Would you take a stranger into your home?
Waking up in a stranger’s home is nothing new for most people; but the idea of spending one’s holidays – those precious few weeks of the year – with someone completely unknown is enough to send even the tightest traveller running to a resort.
Yet, when it came to visiting Europe, this was how I chose to go about it by becoming a member of Couch Surfing, a global website where travellers can connect, meet and stay with locals who are willing to host them.
As a journalist, I was already accustomed to entering the homes of strangers and figured that after interviewing some of the most deadpan, lifeless managers and CEOs I could at least make it through a dinner-time conversation with whoever decided to let me stay, however reticent they may prove.
I didn’t know it at the time, but two of my close friends – one interstate and one overseas – were already actively involved in Couch Surfing and had hosted numerous travellers. This came in handy because, unlike a dating website where potential suitors will judge you based on your photo, most potential Couch Surfing hosts choose whether to accept your request for accommodation based on your references left by other members.
With two friends who were members, I already had two positive references under my belt, which would eventually help to open more doors than I thought.
Finding a host was not an easy task though. Searching for members by city, I was confronted with an assortment of profiles that both encouraged me and made me rethink the whole thing all together. Those of memorable note were the Scottish punk whose references all claimed that he was aggressive and had a drinking problem, the Swedish lesbian who made it explicitly clear that she did not want any men in her house, the German man who believed in fairies and the English spiritualist who encouraged his hosts to join him in the quest for the meaning of life.
I did not send a request to any of them, instead opting for those whom I thought would be a little more stable and, in the case of the Swedish lady, more accommodating, though my strike rate was not high and even with two positive references the majority of my messages went un-replied to and ignored.
It was Samuli in Helsinki, however, who was the first to accept my request and would be my first host. We were both journalists and both had a penchant for similar music and movies which made me feel reasonably confident that, for two nights, we could get along.
My two nights stretched to four separate trips to Helsinki after we proved capable of not only being civil to one another, but becoming friends and, in turn I made friends with his own circle of friends. I didn’t even care that my bed was a piece of foam on the living room floor.
Though Samuli, like many Scandinavians, felt trapped by his surroundings and complained frequently of the narrow-mindedness of the Finnish population and the depressing effect his country’s often-bleak weather had on people, it was in Finland that I experienced a kindness that, after visiting 23 other countries, nowhere else revealed to me in such strong hues.
This verdant and unassuming country of islands and forest where the people, despite the introverted stereotype that looms over them, smiled and spoke to me with such an optimistic curiosity won me over each time I visited. Sometimes, it was my sheer surprise, like when a lady saw me sitting on the street and invited me into her home for lunch, while other times all it took it was walking through a park in Helsinki where swings hung from the highest branches of trees for no other reason than artistic expression, or the burning blue sky that was still radiant in the early hours of the morning. I left every time wanting to come back.
“Stay as long as you like; stay a hundred nights for all I care,” Samuli replied when I emailed to check my proposed arrival and departure dates. “You are always welcome and you are not a Couch Surfer to me.”
Still, with my return to Australia always scratching around at the back of my thoughts, I knew that there were more places I had to see while they were within easy reach.
Staying on in Scandinavia, it was in Norway where I found myself with a Dutch couple for two nights on the top floor of a two-storey house with my own bedroom, bathroom and even a map with clearly marked directions from their house to the city.
Not for the first time, I wondered why it was that so many thousands of people like Samuli and the couple I was staying with chose to open their doors to me, and countless other strangers.
“I’ve always had a willingness to learn about the ways of the world, and you cannot really understand the world without getting familiar with its people and the way they lead their lives,” Samuli explained to me.
“Also, I like to travel and knowing people from all over the planet opens doors.”
For the Dutch couple, moving to both an unfamiliar country and a city with such a small population, it was a good way of at least staying social.
“We’ve even had a 60-year-old retired couple from New Zealand stay with us,” they said.
And they, like Samuli, recounted no unpleasant experiences, save for an over-enthusiastic Canadian who shrieked: “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” at every piece of information they told her.
“After two days, we were ready for her to leave,” the couple recalled, with an almost sense of nostalgia. “She was a nice girl, though, but she got a bit much.”
Couch Surfing isn’t perfect, of course. In 2011, after 12 years of operation, it became a for-profit organisation, receiving a $7.6 million investment from Benchmark Capital. There are reports that the site will one day go public. This move angered many of the members that had been there since the very beginning.
“It’s not the same as it used to be,” a friend lamented. “You can see it through the way people use the site as just a way to find free accommodation. I receive so many generic copy-and-paste requests now that I hardly ever log in anymore.”
During this time, I received a forward email from a Couch Surfer encouraging members to join the ‘We are against CS becoming a for-profit corporation’ group, which currently has 3564 members.
“It pisses me off that something like this can happen – especially when the new ‘owners’ are key figures in Facebook and eBay,” wrote the member.
This is not the first time that money has changed hands with the site. When I first joined up in 2011, eager and enthusiastic about getting involved I paid a small fee of around $20 via credit card that gave me the status of being a “verified” member. This too is something that many members go out of their way not to do, believing that such a move is unnecessary.
Not surprisingly, the blog All That Is Wrong With The World took issue with this, writing that: “The CouchSurfing verification system is a scam and nothing more”, pointing users towards other travel sits like BeWelcome and Hospitality Club, which do not accept money but offer a similar service.
While I understand the sentiments, not even its swing towards a corporate mentality, or my worst Couch Surfing encounter with a cold, unfriendly host who severely lacked in communication skills managed to taint my view too strongly or deter me from using the site again.
I think back to when I was in Bergen and met a half-Australian, half-Norwegian Couch Surfer who offered me to use their shower and laundry when both services at my crummy hostel broke down. Freshly showered, I found on the table, by the couch, a platter of Norwegian food prepared for me. In Munich, one member of the site was so apologetic about not being able to host me that they took me on a bike ride tour of the city one afternoon. No sooner had I returned to my hostel and there was an email from them containing lengthy instructions on how to reach other nearby places of interest.
All of this made returning to Australia hard, despite the fact that I am no longer in contact with most of the people who I met through Couch Surfing. Even those who I was closest to communicate only sporadically now in one or two-sentence messages or by clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook updates, but this distance does not bother me; I see it as inevitable.
It is not possible to share anything even close to permanent with people who I was but a fleeting moment with, though I remember each of them as clearly as I do the view from the Eiffel Tower or walking through the maze of Pompeii. Samuli was right when he told me that: “At best, you score a new friend. At worst, you score an experience.”
Mitchell Jordan is a Sydney writer.
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