Are you a stranger? Excellent. Please come and stay at my home

Do you know about Airbnb? I had barely heard of them until a few months ago. Then suddenly they were all over the press like a bad rash. The company that lets anyone rent out their apartment or spare room was in some slightly hot water. Apparently a San Francisco blogger had her apartment demolished by a guest who had rented it for a week. Not only had she come home to a nightmare but the owners of Airbnb were doing precious little to help, commiserate or compensate her for the substantial damages. The trust they had built their company on had been eroded a wee bit.

Finally they helped the poor woman out, apologized for their less than gallant behavior and created a comprehensive insurance policy for their renters.

In the wake of the publicity, anyone who had heard of Airbnb was divided into two camps. On the one hand there were those who saw it as a teething problem, a glitch in an otherwise brilliant business. On the other hand, there were those who tutted and shock their head sagely. Wasn’t she being very irresponsible and courting disaster by trusting these strangers? Wasn’t she practically asking for something to happen?

Five years ago I imagine that I would have sided with the latter. I would have ranted about personal privacy (the only child in me rearing its ugly head), and what happens when trust merges into blatant stupidity. However, I suspect even then I might have doubted what was coming out of my mouth. This was coming from a girl who thought nothing of staying with friends of friends of friends abroad, whose home was always welcome to anyone growing up and who had stayed in numerous hostel dorms alongside teeming masses of backpack-clad strangers.

So what changed? When did I become an Airbnb convert? When did I become the sort of person who rents out my home to a total stranger? I blame my new liaise-faire attitude on two things: the cost of living in New York and my short but sweet experience of couch surfing.

So New York is expensive. We all know that. We all have a few hustles going and we try to earn whatever extra money we can. Renting your apartment in this city is as good a gig as any.

What about couch surfing? In essence it is the dreadlocked, touchy-feely sister of Airbnb. With couch surfing no money changes hands. You are simply welcomed into someone else’s house. You are offered a couch or maybe a bed, some potentially good conversations, a taster of a different culture and an insight into neighborhood secrets.

trust behind couch surfing

Jeremy and I couch surfed for 6 weeks across the American South West. We stayed in communes, in ranches and in one-bed room studios. The experience was revelatory. We were essentially total strangers but we were trusted with a spare key, welcomed to family dinners and taken on tours of wherever we ended up.

There was a little bit of faith but we also did our homework. We checked out our couch surfing hosts online, we chatted to them on the phone before we arrived. We made ourselves experts in judging what sort of person they were before we turned up on their doorstop. It became a habit and it turns out that Airbnb is no different.

So I may be fool hardy renting out my flat and if my place is trashed I’m sure there will be someone ready to tell me I had it coming. But, for the moment, I’ll use my judgment, make my rent payment and choose to trust people a little more.

From New York City to Motor City

What would you do if you were stuck at Detroit airport with a five hour flight delay?

With a biblical storm licking across the country the planes were grounded and we weren’t going anywhere quickly so we decided to postpone the joy of airport security lines and body scanners. We grabbed a rented car and zoomed out of the parking lot to catch a glimpse of Motor City.


There was the Detroit that I had read about – the project of city planners and artists and the setting for the award-winning book Middlesex. I had heard a lot about the place. I thought I was well prepared to see the city.

I had read about the mass exodus from the city but I had also heard stories of hope, of vacant lots turned into urban farm land, of the burgeoning food scene, of the money poured into downtown.

And all of that was true but it missed the utter emptiness of Detroit, the ghostly lack of people. Coasting down the city’s potted streets, the history of the place was visceral. The city threw a party, it erected some stunning architecture and soaring skyscrapers. The population swelled and then it burst. I wasn’t prepared for the eeriness of the shell it left behind.

It is a haunting place to be and yet it is also clear that the city is fighting. It has a life and an energy that peaks up between the cracks. Eminem’s super bowl video has a lot of truth behind it and there are many people who still believe that Detroit has a future.

As we drove through Midtown we saw new galleries and crepe shops dotting the streets between boarded up shops and we swept past the gleaming, imposing façade of the art institute and the public library.

We didn’t have long, our flight was set to take off in three hours so we swung back through the ghost streets of downtown and back towards the airport through Corktown. In the towering shadow of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, Slows Bar BQ looked intriguing with its salvaged wood exterior and line of customers snaking out the door. Inside the pulsing restaurant the city’s lifeline seems stronger than ever. Hipsters squeezed in next to old-timers to scoff down the tender pulled pork and beef brisket.

Driving back to the airport all I could see was the colour of Detroit – the painted murals on the side of buildings, a concert happening by the side of the road and green grass growing between the houses. From an urban planning perspective it is fascinating. How do you resurrect a crumbling city like Detroit? It is a place where people are willing to try anything to make that happen.

But that is all still just potential. In the very brief time I spent there it was a difficult place to be. A sad place with pockets of hope.

Humans were not designed for flight

In two days I am about to travel halfway across the country.

It is nothing remarkable and far from newsworthy but I am already having the occasional night sweat.

My speech is more shattered than normal as the nervous energy jumps across my body.

Irrational as it may be, I am embarrassed to say that I am vaguely afraid of flying.

It is not the sort of impressive fear that results in screaming hysterics and sobbing fits at the sight of overhead lockers and smell of re-circulated air. No, my fear is a quieter more pathetic beast. I pretend that I like nothing more than hanging mid-air in a metal box and start making rabid conversation with anyone in earshot. I eat whatever food is put in front of me, make lame jokes, stare manically at my book and try not to imagine what it would sound like if the engine suddenly stopped.

I had done a pretty impressive job of putting the fear resolutely out of my mind until I read this article this morning. You can imagine my joy. Someone pass the Valium.

The strange piece is that I used to love flying. At 12 years old I was set on a career as a commercial jet pilot. At 16 I was well on my way, taking flying lessons every weekend in a Cessna powered only by a spinning propeller. At 21 I was high over Kenya looking down at the Great Rift Valley from the cockpit of a 6 person plane listening to Dylan sing ‘Hurricane’ at the top of his lungs.

Then one day someone took off my rose tinted glasses and unkindly stepped on them.

As a child I assumed that everyone’s parents flew separately. I cheerily accepted the news that mum and dad got on separate flights when they were going on a trip without me ‘just incase one of them goes down’. Today I all too clearly see their orphaned child worries for what they were.

Luckily my fear of flying is neatly balanced by a need to travel. My compulsion to go to new places, meet new people and periodically get back to England to spend a night with old friends in the pub, forces me to buckle up and pray.

It seems like I’m not alone. A friend of mine recently told me that she phones her friends and family before a flight ‘just incase’. So, I shall follow in her happy footsteps, stop writing and get on the phone right now…

Once upon a time flying was glamourous and relaxing. Could someone bring back those easy days please?

New York Living: City by the beach

I learnt two things about myself this week. First, my rose-tinted memories of childhood summers all involve time idyllically spent by the ocean. Second, when the stress of life as an entrepreneur/writer gets too much for me I am all too tempted to escape. The combination of these means that, when the going gets tough in New York, I look longing towards the beach.

Fort Tilden New York

Shockingly this is a part of New York

On top of minor things like money and failure worries, I spent last week worrying that I was missing the summer. I spend most of my days working from home, looking at the blue glow of my computer screen. The window is normally cranked open and I can hear the old Italians shooting the breeze on the stoops below. It is not a bad way to spend my days but it is largely an indoor-bound affair.

So this weekend we decided to embrace the spirit of July 4th, take the day off work and feel the sunshine on our skin. We toyed with the idea of heading out to the Hamptons but it felt too industrious for a Saturday morning so we decided to check out one of the city beaches less than half and hour from our apartment.

The Rockaways are a strange place. Half looming high rises and half unexplored semi-wilderness. I had been in the off-season and, much like winter in Coney Island, the beaches gave off a wind-sweep melancholy. I had been told that the beaches were heaving with people in the summer. However, I had read about a stretch of pristine, secluded shoreline far to the west (thank you New York Times). So we set off to Fort Tilden, somewhat tentatively, towels and books in hand.

In short it was perfect. The ideal escape. There were sand dunes, only a smattering of people, not a building in sight and the Atlantic Ocean lapping temptingly at our feet. The only people I saw looking industrious all day were two cops and they were riding horseback in the surf talking to a few girls in bikinis…it felt like the whole city was taking a break.

New York beach police

The Rockaways are technically in Queens but they summarize much of what I love about Brooklyn. An urban smorgasbord of ugliness, beauty, chaos and peacefulness.

If you live in New York, go. Go now. Take a picnic. Happy 4th of July!

Brooklyn New York

It hard to be mad at a place with road signs like this

New York, New York: Sinatra had it right

Spring has finally come to the big apple and it is time to forgive the city anything.

Brooklyn New York

When Jeremy and I first arrived on New Year’s Eve, we had sublet a beautiful but miniscule space in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The snow had formed 4-foot walls down the semi-ploughed roads and we were paying three times our old rent in Chicago. It was a baptism of fire and there were times when we questioned our sanity. New York had been a dream, an east coast adventure and a chance to live in the pulsing heart of the publishing and business world. As we hibernated in our apartment and gave up on any sort of privacy we wondered if the city was too much for us, too expensive, too gritty.

Last Tuesday, teaching my first class on public speaking (here is the next one), I played a spontaneous speaking game with my students. In their own way each of them told us a story about their New York, the city they called home, good or bad. One hated and loved Times Square in equal measure, one told us about a crazy saxophonist on the subway with questionable personal hygiene and one told us about her apartment nightmare living with a dominatrix housemate.

This city is like marmite, you love it or hate it, and sometimes you do both at the same time, but once it gets under your skin it is hard to shake off. Today, sitting in our apartment with the sun shining through my window, I love it. I love the beauty of my neighborhood, the old Italian men who sit on their stoops every day, the morning coffee at my local café, the bookseller down the road who has used tomes scaling the walls and spilling out on to the sidewalk.

Central Park New York

Of all the cities I have been to, nowhere has the sheer diversity of New York. It is hard to beat the experience of all that variation than from the back of the bike. Brooklyn and Queens have great bike rides that I will tell you about some other time, but my New York story, the New York journey that I love the most is the one that takes me from our place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, to the best bagel I have ever eaten on 107th st on the Upper West side of Manhattan. It is not a short bike ride but it is an ideal way to spend a Sunday in the city.

The rush of adrenaline as cars screech past me on midtown Manhattan’s 6th Ave, the intense gaze at each parked car for fear of a door flying out into my path, the joy ride up central park, the in-line skaters, the table tennis players in Tompkins Square Park, the mysterious Chinese gamblers in Columbus Park. On top of it all is the food. In my mind, cycling 15 city miles entitles me to some treats on the way. There are hundreds of places on route but here are a few favorites:

1. Ted and Honey – fueling up with a breakfast sandwich and an iced coffee in Carroll Gardens.

Ted and honey

Image: Cobble Hill Blog

2. Grabbing a few biscotti from a cart here in Little Italy after rolling over the Brooklyn Bridge.

3. The Pickle Guys – if you like pickles, my favorite is the somewhat controversial pickled pineapple but you’re never short of choice. If you’re not so into pickles and prefer your treats a touch sweeter, check out the lower east side location of the Doughnut Plant across the street.

Pickle guys

Image: Robbie Virus

Doughnut plant

Moishe’s bake shop – anything is good for a pastry picnic in Tompkins Square Park.

Moishe's bake shop

The grand finale of them all is the best bagel I have ever tasted. I realize that some people are partial to H&H but we were introduced to Absolute Bagel by a friend and I think my loyalty may already have been forged. An everything bagel, hot out of the oven, with a thick layer of white fish spread…it gets me on my bike every Sunday.

Absolute bagel

Image: Carnivore and Vegetarian

Tell me a story…do you have a favorite New York place, food mecca or journey?