It was March, tax time. I fought hard but the tears came anyway, staining the papers and making my accountant uncomfortable. “But I was planning a holiday,” I wept as I struggled to grasp how much the IRS demanded. Not just any holiday either, it was intended to be one of those life-affirming journeys, perhaps cliché, wherein past pains dissolve in the beauty of a new landscape. (Or the divorcée buys a Tuscan villa).
Newly single and rootless, I had thrown myself financially, intellectually, and emotionally into arranging a solo trip to France. I rented an apartment in Paris, studied maps and guidebooks, conjugated French verbs like a madwoman and even put on a dinner party featuring my attempt at authentic French cuisine. But now, through some payroll department blunder, my budget was sadly diminished and I still had to find accommodation for the second leg of my trip, Provence.
Not about to give up, I started researching ways to bypass or lessen the cost of lodging, trying to avoid any hard manual labor or nights sleeping in tents. Luckily, I found CouchSurfing, the world’s largest network for connecting travelers with local communities and “creating a better world, one couch at a time.”
The term “couchsurfing” comes from the practice of bumming a night’s sleep by staying on someone’s couch, a close cousin of hitchiking. The website helps weary travelers find welcoming couches worldwide. The cool thing is, an offered couch usually comes with a generous host, a person interested in meeting travelers and sharing his home. This is the beauty of CouchSurfing.
CouchSurfing founder Casey Fenton had a ticket to Iceland and nowhere to stay, so he randomly emailed 1,500 students in Reykjavik asking if anyone had an available couch. The response gave him not just a place to sleep but a group of new friends, an array of local tour guides, and a unique insight into his travel destination.
With over 915,000 member couchsurfers around the globe, the network’s scope is huge. Far more complex than “need couch, have couch,” CouchSurfing International, Inc. is a non-profit organization with a structured system for matching travelers with hosts safely and happily.
Intrigued? To begin couchsurfing, first create a profile to present yourself to fellow couchsurfers (where you’re from, what languages you speak, whether you’re traveling at the moment, etc). What you offer to the community is up to you, anywhere from “I can meet for a coffee and tell you about my hometown,” to “I definitely have a couch for anyone anytime.” If you are traveling, you can then search for hosts according to your itinerary, making contacts in each place you plan to visit and often getting better travel tips from locals than you would from Lonely Planet.
Safety is, of course, a big concern for couchsurfers, but a careful system of security is used to keep the community as safe as possible. The first step in this is verification, in which CouchSurfing checks that a member’s name matches the credit card and physical address provided. Verification is indicated on a couchsurfer’s profile by a little green lock icon, letting others know they are who they say they are.
In addition, couchsurfers can earn higher degrees of security (a higher “safety rating”) by being vouched for by other members. The website emphasizes, “Respecting the significance of vouching is essential to the integrity of the network.” Members can vouch for someone only if they know each other in the real world (they have met face to face) and they find the person trustworthy. In this way, while searching for couches to crash on, travelers can judge the reliability (and sanity!) of the hosts they come across.
Should they wish to know more, travelers can also read reviews that other members have written about their experience with a particular host or surfer. Are they polite, neat, and considerate? Or did they eat up all the food and use up all the hot water? Naturally, a certain level of propriety and respect must be maintained for couchsurfing to work, and these reviews are a way of keeping the whole experience civil.
While not necessary, it’s nice for couchsurfers to offer something to their hosts. This can mean helping with the dishes, sharing travel photos, or offering a small gift from home. It’s this wonderful loop of generosity that makes couchsurfing worthwhile.
After almost two weeks in Paris, I was on a high-speed train to the south of France. The capital city was a brilliant place to be, but the solitude had become insufferable. I spent entire days alone but for the static subjects of artists’ paintings and hurried contact with waiters and shopkeepers. I missed the sweetness of sharing my experience, and looked forward to the comfort of conversation again.
But comfort? How could I be at ease in a place I’d never been with people I’d never met?! With three hosts lined up for the next week, I had no idea what to expect.
My first couchsurfing stint would be an easy one, an American couple studying French in Aix-en-Provence. They were my age, from the same just-out-of-college culture, with a familiar accent I never thought I’d feel such joy to hear. Meeting them was instant relief, like a letter from home. For two nights I slept on their futon, shared veggie burgers and cheap wine, and laughed as we practiced our language skills via French soap operas.
The next stop would be more challenging; I was to meet my host in the tiny village of Venasque, accessed only by the narrowest country roads. Buoyed by the first successful couchsurfing experience, I was actually more concerned by the fact that the rental agency had arranged a massive SUV for me. (I have got to learn to drive stick!) “Mais pas de problème, vous êtes Américaine!”
After half a day of driving (and silently hoping for miracle each time I met an oncoming car), I pulled my monster vehicle next to an ancient, beautifully renovated stone cottage.
My host, a gracious, quiet Frenchman, received me warmly and we fell immediately into easy conversation. He had transformed his home from a pile of stones to a piece of Provençal art, and ran his own wood-fired pizza business in the nearby town. Couchsurfers, it seems, have a common mindset, an openness to the world and its people, and he calmly informed me that I had arrived just in time for his birthday party, which I was welcome to attend. It sounded to me like a few friends would be stopping by for dinner, a small affair.
As more and more guests arrived for the fête, though, the house filled to bursting with neighbors and friends. I’m sure none of them could fully understand who I was and why I was there exactly, and my so-so French didn’t help clear things up much. Still, after the initial puzzled look, everyone was friendly and interested in hearing about my trip.
The party, however, was a true test of my endurance. After two hours of champagne, hors d’oeuvres, and small-talk, we sat down to long, white-clothed tables for the dinner, a never-ending multi-course deal with countless bottles of wine, heaps of cheese and plenty of bewilderment at my vegetarianism. I was amused and amazed to find that no one at this table of villagers had ever been to or even heard of a Starbucks!
After a grateful good bye to my new friend from Venasque, I made the drive to Avignon, where I (thankfully) was to drop off the SUV and meet my last couchsurfing hosts at the train station. They were an eclectic family with three daughters, a mad professor father, and a gentle-hearted mother. Their mas, or Provençal farmhouse, was a wood-beamed beauty with a garden in the back.
We shared a trip to the market, a forest hike, and a few good meals where I was introduced to home-pressed olive oil. The mother, who had been quite worried about attempting to speak English with me, was relieved that I chose to push along with my French. At one point, the father asked me for the English word for his wife’s job. She tells stories and leads play groups for young children. “The old stories, what do you call them?” “Fairy tales,” I said. “Aaaahhh, so she is a fairy teller!” A nice new piece of vocabulary, I smile each time to recall.
Following this, I returned to solo travel for the last few days of my trip. Couchsurfing left me feeling cozy and pleasant. Encouraged by the generosity of my hosts, I felt buffered against loneliness. I had gained confidence in myself, too, in my ability to converse and relate with anyone, have poise in any situation.
Couchsurfing offers a whole new way to travel, to find meaningful interactions with our neighbors around the world. It has changed the way I experience my travel destinations, taken the emphasis off sights and monuments and allowed me to see