If you’re a traveller you probably know about Couchsurfing. But how much do you know? Have you tried it? If you’re not a traveller, the idea probably seems nuts to you. I know it did to most of my family and friends when I told them about it. And I admit, when I first heard about the concept I was sceptical – it seemed to involve you having people to sleep on your couch (for free) so you could sleep on others’ (also for free), and not much more – i.e. the main motivation seemed to be financial if you were travelling on a tight budget.
Then I gave it a go. Why? Because I had recently decided to move away from London to Florence for 5 years, and I realised there were so many ‘tourist’ things in my own city that I had never done, and what better excuse to do them than showing around a guest? I also thought that it might be helpful when I arrived in Florence to stay with a Couchsurfing (or CS as it is affectionately known) host whilst I looked for a place to live, so I confess, to begin with, my motivations were not entirely selfless.
Before I left London I hosted quite a few people from all over the world, and had some really fun times with them. I was already realising there was more to CS than first appeared, but it was when I arrived in Florence that I discovered the true beauty of it. I immediately joined the Florence ‘group’ to ask advice from local hosts on good neighbourhoods, expecting to find a few individuals hosting foreigners and giving a bit of info. I was surprised to find a huge and thriving community of people who regularly met up and organised activities, whether there were guests staying with them or not! Within a week of first arriving in Italy, I was living the Tuscan dream, harvesting olives in the countryside near Siena, and learning to handmake pasta from a little old Nonna before having a huge feast with the family and all the CS people who had come to help with the harvest. It was the kind of ‘Italian’ day you just dream about before you move there, and that dream would never have been realised without such a great way to make new friends.
And those friends stayed with me throughout my time there, and I still see them whenever I go back.
The community aspect of CS is something which you don’t really discover until you get involved, and for me it is one of the most fantastic things about it. Wherever you go in the world, you have a ready-made group of people to do touristy things with, to have fun with, to go on adventures with, or just to meet for a coffee. And the crucial thing about it is that you know you will have things in common with them – they too love to travel, and they are also the kind of people who love to share their lives with others, whether they are moving to their town or area for a few years, or whether they are just in town for a few hours. Whether or not you actually get down to the core CS ‘business’ of sleeping on someone’s couch, or offering out your own, is kind of peripheral to the main aim – a global community of travellers keen to share their own small corner of the world.
And as I discovered in London, another amazing thing about hosting people and showing them around your town is that you see a place which you might just be a little complacent or jaded about through fresh, excited eyes.
A constant stream of guests (maybe 60 or so in a couple of years) staying with me whilst in Florence (understandably a very popular destination, so CS hosts were in high demand) meant I never had a chance to forget what an amazing city I lived in, or how many wonderful things there were to do.
We visited Petriolo Hot Springs in the middle of nowhere late at night, and sat in the steaming waters with a bottle of wine under the stars setting the world to rights.
We organised crazy fancy dress parties and photography sessions in and around beautiful Italian villas with immaculate landscaped gardens, followed by lavish picnics in the grounds.
We even organised a charity market, and raised hundreds of euros for local causes, and had a huge amount of fun in the process. We attended one CS friend’s first ever Tuscan cooking class, which years later is going strong and Juls’ stunningly photographed and beautifully written blog and bestselling cookery books are incredibly popular.
Just looking back over my profile and remembering some of the amazing things I did in and around my own hometown thanks to Couchsurfing has made me so nostalgic!
And I have also made great use of CS on my travels. One month-long trip around India, taking in 9 different cities, was entirely organised through CS hosts.
I stayed in some places I would never have visited or even known about on my own, and met some truly brilliant people who I would not otherwise have had a chance to interact with.
Hosts let us into their homes and families, and made us a part of them for the length of our stay. One family of 18 people, living in a house with three bedrooms gave us one bedroom to stay in, relegating all the children of the family to the roof for three nights. The children loved it, gathering by the giggling coming from up above, but their kindness to us, in return for nothing at all, is something I will always remember. The lesson in how to make chapatis over a cow-dung fire has though, sadly, been forgotten. Another time I was speaking at a conference in Helsinki, and was well aware that the conference ‘activities’ would not be my cup of tea, so sought out a host who I could spend time with and who might show me a bit more of the city outside the conference centre. I lucked out and stayed with two fantastic girls who immediately made me part of their huge group of friends, with whom I partied my way around the city, sightseeing in between conference sessions and getting far more from my trip than just another CV credit.
One of the best parties I have ever been to was organised by a group of us from Florence. We found a huge farmhouse that slept 50 in the mountains near Arezzo, and rented it out for a weekend. Then we posted on CS groups all over Italy to invite people and their guests, both Italian and from elsewhere. We hoped to get maybe 40 people. In the end, we were over 120! They arrived in cars, on motorini, by train, on foot, by motorbike, and memorably, one guy turned up on his horse, which he parked under a tree for the night and then rode home again!
The adventurous spirit that is at the heart of CS was overflowing, as was the hospitality! My dog and I went a day early with my friend Manuel to roast potatoes for 100 people, to cook huge vats of soup and prepare 20 spinach and ragu lasagnes. On the day we cooked Florentine bistecca over a huge open fire.
It was a veritable feast, and followed by some amazing entertainment in the form of my friend Cat’s African drumming collective, La Manada del Fuego, who kept us dancing well into the small hours. People from every country, often with no language in common, mingled, danced, and laughed together, and I think it was truly the happiest, most successful party I have ever attended!
A note of caution is inevitably necessary though. Even travelling with a friend, you should always be mindful of your own safety. CS goes a long way to help with this with their reference system, whereby every visitor leaves an account of their host and their stay, so before you even get in touch you can have a picture of whether your host will be right for you, and how a stay with them might turn out. However, even with this in mind, a CS host should not be your only option for staying the night, especially in countries which are culturally less familiar to you where what is offered might well be very different to what you would want. You should always have the name and address of a reliable hostel or alternative accommodation, and enough money to be able to stay there if the need arises. Happily I have never had the need to resort to this, though on one occasion I did move hosts after one night because the host’s circumstances had recently changed and I was not comfortable with the new situation. It is important not to forget that putting yourself at the mercy of others in unfamiliar surroundings always holds a degree of risk.
However, with that cautious warning delivered, I can honestly say that CS has opened up my eyes to a way of travelling in which you not only get to see the place you are visiting, but you get to really live in it too. On your next trip, or even in your hometown, I highly recommend you give it a try.