Waking up, I had no idea where I was for three or four seconds. Staring into my face was a view of an apartment block. The rising sun painted pink the early morning skies above the rooftops. I was taking all this in from a skewed perspective, lying down, horizontal on a sofa with a sleeping bag tucked up to my chin. It was 8am. I’d had five hours of sleep and I had that chewy beer-from-the-night-before taste in my mouth.
This was my first experience of Couchsurfing. For those unfamiliar with the concept Couchsurfing is an online community for travellers to hook up with friendly locals who offer their sofas up for the night free of charge – on the premise that you too, the surfer, will return the favour among fellow surfers in the future. Six million people in more than 100,000 cities around the globe are members.
I was heading to Denmark anyway, to Aarhus to see friends, but the cheapest and most convenient flight option was to Copenhagen, the capital, a three-hour train ride east of Aarhus. Travelling on a budget, as I was doing what with Christmas around the corner, usually involves staying in a hostel but having heard about Couchsurfing from friends I was eager to give it a go for myself and I’m glad I did.
To get this whole Couchsurfing thing going, you have to create your own profile, just like any other social networking site. Once that’s out of the way, it’s a case of going forth and approaching a potential host of your choosing for your trip.
As I was a first-timer, my criteria for choosing a suitable host mainly revolved around two things. Firstly, I definitely wanted to stay with a proper local to the city, so a Dane. There were plenty of expats or students from the US and Poland for example willing to offer a couch according to their profiles, but I wanted to see the city through the eyes of a native. I wanted an insight into the life of a Dane in the capital city. Second, given that it is a little daunting meeting a stranger, not least one with a completely different cultural background, I searched for someone of relative like-mind.
I made two approaches. At this stage you send a message directly to your potential host explaining when you will be in their city, how long you intend to stay, what you intend to get up to during your visit and a bit about yourself. As is the way with such a speculative beast like this, only one of the two people I approach responded, and that was a Danish girl called Louise, who is a journalist and an Arctic Monkeys fan to boot. Two ticks.
As it happened Louise was out of town for the two nights I’d requested but was friendly and polite, and suggested if I arrived a day earlier we should meet up. Sadly my flight was all set so there was no wriggle room, but when I enquired about the following Sunday, when I’d be back in Copenhagen the night before my flight home, Louise was happy to host me, even though she was only due to be back in town herself that afternoon. I left her my phone number to confirm the details nearer the time and days later I was flying out to Denmark to begin a week-long adventure.
“I’ll be the one with the multi-coloured bag,” she said.
It was the first time I’d spoken to Louise. It was the Sunday night of my Couchsurf and I’d cheekily hopped over to Malmo, Sweden, on the train – 30 minutes from Copenhagen – when I’d received a text message from her telling me she was back in town early and was I ready to meet up. A few hours and a phone call later and we met outside a Metro (the underground public transport network) stop in the city centre, where we quickly decided to head for a bar – an Irish bar as it happens. Perhaps Louise thought I’d be at home there. The barman was very much an Irish bloke too but I snubbed the temptation of a Guinness and bought the first round, Tuborg. This was my first, and hopefully only, mistake. I think my host would certainly have preferred the former. Tuborg, I’m told, is the cheap stuff at the bottom of the local beer league table. England’s answer to Carling, if you like. And there was me thinking I was being cool and going native. Nevermind.
Turns out, Louise is also a Liverpool fan, so that was another tick and, after a few more pints, this time in a local tavern style bar, which I’m told is popular with local journos and with a whole menu of ‘Jule’ or Christmas beers to choose from – and choose we did – we were jabbering away like old friends; putting the world to rights, swapping tales of the journalism industry and even getting the barmaid to stick on an Arctic Monkeys tune. What was brilliant was that I’d relaxed to the point where my surroundings felt cosy and I felt more in kilter with the city and being around the locals. Chatting away to Louise at the bar drew the barmaid into the conversation and there we were, two Danes and a Brit having a natter, and this is the beauty of Couchsurfing, having fun in a more authentic way in a foreign city.
It was 3am and a kebab later that I planted myself sideways on the sofa, possibly in the exact same position in which I awoke five hours later with the early morning sunshine falling over my face. I was treated to a simple breakfast and Louise walked me to the Metro line to catch the train to the airport on her way to work. The kindness of strangers is amazing and, from my initial experience using the site, I can see that Couchsurfing is a great way of stumbling across kind-hearted people, who like you are curious to meet new people from different parts of the world to broaden their own perspective.
Before my trip, I’d listed my own couch availability as ‘not now, but happy to meet up’, since returning home I’ve switched to a ‘maybe’. I’ll be as careful first time about hosting as I was about surfing, but one thing’s for sure, I’ll be surfing again and I’d recommend it to anyone with an open mind and a sense of adventure.
Just don’t order a Tuborg for a local in Copenhagen.
- If you want to know more about Couchsurfing, here’s a really inspiring introductory video from its YouTube channel.