with clever philosophical adages done in white neon. On the way to the Metro we walked behind a homeless man who was stealing all the trash bags out of the rubbish bins, no doubt to sort elsewhere.
On to the Tower and those elusive churros. Returning to ground level at the Trocadero, that massive pile of stone across the river, we found the place mobbed. We went down the hill and found the churro guy who seemed to be in a bad mood judging from the way he snapped the head off the teenager in front of me who wanted ice cream and not churros. I was all too happy to take her order and he was even happier to take my 5€. I stopped and took my traditional churro-tower photo just below the tower’s massive leg.

Security has been beefed up here. You can no longer just wander through the base area. Now you must go through screening on the southeast side and you can only exit on the northwest. Not a bad precaution in this day and age I suppose but too much work for us. We walked down the side of the park (fenced off for grass restoration) and stopped to take a few photos from the ideal spots.

From there we wandered off into the grand neighborhoods that line the park before catching the Metro at the Cavalry School for the quick ride home.