The wholly curious and slightly concerning time we almost died in Antwerp / by Vanessa Fiola

**The next 19 days I’ll be posting 500 words a day as part of a creative writing challenge. You can join the fb group here. **

Last summer our little family went on a vacation to Iceland, Amsterdam and Antwerp for two weeks. Jonah was about to turn two, and taking advantage of not paying for his airfare seemed like a fiscally sound decision at the time. Oh hahaha.

We spent the entirety of our trip staying in Airbnb apartments in great parts of each city. Even if it weren’t for the ability to stay in neighborhoods we like, I prefer Airbnb for vacation. I’m a pro at finding quaint and stylish places, and I pride myself on being the kind of renter a host wants to invite back. In Reykjavik Jonah peed the bed (not his finest moment), and the host actually said that we were the best renters she had ever had. She suffered from Low Bar Syndrome.

Anyway, none of that matters because I thought we were going to get murdered in Antwerp by our Airbnb host.

I booked our place a month before arriving. I knew virtually nothing about the city before our visit, except that it is home to some great designers and street art. I generally do not rent from Airbnb hosts without reviews. Usually, it means that the host is new and we can expect to find hair in the bathroom sink. I broke my rule in Antwerp because Deborah looked like a Getty Images stock photo.

If you can believe it, at work they entrust me to lead teams.

In the time between booking and our arrival, things began to seem off. Maybe it was the string of overly eager messages filled with a little too much detail about why she wouldn't be at the apartment to greet us. Or the fact that her grandparents would be there instead. My grandparents—I mean if they were still alive—could barely turn on a cable box, let alone negotiate an Airbnb handoff. I chocked up her enthusiasm to being a first-time host.

But there were other tells. Deborah was a 21-year old college student with a Hotmail account. I literally don't know anyone under 40 who uses Hotmail. Moreover, she misspelled her own last name in her email address.

In fairness, the handoff went smoothly. Deborah’s grandparents were lovely. They stocked the fridge, gave us a bottle of wine, and explained the espresso maker in intricate detail for their own benefit. Her grandmother bought us a box of Antwerpen Handjes (cookies whose macabre history would later seem like an ominous talisman). Her grandfather hand wrote directions to the cathedral and showed me how to check the mailbox in the event that I wanted to receive mail during our short stay. 

It wasn’t until after they left that we closed the front door, and then noticed writing all over the giant chalkboard wall in the kitchen.

“You’re a great host, Thomas!”

“Really loved this apartment, Thomas!”

“Hello from London!”

Tons of inscriptions, all from people writing to someone named Thomas. A wave of nausea swept over me. The apartment had few personal items. In the minutes since her grandparents’ departure, those items suddenly seemed staged. The enormous portrait of Deborah and her friends on a boat in Thailand, taken, allegedly, just after her dad had passed, seemed a little too perfect. As did the lone birthday card on the mantle from her grandparents.

I pulled up the pictures of the apartment on my app. The furniture was the same, but details were different. The male bust in the fireplace disappeared. The aforementioned photo of Deborah and her friends replaced a photo of a male model in the dining room. It wasn’t until that terrifying moment that I realized: the photos in the Airbnb profile were of a man’s apartment.

Who the fuck was our Airbnb host?

I spent the next thirty minutes creeping her on Google. Try doing that when you don’t speak Dutch. I texted my friend an SOS that we might get murdered in Antwerp. (Note to others: save this type of fire drill for when you are absolutely certain.) I frantically started to write my email to Airbnb.

Then I heard a noise in the courtyard. It was a man and a girl talking. I made Ryan go out and investigate because he is not the introvert.

When he didn’t immediately return, I picked up Jonah and we went out back. The kind neighbor explained that the grandparents recently bought the place for their granddaughter who was attending university nearby, and had been gone on holiday for the last few weeks. They purchased the place from a pilot who had used it as a VRBO during his frequent trips, but was forced to sell because of local laws strict on temporary rentals.

I breathed a sigh of relief and opened the wine from Deborah's grandmother.

Like I said, I will always Airbnb on vacation.