One of the unspoken pleasures of Airbnb is the opportunity to step inside the lives of others. By Meg Watson.

Another life in Paris, thanks to Airbnb

Parisian street, near Montmartre.
Parisian street, near Montmartre.

On my first night in Canelle’s bed, I watch Midnight in Paris and drink rosé from one of her stained teacups. In a classic display of unabashed French nonchalance, the bedroom door is nothing but a clear panel of glass. Because of this, I have to tactfully obscure myself from her housemate’s view while dangling mounds of charcuterie directly into my mouth.

It’s summer in the 19th arrondissement and the smell of rotisserie chicken is wafting up from the street below. I’m five plane trips and three oceans from home, and my host has the exact same Ikea blanket that adorns my bed in Melbourne’s inner-east.

“Out here, this is the real Paris,” the housemate tells me over a buttered croissant in the morning. She’s slaving over her psychology thesis on a small wooden desk awkwardly perched in the hallway of the two-bedroom apartment. I suppose she tells me this to shatter some of Woody Allen’s romantic illusion from the night before. But as she talks, I can’t help but notice the ornate crafting and weight of the butter knife in her hand, the stitching of the heavy maroon books that fill her desk, and the way her handwriting has all the controlled curves and flicks of a purposeful love letter.

There are many reasons why I chose Airbnb for my accommodation in Europe. It’s cheaper than hotels and you get more space and comfort for your spend. When travelling alone, it’s nice to know you can share a drink with a like-minded local rather than a sleazy Brit at a hotel bar. But there’s another reason that rarely gets discussed – can we all just admit to the pleasure of being inside someone else’s home? 

Raymond Carver put a face to this feeling as far back as 1971. In his short story “Neighbors”, happily married couple Bill and Arlene Miller are tasked with watching the apartment across the hall. While feeding the absent neighbours’ cat, Bill finds himself drawn to the minutiae of their lives. He peruses the medicine cabinet and sneaks a drink from an open bottle of Chivas; he becomes so enamoured with the thrill and possibility of this alternative life, he ravishes Arlene that night. These covert trips into someone else’s world become sexually stimulating for him – a testament to the power of our fascination with the unknown, no matter how mundane it may seem.

While sleeping in the bed of French film student Canelle Callait, the stimulation I feel isn’t sexual like that of Bill Miller’s, but it is equally intense. After being told Canelle’s on holiday in Greece, I’m let loose in her large heritage-style bedroom for 35 euros a night. The walls are covered in creased Polaroid pictures of young people drinking champagne in the street and small illegible notes penned on pieces of ripped scrap paper. 

I know it’s shameless, but I can’t help but think of it as someone living a version of my own life with different faces around them, different words to express the same emotions.

During the week I spend there, in the recently gentrified boroughs surrounding the infamous Père Lachaise Cemetery, I mould myself to fit the absence Canelle has left. I flick through the second-hand manifestos of artists and filmmakers left on her night stand and perch her tortoise-shell glasses on the bridge of my nose. It stands to reason this inverted version of myself needs glasses to read – I’m short-sighted.

Though I spend my days roaming galleries and picnicking in tourist hotspots, I feel Canelle’s absence has granted me temporary status as an official Parisian. In my mind, the heavy brass key in my pocket guarantees me access to the coveted inner life of this secretive city.

This concern of authenticity in travel isn’t new. Publishers make great sums of money penning “insider’s guides” to cities such as Paris. Back-lane markets hike their prices up for tourists clutching dog-eared guidebooks during the week. But Airbnb lets us take the next logical step. We’ve gone from chasing the life of a local to simply renting the life of a specific person. I’m no hapless Francophile; I’m Mlle Callait. I take the Line 3 metro every morning. I drink champagne in the street. 

Young Australians are flying overseas in droves to collect experiences such as this. At 23, I was the last of my friends to make the trip. But where the goal has traditionally been to “find yourself” – usually on a Contiki tour or in the bed of a few charming Europeans – I went to find other people. 

In Sweden, I was a local in the town of Linköping. I lived in a lake house the colour of lemon meringue, drank schnapps in the sunroom, and suitably contained my awe at the rare darkness that would descend for just 30 minutes each night. In London, I was either an architect or designer (I couldn’t quite figure it out). I collected paraphernalia from galleries such as the Tate Modern and feasted on home-cooked bangers and mash. 

Some Airbnb lives are easier to adopt than others. The British couple was away on holiday, so communication was limited, but the Swedes stayed in a granny flat out the back and watched the property with a fiercely protective eye. They would sunbathe all day on deckchairs that faced away from the lake, towards the pastel palace their great-grandfather had built 100 years prior. 

It’s possible that this is all in my head. Perhaps I’m the only one who enjoys thumbing through people’s vinyl collections or peeking in windows as I pass on the street. What are writers if not nosy? Maybe it’s a result of being raised an only child, a solitary type; it’s only natural I’m curious about how other lives are lived. But I’m willing to wager there are more of us out there.

Travel is really equal parts curiosity and delusion. By buying a plane ticket and taking leave from work, in some small way we step out of ourselves. We try the local cuisine and create new shapes with our tongues to form words we’ve never heard before. We roam strange city streets and try to tessellate ourselves into crowds. As Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” 

From the small balcony that opens in Canelle’s bedroom I see the iconic dome of Sacré-Coeur. Though the heaving lines of tourists are out of view, I can clearly make out the shape of streets in Montmartre as they wind and spill into metropolitan Paris. The wrought-iron gates of Père Lachaise are just around the corner – the final resting place of Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein and Proust himself. 

Inside, I smell a neighbour browning onions for Sunday lunch. The apartments here converge in the centre like beehives and I’m close enough to start guessing at the seasoning she’s using. Paprika. Garlic. Cayenne pepper. I start sifting through spice racks while preparing something for myself.

Though we never meet and our messages are limited, I like to think that somewhere, in a less populated stretch of coast in the Greek islands, Canelle Callait is doing the same thing as I am. Dreading her return to the painful routine of Paris, perhaps she is savouring her last night in someone else’s cheap Ikea sheets.

When it’s time to go, the housemate asks me to leave the keys on her desk. I wash my dishes, wrestle with a pile of clothes and somehow fit everything in my bag. Forty-two hours of flights await me; a journey so long it seems to dip in and out of not only time zones but reality itself. Canelle will be back in the morning, with everything as she left it, faced with the prospect of study and work.

Ungoverned by the oversight of a concierge or the restrictions of check-in times, transactions like this are taking place daily. 

I use the airport wi-fi to thank my host and leave the obligatory review: “Gorgeous room. Safe area. Highly recommended.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 3, 2014 as "Other people's houses".

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Meg Watson is a journalist and editor from Melbourne.

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