Most of us like company. I've been really lucky on this walk to have had so many people join me for a leg or two. Photos of many of them are sprinkled throughout this blog. Its a testimony to the inherent attractiveness of walking, to the cause, and to Melitta - a woman who touched many people in a special way. I'm not putting in names with the photos - you know who you are...(and, dare I say it, a good looking lot you are - well, mostly...)
You know how at a wedding you meet people you've never met before (and probably won't meet again), and take a tentative step into the different circles of the lives of the bride and groom. Well, this stroll has been somewhat akin to an extended version of a wedding. It has drawn in a mix of family, friends, work colleagues and people I've never met before.
A few weeks ago I went to the 60th birthday party of a friend. About 100 people had converged on Frankfurt to share the evening with him and his family. His wife works for an international aid agency, and so they had lived in quite a few different countries. We met in when our families both lived in Swaziland. I have boundless admiration for this guy. He was the only man participating in a "mothers and toddlers" group in Mbabane - as he was looking after their 2-year-old while his wife was working. But that's just an aside.
At this party, the people who knew him in time/place X stood up and told stories about that time. Ditto for time/place Y, and so on. A series of compelling, funny and moving snapshots from his life, over the past 50 years. A fascinating window into the way that we can lead really quite different lives in different places and times.
This friend is someone who likes and attracts other people. And, beyond his work, he engages in all sorts of other activities. So he had multiple circles of friends. Which brings me to my Airbnb hosts. I must've stayed with over 150 different hosts during this trip.
Well off and low income. Some couples, but more often single people, generally women. All ages, but typically in the 50-65 range. Usually the children had left home - hence the spare bedroom(s). In some cases the host was sleeping on the couch, letting out all of the bedrooms.
Its been fascinating and eye-opening to chat to my hosts. What I've learnt from dozens of hosts is that they've overwhelmingly enjoyed the whole Airbnb experience. A typical ratio of good guests to bad apples would be 50 to 1. The rating system no doubt helps. But my guess is that in general people behave well when they're staying in someone's house.
I've marvelled at stories of hardship, tragedy and inspiration. I've listened to observations about the amount of in-breeding in the region. And heard how unfriendly neighbours could be: the guy in the next thin-walled house who woke to a loud alarm every morning, and then put it on snooze about 5 times, thus sharing his whole waking up experience with everyone within 100 yards. I was taken aback by the host who said her car had been stolen a week earlier - this was a few minutes after I'd parked my van outside her house. She said everyone knew the guy who did it. He'd just been let out of jail. She said usually he takes the stuff inside the car and then sets fire to it. For some reason he didn't burn her car, and she was lucky that it had been retrieved, minus the tools of her trade (chimney sweeping and gardening). She was wondering whether to claim or not. Apparently the police were thinking about taking DNA swabs from the inside of the car, because fingerprints on the outside mean nothing. But they weren't sure if they had enough money to do the tests. Life can be precarious...
But I digress. Which of course can be fun - which is why this walk has ended up being well over 3,500 miles long, as there have been so many little diversions to take along the way. Not to mention dozens of creeks in Essex to walk around. Returning to the topic of Airbnb hosts, what I've learnt is that a significant proportion are not doing this solely for money. In many cases it is a way to meet a range of people.
Among this group who are interested to meet others, I'd distinguish between two types. One woman illustrates the first kind. Lived in a small town, in northern England. She worked as an art teacher in a secondary school for 30 years, and retired just after her 60th birthday. One daughter in Australia, the other in London. After retiring, she travelled to Australia to visit her daughter and grand-daughter. Returned just after Easter. And then it hit her. Nothing to do... After a week she through herself into a range of activities, including teaching, volunteering, running an art event for the town, making stained-glass windows and undertaking art projects. And someone told her about Airbnb, and so she started doing that too. She was busy!
And another woman could serve as the counter-example. Similar age, also living in a northern town. She didn't go out much - once a week she took her disabled brother down to town to collect his pension. Walked to the local shops every now and again (she didn't drive). Popped round to a friend periodically. Watched a fair amount of TV. She loved chatting to the Airbnb guests, and generally helping them in every way possible. As she said, Airbnb had brought people into her life. She was grateful to the friend who had suggested it.
One chap, about my age, had spent years renovating a barn so that it was a really lovely place to live. His wife had left or died. He had 4 children, but saw them rarely - once or twice a year. He drove 20 minutes to drop me off at the start of my day's walk, and then 45 minutes each way to pick me up at the end of the day. He was quite frank in saying that he had nothing else to do, and was delighted to help me out. I took him out for dinner that evening, and asked him about other people in the village, social activities etc. He said that although he'd lived there for some years, he didn't really know that many people. He enjoyed the whole Airbnb thing.
Of course, we should remember that it takes courage to sign up for Airbnb and allow strangers into your house. So this is already a sub-set of people who are ready to go further than others. Nevertheless, in a quiet way, I feel that there's a small social revolution taking place through Airbnb, enabling people to engage with others in a completely different way. And to meet people they would never have met before. In the safe environment of their homes.
Loneliness is a scourge of modern western societies. And one which is treated a little like cancer was 30 years ago - people often shy away from discussing the topic. A year ago the UK government appointed the world's first minister for loneliness. She has been overwhelmed with suggestions and interest. I suspect that a good dose of Airbnb hosting might be a partial solution for some sufferers...
After all, the beauty of an Airbnb "relationship", is that the host can decide how often they want to open their house up, who they let in, and how much they engage with them. And there's little danger of familiarity breeding contempt, unless the host allows that. Which reminds me of a story my last host told me. A doctor stayed with her for three days. Then he explained that he needed to come back for three weeks; would she do a direct deal, without Airbnb being involved. She said OK. Then he asked for a discount. She said fine. The three weeks started. After two weeks, he hadn't paid her anything. When she tried to raise the topic, he told her not to bother him, he had important business on the phone, dealing with his $3m house in Geneva. She discussed the situation with her sons, aged about 20 and 22. They decided to help out. Knocked on his door. I'm on the phone, said he. Well, put the phone down, now, said the sons. He opened the door, and they told him it was time to leave, right now. Here's two hundred pounds, he muttered. Fine, said they, but you're still leaving, immediately. The money sat on the mantelpiece. As he walked out of the door, he grabbed it back...