I am shaking as I write this, as what I’m about to tell you about just happened. I have stayed in well over a dozen Airbnbs in countries around the world, both long term and short term. I have become friends with some of my hosts. I have had universally positive experiences until now.
I booked what was advertised as a “cozy apartment for a couple” in the center of an Eastern European capital. The flat in the photos had a small but cute white bed, a small two-burner stove, and nice lighting. It looked like a very small, modest, but stylish studio. The ad promised wifi. I booked the flat for one month, until after the New Year, because it becomes almost impossible to find a flat around that holiday in this city. I planned to use the month to look for better, cheaper long-term housing in the city, as I work in the region.
I arrived jetlagged and haggard, with several suitcases. The host did not meet me, but left the key under the mat. I opened the door, and was absolutely shocked. It was literally not an apartment. It was a modified space for storage, or holding reserves of food. A closet, really. Equally as shocking was that there was no bed. In its place was a brown, ratty, diseased looking mini sofa. The two-burner stove in the pictures was also missing; in its place was a single-burner glass stove from the seventies, which looked to be a fire hazard.
Shards of glass, large and dangerous enough to use as a very serious weapon, made up the plate of the stove. There were smaller shards of glass on the floor and in the sink. There was a small bathroom with a water boiler, but there was no shower. I looked around feverishly for a shower head. I had been traveling for 17 hours and desperately wanted – and needed – a shower. There was no shower.
I tried to login to the promised wifi network, but no such network could be found. I went down the street to a restaurant and proceeded to drink several shots of the local liquor. I wrote an angry, firm, message to the Airbnb host via the Airbnb messaging system. “Where is the bed? Where is the wifi? Where is the show? Where is the space? This is not an apartment but a closet. I didn’t know I’d be sleeping on a sofa for a month. I need a full refund.”
Thus began a 48-hour long adventure in communicating with the gaslighting host from hell, and (to their credit) much more helpful Airbnb support. The gaslighting (and I don’t toss that term around; that’s exactly what it was) began straight away: “The internet is working – your devices are the problem. The sofa is more comfortable than the bed, that’s why we switched it out – we did this for your comfort. Stop with your lies. Maybe the flat is small for you but we had two people living there as guests for five years and they were fine.”
She kept repeating that they’d had satisfied guests before – which is literally impossible – and I kept asking why there were no reviews if this was true… it’s not. I spent the first night with my legs cramped and back aching on a 1970s, fibrous sofa, feeling like the wall was closing in on me. The space was smaller than what I imagine a prison cell to be. Solitary confinement.
The shower, according to my host, is shared. It just so happens to be down the hall. The neighbors are all youngish men who look strung the hell out on all variety of drugs, and I’m a youngish woman alone. They stare at me in the hall. The shower has no shower curtain and looks like it has gangrene. There is no functioning light in the shower room; it’s pitch black. If you walked around barefoot you’d end up with fungi taking up residence in your toe nails.
I was so shocked at all of this, that all I could do was send messages every ten minutes to the host, mostly in all caps. Our dynamic was incredibly toxic. The more she denied that anything I was saying was true, flying in the face of all the very obvious and observable facts, the more my anger would escalate.
Meanwhile, I contacted Airbnb, irate. They asked for photo documentation. As soon as they saw images of the couch where the bed had been and the space and the shards of broken glass where the stovetop was supposed to be they said the host had many clear violations and gave me a small reimbursement.
That was not enough. I told them that I wanted a full refund and a new place. I could not be stranded with all of my luggage in this city at the most difficult time of year to find accommodation. Meanwhile, my host kept lying: “The internet is working. We know you are lying. You have a bed. It’s a sofa bed. We will replace the stove but the one you have is newer and better and that’s why we replaced it. The shower is cleaned daily. You have a huge bed.”
Just total, completely crazy lies. At the same time, she was telling me that I’ve “made a problem” for her with money, and ruined her financially because Airbnb has sided with me. She keeps asking me to “make a deal.” My messages to Airbnb grew more frantic and panicked. They told me that they would give me a full refund for all of the nights I didn’t stay there and a partial refund on the two nights I did, if they can rebook me at another property.
The problem is that everything is much more expensive and the listings are scarce this close to the holidays. I’m freaking out. The host starts saying that she’s been sending me text messages because she needs my personal documents to take to the police station to register me with the authorities because I’m staying at her property, even though she knows full well that I’m leaving. I tell her to only communicate with me through Airbnb, because that way the company can see our communication.
Airbnb saw how bad the situation was and said on top of the full refund they would give me a coupon for $200 off a rebooking. They finally found me another accommodation, and told me that the host will likely be suspended from the site forever. I was feeling somewhat relieved, and went to a cafe to use the internet before going back to pack up all my luggage and move to the new apartment.
I went back to the original property to pack and encountered a very disturbing surprise: the door to the flat had been locked from the inside with a chain. I was due at my new flat in an hour and a half but I couldn’t get in or access any of my things. A light was on and someone was inside the apartment, which had all of my belongings: computer, money, passport, jewelry, personal items.
I started panicking and banging on the door, yelling and asking what was going on. I had not agreed to let anyone in while I was away, let alone have them lock me out. The host opened the door. It was the first time I saw her. All of my suitcases were open and my passport was on the floor. I panicked. I started screaming that she was a thief and to get out.
I had no idea what was going on. I had hardly slept the previous two nights, I was jet lagged and stressed out, and had not expected to see this woman in the closet-sized flat with all of my personal items strewn all over the place. I told her that I was leaving in a little over an hour but needed to pack, and told her to leave me alone and get out. She stood in the doorway and refused to leave, saying that it wasn’t my apartment, and that she had every right to stay. I pushed a clothing rack towards her and told her to get the hell out, and that I needed to see if she’d stolen anything while going through my suitcases.
She said I had falsely accused her of stealing and that she was calling the police. I closed the door and started packing. I was shaking and had no idea what was going on, if the police were showing up. I was in a foreign country and realized I would likely have to speak to the police in a language I barely knew.
I heard them arrive, and listened to them speaking to the host. I asked if I could leave because I needed to go meet my new host at my new Airbnb and they said I needed to wait. I spoke with the police. They asked me if I had all of my things, and I said I thought I did. I said we had a disagreement and that I was moving to a new flat. The police decided I’d done nothing wrong, and helped me carry all of my luggage downstairs and called me a cab. I arrived at my new Airbnb, which is very lovely and relaxing, with a very kind host, where I am right now.