It had been nearly 24 hours since I left home. Tokyo to Dubai, Dubai to Warsaw, Warsaw to Krakow, with long layovers in between. But I had arrived. And according to my Google Maps printout, the final stretch to my airbnb was pretty straightforward: a 40-minute bus ride to the heart of town, and then a 10-minute walk. I had a code with which to enter the apartment complex; the key would be hidden in a flowerbed to my left, in the inner garden. There were a few other details but that was the gist. And that’d be it: home sweet somebody else’s home.
I took the bus without misadventure; the walk was uneventful. The block I arrived at resembled the one I saw on street view a few days prior. I entered the code on the keypad, and it buzzed, letting me through. Down the hallway and into the inner garden I went. To my left, there was indeed a flowerbed – also a flowerpot in the corner. Even better, there was a maid in the first unit, tidying up. That surpassed my expectations. I tried to get her attention, and eventually did, but she didn’t speak much English, or seem to grasp the concept of an airbnb, even with the receipt I showed her.
Confused, I let the maid be. I rummaged through some rocks in the flowerbed but to no avail. I looked over my useless receipt, my non-working cell phone. Eventually, I settled on getting the maid’s attention again. This time, I made hand gestures to indicate a hidden key. It was that with the word “flowerbed” that she finally sprang to life: “Oh!” She called the owner, a woman named Magda. They spoke in Polish, then she handed the phone over. Magda – whose own English skills were questionable – was surprised that I had arrived “early”…even though I was sure I had informed her in advance. But she was friendly, and apologetic that the maid was still there.
The check-in confirmed, I was relieved. It’s the most basic concern in a foreign country, I think – making sure to have a place to stay for the night. The maid indicated she needed 20 more minutes to finish up, using her own set of hand gestures. I took the keys and went for a walk, thanking her for her help. I got back just as she was on her way out. I settled into the room quickly. I was exhausted: a lot of flying, after all. I unpacked everything, hung up my suit. The internet wasn’t working, but there would be time for that. I needed the rest anyway. I collapsed into bed.
It was about two hours later when I awoke: 7 pm or so. I contemplated staying in bed until morning, but the brevity of the trip inspired a sense of urgency for me to explore a little bit, before my conference duties kicked in the next day. I took a shower, made myself ready. I wanted to find a decent restaurant in the neighborhood, but the internet still wasn’t connecting, so I headed out the door with nary a specific place in mind. I wasn’t completely information-blind though, setting off in what I knew to be the direction of the town square.
Even though I was starving, I suppressed the urge of stopping with the sheer joy of taking in sights of the unfamiliar city, the unfamiliar country. I ended up in the center of the town square, enjoying the lively market, the striking church, the impressive fountain. It was a delight. I sat down on a bench near the fountain, took a couple of pictures with my cell phone. The internet withdrawal was kicking in, so I scanned for wi-fi. Surprisingly, there was a public network available. It was slow, but it worked. And that was when I received the e-mail notification. It was a message from my airbnb host.
“Is everything all right? Please let us know when you’ve arrived and checked in!”
That message had come about an hour ago. It was long after I had spoken to Magda.
My eyes widened. My mind raced. I looked up the airbnb listing. It took forever to load on my cell phone, but I saw the one picture I needed to see in order to confirm my worst fears. See, in the room I had booked, there was a painting over the bed, a painting of a sailboat. I had a vague memory of that photograph. But in the room I had checked into, the painting over the bed was of a woman. A surge of panic and terror and realization immediately overcame me. It was a genuine “Kint is Soze” moment, if without the malintent.
All the little details I had glossed over, all the other vague remembrances I had set aside, suddenly reemerged clear as day. The first door on the left within a vestibule that I was to enter, versus the first door on the left – period – that I did. The flowerbed I never completely searched before talking to the maid, versus the flowerpot in the corner that could have triggered her positive reaction. The woman not named Magda I had corresponded with once or twice, versus the woman named Magda who was surprised I had arrived early.
My shit was in the wrong place, the keys I had to the wrong apartment. I was confused about everything else, but 100% sure about those two things. I took off like a rocket from the town square back to the apartment. I keyed in the code, raced down the hallway, and back to the inner garden. Almost on a whim, I rummaged again through the flowerbed. Underneath the one big rock I had yet to search, I found a set of keys. I repacked in record time, leaving those keys in the flowerpot. With the new set of keys, I tried the next door over. It led to a vestibule. And the door on the left within that vestibule led to the apartment I had actually booked.*
*If you’re confused – and I don’t blame you – there were two airbnb units in the same complex, side-by-side, with two different owners, both with similar key-hiding techniques and expecting guests the same day. After checking in, I let my hosts know I had totally Goldilocks’ed the first apartment. They informed Magda. Later in the evening, I heard the maid again. …I hid until I heard her leave.