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Sleeping around...

My first couch surfing experience came abruptly when I was woken by my buzzing phone after already having missed 10 calls. It was 7am. I'd been out the night before and I had three anxious couchsurfers who had been standing outside my door for a half an hour. They were three girls from Slovenia and it was St Patrick's weekend, 2011. Barely a hostel bed left in the city, they sent me a request. I agreed, not expecting to have to greet them with a pulsating headache at an hour I hadn't seen since I had to cram for the Leaving Cert. We were laughing about this minor glitch within the hour.

They stayed for three days on the couches of our apartment, home to five, in Mountjoy Square. They didn't intrude at all and made sure to invite us everywhere they went. They soaked up all our Irish cultural traits and stories like sponges. They hung on our every word, seeing us as an integral part of their Irish holiday. I have never felt so important.

On the last night they cooked us a traditional Slovenian meal with wine and we mocked each other with Slovenian and Irish expletives.

Being a part of couch surfing isn't like being a part of the real world. In the real world, you are distrustful, uncertain and wary. With couch surfing you are the opposite. You just jump straight in and be best friends with the guests or hosts, even if your mother's nagging voice is up in your head somewhere telling you she doesn't approve.

Sure, nothing is perfect. I couch surfed in Paris with quite possibly the most pretentious man in the world. A friend and I agreed to buy him a meal as a thank-you for letting us stay, and he gave us a detailed explanation of his theory that Facebook was the most narcissistic expression of identity. He, of course, didn't have a Facebook account. But he did have an amazing view of Paris from right beside Notre Dame.



community

Couchsurfing is so much more than simply offering a couch. The trust within the community, and the sense of inclusiveness, is so strong that trying out new activities becomes second nature. Be it rock climbing or learning a language, you'll find people to egg you on and join in with you. You could find friends for life and do things you've never done before. The only criteria you need is an open mind. Not bad eh?

Of course, the idea of letting strangers into your house or going into a stranger's home frightens people unfamiliar with the concept. Type couch surfing into Google and the second suggestion is "couchsurfing horror stories".

The "horror stories" are few and far between for the website, which boasts three million users, of which a million are regular users. The most notorious incident came in 2009, when a Moroccan national living in Leeds raped a woman from Hong Kong, who he had agreed to host through the website.

But fear of entering a stranger's home does not enter into the psyche of those who participate in couch surfing or, at least, it is quickly banished the more they use the site.

Patricia Palacios, from Barcelona, a Spanish language assistant in a school in Foxrock, was hosted one month ago in Galway by a man "a little older than me". Any fears? "No. For me, it doesn't matter whether it's a man or a woman, it's all about the references."

To make the site as safe as possible, both surfers and hosts can write references about those they have interacted with using the site. A "positive", "neutral" or "negative" reference is written alongside a comment about the person. It is not possible for the owner of a profile to delete unwanted references left by others. 99.6pc of references given are positive. And there is the possibility to vouch for people you have hosted or surfed with, while several members are "verified members", which means they have made a financial contribution and have given their credit card details. These then confirm the authenticity of the profile by matching up the name and address.

Hosting or surfing isn't the only way people interact with the site. People can also choose "coffee or drink", rather than "host" as their way of participating. This means they agree to meet up with people who are visiting their city and show them around, offer tips and company, but stop short of allowing them into their homes.

The relative safety of couch surfing has seen the site grow into a full-blown community in cities, where hosts also meet up for drinks and to promote interests which they have in common.

Patricia says couch surfing has changed her life. She has only surfed on two occasions and has never hosted, but has used the website for socialising more times than she can remember.



advertised

"Last night I went to a free comedy gig in the Stag's Head, which I found out about through couch surfing".

She goes to game nights, salsa nights and language exchanges organised by the site's members and advertised on the site. "Next month, I'm going to Belfast, so I left a message on the Belfast group asking for advice about the city".

The growth of the community has seen TG4 launch O Tholg go Tolg (From Couch to Couch) which focuses on travelling through Europe by using couch surfing. The show, which sees two Irish speakers surfing, is returning for a second series in the autumn.

The website, www.couchsurfing.org, has courted controversy in recent months by becoming a "certified B corporation", rather than a "non-profit organisation", which has seen the company take a $7.6m offer from two venture capital companies. This has irked many members who would prefer to see couch surfing functioning more like Wikipedia than Facebook.

The changes mean new entrants are asked to make a financial contribution to the site and it's awkward for them to avoid the donation. But this doesn't stop current users speaking of the site in glowing terms.


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