Thursday, April 1, 2010
During my stay in Switzerland I was able to do a fair amount of travelling on weekends, and when not with friends whose families put us up, I Couchsurfed in order to save money. When Drew came over and the two of us started to travel around Europe we also decided to Couchsurf. This is exactly what it sounds like: sleeping on people's couches. These people are strangers, but Couchsurfing is actually a safe and fun way to stay in cities at a low cost and to meet locals who can show you around (or at least give you some tips). Let me explain.
Couchsurfing.org is a website that networks people all around the world who are interested in staying on couches or who are interested in having people sleep on their couches. If interested in doing either of these things, a person would make a profile, pay a one-time membership fee of $25, enter their home address, and then start searching for couches in cities they are planning to visit or wait for surfers to contact them. The membership fee serves to verify one's identity through credit card details, and couchsurfing verifies your address by sending you a postcard with a verification code on it. I have not verified my address yet, since I was not in Montreal to receive the card, and so on my profile there is a line that says "location pending verification" so that anyone searching couches in Montreal can know that I may not be as dependable as someone who has verified their location. My profile, for those interested in seeing what they look like, is here: https://www.couchsurfing.org/people/kathrynmackay/ .
The greatest thing about Couchsurfing is that you don't pay for accommodation when travelling, and this can be one of the biggest expenses besides your transportation. This organisation is the main reason that I was able to travel as much as I did, because it means that you pay for train tickets and food, and that's it (unless you desire to pay for other things, but these are the basic requirements). Most, if not all, people will let you use their fridges and kitchens, so you can buy groceries and cook instead of eating out three meals a day (which besides expensive, is also tiring). One of our couch-hosts, Ray, actually treated Drew and I to dinner at a wonderful Creperie - owned and operated by a Frenchman - in Prague. It was delicious, and very generous of him. The next night we cooked for him as a thank you for letting us stay - hosts let people stay with them out of the goodness of their hearts, since besides a friend and possible future couch to sleep on they get no compensation for letting people sleep, eat, use hot water, etc. in their home. Ray is not a big cook, and Drew and I wanted fish, which is not easy to find in Prague. After searching three stores in the thickly-falling snow, we ended up with a huge not-100%-identified whole fish (minus the head) cut in two parts, frying in a pan with butter and fresh herbs. Ray was flabbergasted. He'd never seen such food being prepared in his kitchen before, and repeated many times how it was going to be the best meal his kitchen had ever witnessed. The meal turned out very well. We had broccoli and sauteed mushrooms and onions as sides, and the fish was delicious. There was even some leftovers for Ray's lunch the next day (Drew and I were leaving early to catch our train to Munich).
Not all Couchsurfing experiences will be as nice as that one. We stayed with one person in Vienna whose apartment was freezing and dirty, though beautiful, and who seemed to have a constant stream of couchsurfers in order to avoid buying groceries. He was a strange dude. He had normally developed social skills, but was just a bit of a jerk, and wasn't good at making conversation. His friends were more friendly and interesting than he turned out to be. It might have been insecurity on his part or something, it's tough to say, but he came off as being a bit snotty and moody. He did let us in to the Musikhaus, a museum of music that he worked part time at, for free, and that was pretty cool (though not our best museum experience of the trip). It almost made up for him digging into the food we had bought without asking (mouthful of bread: "I hope you don't mind").
However, to let one semi-jerk ruin Couchsurfing would be a mistake. Ray and the girls we stayed with in Zurich and in Munich were awesome. In Munich we stayed with a lovely woman who was just finishing teachers' college, and who taught history and English. She was doing a practice lesson for her English class on one of the days that Drew and I would be in town, and the unit they were working on was immigration. She thought that it would be very cool to get Drew and I, and an American woman, Geri, to come to the class so that the students could interview us on the immigration rules of our countries. Partly this would just be cool for them, and partly it would be beneficial for them to hear and speak to native English speakers. We agreed to do that, and our host's supervising teacher agreed to it, so Drew and I Wikipedia'd Canadian immigration laws and procedures, (and looked on the government website, to cross-reference), and went in to be interviewed. It was a lot of fun, and interesting to talk to the German students. They were in grade 11 and their English was excellent. The entire class was conducted in English - a far cry from my mostly-English high school French classes - and the kids were able to speak clearly and eloquently on the strangest subjects, including the integration of immigrants into the society of a new country. Ask me to speak about that in French even now, after 13 years of French classes and 4 of living in French-speaking places, and there's no way I could do it as well as they were able to in English. That is probably also their third or fourth language.
Couchsurfing is interesting that way. You really never know what you're going to get. It is a great adventure, but also pretty tiring. Drew and I stayed in a hotel for two nights in Prague just to get a rest from couches and shared spaces. I think that I will do it less frequently the older I get, since I certainly hope that my income and methods of travel will improve significantly, but I would certainly choose Couchsurfing over hostels, and not just for the financial savings. Many people will have spare beds in spare rooms for Couchsurfers to sleep in, and being picky about who you stay with is generally a great idea (though there's no accounting for character). For people who want to meet others, go for beers, cook with people, and have a really interesting hippie kind of experience, Couchsurfing is a blast.