The Sofasphere: Adventures in Couchsurfing

This is a section I’ve been wanting to do since beginning this site, but it always seemed TOO BIG of an idea to do. I would practically need to write a book to share all of my couchsurfing experiences. Well, seeing as I’m planning on writing a book on it anyway, and seeing as I have to start somewhere, this is where I will begin. 

Prologue 

I very clearly remember the day I first checked out couchsurfing.org (or .com, at the time). It was an unseasonably warm day in late February in Knoxville, and I was trying to iron out the final details of my impending trip to Europe. I had bought the ticket from Chicago to Zurich on an impulse when my girlfriend Valerie, who lived in Chicago, suggested it the previous September. It was supposed to be a romantic trip down through the Balkans together.

That’s Valerie. When I arrived in Europe, she was there but my bags were not. She never spoke to me again after I wrote in a blog, “My luggage failed to arrive, but my baggage was there waiting for me.”

Still sounds romantic now, but that trip never happened. We broke up a few months later, and there I was holding a non-refundable ticket. We both arrived in Zurich, but from there we went our separate ways. Instead of a romp through the Balkans, I decided to head east, first through Austria, then up to the Czech Republic, and then back down again through Slovakia and Hungary. Finally, I wanted to head back to the U.K. to catch up with some old friends from my various stints teaching in Asia. There was one girl in particular, Eva, that I was especially keen to see, so I made sure to incorporate a stop in Leeds into my itinerary. But there was a problem: she was living at home and unable to put me up. The cheapest hotel I could find was $200 a night. It was at this moment that she suggested I try couchsurfing.

I had heard about couchsurfing before, but I had never visited the site. With a few strokes of the keys, I was reading the ins and outs of being a member of couchsurfing, and I was instantly hooked. Here was a whole community of like-minded travelers, providing company and a safe place to stay for other wary travelers.

Although couchsurfing.org could rightly be considered a hospitality site, it is so much more.  The word “community” is key, as the connections that link hosts, surfers, and all members in-between create a global network, built from the local groups up. And it was at one of these local meet-ups of members, that I had my first experience with couchsurfers.

I joined on February 27, 2008, and as luck would have it, the Knoxville group of couchsurfers were meeting that week. When I walked into the Sunspot on “The Strip” in downtown Knoxville, near the University of Tennessee campus, I was nervous. I didn’t know any of these people, and I could hardly remember what anyone looked like from their profile pictures. Should I just start asking around, “Um…couchsurfer? No…?”

The Sunspot seems, on its surface, to be the perfect place to hold couchsurfing events. It is a liberal, vegetarian haven in a part of the country where both of those words are likely to be considered of the “four-letter” variety. Even still, I’ll never forget the look of confusion when I asked the waitress if she had seen any other couchsurfers.

After what seemed like ages–awkward and nervous ages–I found another couchsurfer.

Oh Knoxville, I miss you.

And then another, and another, and so on. Before too long I was several beers into the evening and sharing stories with these strangers as if we had been friends for years. I felt a nearly instantaneous connection with these fellow travelers, despite the fact that I had just joined their strange little organization and I had yet to couchsurf.

Over the next day or so, I was given my first several references, all positive, and that is how my couchsurfing adventures would begin.

When I joined the site, just under 4 years ago as of this writing, there were a mere 700,000 couchsurfers. Now, there are 3.7 million of us.

-January 24, 2012

My First Couch: Leeds, England

When I went back into my journal, I was unpleasantly surprised to find a complete failure to mention anything about my first couchsurfing experience. I think by that juncture of my trip, I had grown a bit weary of writing in my journal. Regardless, I wish I had written about it in retrospect, because it was a fantastic, life-changing event.

If I remember correctly, there were about 100 or so profiles from which to choose, and only a fraction of those were welcoming guests into their homes. Now, when I type Leeds into couchsearch function on the website, over 700 people come up. Andrew was not the first person from the Leeds contingent of couchsurfers that I contacted, but he would be the last.

Yeah, I think I’ll stay with that dude.

The act of searching for an appropriate host can be difficult, even for seasoned pros. Even after you eliminate some couchsurfers who lack friends and/or references, it is difficult to choose a host. My recommendation to couchsurfers looking to attract would-be guests? Either have a fun profile picture, or be attractive. Andrew chose the former; his profile picture at the time was one of him pretending to be a weatherman.

As soon as I heard back from Andrew, I knew I had made an excellent decision. He was a seasoned traveler and couchsurfer; not only had he heard of my humble town of Knoxville, he had been there:

Hi Zach Marx, (I have to say that is one of the coolest
names I have ever heard – lol!)

Nice to make your acquaintance! You are more than
welcome to stay with me on Sat 29 March. We’ll have
fun, I’ll show you the delights of Leeds, some history
and some of our finer drinking establishments!!

So you’re from Knoxville, Tennessee – I have visited
the Smokey Mountains, which is close to there I think.
I went to Gatlinburg and Dollywood – wow – not the most
culturally enlightening trip ever, but still fun!! I
have to say though, the scenery was stunning!!

OK, so if you can get back to me with when exactly
you’ll be expecting to arrive in Leeds and then I’ll
meet you at the bus station. My mobile (cell) number
is: XXXXX XXXXXX – any queries/problems – don’t
hesitate to contact me!

Drew

When I moved to Wisconsin, I met one of the couchsurfers that had hosted Andrew on his North American jaunt. The couchsurfing community is quite small sometimes.

I actually pulled into Leeds by train, not bus, but true to his word, Andrew was waiting for me there. For some reason, this simple act stuck with me for a long time, and I always tried to be as accommodating with my incoming guests in the future.  I was not always able to meet couchsurfers at the train station or airport, but when I could, I did. Any experienced traveler will tell you that some of the most tense moments in a trip are on arrival in a new city. With Andrew waiting there in the busy station, I didn’t have to worry about taking the wrong bus, getting lost, or being unable to contact him.

As I said, this was toward the end of my trip. I had been in the U.K. for about a week at this point. I started off in London to visit my friend from Nagasaki, Dan. I then took a flight to Edinburgh, had my train out of Scotland delayed by sheep on the tracks, met my friend Laura in York, and then hung out with her and her crazy friends in Hull. (To my non-British readers: I’ve been told over and over about how horrible Hull is. I enjoyed my stay, but I’m sure that was largely due to the company. It was a fine town from what I saw, and the night we spent out at the club was one of the highlights of the trip.) Only Leeds and one more night in London remained before I hopped back across the pond.

In his e-mail, Andrew had promised to take me to some of the “finer drinking establishments” of Leeds, and he did not disappoint. At the station he declared, “I’m going to take you to a pub that is older than your country.” I was definitely game. After dropping off my backpack at his flat, we headed out to one of these fine, old pubs for a few pints, wherein he explained that British ale was not “warm” (as us Yanks might say), but was in fact “cool.”

Somewhere between the first and last beer I realized what made couchsurfing truly great: it was not the ability to merely crash at a stranger’s place for free, but it was the ability to have a local friend anywhere in the world. It allowed me to shed the tourist label, and become a traveler by going where the locals went, and doing what the locals did. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a tourist, certainly, when I’ve returned from trips I’m always asked about seeing the touristy sights. However, the best memories I’ve had from any trip have been from the company I keep, not from things I’ve seen or done.

The stay with Andrew was a huge success, despite his couch not actually being a couch, but an inflatable mattress (probably for the best). The stay in Leeds ended too quickly, but I still keep in touch with Andrew (to be honest, more than I do with Eva, who I went Leeds to see initially).

His hospitality could not be overstated, and when I returned home I was determined to make my home as welcoming to travelers as his was to me.

-January 29, 2012

My First Surfers: Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.A.

Upon returning from backpacking in Europe, and my wonderful experience with Andrew fresh on the brain, I was gung-ho about hosting my own surfers.

The timing was perfect, as well. I arrived in April, or as I like to call it, “The Beginning of Couchsurfing Season.” It has been my experience that I receive a huge boom in couch-requests around that time, then they gradually decrease throughout the summer months before dropping off a cliff in winter.

Unfortunately, I had two factors working against me: 1) I was a new, as of yet unverified, member (couchsurfing sends postcards to people’s homes with a code so they can verify that person X is who they say they are, and lives where they say they live), and 2) I was in Knoxville, which is not the most popular tourist destination.

I had a few false-starts. My first couch-request was by a man who somehow confused Memphis for Knoxville. Geography tends to not be Americans’ strong suit.

My first couchsurfer arrived in the second half of May, and it would be quite the inauspicious start to an otherwise sterling hosting record. She wasn’t a bad guest, but we certainly didn’t get along that well. She was a neo-hippie vegan who absolutely reeked of patchouli. I can’t emphasize the patchouli stench enough, as we could still smell it in the living room for a solid week after she left.

The whole encounter was awkward, as we never really got on, and there was this whole unspoken tension about her unspeakably rude aroma.

Amazingly, this first hosting experience was not enough to permanently dissuade me from hosting again. We would host three pairs of surfers, from three countries, over the following summer months, each better than the last.

A picture from Justin’s profile. The caption reads, “Extended Family.”

My next chance to host was a last-minute, out-of-the-blue opportunity to host a couple of Aussies, Justin and Stephen, who were backpacking around America. They didn’t stay long, but we had a great time showing them around Knoxville.

Since we were living so close to campus, I showed them around the University of Tennessee, and we ended up making our way to the most impressive part of campus: the 100,000+ seat Neyland Stadium. We came across a gate that was wide-open, through which was access to the field. My intrepid Aussie guests suggested we walk out on the field. I was nervous at first, but I followed them in and the sight was amazing. They were impressed, and I was thrilled to be standing on such hallowed ground, especially with the knowledge that this experience only came about because of couchsurfing.

View from Calhoun’s.

Later, my roommate Rhett and I took them to another Knoxville institution, Calhoun’s on the River. After all, how could one go to Tennessee and not have the ribs?  The impressionable waitress was so taken aback by their accents that she brought us all a free round of their fine micro-brewery beer.

Before they left, Justin handed me one of his cards from his horticulturist business back in Australia. The card read, “Cheers, Beers, and Pruning Sheers.”

-February 5, 2012

Our next guests were Casey and Tory, a couple of energetic girls from New York. They were coming to Knoxville as their first stop on a road-trip through Tennessee.

Motorists traveling North-South through Tennessee might consider it a quick state to get through. However, when traveling East-West, there is much more to see and substantial differences in everything from the surrounding geography, to the culture, to the politics between the three main regions. The Tennessee flag has three stars in the center,  each representing the three parts of the state, East, Middle, and West.

Upon crossing into Tennessee through North Carolina, drivers are greeted by the highest peaks in the Eastern United States. The Smoky Mountains lack the height and majesty of the Rockies, but their forested peaks and valleys have long isolated this region–both within the U.S. and the state. East Tennessee was pro-Union and nearly seceded from the rest of the state during the Civil War. Knoxville was the state capital, but as the population shifted west, so did the capital. However, the flagship state university, the University of Tennessee, remains in Knoxville. Many country and bluegrass musicians still call East Tennessee home.

Now, heading west on I-40, the mountains slowly fade away in the rearview mirror as the road rolls up and over the foothills of Middle Tennessee. This is the home of country music and Andrew Jackson. While country music made Nashville famous, artists now come to record from  all over the world; Nashville can rightfully call itself Music City, U.S.A. Nashville, the current state capital, has seen a population boom over the last two decades and has now become the largest metropolitan area.

A few more hours down the road, one will find Memphis. The land here is open and flat, which provided great opportunities for plantation (read: “slave”) owners in Antebellum West Tennessee. Here, Tennessee shares a natural border with Arkansas–the legendary Mississippi river. Memphis claims to have the best barbecue ribs in America, and I for one would not argue. West Tennessee also has its own musical traditions, with blues and R&B.  But perhaps the biggest contribution came to rock, when a  previously unheard-of musician from Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Presley, decided to go to Memphis to cut a record.

Clearly, I’m an advocate of giving a road-trip through Tennessee a try. Casey and Tory agreed. As their first stop, we were at a bit of a loss as to how to entertain them. I mean, how do you entertain guests from New York? As luck would have it, UT was hosting the final qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic Diving Team, just prior to their departure for the Beijing Games.

Let no one accuse UT Athletics of being broke.

We took the ladies to the brand-spanking-new swimming and diving complex on campus and watched these world-class athletes battle it out for the right to represent the U.S. in Beijing in about a month. Watching a diving competition at that level was incredible. I have no clue how the judges managed to choose winners. If anything, I just felt bad for the ones who didn’t make it, because they had all achieved a talent far beyond what I could comprehend.

This was Casey and Tory’s first time surfing, and they gave me a glowing reference after their stay:

Zach was incredibly welcoming and a great host. This was our first couchsurfing experience, and our first time in the south, and Zach gave us a great intro to both. Between the walking tour and the Olympic synchronized diving competition (!)… I mean, I can’t imagine what we would have done in Knoxville without Zach and his roommates!

After only three times hosting I had already repaid the debt bestowed on me by Andrew. However, I still had two more guests to host before my days in Knoxville came to an end.

-February 6, 2012

Bring on the Scandinavians! 

Were I to list my favorite couchsurfers to host, those hailing from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway would be the top 3, in some sort of arbitrary order. All the couchsurfers I have met from this region have been fantastic. My first two, Elof (from Sweden) and Christian (from Denmark), were no exceptions to this rule.

While I had a great time with Justin and Stephen, and Casey and Tory, this was the first time that I felt an actual friendship develop between myself and other couchsurfers.

Like my other guests before them, Elof and Christian were on a cross-country trek through the United States. In this particular case, they were drawn to East Tennessee because of Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood. According to Elof, “When we heard about it, we thought it sounded so kitsch that we just had to go.” OK, so it wasn’t a glowing recommendation for Dollywood or East Tennessee, but it was enough to draw them to our quiet mountain town. However, the true art of traveling lies in the cracks in the plans. Herein, adventure begins.

My roommate Rhett and I got on with the boys right from the get go. They were both med students in Denmark, and both were great conversationalists, with intelligent insights, wide ranges of knowledge, and excellent senses of humor.

Elof and Christian came in the same night that we were planning on seeing The Dark Knight. We already had tickets, so we offered to buy them a pair before they arrived. In retrospect, this is something I probably wouldn’t do today. Perhaps I was naive, or perhaps I had a good feeling in the short conversation I had had with Elof when confirming their stay. Whatever the reason, it worked. We went to the brand-new theater on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, which was a conveniently short walk away from the Downtown Grill and Brewery. It was here that we shared some delicious micro-brews and talked for hours about politics, sports, and even religion. For Rhett and myself, it was rare to be able to have an intellectual conversation about religion (or the lack of it) with anyone other than each other.

As great as it was to host them, they clearly enjoyed the experience as well. According to Elof, I am:

“A very good guy to spend time with! He knows a lot of both local history and culture as well as how to have a good time in the local nightlife. It was a ball those days in Knoxville! Wasn’t it for Zach I think we had only spent one night in Knoxville.”

Indeed, instead of spending a singular night with us before going to Dollywood and then on to the rest of the state, they stayed five days! We didn’t have to try too hard to keep them entertained, as they were always up for just about anything.

The most memorable day was when the four of us went to campus for an afternoon of sports. In an embarrassment to Americans everywhere, Rhett and I had our asses thoroughly kicked at basketball. Elof and I then teamed up for a great round of beach volleyball. We won the best-of-three series, in a hard-fought, painful, and, ultimately fun, game. I would be remiss if I did not include “painful” seeing as each and every one of us went home with at least one bloody knee. It turns out that the beach volleyball court (it is a court, right?) at UT is not very deep, and a single fall is enough to scrape the skin.

Despite the great time, on a certain level I wanted them to go sooner. Every extra day they spent in little ol’ Knoxville was one that they wouldn’t be spent in Nashville or Memphis or another town in another state altogether. Ultimately, they decided that is wasn’t where they stayed, but with whom they stayed. At the end of the day, traveling is only as good as the company you keep–a lesson that I find repeated throughout the Sofasphere.

February 9, 2012

Myself, and the ladies of Milwaukee CS. From left to right: April, Courtney, and Milana.

Courtney The Supersurfer

On paper, Courtney, the Milwaukee Couchsurfing Ambassador, and I could not be more different. She is a woman of strong faith, whereas I am firmly and openly in the other camp. She is energetic, positive, and has a career. I, on the other hand, have a sardonic sense of humor, am prone to bouts of depression, and my longest period of employment at a single job since graduating college was 14 months at a restaurant.

We were brought together by one thing, and one thing only: our mutual love for Couchsurfing. And from this odd-pairing, I formed one of my strongest and most wonderful friendships over the past few years.

I originally contacted Courtney when I was planning a move to Milwaukee. It was a weird stage in my life, and I accomplished very little of what I wanted to in that move, but without Courtney and Couchsurfing, the move would have been a total disaster. As I said, she was (and still is) the Ambassador for the Milwaukee Group of Couchsurfers, so I sent her a message asking about the ins and outs of life in The Great White North. I learned one immutable truth from this simple first correspondence: Courtney always gives more than is asked for, and always in an extremely helpful way. Some might even call it, “Overboard.”

Astute readers might see a pattern emerging between Couchsurfing and beer.

I had been arranging a trip to Milwaukee to scout some places to live, go for an interview, etc. Instead of simply meeting up with me, she went through the trouble of arranging a Couchsurfing meet-up at the Milwaukee Ale House.

Here I was, in a city that for all intents and purposes, was completely new to me, and I was able to start growing my social life even before I moved. This not only speaks to the power of Couchsurfing, but also to the incredible job that Courtney does of making complete strangers feel completely at home.

This was just the beginning of what became a long and wonderful friendship. Despite our differences, we found common ground more often than not. We are both passionate about Couchsurfing, we share a love of many of the same bands and musical genres, and despite our religious differences, we have very similar moral codes. I respect Courtney because of her energy and optimism. Above all, she has always been there for a friend in need. Always. 

Moreover, Courtney manages to be openly religious without seeming condescending or preachy. In short, many “Christians” could learn a thing or  two from her. Even to this day, when our religious differences come up in conversation, it is never awkward. I respect her for who she is and for her opinions, and she affords me the same level of respect.

Court and C.J. at The Foundation.

In looking back at my two-year stay in Milwaukee, it’s really difficult to imagine getting by without her and the Milwaukee Couchsurfing community. Altogether, they constituted the vast majority of the friendships I formed. Honestly, if I were to name one thing I missed most from Milwaukee, it would be that group of friends.

Unfortunately, not all Couchsurfing groups are as fun and outgoing as that one. It took moving to Seoul to discover that sad fact. Here, the local ambassador is not nearly as outgoing or helpful. In fact, she seems to think that her main purpose in life is to yell at people on the message board for daring to post a couch request or (in my case) suggesting that we have a meet-up on a weekend as opposed to a weekday. If anything, it only highlights what an amazing job Courtney did.

I know I said this in my last post, but it bears repeating: Couchsurfing is all about the people. Individuals can make it amazing. They can also ruin it. Courtney was (and is) one of the great ones. With more people like her, we probably wouldn’t even need couchsurfing, but we don’t, so we do. I am truly honored to be able to call Courtney a friend. By simply knowing her, I feel like I’ve become a better person, and she makes me want to continue to strive for self-improvement.

Admittedly, this post has become pretty sappy. I wanted to write about all the great times we had together, and those are certainly important, too. However, I think I’ll save those stories for another day. Instead, I will end my post with a bit of an inside joke:

-February 12, 2012

Leaving Knoxvegas

Despite all of the complaints I could levy against the South and Tennessee–and there are many–I still consider it my home, and I still miss it dearly. Sure, the people are conservative, religious, and often narrow-minded, but they are also outgoing, good-humored, and passionate. The weather is nice most of the year, I have strong roots there, and I never got sick of seeing my beloved Smoky Mountains in the distance. But, after 12 years in Knoxville (give or take a year in Japan), I felt that it was time to move on.

Pictured: Me talking about my past mistakes.

All signs seemed to be pointing North. I had been accepted into grad school at UW-Milwaukee, I had an internship lined up with the World Trade Center Wisconsin, and I felt a strong need to be there for my family, who was rapidly falling apart. The move seemed good on paper. I’m not going to rehash my mistakes and struggles during my two years in Milwaukee (visual on right). Instead, I’d like to talk about how much more difficult my life would have been without couchsurfing.

I’ve already talked at length about how Courtney made me feel welcome in the city, and while she was my first point of contact, other Milwaukee couchsurfers also stepped in and helped me in immeasurable ways for which I am eternally grateful. Through the Milwaukee group, I learned of another member who would be moving to Milwaukee at the same time, also to start grad school.

This surfer, Chris, was rather large and decidedly gay, leading to the nickname BGC or Big Gay Chris. After many e-mails and messages exchanged, we agreed to become roommates in a flat in the Riverwest neighborhood. Seeing as he lived in Cincinnati, and would be on my way to Milwaukee, we decided to share a Uhaul. To put it simply, I don’t know if I would have had the financial wherewithal to move, had it not been for Chris.

Unfortunately, as helpful as Chris was in helping me get to Milwaukee, he was also responsible for putting a huge strain on my bank account. After only two months of living together, he moved out abruptly. Thankfully, I wasn’t on the hook for his half of the rent, but I now had to pay all the utilities, and it was approaching winter in Wisconsin.

Another couchsurfer, Nichole, tried to help. I met Nichole on my very first night in Milwaukee. We arrived to the city much later than anticipated, and I needed a place to sleep. On exceptionally short notice, Nichole came through in flying colors. Fast forward two months later, and she was trying to help me find a replacement roommate. In this regard, she succeeded. I had a new roommate, but still, no financial help. To this day, the roommate-who-shall-not-be-named owes me about $1100 in bills. Still, I am extremely grateful to Nichole for the effort; it’s certainly not her fault the roommate ended up being such a deadbeat.

Lakefront Brewery: A friend to Couchsurfers

Looking back at those early days in Wisconsin, I’m not sure how I would have made it without help from my fellow surfers. They gave so much, often without me even asking. I struggled so much, and yet, I had a great group of friends and we had some great times.

From start to finish, the Milwaukee group represented almost all of my social life while I was there. We had a party during election night in 2008. We had countless movie nights over the two years. We played soccer together. We entered the 48 film festival. And we drank beer. A lot.

-February 17, 2012

Election Night, 2008

Left to Right: Some chick I can’t remember, Courtney, Nick, Milana, and Me.

Within a few scant months I felt at home around the Milwaukee group of couchsurfers, even if I was not completely at home in the city itself. We made regular outings to the Art Bar, located just two blocks from my apartment, and the likes of Courtney, Nichole, and Kerensa all took turns showing me around town.

I hadn’t yet hosted a couchsurfing event, but I had the perfect excuse to do so with the 2008 election. There was a palatable excitement–some of it deserved–surrounding the Democratic Presidential Nominee, Senator Obama. Additionally, the couchsurfing community is extremely liberal for the most part, so the party was a good fit. Polling remained tight throughout September and October, but by election night it seemed very likely that we would be electing America’s first black president.

I was hopeful for a large turnout, but even I was surprised by the amount of friendly faces showing up at my door. I had about 20 people show up to my old flat in Riverwest, and only half-a-dozen of whom I knew prior to that evening. It was a tough sell when also inviting my coworkers from the World Trade Center.

“How many people will be coming.”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know all of these couchsurfers?”

“Hardly any at all.”

“I see.”

Of the 20 or so that did show up, there was only one GOP supporter; he wore a sullen expression most of the night and it was obvious that he wouldn’t have been there had it not been for his liberal wife. His conservative views didn’t offend me nearly as much as when he referred to all of the South as a “wasteland.” When I reminded him that I was a proud Tennessean, he continued berating the South, insisting that it was somehow inferior because it didn’t have as many farms as the Midwest. (I swear this was his argument, that having mountains instead of farms made us “less developed” or something). He somehow failed to connect the fact that it was mostly conservative political philosophies that were responsible for the current state of the South, nor did he recognize the South’s electoral importance to the conservative branch of the Republican party.

For the rest of us, the night was an unmitigated success. Most arrived to the party late, and by 9 o’clock the election had already been more or less shored up by Obama. From that point on, it was just beer and shots when the election was finally called for president-elect Obama.

Throughout the night, I updated an electoral map of the U.S. with appropriate blue and red markers. For a former political science major, presidential elections are like Super Bowls, and I was definitely prepared.

People often asked if we were brothers. I always replied, “Yes. He’s the Serbian one.”

Had it not been for this election party, I might have never met my Serbian friends Nick and Milana. This was a big day for them, as it was their first election as U.S. citizens. Nick had fled Serbia in the late 90s as a political refugee. From that point forward, we became nearly inseparable friends within the local couchsurfing community. Everyone, myself included, assumed that he and Milana were “an item” but that was never the case. Not only was it assumed, most people wouldn’t even believe Nick throughout his constant denials of couple-hood. I would probably be included in that latter category as well. It’s a shame, really, because I would have definitely been interested in seeing Milana myself, were it not for fear of hurting Nick’s feelings. I still don’t know if I believe him, come to think of it.

Nick and I eventually moved in together in a great place near Brady Street. He remains a great friend and I truly hope he keeps to his word and comes to Korea this summer. Three and a half years after this night, I still remember it very fondly. It was one of the best couchsurfing events that I have been a part of, and not just because I hosted it. This event, more than anything else, really solidified my place among the couchsurfing regulars in Milwaukee.

-February 28, 2012

The Mexican in the Snowstorm

When I’m asked about my home, my natural inclination is to talk about Tennessee. Friends and family alike openly question this loyalty, “How can someone who was born in Wisconsin, and spent the majority of his first 13 years of life in the state, claim to be a Southerner?”

Well, I might respond with several of the following facts to strengthen my Tennessean credentials: I’ve lived in Tennessee for longer than any other state, I use “y’all” without shame or irony, I prefer sweet tea to regular, and I root for my beloved Tennessee Volunteers above all other sports teams, even ones that I happen to co-own. Oh, and one more thing, I hate winter. 

So, upon returning to Wisconsin in the fall of 2008, I was more or less completely unprepared for winter. Years in the South had softened me. Winter, on the other hand, was more than prepared for me. Wisconsin received record amounts of snow that December, leaving many in the state to second-guess this “Global Warming” business.

Around the second week of December, I accepted a Mexican couchsurfer by the name of Eitan into my home. He was a grad student in the equally inhospitable state of Minnesota, and was taking a road trip south for his winter vacation. He only intended on staying a day, but Mother Nature had other plans. When he woke up in the morning, it became obvious that he wasn’t going anywhere. The heavens had opened up and dumped over a foot of snow all over Southeastern Wisconsin.

The snow came up well over my knee.

What ensued next was one of my fondest memories from that old, drafty apartment in Riverwest. Eitan and I looked out at blanket of fresh snow, put on some warm clothes, grabbed a couple of shovels, and went to work. The whole neighborhood came alive, helping one another clear the streets, dig cars out of snowdrifts, and even help the occasional intrepid traveler who had decided to hit the roads that day. We must have helped liberate two-dozen cars that had become stuck in the deep snow. It was a great feeling to give a stuck car that final push, helping them gain traction and sending them on their way. One woman thanked us with some freshly glazed donuts. It was tough work, of course, but fun, rewarding, and completely unexpected.

As the roads slowly cleared up, and fewer cars became trapped in the middle of the road, we hung up our shovels and walked to the near-by grocery store. This was an experience in and of itself. Ordinarily, it would have only been a few minutes away by foot, but this trek took a full half-an-hour to complete the round-trip.

The grocery store was one that I never had been to previously, and one to which I would never return again. It was, and I don’t use this term lightly, completely ghetto. The store was dark, with most of the florescent lights either flickering or already dead. The shelves were mostly empty and in poor repair. Undeterred, we picked up some bacon and eggs for a late and well deserved breakfast.

We spent most of the rest of the day inside staying warm and dry, with the help of cold and wet libations. Couchsurfing often forces people out of their elements, and never was there a better example of when a Southerner and Mexican joined forces to combat the harsh Wisconsin winter.

-March 20, 2012

The Furriest Couchsurfer

This is the latest installment of my on-going narrative of my experience with Couchsurfing. The full story can be found here

The other day, while talking to my mom, she posed the following question, “How difficult was it to get Sydney back from Japan?” My mom of all people should have known the answer to this query, insofar as she was the one who gave me Sydney as a Christmas present. It was quite impossible to bring Sydney back from Japan since she hadn’t been born yet. However, she touched on a larger truth: Syd and I have been together (some might say “inseparable”) long enough to make a pre-Sydney me difficult to remember.

I had been talking about getting a dog for a while, but that day might have been quite far away had my mom not intervened one cold, winter day. I remember sitting in the World Trade Center Wisconsin, which despite its small size, had one of the best views in the city: a picture perfect view of the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. As always, I had my gmail open, and when that (1) appeared, indicating a new message, I followed my compulsion and opened the fresh e-mail immediately.

The e-mail read, “Look at the pictures, tell me what you think. I can have her sent to you. Do you want her?”

How could I say no?

I believe my reply to my mom was, “I think I’m in love.”

Within a couple of weeks, I was the proud owner of an Australian Shepherd pup. Immediately, I was struck by the gravity of the situation. It must be very similar to being a new parent (though, admittedly on a completely different magnitude). I didn’t even know what to call her at first–for the first few hours I just looked with a sense of awe, excitement, and fear. Finally, my friend and future roommate, Nick, suggested that I name her Sydney because of her Aussie-ness. I couldn’t think of a better name, so I went with it.

The Furriest Couchsurfer

She quickly became the toast of the Milwaukee group of couchsurfers. Many of whom clamored over the opportunity to dogsit. Furthermore, I needed to update my profile to reflect my newest living companion. I even went so far as to take her to couchsurfing events in other cities, and on one occasion, I even couchsurfed with her.

A mere mention on my profile didn’t seem enough, so I created her own.  Well, apparently the Fun Police at couchsurfing.org got wind of this and sent me an e-mail explaining that the site was for people only, and that they would be deleting her profile.

She has certainly added a new element to couchsurfing. For the most part, my surfers have adored her, but there have been some that clearly did not read my profile, did not like dogs, and did not enjoy their stay. I’ve also had to revise the section on my profile that asks if the surfer will have to share a sleeping surface. I’ve written on my profile, “This is not up to me or you, it is up to Sydney. If she wants to share your couch, you will have to share your couch.”

My pup is now 3.5 years old. I’ve dragged her along with me to the decidedly non-dog-friendly country of Korea, but she doesn’t hold a grudge. She keeps me warm on cold winter nights, and she gives me a reason to keep going when life is getting the best of me. I owe her more than she’ll ever know, and all she asks for in return is food, a few walks a day, and the occasional belly rub. Couchsurfing and life would be far more bland without her, and I wonder, like my mom, what I did before she came into my life.

Sydney, moments before a belly rub.

May 31, 2012

How Does One Say, “Baseball” in French?

Say what you will about Milwaukee in winter, but in summer, the city truly comes alive. Well, it comes alive for the over-21 crowd. Options are much more limited for those unfortunate souls who are unable to partake in one of the city’s many, many, many fine drinking establishments. So when three twenty-year-old French couchsurfers came to town, I was at a bit of a loss about what to do.

Further exacerbating the situation, only one of them spoke English with any fluency, so there was a lot of translating going on. As it happens, Milwaukee has a couple of professional sports teams, and one that people actually care about: the Brewers. While Milwaukeans will cheer on their beloved Packers in fall, it is definitely a baseball city throughout the summer months. So I decided to take them to a baseball game at Miller Park with my then-girlfriend, Sarah.

Baseball was my first love growing up. I loved playing catch, hitting, and going to County Stadium to watch my Brewers–back then they were clad in royal blue pinstripes with bright yellow accents–with my dad.

And then a funny thing happened: I discovered something called “other sports.” Baseball, as it turns out, is a pretty boring game. It is a throwback to another era, one where radio was king, and life moseyed along at a slower pace. As I began to enjoy football, and later soccer, I wondered what I had ever seen in baseball in the first place. These days, I won’t watch baseball unless I’m at the stadium or on the rare occasion when the Brewers are playing in a meaningful game.

Regardless, it seemed like something that a few travelers might want to see. So we headed off to Miller Park, the gleaming new(ish) monstrosity near the grounds of old County Stadium. It’s a nice stadium, and the retractable roof is a seeming necessity for Milwaukee, but I feel no connection to it, like I did with County Stadium. I saw Nolan Ryan record his 300th win there. I saw Robin Yount tally his 3,000th hit from the stands. I saw Paul McCartney play to 50,000 people in the cold, June rain, whilst shivering and singing along in the upper deck. I even saw my share of NFL games there, before the Green Bay Packers made the radical decision to play all of their home games in a football stadium in their home city. And the stadium was immortalized in the classic movie, Major League, starring Charlie Sheen as Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn. All of this happened before I had spent a decade on this planet. Now, the stadium is gone and the memories are fading. But there’s a TGIF in the outfield stands, so it has that going for it.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh to Miller Park. After more than a decade, it’s a nicer stadium than County Stadium was new. After all, the reason County Stadium was selected for Major League was because they needed a stadium that looked as rundown and old as Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium.

My French couchsurfers, tailgating and not yet bored by baseball.

We found ourselves tailgating approximately where County Stadium had been, in shadows of Miller Park, grilling sausages and drinking non-Miller beer. This was probably the highlight of the night for everyone involved, and only now do I fully understand the importance of tailgating.

Once inside the stadium, I realized that I was in for a very long night. The fact that we had amazing seats, courtesy of one of my dad’s business contacts, seemed to be completely lost on my guests. We were on the first level, directly behind home plate, and not 20 rows back. However, great seats do not make for a great game, and I found myself having to explain nearly everything that was going on to Marion (the one that spoke English), who then had to translate for her friends.

I grew up watching and playing baseball, so the rules of the game seem fairly straight forward to me, but as I found myself explaining rule after rule and I saw the confused looks on their faces, I began to see things from their perspective. Why is it sometimes an out when a player steps on a bag, and other times it is not? What is this strike zone you are going on about? So a player can run at any time, yes? But not when the ball has been caught? Only for the grace of the baseball gods did I not have to explain balks, ground-rule doubles, and the infield fly rule.

However, the “No Hands” rule doesn’t seem to translate into French.

Suddenly, it became clear why soccer was the world’s biggest sport. It just so happens to be the easiest to understand. There are basically four rules: 1) Don’t use your hands, 2) Try to put the ball into the goal, 3) Don’t be offside, 3) Don’t foul another player.  Voila.

Also, even the most boring soccer matches are only 90 minutes. This game was already over three hours when I asked my guests if they wanted to leave during the eighth inning. So we left early, beat the traffic, and wound up going to the rooftop of Sarah’s apartment building for a panorama view of the city, and drinking a few more non-Miller beers. It wasn’t a bad day, but I never offered to take other couchsurfers to baseball games.

Some things are just American, and no amount of explanation can make foreigners understand them. Baseball is one of these things. So much so, that I’m shocked the game took off anywhere else, especially in my current home of South Korea, but that’s a different topic for a different day.

June 20, 2012

An excellent back-of-the-menu sketch by Carla.

An excellent back-of-the-menu sketch by Carla.

Knoxville Couchsurfers: Finding My Way Back Home

I could rightfully consider Knoxville, Tennessee home as much as any other spot on Earth. I’ve lived there 12 years, far longer than any other place. I went to high school and college there. I have a more fond memories in East Tennessee than I should be entitled to, but after four and a half years away–two in Milwaukee, two in Korea, and a lengthy trek in South America–“home” felt anything but.

Many of my best friends had moved to far corners of the country (or globe). Others were married and/or had kids. And others still had gone their own way with their own life, and we were no longer in contact. None of these occurrences are at all unusual, but there was no denying the obvious: my hometown might look the same, but I had changed and so had the people in it.

In the past, I’ve met new friends by going to local meet-ups through couchsurfing, but I questioned the value this time. For one, I felt like I shouldn’t have to do this; Knoxville was my home, not some new city. I should know people. Also, it was a temporary problem. I would be moving out to be with my girlfriend, we just had to get the arrangements settled. Knoxville would be a blip on the radar, and in my estimation, it probably wasn’t worth the effort to go out and meet new people. In the meantime, I would just keep myself busy, enjoy the company of my dog, and try not to lose my mind by watching too many House reruns on mid-afternoon TV.

I kept myself busy the first few weeks. It helped that I was bouncing between South Florida and East Tennessee with various trips to see family. But soon that chaos subsided and I was stuck at Mom’s, and the need for some social contact with my peers consumed me. I checked couchsurfing for events periodically, but it didn’t seem as if much was going on. I had just about given up, when I received a message from a local couchsurfer, Carla, with an invitation to come to the monthly pot-luck dinner. And as luck would have it, I could borrow a car and make it out that night.

To non-couchsurfers, this situation might seem a bit bizarre, and perhaps borderline dangerous. Certainly, there are a few tense moments at the beginning. Is this the right place? Do I recognize any of these people from their profiles? If I ask if this is the couchsurfing pot-luck, will these people look at me like I’m insane? My friend Mark had an easy fix for this first-time meet-up conundrum: wearing a shirt that reads, “Got Couch?” I own no such apparel.

The meet-up spot was a small neighborhood community center near downtown. I carried a  six-pack of beer, steadied myself, and knocked on the door. I was greeted by Carla, the same surfer who had sent me the invitation. She quickly introduced me to the half-a-dozen or so surfers around the table, whose names I promptly jumbled and then forgot entirely. Aside from the occasional request for repeating a name, all awkwardness was in the review mirror, and robust conversation flowed as easily as the beer and other libations. After disappointing attempts to meet couchsurfers in Korea, this was a pleasant surprise, although it shouldn’t have been. Couchsurfers, in general, thrive on meeting new, adventurous people. We have a lot in common, a shared point of reference, and some pretty interesting stories to tell.

I spoke at great length with Alan, a couchsurfer with a love of scuba diving and hard cider (though, presumably not at the same time), about our experiences in South America, particularly Peru and Bolivia. In most places, particularly in East Tennessee, such conversations would be seen at best as annoying, and at worst bragging or borderline rude, but not here. We were free to discuss the minutiae of traveling, and tell our best stories from the road.

After a couple of hours, we made our way to Barley’s in the Old City for a few more brews and some of the worst matches of pool ever attempted by man. I made an early-ish exit, despite wanting to stay out longer. I was borrowing my mother’s car and had no cell-phone, so I was certain that she would freak out if I went through with a late night.

Over the next month, I met up with these couchsurfers a few more times. Twice more at Barley’s and then once more for my second and final pot-luck. This time, we were not huddled inside the frigid community center, but out on the front porch, enjoying the early spring warmth and extra hour of sunlight courtesy of daylight savings. We were joined by a few new faces, including Melissa, the couchsurfer who agreed to watch my dog, Sydney, for a month while I traveled. Our second stop was not Barley’s, but instead Cairo Cafe, a nearby hookah bar.

Several couchsurfers stated how it didn’t seem like we had only known each other a month. The connections we made seemed much deeper than that brief amount of time would normally allow. I agreed, it didn’t seem possible. I felt foolish for once thinking that meeting new Knoxvillians wouldn’t be worth the effort. No, even if I had only met these people once, my life would have been richer because of it. And it doesn’t take long to make a positive impact in someone else’s life. Hell, I think back to the three nights I hosted Christine, never knowing that those three nights, like the fabled flapping of a butterfly’s wings, would have wonderful and long-lasting influence over the course of my life. This is the power of couchsurfing; it can make you feel at home when you’re away from home, and at home even when you no longer recognize home.

-March 20, 2013

17 comments for “The Sofasphere: Adventures in Couchsurfing

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