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The stranger on the couch

If we let people crash at our home, would that make us kind or foolish?
Illustrative. Relaxing on a couch. (iStock)
Illustrative. Relaxing on a couch. (iStock)

My daughter returned home from her extensive travels with a very specific idea about how to make the world a better place.

While abroad she had engaged in something called “Couch Surfing,” a program that matches travelers with locals willing to give them a free place to sleep. As with everything else related to cheap travel, Israeli backpackers are major users of Couch Surfing. Gabriella stayed with a family in Jaipur, India who let her sleep on their couch, helped her buy bus tickets, and even took her sightseeing. Her 27-year-old hostess in Udaipur left her homemade soup before she went off to work. Now Gabriella wanted to give back the same hospitality to others.

The other two family members were less than enthused.

There’s a big difference between being a 23-year-old happy-go-lucky backpacker and a 56-year-woman who has a home full of valuables and sometimes walks around her apartment with her hair full of gunk. Or a 19-year-old religious boy who is being asked to share his bathroom and is a very light sleeper.

But my daughter persisted. Hosting was the right thing to do, she said, and there wouldn’t be any problem.

“The kinds of people who couch surf are really good people,” Gabriella said.

You can sing “Kumbaya all you want,” we two skeptics said, but strangers are just that: the unknown. And we would be bringing them into our home.  What if they became drunk or aggressive? Or made a mess out of the room? Or brought home even more strangers?

But saying no to my children has never been my strong suit. I wanted to make my daughter happy and to give back to a program from which she had benefited. But I also had my own reasons for considering hosting. I love meeting new people and traveling. Here was a way to satisfy both interests while never having to leave my apartment.

I also realized how much today we rely upon, as Blanche DuBois said, the kindness of strangers. I met strangers while I was online dating.  True, I wasn’t inviting these first dates into my home or going to their home, but I was trusting them with details about my personal life. Or consider Air BnB which is essentially paid couch surfing.

Couchsurfing.com posts hosting reviews and instructs users to file reports if there are problems. Troublemakers presumably get booted off the sites. And they include this proviso: “Members who send romantic advances via Couchsurfing will have their accounts disabled. Finding love while traveling is great — just don’t seek it here.” There was one potential problem I wouldn’t have to deal with.

I looked at the profiles of those asking to crash with us. They spanned the globe from Belarus to Switzerland to Brazil to Australia; almost all were under 35. One young Korean man promised us “consideration and cooking.  Fun, Happiness, Ideas, Science, and Respect.” A trolleybus conductor from Minsk vowed that he would not “smoke, strain [sic], or drink.” But most profiles were very sparse on details.

I set down some parameters for potential guests. and hoped I would never run for public office where my preferences might be closely scrutinized. I favored certain countries and rejected others. Was I a hypocrite? Were there mothers in Bogota or Brussels who were rejecting Israelis because of their country? I had no doubt and I frankly didn’t care. This was my home and I could invite whoever I wanted, just as I had once rejected a date from a man I met online who featured a photo of himself in a bubble bath.

So, no, I didn’t want the boy who listed “beer drinking” as one of his hobbies. In fact, I didn’t want any men at all. Women, especially those traveling by themselves, were my preferred demographics.

We waited with anticipation for our first guests: two German girls from Munich. I think of Germans as reliable and efficient, which made me fill secure. Belying such stereotypes, the Germans canceled within a few hours of arrival. I felt somewhat insulted and disappointed. A few days later another girl from Spain had arranged to come at 5 p.m., but sent a message at that hour to say she was still in Jerusalem. Nope, we couldn’t wait for her. When no money gets exchanged, everything can be done very loosely with no hard feelings.

But when one couch surfer goes, another pops up in their wake. A request came in from a woman from Budapest, Hungary, the birthplace of my maternal parents. Eszter, a soft-spoken public relations graduate, could be a poster child for couchsurfer.com. She turned the light off in the bedroom every time she exited and made her bed the next morning. And for breakfast, she whipped up palacsinta or Hungarian pancakes which I hadn’t eaten since I was age 7 and my Hungarian grandmother made them. Eszter was such a delight that I invited her to return in a few weeks with her brother.

But her visit also worried me greatly. If we continued using this program and it seemed that we were, we were going to get some less than delightful guests. It wasn’t all going to be palacsinta and lights off.

But that was going to be like enduring a 12-hour bus trip in Vietnam or coming down with Montezuma’s revenge in Mexico. It’s all part of traveling, arm-chair style, which is a cool idea when you think about it.

About the Author
Former journalist -- The Washington Times, USA Today, New York Daily News, Women's International Net -- among others. Co-author -- Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford, 2001), Hating America (Oxford, 2003). Completed the Masters in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan.
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