‘Shit!’ she shouted. ‘I’m on my way to the airport!’ It was the night before our first Airbnb guests were due, and I was on a call with a young Chinese woman who had got the date wrong.
I suppose she was the niece of someone, or something, and had got roped in. Mr and Mrs Zhang don’t speak any English. I’d sent directions for tube or minicab on the assumption they’d be flying into Heathrow, which is nearby, but it was Gatwick, and Miss Chen was picking them up.
Due at ten pm the next day, inevitably it was close to midnight when they arrived, silent and shell-shocked. Miss Chen was all for getting back into the cab and leaving them to it. She had the look of someone who would rather be clubbing. Persuaded to accompany them into the flat to translate for me while I welcomed them, and to ask any questions they might have, she was still gone within two minutes.
I worried about them. How would they manage with no English? How would they find food, or buy an Oyster card? I’ve lived in HK and speak a little Cantonese, but no Mandarin. I was conscious that they would likely not want the milk, butter and granola and the other basic things I had provided to tide them over. I’d bought a toaster and a loaf of bread, but do Chinese people eat toast for breakfast? No. Congee. I tried to imagine them in our nearest grocery store, which is Asian run, with great sacks of basmati rice, but caters largely to the local Polish clientele. Crikey, I don’t know what to do with half the stuff in there and at least I can read the labels.
The hostess in me, the people pleaser, fretted.
We saw neither hide nor hair of them. I messaged the lady back in the office in China to say ‘I hope they are comfortable and have everything’ and effusive appreciation and reassurance came swiftly. All the same, I felt uneasy.
After about a week, in which we still never even saw or heard them entering or leaving, there came a knock on the door. Mrs Zhang stood holding a smartphone. On the screen, the words ‘how does the washing machine work?’ I made to enter the flat to show her but she was not finished delivering her message. With a press of a virtual button, suddenly a robotic female voice boomed ‘HOW. DOES. THE. WASHING. MACHINE. WORK.’ Wow. I had bought a new washing machine for the flat. Tried not to look too clueless while, with mimes and smiles, I got it to work.
A day or two later, I enquired again as to their welfare. From Aimme in Shanghai I got: ‘Mr Zhang stomach playing up and he is cold at night. Do you have extra warm blanket?’ Although it was stifling hot (for London), and the flat has numerous extra duvets and blankets, I quickly fetched another and knocked on the door. No reply. I left it on a console table in plain view and went back to my desk, which is about two feet from where Mr and Mrs Zhang are on the other side of the wall. I messaged Aimme six thousand miles away to say ‘please can you say that there is a blanket outside the door?’ Then came another message ‘Can you buy amoxicillin in London chemist?’ I had to be the bearer of bad news. I explained that there is a chemist at the end of the road who could recommend something for an upset tummy, but that antibiotics are only available on prescription in this country, and that if necessary, he will have to see a doctor.
The urge to get involved to sort things out was almost overwhelming. I sat on my hands. The following day my enquiry via Shanghai produced the news that Mr Zhang was feeling much better. Phew.
They have since extended their stay, so must be quite happy. In fact, they wanted to stay a further month but I have another booking. Middle-aged Australian couple. I imagine that is going to be a very different experience.
More work and less money than the plain vanilla regular rental I was hoping for, but Airbnb is definitely more interesting!