There I sat in a cozy French restaurant sharing a meal with two strange men. The waitress came to clear our plates. As she cleared the remnants of my delicious Poulet Farci, she accidentally spilled my half full (optimism) glass of wine. It leaked out onto the linened table. My new friend Liam the Canadian, no longer a stranger, quickly tarped the spill with his dinner napkin as his hiking companion Juan looked on. We continued chatting, enjoying the evening too much to mourn the loss of fine wine.
“It’s ok, it’s good luck,” the embarrassed waitress said in her sexy french accent. She returned with wine in hand and smiled at me as she gave me a generous pour of wine – good luck indeed. This meal, this fellowship, the laughs and fine wine all came together because I chose to connect with a stranger through couchsurfing.
For those of you that don’t know what Couchsurfing is, it’s a network of travel loving individuals that offer their couch and or their time to other like-minded wanderlusters. It’s a fantastic concept, really. You pay nothing to stay on someone’s couch, you just do something nice for them – a bottle of wine, a meal, flowers, a thank you note, whatever you can manage.
If having a total stranger in your home, overnight gives you visions of a lifetime movie thriller situation, you can start with something less invasive. You can meet up for a cup of coffee or offer to show the visitor around your corner of the world for an hour or two. If you’re more adventurous, you can host them in your home. GASP! Yes, you heard me, let that stranger into your home. Your home needn’t boast a guest suite worthy of being featured on Cribs to host someone. You may offer your couch, a spare bedroom, an air mattress, or even tent space in your backyard (yes there are surfers that do that – they bring their own gear and throw down in your yard and my hippy self thinks that is some kind of awesome). Whatever route you take into couchsurfing, I promise you will be richer in friends and experiences for having done so.
I’ve hosted five times now and I have surfed twice. I’d like to surf more often and I aim to now that things are not quite so hectic in my life. I could write a blog post on each encounter, really. But, I’ll summarize it all here in hopes of inspiring you to connect with strangers more often.
Concerned for safety, I decided to piggy back off a friend for my first couch surfing experience ( so that I knew I was in a good, safe place). My friend Maria directed me to her host in Belgium, about 20 minutes outside of the city of Brussels. I stayed with a man and his two children. He hosts to expose his children to other cultures and languages. A fantastic idea, I think. He met me at the train station and gave me a whirlwind tour of Brussels including the grand palace, the church where the monarchy is buried, a general layout of the city, the famous peeing boy – Manneken–Pis, his unsung sibling Jeanneke Pis (tucked away like a dirty secret in a much quieter, lesser known spot than her notorious, celebrated brother), and we sat and got to know each other over a nice Belgian beer.
He later arranged for his friend and fellow couchsurfing friend to tour me around Antwerp for the day. I learned more from these two gentlemen than I had ever known of Belgium – they were well versed in history and lore. My five days in Belgium were delightful and elevated because of their hosting me. I returned home from long days of sightseeing to a new Belgian beer each eve that my host had gotten just for me to experience. One night we had Ballekes met Krieken, a Belgian dish of meatballs and tangy cherry sauce. His mother made it for dinner when he was a boy.
On the day of Belgium’s independence we went for a day trip to the beach with a side stop in quaint Bruges – my host, his girlfriend, his two children, the friend from Antwerp, and myself. We had waffles beach side and enjoyed the lovely day, a perfect ending to my time in Belgium. On the way home, the shy and quiet son asked his Papa if we could have movie night in honor of my final night as their guest. The children were gracious enough to allow me, their guest to choose the movie of the evening. I told the son I liked comedy and action, so he selected The Pacifier for me. The little lady of the house asked to braid my hair as I sat watching the movie. Their shyness had subsided and they had become more comfortable practicing their English with me as they got to know me. I in turn tried to pick up a few words of Dutch.
These interactions, the history lessons, the private tours, the look into typical Belgian life – none of that would have happened without couchsurfing. My trip wasn’t touristy, it was experiential. I lived in their home, shared in their lives, ate at their dinner table, learned their culture. I left with new friends and many memories.
The Belgian experience led me to host. My first guest was a lovely young girl from Canada, we got along swimmingly. I showed her as much as I could in her week-long stay with me and we had a wonderful time. I’m currently panning to attend her wedding next year. I then hosted three gals from the UK who showed up with an unannounced fourth man wheel. I quickly assessed him and decided he seemed harmless. I gave them free reign of my finished basement for their several days stay and cooked a proper southern meal for them. We also had a night out at the drive in, a new experience for them. A gal from Florida came to stay for a few days. She was lovely. I didn’t have much time to spend with her, but she forgot something and had to come back a few days later, so I invited her to my saloon themed birthday party that evening where she mixed and mingled with my friends and I got to know her a little better. She sends me a Christmas card each year. Another guest was in need of a last-minute spot to crash. I was so reluctant to accept her – my basement had flooded, I was going out of town the next day, my house was a wreck, I was super stressed. I took her in any way. So many people have enriched my traveling experiences through their kindnesses, big and small, that I wanted to help her. She was an easy guest and quite thankful. We watched a movie and chatted a bit. I took her to the train for her next stop the next morning. I apologized profusely for not being able to offer her more, to which she told me I had done plenty and she was thankful.
Which brings me to my current couchsurfing experience – a Canadian chap touring about the USA. We met up last night after he hiked the North Georgia mountains with a local fellow surfer that messaged him last-minute who invited him to go hiking. I recommended a hole in the wall burger joint near their hiking area (Yonah Burger, try it, it’s so darn good). I then met them for dinner where they told me their burgers were so good and thanked me for the suggestion. The Canadian chose the French spot to dine at because it was reminiscent of his time living in France near the German border, a dinner spot I had never been to. There I started a meal with two strange men and left with two new friends.
You see, participating in the couchsurfing movement doesn’t have to be grandiose – a safe place to slumber along the way is the epitome of what couchsurfing is. Contribute in any way you can – from suggesting what to see and do in your area, to meeting up for coffee (traveling alone can get lonely sometimes), to hosting. Hosting is also a mighty fine way to satiate your wanderlust when you’re unable to travel. Having a random German in your home is the next best thing to actually being in Germany yourself. Participate in the ways you can, when you can – you will be richer in more ways than one, I guarantee you.
*Coming soon – tips on participating in Couchsurfing in a safe way and making the most of your couchsurfing experiences.