I’m just going to go for it right off the bat – Couchsurfing is plain weird.
Maybe it is the fact that you’re staying in a stranger’s house. Maybe it’s the feeling of living on the edge, potentially putting yourself into the precious hands of fate. Or maybe it is the emergence of a new way to travel – free convenient and completely different from the norm.
Yet despite its apparent obscurity, Couchsurfing is a massive community. With over 12 million members in 200,000 cities across the globe, it is certainly a popular, and ever-growing way to stay away from home.
‘Couchsurfing’ is a more general term, a verb to describe when someone stays temporarily in other people’s homes, usually making use of improvised sleeping arrangements. But Couchsurfing.org (also .com) is its proper home.
The service allows members to create their own profiles and contact other people to be hosted in their homes all over the world. The community extends beyond just offering board, and has also helped to create and organise well over half-a-million events.
Having used various accommodation methods over the past six months including hotels, hostels and Airbnb, I thought it was time to round it all off and try what’s also known on the internet as ‘CS.’
Not only was I extremely intrigued by the idea, especially as a budget traveller because it is, essentially, free accommodation, but it was also something I put down when I was making my bucket list. I had the resources and booked flights to Brussels Charleroi Airport and connecting coaches to and from Luxembourg.
Now all I needed was a host. As you may have already read on my blog, I did have a little difficulty doing so. Despite having each of the three methods of verification on the website (credit card verification via payment, address verification via postcard and phone verification via SMS message), being a new couchsurfer meant that I had no prior references and very few friends.
Some hosts were a little weary, others weren’t sure whether or not they could host me as I was asking several months in advance. But there was someone willing to take me in.
A man called Marc and his wife, Jojo, were the first, and only, people to accept one of my 20-plus requests. They sent me a message, told me where they lived and how to get there. Aside from checking that they were still okay to host me just days prior to my visit, we’d had virtually no communication.
Suffice to say that the train ride from Luxembourg City to Bettembourg, where Marc and Jojo live, was a little unnerving.
Still, this is something I wanted to do and to learn, one has to come out of their comfort zone. So I eventually made the short walk from Bettembourg station to their house, approached the doorbell and pressed it.
Where my hosts lived was not the average house. In fact, it wasn’t a house, rather an apartment. But this apartment was not a usual one either. It just so happened to be located inside a converted windmill.
I was in awe of the big, cylindrical structure with large, elliptical windows giving it a funky kind of look. Though I didn’t have much time to ponder before being buzzed up the stairs where I was welcomed in by the woman, Jojo.
She briefly welcomed me before pointing out where to dump my bags. Before I knew it I was in the kitchen, which was part of an open-plan living space, and attempted to strike up some conversation.
Although nice, Jojo didn’t really seem to want to talk. I’d later go on to find out that she was actually in the middle of separating from Marc and that he would actually be hosting me, so she gave me a beer and lit up a cigarette whilst I waited for him.
Soon, fresh from the bathroom emerged a scruffy, eccentric, 40-something banker and part-time rock star when the time allowed him to be. He looked tired and worn-out, yet somehow retained an air of energy about him.
He also had the envious honour of being my first-ever Couchsurfing host.
Our opening words seemed to be a drag, I had to prod and poke a little but soon we started talking and he began drinking a Coca-Cola and lager hybrid – something which I’d never actually seen before.
“You should try it,” he said. But I politely declined and chose to carry on drinking pure Sagres.
That I was staying in someone else’s home was still both fresh and strange, but for Marc, who had hosted in excess of 200 people over the past few years, it was the norm, even if he did only remember that I was coming at the last minute.
The conversation kept on flowing, as did the coke and beer. I also noticed the couple’s penchant for smoking – something which I detest – and they clearly didn’t mind doing so indoors.
Nevertheless, he was eager to show me his passion, and walked me over to the other side of the living room. On the way I headed past a disused television and sitting area, as well as an open space in the centre of the room where Jojo’s dancing pole stood which was certainly one of the more unusual things I’ve seen in someone’s home.
Eventually we sat down at the computer.
“I love music,” Marc professed, and he wasted little time in showing me the tracks he had created in his spare time. It was his passion, but also a project he had been working on with other Couchsurfers from all over the world.
“It’s amazing to be able to have so many different people from all over the world come and stay with us. I usually get five to 10 requests per day, but I prioritise artists willing to share and cooperate on our different creational projects – primarily music and dance.
“I’ve been working with this girl who’s been here four times already. Her name’s StephAnn, she lived in the United States but is originally from Belize. Would you like to hear her voice?”
It was an offer that simply couldn’t be refused, and approximately 60 seconds later I was listening to a professional-grade record as this guy, already on his third cigarette in the 10 minutes I’d been there, jamming to his own music; air instruments and all.
Suffice to say I felt a little inadequate. All of these people coming into his home and creating great music. Marc even greeted the revelation that I could play ‘Silent Night’ on the keyboard with pitiful hilarity.
It was surreal, but this was what I came here to see. This was Couchsurfing!
As the night wore on and the sleaze of cigarette smoke began to engulf the flat, Marc made us dinner. It was a combination of fish fingers (or as he called them fish sticks), boiled potatoes and Luxembourgish beans – one of the few foods, I was told, that actually originates from the country.
We then sat on the floor to eat, another new and unusual experience, and ate away. What he made wasn’t actually bad, and what really should have been bland food was brought to life by some innovative seasoning.
We talked some more, and I was particularly interested to find out whether he had ever hosted any bad eggs.
Marc told me that he’d had no bad experiences with Couchsurfing. But in my mind, you don’t host almost 200 people without any fault whatsoever. My intuition was quickly confirmed after a little prodding around.
“Well, we used to give Couchsurfers a key to the flat so that they could come and go as they pleased,” Marc explained.
“But we gave it to one girl who came from Asia, and she kept hold of it. Long story short she had to air mail it back to us when she got home. Never again!”
Another thing that he wasn’t too fond of was travellers asking for Wi-Fi. It was a fair enough peeve. The idea behind Couchsurfing is that although hosts are not allowed to charge for the service they are providing, guests are expected to socially reciprocate, sharing their experiences and spending time with their hosts.
There had been previous incidents of couchsurfers coming along and sitting on their phones the majority of time that they were there. As Marc had opened up his home to them, he expected a little more effort on their part.
While I didn’t really need Wi-Fi, I ended up asking for the password myself. Although Marc was accommodating, as the night wore on I wanted to be there less and less.
There were a number of reasons, but the top one was the smoking. I really can’t stand the habit, and he was going through pack after pack in what seemed like record time. He also offered me some weed, but I was having none of it. To be fair, he didn’t put too much pressure on me to the point where I felt uncomfortable turning him down, but it’s not really the environment I wanted to remain in for too long.
Still, I was determined to stay the night, even if I had planned to be there for two, and that’s what I did.
After eventually getting the Wi-Fi code using that I was going to contact my Dad to let him know I got there safely as an excuse, I booked a hotel for the following night with a free night I’d got through Hotels.com’s rewards programme.
We stayed up until just after midnight because Marc had work at half seven in the morning, and with that he showed me my room and the sofa bed on which I would be sleeping. He then went to bed and left for work before I even awoke, leaving me alone in the house.
After waking up I looked around the room that had been mine for the night and spotted two PlayStations, a Samsung phone and other numerous other valuable electronic devices including a MacBook. I wasn’t planning to take anything, but a lesser person might.
It was at that point when it struck me, just how generous Marc actually was. Yes, I know I couldn’t stand the smoking, my shirt smelling of it and the stuff being all around me, but he had opened up his home to me and put unbelievable trust in my character. I knew it was something I wouldn’t feel comfortable with, leaving a stranger to their own devices in my own home, with all my valuables lying around. To be a Couchsurfing host certainly takes some faith and self-reassurance.
Though Couchsurfing does sound good on its face, there are safety and security fears as well. In 2009 a woman from Hong Kong was raped by her host in Leeds, who is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.
But I awoke to myself making a checklist, the hazy linger of smoke and alcohol still present from the night before. Heart still beating? Check. Lungs still working? Check. Other organs in functioning order? Check. I was quickly able to deduce from my own investigation that I was, indeed, still alive.
I had just successfully survived my first night of Couchsurfing.
After getting up I got a shower and headed back into the city to explore. The short train ride back gave me a little time to reflect on what I’d just experience.
I could still smell the remnants of smoke on my coat, which made me glad that I wasn’t spending the rest of the day and that evening inside the windmill. Yet I had mixed emotions because I was so grateful for him having hosted me.
It’s like I didn’t really know how to specifically pigeonhole Couchsurfing. It has its good points and it has its bad points, and I do prefer using hotels and hostels.
But one thing is for certain, Couchsurfing is weird.