Be So Lucky
This is a story about the best Airbnb host I’ve had and about the time I almost jumped off the roof of his Berlin apartment.
“Zeus takes all respectable travelers under his protection, for he is the avenger of all suppliants and foreigners in distress.” — The Odyssey
I took a trip to Berlin in December of 2014 and rented an apartment owned by a man named Nikolaj who lived in Kreuzberg. Nikolaj was going to be in Poland that week and I had the place to myself. The apartment was sparsely furnished, but had a stereo system and an oil painting that sat in the living room on the floor across from the couch. The painting was remarkable not least because it was the only piece of artwork or decoration of any kind in the apartment. The image had a surreal quality, featuring various shades of blue and faces fading in and out of focus as if in a dream.
The music that I associate with that trip is Hozier’s self-titled 2014 album. Hozier’s brand of pseudo-gospel neo-soul can be flat, manipulative, and vaguely disingenuous. But there is also something about his religious descriptions of sensual content that seemed fitting for Berlin. Like an East German power plant repurposed as a night club. So I played Hozier on Nikolaj’s stereo and on my iPhone as I explored the city.
“Take me to church / I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies” — Hozier
I walked the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall and ate currywurst and kebabs for 3 euros from food trucks in Freidrichshein. I visited Tempelhofer Feld, a Nazi-era airport renovated into a park.
During the last night of my visit, I bounced around the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood having beers at bars named, Adleweiss and Ein Sonntag im August. I got back to the apartment around 2am. I was supposed to be getting on a flight back to the US that left Berlin’s Tegel Airport just after 6am. I was cutting it close. As I walked up four stories of a five-story walk-up building (more fortress than apartment), I reached into the pocket of my North Face and realized that I had left the keys inside the apartment. I was locked out.
My heart sank. “Brandon, how could you be so irresponsible?” I can remember saying to myself. My flight was leaving in 5 hours and my backpack, laptop, and luggage were in the apartment.
I had to do something.
Should I kick the door down? Call the fire department? I don’t speak German. 30 minutes went by. I walked around the building. It was cold outside and I had no plan. No way of getting into the apartment or of asking for assistance. At that moment an idea came to me. I could go up to the top floor of the building and find roof access. If I could get on the roof, I could climb down two stories using the balconies and get in through a window. It seemed a little dangerous, but I didn’t have any other options.
I walked up the final flight of stairs into complete darkness and tripped on something on the ground of the hallway landing. All of a sudden a light came on near my feet and I could see someone in a sleeping bag waving a cell phone at me. “Hallo? Hallo?” a voice said. It was Nikolaj bundled up in the hallway on the floor of his apartment building.
“Dude, I locked myself out. Do you have your key?” I asked.
“Ja, ja. Of course.” He said getting up and walking me back downstairs to his apartment. After letting me in, Nikolaj proudly refused to my invitation to share the place for the two remaining hours before I had to go to the airport and he returned to his sleeping bag in the hallway.
I sat down on the couch and stared blankly at the painting for awhile. What the hell just happened? An hour or so later I climbed into a taxi and headed to the airport still in shock. What was Nikolaj doing in that hallway? Had he ever gone to Poland? How is it possible that I am actually going to make this flight? And what the hell was the meaning of that painting?
Back stateside, I was effusive in my praise of the Kreuzberg apartment and Nikolaj as a host in his Airbnb review.
The essential ethical question of The Odyssey is one of hospitality. Along Odysseus’ epic journey, he encounters many hosts (Calypso, the Cyclops, Circe to name a few). Do a host and guest abide by the tradition of hospitality (Xenia) that were fundamental to ancient Greek civilization? Encoded within the answer to that question is the fate of many of the Odyssey’s most memorable characters.
A part from the phenomenal coincidence that Nikolaj happened to be sleeping in that hallway, that night in Berlin stands out in my memory as an example of how a simple deed on behalf a host can have a profound significance for someone traveling.
Nikolaj replied to my review with a single sentence, “I hope you continue to be so lucky.” My guess is that there was a hint of sardonic German humor in those words. Still, I can’t think of a better wish for a traveler. There is a big world out there and you can’t travel scared.
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