In Italy, my accommodation is taken care of via CouchSurfing, a website and, for some, an entire way of life. It’s like karma, or Christianity, or anarchy, or socialism. I think different people have slightly different motivations for doing it. Some (the ones who “are not true couchsurfers”) are just looking for a free place to stay. Others are intrigued by what amounts to a mini cultural exchange. One of the people I stayed with, Alex, looked at me like I was crazy when I asked why he, personally, did it. “I think it’s obvious,” he said “this is a way to meet people from different places. And with CouchSurfing, I can go anywhere in the world and have a friend.”
This, perhaps, is the most appealing part of it. It isn’t just cheap accommodation. It’s the experience of seeing a place through the eyes of a local. It’s the experience of having someone by your side to share it with.
You make your judgment to stay with or host someone largely based on the person’s online profile — including feedback other people have left after staying or hosting. You can check out the feedback if you want; I’ve had girls contact me about references I’ve left for other people. But still, the idea is a bit odd. Staying with people you don’t know. Welcoming them almost without question.
One night, I make a joke to Massimo, a Roman I’m staying with, about how CouchSurfing is basically like everything your mother told you never to do. He laughs. “Yes,” he agrees “A stranger is on your doorstep and you say to him, come in.”
Not everyone is so polite, of course, and I think it takes a certain mindset to be able to couchsurf gracefully, not to mention wisely. A certain mindset and a certain hardness of hip, because the place you end up sleeping may not always be at the level of a four-star hotel. On a pragmatic note, you should probably also have a mobile phone that works in that country, be clear about when you’re meeting and where, and once you get to your destination, be respectful and organized with your stuff. Share your life (and your chocolate) as much as you can; that’s kind of the point.
The latter half of my visit to Rome, I find someone who says I can stay in his apartment even though he is not there. Another couchsurfer is there already, he tells me. Wilma, from Chile. Wilma knows that I am coming, and greets me with a dustcloth in hand. She asks if I speak Italian or Spanish. I say no. She says she doesn’t speak English, but she says it in English, so I say, I can help teach you if you want.
Wilma had been cleaning the apartment, which is plastered with thank-you notes from other couchsurfers, but she takes a break to make us some tea and get acquainted. She is 50 years old, and has a daughter my age. She’s spent the last year in Italy traveling around after selling everything she owned in Chile and returning here, because her grandparents were Italian, and they regretted never coming back. So now, she is “closing the circle.”
After tea, she is tired from trying so hard to speak English, so we clean the apartment together. I sweep, she mops. This is what I do when I couchsurf, she says. I put the place in order. “I was…” she hesitates, and says a few words in Spanish and Italian, until I decide that “disorganized” is the one she wants. And then she needs “before.” But now, CouchSurfing has forced her to be organized. I nod. I understand. And much later, when I return to the United States, I think of her as I unpack my tiny suitcase into the chaos of my walk-in closet. I almost miss having so little.