Be Our Guest: The Spectacle of Checking Into A French Airbnb

In Disney’s 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast, the French candlestick, MC, and libertine Lumiere spends three minutes and 44 seconds explaining to Belle each item on the menu for the evening as Belle sits and listens. He introduces the cutlery, the desserts, his own backstory as a servant who is not serving, and famously encourages his guest to try the gray stuff, it’s delicious. The song and corresponding animation is a spectacular moment of much-needed fun, bookended by the more dreary quasi-kidnapping plot and lots of actual darkness. It’s also a great allegory for what it is like to check-in to an Airbnb in France.

(Sidebar, has anyone else noticed that Belle literally gets one tiny taste of food in that scene before they all have to rush away? That has bothered me literally since 1991.)

Checking into anything in France is never a quick process, but that is only a bad thing if you value brevity. For the French, time spent is essential to politeness, and anything rushed or brief must not be well considered, thoughtful, or of quality. French weddings go from 2pm to 5am the following day. Dinners of five courses end after midnight. Discussions with a cashier linger no matter how long the line grows. I used to think this was due to some inability on the part of the French to do their work efficiently, until I learned they were actually doing their job extremely well according to their own rulebook. This is great news for them, bad news for a speedy American.

This preface is intended to help me position the following not as critique, but merely as observation, and maybe one day even, appreciation. But until that day, I must say: it takes too damn long to check into an Airbnb in France.

To set the standard, checking into an Airbnb in the United States, and in many other countries, looks like this: owner tells me how to get key. I get key. A book of instructions is on the coffee table. I text the owner if I have any questions. We never interact again. Five stars.

Checking into an Airbnb in France is… like Lumiere putting on a song and dance to quench his thirst for service having not had contact with the outside world for a decade. And just like Lumiere, these hosts are well-intentioned, they are attempting to provide instruction, comfort, advice, and demonstrate quality in direct proportion to the amount of time they spend providing these things. And it’s all a bit much to have to watch plates and spoons dance when you’re just Belle, starving, happy for a crust of bread.

I first noticed this when I arrived at a picturesque cottage my husband and I rented in Provence ahead of a wedding a few years back. We were jet lagged out of our minds, and had just sat in three hours of traffic. Our plan was to take a power nap before heading to the pre-wedding festivities, but we had not counted on French politeness.

The young woman whose job it was to give us access to our cottage was perhaps no more than 22, and had clearly been given robust instructions on how to be a good Airbnb host. Ignoring our glazed over eyes and constant repetition of “merci, oui, merci, okay” in an attempt to coax her to a finish, she toured us through each room of the house in extreme detail. She showed us how to work the fan, windows, and quite a few things about the toilet and shower. I’ll never forget how she opened the refrigerator and let us know that the confiture therein was complimentary (too much information already), then walked us through each flavor available (way too much information). She did the same with the coffee and tea. After over 20 minutes of explication, she withdrew her polite assault and allowed us to take our much truncated power nap.

This trip was before I lived in France, before I understood how different French hosting was to that of my own country. It all makes perfect sense to me now: polite is good, so more polite is better, and too polite is best. But I was bewildered at the time by it–had she gone mad? Was she somehow struck with stage fright and decided to kill time by showing us where the outlets were? She had a scared look in her eye–I think she was shy, but she had been told she had to do the song and dance, even though we desperately did not want her to, the poor thing. She was more of a Cogsworth than a Lumiere. It was a good Airbnb though, I’d recommend it if you need a place to stay.

On a recent trip to Normandie with friends, we arrived at our beautiful cottage and made a pact from within the car that we would do all we could to force the sweet owner to be brief. No asking questions, no indulging her monologues, limited eye contact. We were tired from the drive, wanted to unpack and go for a nice long walk before curfew arrived. But Laura had other plans.

Like a just-polished Mrs. Potts, she began to twinkle and shine before us, running about the house pointing out remotes, light switches, the fireplace. She walked us through each and every room, she learned all of our names, who was married to whom, who spoke which languages. She walked us through the rules of the trash cans, how to open and close each window, and told us which paths to take on our hike. She presented us with homemade confiture made from more fruits than any of us could remember and too much vanilla–even the jam was long-winded. Somehow by the time she left, we also knew she was a retired actor, architect, and artist.

We thanked her and watched her leave twice, and twice she popped back in through the window to tell us something she’d forgotten. This is why Belle didn’t get a full plate of food, she was too busy being told about it, then it was time for bed.

I am not converted to this format for arriving at an Aribnb, but I can at least understand why it exists now and can make space for it in my vacation itinerary, both literally and emotionally. When my American appreciation of speed and low contact butted up directly against the French’s values of quality time, these spectacles felt like absolute insanity and huge wastes of time, even rude. But that’s one of the trite beauties of moving to a new country; somehow a new space begins to wedge itself between one country’s values and the other’s, a small space of acknowledgement of the different, if not total acceptance of it. A polite buffer zone for difference.

I also don’t know how thoroughly Walt Disney Animation Studios researched France’s particular brand of hospitality and if this is utter conjecture from a bored expat who worked too long at Disney. I know a great deal of care is put into character and set design for these films, and that Lumiere is based off of legendary cabaret dancer Maurice Chevalier, but I doubt anyone had time or budget to do a forensic deep dive into French hosting best practices. At least, the first page of a google search revealed nothing to say otherwise.

This tiny space that comes from exposure is actually perfectly expressed in the very next musical interlude in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, “Something There,” wherein Beast and Belle begin to appreciate one another’s differences and feel a little confusion about the butterflies they have in their stomachs. But I’ll save that for another day.


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