samedi 15 janvier 2011

CouchSurfing - my experiences

Squidoo has a good and brief rundown on what the project is all about.

Basically Couchsurfing a website where people offer or ask for free accommodation when they travel, mainly to save money. However, it's much more than that. For me it's also an awesome way to meet new people and make new friends.

As with all my 'stories' I need to go a bit further back in time. 10 years ago (gee, where did the time go?!) my sister was a poor student studying in Germany. When one is a student one tends to make good use of what little money they have. Anyway she told me about this thing called 'Couchsurfing' and another called 'Hospitality Club'. She said she used it a lot and told me not to tell our parents (otherwise they'd freak out and have a heart attack and never let us out of their sight again - yes they are those kind of parents).

At the time I thought I could never do such a thing.. I mean sleep at a stranger's house? What if they kill me? What if they steal my stuff? What if they lock me out of their place? etc etc.. All those usual fears popped into my head so I didn't think too much about it. The answer was a clear 'no'. No way in hell would I use such a 'service'... besides I'm too much of a 'princess' to stay somewhere where I might have to sleep on the... floor? (that has never happened by the way). So when I travelled I always stayed in cheap hotels or with friends. I've never even stayed in a youth hostel unless I had my own private room as the thought of sleeping with 4+ other strangers freaked me out and I am a very light sleeper and I could imagine the party animals coming back at 2am and being noisy, etc.

Fast forward to 2008 when I'd just come back from my one-year stint in Shanghai. At the time I wanted to move to the USA (not France) and I wanted to make friends with Americans. How could I do this? I thought back to Couchsurfing. I'd never used it before as a 'surfer' but I never used it as a host either as my (ex) partner did not like the idea of strangers sleeping in our apartment.

Now my partner was out of the picture and I actually had a nice apartment (as opposed to living with my parents) I could do this. Yeah, I was really gonna do this! I was gonna have strangers sleep over at my place and not be scared they were gonna kill me or steal my stuff!

So I started small. I purposely chose girls and youngish (early 20s) who seemed less threatening than choosing an older single male.

My experiences as a host

Unlike most people who start to 'surf' before they host I did the opposite. Besides, it feels much better to give than to receive.

1. The first girl I hosted was from Taiwan and travelling around Australia on a one-year working holiday visa/WHV doing fruit picking. She said she was having a ball. She stayed 2 nights with me (my maximum at the time) and the first night I cooked us dinner and then she offered to cook us dinner the 2nd night. She came back about 1.5-2 hours later than she said without calling me and I was freaked out thinking something had happened to her (I was also starving by then). It was all fine in the end and no big deal. She just didn't realise the trains were less frequent at night and caught the wrong one or something. Overall I had an enjoyable time with her. A good start I think so I was ready for my next 'surfer'!

2. The second girl I hosted came from San Diego (the States, yay!) She was a young medical student and had hitched a ride over the Pacific Ocean on a big naval ship (I can't remember the exact story now but it was interesting to say the least). I had a bit of free time so I took her to the city and we went on a ferry (to see Sydney Harbour) and walked around until I kind of got bored/tired and I left at about 4pm and left her to explore the city a bit alone. We went into the Queen Victoria Bulding/QVB (which is a shopping mall with gorgeous Victorian style architecture and stained-glass windows) and into this cutesy gift shop where I saw something I really liked/wanted but didn't buy...

That night, she came back late after exploring the city alone and she said she'd bought me a gift and it was the thing I wanted! I was so touched. It cost about $20 and knew she didn't have a lot of money so the thought was really sweet.

She was ever so humble and polite and was a pleasure to have as a guest.

3. 2009. Now I was looking for French people, not Americans... I thought I'd use CouchSurfing to see if I could find a French person who wanted to meet up with me and do a language exchange. In the search function you can search for 'nearby travellers' so I messaged a few and eventually got a reply back from one of them. We ended up meeting on/off for the entire time he was here (about 6 months) until he went back to France. At the end of his time here, he moved out of his rented apartment and asked if he could Couchsurf with me. By this time I knew him well so it was no problem. However I had a small problem with my new flatmate (she was not open to the idea of CS) which is why I did not host for over a year between my second person and him.

One morning I needed to go out and do something and he asked if he could stay in my apartment. At first I freaked out as I had never let anyone stay there without me physically being there and he looked upset/disappointed and even angry that he thought I didn't trust him. He was right though. I should've just been more trusting. So I let him stay (didn't give him the key though) and said to just make sure the door is locked (don't need the key to lock it) when he goes out. Of course nothing happened. He didn't steal anything or do anything stupid... So as a guest it was all fine in the end.

4. Around the same time I met a French girl on CS. I was looking for someone who lived near me (which was hard as not many French people live in my suburb/area) but lo and behold! I couldn't believe my luck when I found a nice girl, around the same age as me, living in the same suburb and who is a French teacher at a high school! We agreed to meet up for coffee and we hit it off straight away. She is lovely and bubbly and friendly. We had dinner together and then I took her to my other friend's place (who lives in the same suburb) and now they are good friends too and are flatmates!! As well as that, I met this CS girl's friends so now we're like one big group of friends. It's wonderful :)

She has used CS both as a surfer and a host and also raves about her great experiences with it.

So they're all the CSers I met or hosted in Sydney...

Now, my experiences in France as a 'Couchsurfer'

1. As I mentioned in this blogpost I started my adventure in my little town with some lovely Couchsurfers. Several months before I came I did a search (almost as a joke) to see if anyone in this town was on CS. To my surprise I found one person! I contacted them and from that first moment they were nothing but friendly and welcoming. My sister told me it's because they probably never get anyone requesting to surf with them (because the town is so small) so it's a joy to receive guests. We exchanged many messages and emails before I came and he said that he (and his girlfriend) would come and pick me up from the station, and so they did.

Let me tell you, when you are travelling alone it is the nicest feeling in the world to have someone come and pick you up from the station! Everytime that's happened to me I almost feel like crying because it just feels so nice and warm and welcoming to have someone there, someone who is happy to see you. Someone who will take you to their home and feed you and give you shelter. As opposed to staying in a cold hostel/hotel and having to fend for yourself and getting lost multiple times over and not really learning anything about the culture or the people.

So that's what they did. They helped me out and served me delicious home-made meals and gave me a wonderful start to my somewhat frightening time here in France. I already wrote about them in my previous post (The Journey VII) so I won't repeat it all... suffice to say I had a wonderful stay with them.

2. This story is gonna be long...

With one 'surfing' experience down I was confident to try it again. Well I have no choice anyway since I try to save money where I can. I planned to visit town x during one of my 3-day weekends because I realised that the train from my station goes there easily. So I contacted one of the few who live in this town, and he told me he was busy and changed dates many times until finally we agreed that during my Toussaint holidays (at the end of October) would be a good time (and he'd also be free then too).

It started off badly but ended up perfectly. I could not have asked for a nicer experience! Due to the strikes around that time a lot of trains stopped running or were replaced by buses - like mine. I had a horrific time on the bus because there was no toilet on it (and I needed to go!) and it left about 30 minutes late and then took about 2 hours to get there. It seemed to take forever and around my area the roads are all very hilly and windy so I felt extremely nauseous as well. And being the school holidays it was entirely packed so there was just constant loud chitchat which made for a hellish trip for me as I just couldn't relax like I usually can on a train.

I texted this guy to let him know what time I'd be arriving and I'd be arriving a bit later than planned because of the train/bus situation. He arrived not long after I did and picked me up in his car (despite the fact that he lives right in the heart of the city) and took me up to his apartment and even carried my Zuca up four (or was it five?) sets of stairs for me!

The night before I was due to go to this town, I looked at his profile again on CS (after having not seen it for many many weeks) and realised that he was holding a cigarette in his hand in almost all his photos. Oh shit! I thought. I hate smoking and can't stand cigarettes. What am I going to do? Oh stuff it, I thought. I'll just have to put up with it. There are worst things... Well I am really really really glad I did not cancel because if I did I would not have met such a wonderful human being.

It turns out that he was dogsitting for a friend and she was a very young puppy at that. So throughout the weekend I'm hear him calling the dog's name hundreds and hundreds of times over... I think I can still hear it in my head (haha). After we dropped my stuff off at his place we went out to get some lunch. Like all good French people do he eats lunch at the 'proper' hour (that is, between 12-2pm) not before and not after. We went to a small patisserie/boulangerie (that actually had tables/chairs). I thought he was going to pay for me, or I would have offered to pay for him, but we just ended up paying for ourselves.

Afterwards we walked around a bit, he was preoccupied with the dog and I was preoccupied with taking photos so it worked out well as neither of us got bored or impatient with the other. It definitely was my lucky day because the weather was beautiful. It was about 17-18° and sunny with blue skies. The scenery was gorgeous.

He asked me what I'd like to do next and said that he could take me for a drive... OK, I thought. So we got into the car and went for a drive where I saw some breathtaking mountain scenery and I could even see the snow-capped Mont Blanc in the distance.

It actually didn't occur to me at the time that it may have been a stupid thing to get into a stranger's car in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country where nobody really even knows where I've gone etc etc... The warning bells weren't ringing in my head yet and they didn't ring till after dinner.

We stayed till just after dark and then went back and had a modest home-made meal in front of the tv with a DVD playing. We just talked and talked and talked... Oh did I mention it was the first time I had a lengthy conversation in French since I arrived in France? Prior to that the other person would try to speak English to me or it was just short and shallow conversations. But I was speaking to him in French the entire time I was there and we were having some deep and meaningful conversations.

He told me that he spent a large part of his childhood/teenagehood in Africa and because of his father's job travelled a lot as a kid. He recently walked 8000km (yes!!) around South America and basically is a real travelaholic. He had so many interesting stories to tell and so many interesting things to show me - photos, videos, souvenirs, books...

Even though we'd only just met it felt so nice to talk as if we were friends already. We could have stayed up all night but after that horrible start with the bus I said I needed to go to sleep (around 10 or 11pm).. it was then that the alarm bells started ringing in my head. "What the f--k are you doing? You're staying in a single guy's house. There is noone else here. Nobody knows you are here. What if he kills you, or rapes you in the middle of the night? or steals your stuff?" (yes that silly fear is always there - LOL). I mean it didn't seem likely at all...But it took me a while to fall asleep because of these fears going through my head. I mean I was on the fold-out couch in the living room and he was in his own room with the door closed but still.

Well it turned out fine and I had nothing to worry about. Obviously he's an easygoing person if he leaves his apartment door unlocked. There are only 4 or 5 apartments in his entire building and he says everyone knows everyone so he's not worried, so long as the main door is locked.

The next day he said he was going to take me to another nearby town which was just gorgeous. It was somewhat touristy but actually wasn't that crowded (it's not as touristy as other touristy towns are I guess although I did hear all the main languages of the world being spoken). We had such a wonderful time - him, me, the dog... It was great memories and laughs all around.

He told me there was a dish that is very famous in this region and he wanted to have it for lunch. He chose a restaurant but I asked if we could go to another because that one was in the Michelin guide (so it must be better, right?) So we went back to the car (to put the dog in there) and then went back to the restaurant.

If there is something I've learnt about France is... no matter which town you're in, if you want to go to a restaurant go early! And by early I mean 12 (and not earlier). If you go too late (after 12:30) all the restaurants will be full and you'll either starve or have to wait a long long time.

The restaurant wasn't too expensive by the way (for a restaurant in the Michelin guide). 25-30 euros for a 3 course meal. He ordered the special dish and I ordered mine (a different one). The restaurant (like all of them) was packed. The food was outstanding of course. When it comes time to pay I always feel nervous not knowing how the bill will be divided up. I was actually going to pay for him (given I was getting 2 nights' accommodation for free!) but when the bill came he picked it up and refused to let me pay.  I was shocked beyond words and extremely humbled that a complete stranger would offer me accommodation and pay for a lovely meal like that.

After lunch we went back to the car to get the dog and went for a walk. It was autumn and all the leaves were changing colour and falling down. There was a sea of yellow and orange all over the ground. It was beautiful (I realise I'm getting off the topic of CS here but please stay with me ;) ) I just had the best time...

I needed to use the internet (to double-check and contact the next CS I was going to stay with) but he didn't have it at his place so he drove me to his parents' house in the next town/suburb over. It was so kind of him. And their house was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Totally like something out of a home interiors magazine. He told me the story of how his parents met when they were just kids or young teenagers and how it was in this very town. Even though he and his parents have lived all over the world they've always called this place 'home'.

Anyway he said that I could pay for dinner (after refusing to let me pay for lunch) so that night we went to a pizza place/Italian restaurant (that was packed) and it was the perfect ending to a wonderful stay. That night I slept well with no more horrific thoughts about axe murderers and Hannibal the Lecter, et al ;)

The next morning I was really really sad to say goodbye to my new friend and this utterly gorgeous town. That morning he went to the boulangerie to buy a fresh baguette and pastries and we shared our last meal together.

I almost felt like crying. I hate goodbyes. Can you believe we'd just spent almost 48 hours straight together and never once got sick of each other?  (I should note that we're still really good friends and stay in contact with each other. He even invited me to spend Christmas with him and his family but I couldn't go).

However I was onto a new town and another CS adventure!

3. I had messaged this guy to let him know I was coming (a few weeks prior) on this date and this time and he said it was OK. However once I got there and called him, he said he wasn't going to be home until 6pm. What?! ARGH. I would have to drag my luggage everywhere with me for 6 hours.  So that's what I did. And tired would be an understatement. I completely trashed my poor Zuca suitcase from all the stairs and cobblestones and more stairs and more stairs and hills everywhere... I tried to do as much sightseeing as I could but it was so hard when I had brought way too much stuff with me. All my muscles (what little I have) were working overtime here. I even requested to use the lift (reserved for disabled people) at a museum because I was beyond exhausted and frustrated. She asked me if I had a pram/stroller and I was like, "Er.. nope. I have a suitcase." The lift was so old fashioned she had to personally come and get me. Anyway...

So after going from the city to this guy's apartment to back to the city again, I then went back to the apartment again. He seemed really lethargic and lazy and disinterested. I called him and told him I was lost and he seemed really pissed off to have to come and meet me at the station (which he didn't). Then when we got to his place he talked to me for only about 30 minutes and didn't introduce me to any of his (many) flatmates. They didn't even know who I was or why I was there! In fact, later, one of them (a French girl) was nicer to me than he was.

The good thing at least was that this apartment was gorgeous. It was huge with high ceilings and it was always warm (as they never turned off the heating!) however it was rather dirty which kind of grossed me out. We're talking overflowing rubbish bins and an overflowing sink in the kitchen. And the guy left me the key! I couldn't believe it. Well they all share a key which they hide near the front door so that meant I could come/go as I pleased.

I was just buggered. Since there was no food in the house whatsoever (and he did not suggest going anywhere to eat together) I had to then go out again to find and buy something to eat (and it was a Sunday evening so not much was open) and then cook and eat it alone in the kitchen. It wasn't a nice feeling since I don't just do CS to save money but to actually meet and talk to people too. If I wanted to eat alone I'd just stay in my dorm room and never go anywhere!

I ended up staying 3 days and 2 nights (like I do at most places) and that 30 minutes was all the contact I had with this guy! I think he was seriously depressed or tired or something as he'd always go to bed really early like 8pm and not eat, watch tv or talk to his flatmates.

The strangest (and weirdest and funniest) thing happened. The second night I was there... I was totally exhausted as I had walked all over the city all day long and it's not a small city either... I really needed my sleep but one of his flatmates always came home late (like 2-3am) and so the second night I could actually hear him and his girlfriend having sex in their bedroom (even with me wearing earplugs). It's like one of those stories you hear about but don't ever think will happen to you!! I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or scream!

After that experience I reminded myself not to choose someone who has lots and lots of flatmates because they will more than likely not look after the place and you will more than likely not get any sleep!

I should also mention that he did not give me any sheets, or blankets or anything until I asked for them and they were not clean (ew). So I can pretty much say that I did NOT have a good experience with this guy which is strange because he got a lot of positive comments on his profile.

He also did not have internet (even though I saw a modem there?!) and told me I could try out on the balcony and steal some free wifi (which is what I did. I sat on the balcony freezing trying to access some really weak wifi to find things to do in this city...)

4. So far I'd had 2 really good experiences and 1 really bad one, and this one was average and good. I just didn't feel like he was overly friendly or welcoming to me.

The thing with Couchsurfing is, you never know what kind of person/people you'll get but you also never know what kind of accommodation you'll get.

Well I really hit the jackpot with this one! It was a gorgeous stately 300 year old apartment that was renovated on the inside so it was modern and comfortable. It had high ceilings and there was a mezzanine level (where I stayed) which was the lounge room with a laundry off to the side (which was my own bathroom). I could easily access the tv and they also had a computer hooked up to the internet (which I used because it was the first/only time I ever travelled without my laptop). Not only was the apartment amazing, it was located in the heart of town but on the edge so it was close to everything but quiet as well and it looked out onto a courtyard and then a castle!

I asked them how much they pay for such a place and they say the rent is 1000 euros/month which I think is very reasonable for such a huge and nice place.

The guy lived with a flatmate, a friend who he actually met through a CS group (where the host (a friend of his) had a party and invited people...

They both kept the place clean and tidy so it was just a great experience accommodation wise. It was also quiet. Oh yeah I already mentioned that. In fact I loved their place so much I secretly dreamed of living there...

The guy actually gave me the key. Yes that's right! He gave me the key to their apartment (when he had no copy for himself). Then one time when I was going to Monoprix to buy something to eat for dinner he came and found me, saying he needed the key for a second but then he'd give it back to me. When he didn't return for a while I started getting worried on the inside thinking, "Oh no, he's never coming back. I'm locked out and all my stuff is still inside!" but as usual my fears were unfounded.

The second night I was there they had a dinner party where several of their friends came over which was nice. I spent most of the night talking to a friend from Paris in half French and half English.

The last morning I was there, his flatmate went to the the boulangerie to buy a fresh baguette for breakfast (yes, it's what all good Frenchies do every morning!) except he didn't even eat it and told me it was for me! which was very nice.

Overall I did have a good experience with this guy and his flatmate but I just wished he was a bit more friendly/warmer, that's all.

5. What's in store for my 5th Couchsurf? Only time will tell! Stay tuned! I almost had my 5th experience in November with a girl who seemed really nice and helpful but I couldn't go because I got sick so had to stay put. :(


How do I choose who to surf with? 

The bigger the city, the more people you have to contact. You can't just contact one person. I usually contact about 5-6. Depending on the city you may not get any responses or you may get lots. I have never ever gotten a reply from someone in Paris or Lyon! It just depends but it seems like the smaller the city the easier it is to find a couch host.

I usually choose someone:
• quite close to my age,
• who lives in/close to the centreville/station (if they mention this on their profile)
• who lives alone/with their partner/just one other flatmate (if they mention this on their profile). I will never again choose someone with lots of flatmates. I don't think I wish to live out l'auberge espagnol for real again ;)
• who is a non-smoker (but this is usually not mentioned and it's usually not a big deal as most smokers are respectful and either smoke outside or at the window).

I prefer hosts that actually spend time with me (or even just have a meal with me) rather than just let me stay chez eux and never do anything with me.

If you get more than one reply you have to just choose who you think is 'better'.

Lastly, I speak the obvious but read their testimonials. It's a bit like eBay. People leave feedback for you when you have either hosted or surfed.

When do I contact them?

I've found that if you contact them too late you won't get a reply in time, and if you contact them too early you'll usually get a "Hmm.. I'm not sure, contact me again closer to the date." So for me about 3 weeks prior is a good time.

How do you repay them?

Well it's up to you of course but for me, I usually bring a small gift or a souvenir from Australia, and/or offer to pay for lunch/dinner, and/or offer to help out with chores (such as cooking, doing the dishes or helping with laundry, etc). Just think if you had a stranger stay with you, how would you like them to repay you and do the same.

Am I suitable for Couchsurfing?

I thought I'd mention this because I feel that it's very important. If you are not open-minded (and trusting) forget it! If you think the whole world is filled with 'bad people' forget it. I don't really talk about Couchsurfing with all of my friends (except those who have done it of course) because I can tell many people will just turn their noses up at me and think I've completely lost my mind.

If you are a 'princess' forget it. If you are a 'control freak' forget it. If you are a 'neat/clean freak' forget it. This is someone else's house and you have no right to make any demands and you have no idea how clean/tidy (or not) the place will be. For me, I find, if I have very low expectations then I usually end up being pleasantly surprised.

If you don't like trying new things, don't like meeting new people (ie hanging around 'strangers') and think everyone in the world is 'bad', forget it! CS is not just about free accommodation but about being to share one's life/culture with others. Like I said, you have to be extremely open-minded to do this which is why it's not suitable for everyone.

If you are a couple...

If there's more than one of you I feel that CS is a bit harder to do (as for me personally, as a host, I only accepted single people). Most people don't have the space or simply don't want to accommodate more than one person but it just depends. Most people have a fold-out couch which sleeps 2 and some even welcome 3-4 people! But even if they have the couches, beds or floorspace some people don't have enough linen/blankets which is a concern in the colder months. So make sure you ask. Some hosts request that you bring you own sleeping bag (but that has never happened to me and I don't own one anyway).

And with that said, I would definitely do it again and recommend it to everyone. At least while you're young and stupid :P You can wait until you are old and/or rich to stay in those 5 star hotels. Most of all, just have fun! :D

A good blog post on Couchsurfing by Benny of "Fluent in 3 months"

An interesting story by an American girl who surfed in Katoomba, just outside of Sydney


Anonyme a dit…

Hi! I'm from the Philippines. So I've been visiting this blog once in a while. I would just like to say that your posts have been really helpful and inspiring to me since I'm studying French right now. It's impressive that you were able to reach B2 in less than a year!

Also, through this blog, I discovered Couchsurfing. I would like to try it but my mom says it's dangerous for a girl like me. Maybe one day, I'm going to show her your blog ;)

Oh and I must add that I'm really a shy person which is ironic since I love learning languages and the idea of travelling haha but by reading your posts, I've come to realize that I have to overcome it or else I'll be missing out on a lot of things. So maybe I'll start by talking to some random strangers here haha :D

So there..Keep on blogging! Your posts are really interesting :)

La Petite Blogueuse a dit…

Hi there, thanks for visiting my blog!

From the sounds of your message you seem young. If you're not ready for that stuff now, don't force yourself to do it. Maybe when you're older you'll be ready.

In the meantime, I have to say that I have never told my parents that I do Couchsurfing and I'm sure there are many others who are the same! Our parents grew up in a different generation and they don't really understand the internet. Plus they are our parents so they will always worry about us. It's nice that they do but sometimes over the top in my opinion (especially for something they know nothing about).

Just another blogtrotter a dit…

Hi There,
I found your blog while looking for Couchsurfing experiences in France.. (prep for the English Assistant programme in Grenoble for which i have been selected). So glad to have found your blog.. I am a girl in her early 20s, so your post was a like a blessing.. going to bookmark your blog!!

p.s So surprised to see that Aussie parents too worry about their daughters!! i used to think it was only an Indian habit!!

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