Friday, July 10, 2009

Summertime, and the rentin' ain't easy

The other day, there was a pretty entertaining article in The New York Times on bad summer rentals. It's definitely worth a read-through, as are - if you've got the time - the comments, in which folks write about their rental horror stories. (And, gripers being gripers, there's a fairly large ration of comments snorting about how only rich folks have the vacation rental problem, blah, blah blah.)

I don't want to give away too many of the horror stories that were fit to print in The Times - hey, I've got my own to recount - but I do want to pass on a tip: a perimeter doused with ferret urine is, apparently, an effective antidote to a snake problem. I will file that bit of info in my brain's way-back, and hope that I never have to retrieve it.

I haven't vacation rental'd a lot, but every rental - I'm quite sure - tells a story.

In April, we rented an apartment in Paris, sight unseen. We had seen it advertised in Harvard Magazine, and surmised - correctly, as it turned out - that anyone who only advertised in Ivy League alumni mags wouldn't last long if they weren't on the up and up - and this apartment had been advertised in just this category of rag for years.

The apartment turned out to be as near to perfect as is possible, starting with the view of the Eiffel Tower from the living room, and ending with the odd little outdoor elevator used to transport trash down to the backyard bins. Other than a bit of peeling paint in the room my nieces shared, and a really weird dryer that couldn't dry a damp pair of socks, everything was magnifique.

Our only problem was one we had in advance. Between signing the contract and making the final payment, the apartment's owner had a stroke. Of course, while we were frantically trying to get in touch with him, we didn't know this, and we had visions of a lost deposit and a last-minute hunt for replacement digs. Fortunately, the owner's daughter got in touch with us, and all ended well. (The owner himself is doing well, but the family is going to put the apartment on the market. It was not advertised in the latest Harvard Magazine.  C'est dommage.)

While we were very fortunate with our Paris rental, renting bears a risk that is generally absent if you're booking a stay in, say, The Ritz.

Years ago, my sisters and I rented a place for a couple of weeks on a lake in Central Massachusetts, with plans to chunk out different times when we would be there with various combinations of family and friends.

This was in the days before cell phones, and the house was in an isolated area of the lake, with only one house nearby. So overall - for this city girl, anyway - it was kind of creepy. Most nights, I spent my sleepless hours working on a jigsaw puzzle - Renoir's Dance at Bourgival? - which I was able to do thanks to the spot-light lamps my sister Kath had brought along so that we'd have some light to augment the 40 watt cottage fixtures.

Anyway, other than the spookiness of being so remote and dark, the setting was lovely, the weather was fabulous, and it was August: native corn and tomatoes.

There were two peculiar things about this particular rental, however.

One was the unfinished bathroom.

Oh, the shower and toilet worked just fine, but they hadn't finished walling it in. The walls were completed to head-height, but above and beyond.... wide open spaces. So, it was a rather indelicate situation when someone actually had to go. Being family and friends, we managed to work it out, but it was a tad bit weird.

Another oddity was that the owners, who lived year round next door to their rental cottage, were away on vacation during our time on the lake. They did, however, leave Rocky and Erica, their Dobermans, behind. A friend came over every day to feed and water the dynamic duo, but - thanks to a dog door - they were free to come and go. Which they did, at all hours of the day and night. (And who knew that Dobermans were nocturnal?) Rocky and Erica's comings and goings would have been fine - other than that each time they used the dog door, the thumping noise was enough to wake the dead - let alone someone who was really just dozing, given how remote, black, and creepy the place was.

Rocky and Erica were actually very nice, quite well-behaved dogs. Although there was that one day when, while we were sitting in the yard sunning ourselves, Rocky lifted leg and peed on our friend Michele's sun chair.

Friend Michele was also party to another interesting rental story.

For several years, my sister Trish spear-headed a couple of weeks vacation rental in Maine that we all moved in an out of with varying overlaps.

The place was a lobsterman's shack that had been "modernized" and added to over the years. Situated on one of those glorious Maine fiord-coves, this house was in one of the most beautiful settings I have ever been in. (The cove was still an active lobstering cove, and we could watch folks working their traps every day.)

The house had been used as a vacation cottage by the same family since the 1920's, and there were all sorts of charming touches like the kids' heights measured in pencil, tarnished tennis trophies, and sketches of fairy tale scenes that looked like they'd been done by a not-very-talented child artist in the 1930's or 1940's somewhere. The last cottage update appeared to have been in the 1960's, when the tiny kitchen was painted gray-blue.

But, hell, this was a vacation rental, and you can overlook the moth-eaten, run-down everything to be able to walk into town and get fish right off the day boat. And those sunset views over the fiord...

This being the country, we were okay with the occasional big black snake slithering through the yard; the occasional snuffling little skunk make his way between where we sat drinking wine in the yard and the steps to the porch; the marauding moths on their kamikaze flights against every window screen with a lamp anywhere near it.

The first few years we rented the cottage, the only real problem was the swayback beds that induced full-bore sciatica after one night's toss and turn sleep.

Our guess was that some of the mattresses, which weighed a mite-filled ton, had been around since the twenties. We remedied the mattress problem by bringing air mattresses, but could never figure out why they didn't just spring for some new ones.

Mattresses and all, we stuck with this place for a number of years.

Until the time of the squirrel.

Along the back of the house, there was a long, glassed-in porch that held a glider - the one comfortable sitting spot in the house - and a long picnic-style table where we had all our meals. Curiously, there was no way to completely shut the porch off from the house, as someone had removed the door between the porch and the kitchen.

But mostly, this hadn't been a problem.

There was really no need to shut the porch off from the kitchen, was there?

One morning, friend Michele was bringing the breakfast stuff out to the porch when she said, "I think I saw a mouse."

Mouse, smouse.

No big deal.

This being the country, and all that.

The mouse turned out to be a squirrel which, on inspection, we realized had come in through some gaps between the floor boards and the walls. Further inspection revealed that the squirrels had been nesting in the porch rafters.


While we hadn't seen any signs that they'd been in the house proper, we were a bit concerned.

After a run to the hardware store, Michele and I spent the day - having sprinkled the recommended squirrel-be-gone moth balls in the crawl space beneath the porch - trying to stuff all the gaps between floor and wall with steel wool.

Talk about a bail the ocean task.

After a while, we gave up, and hoped for the best: that the squirrel-be-gone moth balls would do the trick.

Sure, it was a bit gaggy trying to eat with that moth-ball smell, but it sure beat the squirrels.

Fast forward.

Michele and I are no longer at the cottage. But my sisters, and their husbands, and my niece are.

And the squirrels, apparently having become inured to the smell of squirrel-be-gone moth balls, are back. And leaping from the broom that my brother-in-law Rick is flailing away at them with - leaping to his arms and shoulders.

It is a sleep-free vacation from there on out, as bleary-eyed vacationers rest on their air mattresses, fearing that they will soon be hearing the patter of little clawed squirrel feet making their way up the stairs to the sleeping quarters.

And that was the last of the quaint little cottage in South Bristol, Maine.

My sister Kathleen has said that the squirrel incident precipitated her and Rick's decision to look to the Cape, where they now own a magnificent, modern, and squirrel-free home in Wellfleet. The only invasion that they have to deal with is that of their family.

And wherever two or more are gathered, we reminisce about Rocky and Erica and the swhooshing, slamming dog door. About the mitey-mite mattresses. About the time of the squirrel.

And thank god that, when we hunker down in Wellfleet, we know that there is not one scintilla of renter horror awaiting us.

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