It was time.
My daughter had graduated college and moved to London for a great job. The time had come to finally re-consider the use of her mostly-vacant bedroom.
Of course, in my mind, it will always be Olivia’s room. With its smoky-blue wall, a color we mixed together, its statement starburst mirror hanging above ochre Euro pillow shams, and the little wooden ‘when in Rome’ sign we gifted her as a year-abroad sendoff to Italy. The reassuring little red dream catcher we hung over her bed when she was four, to keep nightmares away. A niche whose tiny West-facing window frames Mount Tam. The mountain that beckoned her each morning to run up its trails, and down to the sea, she says, “Because it’s there.”
In that spirit, her lovely bedroom is now pioneering a new adventure—as a listing on AirBnB. For $95.00 per night. Organic-cotton linens, lemongrass soap, locavore coffee included. With her permission, we decided to roll the dice ourselves as hosts, and give this new sharing culture a try.
Some friends thought we were crazy. They couldn’t imagine surrendering family privacy. We and our younger daughter live in a compact, three-bedroom home, with two dogs and a cat. Comfortable, but modest. Others understood the impulse immediately. The promise of an adventure. Honestly, we were not sure what to expect. These ‘guests’ would be perfect strangers, and they’d have to share the upstairs bathroom with our daughter, Kate, an often-moody teenager who regularly blasts Kanye.
We’re not totally new to the idea of opening our home. In 2014, when Olivia was a junior living abroad in Rome, I got the idea that we should become a host family for Italian students. My teen thought I had lost my mind. “Why would we do that, Mom?”
Luckily, I ignored her, as mothers do, sometimes. We got 17-year old Chiara from Chernusco di Lombardia, a Milan suburb. We were not disappointed. Chiara, with her dyed-orange hair and nose piercings, was warm, kind, and eager to become a California girl. Kate got an older sister. We got a third teen daughter. Mostly in a good way. Some things are universal: Teen girls everywhere have crushes —and heartbreak. Not every girl in the world thinks black leggings are it. And, Italian language is lyrical. (Take the word for dishwasher. It sounds much more romantic: lavostoviglie!). Kate learned to see her own life through a new lens.
Like our Italian daughter, the AirBnB experience has exceeded our wildest hopes. Hosting a steady stream of casual guests has restored my faith in humanity. In fellow travelers. In kindness among strangers. In civility, diversity, understanding, and peace. In Americans. No caveats. Only two months in, perhaps we are in a ‘honeymoon period,’ and all it will take to burst the bubble will be one inconsiderate guest. But for the moment, there have been only good guests. One even cleaned up after our puppy pooped on the bath mat!
AirBnB seems to have created a platform in which being respectful and kind to strangers is rewarded, not just for its own sake, in building community, but in ratings, and in status, for all the world to see! We are two guests away from attaining the coveted superhost status; so far all eight reviews gave five stars. Like getting a puppy, it may not be for everyone. But I would recommend the experience just as wholeheartedly.
In this (seemingly endless) bleak era of Trump, in which the hate being churned up in parts of this country hangs as thick as San Francisco’s coastal fog, I have opened my home —well, Olivia’s room— to perfect strangers! And the experience has let in the light again.
I have got to meet and connect with: A corporate facilitator from LA attending a weekend workshop here; a sharp New York finance guy who is contemplating a move back to San Francisco, his hometown; a 40-ish filmmaker from Dallas shooting a commercial on the beach; a journalist from Providence, R.I. covering an alternative energy convention; a couple dropping off their daughter at CAL; a firefighter from Austin, Texas attending a Trauma training; a Hong Kong woman who is leaving the advertising industry to become a hypnotherapist. Turns out she works for the same agency as my daughter in London, and flew halfway across the world to Marin to study with a hypno guru (For real! I could not make this stuff up). Next weekend, we’ll check in an analytics guy from Palo Alto, here to attend a benefit on our mountain, and then stay to hike it with his wife.
After bidding ‘safe travels’ to several guests, even exchanging personal info and promises to keep in touch, I find myself wondering what will happen next in the ongoing dramas of their lives. At least the slivers of their lives bits they shared. And having to accept that I may never know. Like when you burrow into a great novel, or watch a movie that really gets into your head and nests there awhile. As your life goes on, the drama keeps reverberating in the back of your mind, and you find yourself wondering what might happen to a particular character in the chapter after the story ended….
Brent (not his real name), after separating from his wife in New York, was considering job offers in both SF and in LA, or whether to stay put in New York. I want to know what he decided! Of course he owes me nothing, and it would be too invasive to contact him to ask. So, hey Brent, if you are reading this—please could you let me know which job offer you accepted? Will you become our neighbor? I could see us becoming friends, even. We have daughters the same age. In a six-degrees-of separation moment, we discovered that my daughter and his niece attend the same high school.
The guest who most touched my heart, who almost felt like a stand-in for my own daughter, was a sweet, kind, unassuming and humble 32-year old woman who booked a weekend with us to get a break from working at an urban start up. Well, that was her story, until I pried it out of her at the very end of her visit —over my cage-free egg scramble with garden herbs, meyer-lemon croissants, and a flight of fresh juices (pomegranate, tangerine, and grapefruit)— that actually, she founded the start-up. And started it all by selling all her belongings, quitting her cushy job at Tiffany’s, and moving to Haiti after the earthquake to help people recover. Because she wanted her life to have purpose. And got a cool idea to help women. And now has, oh, 35-40 employees. And VC money. Lots of it. And 8 million followers on her site. No wonder she sought respite! She sat happily outdoors in our garden, ensconced in her Beats headphones and our mohair blanket, blissfully holding our puppy in her lap instead of her Mac, outlined by the glow of the firepit, as the sun dropped behind the mountain. I baked a peach galette, and later brought a still-warm slice to her bedside. I sensed she needed a little extra pampering…. Upon leaving, she wrote,
“I 'm going to return to real life now and was looking for you to say goodbye…Thank you, thank you for the beautiful stay! Just what I needed. Felt like I was taking a weekend at a spa! Thank you for the hospitality and the chats! I feel like a new woman. Can't wait to rave about your place to my friends and in your review.”
If someone made me stop this hosting gig right now, it will have been worth it, just to have had the privilege of this connection. We clicked on a deep, soul-stirring, gut level. Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, has written about how AirBnB is transforming relationships. In 2014, he quoted co-founder Brian Chesky, then 32.
“I think we’re going to move back to a place where the world is a village again — a place where a lot of people know each other and trust each other ... and where everyone has a reputation that everyone else knows,” said Chesky, 32. “On Airbnb, everyone has an identity. All the social friction because of a lack of trust gets removed.” In the process, “you unlock all this value and the world starts to feel like a community again.”
Exactly right. Trust. I would add to that. Decency. Civility. Diversity. Differing points of View. Understanding. Compassion. And community. The world starts to feel like a community again. Who’d a thunk it would take a 21st Century app that disrupted the hotel industry to make community accessible again? And profitable, too: the company is valued at $10 billion, according to Skift.com. The chance to touch another human’s life —if briefly— is deeply rewarding. And you pay it forward. New perspectives are enriching. Even my teen skeptic daughter gets it. Sharing a bathroom isn’t too bad. And, if she helps us remake the bed, she pockets a cut of the earnings.
Yesterday, at her high school, the head of school gave a stirring ‘welcome back’ speech regarding the recent flare up in hate in our country, which was a call to action: “Grow by making room for other perspectives. And understand clearly that these important skills, these kinds of attitudes—respect, generosity, and compassion—these ways of being, require us to check hatred at the door…. Only then can we learn and teach, create, invent and discover with real purpose and real freedom.”
Grow by making room for other perspectives. Sacrifice comfort, convenience and complacency, even. Apathy. Routine. To my friends who were skeptics, shocked that I’d ‘disturb’ the peace and privacy of our family home by inviting strangers to stay, I say: It has been a privilege to host these fine people for bite-size amounts of time, to make them feel welcome and at ease, with small gestures: leaving a vase of fresh-picked wildflowers by their bedside or, pouring them a glass of good Dry Creek pinot upon arrival, or cooking for them on a Sunday morning. In return, so much gratitude. I also get a peek at their fascinating lives, in worlds far removed from my own, without lugging bags, converting money, having translation problems or missing a flight! And in a few days, pouf! They’re gone. Leaving us with a pleasant rush of cherishing a new encounter, wonderment at whatever particular life dilemma was unfolding in their lives at the moment they passed our way, and oh, a load of laundry. But in my mid fifties, that’s a small price for growth.