How would you feel if a stranger messaged you through a website, and invited you and your friend to spend a couple of nights in his house, sleeping in his bed, with the promise of a hearty breakfast on his rooftop terrace?
A little freaked out? Understandable; so would I. However, this time, contradicting everything I’d ever learnt about internet safety, I accepted his offer.
I had been eyeing the Couchsurfing website for years before I finally filled out my profile when Maggie and I decided we’d travel around Western Europe on a minimum budget in the summer of 2015. (This is Part 2 of a series of posts about that trip – read Part 1 here.)
Couchsurfing.com is a site that connects travellers with hosts all over the world, who are willing to provide a place (usually a couch) in their home for the visitor to sleep on, for free. I had read plenty of heart-warming stories praising this unbelievable phenomenon, thus proving the existence of genuine human kindness, yet, people sharing their homes with complete strangers for no reward whatsoever just seemed too good to be true. However, people were clearly doing it; I just couldn’t figure out how.
What on earth could someone gain from letting a backpacker wash off a day’s sweat in their bathtub and snore in their living room for a couple of days? How does paying 15 quid to verify my profile guarantee that I’m not an axe murderer, serial rapist, Trump supporter, or some other sort of weirdo nicking a random girl’s smiley pictures from Facebook? How are people able to blindly trust strangers when some have trouble believing the waitress when she says the pasta really is gluten-free?
Testing the System
I had to find the answers. So, as we set a rough date for when we would reach Belgium, and decided to spend a night or two in Bruges, I left a public message on the site with our plans, and began messaging sympathetic hosts (and closely investigating their profiles) nearby. Most of them answered but weren’t available, which left us with a 40-something old dad of two, who seemed nice, but sent messages such as ‘Only come if you know how to have fun… Drinking wine and dancing on tables’. Now this could’ve been a completely innocent phrase lost in translation from a dude who likes a little boogie, but we were a bit creeped out, and decided to look for someone whose words read less like a vague sexual innuendo.
Eventually, an extremely lovely man from Ghent approached me, offering us a place to stay for the nights we needed. Although we weren’t originally planning on visiting Ghent, we didn’t really mind trading in a slightly bigger distance to Bruges for that rooftop terrace and hearty brekkie.
Steven was incredibly helpful and replied quickly during the time leading up to our stay. As we were trying to figure out what time our train from Brussels would arrive to Ghent, he even said that he could leave his keys in a shop round the corner in order for us to let ourselves in to his house, had we arrived earlier than he finished work. It absolutely blew my mind how much he trusted us.
Ready, Steady, Surf!
On the train at the end of the day after having explored Brussels, we were ecstatic, and also a good deal nervous about just turning up at a 35-year-old man’s house we had never seen before, with absolutely no experience in martial arts.
The exhaustion from dragging our backpacks all the way from the station to Steven’s home quickly dispersed when we were greeted by his warm smile. I’m pretty sure we were loudly gasping as he showed us around, thanking his kindness as many times as we could. Not even half an hour passed, and we were already served local sweets, including the greatly odd, yet heavenly delish biscuit spread that is Speculoos, a spread made of the popular Dutch-Belgian biscuit, Speculaas. (You heard that right, there is a way to spread cookie on bread; forget Nutella right now.)
The evening flew on, jokes and anecdotes abounded. We were shown a witty video that finally explained what’s the deal with the many languages and different territories and governments of Belgium, and talked lots and lots about travel, and other wonderful things in life.
There we sat, on the raffia couches on a rooftop terrace, in the warm light of solar-powered lanterns, sipping on local beer, as the sun ducked behind the towers of Ghent. Steven disappeared to present us with some local eldelflower liquor and yet another kind of Estonian booze.
No big deal, just a casual rooftop terrace to go with the free room
Kindness Makes the World Go Round
This was the part in the script where, according to every movie we’d ever seen, he should’ve got us blackout drunk, raped us to death, and dumped our corpses in the canal from one of those picturesque bridges. Yet, he did neither. As incredible as it sounds, he was just simply, genuinely, incredibly kind and generous.
He later explained he’s an avid traveller himself, but since he had started a new teaching job at a local school, ha had had less time to see the world – so he welcomes people from various countries and lets them bring the world to him. And this is what he gains – and presumably other generous hosts do too – from Couchsurfing: a bit of diversity in the potential dullness of their everyday routine, honest conversations and liquor-flavoured laughter, strangers who turn into friends for the fraction of time they spend together.
I also gathered that religion played an important part in his life, which may have been another reason for his intentions of helping people.
Defying the main point of Couchsurfing, he actually let us two sleep in his double bed upstairs, while he lay down on a couch downstairs. Speaking of which: his interior design deserves its credit too. The two-storey apartment was the perfect bachelor-pad, with pitch black bed linen and towels, clever, dim lighting and huge maps plastered over every wall; the perfect symbol of his love for Geography and travel.
As if the previous night’s generosity hadn’t been enough, our bleary eyes popped open the next morning as the smell of this beauteous omelette sizzling on the stove reached our noses – probably the best pictorial definiton of that so-called ‘hearty breakfast’
As Steven had to go to work the next day, we embarked on a short train journey to Bruges on our own, but couldn’t wait to return for another evening of heartfelt stories and laughter.
Steven, Maggie, and me; alias,
a self-timed attempt at a group picture
Of course, this form of lodging has its risks besides these phenomenal opportunities, so you do have to be super careful, do your homework by investigating the hosts’ profile, and trust and listen to your instincts – but if you do take the leap and try it, you’ll most likely be rewarded with countless unforgettable memories, and a great new friend. Don’t forget to show your gratitude, and give back, though; but I will write a longer post with lots of tips and stories of a number of my personal Couchsurfing experiences soon, to give you more insight on the topic.
Have you had any similar experiences with Couchsurfing or other form of generosity? Share them with me in a comment!