Snooping and wondering [January 20]
These days we’re reluctant to let strangers into our homes. We hover behind security doors, peering warily at people who come knocking. The click-baity media feeds us a steady diet of stories about scammers, con artists and home invaders, fuelling our sense of stranger-danger.
Here’s the weird thing, though. Over the summer holidays many of us will allow strangers to colonise our homes. Courtesy of short-term rental websites, these folk will sleep in our beds, dry themselves with our bath towels and muck around with our TV remotes.
My place is listed on one of these sites. Each winter I go travelling and let strangers stay in my home while I rent the homes of other strangers. Have my tenants been as curious about me as I’ve been about my absent hosts?
Some pads are entirely soulless. In Reykyavik my tiny apartment was as sterile as a hotel room. No knick-knacks, no scuffed skirting boards, no clues about the owner’s character. Just the ghostly smell of cleaning fluids.
My temporary home in Cardiff, though, was chock-full of personality. The suburban townhouse was an amateur detective’s paradise. Tubs of plant food from last century and a rusty pair of secateurs – why did the owner stop gardening? Dog-eared picture books and bedheads covered in Pokemon stickers – where were her children now? Elaborate woodcarvings from exotic locations – was she a compulsive traveller like me?
I wanted to open her cupboards and drawers to find more clues, but I hesitated. What is the protocol? Where are the privacy boundaries when you’ve paid to camp in someone else’s home? If I opened her drawers, did that mean my tenants were probably opening mine?
A thousand years ago, when most of us lived in small tribes or villages, everyone knew everyone else’s business. Social bonds were cemented by the sharing of personal triumphs and travails. Once most of us started living in sprawling cities, though, it became harder to satisfy our curiosity about other humans.
No wonder so many of us are reading strangers’ blogposts (over 400 million people view more than 20 billion pages each month). And no wonder memoirs are one of the fastest-growing areas of publishing (UK sales were up 42 percent last year). We want to know how other people live. Reading these personal stories is the textual equivalent of rifling around in someone else’s drawers, but with the owner’s permission.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in January 2020)