His arms are covered in tattoos and he sports a goatee. A baseball cap turned backwards, a white singlet and track pants complete the "homie" look. Then his hand wanders down and he adjusts himself – rather indiscreetly. My Airbnb host is far from the suave Italian gentleman I had imagined (or hoped for).
It is my first day in Rome and I am lost. The host, a young man in his 20s, has kindly offered to meet me half-way and show me to the apartment, located not too far from the Colosseum. In the pictures, the room looks spacious and has its own large bathroom. Yet, as I stare at my host across the busy road, I suddenly have second thoughts.
The young man – who turns out to be my host's brother – takes my bag and I can do nothing but follow. His English is scant, my Italian is non-existent, but I manage to gather that I will be spending the next few nights with just the two boys for company. I frantically try to recall the details of the listing on my new Airbnb account. How could I have got this so wrong? I am pretty sure a woman was supposed to be in the picture – literally. She, it turns out, is the girlfriend who only visits once a month.
This is the last leg of my European adventure and I am due to fly home in five days. As I step into the lived-in apartment, I wonder, could this be the moment when I become another statistic? My precautionary registration with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Smartraveller now seems to offer little consolation – or help. I have a sense of unease, an instinct to get out.
The room is not ready as I am too early. I dump my luggage and escape outside to seek some lunch and think over this mess. Over the delicious pasta – cooked by a Bangladeshi chef – I call my sister back in Melbourne. She hits panic mode and starts looking for other accommodation. I scrutinise the reviews of my current host to see if they have had a single female guest before – and if she lived to tell. My room is certainly cheap, but I wonder: will I pay too high a price for it?
Since it began in 2008, the home-sharing service has been a hit with travellers on a budget. And with two million listings in more than 191 countries, there is plenty to choose from. I flirt with the idea in Paris, but eventually settle for a comfortable hotel. The receptionists are all friendly, but it is very impersonal. In Nice, I try a private room in a hostel. There are plenty of friends to be made, but they, like me, are all tourists.
In both places, I am on the periphery of things; a visitor who has little sense of how real life is lived in these great cities. It is in Milan where I try Airbnb for the first time, signing on to live with an Italian family for a few days. Two girls in their 20s and their parents live in a beautifully decorated apartment in the posh section of town. I have the servants' quarter, I think. It is small, but the bed is made and the private bathroom cleaned every day. The family invites me for dinner and even gives me shopping advice. On the last day, the dad buys me breakfast – freshly baked Italian croissant, cornetti, before walking me to the Metro next door.
In Venice, I stay with a girl. Her boyfriend lives there too, but he never makes an appearance. The room is large, but the bed is small. I nearly fall out on my first night. I share the bathroom and clean it after myself. It is just like being in a nice share house. The girl is friendly and tells me some of the best places to eat – away from the terrible fare being served to the tourists. From my top-floor apartment, I watch old ladies struggle with their shopping trolleys across one of the many bridges dotting the water-logged city; office-goers on their way to work, and kids skipping home from school. The 800-year-old house belonged to my host's grandmother. I feel safe and connected, but I am glad for my king-size bed in Florence, where I have taken a private room at a hostel. It is full of 20-somethings, and I fail to make any friends.
So in Rome, it is back to a friendly – I am hoping – Airbnb that I head. Call me foolhardy, but until I landed in Italy's capital, I hadn't really considered the pitfalls of staying with a stranger. I never really questioned if Airbnb would be a good option for solo female travellers. It is certainly being asked online, with many posts devoted to just the topic. There is also a story about two women who escaped after the host drugged one of the traveller's drink. The flat sharing website itself doesn't have any safety tips especially aimed at women. It does, however, tell guests to look for hosts who already have a strong reputation. And to ask a lot of questions. Some hosts have verified identification and guests can ask for profile verification to be completed.
In the US, Airbnb conducts background checks, including on state and national sex offenders registers. Those checks, it says, are not a guarantee of safety. Colleagues, families and friends can also provide references for the host. They also urge travellers to research the area and not just believe the host's glowing account of their neighbourhood. In the end, they say, it is the opinion of other guests gone past that gives a clearer picture of what to expect when you arrive tired, but excited, at your new destination. Reading the reviews carefully is very important. And so is trusting your own judgement and listening to that thing called the gut feeling.
By the time I finished my lunch, I still felt nervous about my new lodgings in Rome. When I returned to my lodgings, my host handed me a key, so I could lock the room from inside. It was exactly as shown on the website – light and spacious, with a comfortable bed. The girlfriend pictured on the profile also arrived the next day. My hosts turned out to be lovely, with offers of home-cooked meals and coffee. A impromptu decision to stay in Naples one night had them calling me to see if I was okay – the personal touch missing in an impersonal hotel.
Next year my sister is heading to Italy. For the most part, she too is travelling alone. I have told her to not go by appearances and stay with my new friends in Rome.