From left: Zurich, Switzerland; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Lazise, Italy
Returning from two months of flying to 27 European destinations, living out of a single carry-on bag, and seeing some of the world’s most famous sights, the first question everyone asks about my journey is: “Weren’t you scared to stay with strangers?”
After parting ways with a job I enjoyed in the fall, and separating from my partner of seven years this winter, I began to wonder how I’d become the aloof, unapproachable, seemingly arrogant person some said I was. I wondered if I was still capable of returning to the social, friendly, curious person I remembered. To find out, I naturally decided to couchsurf my way across Europe, testing the network of global hosts who offer their homes and time to unknown travelers while exploring my own limitations. And yes, to answer everyone’s question, I was scared, but not that my hosts would murder me, or have filthy bathrooms. Rather, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to handle living with such a variety of people, or remain entertaining and social, day after day for two months. After all, I’d been told I was quite inflexible, and far too rigid. And, okay, maybe I was also a little nervous about living conditions, or being raped.
From my first host in Oslo, who realized he couldn’t be present during my stay so he left the keys to his home, his city bike pass, and a map in a package for me at the train station, to my last host in Paris, who took me out for a steak dinner on the night of my arrival and gave me the keys and code to his building, my hosts astounded me with their unconditional trust and generosity. The thought of giving my New York City keys to anyone, let alone a stranger, still makes me shiver. Yet it was nothing to many of my hosts, who let me into their homes and introduced me to their friends, associates, pets, and lives. And it’s not as though they were bums with nothing to lose.
I stayed with doctors, lawyers, researchers, financial specialists, and teachers (and, sure, some students and unemployed). Occasionally I had my own bedroom, sometimes my own bathroom. I could usually come and go freely, and one host even gave me a local cell phone to use during my stay. Some took off from work to show me around their cities and give me the inside scoop, while others were very busy, giving us only a couple of hours to chat and get to know each other. I was invited to dinner parties, house parties, people’s workplaces, drinks with coworkers, castles, a river island, the theater, and a volcano hike. I can’t count how many meals were prepared for me, served on rooftops, a balcony over the Mediterranean, cozy kitchenettes, living room sofas, and a table in a bay window overlooking a royal park. Couchsurfing isn’t a seedy group of freeloaders looking for a free place to crash, or predators luring weary travelers with no alternatives; it’s a community of global-minded individuals looking to exchange ideas, histories, and hopes, and to share meals, events, and experiences. It’s a true social network that affects lives in a way the likes of Facebook and Twitter could only resent.
As for my own development, introducing myself anew every two or three days helped me realize who I really thought I was, and along the way, I found the changes in my employment and relationship statuses to be less of a lead, and more of a background fact, something that maybe came up later. It turns out that jobs and relationships are often among the least relevant aspects of an interesting person, and I found myself defining myself less and less by my own. This, in turn, led to more unearthing of what I enjoyed and appreciated as an individual, who I wanted to be now, and what I wanted to learn next. And that’s, perhaps, who a person really is. Finding these things that I’d lost sight of made it easier to communicate with new friends on a constant basis—you’ve got to know yourself before you can know someone else.
When people ask me now if I was scared to take this trip, traveling on such an intensive schedule, sleeping in new places every other night, new languages and metro systems all the time, finding places to eat, and trying to see everything I could while still having time to write an article from each city, upload hundreds of photos to Facebook, and find a couple hours to sleep here and there, all while relying on the kindness of strangers every single day, all I can think is how much more scared I’d have been not to take this trip. I now have an international support network that has helped rebuild who I am by uncovering what I could no longer see after my vision became so clouded with false ideas of what defined a person. Of course, there are more obvious surface benefits to couchsurfing, like a convenient place to stay, and the access to daily life that often escapes visitors (especially in such short visits), but I gained honorary homes in over 20 countries, many with people I’d now consider extended family, and I hope I’ve left a piece of me behind in each one—it’s an exchange, after all.
This is the ideal of couchsurfing, and there’s still a vibrant community of people around the world waiting for the next member. If you want to give it a try, come and stay with me in New York . . . though I’m not quite ready to give you a set of keys.
Author in Lisbon, Portugal
Follow Brandon Schultz on Twitter @BrandonAlexandr and Instagram