Hearing anything that is positive about ‘the sharing economy’ is rare these days. The concept has rather lost its shine. Like angry toddlers with toys, it seems, when it came to sharing we just couldn't play nice. Uber which once promised the Californian, wide-eyed, mould-breaking way of getting about - a promise of a caring, sharing way of modern transportation - has been mired in controversy about driver exploitation and the unsavoury management practices espoused by its founder Travis Kalanick. (He appears to have turned out more like Travis Bickle from the 1976 Scorsese/Schrader masterpiece Taxi Driver. ‘You talkin’ to me?)
Likewise Airbnb, which set out to build something positive from the kindness of strangers, has been dragged into a nastier narrative about unscrupulous landlords denying hard-up Generation Rent city-based flats. Airbnb has run into trouble in Berlin, Paris, New York, San Francisco and, most recently, Barcelona. As we all pull up our drawbridges and kiss goodbye to globalisation, sharing looks all a bit 2007, naive and passe.
So, here’s an Airbnb story with a warmer tone. Last weekend I was travelling back from the South of France by car with my family after half term. It’s too far to achieve in one hop, despite France’s glorious but expensive motorways. So, at the last minute we were searching for a halfway stop for the night. Virtually everything we could find either side of the autoroute du soleil was taken, or some joker host wanted to charge six euros per sheet in addition to the quoted price. But then my wife found an oddity in central Burgundy, south east of Auxerre.
Burgundy. Who knew? As pretty as the better parts of Dorset. But, thankfully, not like Sandbanks at all. The place we’d booked was slightly out of the ordinary but at £58 for four who was moaning? The host replied in rather jocular, upbeat fashion and asked if we were planning to arrive by helicopter which we took as some kind of weird joke. If the worst came to the worst there would be an Ibis in Troyes...
When we arrived it turned out our digs were in the elegant Chateau Montjalin. The owner, Olivier, was new to Airbnb and didn’t quite know what he was up to so had double-booked the flat above the gatehouse. ‘No matter,’ he emailed, ‘You can stay with me in the chateau.’
Olivier turned out to be quite an homme. He left France with little in the way of qualifications in the 60s and wound up in Los Angeles where he got a job as a stocker broker with Shearson Hutton, which later became Shearson Lehman and finally the ill-fated Lehman Bros. He had bailed out decades back. ‘What’s wrong with being a broker?’ he asked. ‘Why does everyone in finance want to be an investment banker?’
He must have made a packet because his wealth enabled him to indulge his obsession with buying the limousines of ex-heads of state. He put them in the large coach house and opened it for visitors. He had African dictators’ Lincoln Towncars, Romanian presi-thug Ceaucescu’s Mercedes 600 Pullman, De Gaulle’s 1960 Simca Presidence and even JFK’s wheels on his fateful final ride in Dallas. Then he sold them all about eight years back. But he still runs his motor museum which includes more modest Renault Dauphin police pursuit vehicles, rusting Buicks and his personal collection of Concorde memorabilia. We all watched a video together about the development of that supreme product of the entente cordiale - the world’s one and only supersonic jet liner. Olivier had a regular seat on the Paris-Washington.
Why Airbnb? Olivier was rattling around on his own in this 18th century pile with twenty-five odd rooms. The Germans had made a real mess of it during the war and then it started to fall to bits when acquired by a farmer in the post-war years. He’d restored it with his wife including damask, patterned wallpaper and lovely period furniture. But his wife now preferred to stay in the 8th in the capital. He told us of a great local restaurant for Saturday night while he stayed at home and had some artichokes and a couple of glasses of rouge.
On Sunday at breakfast we all sat together in his massive kitchen watching French TV reports of the London Bridge attack. As he lives part of the time in Paris this kind of thing was an experience in common. He did a small show with a glove puppet for my kids to prevent things getting too sombre. And, then, we were off, headed for Calais.
It struck me that this experience was everything Airbnb should have been about - an experience unlikely to have occurred before the company's creation in 2007. The sort of thing that would never have happened in an impersonal hotel. Going somewhere novel and unusual, meeting somebody new and hugely interesting. Learning something. Making a new friend. We said we’d keep in touch and I hope we do, as I didn’t get a chance to ask his about his bid for the French presidency last year...