Friday, June 18, 2010

Changing the World, One Couch at a Time


“Michelle! Meeee-shellll!!?” The name rang through the streets of Paris’ 7th district and echoed off the apartment building window above us unanswered. We had made it to Paris safe and sound but had somehow managed to forget to write down our host for the week’s phone number. We had made it to the apartment, but our old-fashioned Romeo and Juliet approach didn’t seem to be working, so we finally tracked someone down to open up the building for us. From there, we found Michelle’s call number. “Michelle?” we called over the intercom. “It’s your, uhh, it’s your couchsurfers.”

Yes, Haley, Chantel and I were ‘couchsurfing’ in Paris—literally sleeping on a local Parisian’s couch we had never met before free of cost in order to widen our ‘cultural exchanges.’ Sound sketchy? We thought so too. BUT, the few people who we had heard of before participating in couchsurfers had all had amazing experiences, and the major positive news coverage the site has received was enough to convince us that we should at least look into it. Couchsurfing.org is an international nonprofit network that aims to connect travelers from all over the world, where locals offer up their spare bedroom, couch, or extra floor space for travelers. In exchange, they expect their guests to be respectful and committed to the couchsurfing mission—i.e., not freeloading off their hosts. There are safety precautions taken, one must both verify their address and be vouched for, and all couch surfers leave unedited reviews for their hosts. So after an intensive search, the three of us had found two cousins who seemed pretty great, and arranged to meet them in Paris at their apartment our first night.

Michelle buzzed us in and we headed up the stairs ready for an adventure. The door opened. “Welcome! I'm Michael.” Our faces turned bright red and Haley and I turned to Chantel, who had convinced us earlier that the French pronounce it “Michelle.” Her 5th grade summer French class had clearly done wonders. Our brilliant first impressions didn’t end there. Michael introduced us to his cousin Remi, and the two began to show us around their apartment. Remi, who hadn’t done much talking before turned to us and asked with a deadpan face, “Would you like to visit my bed?”

My heart stopped beating for a good 5 seconds before Michael jumped in and quickly corrected him. “NO, NO!! See his bedROOM! BedROOM! Our English is not quite perfect.” Breathing again.

Despite our rough start, our next four days in Paris were made because of our stay with Michael and Remy. We never stopped laughing, had great conversations, and exchanged some key cultural traditions (kings under the Eiffel tower?) They had explained to us that they were participating in couchsurfers because, as both of them had full-time jobs, traveling was not much of an option. They were bummed they couldn’t meet new friends on the road, so they had decided to bring people into their own home! We met up with them every night after work, and they took us to all their favorite spots—we picnicked on a student filled bridge our first night and shared a bottle of wine under the Eiffel Tower our last. In exchange, we introduced them to the art of ‘jumping pictures’ (with the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral serving as our backdrop) and even made them watch a clip of our trip’s theme-movie—Mary Kate and Ashley’s ‘Passport to Paris’ (some quality American cinema right there.) I left Paris still singing Frere Jacques and repeating my favorite French phrase (I don’t speak French…)

Even though we were sad to leave Paris and our new Parisian friends, our trip was far from over. After a semester filled with excruciating amounts of homework, exams and stress (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating…) we decided to treat ourselves to an 11-day mini Eurotrip and Dublin was our next stop. We spent our nights with hundreds of people all over the globe in Temple Bar area, singing and dancing along to live bands playing the Beatles, Journey, and of course some good Irish folk music. By day, we toured the Guinness Factory, where we watched the ‘magic’ process of fermentation take place. Fun factoid: the 1759 lease agreement Arthur Guinness signed for the brewery is older than the United States’ Declaration of Independence (‘and more important too!’ as our tour guide gladly informed the Americans of the group.) Some four million pints of Guinness are produced in the factory everyday, and as part of our tour, we were treated to our own pints. We sipped the beer in the ‘360-birdeye’ glass bar located on the 7th floor of the factory, looking out onto the gorgeous Irish countryside. Unfortunately for our far-too girly group, the Guinness had a little much of a ‘liquid bread’ taste for us, so we finished about 4 sips each, and sat and enjoyed the view.

Our weekend in Dublin ended too quickly, and we continued onto our last stop: Londontown. Between Billy Elliot’s beautiful onstage ballet, Winston Churchill’s war rooms (where you can still see the original maps used to track the course of WWII), staring in awe at the Crown jewels, attempting to run through the wall at Platform 9 ¾, marveling the ‘Pet Boutique’ in Harrod’s—a whole floor dedicated to designer pet fashion, and reuniting with our dear friend Brian, London was the perfect ending to our journey. I found throughout it all that the more I traveled, the more I realized how little I’ve seen of the world. I spent my flight home creating my ‘Oh! The Places I’ll Go!’ travel bucket list (only 31 countries total…) I know it sounds lofty, but when you're conquering it one couch at a time, anything can be done.

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