The stories of a couchsurfer

Bernat, Liverpool

Bernat, myself and housemate

Couchsurfing is a network of travellers. Even if they’ve never taken a step outside of their home city, I consider even the hosts to be travellers. They travel in a different form, learning a new culture through their guests.

It’s more likely, however, that the host will have had some experience of physical travel which likely introduced or inspired them to use Couchsurfing in the first place.

For this reason, it’s not uncommon to be hosted by a fellow foreigner of the city.

This is not an unfamiliar concept to me. Hosts such as Geoffrey, Cássio, Oleksiy, Joss and Annemarie were all foreigners within the country that they had hosted me. Sometimes they’re more like tourists themselves, discovering the city at the same time that you are, and other times they are just as knowledgeable as a born and bred local in providing you with insights to the culture, history and places.

Because of my positive experiences so far I’m now much less hesitant to surf with a foreign host as opposed to a local host, and there was no problem for me, therefore, to send a request to Bernat during my time in Liverpool.

Truth be told, Bernat wasn’t my first choice of hosts and I didn’t stumble upon his Couchsurfing profile until pretty late on in my search of Liverpool. However, despite the large amount of hosts on offer, I was unable to find any success with my original requests.

This usually leaves me with a bitter initial impression of the city I’m about to discover and there was no exception with Liverpool. There were, however, two factors at play. One was that it was the middle of summer and many people were out traveling themselves and the other was that there was a music festival happening in Liverpool during my scheduled time there and so the few hosts that had remained behind were pretty busy with other guests.

Still, it left me with some initial doubts as to just what kind of hospitality and warmth Liverpool could provide during my time there.

In the end, I managed to find Bernat, and he seemed as interesting a guy as any other local could be. I was just concerned that he couldn’t provide me with the real deep insights that a local could. For one reason or another, Liverpool fascinated me slightly and it was one of the cities that I was really interested on gaining an enhanced perspective and understanding of.

Bernat was a Spaniard, from Catalunya, who had left for Liverpool only a year or so earlier. He was a computer scientist, specialising in network security and the lack of possibilities in Spain, combined with his enthusiasm for England, led him to Liverpool in search for work and life.

Although he didn’t actually hold a job at this stage. He had been doing a few courses here and was now looking for work, but at the time had had no luck. Still, Bernat was incredibly optimistic about his job prospects and his future in general and felt that there was no cause for concern.

When I picture Bernat now, it’s impossible not to do so without seeing a big grin on his face. He was always smiling, enjoying the tiniest things in life. He was very happy here in Liverpool and, besides the lack of a job and steady income, could not ask for anything more.

Despite his English lacking somewhat, he was an extremely sociable chap, always making conversation, joking and laughing. He was also a passionate character and, once fixated on something, had a deep drive and dedication towards it.

A month or so prior to my arrival, Bernat found a flea market operating every Sunday. Upon his first visit, he found a router for a steal and brought it home to set up his own VPN. Another time he purchased a guitar for five quid. Not that he played the guitar, but he figured, why not? Now, Bernat waits in anticipation every week for Sunday morning to roll around so he can see what else he can find for a bargain.

Another example was his affection for burgers. On the first night of my stay he decided that we would make burgers for dinner. We went to the supermarket to buy the ingredients and he had a very particular way to make the best burgers. Any deviation from this was not acceptable.

Another day as we were walking around town he was hungry and had developed a fixation to finding a burger somewhere. We walked around for fifteen or so minutes, passing up various opportunities because the burgers at the establishments we passed were not really up to his standards. Finally he couldn’t wait any longer and settled on a small burger bar in the middle of a pedestrian street. Needless to say, he didn’t seem to impressed with his purchase.

Bernat had that typical Mediterranean spontaneity and passion inside of him. One day we decided to enjoy some live outdoor music that was being put on as part of a festival in a park in the suburbs of Liverpool. I was exploring the city a bit and Bernat was to go directly there with some of his friends, so we decided to meet up there.

In typical fashion, I chose to walk. That day was a surprisingly pleasant summer day with sun aplenty and I thought it was a good opportunity to immerse myself and discover a different part of town. The park was further away than I had thought, though, and I arrived quite a while later than we had organised.

Further to this, the park was huge and was packed with people which made locating anybody an impossible task. With no local mobile phone provider, I had no way of contacting Bernat and, after forty or so minutes of searching, just decided to sit down on the lawn and enjoy a few bands by myself.

The festival was great. Besides being free entry, there were three or four different stages of live music to go and explore and plenty of food and drink options available (the prices were horrendous, mind you).

Eventually I figured it was time to find Bernat so I left the festival grounds and found a phone box a few hundred metres away. When I finally got through to him, he informed me that he and his friends had left long ago, and were now in a bar somewhere in the city.

So I ventured back into town to meet up with Bernat and his mates. On the way I stopped in briefly to a quaint corner pub. I didn’t bother grabbing a pint here for I intended the visit to be only a brief one. The bar was packed to the rafters so I stood somewhere near the doorway in the only spot of space I could find. It was busy due to a football game going on. I forget exactly the match – Arsenal against some other notable club. I wanted to experience a bit more this British fascination of football. It’s a real way of life here – particularly in the northern parts.

I hadn’t gained an appreciation for the sport up to this stage of my trip through Europe. Football (of the European variety) is not the most popular sport in Australia and quite often will be criticised for it’s lack of scoring and slow play.

This is true, but as I stood there in the bar, I more often watched the people inhabiting it rather than the game itself and learnt that this slow style of play actually has it’s advantages. People could watch the game when a forward attack was occurring and, when it inevitably was broken up, knew that they had a good twenty or thirty seconds of time to focus back on the conversation at their table and take another sip of their beers, unlikely to miss the next goal. The game didn’t require one hundred percent attention – it hardly even required fifty percent attention.

Soon enough I continued my venture to find Bernat. I found the bar that he had mentioned but he himself was nowhere to be found, so I figured I would have a few pints and wait (and hope that it was indeed the correct pub). It was a bit of a dive bar, busy extremely busy. Although there were plenty of windows around, it was very dark and dim inside – typically British. At the far end of the seating area was a stage and a man played music solo. He was a Canadian guy with a large beard and would swap between a guitar and an accordion to play folk songs and sea shanties.

It was an intimate setting and he would often interact with the crowd, telling stories or jokes.

Soon enough Bernat and his friends arrived and we caught up on the days happenings. Later on we caught up with another of Bernats friends – Lis, another Catalunyan who was living in Liverpool.

Lis had been living in Liverpool for around five years at this stage and her English was impeccable. She was very sociable and had a wide range of interests which made talking to her very interesting. It turned out English wasn’t the only language that Lis had perfected, as she claimed to be able to speak fluent Spanish, Catalonian, French, German and of course English and also be able to read quite capably Swedish and other scandinavian languages.

She was the kind of person that made me green with envy with her nous for seemingly picking up languages with a click of the fingers. In contrast, after three or four years of studying, I had managed to become perhaps forty percent affluent in the French language.

Still, Lis wasn’t exactly the kind of girl you could begrudge. She was very friendly and, like I mentioned earlier, very interesting to talk to.

Together, with Lis, myself, Bernat and his other friends, we spent a night out in Liverpool. The group had decided to try and locate some garage bar that was quite reputable and we walked around the outer regions of the downtown Liverpool district looking for it. Around this area, there seemed to be a lot of “pop-up” bars that had been derived from nothing – vacant warehouses or sheds – and although the night was still young at this stage and the weather had become much less encouraging than it had been during the day, there was loads of support for these makeshift social watering holes.

We must have passed around ten or fifteen similar ones before one of Bernats friends had confirmed that we were are the spot where the bar we were searching for was supposed to be. Only that we were to find that it had been closed down. It didn’t come as much of a shock to many people in the group. These ad-hoc bars come and go with a short lifespan, and the old building that hosted the bar would soon be taken over by some other alcohol serving establishment.

So we moved on to another bar only a few hundred metres down the road. This one was set up in a more permanent looking structure but still had a temporary feel to it, as if it were almost designed with imminent closure in mind.

It was a cool bar, not too busy and a lot of space. There were couches around the perimeter to relax on and a stage at the back hosting live music. This is another significant cultural ingredient – the live act. This holds true almost anywhere in the UK but particularly here in Liverpool, which seemed to churn out musicians at will. It was high quality stuff too, and some of the bands that played that night had a really good sound.

After an hour or two we moved on again. This time Bernats friends wanted to visit a club and so Bernat was going to follow them. Clubbing is not really my idea of a night out and besides, I had had a taste of what the live music pub scene in Liverpool had to offer and I wanted more of it.

Then comes Lis to my aid, as she also didn’t enjoy the notion of a club and was hoping to just visit another bar with music. So I said farewell to Bernat for the night and followed Lis to another bar. This one was more of an outdoor setting with a lot of plants and a small bar in the back corner. Luckily the rain had eased at this stage so we were able to remain dry.

Of course, there was a large stage set up. The night had various acts, but the one’s who owned the stage were a three-piece out of Brooklyn. A guitarist, a drummer and a saxophonist who seemed to just jam on end without rest for a couple of hours. They plaid a psychotic brand of music, with a tribal beat and the ever present, growing sound of the saxophone driving over the top.

It appeared, at first, no more than white noise – an un-arranged composition of sounds colliding together.

But after a while it became clearer.

It wasn’t that the music had changed, it was more so that you yourself had changed, to accept the noise. As if your brain had aligned to make sense of those colliding sound waves.

It was hypnotic, and I wasn’t the only one in the bar that was impressed by this haunting music. Soon enough, almost everybody in the open air area was huddled as close in to the stage as they could get to witness the music.

The group played on, almost unaware of the attention that they had generated, unacknowledging of the crowd that had formed before them.

A few months later I looked up that band to listen to them online. I tracked them down as being called simply Zs. Their music online was the same, but the influence was not. This was the kind of music that I could only appreciate live, amongst a crowd of other people, and it was only by pure chance that I was able to experience that on that night in Liverpool.

When they finally finished, the trance was snapped and, in the early hours of the morning, I decided that it was time for me to call my night to an end.

The next morning I had to leave early, and I said a goodbye and thank you to Bernat, who had managed to show me the city and lifestyle of Liverpool to the best of his abilities. It wasn’t underground Liverpool that he showed me, but it was Liverpool nonetheless.

I was a Liverpool that I had thoroughly enjoyed and prompted me to think of possibilities of returning for future adventures here – something that I had not done for a while on my travels.

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