The stories of a couchsurfer

Pierre, Grenoble


We all know the saying – a picture tells a thousands words. I whole-heartedly agree but, unlike a book where the words are fixed and undisputed for whoever sees them, the words that a picture tells are dependent upon the reader.

Take the all too unflattering cover photograph to this article. It presents to you Pierre, my Couchsurfing host in Grenoble. Looking into the camera, he attempts to focus, closing one eye presumably because he simply couldn’t open it due to the early hours of the morning of which the picture was taken. He musters up the best effort of a presentable look for me, managing for a brief moment to support the weight of his head and look at the prying lens. Beside him sits a near empty bottle of Ricard pastis.

One almost subconsciously applies simple logic to conclude that Pierre is inebriated, having (at least somewhat) downed the bottle of pastis in the hours prior to the eventual snapshot.

But this is not at all the case. The bottle of pastis accompanying Pierre in this photograph was not the poison of choice that led to the expression. In fact, I never saw him drink a drop of it during my stay there. Instead the reader of the photograph has most likely been led to this incorrect assumption.

Ok, my demonstration here is a bit misleading. Because Pierre is absolutely drunk in this photograph. He is absolutely struggling to stay awake, knowing that in little more than three or four hours he has to awake again to leave for work. But my attempted lesson here was to encourage people not to draw too much out of first impressions, and it’s a lesson that Pierre, over the course of a few days, had managed to teach me.

This is something that is very important in the world of many things but particularly Couchsurfing. The concept goes that one searches for a potential host and reads some brief information about them, peruses a few photographs of the person and then makes an assessment of whether or not they seem suitable to meet. Conversely, the potential host receives the request, looks at the profile of the surfer and, after reading a couple hundred words about them and seeing a few photographs, makes a judgement on whether or not the person is worthy of their company.

I’ve never liked this approach or the mentality that it fosters, yet two points strike me when I consider it.

1 – I keep saying to people “you can never truly get a gauge of somebody until you meet them”, but with the amount of Couchsurfing traffic (especially in larger cities) it’s almost physically impossible to meet all of the people that send you a request. Therefore there needs to be some form of preselection criteria.

2 – However much I tell myself I disagree with this mentality, I still conform to it.

It’s almost a human instinct to judge, regardless of how much information you have of the item being judged. People instinctively compare people against themselves, as if they are the ideal subject being measured against. Any deviation to this comes across as a blemish.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with judgement and the act of judging. It’s how we attempt to separate right from wrong and it’s also how we attempt to identify potentially dangerous situations in order to avoid them.

What I am saying is to try and not judge overly when there is a severe lack of information to judge on. A typical Couchsurfing profile is one of these situations, where it’s impossible to accurately portray oneself. The amount of times that I have hosted people that have been nowhere near what my imaginative mind had produced expectations of is more frequent than not.

Pierre was yet another of these. I really didn’t know what to expect from him, but his Couchsurfing profile picture was a black and white photo of him sitting on the toilet. This bothered me not, and the fact that he seemed very sociable was enough to spark my interest.

We agreed to meet in a favourite bar of his in Grenoble at around seven. I rocked up to this bar and briefly searched around but couldn’t find anybody that met his description (or, at least, what I had envisioned he would look like). I ordered a beer and sat at the bar, my backpack and my jacket by my side.

After about an hour a man walked tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I were Chris. Sure enough, this was Pierre, but he looked nothing like I had imagined. This was only the first of many surprising he would have in store for me. He was an outgoing guy, happy to talk and laugh. The spot that he had chosen was not an Irish pub, but certainly had an Irish theme to it. Here, a group of locals get together quite frequently to play celtic music together. Pierre was one of them and he delighted in playing the fiddle.

Pierre was not a local Grenoblois, instead originating from the Bretagne region. He would be offended if you called him a local Grenbolois because he did not have a high opinion of the people here. In fact most of the people in the bar here were not locals, and all held a pretty similar opinion of the locals in Grenoble.

This bar acted as a kind of refuge for them. A place where they could meet and get the sort of kindness and social environment that they expected of people.

I did have to admit, it did have a very intimate feel there and all the people were very friendly towards one another. I could imagine myself frequenting that bar often too if I had lived there.

Eventually it started to get quite late. Burdened with my backpack and jacket (of which I was quite angry with – this is still the same day as the passport fiasco) I was looking forward to having somewhere to chill, relax and get some sleep. Pierre had had a few beers to this stage (as had I) and seemed to be just warming up and so we ended up staying quite late at the bar and getting very drunk. At first I was hesitant for this but it did provide a good outlet to all the frustrations built up earlier on that day.

We eventually stumbled home in the early hours of the morning and Pierre had a spare room that was extremely comfortable and provided a great nights sleep.

The next day Pierre went off to work and I got to venture around Grenoble. My standard, walk around the city kind of first day. Although this time I did do quite a long hike through the hills up to La Bastille and other parts of the countryside. It meant that by the time the evening arrived, I was feeling quite fatigued.

Pierre and I agreed to meet up at the same bar again that evening and I saw him there. We found a restaurant to eat at where Pierre introduced me to a few local culinary delights such as the local charcouterie and wine. Just being the two of us in a busy restaurant terrace, we squeezed in amongst an already existent crowd.

Almost immediately Pierre began talking to them openly and sharing jokes. This was Pierre. Timid would not be an applicable word for him. He loved meeting new people and just walking up to strangers on the street and talking to them. Couchsurfing was a way for him to meet new people too.

We went back to his local watering hole afterwards and there we met an unlikely fellow. Pierre knew him of course – as he seemed to know most of the people walking past this bar. He waved him across and the elderly man shielded himself from the rain to get to our side of the road.

Jim was his name. An Irishman that had, for various reasons, fallen in love with Grenoble and had been living here for the last few years. A typical Irishman, Jim immediately socialised and bonded with everybody there, including myself, and I was lucky enough to have some great conversations with him. Satisfying the Irish stereotype by playing some form of musical instrument (the guitar), Jim even indulged me by playing Waltzing Matilda, an Australian classic.

Jim soon learnt of my story and my desire to find work somewhere in France as a Software Engineer. He said he had something to show me and led me down the street a couple of hundred metres and around the corner. There we went into a building where a group of younger professionals were gathered, discussing matters. It was a collective of engineers discussing product innovations and rebounding ideas. One gent gave us each a free beer as a welcome. Jim loved this because, in his words, “this kind of social activity is so un-French”.

being an Irishman, Jim probably thought that most people in the world were unsocial. But he quite beautifully summed up the strange environment that had surrounded me in the last couple of days. I had become used to the more introverted French lifestyle. Sure, they are social, but in a different matter to what I’m typically used to in the English culture. Now I was witnessing the Irish form of sociality, but coming from the French!

Pierre really should be an Irishman. He belongs in Ireland. He loves it there. He talks often about the music and his love for it. He talks often about the women and his love for them. He talks often about the Guinness and his love for that.

One night, sitting at Pierre’s as he showed me Youtube clips of Irish folk music he explains to me that “I would love to live in Ireland, but I think I’d become an alcoholic”. I don’t think Pierre was too far off the mark already. he loves his drinks, in all forms and couldn’t help but hang around for another. I think this was partly due to the fact that he just loved socialising with people and so wanted to stay. Getting another drink in the hand was just a natural evolution from that.

He was at his happiest in this environment, and the atmosphere that was created with him and his friends was an exciting one to be around. Another night there we went to another Irish pub not far away from the first. There we continued to share some Guinness but he also showed me a local liquor called chartreuse, which didn’t really sit too well with me in the beginning. But as I continued to sip on it I learned to appreciate it. It just took a different approach to learn how to enjoy it.

Fitting, really. It wasn’t all too different to my relationship with Pierre himself. I think back to before I had met Pierre. To when I was browsing Couchsurfing profiles and came across his. I had never expected him to turn out to be who he is. But that’s all part of the fun of Couchsurfing. Part of the grand discovery of people around the world.

His forward nature in socialising and high self confidence can come across as a bit daunting at first. But realise that he just wants to make friends and have people to share a conversation and a Guinness with, and you learn to love him.

At the beginning of my final night there, he assured me that we would probably have to leave at around ten o’clock as he had to work early the next morning. We eventually stumbled home at around two or three in the morning – as was the standard procedure during my stay with him. It was then that I took the fateful photograph that adorns this article so perfectly.

So yes, a picture does tell a thousand words. But it tells two thousand to the people who were there to take it. When I look at the photograph of the Frenchman struggling to keep his head aloft to allow me to take the requested shot, I see not a drunkard, but a guy who lived his life his way, and to the fullest. Pierre may not fit in in Grenoble, but he still makes sure he finds time to socialise the way he wants. To keep in touch with the people he knows and to do what he loves most – which is meeting new people.

I also see a guy who confirmed to me that a person is far too complex to judge and assess from a few descriptive paragraphs and photos of themselves on an Internet profile. That anything can’t be properly assessed until there is enough information to provide the assessment.

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