When it comes to Airbnb, there are generally two categories of dwellings that can be rented in their entirety. The first is a house, apartment, or other structure that someone purchased or erected solely as a vacation rental. These sterile homes are adorned with IKEA furnishings and personalized with signs that say “Love” or “Kitchen” in italicized font to help the renter feel less like they’ll end up in the ball-pit at Småland if they round the corner too quickly.
The other category of Airbnb is best described as a nice home haunted by the ghost of a GenXer or older millennial. These dwellings belong to people in their 40s or 50s who moved out when their family structure changed. The home serves as both a rental property and a time capsule-storage unit for personal belongings, acquired between 1995 and 2005, that they can’t bear to get rid of. The listing may say they provide you with streaming TV and cooking utensils, but they also provide you with a nostalgic look into who the owners once were.
Prior to the age of social media, being invited into someone’s home and looking at their displayed belongings was the equivalent of taking a deep dive into their Instagram, Spotify, or Internet browsing history. While the eyes may be the window to the soul, back then, a person’s bookshelves, music collection, and décor (that they had to actually leave the house and purchase) was a window into whether you wanted to be their friend or lover.
In modern times, home furnishings are often inspired by- and purchased from- social media, big box stores, and online retailers. Peoples’ personal spaces are less a reflection of their personalities and tastes, and more a reflection of how they want others to perceive them on Zoom or in a video post. Neat, tidy, not too bold, not too bland, and not too personal. In fact, when on a video call with someone, unless they happen to lean quickly to one side showing a pixelated glimpse of their surroundings, it can be hard to tell whether they are using a pre-loaded background or sitting in a home office. In addition, all our media and reading material now fits into our pockets, so there is no longer a need to make these items the physical focal point of our living rooms.
In light of the over curation of modern homes, the nostalgia trip of staying in a belongings-that-time-forgot Airbnb is made ever more fascinating. Your vacation becomes a treasure hunt where you get to poke around a stranger’s house and try to figure out who they are, or at least who they were 20 years ago, based solely on the stuff they left behind.
At one Airbnb in Michigan, I flipped through baskets full of female singer-songwriter and grunge CDs alongside a shelf of indie and foreign film DVDs. I gathered this was a white couple that met in college somewhere at the intersection of Lilith Fair and Lollapalooza. Their music and movies gave way to books about parenting and drawers of children’s games and toys. I assumed after buying this home they had a child or two and decided that while a semi-log cabin with three flights of open stairs worked for a jam band loving couple, it wasn’t appropriate for a family of four. Their media trailed off during the mid-2000s when I surmised they moved to a more family-friendly home, holding onto this place “just in case” they could one day reclaim the lifestyle of their younger selves.
Similarly, I stayed at an Airbnb in Milwaukee that resembled an outpost of an Anthropologie store. It featured books about yoga, meditation, and spiritual enlightenment along with those about travel and raising a “natural child.” The walls and ceilings were covered with macrame dreamcatchers and planters, as crystals that hung in the windows bounced rainbows around the open kitchen. However, if you looked more closely the record collection featured music spanning Madonna and big band swing, to Bikini Kill and the Dead Kennedys. The bedroom closet had clothes in it including a copious number of leather jackets, flannel shirts, and Doc Martin boots. My husband and I pondered the dichotomy of the leftover décor and personal belongings. The best we could come up with is that an aging punk and riot girl got sober after taking a trip to an ashram in India and converted their home to a rental property when they decided to homeschool their kids in the suburbs.
Unlike an Airbnb host who can afford multiple homes, I, like many others, end up throwing a shrinking collection of books, CDs, and 1990s memorabilia into boxes that move with me from place to place. I cringe when my parents point out all their belongings that will one day be mine. Not so much for fear of them dying, but for fear of what I will have to do to get rid of all their stuff.
So, while Airbnb has clearly been a disrupter in both the hotel and the real estate industries, perhaps the storage industry is where it should ultimately be recognized. Don’t eBay your past life, Airbnb it. At the very least it will give your guests the added experience of figuring out who you once were and who you may, one day, be again.
Jen LiMarzi is a senior medical writer by day, humor writer by nature. A New York native who now resides in Chicago, Jen's published writing and ongoing creative pursuits can be explored at www.JenLiMarzi.com