Travel broadens one’s horizons. It has the ability to open people’s eyes to things they may have never even considered feasible. It also challenges oneself to break out of their comfort zone, to try things that would normally be out of character or to put you into uncomfortable situations that typically you’d just avoid.
Travel has a way of enticing people to encourage themselves to push further, to explore more. But sometimes travel also has a way of pushing them outside of their comfort zone without really giving them much of a choice. A kind of, “forced progression”.
Fostering this kind of forced progression is Couchsurfing, a system of which this blog is undoubtedly positively biased towards. Even I can understand, though, that Couchsurfing is not for everybody and there are plenty of legitimate arguments against it.
One of the most often cited is the lack of privacy or freedom that you have when Couchsurfing. The concept is that one uses Couchsurfing not to find a resting place, but to meet people. So if the primary intention is to meet people, then they should be spending time with the host.
It sounds like I’m writing it as if it’s a burden – it’s really not. But there are times when the host is only available at times that may not suit the Couchsurfer or the interests of the host are far different to that of the surfer, and these aspects can not be foreseen prior to arrival and become a source of discomfort later on.
At this stage things can go one of two ways. Either the host gives way to make the surfer feel most welcome and comfortable or they continue on their natural path and the onus is on the surfer to adapt to the lifestyle of the host.
As with many contexts social, there is no right or wrong answer and there can be valid arguments on both sides of the coin. If anything though, I lean towards the latter. I’ll be the first to admit that I was, on most occasions, guilty of not going out of my way to make Couchsurfers extra comfortable when I was hosting in Australia. There was a limit, and if I could see that they had become too uncomfortable for any reason then I would do what I could to make things easier on them, but my philosophy was that Couchsurfing provides an insight into the daily life and culture of a local in the town they are surfing in, so they should see the genuine daily life of a local – not one that has been adjusted to their satisfaction.
So it is, now that I am on the other side of the couch, that I must prepare myself for potential uncomfortable or unwanted situations. Ones that perhaps the hosts aren’t so willing to concede ground on just for the sake of making my stay any more comfortable.
It is while Couchsurfing in Lyon that I reflected on this.
I hadn’t made a great deal of effort searching for a host in Lyon – not as much as I perhaps should have. The thing is, it had already found me a while back. Long time readers may remember my friend Yannick, who helped me out of a spot of bother after my search for a Couchsurfing host in Nice went in vain. He organised something with Claire. He had caught wind pretty early on that I was on my way to Lyon and had rang around his contacts to see if any could help me at all.
What he found was his friend Joss, who had studied with Yannick for some time.
Joss had quite a backstory. Originally from Mexico, he moved to Germany following his girlfriend of the time. Shortly into his time there they split, and he looked for opportunities elsewhere. His field of expertise was in chemistry so he found a study position in France and had remained there for the last few years.
This situation was great for me to plague him with questions as he had done the full French immersion from scratch and could understand my situation.
Joss was a social guy and wasn’t afraid to put himself out there to meet new people or take opportunities by the horns.
He also didn’t mind challenging others to do the same.
On the first night that I was staying with Joss, we were sharing a few cans of beer and a bottle of rosé on the steps next to the Rhône – a common pastime in Lyon. As we finished the beers, he pulled out the bottle of wine and asked
“So Chris, how good is your French?”
I had already told Joss my desires to improve on the language and it was evident that he (most likely based from his own experience) reckoned that the best way to do this was to just put yourself out there and use it.
“Do you know how to ask for a corkscrew?”
After enquiring about the French translation for corkscrew he then set my challenge.
“You’re going to go and find someone here who can lend us one to open this bottle.”
Here lies the first challenge of my stay with Joss. It was one that I was excited to attempt, although one that normally I would probably try and avoid if not for the circumstances. Somewhat luckily for me, the first group that I encountered had one that they kindly lent me (they’re French after all, right?).
It was a slightly nerve racking experience, yet I’m not sure why I was nervous in the first place and after actually going through with it, it confirmed that even my least greatest fears were highly unlikely to unfold. Not only did it give me a renewed confidence to approach the French on the streets and talk, but I learnt a word that will be hard for me to ever forget – tire-bouchon.
After the bottle of wine we went across the river into Vieux Lyon, where we continued to drink on. We decided to stop and have a few drinks in an Irish bar there. They were showing highlights of a horrid second Ashes test so I decided to drown my sorrows. I did find there some Coopers Pale Ales and Sparkling Ales that were just the remedy.
It’s also here that Joss and I met a pair of Irish girls sitting at a table behind us. Joss took the chance to spark up a conversation and to this day I’m not sure how, but it turned to salsa dancing. What luck! Joss knew some salsa dancing himself (or so he said) and even better, knew a bar where we could show off our skills.
So we ventured down to dance some salsa and drink some mojitos until they closed. After that we continued on to another bar to drink some more. Things got out of hand and by the end of the night I was in a sorry state, probably the worst I had been all trip.
I woke up the next morning to some motivational music and the sound of Joss doing home exercises. No later than eight in the morning it was, after returning home probably three or four hours earlier. He was that kind of guy. The air mattress that had been designated for me was deflated and I realised that in my drunkenness that morning I had just collapsed on the non inflated mattress and slept there.
It was a rough hangover. The weather was perfect so Joss and I decided to have a picnic at the great Parc de la Tête d’Or. We found a spot in the shade, ate a bit and then slept in the warmth of the sun. It was a perfect way to try and conquer a stubborn hangover.
After, Joss showed me a bit more around town, including the Croix-Rousse area that provided great lookouts of the rest of town.
As we were walking around we bumped into some old friends of his and we got talking. They asked if we would like to come over to their place that night for a few drinks and we agreed. It sounded good to me – I was looking forward to a more subdued evening than what had transpired the night before. Joss also said he was probably going to take it easy this night.
We arrived there at night with a couple of bottles of wine (another French must-do) and proceeded to meet people. They were all very friendly and sociable. Amongst them was an American girl, who was working in England and visiting a friend of hers in Lyon for the weekend. Her French was not strong so she spoke English to everybody.
It was quite incredible to watch her interact with the locals at the party. In stark contrast to the approach that I take when speaking to the French, she was more than comfortable to just assume everybody spoke English and therefore converse in English. She didn’t have much of a choice, as her French level wasn’t at a conversational level. This kind of approach is what I absolutely try and avoid. Not particularly because I think it’s wrong, but because I’ve always assumed the French would think it wrong.
That’s being unfair to the French. I could easily generalise that into being any people that are confronted with a non-native speaker. As mentioned, I don’t think what she was doing was wrong, I did the exact same thing with the Spanish in Spain, but I did think that it was going to be tough for her to really interact with the people there.
Not the case at all.
She was never without someone to talk to and always had a conversation on the go. The people at the gathering were extremely friendly to her and never gave the impression that they preferred to be part of some other discussion.
Perhaps I’ve been poorly analysing the French all along.
The scenario also gave me insight into another matter. I’ve mentioned before that all the foreigners I seem to meet here in France along my travels have a good deal of proficiency in the French language – almost always better than mine. Now with the American girl I had found myself in the rare occasion where there was somebody with French skills less than mine.
What I tried to be mindful of, therefore, was shutting her out of the conversation by only speaking French around her. Despite, as mentioned, not having any problems of sparking up her own conversations with whoever it would be, I knew first hand how frustrating it is to be surrounded by conversations that you don’t understand. There are no inlets, no possibilities to introduce yourself into the conversation because you don’t even know what it’s about. It’s what happened to me in Malaga.
I didn’t want her to feel alienated. Yet I still found myself on many occasions simply becoming unaware and later realising I had been doing exactly what I was trying to avoid for the last fifteen minutes or so. It showed how easy it is to slip into a conversation and plain forget about the presence of someone that can’t understand it. It gave me a new appreciation for what it’s like for locals when I’m in the opposite situation and I’ll be more forgiving in the future.
When the drinks had emptied, talk started to turn to the prospect of going out to a few bars and clubs. At this stage I really wasn’t keen. After the night before, preceded by a series of late night adventures in Grenbole, I was really in need of a relaxing night just sitting around. I thought Joss had had the same sentiments but it turned out he was keen to follow them.
Here lies the second uncomfortable experience with Joss. A prime example of where due to my travels and Couchsurfing I had given up my liberties. The choice to relax when I wanted to. I was at the mercy of my host. I had to, whether I liked it or not, experience Joss’ way of living. His genuine lifestyle. That is what Couchsurfing is. I let him know I really wasn’t up for it but he was adamant that he wanted to join along. There was really no way around it so reluctantly I agreed.
It was here, and perhaps to a lesser extent in Grenoble when the nights were going later than I would have liked, that, for perhaps really the first time in the entire European journey, I started to miss home. The first real sign of homesickness and that longing to have full flexibility and my own private space. It wasn’t even the privacy – more just to have a space to call my own, that I could retreat to whenever I needed to. I had been without one for the better part of six months, and now it was really starting to catch up with me.
We went back to the banks of the Rhône and just sat there enjoying conversation and drinks. This was more my style than going to a club, but I still would have preferred to have been relaxing at home and had I have had my own place to call home then that surely would have been my option.
Another late night, another early morning workout for Joss. He was working on his final presentation for his studies so had a busy day of rehearsing and I decided to explore Lyon a bit by myself. It was when I was walking through Vieux Lyon for another time that I noticed two familiar faces. The Irish girls that Joss and I had met a couple of nights previous – Danielle and Sarah.
We caught up and had a few drinks and organised to catch up for another day. I was planning to climb to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière and they figured they would let me do the scouting and get back to them on whether or not is was worth seeing. As it turns out, it definitely was.
That night, I offered to cook something for Joss as a sign of gratitude for his help in hosting me. I got the feeling Joss enjoyed a spot of cooking himself because he suggested we cook together. He had a recipe for tarte flambée that he had been meaning to try. He assigned me with the task of making the dough, handing me a piece of paper with barely legible handwriting all in French and letting me figure it out.
That was Joss’ method of teaching. Throwing people in the deep end. And he figured, if they need help, they’ll ask for it. And boy, did I need help. I was not expecting to be making dough from scratch and really floundered my way around it. Joss checked in from time to time and assured me that things were going smoothly enough. The end product was a very tasty tarte flambée that he himself couldn’t believe how successful it was.
The night after, though, was something even more extraordinary. While searching through the supermarket for something to eat, I suggested some variety of chicken, to which you could see the proverbial lightbulb go off above his head.
His idea. Chili chicken with chocolate. The chocolate was a chocolate sauce that smothered the chicken and was mixed with chili. This was most Mexican, he said. Sure enough, chocolate and chili are two Mexican favourites, but I had never envisioned them mixed together, sitting on top of warm chicken.
It was a strange sensation to eat. The chocolate had the look very much of a gravy and so, despite having already tasted many mouthfuls previously, my mind would remain stunned each time I took a bite, expecting something salty like gravy but instead being hit with the sweetness of the chocolate. Bizarre.
The rest of the stay went quite well and overall it turned out to be a very rewarding stay with Joss. It was probably one of the Couchsurfing experiences where I had learnt the most in such a short amount of time. About cooking techniques, Mexican cuisine, salsa dancing and, as is the case with every Couchsurfing experience, about myself.
Couchsurfing can strip away your freedoms and privacies from time to time, and there will be times where it can be hard to take. But in return it gives you classes and knowledge on all sorts of things that you otherwise probably wouldn’t learn.
The majority of times, I’m happy to make this trade – my freedoms for the wealth of global knowledge. The other times, that aforementioned forced progression will assist me in learning from travel anyway and in the future, I’m sure I’ll be glad that it did.