Catriona and I had agreed that a terrace for smoking, eating, drinking and painting was a necessity rather than a luxury, blow the expense. One of the photographs of an Airbnb just above my price range showed an elegant round table with two romantic champagne flutes and an uninterrupted terrace view of a ridiculous sunset over the Ligurian sea and the coast of Italy. The faintly aphrodisiac image was a mug punter’s eyeful and I greedily tapped the button committing me to three nights at Sandrine’s Airbnb apartment, perched in the heart of Menton old town.
Free parking was to be had next to the cemetery of the Old Château, resting ground of tubercular Russian nobility and upper-middle-class English. We trundled our trolley bags down through narrow haphazard streets and found our door in the wall and key safe. The apartment was airy and well equipped but grubby. The window panes couldn’t have been cleaned for weeks. But Catriona and I aren’t sticklers; if we felt that strongly about dirty windows, we could always clean them ourselves.
The romantic terrace was up on the roof. We trooped up the stairs with a bottle and two glasses to celebrate the start of our break. Unfortunately that clincher photograph was a cynical deception. The ‘terrace’ was a narrow, squalid attic from which half the tiled roof had been removed. For a seated view over the bay we had to clamber up on to two wobbling stools and place our glasses on a plank screwed and glued to the top of the exposed wall. Whoever had taken the shot had gone to a lot of trouble to stage-manage it, first balancing the elegant little round table on the plank, then balancing champagne flutes on the table, then standing on a step ladder with a camera. The attic floor was littered with unidentifiable black debris and the narrow space was further limited by an air-conditioning unit, a retired mop and broken bucket and a substantial but visibly broken parasol. The impression of squalor was rounded off by cat faeces swept into a neat pile under one of the high stools and flagged by a seagull feather.
I sent Sandrine three photos. The first was her own deceptive image, which I captioned ‘the dream’. The second, captioned ‘the reality’, showed the rickety stools and plank and broken parasol and stored junk and air-conditioning unit, and the debris on the narrow floor. The third showed a close-up of the cat dung. I captioned this ‘caca pipi non merci’. ‘Sorry for that,’ she texted back deadpan. ‘My cleaner forgot to clean the terrace.’ It was a fun idea, I suppose, this commodification of hearth and hospitality, but after my third Airbnb I’m finding it increasingly difficult to suspend my disbelief.
On an impulsive whim of Catriona’s we moved next to a hotel along the coast at Portofino, Italy. She had only vaguely heard of Portofino and I had always confused the name in my mind with Porto Cervo in Sardinia. We turned off the motorway at Rapallo and drove through the posh villages of the peninsula disbelieving the evidence of our own eyes. At the hotel we were checked in by an Italian man with that graceful bearing that sees any person not as an abstraction but as an individual with his own secrets, his own crimes, his own treasures, his own sources of anguish, and his own allotted measure of triumph. With a smile that was sincere right down to the very soul of his bottom, he promoted another polite fiction that no money had or would change hands; that we were his guests as the Bedouin understand the concept; that his house was our house. And could he now also trouble us please to entrust him until tomorrow with our passports.
We trotted the short distance and descended between tall houses via steep steps into the sunshine of the little port. Golly. The sun was over the yard arm so we plonked ourselves down at the first outside table we came to, just in time to watch the superyacht Air (£375,000 a week) ponderously backing up towards the sculpture garden. Ferries laden like Delhi commuter trains came and went more briskly. I had a look at the drinks menu and immediately ruled out the bottle of Château Pétrus for €2,800. It was fortunate for me, however, that there were so many rich seafarers of every class and nationality knocking about dressed like tramps that even our sophisticated young Italian waiter couldn’t tell for absolutely certain that he had a bum on his hands, and he loped off with my order for two monster gins at a calf’s gallop.