I had my first ever CouchSurfing experience in Helsinki, on a couch belonging to two of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Whilst staying with them, it felt like I was staying over at a friend’s place, not a complete stranger’s couch (reality). Within the first few hours, I was offered an authentic Finnish breakfast of tea, cucumbers, cheese and rye bread, which was very much appreciated as I was starving from the incredibly long bus ride I took the night before.
They brought me around town and took turns showing me their favourite nooks and crannies in Helsinki, it was great and I learnt so so so much about Finnish culture.
Did you know that it was normal for people to have holiday homes outside of Helsinki? It’s also incredibly normal for people to have saunas in their houses. I was told that you go into the piping hot sauna, then run out into the cold, roll around in the snow butt naked and then repeat the whole process three or four or five times. They’d do this as a family once or twice a month. It completely blew my mind.
“So, what’s the problem Nic? Everything sounds great!”
Well, here’s the thing about CouchSurfing. Finding a host is incredibly effortful and it often yields nothing. Although I had a fantastic time with my hosts, it took me ages to find someone that a) I was comfortable staying with since it was my first time and b) would want to host me. The thing about CouchSurfing is that if you’re just starting out, finding references to back up your story as a human being and legitimise your sanity is incredibly important. Personally, I wanted other travellers and hosts, not existing friends, to write stuff about me because I felt like that was more true to the spirit of the community.
There are also way too many CouchSurfing snobs within the community, the ones who say that it’s now a way for people to save money rather than it’s original intention – to provide an avenue for cultural exchange. Well, I don’t see why it can’t be both. If you went through profiles of the more popular hosts with an incredible number of references, you’ll often find a long list of demands accompanied by an even longer rant about how “it’s no longer what it used to be”.
I wish I could link some of my favourite douchebag profiles here but I think that’s probably unethical. Damn my fairly accurate moral compass.
It is also incredibly difficult to find female hosts. As a first time couchsurfer, I really wanted to be hosted by a female. I did two things to maximise my search efforts – I posted a public trip and personally sent out messages to the handful of females who existed on the platform. The process is as tedious as sending out CVs and cover letters for job applications, I kid you not. And just like job applications, people rarely reply (don’t you dare comment on my employability now).
I remember meeting an Australian guy who said that CouchSurfing has turned into an international hook up site and that he had better luck finding a place to stay on Tinder. His first line after a match would be “How spontaneous are you?” Charming, no?
I can honestly say that my mindset before and after popping my CouchSurfing cherry has changed drastically.
Remember how I mentioned that I would post up a public trip on my profile? Yeah, most of the replies came from rather strange people, always men. One could argue that it could be a numbers game, that there are simply more men on the site than women. To me, that sounds like the problem.
Another important thing to know about CouchSurfing, you can always say NO. It didn’t occur to me till said Australian guy mentioned it. You can always turn up at someone’s door and change your mind. Who cares about being polite? If your gut tells you to GTFO, you better GTFO. I’ve been lucky to have never landed in a situation like that.
You also don’t really get any privacy or flexibility, like you would in a hostel. I guess some hosts do have large apartments and spare rooms but I think that a majority of them don’t. And that makes it difficult when you just want some down time alone because you can’t lock yourself in the bathroom for an hour, that just make you seem incredibly insane. Unlike hostels that are usually crowded and noisy, ironically, you can’t remove yourself from others as easily and sometimes it can be a little tiring.
Also unlike a hostel, there’s no such thing as coming and going as you please. Most hosts don’t have spare keys or just don’t give their couchsurfers spare keys due to all sorts of reasons (mostly safety ones) which means there’s no sleeping in and no partying till late during the weekday. Some people might be okay with this but I like my mornings in and I love staying up late, so you can probably see how there would be an issue here.
When I was in Oslo, I met a crazy Argentinian girl who couch surfed across Scandinavia. We clicked almost instantly and we basically spent the rest of my trip together.
She tagged along to a meeting I had arranged with someone who had offered to host me (I declined because I didn’t feel comfortable). It started off incredibly awkward but turned out surprisingly educational. He was a refugee from Iran or Iraq and was granted asylum in Norway ten years ago. Our meeting couldn’t have been at a better time as that was when the Syrian refugee crisis had started to really hit the news.
We learned about his family and his hometown. I asked him why he fled and he said that it was too politically unstable. The tipping point occurred when a monumental religious statue was torn down by an opposing religious group. He told me that he missed his home but this is his new life now. He said he took a year to learn to speak fluently in Norwegian, and that he learned English as a child. He loves travelling and drinking, especially Polish liquor.
It was incredible because we talked about our respective countries and everything that was wrong with it. But we also talked about what we loved about it. And we spent the most time talking about the food we missed from home. We tried in vain to explain what different spices and dishes and condiments tasted like.
The three of us spent the afternoon exploring Oslo, but I felt like I had lived another person’s life in one afternoon.