Column: Surf’s up

Last week, I woke up in a strange man’s apartment in Paris.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know too much about him. He was 24 years old, an engineer and really enjoyed a good glass of red wine. He seemed nice enough. And hostels in Paris are so expensive — why would I want to shell out 29 euros for a dorm bed in a room full of snoring backpackers when I could just find someone to go home with?

This is how I am travelling. This is how I can afford to spend weekends in Berlin, Barcelona and Copenhagen. This is how I plan to survive in Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest this winter. If it weren’t for this, I wouldn’t be financially able to see all of Europe, and I would leave in May with the burden of regret.

I am couch surfing.

No, this isn’t just calling up friends studying abroad in another city and crashing on their floor — although I am doing plenty of that as well — it’s an online social network of travelers and hosts.

Go to www.couchsurfing.org, make an account, fill out a profile and start searching for couches in whatever city you’re interested in. Chances are, your search will yield hundreds of results. You can be a little pickier and use filters to look for, say, hosts between the ages of 18 and 25. You choose someone who looks appealing, perhaps someone who shares the same taste in music or who lives with a cat, and shoot off a couch request.

A few days later, you are on their couch.

Okay, it’s not so easy. There are rejections involved, and sometimes your ideal host is travelling too, or is just too overwhelmed with life to offer you space.

But when it does work out, you quickly realize that there is no better way to travel.

Couch surfing isn’t just about a free place to sleep. It’s about the people you meet. It’s about the cultural exchange. It’s a medium for truly learning about a new place — seeing a city from a local’s perspective instead of a guidebook. Even better, it’s a medium for building human trust.

Sleeping at a random person’s house is a little daunting. But, on the other side, letting strangers into your home, with all your valuables and your entire life in plain view, feels even more risky. As a surfer, your only material risk is what’s in your backpack, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t much.

The trust is a beautiful thing. When someone trusts you with a key to their home without having ever met, it’s impossible not to whole-heartedly trust them too.

Similar to Ebay, Couchsurfing benefits from user references as a sort of safety regulation. After you meet someone through the website, you can leave a reference on that person’s profile, summarizing the overall experience. Basically, you tell the world that the person was, indeed, not a creep.

Unless, of course, you did feel some strange vibes from that person. You can leave a negative reference, and in fact, the success of Couchsurfing depends on the honesty. People can’t remove their references from their profile, so a negative story would likely end someone’s couchsurfing career.

I have a small handful of positive references so far, as I’ve only just begun this journey. But the surfers I have met, through the website or otherwise, have all been awesome. Couchsurfers automatically share a certain mindset and love for life that set them apart.

My Parisian host was a doll. He was quiet and a little socially awkward, but hey, I am too. He met me at his metro stop and we went out to a lovely and long French dinner in the thriving Latin Quarter.

We chatted over steak-frites about why French food is the best, the differences between Parisians and all other French people, why living in Paris absolutely rocks and why living in Paris is an absolute pain. All the while, people walked through our cobble-stoned alley and an old man played accordion across the street. It was a simultaneously authentic and stereotypical Parisian night, and it would have never been possible on one of those hostel-led pub crawls that, while fun, hardly differ from culture to culture.

JANELLE BITKER could always use more couchsurfing references. If you have something nice to say, ask for her profile link at jlbitker@ucdavis.edu.

  1. By Ten Columns. One Post. « Janelle Bitker on January 31, 2012 at 7:15 am

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