by Meghan E. Miller
It was March, tax time. I fought hard but the tears came anyway, staining the papers and making my accountant uncomfortable. “But I was planning a holiday,” I wept as I struggled to grasp how much the IRS demanded. Not just any holiday either, it was intended to be one of those life-affirming journeys, perhaps cliché, wherein past pains dissolve in the beauty of a new landscape. (Or the divorcée buys a Tuscan villa).
Newly single and rootless, I had thrown myself financially, intellectually and emotionally into arranging a solo trip to France. I rented an apartment in Paris, studied maps and guidebooks, conjugated French verbs like a madwoman and even put on a dinner party featuring my attempt at authentic French cuisine. But now, through some payroll department blunder, my budget was sadly diminished and I still had to find accommodation for the second leg of my trip, Provence.
Not about to give up, I started researching ways to bypass or lessen the cost of lodging, trying to avoid any hard manual labor or nights sleeping in tents. Luckily, I found CouchSurfing, a network for connecting travelers “one couch at a time.”
The term “couchsurfing” comes from the practice of bumming a night’s sleep by staying on someone’s couch, a close cousin of hitchiking. The website helps weary travelers find welcoming couches worldwide. The cool thing is, an offered couch usually comes with a generous host, a person interested in meeting travelers and sharing his home. This is the beauty of CouchSurfing.
CouchSurfing founder Casey Fenton had a ticket to Iceland and nowhere to stay, so he randomly emailed 1,500 students in Reykjavik asking if anyone had an available couch. The response gave him not just a place to sleep, but also a unique insight into his travel destination.
I was intrigued. After almost two weeks in Paris, I was on a high-speed train to the south of France. The capital city was a brilliant place to be, but the solitude had become insufferable. I spent entire days alone but for the static subjects of artists’ paintings and hurried contact with waiters and shopkeepers. I missed the sweetness of sharing my experience and looked forward to the comfort of conversation again.
But comfort? How could I be at ease in a place I’d never been with people I’d never met?! With three hosts lined up for the next week, I had no idea what to expect.
My first couchsurfing stint would be an easy one, an American couple studying French in Aix-en-Provence. They were my age, from the same just-out-of-college culture and with a familiar accent I never thought I’d feel such joy to hear. Meeting them was instant relief, like a letter from home. For two nights I slept on their futon, shared veggie burgers and cheap wine and laughed as we practiced our language skills via French soap operas.
The next stop would be more challenging; I was to meet my host in the tiny village of Venasque, accessed only by the narrowest country roads. Buoyed by the first successful couchsurfing experience, I was actually more concerned by the fact that the rental agency had arranged a massive SUV for me. I have got to learn to drive stick! “Mais pas de problème, vous êtes Américaine!”
After half a day of driving (and silently hoping for miracle each time I met an oncoming car), I pulled my monster vehicle next to an ancient, beautifully renovated stone cottage.
My host, a gracious, quiet Frenchman, received me warmly and we fell immediately into easy conversation. He had transformed his home from a pile of stones to a piece of Provençal art, and ran his own wood-fired pizza business in the nearby town. Couchsurfers, it seems, have a common mindset: an openness to the world and its people. He calmly informed me that I had arrived just in time for his birthday party, which I was welcome to attend. It sounded to me like a few friends would be stopping by for dinner, a small affair.
As more and more guests arrived for the fête though, the house filled to bursting with neighbors and friends. I’m sure none of them could fully understand who I was and why I was there exactly and my so-so French didn’t help clear things up much. Still, after the initial puzzled look, everyone was friendly and interested in hearing about my trip.
The party however, was a true test of my endurance. After two hours of champagne, hors d’oeuvres and small-talk, we sat down to long, white-clothed tables for the dinner, a never-ending multi-course deal with countless bottles of wine, heaps of cheese and plenty of bewilderment at my vegetarianism. I was amused and amazed to find that no one at this table of villagers had ever been to or even heard of a Starbucks!
After a grateful good bye to my new friend from Venasque, I made the drive to Avignon where I (thankfully) was to drop off the SUV and meet my last couchsurfing hosts at the train station. They were an eclectic family with three daughters, a mad professor father and a gentle-hearted mother. Their mas, or Provençal farmhouse, was a wood-beamed beauty with a garden in the back.
We shared a trip to the market, a forest hike and a few good meals where I was introduced to home-pressed olive oil. The mother, who had been quite worried about attempting to speak English with me, was relieved that I chose to push along with my French. At one point, the father asked me for the English word for his wife’s job. She tells stories and leads play groups for young children. “The old stories, what do you call them?” “Fairy tales,” I said. “Aaaahhh, then she is a fairy teller!” A nice new piece of vocabulary, I smile each time to recall.
Following this, I returned to solo travel for the last few days of my trip. Couchsurfing left me feeling cozy and pleasant. Encouraged by the generosity of my hosts, I was buffered against loneliness. I had gained confidence in myself, too, in my ability to converse and relate with anyone, have poise in any situation.