A few months back, I wrote a post about my previously held belief to Couchsurf with only locals, reasoning that they were the only ones that could provide me with the kind of insight desired. This was disproven on a number of occasions throughout my journey so far and continues to be.
Couchsurfing in Aix-en-Provence, though, did somewhat confirm my original theory – if only just for this particular case.
I Couchsurfed with Anthony, who had only recently moved to Aix-en-Provence from his home region of Bretagne a few weeks earlier. This meant that he was only just beginning to discover Aix himself, and openly admitted not being too useful in providing me with any local gems or much knowledge in the history of the place and it’s surroundings.
Of course, this wasn’t the end of the world – it just lacked that pure Couchsurfing element where the host can tell you all about the region and what may have been years earlier and what may be in years to come. This was the reason why I initially preferred to stay with locals and while my “fears” certainly came to fruition, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
Anthony and I were still able to make a connection and enjoy various discussion about many things. His limited English meant that I was forced to be fully immersed in a French speaking environment and I benefited from it greatly.
While he may not have been able to teach me much about Aix, Anthony did tell me many things about his home region of Bretagne and one night cooked a series of traditional galette, a type of crêpe from his region.
Anthony rescued me from within the Emergency Couch Request group in Aix-en-Provence after the standard Couchrequests went unnoticed. Aix doesn’t seem to be the kind of town that is Couchsurfer friendly and people stick to themselves and their friend groups instead of branching out too often.
Indeed, Anthony hadn’t had much time to make many friends since his transfer here, but he seemed to be of a similar opinion that it wasn’t as easy to socialise here than in Bretagne. He had moved here for work purposes and I got the impression that he missed his hometown, friends and family a bit since.
But in doing so, Anthony also typified the Frenchman in traveling within their own country. The French, more than almost any other culture I’ve seen, travel within their own country on a frequent basis. By saying “travel”, this includes both for pleasure and for work.
One can’t blame them. Their country is so varied that there’s always something new to experience within it. But you can apply that rationale to many countries and people still prefer to cross borders instead, without first appreciating their own country.
Perhaps you can argue that in doing so, the French are not experiencing different cultures as much as the border crossing kind. Many French will rebuke this by saying that they do indeed travel overseas just as much as the next person. There’s a certain level of truth in this also, but I don’t think there exists the same culture of going overseas and staying in a hotel for three weeks as exists in the US or Australia, for example.
Here, when they travel overseas, they do it for a long period of time, and so for the shorter voyages they tend to travel within France.
There’s also the willingness to move somewhere else for study or work. Many of the French that I have met along the way have done this at one point in time during their lives or are doing it at the time that I meet them.
A number of factors can be attributed to allowing this. One is the relative ease and low cost of travel within the country makes it easy for them to regularly go back home when required. The second is their want to explore and discover their country, which also explains their frequent travels within France also.
Anthony, like most French, also loved his cuisine and, considering neither of us were too familiar with Aix, we took the opportunity to explore a few of the restaurants in town. They both turned out to be fabulous eateries and were the prime reason for my high opinion of food in Aix.
Each time Anthony would pay with some form of restaurant voucher. I asked about them and he told me that they are quite often given to employees from their workplaces and can be used at pretty much all restaurants in France. Just another incentive for the French to dine out at restaurants.
So in the end, yes, my grand fear of having limited knowledge of the town I’m Couchsurfing in when staying with a non-local was true on this occasion. But doing it allowed me to realise that of all the important qualities a good Couchsurfing host needs to possess, this is the least of them.
Anthony’s hospitality, generosity and willingness to teach as well as listen far outweighed the slight negative of not having local knowledge.
My beliefs only continue to be challenged and changed as I continue my journey.