The first week of my European odyssey had gone exceptionally well. I had a job, a temporary place to stay and, most importantly, I had left the home life behind. The worry of school, dread of the future, problems with friends and females were all on a four-month hiatus.
But that exceptional week abruptly ended. Things changed. I’d been sobered by reality, and there I was, jobless, and more frightfully, homeless.
I only had one or two days to find a bed, let alone a place to live for a month and a half before I was due to leave Belgium. So what was I to do? Where to go? Ah yes, enter Couchsurfing.com.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Couchsurfing.com, I’m not surprised. Though it boasts a membership of over four million people, it’s not the type of website that you would utilize unless travelling on a tight budget. In essence, it connects you with other travelers around the world, allowing you to utilize spare couches, beds, floors – anything for temporary accommodation. And get this: it’s all free.
A few searches, a few requests sent out, and within hours I have a place to live for three days. Laura lives in the Turkish district of Ghent, my humble, bittersweet city, and says I can stay there for a couple days. The plan is, as it stands, to hop from place to place and until I find a host that’s willing to rent out a room to me. Not a bad idea in practice, but this turns out to be a more daunting task than first expected.
I meet Laura outside of her townhouse. She’s all smiles, speaks great English and she even offers me a drink upon my arrival. The house is small and she has three roommates, all of whom attend the University of Ghent. It’s a typical student house, minus the old architecture and plaster furnishings. Ghent used to be a large factory complex during the industrial revolution. After the Wars, Ghent veered away from being an industrial town and turned into a cultural hotspot of Flemish culture.
Townhouses like Laura’s, which initially housed poor workers, were converted into comfortable flats for students and new immigrants, mainly Turks, who moved to Belgium after the formation of the European Union.
This house, unfortunately, was not in the best of shape. Firstly, the main floor was poorly kept (as most student houses are) and there was a tremendous mosquito infestation. Not a good place to start my room hunt, but hey, how bad could it really be?
Laura and her roommates cooked me a delicious vegetarian meal, we shared some beers and some stories, and I went to bed … well, tried to go to bed. The mosquitoes were worse than I thought. After curling up on my mattress, which was situated on the ground floor, I was soon bombarded and pestered by these little beasts, buzzing violently over my head and landing on every exposed piece of skin. I tossed and turned for hours, literally hours, until I put on my socks, my sweater (with the hood over my head), a blanket to protect me, and iPod to ignore the enemies flying overhead.
I awoke with only two hours of sleep under my belt and over 200 bites of all shapes and sizes, on every piece of skin I left exposed through the night. I hurried onto my laptop, sent a dozen requests, and luckily enough I found a new place to stay in a matter of minutes.
Ewout said he would take me in without a fuss. A quick bike ride across the city and I was outside his townhouse, just down the street from a canal, a stones-throw away from a beautiful park and a minute walk from the student district. Ewout laughed at my story about the mosquitoes, egged on by the countless bumps and blotches all over my hands and forehead. Ewout (pronounced Ay-woat) was a web designer and HTML coder. He worked from home and had a wonderful apartment all to himself. Big screen TV, kitchen, an attic and no mosquitoes, this place was much better than the nightmare of last night. I was right at home.
Ewout didn’t mind if I sat around for the day to watch the French Open on TV, or go out and come home late. He gave me a spare key and just told me to respect the place. He took me out several times to his favourite bars, and to introduce me to other couch-surfers he knew throughout the city. I cooked him dinners to give my thanks. All his friends were warm, kind, and always willing to have one last drink at the end of the night. And, just by chance, Ewout informed me that at the end of the month one of his rooms was going to be available to rent.
That’s right, after two days I had found a place to stay – and for a very reasonable price. The only problem was that I had two weeks to kill before the room opened up, as Ewout was hosting plenty of other people in this time. I fired off a storm of Couchsurfing requests and, what do you know, in a few hours I had a new place to live for a few days.
The last of my Couchsurfing experiences was the most impactful, given the host and given the circumstances. My host was a linguistics graduate, a music hound, and a lover of all things audible. He was a Blue Jays fan, knew more about the NHL than I ever would and had a tremendous knowledge of Canadian indie bands. It may help to mention that Didier, my third and final host, was absolutely, positively, 100 per cent blind.
Didier’s apartment was nice, new and mosquito free as well. Situated next to the train station, it was a cinch to find and was close to all the bars, grocery stores and shops I would ever need. The difference between Didier and the other hosts was that he was truly interested in my company, my stories and my travels. We’d put on a record, eat from the local chip shop, and talk about everything under the sky: music, books, sports, embarrassing stories, sad stories and even about his disability – which was, and still is, an inspiration to me.
When a few days passed and I felt like I was overstaying my welcome. Didier told me he was flying to Barcelona for a music festival. “Not to worry though, you can have the apartment for the week.” The next morning he left me his keys and that was that. Complete strangers, brought together by chance over a website, and within days there’s enough trust and responsibility to hand over the keys to your apartment.
And that’s probably the most important thing about Couchsurfing: besides its obvious virtues of convenience and utility, it allows people of any size, race and ability to participate and share with one another. Didier wasn’t a distant relative or old high school chum that welcomed me into his room. He was a complete stranger. Despite his disability, and despite his inability to see the guy he’s entrusting with his apartment for a week, he opened his doors to me, and for that and many other things, I’m eternally grateful.
Couchsurfing isn’t just about taking advantage of spare beds and living spaces. It’s not even about seeking an alternative means for living abroad. It’s about witnessing the human bond that ties us all together. How two strangers, with completely different backgrounds, can come together and relate to one another in such a profound way will always stick with me – even after all these travel-odysseys subside. I wonder how many lives have been affected by this site, how many people with disabilities, who may find it difficult to meet new people, have used Couchsurfing to get out in the world, meet interesting people, and use another means to interact.
These wonderful hosts really did save my life. They took me in, fed me, connected with me and took me out. Regardless of that first, mosquito-infested experience, which is more hilarious now than anything, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Not one bit.
And with that, the Couchsurfing experience was over, I had found a place to stay and I was over the homeless hurdle. Now, I had to figure a way to get to Paris and meet with my friends for a three-day expedition of foul and revelrous proportions.