Couchsurfing is really no different to the rest of life. It only seems “unusual” because society has imposed some sort of standard of interaction to strangers that Couchsurfing breaks. These standards have been produced presumably for a good reason – I find it hard to believe that somebody began preaching it one day and everybody followed, although stranger things have happened.
Travel way back into the less civilised days of humanity and there didn’t exist the same support mechanisms we have today. There wasn’t the communities and services that exist now and so this led people to be more self sustained. It was a dog eat dog world and as a result, the behaviour of humans was more barbaric, more animalistic.
This is why perhaps the standards of interactions with strangers exist. It’s a defense mechanism to provide safety for oneself after centuries of realising that unfamiliar people can be threats.
No doubt that is a valid case today as well. I just don’t think it’s as apparent as it has always been before and call me an optimist, but I’d also like to think that the threat continues to shrink every day.
This is one of the reasons I’m so comfortable using Couchsurfing. To me, it’s no different than meeting a stranger in a bar, talking with them and seeing if you hit it off or not. If you don’t, it’s not as easy to avoid them as it would be in a bar, but there exists still the option to leave – if you really don’t get along.
What I’m trying to convey is that Couchsurfing, just like in a bar, can lead you to many people you have one or two fun nights with and never see again and it can lead you to a few people that you really do take the time to ensure you stay in touch with, and they end up developing into good friends that you can rely on. They are rare, but they exist.
Julian is one of these.
You may have heard of Julian a number of times already on this blog. It’s with Julian that I caught up with in a bar in Paris one night. It’s with Julian that I was introduced to his family and discovered some of the french countryside, then staying with them again as they introduced me to the Tour de France.
Our history goes back even deeper than this however. Back to when I first hosted Julian as he was traveling through Australia. At the time he was traveling with an Italian man named Claudio. Julian had started to run short of cash supply around Australia and so he really appreciated the time to relax and plan what happens next.
The funny thing, when we look back on it today, is that we didn’t really get to know each other too well when he was Couchsurfing with me in Australia. When conversation comes to the time in Australia, neither of us can really recall what we did together. It seemed like Julian was just another guy in the bar, bumping into me and exchanging pleasantries.
Regardless, we kept in touch on Facebook, which is the perfect platform (better than couchsurfing.org even) for keeping in touch with Couchsurfers that I have hosted or stayed with in the past.
Julian just so happened to be living in Nouméa when I visited New Caledonia in January of 2012 and he agreed to host me for a few days. This is really where we got to know each other more closely. We spent a week together traveling the island of Lifou, enjoying the pleasures of meeting the locals, diving in the coral reefs and kayaking around the coast. We also endured the less enjoyable side of traveling together, getting caught in torrential rain and becoming sick.
After this, we really did keep in touch a lot more and it was inevitable that we’d catch up at some stage during my time in France. I’ve already explained how it came to be that I stayed with him and his family in Rousset-les-Vignes, so I won’t bother going over it again.
I had made my long awaited return to Paris – the city that, since I left France for Spain, I had been longing to rediscover. It really did feel like a rediscovery too, and all the excitement that had flooded me that first time I arrived had returned.
Julian agreed to help me out for the first few days. I felt he was a bit reluctant, citing that his place was very small and wouldn’t be the most comfortable. That didn’t bother me too much, I told him, and as long as he was completely comfortable with it then I’d still like to stay with him.
His forewarning was certainly justified. Julian lived in an apartment on the fifth or sixth floor of an apartment complex in Paris. Up until now, the majority of my couchsurfing experiences in Paris have not actually been in Paris itself, instead in the banlieues – the parisian suburbs external to the périphérique. Here is where the majority of Paris’ metropolitan population resides. Housing here is more spacious and cheaper, and the areas are still fairly well connected to inner city Paris.
In contrast, the apartments of inner city Paris are generally cramped, falling apart and expensive. The apartments that are spacious and renovated have rates through the roof and are reserved only for the upper class.
Julian will be the first to admit that his internship position didn’t put him in this upper class of Parisian society and so he fell into the former category of parisian accommodation. Despite having five or six floors, the apartment complex lacked an elevator, and so each journey back to the apartment included an ascension up an incredibly steep, twisted flight of stairs that was enough to replace any regular gymnasium workout.
Once up, I was able to grasp the harsh reality of the Parisian intern living standard. If I were to estimate (and take this with a grain of salt because my spatial recognition is dreadful), I would have to say the entirety was three and a half metres by two and a half metres. Perhaps.
When I say the entirety, it really was only one room that encompassed everything. In the front right corner was a single bed pushed up against the wall. At the foot of this lay a sink, which could be used for brushing teeth and the like. Above this was a window that provided the only inlet of light to the room. Next to this, against the back wall, was the kitchen – a stove and a sink with some shelves against the wall above. Situated next to this, in the far left corner, was the shower. Then, moving back towards the entrance, a set of shelves for storing whatever items there may be before another set of shelves that also played host to the television.
No toilet, you say? That was outside in another room where it was shared by the other tenants of the floor. He did have another storage room on the same floor that he used as a pantry and housed the refrigerator.
Between the items on the left wall and the right wall was a makeshift passage just wide enough to fit the air mattress that would be my bed. Instead, Julian slept on it.
He figured that, seeing as he would wake up early for work, he didn’t want to climb all over me and wake me up on the way out.
And just like that, with such a simple act of kindness, this shoebox apartment became just as comfortable as the bedroom with private ensuite that greeted me at his family’s house in the french countryside. For the comfort when Couchsurfing doesn’t come from the thickness of the mattress you sleep on nor the quality of the bathroom facilities available.
It comes from the welcomeness that you get from the people that are hosting you, the feeling that you can just share some relaxed time with people you enjoy being around.
For the next couple of days, we had a few drinks at a bar with one of Julian’s friends, and watched a heap of movies cramped up in the apartment which, being on the top floor in an unusually warm July in Paris, was sweltering hot.
It doesn’t sound like the ideal way to discover Paris and all of it’s luxuries, but for those few days, I really didn’t want to have anything more than that.
Couchsurfing had provided me with a friendship, developed over a number of years and encounters. Julian was no longer the guy that you bump into in a bar and exchange pleasantries with. He was a mate that you would organise to meet up at the bar and then shout him a few beers.