The stories of a couchsurfer

Florent, Strasbourg

The luck of timing is so often important in determining the events and outcomes of our lives. Sure, there exists a certain amount of control that we, ourselves, can employ in our journey through life and although I’m a firm believer of the people make their own luck ethos, I also believe that there is just as many occurrences that come completely unplanned and change the course of life dramatically, whether for better or for worse.

I reflected on this philosophy after my stay with Florian in Strasbourg. Florian was one of the first Couchsurfers I had requested to stay with when sending out requests for Strasbourg and he got back to me pretty quickly to confirm that it was possible.

One of the primary reasons I requested to stay with Florian was because he was also a software engineer. At this stage of my journey I was beginning to look more seriously into the future and how I could extend my stay in Europe and specifically France. The plan was to find a job and live in France. Optimally, I would find a job as a software engineer, my career in Australia, and expected that demand would be high enough to make this a likely proposal, but had no idea how to begin my search.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but there are an unexpectedly high amount of people in the information technology sector that are active in the Couchsurfing scene and I had therefore already stayed with quite a few hosts that could shed some light on what the industry was like in Europe, but I had never really questioned how I could become a part of it.

I arrived at Florent’s place on the southern side of Strasbourg in the evening. The area was nice – clean, well maintained and modern, much like the rest of Strasbourg from my short journey from the center to his place.

Florent lived in an apartment on the top floor of the building. The building itself, while nice, was unassuming. A typical building for the area, with no elevator and an aging, large, wooden staircase. When Florent opened the door and greeted me I saw something completely different.

I have couchsurfed in some not so comfortable places and some on the fringe of luxurious. Those that were in the luxurious range were almost always houses or villas and when traveling throughout Europe, most of the apartments are very similar. Whilst charming, they are old buildings and any refitting that has been done would generally be for the purpose of holding the walls up.

Indeed, this may have been the case even for Florian’s apartment but he went well and beyond just that. The apartment was completely newly renovated from top to bottom with a large, open kitchen/living room/dining room space almost immediately from walking in through the door. The kitchen was completely refitted and modern, as well as the lighting all around the place, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the most amazing apartment I had seen in my life, let alone couchsurfed in.

Florent told me that he had bought the place when it was run down and completely renovated it not long before my arrival. He had lots of photos of the renovation process and was evidently extremely proud of his masterpiece. He had good reason to be.

Florent was a very cheerful guy with a willingness to talk about travels and life. He had photo albums of travels in Norway and other places and was happy to share them, as well as listen to my travel stories.

His English was very good and early on he gave me the offer of if we should communicate in English or French together. He spoke French at a very rapid pace and although it was often hard to keep up with him, I thought it best to take the challenging route to best improve my French language, and so it was that we spoke French almost exclusively for my duration there.

The first night we used his fresh, new kitchen to cook tarte flambée together. Tarte flambée is just one of many examples of the wondrous result of combining both the German and French cultures at the Alsacian border.

While we cooked together and talked I told Florent of my ambitions in the future to find software engineering work somewhere in France and live there. He mentioned that he was also in the software engineering sector (of which I had known) but also that he was intimately tied into the recruitment process of his company and even sat in on the interviews.

This came as a most welcome surprise and gave me unprecedented access to knowledge about the hiring process in France. Florent assured me that there is a large market for software engineers in most of the large cities in France and not to worry about my grasp of the French language, as it was more than sufficient for working purposes.

I had never had any strong doubts about if I would be able to find a job here in France, instead questioning how easy it may be, and how many options would present themselves to me. Perhaps I would have to settle on a less than ideal job to gain entry, I thought. I went to sleep that night, after my discussion with Florian, well assured and confident that I could obtain an exciting job offer in France when the time came.

The next day I used Florian’s bicycle to ride into the city and check out the sights. Strasbourg is well set up for cyclists, although the tram and bus network also seemed comprehensive enough. As I ventured my way through town, I enjoyed every corner of it. The blend of German and French showed up everywhere – in the architecture, the food and the drink.

The environment was gorgeous. The sky was a deep blue with not a cloud to be seen. The grass was a thick and lush green and the flowers were in full bloom. These colours combined to create a wonderful and welcoming setting.

I took around an hour out of my day just to lie down on that lush grass at Place de la République, close my eyes and just listen to the sounds of the city. It was not the hectic rush of London or Barcelona, yet there was a lively and active buzz around it. It was a liveliness that was not stressful.

I went back to Florent’s in the afternoon. He had promised me that we could eat raclette – despite it not being the season to do it. Raclette is another amazing food in the region, although inherited from the Swiss it is also frequently eaten in the Alsace region.

Typically eaten during the winter, the basic premise is that in the center of the table sits a communal grill. Each member receives a small pan like utensil that they sit a slice of cheese in and then sit under the grill so that it melts. Meanwhile, they place any amount of various food items – bacon, ham, mushroom, etc. on the grill to cook. Once the cheese is melted and food grilled, it is added to potato or simply straight onto the plate.

Not only was it very tasty, I loved the social aspect of it, with everyone using the same grill and cooking at the same time. Florian had invited his sister and her boyfriend over for dinner, as well as some friends, who were all very friendly to me.

After this Florian and his friends took me into the city for drinks. I honestly don’t remember where we went. I can’t remember going into any specific bar. I do remember, however, that we wound up at the apartment of another friend of his. It was a great apartment on the third floor almost in the center of Strasbourg.

One guy mentioned that he had (or was making) a curling team, and was looking for a fourth member and enquired if I was interested in curling. Now I don’t believe in destiny, but with Strasbourg already impressing me so much, I needed little more reason to convince me that this may be the destination of choice to live here.

The thing was that I actually really enjoy curling, and had even tested it out once in Stockholm. Now I had an offer to join a curling team with a bunch of good blokes – Strasbourg was really pulling out all the cards.

There was also one other incident during the night. It was all very strange how it transpired and due to my not so perfect French combined with the alcohol I didn’t really follow along very well. For some unknown reason, a group of people outside downstairs were causing a ruckus. It annoyed the woman living in the apartment below us, as well as a lot of guests at the party that we were at. I, myself, was oblivious to it all and had no idea what was going on, but whatever it was it became so annoying that at one point, all the guys (about five or six) decided to put on their shoes and storm down there in anger to sort them out.

Well, I wasn’t going to sit around and be the only man left in the apartment, so I decided to be brash and follow along, absolutely unaware of what the reason for doing so was or what we were out to accomplish.

We dashed downstairs and turned the corner where one of us had recognised the group of perpetrators and quickly flocked over to them where an aggressive, yet surprisingly very civil, discussion broke out. It seemed like everybody had something to say and it also seemed, in a twist I thought only occurred on television, that the two gangs were so evenly matched that each man had picked an individual opponent.

I wound up with mine by pure default from following aimlessly into battle. He was slightly shorter than me, thin in physique and didn’t look up to much of a fight. In fact, none of them did really. They were all younger than us (or, younger than me, at least) and it didn’t take long before the rest of the group had come to some peaceful agreement and they apologised to us. I even received a personal apology from the guy I was staring down.

A more subdued and peaceful day awaited me the following day, as I once again took Florent’s bicycle out for a ride around town, this time to the eastern suburbs. My aim was to reach Germany, as Strasbourg lies right on the border of it.

First was a trip slightly north to see some of the European organisations which are based in Strasbourg. These included the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Human Rights Court.

Then it was a quick bicycle ride down to the Rhine, which separates France and Germany at Strasbourg. I was very excited about this prospect. By now I had already crossed many borders within Europe quite easily, but they were all done by train or plane. Now I had my first chance to cross over one country into another by foot.

It’s not until one does this that you really appreciate the borderless Europe. There was not a customs or immigration centre in sight, and I casually strolled across the bridge from France into Germany, where a nice park sat on the banks of the Rhine, laid down and watched the world and pondered about how great it is to easily travel around Europe, before reembarking back across the bridge to Strasbourg.

On the way back into town I came across two girls also riding their bicycles who asked me for help to get back to Strasbourg. I, myself, wasn’t entirely sure and was just following my gut feel, but acted confident and told them that they could follow me if they wanted.

I wasn’t a local of Strasbourg yet, but with every passing minute I spent in that town, the desire to become on grew stronger.

I’m not sure how much of an impression Strasbourg would have had on me if I had visited it earlier when I was simply in the mood to experience Europe and it’s history and landmarks and food and drink.

But now, with my thoughts ever more focused on finding the right place in France to live and work, this journey couldn’t have come at a better time to showcase what Strasbourg has to offer. With the added bonus of now having a contact within the software engineering circles that also has a say in the recruitment process, as well as a curling team in waiting, it seemed to be, dare I say it, destiny.

Of course, none of this could have been anticipated. Sure, I knew that Florian was a software engineer, but I had no idea that he had the insight into the recruitment process that he ended up having. Sure, I could have googled “best places in France to live and work”, but that may have steered me away from Strasbourg. And there’s absolutely no way I could have anticipated the offer of a spot on a curling team.

Ultimately, not all things can be planned, and even if they can, it’s wise not to ignore all the unplanned things that will come anyway due to timing and circumstances. The more places one is willing to travel and the more people one is willing to meet increase the chances of these pleasant surprises.

For now I set my sights firmly on the continuation of my journey towards Germany. Strasbourg, though, will remain in my my plans for a much longer timeframe.

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