The Costs of Free Couches

It can be momentarily disconcerting. You wake up curled upon someone’s favorite sofa, in a room cluttered with unrecognizable furniture, travel bags, and walls sporting collages of personal photographs. Your fingers explore the sofa’s network of leather cracks as you begin to stir into consciousness. For those initial seconds of lucidity, your brain whirls to put together all the pieces. Where the hell am I? And then you remember. Ah yes, I’m Couchsurfing.

For those unfamiliar with the “CS Project,” here’s the 10 second crash course: people based in cities all around the world open up their homes to travelers to stay in, for a number of nights, for nothing more than their company and some good conversation. It’s an online social network that’s growing with over 2 million users in 230 countries. Morgan and I make up two of them.

A "hot pot" feast in Munich

In fact, couchsurfing has proved to be our best means of finding a warm place to sleep. The experience has been amazing — allowing us to meet people from all walks of life. These have ranged from motherly figures like Ely in Besancon and Cornelia in Braunau — who took in two young, tired cyclists like their adopted sons — to characters like the Swedish Air Mechanics in Basel, who were shoving beer in our hands the moment we walked through the door. We’ve shared a Chinese hot pot dinner with a string theorist in Munich, gone dumpster diving with a critical mass cyclist in Vienna, and lived on an organic farm for a night in rural Austria. They are the irreplaceable moments that we never could have anticipated.

Although in many ways, crashing people’s couches four or five nights a week is a bizarre way of existing. It’s true – you don’t have to pay for what’s generally access to a shower, a stocked kitchen, and a soft sleeping surface , but at the same time, couchsurfing comes with some demands.

The network operates on investments of stories and personal disclosure. When staying in someone’s home, it’s important to remember the sole reason they accepted your online “couch request” is because they want to meet you. And that means that Morgan and I are at the mercy of our hosts’ whims and personalities.

After cycling 120 km, the two of us usually just want to crash the nearest available sleeping surface. But if our host decides they want to go out and party until 4 am, guess what? We’re going out with them to party until 4 am. While these are colorful experiences, a some point we’ll hit ‘the wall,’ the point of physical exhaustion after which it’s not uncommon for us to be nodding off in bars and in the middle of living room conversations. It’s an interesting situation where we can’t really say ‘no’ to our hosts’ plans because we can’t help but feel it would be a letdown for them. This is especially true for those places where we’re only staying one night, when all of the “couchsurfing investment” is concentrated into a single evening.

The biggest cost of couchsurfing is that one has no real right to privacy. You need to be ready to respond to your hosts’ activity at a moment’s notice. This has become evident when we need to spend time writing content for the website, but feel it would be antisocial to spend our little time with hosts stuck behind the glare of our computer screens. Such inconveniences can certainly be wearing with regularity.

But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, these ‘costs’ are not even a question. As strange as it is being perpetual guests, and waking up in different people’s homes each morning, we wouldn’t trade our couchsurfing experiences for anything. It has what has already made this trip worthwhile.

Team USA vs. Team Sweden

After all, we never would have been subjected to such memories as:

  • Eating freshly rolled oats and homemade yogurt at the Al Ma’awa organic farm in the foothills of Austria.
  • Finding ourselves taking care of a blacked-out drunk host who, after bringing us to her friends’ apartment party, had to be shown the way back to her own home.
  • The incredible generosity of Munich’s Jon Shock, who was willing to give up his own bed and only apartment keys for his guests’ comfort.
  • Discovering Vienna’s underground folk scene…in an underground bar.

You see, the single greatest thing about couchsurfing is, we never really know what’s next. And we’re always curious to find out.

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4 Responses to The Costs of Free Couches

  1. Cat says:

    It was really wonderful to meet you both last night in Concerto, thanks so much for your enthusiasm about the music :-)
    All the very very best for the rest of your trip!

  2. Sagar says:

    Loving these blog posts…keep em coming. Lets me live vicariously through you.

  3. Chi Shing Tsui says:

    You and your stories never cease to amaze me. I’ll keep checking the good stuff. Miss you bud.

  4. pH says:

    Morgan, got your glasses fixed…Will send ‘em c/o Centrade in Bucharest. J’ai bien aimé cette histoire; cela me réconforte sur quelques CouchSurfers que nous avons accueilli avec un je ne sais quoi de regret. ;) . Bise et bonne route á vous deux…

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