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I had lost them.
The lovely older German couple, ensconced in my Airbnb studio since Wednesday, hadn’t returned all Sunday night. Now it was Monday morning, and I wondered how I could have let them out of my sight.
I began hosting on Airbnb in June, 2013, offering the little studio behind my Los Angeles house as a cozy alternative to a motel. Hundreds of guests have settled in here, and the added income has actually allowed me to keep my home. What a wonderful way to meet people! Visitors from around the globe have been so kind and appreciative. Certainly that was true of my German guests, Hanna and Georg.
And now I didn’t know where they were. I panicked. I thought back to our last interaction, on Sunday morning. They had asked me about some exotic places on their California map: Joshua Tree, Sequoia National Park, Big Bear Lake. Hanna and Georg may have been well over 60, but they loved hiking in nature. Georg described activities to me in his halting English; I picked up “rock climbing” as a favorite sport. They pointed out the Amtrak train lines that crossed the state, and Hanna asked about Santa Barbara, where they hoped to go with their daughter.
Omigosh! Their daughter was here in Los Angeles! But could I call her? What would I say? “Your parents are missing. They didn’t come home.” Hanna and Georg were healthy; they were smart; they could take care of themselves. Couldn’t they?
Hanna and Georg had arrived late the previous Wednesday, taking public transit from Los Angeles International Airport to my Los Feliz neighborhood, but their arrival had been rocky. Georg had copied out my careful directions, but somehow they got on the wrong bus from Union Station downtown. They’d asked for help, but I guess they had trouble understanding the strangers they approached. When they finally arrived that Wednesday evening, they seemed frail and a bit bewildered by the cityscape around them.
Right away, this kindly older couple struck a sympathetic chord in me and I felt protective of them. I wondered, had I made a mistake in my directions? Initially they hadn’t even found the bus stop and walked in a complete circle at Union Station. “We end where we start!” they told me. Should I have picked them up at Union Station? I felt guilty, thinking of the two of them in such unfamiliar surroundings. Downtown Los Angeles can intimidate even locals. As a host, I don’t offer pick-up service for my guests. Should I have made an exception for this couple?
Anyway, they were here now. Once they relaxed a bit, they laughed about their difficulties, and they exclaimed that they loved my little studio. I, however, couldn’t get my bearings. My guilt evolved into anger at their daughter: she should have picked them up! Never mind the fact that, as a busy professional with two young children, she couldn’t get away to meet them. Hanna and Georg had assured her they’d be fine. I wasn’t fine. I was emotionally entangled with two people I’d known for ten minutes. And, I knew, even as I felt sympathy for them, that I had crossed a line. Who was I to feel angry at their daughter? And, wasn’t it presumptuous of me to feel sorry for them?
Often, we hosts feel protective of our guests. Our sensitivity and helpfulness make us great at what we do. And sometimes we really do need to step in and help. In reality, however, most Airbnb travelers are hardy and resourceful. They don’t actually need us as much as we think they do. Yet I’ve felt that protective instinct so often! When two young Japanese women, just out of college, stayed with me on their first overseas trip, I worried that they’d get lost in Hollywood. Would it make sense to follow them discreetly, to insure that they’d be safe? And when my guests from Ottawa, Canada, set out for a day in Malibu, I had to restrain myself from running after them with a can of sunscreen. You can’t spray down your guests with sunscreen, no matter how high the SPF, if they don’t ask you to. They’re grownups, right? They know about things like sunburns.
After hearing of Hanna and Georg’s adventures downtown, I felt relief that they had family close by. During their visit, though, they mostly relied on public transportation. Each morning, they would head off to explore the city. They gazed at the Hollywood Sign, and they spent an afternoon at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And I worried about them, making themselves understood in a strange city, navigating a transit system which had let them down when they first arrived.
I could breathe more easily in the evenings, when they spent time at their daughter’s home nearby. She’d drive them back to my place at night, stopping in once to meet me. By their second evening, I found myself checking the front window every few minutes, hoping they’d make it safely up the front steps when they arrived. Yes, I had allowed my emotions to overtake common sense. Hanna and Georg spoke limited English and didn’t know Los Angeles, but that didn’t mean I had to worry. They managed the bus lines and found the tourist spots without complaint. They got along fine.
Until they simply disappeared, that is.
I was in my home when they set out around noon Sunday, and I acted on an impulse I’d felt before: I went to my door to watch as they walked down the block. Too late, I thought; they were already out of sight. I left a note and a little gift bag on their doorknob, with a book about Sequoia that I’d promised to lend them. I went on with my day. That evening, tempted as I was to watch for them, I distracted myself and watched television with a friend.
Early Monday morning, I glanced out my window at their studio door. What?! The little note and gift bag still hung on their doorknob.
They had never come back the previous night!
I thought hard: no, I hadn’t heard them arrive the night before, but I’d had the TV on.
Of course, they might not have seen the little bag I had left, but that wasn’t likely. Maybe they had simply stayed with their daughter. Perhaps she had picked them up on Sunday, and that’s why I hadn’t seen them walking down the block. Still, why hadn’t they let me know? They had told me details of their plans, although I’m afraid I didn’t fully understand them. Wanting to be polite, I would nod and smile as they talked, rather than simply asking them to clarify.
What if they had decided to go off on their own to Joshua Tree? They could get lost in that lonely terrain, with the scary trails and winding, unpaved roads. Had they hopped on the Amtrak? Were they en route to Sequoia? How could they know what to pack for a trip like that? Had they rented a car? They’d never driven in California. It wasn’t safe.
Certainly, I needed to call their daughter, but what was I to say without worrying her? And, wouldn’t she wonder what I was doing calling her in the middle of her work day to report two missing adults? I had no proof anything was amiss, and more important, it wasn’t my business, but I called their daughter and left a message.
How do you sound casual when you leave a message to a stranger about their parents’ safety? Here’s how I managed it: “Hi Lisa, how are you? Call me!”
Lisa got back to me within an hour; she wasn’t at work. She had taken Hanna and Georg to Santa Barbara the night before! “Didn’t they tell you?” Sure enough, she’d picked them up on Sunday, and together they’d driven up the coast. Those were their plans! Their reservation with me had included Sunday night, because they didn’t want to leave me with an unbooked night in the middle of their stay.
Hanna and Georg hadn’t swerved off a winding road. They had visited sleepy Santa Barbara. Apparently, only my imagination had flown off a cliff. My guests were perfectly safe.
And I put together what had happened. The day before, looking at Hanna and Georg’s California map, I had nodded and smiled as they explained some dates to me. I now realized: they had told me about going to Santa Barbara for a night, and I hadn’t understood. Worse, I hadn’t shown them enough respect to try to understand. I had wanted to be polite, as though they were too delicate to interrupt. Unconsciously, I had treated them as helpless foreigners who needed my protection. How wrong I was to project my perceptions onto them!
Monday evening, when I finally heard Hanna and Georg come in by the side gate, I tried to assume a casual air, but I knew I stammered as I said hello, and I could feel that I was smiling just a little too much. There they were, unharmed, just tired from their side excursion.
The truth is that, on seeing them, I wanted to kiss them. I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t their daughter; in reality, I didn’t even know them very well. I had to retain the friendly, calm attitude of an Airbnb host. So I kept my greeting to a hello and a smile, and I went inside quickly, before they could notice my tears of relief.
Carolyn is a teacher & host.
c. 2015 by author
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