CouchSurfing: a dream holiday for free

Publication: Unpublished

As the Great British Summer begins to wind down and we are left facing an economy like a soggy stack of Union Jack napkins, couldn’t we all do with a free holiday? How about a choice of any country in the world, a healthy dose of authentic food and culture, and some new friends into the bargain? It makes you wonder why more people aren’t doing it …

Recently raised $15 million in fresh funding from US investors. It may not have quite entered the vernacular, but CouchSurfing is a fast-growing movement with 4.8 million members worldwide, and the website’s investors believe it could revolutionise the way people travel and connect. For many of its members, myself included, it already has. Launched in 2003, is a free online community where open-minded travellers can find willing hosts with a spare couch — or, often, a spare room — in their chosen destination. With registered members everywhere from Antarctica to Easter Island, the horizons are unlimited. Hosts’ profiles include information about the type of accommodation they can offer, how many travellers they can host and for how long; they also describe their interests and lifestyle so travellers can decide if they will be compatible.

Security is the number one priority for the network and is safeguarded in a number of ways. Nobody is ever obliged to offer accommodation or to accept Couch Requests and members can leave detailed references for each other after they meet. A ‘vouching’ system is designed to indicate highly trustworthy members and those who want to provide further reassurance can also pay a small fee to have their identity and address verified — until the recent investment, this was the network’s primary source of revenue.

It might require a slight change of mindset, but CouchSurfing doesn’t have to mean slumming it; it can actually be a rich and unique experience of the kind that money truly cannot buy. So when the time came to take my Chinese partner, Jia Jia, on her first trip around Europe, what better way travel?

During our five-week motorcycle tour, we aimed to cram in as much variety as we could. The diversity of the CouchSurfing community made this easy: from cottages to condos, DJs to diplomats — they’re all on there. Whether you’re after a meeting of minds or pure culture shock, you’re sure to find it. From our experiences in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France, here are three we think will pique your interest.

The nature reserve, Lake Como

Alessandro Fulghieri’s profile reads like the CouchSurfing equivalent of a luxury hotel brochure. “I live on the border of the Natural European Reserve of Pian di Spagna, full of wild birds and animals,” beams the 53-year-old teacher. “I like to share my favourite activities with my guests: hiking, skiing, boating.” Sounds like just the place for a spot of relaxation, we thought, and pinged him a Couch Request. A couple of hours later it was accepted.

A month down the line and we are breezing across Lake Como with our hosts, Alessandro and Olga, in their yacht. Alessandro, with his pristine white beard and gold-rimmed sunglasses, looks just the part at the helm, and he sounds it too as he teaches us about the various winds that frequent the lake and what time of day they can be expected. Sandro’s supreme knowledge of the outdoors comes from a lifetime spent around the lakes and mountains of the Alps. A former president of the Alpine Association, he has twice traversed the mountain range from one end to the other; once on foot, once on skis.

That evening, after three courses of Olga’s wonderful Italian home cooking, we relaxed with a caffè corretto (espresso with vodka) and Sandro entertained us with tales of his time living in a London squat in the 1970s, and how in later years he and his family had run an off-grid mountain refuge. A picture of a somewhat bohemian adventurer had begun to emerge, which prompted me to inquire how he had first become involved with CouchSurfing.

“I was first a member of Servas Open Doors, a similar organisation which was set up after WWII to promote world peace by encouraging person-to-person contacts. CouchSurfing was a natural progression from that; it also promotes high values like respect, dignity and sharing of knowledge, but uses more modern methods of communication.” And how has the experience been for him personally? “I have met very good people; clever, open-minded people with whom I could talk for hours and become good friends. It has helped me to find a new identity — maybe my true identity. I personally think we are here on Earth to learn, and I know that learning needs a lot of effort and the courage to leave certainty behind and sail in the unknown.”

With these words of wisdom ringing in our ears, we climbed the stairs up to our little room, passing Alessandro’s rack of old skis, ibex antlers he has found on the mountains, photographs of his epic adventures. It felt as if we had been dropped into a story, a real story, the story of a man’s life, and I reflected how fortunate we are that encounters like these are possible, and no longer merely had at the whim of chance.

The big yellow house, Cologne

We followed our noses round the side of the big yellow house, towards the scent of barbecue and ripples of children’s laughter that drifted on the early evening air. Emerging into a large garden, we find the Eppert family, our hosts for the next few days, sitting around a picnic table. “Oh hi! You’re just in time!” call Maraike and Tim, getting up to greet us. “Are you hungry? We’ve got some food for you.” And so, less than two minutes after dismounting in Germany, we are presented with our first Bratwurst, happily undelayed by the usual travel hassles of parking, checking in, unpacking, and unravelling the streets of a confusing city to find a suitable eatery. For Jia Jia, it was a surreal experience: her first time in the country, her first time meeting German people, and she is already sitting down to some traditional food in their family home.

As it turns out, we are not the only ones to enjoy this privilege: sitting next to us at the table is Haley, a CouchSurfer from California who has stopped off on her way an au pair job elsewhere in Germany. Along with the Epperts’ four children, that makes nine of us, and the atmosphere is suitably warm and bubbly. “Eva wants me to tell you we’re going to try some chocolate bananas,” says Maraike, lining some sliced bananas with squares of chocolate and arranging them on the grill. Ten-year-old Eva, the eldest of the children, smiles at us openly. “She loves having CouchSurfers here. They all do, actually, but Eva especially as she’s older and starting to learn about other places and languages. She and Ronja [her younger sister] have both got penfriends they met through CouchSurfing.” Mehmet and Miro, the two five-year-old twin boys, also seem to be glad of some new playmates, and we are soon bombarded by their pirate attacks. Submitting to the superior volume of their war cries, I console myself that at least I’m now equipped with German phrases I would never have learned from Berlitz (Piratanschlag!).

Thirty-somethings Maraike and Tim have been members of CouchSurfing for about a year and a half. Although mathematician Tim works full-time, Maraike is at home to look after the kids — and the CouchSurfers — and both are enthusiastic about the movement. “We love travelling,” reads their profile, “but with four children it has become expensive and exhausting, so we are eager to meet the world in our living room.” It seems to be going well — so far in 2012 they have hosted 16 times. They are able to accommodate up to six people and their profile makes it clear that youngsters are very welcome: “We know all the cool playgrounds here, and within five minutes walk there is a “NaturGut”, a huge area to explore natural gardening with a scientific learning centre for kids.”

After dinner, the kids help us take our luggage up to our room at the top of the house, where a double mattress has been made up for us. (Despite being “CouchSurfers”, we had our own bed and private room at each of our six stays.) The interior of the big yellow house is a collage of colour and handicrafts: the walls are covered in children’s drawings, the furniture hand-painted with abstract patterns, and everywhere there are idiosyncratic little touches, like a fruit bowl moulded from a vinyl record. “We don’t have a TV,” explains Maraike, “so we do other things in our spare time.” In the living room, a full wall-to-wall bookcase speaks volumes of this, and Ronja further amplifies the sentiment as she entertains us with her harp playing. There is also a piano and a Djembe drum in the room, and the evening quickly takes a distinctly musical turn — even the twins are keen to sing us some songs until it’s time for bed. I don’t know what we’d be doing if we were staying in a hotel, but I can say with some certainty I wouldn’t be jamming on a harp. And it’d be a worse time for it.

We spent a lovely few days with the Epperts and I realised just what a great experience CouchSurfing can be for families. For Jia Jia and I it was really refreshing to be part of this lively household for a while and think about the innumerable ways children can be introduced to the world. It had been an unexpected learning experience and I was put in mind of the “experiments of living” so staunchly defended in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The chance to observe the lifestyles of others is key to determining one’s own way of life, and, held Mill, social progress also depends on it.

The paint factory, Zurich

We cruised slowly through Altstetten, Zurich’s industrial zone. The directions on the email print-out in my map holder said to turn off at the Auto Beauty Salon and on our second pass down the street we spotted it: a low wooden building, painted blue. Turning in by the chainlink perimeter, past street art-covered walls, we soon arrived at the paint factory’s red frontage. “There’s no doorbell, so just walk in” said the instructions. Tentatively, we did.

Climbing the concrete stairs and heaving open the subversively stickered door to the paint factory was like tumbling down the rabbit burrow. Inside we found a veritable museum of random objects: bicycle wheels and weather balloons hanging from the roof, random strings of playing cards and streamers, a bathtub on top of the refrigerator. What was once the factory floor had been converted into a plywood jungle of DIY stairways and makeshift compartments that were the accommodation for the paint factory’s 11 residents.

We were immediately welcomed into the fray by Serena, a Swiss nursery school teacher with a punk undercut, who showed us up to the “CouchSurfers’ room”: a little wooden cabin the size of a double bed that was somehow suspended above the living room door. I crawled in through the 3ft-tall door and dazedly peered out at the scene of chaos and confusion through our cabin’s miniature window. There was French poetry scrawled in marker-pen calligraphy across one chipboard wall; on another, someone had spray stencilled the memorable words: “I love you, but I’ve chosen dancing.” If we were looking for something different, we had certainly found it.

Later in the Wohnzimmer we were offered refreshments from the beer fridge and soon got down to the obvious question: what is this place? “There are actually quite a few places like this in the area — kind of artistic communes — but we are the biggest group,” said Tomu. “The building is owned by a company, but they have let it out to us as residents since the paint factory closed about ten years ago.” So how long have they been involved with CouchSurfing? “Since the beginning, more or less. Whenever we have a spare room we let people come and stay. Some of us have also CouchSurfed when we’ve been abroad ourselves, but the paint factory has a collective account.” Suddenly, the window opened; a bearded young man climbed in from outside, sat down and started drawing. Nobody turned a hair.

In a sense, the paint factory was a microcosm of the CouchSurfing community. It was home to a diverse group of people — an artist, a Master’s student, a construction worker, an IT technician — and every person seemed to have some surprise talent or amazing history (the Master’s student, for instance, had travelled the length of Africa by motorcycle). We could have sat for days and just listened to their stories. But we did have to take a look around the town at some point.

The yurt, French Alps

We pulled into what we thought was the place at 10pm, after a day of glorious Alpine riding over dizzying passes and through winding gorges. In the deep mountain darkness, with an insect-encrusted visor, it wasn’t exactly clear whether or not we had arrived, especially as we were only very vaguely looking for the corner of a field somewhere. But sure enough I soon saw a torchlight moving towards us across the field. “Just park the bike next to my car,” called Julien, tonight’s host. Behind him in the corner of the field I could just make out the faint, white, incongruous shape of the yurt.

Bike parked at the side of the road, we enter through the yurt’s wooden front door to find ourselves in a cosy yet surprisingly spacious room which somehow seems to have most of a modern flat compressed into it. As I stumble through unnecessary apologies for our late arrival I try my best to take everything in. A laptop sits on the futon, it’s umbilical ethernet cable apparently a lone tether to civilisation; nearby, baby Marceau sleeps soundly in his cot. I notice a kitchen area to our right, complete with sink, cooker and fridge; to our left, a bookcase sits by a double bed; overhead, brightly painted patterns on the tent’s solid wooden frame betray its Mongolian origins.

Camille and Julien themselves, however, are entirely without Mongolian origins. So how on earth did this young family come to be living in a yurt in the middle of the Alps? Over a delicious starter of green tomato salad, fresh from their garden, Julien explains. “Last year we travelled overland to the Far East through the ‘Stans. On part of that trip we travelled around Mongolia on horses. All of the herdsmen over there live in these traditional yurts and we had the chance to stay in one. We fell in love with it and eventually managed to find a French guy in Ulan Bator who was able to help us ship one back home. It was waiting for us when we came back.” So is this a permanent arrangement? “No, probably just for a couple of years. I still work [he is a sound engineer], and this is a cheap and interesting way to live while we save up for a house.”

As we tuck into yet more wholesome, homegrown produce — a butternut squash curry — I notice that the very fact of eating in these strange surroundings, a few metres from where the food was grown, seems to heighten the senses; it’s almost like my tastebuds are pricking up their ears and taking notice. Thankfully we have something to bring to the table ourselves: a bottle of organic wine, sent along as a gift from our last hosts to our next ones! (Well, who were we to refuse?)

The next morning the sun is blazing down on the yurt’s free-standing solar panel (though thankfully the compost toilet is shaded from its rays) as Camille serves coffee with bread and homemade jam on a little table outside. Julien is tending to the vegetables while baby Marceau plays with his toys on the grass. The only noise is of birds and insects, and the view of the rocky peaks of the Alps is unobstructed. In an hour or so we will be leaving, and although Camille and Julien will always be welcome to visit us, the chances are we may never meet them again.

But what does that matter? We met as strangers, and we learned a little about each other’s lives and values, and we learned again how fine the line between stranger and friend really is. We saw how rich an experience can be when it involves real personal connection and is not neutered by the consumer need for control. Above all we learned that true experience involves opening yourself to what is out there, sailing into the unknown and sometimes (possibly) being willing to sleep on a couch.