This past weekend I crashed at a complete stranger’s flat in Florence.
Couchsurfing.com is like Facebook for travelers. On this particular social networking site, you create a profile in which you can choose from over thousands of couches to crash on all over the world. The idea behind “Couch Surfing,” is that you offer up your place for people (travelers) to come stay with you for free. It’s kind of like a pay it forward sort of thing, so that if ever you are traveling, you may reach out to someone and stay for free as well. But Couch Surfing isn’t just random people crashing at perfect strangers places; you can choose to offer up your place or not, or you can choose just to meet people for coffee or a drink and maybe an evening on the town.
Whenever you’re traveling to a new place, you end up having a better time if A, you know people there, or B, you already have lots of information about the place (like where to eat, what to see, where to go out at night, etc.). What’s great about Couch Surfing is that you can arrange to meet new people in new places and possibly have a free place to stay.
Ok, so I know you’re probably thinking, Sarah, this is just absolutely crazy! How do you know these people are who they say they are? What if you end up with some total whack job?
I haven’t heard of any Couch Surfing horror stories, and you are obligated to validate your profile with a credit card to show that your profile really is you, though you’re obviously taking a chance by meeting, staying with or hosting a perfect stranger(s).
I made a Couch Surfing profile before coming to Rome and on Tuesday of last week I decided to log in and check it out for the first time. I was planning to go to Florence within the next two weekends so I sent messages to about six different people who looked halfway decent and had good reviews from other couch surfers. I received a reply from three of the six people and one gave me a phone number and said we could stay either weekend and just to call when we had our plans sorted out.
On Thursday at around midnight I was finishing up some work and talking to my friend Matt on Facebook chat:
Matt: So you wana go to Florence tomorrow?
Sarah: I’m on trenitalia.it now. How’s an 8:45 a.m. train there and a 1:10 p.m. train back on Sunday? 33 euro total, and we could call that guy from Couch Surfing on the way there.
Matt: Let’s do it. Meet me at the metro at 8 a.m. Gotta pack.
Matt: My name is Matt.
Sarah: See you at 8, smartass.
There’s nothing like the excitement that comes from the spontaneity of a weekend adventure in Europe. As the train left the Tiburtina station in Rome, I was ecstatic to see Florence and told myself that if the people we were staying with were total weirdos, we’d just find a hostel and make the best of it. The four-hour slow train (a.k.a. the cheap train) put us in Florence a little after 1 p.m., so we grabbed a map, found a great little café for lunch and then took off exploring. I sent the Couch Surfing guy a text to let him know we were on our way while we were on the train, and we made plans to get picked up in front of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (National Library) around 6. After finishing up at the Galleria degli Uffizi with a Temple Rome art history class that was in Florence for the weekend (we ran into three of the students from the class while walking through a market!) we headed to the library.
Vincenzo told us he’d be picking us up in a white car, so Matt and I joked that we should be looking for a big white van with no windows, and as we turned the corner to the library (we really did see a big white van with no windows) but we also spotted a white Mercedes with a guy inside. Vincenzo stepped out and welcomed us to Florence, put our things in the car for us, and we were off.
Sarah: So how has your day been? How was work?
Vincenzo (in almost perfect English): It was very busy I worked all day.
Sarah: What kind of work do you do?
Vincenzo: I am a photojournalist. Do you know AP?
Sarah (journalism major): You have to be kidding me. You are an Associated Press news photographer?
At that moment I knew we were going to have an incredible weekend. The flat is within walking distance to the city center, and when we stepped inside our mouths both dropped; the place was so nice. Vincenzo shares the flat with three other guys who would be home later that evening, and he had to go back to the office for a bit so he showed me to the queen-sized bed(!!!) that I’d be sleeping in and told us to make ourselves comfortable.
Once two of Vincenzo’s three roommates arrived, the weekend was nonstop from there. I got to go with Vincenzo to see what his office was like and to check out some of his work and Matt went with Carlo and Sandro to pick up their other roommate, Jacomo, who was coming back on a train from work in Rome. We all met back up at a local bar called Rex, and we had a great night getting to know each other and meeting their friends and experiencing the nightlife in Florence.
We got up early the following morning and during breakfast with our Couch Surfing hosts they told us of their plans to have a bunch of their friends over for dinner and then go out that evening, and that we were invited. We agreed to be back at the flat at 9, and we took off to start checking off sites from the list we made the day before.
We got back to the flat just before 9 p.m. and soon after all of their friends arrived. Everyone was talking and hugging and laughing and introducing themselves to us and Matt and I could do nothing but smile. We drank wine and talked with everyone as they prepared dinner; a great pasta dish for the first course, and “meat and potatoes” as they called it for the second. Carlo even made a special vegetarian omelet just for me!
During dinner we talked about all kinds of things from sports to politics, and every now and again Matt and I would just give each other a look, both of us likely thinking that most travelers, or even most people in general, don’t get to have experiences quite like this. We were staying in an amazing flat in a beautiful city with four of the nicest strangers I have ever met, drinking wine and having dinner with 10 Italian friends who had all known each other for quite some time (they were all in their late 20s, early 30s). Following dinner we all headed over to a really great café where I had Borghetti for the first time (it’s a coffee liqueur, and it was really good!) and then we stopped at another café for coffee. Our next stop was a club, Doris, where we met a ton of people and had fun singing and dancing our butts off. We walked outside as the place was closing at 4 a.m. and Carlo says, “Ok the next place…” Wait, there’s a next place!
So we get to this other bar where we spent a few hours just laughing and carrying on like a bunch of old friends. The sun was coming up around 6:30 when we were leaving the bar, and Carlo then took us in through this sketchy looking door that went into a kitchen where the owners of the restaurant were preparing food for the day, and we got the most delicious pizza before finally heading home.
We caught a few hours of sleep and spent some time hanging out, laughing about our night and making plans for our three hosts to possibly come visit us in Rome so we could host them.
We said our goodbyes and thanked them for the most unbelievable weekend, and Carlo dropped us off at the station for our train back to Rome.
Matt and I were fortunate to meet and stay with such amazing people this past weekend. I don’t think my first Couch Surfing experience could have been more perfect. As hosts, they took care of us, they entertained us and they treated us to a phenomenal weekend in Florence (literally, they wouldn’t let us pay for anything)! Throughout our time with them we honestly felt like we had known these guys and had been friends with them forever.
Growing up, my parents always had all these sayings, or rules, and I’m pretty sure “Don’t talk to strangers,” was probably one of them. So I guess even at 23 there’s still a little bit of teenage rebellion left in me to have crashed at a complete stranger’s flat in Florence. Don’t tell my parents this, but I am totally Couch Surfing my way through the rest of my European travels, too! Oh wait, crap. I always forget that my mom and dad read this thing.
Sorry Mom and Dad, I was only trying to save some euro. I was just, er, just trying to be responsible? Um, love you guys!