*This is Part 1 in my Adventures in Italy blog.
[dc]T[/dc]his has been a big year for Melissa and me. We both celebrated significant birthdays and, together, a milestone anniversary. More than a year ago, we decided we wanted to mark these occasions in a momentous way. Having never been to Europe, we plan on two weeks in Italy.
Being our first trip across the pond, we want to really experience it, and not just sight see. But how?
A while back, I read an article in a travel magazine on CouchSurfing. I had heard of home exchanges, but the idea of being hosted by strangers was new to me (outside of foreign exchange students and study abroad programs). Intrigued, I check out the site, even though I’m not thrilled with the idea of crashing on someone’s couch. I soon find out, it’s so much more than that.
The idea was born in 1999, when Casey Fenton, founder, landed a cheap airline ticket from Boston to Iceland. In an effort to keep his trip costs low, he randomly emailed 1,500 students at the University of Iceland looking for a free place to stay and received about 50 offers in return. And so it began. The website went public in 2004 and quickly accumulated 6,000 members. By the end of 2005, it had almost 45,000 members, and now has more than 3 million!
Yes, the initial idea was to crash on someone’s couch, floor, or any available space in their home. However, as the site has grown, more and more older and established people (meaning not 19-22 year olds) have joined and are able to offer much more than a couch, should the idea of a guest room be more up your alley (yeah, that’s more like it for me!).
I start by searching for hosts in the different parts of Italy we’re planning to visit. There’s lots of hits coming up! Investigating further, I see I can narrow my search by gender, age, language spoken, and more. I can also see if people have left references, and if the hosts have been vouched for by the CouchSurfing organization (meaning their listed address has been verified). Good, so there are some checks and balances in place. I like that.
I bookmark the site, and later that night, mention it to Melissa to see what she thinks.
“I don’t know, Kerri. What if their houses are dirty?” I chuckle to myself. Most people in our lives have a first reaction more along the lines of “What if you get there and they’re serial killers?” But, no, not Melis. She’s worried about sleeping in squalor. She takes the thought a step further. “Hmm, staying with locals. Could be kinda cool.”
The next day, we sit down together to look at some profiles. We first look for people near Rome, and find a lovely couple who have listed their “couch” as available. In reading their description, we find that we’d actually be staying in a private guest room on the third floor of their home. We learn that they have a one-year-old daughter, a dog, and a cat, and live about 35 minutes outside of Rome. Perfect! We add them to our contact list as we consider whether we really want to do this.
The more we poke about the site, the more we learn the ins and outs — we now look at how long it’s been since a particular person has been on the site before considering them as hosts, as that tells us how likely it is that we’d hear back from them. We read through all sorts of references and testimonials to learn about others’ experiences staying at their home. We also decide that, if we are to get involved in CouchSurfing, we should put up a profile of ourselves to fully participate in the mission.
Imagine our surprise when less than a week later, we get our first request! A couple from California is in Boston for a work/pleasure trip, and while her husband is in a conference, Linda, wants to take a day trip to our town. She’s interested in meeting for lunch and wonders if we’re willing to show her some sights. Nice, so couchsurfing is about even more than letting someone stay at your home. You can connect just for coffee or lunch for less of a commitment, but still with the benefit of meeting new people, local to the area.
Later that month, we pick Linda up from the train station and head downtown. There’s a music festival going on, so it’s a perfect day to get a feel of the energy of our beautiful, coastal city. We walk around a bit before deciding to get some lunch at Rockfish — a restaurant with the best nachos in town. As we sit and chat with our first couchsurfer, our suspicions are confirmed. People who participate in something like this really are outgoing, friendly, and have a larger-than-themselves world view. How refreshing!
We spend a lovely afternoon together, talking about everything from places we’ve traveled, to our professions, to the history of our city, and her life back in California. She also shares her experiences with CouchSurfing, offering tips and advice, which is so helpful. At the end of the day, we drop her back at the train station so she can head into Boston to meet up with her husband.
Well, that was a sweet first experience, and a great way to dip our toes in the water! After meeting Linda, we feel much more confident — and excited — about this whole idea.
Shortly thereafter, a young couple from Pennsylvania contacts us. They’re heading to Maine to do some camping and want to stop in town for a beer festival on the way. Since we’re already planning on attending the same festival, we take it as a sign of kindred spirits and agree. We meet up at the festival and get to know each other while enjoying a variety of yummy brews. After the festival, we go out to dinner and then head back to our place to settle in for the night. We show them the guest room, their bathroom, the fridge, and all other necessities. After some more convo, everyone’s off to bed.
Yeah, it’s a bit odd to wake up the next morning knowing there’s strangers in our home. Then I realize — they don’t feel like strangers at all, but part of a soul family, looking to experience life and travel in a different way. I smile at the kinship.
We recommend the beach for their final day in town and give them instructions and tips on enjoying our local coastline, and off they go. Later that week, we reconnect on the CouchSurfing site and learn they had a phenomenal day at the ocean. We both leave glowing references for each other and promise to stay in touch. Another successful experience!
Our next hosting is with a dad and daughter from Alaska. She’s looking at colleges in New England and they’d like to stay the night of their arrival before driving up to Maine. Although their stay is brief, we learn a lot about their lives in Alaska as a salmon fishing family, and we see beautiful photos of their area. We’re happy to meet Brittany and hear about her future plans to study environmental science after finishing her high school years at a boarding school in Bosnia. She’s warm, open, bright-eyed, and smart. She gives us hope for the future!
Now that we’ve had these incredible hosting experiences, we’re sold on CouchSurfing! We send our requests out for hosting in Italy and eagerly await replies….
To read Part 2: “When In Rome… Literally,” click here.
Photo by thedailyenglishshow