by Shae Healey
I am currently typing at 100 words per minute and traveling at 150 kilometers per hour. In contrast to the stationary and focused environment of a coffeehouse or cafe, writing while physically in transit seems to perfectly compliment the mental whirlwind that whips through my mind as I peck at the keyboard. After sentences and in between paragraphs, ideas and images of all sizes, shapes and dates raise their figurative hands in a battle for my attention. Writing while traveling from one destination to another manages to bring this process to life. Look to the left, and I see a fast-moving forest of crooked trees. Glance to the right, and I watch the clouds build over a cornfield. There’s a moving world that accompanies my moving mind which, in turn, allows me to feel synchronized rather than mentally unstable.
For the first time this trip, however, I am writing from the backseat of a car rather than the caboose of a passenger train. The facts of my current surroundings are admittedly sparse, but I will tell you what I know. I am sitting in a silver Kia minivan with a German license plate reading: B-EN 233. It is raining and a man named Uwe Steckhan is driving me from Berlin to Munich. I didn’t get a long look at Mr. Steckhan, but from the small stretch of glass in the rearview mirror, I can tell that he is wearing black sunglasses and that he likes to smoke Marlboros. As planned, the two of us met fifteen minutes ago outside of a flower shop near the Schlesisches Tor Underground station. We shook hands, exchanged names and hoped for the best.
In line with my promise to many, I am not hitchhiking. Instead, I am participating in Mitfahrzentrale, a German car-share program that links ordinary folks with the means to end up at the destination of their preference. “And where is that? Dead?” Yes, like any life-valuing human being, this was my first thought upon hearing about this form of grassroots transportation. However, after thoroughly questioning the employee at Berlin’s Tourist Information Office, I accepted the referral to Citynetz Mitfahrzentrale Berlin.
“The office,” he said, “may not exist anymore, so you may want to call first.”
Ten Euro later, I had myself a reserved seat in the back of a stranger’s car. After another monetary exchange with Mr. Steckhan this morning, Whitney is sleeping soundly beneath a pile of coats, and I am pleased to find that our driver has so far preferred highways to dark allies. Besides, if anything strange were to happen, I am confident that the front seat passenger — a quiet German girl — would promptly trade her politeness for the savage combat skills that she must certainly possess. If not, I can always offer up the 100 Euro that I am otherwise saving by choosing this alternative method of transportation. So, rest easy, I clearly have a foolproof plan.
Be it a result of human survival instincts or the basic enjoyment of spectator sports, most readers will have already labeled the characters of this story in accordance to the traditional binary of prey and predator. As a twenty-four-year-old female and foreigner, even I am quick to identify myself as the former. That said, it was shocking to see the ease with which the tables turned. Minutes after departing, Mr. Steckhan initiated a valiant effort at small talk which included an inquiry about our residence in Berlin. In reply, we stated that we were staying with a woman through CouchSurfing. At this point, I watched our driver’s eyebrows furrow, while the girl in the front seat summarized the CouchSurfing Project in German. Within seconds, his mouth curled into an impressed smile, and the social scale seemed to balance almost immediately. His passengers were legitimate.
CouchSurfing, for those of you that are unfamiliar, is an international non-profit network that connects travelers with local hosts. In the name of cultural exchange and friendship, this organization has been operating as an alternative to the hotel and hostel scene since 2004. Now, over one-million strong, CouchSurfers are working to create “a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter.” Equally appealing is the fact that all of this hospitality takes place without monetary exchange. Instead, hosts’ “payment” comes in the form of meeting new people from all over the world without leaving home. “Surfers,” or travelers, are then provided with a cultural experience unmatched by even the edgiest tour book. CouchSurfing is the Reality TV version of traveling, minus the drama and the camera crews.
Like most people who hear about CouchSurfing for the first time, our driver bypassed the cultural exchange portion of the project and became immediately consumed by the bare boned reality of the whole situation: we are staying with complete strangers. Our sleeping bodies, passports and overall life are in the hands of people we “met” over the Internet. This concept is understandably frightening, and even threatening to those who see such actions as counter-intuitive to the basic human goal of dying a natural death. It is often assumed that those choosing to open their doors to strangers must be members of the international coalition of underwear sniffing, scab collecting, knife-sharpening degenerates. Similarly, how do CouchSurfers know that they won’t open the door to find not just a bad, but a razor blade-infested, apple?
Unfortunately, the answer is, we don’t. At the end of the day, we really have no idea who we are allowing into our lives. I assume that is exactly what boosted my street credit with Mr. Steckhan. He was left with no other option than to view me as either stupid and strong or crafty as hell — either of which leave me semi-protected in an otherwise vulnerable situation. The reality, however, can be found in none of these claims. Miraculously, CouchSurfing has managed to tap into the rapidly diminishing core of human goodness. It doesn’t take long after browsing CouchSuring profiles to learn that its members are truly interested in creating an honest, trusting, and generous environment. The community is welcoming but determined to uphold camaraderie and safety by adhering to a strict code of fundamental values. Like any other strata of society, CouchSurfing cannot possibly be free of creepers and peepers. But, like democracy in its theoretical form, CouchSurfing functions as a self-checking system that relies on member participation. Stay with a great host? Write them a positive reference. Host a dude that ate all your cereal? Tell the world to hide their Captain Crunch.
Members cannot edit their references which allows for honest feedback. Therefore, references, combined with additional security features and a personalized profile, create an environment that can be easily navigated via common sense.** If something in your gut doesn’t prevent you from staying with a person whose interests include masturbating and crying, for example, the CourchSurfing website is the least of your troubles. Similar to driving a car or eating a kebab from a Berlin streetside stand, the absurd process of being human usually involves some level of risk. I am merely here to tell you that CouchSurfing is one of the many worth taking.
*If given a completely false reference, members can appeal by writing to the organization.
*Members can also choose to have their background checked and location verified for a small fee. Â Additionally, members can report suspicious activity which often results in removal of the profile in question.
In anticipation of my travels, I joined the CouchSurfing project in January 2010. Together, my beloved roommates and I, welcomed seven strangers into our apartment during a six month span. Our surfers brought us a glimpse of life from Germany, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. On a more selfish note, they also brought legitimacy to my online profile, thereby allowing me to travel with ease throughout Europe. During the course of my travels, I generally send out CouchSurfing requests approximately two weeks before arriving in a particular city. Once my hooks have hit the water, I patiently wait as my potential hosts give me the virtual up-down. Whether fact or fiction, common rejections usually take the form of: a) Work is really busy right now; b) I am already hosting during that time; c) My parents are in town that weekend; or d) I have a terribly contagious cold. For all I know, the truth could lie in the fact that he/she despises redheads or finds my taste in music to be an utterly disgusting reflection of my personality. Thus is the beauty of the ‘Accept’ or ‘Decline’ button.
Fortunately, thanks to the promise of home-cooked meals, some kind soul has elected to host me in every city thus far. As a result, my experience in each location has been at least partially influenced by not only the culture of a city but the general character of a particular person. As such, the accounts of my adventures would be incomplete without including a rough sketch of my fast friends. In gratitude for their hospitality, the least I can do is offer an attempt at anonymity. In line with this gesture, all of my hosts will take the name of their respective city. At that, I give you a true look at CouchSurfing:
Following the protocol for real-life-meetings-of-online-strangers, Paris and I decided to meet in a public location. After thirty minutes of sitting in front of a Metro stop, I nervously reached for my bouncy ball and thought about how shit out of luck I would be if she didn’t show up. For the first fifteen minutes, I watched people walk by and quickly classified them into the categories of “Is that her?” or “Oh, shit, please don’t let that be her.” By 1:20 p.m. however, the game quickly turned sour as I began to notice the limits of my freedom. Fortunately, a few deep breaths later, Paris arrived.
She was soft-spoken yet confident, my height but quite a few years older. Paris explained that she worked for the Customer Service office in Disneyland — “not the one in America,” she reminded me. She lived alone in an apartment with walls covered in magazine cut-outs of clever phrases and arresting images — “The apartment of a teenager,” she admitted. Paris had to leave for work in an hour, so we passed the time by sharing hunks of basic information. She was born and raised in Italy, and hopes to one day move to Portland, Oregon. At this point, I had yet to reveal my hometown, so I smiled and sat quietly as she described her utopia and my childhood.
Upon revealing my secret, Paris wasted no time in showing me her Powell’s book bag, and I remembered the fact that she works for the company that first introduced me to the ever-shocking truth that “it’s a small world, after all.” Forty-five minutes later, Paris handed me the spare keys to her apartment along with an invitation to help myself to her food, bike and computer. In no time, I was cuddling with her cats and waving hello to her neighbors. Each day, I was continually taken aback my Paris’ generosity. When Whitney arrived, Paris all but demanded that we sleep in her bed while she used the single bed in the guest room. After declining, she settled for taking us out for dinner and drinks. Blame it on the Disney fairytales, but it took four short days for Paris to feel like an old friend — or at the very least, a familiar stranger that inspired me to CouchSurf the rest of my way through Europe.
With the help of groups such as “Independent Female Travelers,” “Tattoo Artists on the Road,” Â and “Hippie Moms (And Dads Too!),” there tends to be a home for just about everyone in the CouchSurfing community. Â Geneva, for example, belongs to many groups — one of which being “Queer Couchsurfers.” Â After several text message exchanges which involved multiple variations of smiley faces, I unleashed my assumptions and began scanning the crowd at the train station for a well-groomed man with a small dog and a limp wrist. Geneva, frustrated by his inability to locate us, finally revealed himself after a series of dramatic phone calls. With a female friend in tow, the four of us hopped on a tram towards his apartment.
It didn’t take long to realize that Geneva was in the very early stages of the coming out process. In fact, clicking the ‘Join Group’ button online seemed to be the greatest and latest in the evolution of his sexuality. With the dots drawn and numbered, it was only a matter of connecting the obvious before Geneva was face-to-face with an undeniably phallic fate. Until then, however, this young man was determined to run on the potent fumes of denial. Like verbal bookends, Geneva was quick to describe himself as “a manly guy” both before and after divulging his status as a Security Officer for the World Health Organization (WHO). Following the trail of Geneva’s masculinity, we navigated a few street blocks and began climbing the stairs up to his apartment. We were not the first CouchSurfers to make this journey.
For Geneva, CouchSurfing is a way of life or, perhaps more accurately put: a means of distraction. As a woman on the run myself, this was easy to recognize. A constant flow of house guests provides Geneva with a supply of endless attention. Each strand of strangers offers an opportunity to repeat and thereby solidify a story; and, as the son of a radical left-wing Swiss politician, Geneva knew how to entertain.
Constantly in the presence of new company, he essentially worked full-time guarding the WHO by night and his ego by day. Fortunately for Whitney and I, Geneva still mustered the energy to extend the utmost hospitality, provided we kept a straight face as he referenced his most recent [hetero]sexual encounters. Geneva lent us a spare cell phone and an extra key to the apartment. He introduced us to his friends, invited us to watch a movie in the park, and bought us drinks at his favorite bar. For a grand finale, Geneva set his alarm for 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning to accompany us to a live jazz performance on the Lake. As the sun rose, we said goodbye over a cup of coffee and hopped on the train as he returned home to prepare for his next small audience.
Update: Since our stay in late August, Geneva was fired from his Security position and hired as a bartender at a local pub. Let the show continue.
Thanks to Bern, our time in Switzerland’s capital smelled like baked bread and blooming flowers. Truth be told, the flowers didn’t actually smell… they were merely pasted over every imaginable surface in Bern’s spacious apartment. Since overdosing on Spice Girls and other forms of Girl Power in the mid-’90s, I have developed a severe gag reflex to Bern’s brand of floral decorations. With this in mind, it is in great testament to her becoming personality that I did not spend my visit in a state of ‘dry-heaval.’ Daisies and other imitations of flowered plants seemed to miraculously flourish on walls and bookshelves purely as a result of her utter optimism. She managed to exude sheer positivity without bearing resemblance to your neighborhood soccer mom.
When Bern described her job as a full-time nurse, I often imagined flowers sprouting from the wounds of her patients as she floated through the orthopedic wing of her hospital’s rehab facility. Instead, she was at home on sick leave during our stay, rehabbing her own knee post-surgery. When she was not busy smiling, limping, and guiding us through the city, Bern spent her days feeding her pet bunnies and painting a map of the world.
As a baker’s daughter from a small town, she makes a habit of baking bread for her CouchSurfers. Like Geneva, hosting is also an integral part of Bern’s life. Through knee surgeries and birthdays, she consistently welcomes the world into her home. By means of CouchSurfing, Bern is able to find an outlet for her genuine desire to do more in the world than simply paint it. As a result, Whitney and I are one Swiss-German rock concert cooler, one load of laundry cleaner and one friend richer.
Much like modern-day promise rings, many couples take their love viral by creating a joint CouchSurfing profile. While Whitney and I have not yet taken this step, we recently had an inside look at the inner-workings of CouchSurfing lovebirds: Zurich 1 and Zurich 2.
Zurich 1 has been awarded her high-ranking title due to the inhuman speed and length at which she can talk. With blond hair, black glasses, and chipmunk cheeks, Zurich 1 navigates CouchSurfing with the instinctual grace of a small forest animal preparing for winter. In response to my passing comment regarding the inefficiency of the CouchSurfing search engine, Zurich 1 furrowed her eyebrows and quickly replied: “We’re working on it.” Zurich 2, on the other hand, occupies the supporting role by faithfully listen to her chatterbox lover. The two seem to join forces, however, when it comes to the shared Google Calendar posted on their CouchSurfing profile. The powers of an accountant and pre-school teacher combined result in a fabulous display of color-coded preciseness. These ladies don’t mess around.
Two hours after our arrival, the Zurichs kicked into high hosting gear and offered us a map of the city and a highly suggested three-day itinerary. Apparently, given the right guidance, it is possible to hike in the forest, devour Switzerland’s famous Luxenburgerli chocolate, and enjoy a ninety-minute boat ride all in one afternoon.
On the evening of our second day, Zurich 1 and 2 joined Whitney and I for a highly cultural dinner at The Spaghetti Factory. While waiting for our gnocchi, Zurich 1 took a long drink of water which gave Whitney and I just enough time to enter the conversation. To spice things up a bit, I decided to mention the strange new fruit that I had purchased at a open-air market in Lucerne. “It’s round, and it has spikes all over it, but I haven’t eaten it yet,” I said with the excitement of an American on the verge of a foreign experience.
“Good, because that sounds like a non-edible chestnut,” remarked Zurich 1. Yep, I spent three Euro on a poisonous nut, and all I got was the patronizing pat of the hand that only a pre-K teacher can properly deliver. These ladies really don’t mess around. Later that night, it took a grueling two hours for the Zurichs to nurse a beer and only fifteen minutes for them to publicly destroy us at foosball. Although we were, at times, less than skillful or knowledgeable competitors, Zurich 1 has kept in constant communication with Whitney and I well after our departure from Switzerland. Thanks to her steady stream of city-specific advice, we have henceforth had the cutting edge on our tourist counterparts.
While our experiences were all safe, it is highly recommended to thoroughly check the references of any potential host and/or surfers. Additionally, for the sake of your pride and privacy, I would also strongly suggest determining whether or not your host/surfer is currently penning an article.
Couchsurfing photo by caseydavid
All photos courtesy of the author
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From breast feeding to bar hopping, Shae Healey came of age in the Pacific Northwest, splitting time between Portland, OR and Walla Walla, WA. After graduating from college, Shae spent two years dabbling in Chicago’s social work scene before devoting seven months to international adventuring. Twenty eight countries later, Shae is keepin’ it regional in the great Northwest. To see what grows when women plant their roots in Pacific soil, check out The Flying Salmon for the latest and greatest in estrogen-infused attractions throughout Oregon and Washington.