Surf’s Up

Everybody knows the basic advice: Don’t go out in the cold without a hat and mittens. Don’t swim right after eating. And don’t sleep with strangers. Generally that’s all pretty sound, but I suggest we reconsider the last one. Now before you think this blog is about to turn into something it’s not, dearest fellow travelers, let me reassure you I’m talking about sharing someone’s home while on the road — couch surfing.

the map on my wall showing where all my couch surfers are from

The idea behind surfing is that you get to know a place much better from seeing it through the eyes of locals than you do from staying in hotels and sticking to your guidebooks, and that everyone benefits from cultural exchange and sharing a meal. It’s free to sign up for and use, but I must emphasize that this is not a site to visit if you are just looking for a free place to stay. Obviously, we all prefer cheap options, but you are inviting yourself into someone’s home, not crashing on your friend’s friend’s dorm room floor.

And now, for the Safety Talk. Most everyone I talk to about couch surfing says, “But how do you know it’s safe?!” Well, you can’t know for sure, any more than you can know most things for sure. However, the organizers of the site put in several safeguards — there’s a vouching system, in which only people who have met surfers in person can vouch for them, and on your profile page, other surfers can leave recommendations or bad reviews for all other surfers to see. You can verify that you are who you say you are by using the verification process; you fill out your address on the site, they send you a postcard to that address, and you mail it back to them, confirming that you live where you say you live. Finally, you use your own good judgment. You’re not signing a contract when you agree to host or request to surf, and your safety is paramount, so if you arrive at your host’s house and get a bad vibe, or your surfer shows up three sheets to the wind, by all means arrange alternate plans.

I’ve hosted about a dozen times, and almost all of those times were really great. I’ve met people from Albuquerque, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Minneapolis, England, and Germany, and we’ve spent long nights over bottles of wine and bowls of pasta, chatting about our lives and our homes. I like being able to properly host my surfers. I like to show them some favorite restaurants and music venues, and one day I even did totally touristy stuff like pose by Buckingham Fountain, go to a festival in Grant Park, and stand in line for the Sears Tower.

Couch surfers, as you can imagine, tend to be open-minded folks, laid back, and pretty young. Sometimes I feel very old as I watch people barely out of their teens showing worldly bravura, when really, they’ve still seen and experienced so little. But we all have to start somewhere, don’t we?

I’ve surfed just once so far, with my sister E, in Munich. Our host was fantastic; she made us dinner one night and took us out to a beer hall another night, and she took us to many major tourist sites and negotiated all the German for us. She’s a really interesting person, a surgeon who uses all her time off to do extreme adventuring like dogsledding in the Yukon or horseback riding across the Rockies. We spent hours talking about balancing work and play, living on your own, and American/German differences. Before we surfed with N, I was signed up on CouchSurfing but unsure if I would feel comfortable hosting, but after staying with N, I knew for certain that I wanted to be someone providing this kind of experience — this kind of friendliness and curiosity — to people from all over the world.

In short, if you couch surf, you may end up like this:

E dressed in N's traditional Munich leder hosen, on our very first CouchSurfing adventure

UPDATE: There is video. Oh yes, there is video. For some reason, it’s on its side, but here it is. Please note that we were playing Tom Jones’s “Sex Bomb” in the background for this fashion show. Cultural exchange, what!