“Aren’t you afraid you’ll be killed?”
“Is it safe?”
These are only a few of the pointed reactions that friends gave me after I explained that I would be Couchsurfing (CS) at certain points of an upcoming 25 day trip to Europe last month. While most travelers look up hotels, hostels, or apartments to rent for lodging, I decided that I wanted to rely on the kindness of strangers and experience a true cultural exchange and an on the ground, behind the curtain look at the lives of locals. It wasn’t just about finding a free place to stay, or the boldness of doing something risky.
Finding a host felt very much like a homework assignment at times. Perusing through potential host profiles and waiting to find a sentence they had written that made something inside of me say “Yes!” or “Me too!”. Then, I sent a request, explaining what my intentions were for my trip to their part of the world and why I wanted to surf with them. I didn’t just want to stay with the first person who was available to host. I wanted to stay with someone who would teach me something outside of my own lens of the world.
By the time I departed for Europe, I had secured three CS hosts for my travel partner (who was from Alaska). One in The Netherlands, the second in Thessaloniki, Greece and my final destination of Frankfurt, Germany. All of my other travel destinations would be spent in AirBNB’s or Pensions. It can be tricky finding CS hosts during the summer—as a lot of people leave to go on their own holidays.
My first stop was in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Melissa, my travel writing host had given me her contact information and had also perfectly explained how to find my way to her home via the bus from the airport. Melissa was in her early 60’s and was an ex-pat originally from the United States who had been living in Amsterdam for the last 10 years. When I read her profile on CS she had over 120 reviews from other surfers who raved about how awesome of a host she was. Most of our time spent with her involved great conversations about her experiences moving from America and why she absolutely adored Amsterdam.
We did not spend a lot of time with her as she worked/wrote during the day, but if it weren’t for her, we would have never known about the free walking tour that met in the Dam Square and ended in the Red Light District, nor would we have known about one of the best bars in Amsterdam tucked away on a beautiful part of one of the numerous canals. My travel partner and I slept on her couches in the living room and gratefully watered her plants on her balcony. At the end of our trip, we gifted her with magnets from Alaska and chocolate from Seattle.
My second host was Michalis, a school president who lived with his Danish wife, Pernille in Thessaloniki, Greece. When I asked for directions to his place, he offered to pick us up from the airport. I should also state that my travel partner had to stay behind in Santorini as she had chosen the wrong flight. When I communicated this to my host, he simply said “No problem, we’ll pick her up from the airport too”. I was beginning to feel like this was all too good to be true. When I arrived in Thessaloniki, Michalis, a president of a school in the main part of the city greeted me at the curb and I instantly felt like I was visiting an old friend. When we arrived to his home, he said, “We’re having some friends over. Come join us.” As I walked to the yard where a table full of people were, his wife, Pernille greeted me warmly and immediately fed me.
As I sat with my hosts and their two friends, I let their conversation, all in Greek swirl around me as I lost myself in complete gratitude.
How could these strangers that I had met nearly 1 hour ago open up their home to me and feed me? What world was I living in?
How in the heck did I get this wonderful opportunity? As the day crawled on, I bonded with Pernille, read a book by their pool, and ate an even bigger dinner. I spoke with Pernille’s friend, Maria amidst her broken English and my terrible Greek, about my dog, my job, and my lack of a love life. In the midst of all of this, something was happening to me.
As the evening interrupted our time, our conversation turned to the financial crisis in Greece and American views on marriage. At the end of our second day with them, I was sad to be leaving. I felt like I was visiting my cool Aunt and Uncle and I was beginning to get attached to the idea of spending the rest of my summer in their home or out by the pool. When we left, we gave them their Alaskan magnet and Seattle chocolate. These gifts had become a symbol of sad departures and bittersweet goodbyes.
My third and final CS host in Frankfurt, Germany was Kadda, a young woman in her early 20s who led Segway tours, was finishing her thesis for University, and also preparing for a 3 week job at a summer camp in France. She gave great directions to her flat and we got to her via train and met her two other flat-mates. As she was pretty busy the first day, she gave us a great map and told us where to get some amazing Doner Kebabs, and showed us a lovely street filled with locals and great shopping. We spent that first lazy day roaming around Frankfurt and enjoying German efficiency and fresh produce. During our last night, Kadda took us to a CS meet up (these happen frequently in many different cities where CS is popular) in a park where we met other people who were surfing in Frankfurt or hosting surfers. I shared a bottle of wine with Bula, a woman from Perth, Australia who had moved to Frankfurt after surfing the couch of a gentleman who convinced her that it was an amazing place to be.
This conversation was followed by a conversation that shook me to my core, with a woman named Tara who had spent the last four months on a farm in Normandy, France and was surfing someone’s couch for one night before she made her way to Scotland for a wedding. If it weren’t for Kadda we wouldn’t have gotten on foot, nor on the Segway nighttime tour of Frankfurt, nor would we have met so many other travelers in one place at one time—the middle of a park on a perfect Wednesday night in Frankfurt, Germany.
In one night, I crossed paths with people who had amazing stories.
We were all traveling for different reasons: to find ourselves, to find like-minded travelers, and to find life.
All three of my CS experiences were so different, because the people were different age-wise, life-wise, and their own reasons for hosting surfers. I didn’t spend these parts of my trip in a sterile, air-conditioned hotel room, nor did I do the vanilla touristy things. I walked through the lives of perfect strangers for days at a time. I asked and answered hard questions, I talked through my experiences of being an African American traveler, I laughed more than I have in months and I went home asking myself, how I could make an impact on the world by traveling rather than letting the world make an impact on me?
Couchsurfing added colorful characters to my own personal story that I will never forget. Whether it was sitting in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam and watering the plants of my host, stuffing my face with the best Döner Kebab or floating in a pool and explaining why I too, had to wear sunscreen, I wouldn’t trade these experiences for a penthouse hotel suite ever.
The spirit of Couchsurfing is simple: Give and take. Teach one another and learn from one another. The rest takes care of itself through bonds that are birthed from an unlikely, uncommon experience.
This story was curated by Davinah Simmons.