THE BLOG

Apartments in Italy -- and Mistakes!

03/17/2014 03:31 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2014

Finding a home, and feeling safe and comfortable there, is important to me, especially since I am alone here in Italy. And, until I arrived in Rome last week, I had been very lucky with finding good apartments and feeling safe and secure in my Italian homes in Florence and Ortigia.

In Florence, where my 'senior year abroad' started, I had an apartment waiting for me that I had seen during a quick trip to Florence last spring, so it was a known entity, and it was great. I had rented the apartment through a rental agent in Florence; I had found her through a blog on tripadvisor. I had assumed, incorrectly, that the agency would be available to advocate for me and/or advise me during my stay in 'their' apartment, but my assumptions were not wholly correct (I didn't always get a response and, even when I did, it was often inadequate, at least by my 'American' standards) and I would not necessarily book an apartment through an agency again.

In Ortigia, I 'landed' without an apartment, and spent a few days in a hotel there while I looked around for available apartments to rent. It helped, of course, to be there during the off-season, when many apartments were available. I used tripadvisor, saw a number of apartments (some of which were awful) and ended up in a fabulous, clean, modern space overlooking the sea (complete with a friend downstairs) -- it was awesome!

And then I came to Rome, and Valerio ('Landlord') and Airbnb were waiting for me. I had rented the apartment online, using Airbnb and, foolishly (I guess) believing the photos and the landlord's claims...

Here's the email I sent to my family on Monday... it says almost all...

hi - i got to rome on saturday nite in the pouring rain (with very little cash bec my atm card expired the day before - the taxi driver in ortigia lent me 40euro... long story!!!!!!), and discovered my apartment wasnt going to work for me (creepy and dingy and filled w my bachelor landlord's stuff, including his clothes, toiletries and religious statues - really creepy and dirty!!!)... and it wasnt in the neighborhood (Monti) that he advertised... yuck!... so, i left the apt this morning and feel much better... I'm in a hotel for a couple of days while looking for another apt and am meeting a woman this afternoon who might have one... we'll see...

The email doesn't really reflect the pure panic I felt as, taxi driver Giuseppe waiting with the motor running behind me, my debit card was rejected by the Bankomat on the way to the airport to catch a flight to Rome. Apparently, without my noticing, my card had expired, leaving me with no cash and no availability of cash (since, panicked as I was, I couldn't get any other cards to work, either... more of my mistakes!). First I called my friend Ros, one of my Sicilian guardian angels, and asked if I could charge the taxi fare to her account with Giuseppe (who drives her daughters to school each day -- apparently everyone in Ortigia has a favorite taxi driver); fortunately, she answered the phone and, even more fortunately, she agreed readily. She then offered to ask Giuseppe (she speaks wonderful Italian and he speaks no English) if he could lend me 40 euros and charge that to her account, too, so that I would have a bit of cash; she really saved the day! The scene at the airport was actually pretty funny, I think; after unloading my suitcase for me, Giuseppe the driver reached into his wallet and gave me the customer the money -- just the exact opposite of what normally happens!

I also called my family, waking them up at 6 am in Chicago, for some guidance and support -- poor kids! Again, I was struck by the upside-down situation -- here was a wandering mother seeking help from her children instead of the other way around...

So that was the start of my Roman holiday.

I am now in a lovely little residence hotel in the center of Rome (recommended by my traveler kids), on a small and quiet street, and I am quite happy here and am reveling in the cleanliness of the place and the helpfulness of the staff. I have a lovely and large room with balcony and teapot and a beautiful bathroom with a tub that I use nightly; I also am enjoying the continental breakfast (I am in the breakfast/sitting room now with a cup of tea and wifi) and chatting with the other guests. I am still looking for apartments, but am no longer rushing to do so since I am comfortable here. I have seen some pretty awful apartments, and nothing yet that would work for me, but I am hopeful. Meanwhile, my friend is coming to visit next week, so we rented her a room in this hotel, too, and that will be just fine.

Meanwhile, I have begun to enjoy Rome. I have become somewhat familiar with the neighborhood around the hotel, and have discovered that I am in the midst of everything, including transportation hubs at Termini (big bus and train station) and Piazza Republica (metro stop). Although Via Nationale, the adjoining street to my hotel, is very commercial and busy, the side streets are somewhat charming and full of interesting galleries and storefronts -- I am still looking for a nice internet bar/cafe, though, where I can settle in.

I have met some nice people in my travels, too. I have attended a couple of ex-pat networking groups (Internations, American International Club of Rome) and have met people there I hope to see again. One evening I met up with a small group of people (2 Roman men and 1 Chinese woman) and we walked up the Spanish Steps and to the Borghese Gardens for the view over Rome at sunset (in the rain). I have also looked at many apartments in the Monti and Trastavere (with the gorgeous Santa Maria in Trastavere church in the center of the lively Piazza) neighborhoods and have meandered around there. I have had a ridiculously expensive and lovely cup of tea at Babbington's, the English tea room from the 1890s near the Spanish steps, complete with waitresses in white aprons. I am learning the bus and Metro and walking routes slowly and am continually amazed when I can get somewhere without a hitch (right ticket, right direction, right stop, etc).

And, Airbnb acted very quickly and fairly (in my estimation) and gave me my full refund because the apartment was not as advertised. Although their website was difficult, I found, to navigate when i was looking for the process for filing a complaint, once i did find their 'Resolution Tools' page (perhaps they don't make it easy on purpose???), I found their response (thanks, Jeff) to be completely terrific. In addition, and in order to compensate me for the troubles with the apartment, they gave me a $250 voucher which I will use in Sorrento.

I'm wondering what I learned from this experience...

1. See the apartment in person, when possible (but it isn't always, of course...)...

2. Try not to book directly from the landlord, unless he or she and/or the apartment is known and trusted. Having Airbnb resolve the issue was invaluable, and I doubt if the landlord ('sleaze-bag') would have released my money to me.

3. If unhappy, file a complaint or claim as soon as possible, so the money isn't released to the landlord. Airbnb's website wasn't easy to navigate to find the appropriate 'resolution tools' page, but once I found it and recapped the events I did receive a quick reply and a quick resolution. Following the advice of my friend who has lived in Italy for many years, I did question whether the apartment met Italian safety regulations (wiring, plumbing, etc); apparently, if an apartment is questionable, the law allows anyone to contact the Carabanieri to investigate, and not one wants them involved!

3. Make sure your debit card hasn't expired...in other words, pay attention!

Ok -- I've recovered now...and Rome continues to be beautiful and exciting and delicious in so many ways...