IT was the cheapest AirBnB flat in Zurich. Hence it was murderously expensive, but the pictures showed a lovely, monkish attic bedroom, with winter light pouring between ancient slanting roof beams. When I arrived at the place, I discovered that it was less an attic than a miniature model of an attic made for a grasshopper. The host, a Serbian photographer, had a camera that lies like Sean Spicer. But that proved to be the least of my worries.
After getting home from a concert long after midnight, I was awoken at 6am by the sound of Zurich being invaded by a legion of zombies. After a few seconds of blind panic, I identified the apocalyptic rap-metal chorus: Ice-T's Body Count, a song I quite liked in 1992 but not anymore. My attic felt a matchbox perched on a bass amp.
Now quite angry as well as afraid and hung over, I staggered downstairs and banged on the door of the villain's apartment. After a minute of hammering, the door flew open and a middle-aged lunatic stared out at me. His bloodshot bug-eyes drilled an unwelcome hole through my forehead and the wall behind me. My neighbour's died-black hair was cut in the pudding-bowl style of Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, his skin was the colour of sea-foam after a storm, and he wore what seemed to be a black parachute.
Before I could say anything, he barked, helpfully, “DER COMPUTER IST KAPUTT!”
Well, yes, I thought. But this was no time to get snippy: if I antagonised him, I thought, he might fetch a captive bolt pistol in the tradition of Bardem's Anton Chigurh and dispatch me right there and then. And it's not stylish to die in Zurich. I would be remembered mainly as an incompetent traveller.
So I smilingly appealed to him to turn down the music, and saw a flicker of comprehension in his eyes before he bolted back into his flat. The volume duly dropped from inhuman to horrible.
Later that morning I texted my host about this episode, and he replied: “I am so sorry. He has been much better for a while. He has been getting treatment, but sometimes this happens.” I made light of it. I couldn't afford to move.
These, of course, are the hazards of cheapskate AirBnB travel, which invites that wonderful Afrikaans phrase, “Jy wou mos.” I'm something of a veteran of the game, having found an early European precursor to the now-dominant private accommodation site back in 2006. While reporting on the Germany World Cup for this newspaper, I booked ten cheap rooms or flats in ten different cities.
In Kaiserslautern, where I saw Italy play the USA, I stayed for three nights in the spare room of a batty fortysomething brunette who tried ever so politely to seduce me. She took me on walks in the forest, bought me strudels and beer, and listened avidly to my tales of my unremarkable life in Africa. I had a girlfriend back home, so I wasn't budging from the spare bed, but it felt good to alleviate her loneliness as best I could.
And in the beautiful eastern city of Leipzig, I stayed with a sweet, ancient couple who had somehow learnt to let their room on the web, despite being otherwise perfectly mummified citizens of the GDR. They spoke no English, and ate those pickled gherkins beloved of the mother in “Goodbye Lenin”. The time-browned invoice they gave me featured the symbol of the East German ostmark.
During my two-day stay with the old Ossies, we simply gesticulated and grinned instead of talking. I sat in their messy garden in the July sun and exclaimed “Danke” and “Bitte” when they brought me lemonade. This intimate awkwardness was somehow lovely: you know you're really travelling if you feel a bit stupid.
Since those early couch-surfing days, I've aged enough to confine myself to AirBnB's “entire homes” category, which means that the risk of interesting awkwardness is confined to the occasional madman downstairs, or the dispiriting sight of a stray pube, inescapably derived from one of the host's testicles, plastered against the shower wall.
These days, the perfect AirBnB host is supposed to be a sort of charismatic robot, unseen and unheard, with a flawlessly stylish home and zero body hair. But sometimes it's more fun when Der Computer ist Kaputt.