Inquirer: My first couch surfing experience

My travel mate Sean Blanda (left), Zurich, Switzerland couch surfing host Dule Misevic, and myself in November 2008.

A full-length travel story of mine focused on the five year anniversary of CouchSurfing.com at first destined for the Philadelphia Inquirer last January never found a home there. After a back and forth, I went another direction and it got a tad stale for the daily’s travel editor.

So, because I’ve shared other stories that didn’t run as planned, I’ll do so today. Additionally, as always, I also like to share some grafs that were reworked and items I cut from my original story, which also can be seen below.

ZüRICH, SWITZERLAND — I just can’t find chopped beef for cheesesteaks anywhere. But cheese? Well I have my choice of cheeses in the largest city of this European country known for its favorite holey dairy product.

I snag a jalapeno-laced Swiss cheese and settle for a pound of ground beef I plan to mince. After picking up fresh rolls, peppers and onions, I am back climbing hilly Kornhausstrase, a busy road northwest of the city center that rides over the Linth River to Zurich’s residential neighborhoods. As a jet-setting tourist, this is a part of Zürich you would never see. Unless, of course, you are couch surfing, which is why I am here.

CouchSurfing.com, the online hospitality-exchange giant, is celebrating six years this month and has nearly 1.6 million members, but it hasn’t lost its mission. For five weeks in fall 2008, I made something new of the tired European backpacking trip by hopping from one stranger’s couch to another, not for money, but in the name of cultural exchange. I never had a better experience than my first, sleeping on a tan couch in the leafy northern extreme of Zürich, Switzerland.

The sky is gray, cloudy and intimidating, and cars and bicycles whiz past me as I march determinedly, groceries in tow, hoping to get to my host Dule’s big, modern, first-floor apartment before he gets home from work. It’s my second day and nearly my third night in Zürich, but it didn’t take more than 15 minutes for me to decide that Dule deserved a particular thank you.

Surf the couch

Here are some numbers [from January 2009] on membership, which is free:

  • Better than half of the more than 800,000 members are based in Europe.
  • Today nearly 600,000 couches are available in 230 different countries and regions around the world.
  • Recently, more than 7,000 new couches are added to the database a week.
  • More than 50,000 cities are represented in the Couch Surfing community.
  • While Philly is one of the 50 most surfed places in the world, its less than 2,200 registered couches are topped by smaller cities like Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon and Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The expectations and your experiences vary as widely as the members involved.

  • More than 1,200 languages are represented on CouchSurfing.com, but if desired, users can find hosts who speak English almost anywhere.
  • While the average member age is 27, more than 150 people in their 80s are signed up with CouchSurfing.com.
  • The site boasts a ratings and review system where better than 99 percent of nearly two million member experiences have been “positive” to date.

He isn’t an itinerant wanderer, nor an existentialist looking for meaning or a creep looking for a victim, so perhaps he isn’t who you think is willing to let a stranger crash on his couch. Dule is a Serbian-born, 30-something academic with a Ph.D. from Michigan State and a research job in Zürich. As couch surfing matures, so too, do many of its members.

There isn’t even an implicit agreement to do something in thanks for your couch-surfing host, nor is a host required to offer anything more than a place to sleep – the floor, an extra bed, a bathtub, maybe even a couch. But a funny thing happens when you put your trust in a stranger; you tend to bond awfully quickly. You want to find a way to say thanks.

So was the case with Dule and me. The day before, he found me and my two traveling buddies at our arranged meeting spot, under the blue angel that hangs from the city’s central train station. I told him to look for my Phillies hat, deciding not to describe the haggard appeal that my friends and I had acquired after nearly a month slumming around Europe.

Dule arrived wearing glasses, a smart khaki suit jacket and blue jeans. He offered a warm, if hesitant smile, and snagged one of our bags before leading us to his home. So began my first couch surfing experience and the best, most complete three days anyone could ever have in Zürich.

A founding principle of couch surfing is cultural sharing. So when my friends and I decided we wanted to thank Dule with something more tangible than words, we knew it should be something from the rich culture of Philadelphia – a city we compared and contrasted and raved about to whomever would listen during our trip. During our time in Zürich, Dule was a frequent victim of my Phila-babble, so what better gift than the king of Philly cliché, a founding father of our city’s tasty treats?

I got plenty in return for those cheesesteaks I made. After introducing my friends and me to Zurich’s tram system – when you have to buy a ticket and when you don’t – Dule gave us a breezy outline of the city’s sights. All the tourists go to Landesmuseum, the Swiss National Museum, he said, but it’s dusty, boring and overpriced. Swiss culture is influenced a lot by Germany, but no visitors seem to make it to Zurich’s best bratwurst stand on Theaterstrasse near Schoeckstrasse – where all the locals go and the brown mustard is even spicier than in Philadelphia.

Dule has has hosted more than 100 people since he joined CouchSurfing.com in 2006, so he knows where to point wanderers like myself.

On my first night in Zurich, Dule shared some of his favorite haunts. I screamed with dozens of locals in support of a penalty kick that won a match for the Swiss national soccer team, while sucking down a beer brewed in the city. He talked about walking into traffic at crosswalks – unlike in the States, cars would stop here, he said. I got pushed around in a game of pool I wasn’t prepared to be in, and Dule got me out of paying the money I hadn’t realized I was gambling.

A BBC couch surfing report from fall 2008

Casual knowledge to this local was priceless insight to me, so I quickly fell in love with what couch surfing can mean for your tried and true backpacking trip.

“I can’t help but think,” I told Dule on my first night in Zurich, “that couch surfing is going to be good for me.”

“I know,” Dule said with a giggle. “A hotel won’t seem the same ever again.”

Even the cheapest hostels in Zurich run more than $30 per night, which means Dule saved the three of us close to $300. That total, of course, doesn’t include the tour he didn’t have to give, the thoughts on Swiss culture he didn’t have to share, and the proper fondue party to which he didn’t have to invite us. Of course, in this expensive city, a chunk of those savings went to our big cheeseteak meal, but that’s something important to understand. Couch surfing shouldn’t be thought singularly as a way to save cash, but rather a way to make better use of your money. I’d rather spend my funds on making and sharing a Philadelphia delicacy than on bed linens. Hotels, even hostels, are an offer of a place to sleep, but couch surfing also offers a friend to make.

I now had a warm guide in a foreign land and a friend in Switzerland. Dule now had the same for Philadelphia.

Throughout my jet setting, couch surfing allowed me to learn more about a place than I ever could otherwise in the short few days I allotted for enormous cultural metropolises. As I said goodbye to Dule, he told me that I just might see him in Philadelphia for another cheesesteak.

My couch will be ready.

EXTRAS FROM THE STORY

  • My Couchsurfing profile can be seen here
  • My original breakout box lede:

The concept of bringing into the digital age the timeless idea of staying with and learning from locals was first conceived in 1999, when Casey Fenton wanted more than a tour book-experience of Iceland.

The New Hampshire native found an online directory of students of the University of Iceland and e-mailed some 1,500 of them asking if he could stay at their homes and get a local perspective on the Arctic country.

It worked, and Fenton resigned himself to couch surfing the rest of his traveling days. Four years later – after a hand in the dot com bubble – Fenton launched CouchSurfing.com and the site has thrived since, letting people of all kinds experience travel in a new way.

  • I didn’t know what he looked like beyond a small, grainy photo from his Couch Surfing profile. So, I made at least three false starts, smiles and extended hands to the wrong stranger. He recognized my Phillies hat and my accompaniment – a college buddy and his brother, both looking as haggard as I was after a long day of travel from Lyon, France, via Strausbourg.
  • We shook hands as if agreeing on a business deal. Then we were off to his neat apartment a short walk from the city’s center. And just like that, my couch surfing career and the best three-day tour anyone could ever have of Zurich, Switzerland began.
  • On my last night in Zurich, like I would in Budapest, my host and I exchanged the most important element of culture: food. I bought the ingredients and made Swiss-modified cheesesteaks: local cheese and stripped beef on fresh rolls. Dule hosted a proper Swiss fondue party: bread in a garlic cheese and then fresh fruit dipped in melted Swiss chocolate.
  • And that’s how cheesesteaks became appetizers for my first authentic fondue party.

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