Published April 2008; World Hum
SPEAKER’S CORNER: The first time she crashed at a stranger’s home, Kristin Luna feared she’d wind up an Agence France-Presse headline. Now she looks forward to sleeping on others’ furniture — and not just to save money.
My heart was pounding as my travel companion, Helle, and I trained from Paris toward Marseilles. To say I was nervous about meeting Vincent, our host in Marseilles, would be an understatement. Would he like us? Would we like him? Would we have anything to talk about? More importantly, would we wind up the headline of the Agence France-Presse’s next lead story: Two female travelers go missing after stupidly agreeing to sleep on a complete stranger’s couch?
In retrospect, it’s slightly odd that we had never met Vincent but were traveling 400 miles to take up lodging in his spare bedroom. I didn’t even know the most basic things about him: his family background, place of birth, favorite Beatles album—things I generally knew about even the most casual of my acquaintances. The most interaction we had was an email exchange or two. Yet he was picking us up at the station and taking us to his secluded Provence villa for four nights. The setting for a made-for-TV, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-esque slasher flick perhaps, but we were willing to take the risk.
Where had we met this seemingly perfect stranger? CouchSurfing.com. Prior to departing Denmark, Helle and I had joined a couple of online hospitality exchanges that would set us up with local tour guides and, we hoped, safe places to lay our heads—all for free. The site we’d received the most welcoming responses from was CouchSurfing.
I saw Vincent the second I stepped off the train. Tall, lanky and good-looking, I fell completely in love with him in a purely platonic, he’s-so-nice-you-can’t-help-but-want-to-give-him-a-big-hug sense. His jittery demeanor—it was clear he wasn’t completely comfortable in the presence of two semi-attractive blonde foreigners—was somehow endearing. I sensed I wasn’t about to become a missing persons pin-up girl.
He drove us 45 minutes to his chateau among a grove of olive trees and made us feel right at home. As luck would have it, he was also one of the kindest, most fascinating, caring individuals I have encountered and the type of person you can only dream of meeting while on the road because of his appreciation for other cultures. After Vincent, my future involvement with CouchSurfing was inevitable.
I will admit that had I not had a travel companion, I would never have initially dipped my toe into CouchSurfing waters. As a solo female traveler, there are some chances just not worth taking, and staying with a complete stranger topped that list. But after a month of couch-hopping my way through Southern France and Corsica, I now don’t think twice about staying alone.
It seems utterly bizarre if you stop to think about it. You’re flying solo to Norway for a week and aren’t too keen on forking over $50 for a mere hostel bed, let alone five times as much for a basic three-star hotel. So what do you do? Email a complete stranger whose profile you stumbled across on a web-based travel community and request to crash on his couch.
With CouchSurfing, anyone of any age or nationality can create a profile free of charge. You fill out your basic information—where you live, what you do, your life goals and ambitions, whether or not you have a couch to contribute. Then other users trekking through your town can hit you up for advice or a meet-up, or vice versa. A three-tier vouching system exists for security purposes, as do references from other members.
After immersing myself in the CouchSurfing scene abroad, I moved back to New York and assumed my participation would take a backseat to my career and social life. Besides, I was your typical Manhattan resident living in cramped quarters with roommates. It would hardly be fair for me to offer up the sole piece of furniture in our communal living room. Sure enough, the second I switched the status on my profile to New York, I was overwhelmed with messages from CouchSurfers wanting everything from lodging and assistance finding a job to grabbing a drink or going for a walk in Central Park. I realized that while I couldn’t participate in the traditional sense—letting others stay in my home—there were other ways I could contribute.
As a fashion journalist by day, red carpet reporter by night and travel writer on weekends and holidays, every square inch of my New York life involves media types. It’s nice to occasionally associate with others not in the industry. So for me, CouchSurfing has provided a venue where I can meet people interested in travel from all walks of life. By participating in the weekly meet-ups and odd party or two hosted by fellow members, I’ve encountered investment bankers, photographers, computer programmers, actors, dancers, professional nomads, people from Togo and Siberia—and even Queens and New Jersey. Some of my closest friendships in New York have resulted from an email thread via CouchSurfing. I even vacationed in Latin America with one member after meeting once, for a simple Thai dinner and stimulating conversation.
I must admit, CouchSurfers can be a crazy bunch. While they have a routine get-together in Union Square each Thursday night, they also organize events every other night of the week, whether it’s a rooftop masquerade where you will not be admitted sans costume, or a unitard pub crawl. Sometimes I can’t keep up and the thought alone stresses me out. That’s when I have to sit back and remind myself that I don’t have to respond to every email I receive through the site (though I often do anyway), nor am I required to make it to every social gathering.
Sure, I’ve had a negative experience or two. After a few unsuccessful attempts at meeting up with a traveling Frenchman, through no fault of my own, I received one of the most inappropriate, profanity-laden emails I have ever read—all in French. Another time, I took a New Zealander out in Manhattan with a group of my friends, and he proceeded to offend every one of them with inaccurate generalizations about Americans and his statements about U.S. foreign policy. But, thankfully, these incidents have been few and far between.
Generally, most CouchSurfers seem to be seeking the same thing: to break down cultural barriers and spread an impassioned desire to know more about this vast world we all share. True, CouchSurfing is not for everyone—I once met a painfully shy Scot who acted as if she’d rather endure a root canal than be stuck in a room full of total strangers—but my own life would surely be much more mundane without it.