Monday 23 October 2017

The year I let 100 strangers spend the night on my couch

Couchsurfing, where complete strangers from all around the world are invited into your home, can help transform your life, writes Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson let 100 strangers sleep on her couch over the course of one year.
Sophie Donaldson let 100 strangers sleep on her couch over the course of one year.
Sofasurfers: Polly (centre) with Estonian guests
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

Would you let a stranger stay on your couch? How about 100 strangers in a year? I did, and before you ask, no, it wasn't for the money. Circa 2011, it was before Airbnb had entered into the general lexicon. I was living in a shared house with three flatmates; Ronan, the Sydney-born mostly Irish-reared contrarian with a distinctive accent who often clashed with Frenchie, aptly named for his Gallic swagger and unapologetic Frenchness.

Then there was Polly, a Russian-speaking petite blonde who had spent the previous few years travelling the world with her boyfriend. Working full-time as an architect, she was suffering from an aching wanderlust that was compounded by her office job and would regale us with tales of other people's adventures. In an attempt to appease her gnawing travel bug, she propositioned the household to try couchsurfing and inexplicably, we all said yes.

For the uninitiated, Couchsurfing.com is like the lovechild of Facebook and Airbnb. Hosts and surfers both create profiles about themselves, the hosts describing their home and surfers describing themselves. Surfers contact hosts in the hope of staying with them and it is at the discretion of the host to accept or reject their request.

We added our names to Polly's existing account with a few photos and then selected the option to make the house 'available'. The requests began filtering in and we soon had our first surfers.

I don't remember much about those first guests except that they ignited something in us all that saw a constant flow of couchsurfers follow in their wake. There were musicians, nurses, fed up civil servants, students and full-time backpackers and they came from all over; Austria, Canada, Brazil, Poland, Estonia, Mexico, South Korea, Alaska, Bosnia and Switzerland.

There was Francesca, the vivacious Italian who cooked so much food every surface in the kitchen cradled a crispy-based pizza. Jakob and Holger, the six-foot Germans who would play ping-pong with Frenchie in the living room using saucepans or squash rackets in lieu of wooden paddles. Giles, who worked as a teacher in New Caledonia and spent his summers travelling the world. And Swann, the tiny Parisian artist whose couch I slept on the first time I went to Paris.

Polly (centre) with a German and an American guest
Polly (centre) with a German and an American guest

James, a flame-haired Dubliner, has become a dear friend. He shared our futon with his Italian fling Antonio, a barber who offered haircuts by way of saying thanks for having him. Martina, the generous pretzel-baking Bavarian, ended up staying for six weeks sharing Polly's attic bedroom and invited us to her wedding last summer.

There was the Frenchman who had travelled through the Middle East literally dodging bombs with a guitar strapped to his back. The jovial Icelandic boys who wanted haircuts then sat patiently being shorn like sheep as we gave them buzz cuts. The Hawaiian guy who only had five days off and used them to travel the world.

While our home might have resembled a commune, its inhabitants living a frugal bohemian existence, we were either full-time workers or full-time students. We paid rent and bills while maintaining a home that just happened to be a temporary shelter for strangers.

What was intended as a brief dalliance for Polly's sanity resulted in a kinetic household of people and accents, backpacks and romance, food, music and mess. At times it was tiring but mostly it was addictive, this strange kinship heightened by the fleeting nature of travel. The tip-toeing courtesies that usually exist between strangers were very quickly forgotten when you'd heard them snore and they had seen your bed hair.

Sophie with an Austrian couchsurfer
Sophie with an Austrian couchsurfer

It was a year of perfect chaos and I reflect on it in a climate of a mass upheaval for millions of displaced humans. Now, more than ever, we are told to fear the stranger who should not be allowed onto our shores let alone into our homes. Now, more than ever, I understand the importance of pursuing friendship with strangers not least because it reiterates the fundamentals of humankind but because it just might change your life.

Among all those souls that traipsed through our door I met the person who turned me into a traveller, the person who I packed my bags for and followed to Ireland - this new place I call home. While I understand most people are not in the position to welcome hordes of strangers into their open arms and open home, you really should forget everything you've been told about not talking to strangers. You should do it, often and with gusto.

And if you're wondering what the worst that could happen is, let me put your fears to rest. While living with 100 and more strangers there was not a single nasty event, aside from the occasional shortage of loo roll.

Two German globetrotters
Two German globetrotters
English holidaymakers come to stay
English holidaymakers come to stay

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