On my first night in Tunis, I stayed in a large city-centre hotel. At this point, I was still not yet living in the reality of Tunis but in a spectral city which was woven from my own jumpy anxieties. Every taxi driver was a possible kidnapper; every ATM could conceivably gobble up my bank card, leaving me stranded with no money. So I was not yet really here. The positive side of this over-consciousness was that the view of Tunis from my hotel window was as dazzling as if the technicolour had been just switched on. I leant out over the whole city, drunk on its newness and detail. A day later, the same view would have stopped singing and it would be now the same as any other rubble.
The bed in my hotel was full of insects. I was like Daniel in the lions’ den, except that Daniel got significantly less bitten than I did.
At some point in the night, I wanted a bottle of water. I dressed again in yesterday’s clothes and took the lift down to the ground floor. The lobby was in total darkness but I could distinguish the form of a man lying asleep on his back on one of the two sofas.
No doubt he could help me. “Excusez-moi monsieur,” I whispered. I was very thirsty.
I then noticed that there was a second man lying on the second sofa in exactly the same attitude. The left hand of each man had been placed carefully across their left thigh.
If I wake these men up, they’re going to shoot me, I thought. It’s dark – they’ll come to life with a jolt, fire, and then wake up.
So I traipsed back to bed, still agonisingly thirsty. Perhaps this entire episode was a dream without a tell-tale crack in it. Perhaps I was still living in that woven-together, half-hysterical city which was yet to settle down realistically in my mind. Perhaps these two men were just accidentally sleeping in the same pose.
Forget about hotels. The current tourist-recession had given my hotel an enjoyable atmosphere of Gothic decline, which I was very glad to have sampled. The corridors were as quiet as the bottom of a well; the staff were so bored and depressed that their eyes were red around the rims. All that this hotel needed was an empty swimming pool and the looted ruins of a cocktail bar to complete the effect.
I had never used Airbnb prior to visiting Tunis but I quickly found it to be the perfect means of exploring the city. Airbnb is this website in which people let out rooms in their homes to strangers. It is like online dating but with just the bed and no sex included.
My choice not to live in a hotel was originally based upon the UK government’s highly thought through security advice. I imagined gunmen turning up and doing this thing where they get all of the guests to recite verses from the Quran. In other hotels in Africa, in this impromptu school test with extra pressure, those who have bungled the quiz have received rather more than the dunce’s cap.
Aside from my single midnight excursion, I have not viewed the hotel security in Tunisia with my own eyes. I do not therefore want to unjustly malign it or to, conversely, recommend it to you if it is inadequate. In the two different apartments which I booked with Airbnb, I lived quite peacefully, and I soon came to be swayed by my hosts’ laid back approaches to security.
I have lived in ten or so different flatshares in Edinburgh throughout my adult life and I immediately recognised that an Airbnb letting comes with precisely the same dynamic. You will never know whether your relationship with your host will stick until you have tested it. You are forming a mini coalition and this will require understanding, compromise, and absolute straightforwardness. There is a balance to be achieved: you do not want to invade your host’s privacy or to become annoyingly dependent upon them, but at the same time they would like a bit of company and entertainment from their guests. This is presumably one of the reasons why they have hired out their homes in the first place.
Fortunately, I quickly picked up the correct music and played along quite smoothly with my different hosts. They were very generous and they helped me to get far below the surface of the city. You also get incomparably more for your money than you would with a hotel. It could be said that the vibrant sociability of a youth hostel offers a more conventionally adventurous experience. In my Airbnb apartments, however, I could negotiate the privacy within which to write these articles, whereas staying in a youth hostel is usually like being unable to escape from an endless house party. The barracks ambiance of a hostel also reflects the sense that everybody is part of the same occupying army, all outsiders and quartered within their designated base.
The sometimes strenuous pleasantness of an Airbnb letting is purposely incentivised by the design of the whole system. The guests have to review the apartment and then the apartment has to review the guests. Each has to keep the other sweet in order to avoid putting off new guests or hosts in the future. If many online hotel reviewing systems appear to make otherwise normal people grow bizarrely deranged with vindictiveness, Airbnb holds this tendency in check. Neither of my hosts wrote a penetrating psychoanalytical demolition of every aspect of my character. Indeed, the reviews of my behaviour could not have been more admiring had I authored them myself. It is quite nice to have a page somewhere on the internet which is dedicated to complimenting you. A page which can be returned to and read again in low moments.
There are more than three hundred Airbnb rentals in central Tunis. There are over two million on the planet. Airbnb is spreading everywhere like a radical new ideal, inspiring fanatics and confounding the authorities. When I am finally a millionaire, I will live exclusively in Airbnb lettings, roaming forever all around the world collecting stories.