Photo by Janina Gallert
Sleeping with strangers is popular in Berlin. The city is officially the third-biggest CouchSurfing turf in the world behind Paris and London, and membership is booming. At the time of writing Berlin was home to 31,975 registered couchsurfers, almost 1,000 more females than males and a few unfortunates who did not know what sex they were. Worldwide, the number has broken the two-million mark. Whether you’re searching for a global social network or a budget travelling scheme, an intercultural exchange or a new type of easy hook-up – there are many reasons to take the couch.
Certainly Sarah Konopelska’s first foray into CouchSurfing was an inauspicious one. It was the winter of 2007 when she received a message from a guy who said he had just returned from a long trip. He’d left his key with a neighbour he couldn’t contact and needed somewhere to stay that night.
“He had a German mobile, so I rang him and arranged to meet him at Frankfurter Allee,” Sarah remembers. “When I met him he had a lot of bags, a long beard and he looked like he hadn’t washed in weeks.” On arrival, he spread his belongings all over the living room floor. “He was acting really strange and he smelled really bad!”
Sarah and her housemate were both preparing for medical school exams at the time, so they explained that he was welcome to stay with them but they needed to study. He cooked Kaiserschmarrn (an Austrian carmelized pancake) for them, and then insisted that they pay him for the milk. Then he spent the rest of the night knocking on their doors trying to get their attention.
“He wanted to play games and tell us stories,” Sarah explains. There was relief when he left the next morning – it was only in hindsight that they realised he may have been a homeless man simply looking for a roof over his head.
Sarah didn’t let the encounter put her off CouchSurfing. She points to the overwhelmingly positive experiences she enjoyed through it since, whether hosting in Berlin or ‘surfing’ extensively in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, when she never once felt in danger.
“There was François from France, who stayed for three or four days and ended up taking us to places we didn’t even know about, like an underground café in Lichtenberg, and then there were the two Australian guys we met when he was here,” she remembers. “They were pretty drunk and half-naked – they were walking around in just their boxers. It was still quite chilly so we gave them our lab coats, and as a trade-off they gave us a plastic penguin with a cable around his neck.”
Say what you will about CouchSurfing, but how else could you get a strangulated penguin delivered to your home?
ALL-INCLUSIVE PRIVATE CLUB
The basic premise hasn’t changed since the first members joined the CouchSurfing network in 2004: hosts offer accommodation to guests who need somewhere to stay. Members can check each other’s online profiles to ensure the other is safe or fun or otherwise desirable. Forums also provide means for organising classes, social clubs, parties, events, meetings, etc.
“CouchSurfing is all about intercultural communication,” says Uta, a Hungarian student who’s currently writing a thesis about the social network. Its main attraction for her personally is a combination of the cultural and language exchange possibilities, and the insider experience in a new city.
“It’s getting to know the city from another point of view,” she says. “Wherever you travel you can meet people who tell you the best places to go for a show, or who bring you to their favourite cafés.”
For most, money is not a motivating factor. “People give out about the freeloaders but to be honest I haven’t met one,” says Ulf Kleinings, the CouchSurfing coordinator for Germany. “Even if you have really poor travellers, or students, the €15 or €20 they’d save on a hostel is going to be spent on beer. I guess some couldn’t travel otherwise, but they’re only a tiny minority.”
Media attention, including articles such as this one, mean the concept is increasingly in the public eye, but for many of its members, this is an unwelcome development. They say that the feeling of being part of a private club, albeit open to everyone, is somewhat diminished when everyone knows about it. “We are explicitly inclusive, but many members don’t like that RTL will do programmes on it, or that Bild writes about it, that it’s becoming more mainstream,” explains Ulf of the non-profit organisation.
What’s important, says Ulf, is that members are not obligated in any way to do anything they don’t want to do. “We always make it clear. There are no obligations. You’re not supposed to host if you don’t want to host. You should only do it if you enjoy hosting.” Same goes with sex: “A lot of people use it for the social aspect, but people are free to do whatever they want.” Consent, he stresses, is a key prerequisite, whether for an innocent overnight stay or the mutual gratification of an arranged liaison between ‘perfect’ strangers.
“You have people who would say organising orgies is against the CouchSurfing spirit. Of course it’s not. What counts is to find people with similar interests to your own.”
WELL-PLANNED ONE-NIGHT STAND
For those interested in sex, it’s not hard to find others interested in it too, as one visitor from Ireland found to his pleasure. Randy Buck (not his real name) met a different girl through CouchSurfing each of the three nights he stayed in Berlin on an exhausting long weekend during the summer.
He had initiated contact with a number of “likely girls” before travelling, deciding from their online profiles whether it was worth getting in touch or not, and then judging from the responses he received whether to pursue that interest. On arrival in Berlin, he already had arranged to meet a hand-picked selection “and a couple of back-ups”.
“To be honest I didn’t have to look hard,” Randy remembers. “A lot of girls just want to meet men for one night without the hassle of the pub or nightclub.”
He uses CouchSurfing any time he goes travelling, finding it fertile ground for the arrangement of mutually-beneficial one night stands. But not everyone shares Randy’s theory of CouchSurfing. “I have to be careful,” he admits. “It would look bad if all my references were from girls, so I have to get a few references from guys too!”
For most members, actually sleeping with others on the network is not part of the motivation. But when you have a huge pool of strangers meeting up to share homes and couches, there’s more than a small chance that lust – or even love – could strike, whether they’re looking for it or not.
I COUCHSURF, THEREFORE I AM
Three-year-old Jonas Fagerlund probably owes his very existence to CouchSurfing. His parents, Maria and Mikael (photo), first met in 2005 when the former booked the cheapest flight she could find out of Paris, where she was living at the time. It brought the German native to Mikael’s couch in Linköping, Sweden, although it was his flatmate at the time who had decided to host visitors.
The two remained in no more than casual contact, but a year later – when Mikael’s decision to quit his job and travel coincided with a CouchSurfing party hosted in Paris by Maria – the two really hit it off.
“We realised we liked each other and got really, really drunk,” explains Maria. “Not me – I wasn’t drunk!” interjects Mikael.
She continues: “So after a couple of weekend visits we decided to move to Ireland. English-speaking, plenty of job opportunities [in 2006]: it was perfect.”
Through CouchSurfing the couple found rooms to rent, moved into a house with another couple and made plenty of new friends. “We didn’t know anyone when we moved there, but there were parties and things going on all the time,” explains Mikael.
Jonas was born in Dublin the following year, and the young family stayed in Ireland until 2009. They then moved to Berlin, where Maria and Mikael tied the knot in April of 2010.
The Fagerlunds remain avid fans of CouchSurfing. In their roomy Wedding Altbau they host visitors almost as often as they don’t, little Jonas contributing to his parents’ hosting passion by lending his room to the revolving set of globetrotters. Linens are washed regularly, and behind their oven, a big hiking backpack perpetually awaits its owner’s return.
Do they worry about inviting strangers with impure motivations into their home? Not so much. Being CouchSurfing veterans, Maria and Mikael are skilled at vetting potential guests, and anyway, theirs is probably not the household people like Randy Buck have in mind.