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Traveling to Connect: Couchsurfing With Strangers

We took a trip, and I have so many things to show you and tell you about.  But before we get to all the travel pictures of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, let’s talk about People.  We love ’em.
Even though I have extreme introversion to the point that it feels like a disability at times, I sincerely love and enjoy people, and believe that one of the biggest purposes of life is to connect with other humans.  We share so much, and real connection is life-giving.  My need for vast quantities of alone time is balanced by my outgoing personality and two very extroverted family members.  Together, we’re like a pack of cockerspaniels– easy-going, friendly and eager to connect.
That’s one reason why we like to travel, and meet people, and why we sometimes try to stay with strangers.  Although our world is coming together globally through the internet and easy travel options, I think we’re also somehow becoming more and more isolated, as we are more dependent on technology and less so on other humans.  I think we’re losing something big.  And have any of you noticed that people seem to be less and less skilled at meeting each other in person?  Anyway, that is a totally different post I could write.  But today I want to talk a little about our recent experience with couchsurfing, and why the small risk of accepting kindness from strangers is incredibly rewarding.

We somewhat-randomly booked a trip to Trieste, Italy a little over a month ago.  Airfares were great, and we wanted to go south after a very long winter.  We had the option of booking a cheap hotel, but decided to look for couchsurfing hosts instead.  Right away, a couple I asked said we could stay with them.  But then about a week before the trip, they cancelled.  I put out a general request to the area, and a few days later I was contacted by Anika*, inviting us to come stay with them for the five nights we needed.  She said that she and her husband Antonio* don’t speak much English, but could hopefully get by, and that their son Marco* who is Amelia’s age didn’t speak any.  (Children who don’t speak the same language are not a real concern, in my experience– they always manage to transcend language.)  We said yes, and began exchanging brief emails about details.  She said they were kind of busy and unable to take us to see their area.  I was just thankful to have a place to stay, and for the opportunity to meet their family.

* Names were changed for privacy.Our expectation was that we would mostly just sleep at their home, and hopefully be able to buy some groceries and cook food for our family in their kitchen.  Maybe we would take them out to dinner, or share a meal or two with them, but I didn’t want to get in their way or be any kind of inconvenience to them.  Anika offered to pick us up in Trieste after we took the shuttle from the airport, which we really appreciated.  They had a bus stop half a kilometer from their home, so we planned to find our way around via public transportation after that.  Again, all I wanted was to be as little trouble for their family as possible– we would be their first couch surfers, and I wanted them to have a good experience and not feel like they had to do much for us.Well, that last part didn’t quite go as planned.  This trip was full of mishaps.  Although these things are normal, they seem to be much worse when they affect other people– at least, in my mind!  First of all, Jeff left his iphone on the bus on our way to Trieste from the airport, so we already had a problem to tell our host about right after we met her (although both Anika and Antonio helped us with this, we never did get it back.)  Then the second day, we tore one of their window shades.  It was easily repaired, but I was mortified. There was some awkwardness with breakfast, because we expected to be able to grab some groceries or easily get something at a cafe, but there wasn’t anything close to their home– and I didn’t want to just eat all their food!  We broke a glass.  I was feeling really nauseous for most of the trip– still not sure why (nope, not pregnant!) and that added extra stress. Plus, one afternoon I ate something I was allergic to, and got sick. The weather for the first few days was truly terrible, and we had not packed the right clothes (we flew Ryan Air and hardly had any luggage at all) and got soaked and frozen on our day in Trieste, which was pretty miserable.  Then I had issues with charging my cell phone, and we were out of communication at times.  A bus we took back to their house dropped us off too early, and we were wandering around the hills with a dead cell phone for a while looking for their house (we got there, we were fine!)  On the morning of our last day, someone stepped on my foot very heavily and most likely broke a bone in my foot.  So, lots of these kinds of things happened… Making us feel kind of lame, and embarrassed that we perhaps seemed disorganized, clumsy and needy.  That was the opposite of the impression I had hoped to make.And this is where tremendous grace came in.  Our hosts were wonderful, and did not treat us like anything but valued guests.  The room they put us in was really nice, with a view over the bay and our own bathroom.  They wanted to feed us, wanted to take care of anything they could for us.  They didn’t understand my resistance to grabbing breakfast from their refrigerator or my hesitancy to tell them we hadn’t eaten dinner yet (there were no restaurants we could walk to, which was part of our plan.)  We ended up eating every dinner with them. Anika wouldn’t let me clear dishes or load the dishwasher. Antonio opened many, many bottles of great wine for us over those six days, and enthusiastically explained as much about them as he could in his limited English.  He pulled out bottles of wine, olive oil, liqueurs and olives that were made by his friends– the very best items in one’s pantry, in my opinion.  On the second evening, they invited friends over who speak more English.  This family with two little girls also spent the night, and we spent a long evening at the table talking about Slovenian history and cultural differences, drinking wine and listening to the kids shrieking happily as they played together.I will not say that we all felt like good friends from the moment we met.  While that does happen sometimes, it’s not realistic.  What did happen is that we got to know each other a little awkwardly at first, and there were some cultural things that were tricky.  But we kept spending time together and communicated as much as we could until everyone was more comfortable.

I quickly learned that Anika is very honest and down-to-earth.  Whenever I apologized for something (there was a long list!) she made steady eye contact and made sure I understood that it was all totally OK.  By the end of our time there, I believed it.  On Saturday, Antonio took us to rent a car so we could visit Slovenia and Croatia more easily.  Then he took us to some coastal villages in Slovenia.  I can’t wait to show you more pictures of those.  On Sunday, we all drove to Croatia, and then took a ferry to Brijuni Island together.  We learned so much about the former Yugoslavia from these trips and from Antonio and Anika, and it was really fascinating– we hadn’t known any of the things they told us.By Monday, we were friends.  I had earned dish-clearing priviledges, and offered to cook dinner for everyone that evening.  I asked Antonio to make a fire for me in his outdoor kitchen (dubbed the laboratorio) so I could grill vegetables and my version of chelo kebabs.The weather had warmed up enough for us to eat outside (with jackets on)– I had been dreaming of a meal on their patio since I first laid eyes on it.  We had a sweet time at the table with them, and Jeff and I insisted that they not lift a finger to clean up after dinner. They sat in the kitchen and chatted with us while we cleaned, and we stayed up late talking about parenting and good movies.

At that point in time, we had thought we’d be coming back to Italy in a couple of weeks for a work assignment (that has since been cancelled) so we were also planning trips to another Croatian Island and to Lake Bled together.  Antonio insisted that he should take us to the airport the next evening, and we accepted– feeling really thankful instead of needy.  The kids hugged tightly, already missing each other when they said goodnight.  Amelia and Marco had been friends from the minute they had met each other, and it was so sweet to watch them together all week.We were exhausted when we left– the trip had been harder than usual, particularly for me.  But each of us left with such full hearts.  We had seen and learned more than we had thought we would. We had really connected with this family, more than I had hoped (and I’m an optimistic idealist!) It really blows my mind that this is possible in a world that often just feels so disconnected.  And sometimes I lose faith a little here in England.

I strongly believe that most humans have plenty in common to make a friendship with.  But not everyone is willing or able.  We met a couple that loves people, and was willing to take the risk of having us in their home for a week.  We took a similar leap of faith, and it was so rewarding.  They showed us so much grace and kindness, and we hope we brought something sweet into their lives, as well.  We will visit them again, and we certainly hope they will come visit us in England.

Growing up, my family always welcomed newcomers into our home, and it felt normal and right.  I have learned that this isn’t necessarily common, and so it’s something I intentionally want to share with Amelia– to trust people and to assume that we have enough in common to make a meaningful connection.  It can be somewhat counter-cultural, but I think it’s important to choose to trust rather than to fear the people around us.  We must do this sensibly, of course, but there are so many wonderful people out there to meet, and we have a lot to offer one another.  If relying on the kindness of strangers while you travel still feels a bit extreme, a good first step would be to check out renting places from people instead of staying in hotels.  Here’s how we do it.Do you have an experience to share about connecting with someone in an unexpected way?

Traveling to Connect Our Experience Couchsurfing with StrangersPAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: In order for me to support my blogging activities, I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog.
 

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21 Responses to Traveling to Connect: Couchsurfing With Strangers

  1. Liene June 4, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    What a wonderful experience! I’ve been wanted to open our home to couchsurfers, but am a little worried that the type of visitor might be different here in the US. Not to mention with two kids it would be quite a different experience for the surfer!

    • Ariana Mullins June 5, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

      Hi Liene! Yes, I was a little reluctant at first, too. But you can pick your visitors, and be as selective as you want. We have only hosted once so far, and it was two medical students from Scandinavia. We enjoyed having them here, and Amelia did too.

  2. Gretchen June 4, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    I loved this account of your experience although felt deeply through your troubles! :0(
    So glad it was positive and that you made some sweet new friends!

    • Ariana Mullins June 5, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

      Aw, thanks for your sympathy. We were so glad we went, even if it wasn’t ideal, and are really thankful to have new friends in that part of the world. That was so valuable to us.

  3. Grandma Seelye June 4, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    What a wonderful week!! I know what you mean about connecting with people you have never met. Sorry about the troubles but you chose to see the bright side!

    • Ariana Mullins June 5, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

      I’m sure you do know what I mean about making friends in far-off places. You are one of the most well-traveled women I know! Isn’t it sweet to make those connections?

  4. Great Aunt Gretchen June 5, 2013 at 12:36 am #

    What a great week and great explanation of your feelings. We had a gent from Russia with us 2 weeks ago, here to graduate from Talbot School of Theology.
    It’s so fun to meet new people and learn about their cultures. :)

    • Ariana Mullins June 5, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

      Yes, I think that hosting people is a really great way of traveling, too. You can learn SO much from people, just by listening to their stories and seeing how they respond to your own culture. I’m sure he enjoyed his time with you.

  5. Joanna June 5, 2013 at 4:27 am #

    Really enjoyed reading about your trip. I can’t ever imagine actually choosing to stay in a hotel any more. I have stayed with people in their homes all over the world now and you get to see so much more and understand the culture in a way that you can’t if you stay in a hotel. I haven’t used couchsurfers, but relied on contacts from friends of mine, so perhaps my experience is a little different. Some friends of mine have also embarked on a year away and they are using couchsurfers too, you can read of their adventures on http://learningtotravel.com/ and as you see, they share some of the similar findings that you do.

    • Ariana Mullins June 5, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

      Hi Joanna,
      Yes– I do not like hotels, either. Amelia loves them, but I think she enjoys anything that’s novel. Staying with a family is so much nicer. We don’t have connections in many places at this point, but couchsurf fills those gaps nicely. Thank you for the link to Learning to Travel– I will enjoy reading their adventures!

  6. Gina Howie June 5, 2013 at 8:13 am #

    I loved reading this post. What a wonderful experience for you and your family. I love how you keep it real by writing about how it was not perfect by any means but in the end all works out and everyone is richer for the experience. I am expecting a visitor in August to come and stay with us in London and I have never met her. She is a friend of a friends daughter who is in her 20’s and wanting to travel and couch surf throughout Europe (she is from Canada). I am looking forward to getting to know her and making her stay here in London an enjoyable one. It is a great way to travel economically and I think everyone benefits from the connections that are made.
    I think it is important to trust rather than to fear as well. There is so much to be gained when you take a leap and trust that all will play out exactly as it is meant to be. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Ariana Mullins June 5, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

      Hello Gina– I appreciate your thoughtful comment. It seems like fear is the programmed response to the unknown, but I don’t think it used to be that way with people. In my life, I have had so many great experiences with strangers– of course not all of them have been perfect, but more good than bad, for sure. It is harder to find people to stay with here in England, as this sort of thing is generally not done. It’s too bad, though– England is such an interesting place, and the locals have so much to share about their country! Glad you will be hosting that young woman– I’m sure it will be a wonderful and educational experience for her.

  7. R Nelson June 12, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

    Love Trieste! Haven’t been back in ages, but you’re whetting my appetite.
    Thanks for posting to Dude, Sustainable! Green Living Thursdays @ http://www.dudesustainable.com

  8. Marko June 18, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    A great post! I really enjoyed reading it.
    I have met quite a few couchsurfers and must say they were all very nice and easy to get along with.

    I am glad you liked your first CS experience and hope to read more positive posts on this topic soon.
    Have fun, keep travelling and don’t stop blogging about it. 😉

    • Ariana Mullins June 19, 2013 at 11:36 am #

      Hi Marko,
      Yes, so far we have had great experiences with couchsurfing, and I think it really makes the world a better place! This wasn’t our first time (but it was theirs)– we have done it before in Paris, and we recently had a couple of young women come stay with us. We have stayed in touch with everyone we have met doing this, and it’s so fun to have friends all over the world.

      By the way, amazing photos on your blog!!

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