Old and new in the Smoke
I'm an avid fan of couchsurfing, the social networking site that brings people with a big love for travelling, meeting and getting to know new people together. You can see my other post, looking at my 'surfing' experiences here. For me, it's meant turning up in an unfamiliar place and having a 'friend'. Someone who'll tell you what they love (or don't) about the city they live in or just be around for a drink in the evening. It is also free accommodation, which has been a total revelation to me travelling on a budget. So much of what I've experienced on my travels I'd never have seen or done without my couch hosts and fellow couchsurfers. For people who love getting off the beaten track or seeing a city 'like a local', it's perfect. I'm so thankful (and will continue to be) for all the people able to give me a little time and a roof over my head.
Back home (for the most part) in London, I was really excited about actually being able to play host rather than surfer so I thought I'd write about my first proper couch hosting experience...
Offering up your couch
A new way to travel
Now, I've read enough couchsurfer profiles when looking for a couch to have a good idea about what I wanted to say about offering mine up (in this case, I was pretty thankful I'd be able to offer up a spare room). I already had plans to do a few trips as well as friends who were coming over on certain dates so made a decision about the dates I could and was happy to host. I've been hosted by people who love doing it so much they pretty much are hosting for constant periods and sometimes hosting several people at the same time. I decided to give myself the odd day in between hosting so I could have me time (meaning if I didn't feel like being sociable, I didn't need to be). I put the dates available to host on my profile and added a side note to say any requests for dates outside of them might not get a response (I pilfered this from other profiles I'd seen before).
How many surfers?
I also decided I would only host one person or a couple (who knew each other and happy to share a bed) at one time. I just felt like I could manage that better. Less worry about people getting along and able to focus on the one traveller (or couple).
Location, location, location
London's a big city and like the programme of the same name, location can be very important. Taking this into account, I included information about where the house was located and the basics of how to get around from there. If you want to be right in the heart of all the action and walking distance to it, you'd be better off elsewhere!
Getting requests - to accept or not?
Wow, so much more respect for people who'd hosted me previously and hosts in general. You can get a lot of requests! It's quite a job to read all of them and for people requesting the same dates, you probably should so you can have a go at accepting the request of the person or people you think will work best. I decided to accept on a first come, first served basis. So as long as the first person requesting sounded friendly enough and had good references, it was a yes. Just a sad no to others but a line to say if they wanted some recommendations, I could help. I did find that once I had my available-to-host dates filled, I had to change my couch availability to none to stop the requests coming. I've been on the other end of not getting a response so did my best to respond to all my requests (even the odd one who put in for dates outside of the range).
First guest - Franco
Tower Bridge opens for a tall ship
Franco was very impressed I'd organised for a tall ship, full sails out, to just be cruising along the Thames whilst we were there and to see Tower Bridge open up. I even organised the sun to be shining brightly for a beautiful sunset too. Yep, I'm a rockin' host. Okay, we were just incredibly lucky! We spotted the ship further back between a couple of big warehouses in Wapping and followed it along the river for a spectacular reward.
Franco, my first proper couchsurfer, is a gentleman from Milan looking forward to enjoying London and he arrived with lots of goodies too! He brought me pasta, wine, special pesto and even earthquake parmiggiano (made in an earthquake hit area and survived). My note to self having seen all that is that I really need to up my game when I arrive at a new host! Saying that, it can be hard to do especially if you're doing a big travelling trip and constantly on the move. I've met lots of hosts happy with just some good company and to learn a bit more about another culture. Being a surfer, you do want to do something even if you haven't brought goodies from your home town…so if you haven't brought anything, I reckon buying them a drink is pretty decent. Some hosts feel embarrassed to accept (actually, I felt a little embarrassed with Franco's offerings!), but I guess part of being a good host is to also accept them graciously and just continue to be a good host. Cook your host a meal and they'll love you (such a damn shame I'm not the domestic goddess I wish I was).
Boats on the Thames
I took him on a trip to a part of London he hadn't seen before and an area I always love being in… there were times it would be difficult to tell which of us was the tourist as I had my camera out more than he did!
The underground in City Hall
Popping out - St Pauls Cathedral
On the walk from Wapping to the Tate Modern, we filled up on beautiful fish and chips from the Fish Kitchen at London Bridge - washed down with a refreshing Peroni, the Italian beer (quite appropriate, I think!)
Fish & Chips and a Peroni
Cooking with friends
Italian cooking lesson
On his second and last evening staying with me, my friend came down for dinner so Franco and I decided to make the most of the fabulous food and drink he brought…
Cooking courgette flowers
Working from home, I was able to be flexible and when I couldn't show him around, I enjoyed giving him ideas of what to do and how to get around. It was funny being on this side of things but I feel just as rewarded for it. Hell, I pretty much got dinner cooked for me (as well as a cooking lesson). I have a new friend now too and somewhere to stay in Milan. It was also the opportunity for me to show off my London. So my first couch hosting experience was a success. For me, at least! I'll have to wait and see what reference he gives me... Franco, though, was a pleasure to host. Interesting to talk to with lots of stories, excited about being in London and really just a gentleman. He was a pretty damn good cook too!
Pasta al Pesto
What I continue to learn about me and couchsurfing is that no matter how many times I do it (as a host or surfer or both), I'll always initially feel a little out of my comfort zone. You're meeting and spending time with a stranger after all, but doing things out of your comfort zone is good (I suppose that can depend on exactly what you're doing!). And so far, it always turns out to be pleasantly surprising.