By Anna Roberts '12
I stood alone outside the apartment
building on a warm afternoon last spring, simultaneously
overwhelmed with the thrill of being in Paris for the first
time and the anxiety of not knowing what to expect.
Anna Roberts (on far right) and her traveling/couchsurfing
companions—(left to right), Amanda Whitney (University
of California, Davis; Rebecca Berger, Brandeis; and Anna
Wang, Clark)—climb the steps to visit La
Basilique du Sacré-Coeur in Paris.
A view of the cramped
bedroom in Benoît's Paris apartment, shared by Anna and
her three couchsurfing friends.
couchsurfing—a novel concept
in which travelers connect with apartment dwellers on an
Internet forum to find places to sleep free of charge in
exchange for the oppourtunity to develop international friendships.
Lovely idea, yet, as I was finding, couchsurfing often leads
to unpredictable situations.
My host had given only his first
name and building address: Benoît, 158 Rue de Damrémont.
Having finally located the address via a maze of train, taxi
and walked routes, I had yet to find Benoît.
my reservations about speaking botched French to actual Parisians,
I stepped inside the building and began asking if anyone
knew Benoît. A young Parisian with a lit cigarette between
her lips barreled down the stairs carrying a large, stuffed
“Excusez-moi,“ I said. ”Benoît? Do you know Benoît?” She looked at me, puzzled,
then opened her eyes wide. “Benoît? Oui. Couchsurfing?”
Success. She made a quick cell
phone call, speaking in rapid French, then suddenly asked
if I liked coffee. I was confused as I followed her down
the block and we sat outside a café where she introduced
herself as Anouk, and related a story to me in broken
English on par with my French.
As she told it, Anouk
was Benoît’s most recent ex-girlfriend, having broken up only the previous night.
When I met her earlier in the building’s lobby, she was removing her possessions
from his apartment. And though I had talked with Benoît several times, and warned
him that my three friends and I would be arriving that day for a four-night stay,
he had apparently forgotten us in the commotion of the breakup with Anouk.
smoking half her cigarettes, Anouk determined that my friends
and I would stay at Benoît’s apartment for one night, then move into her flat for three nights.
When she walked me back to Benoît’s, the plan seemed settled. She gave me a key,
a map of Paris, and a French-English pocket dictionary. She went to work, leaving
me to mull over the dramatic events of the day in solitude.
My friends showed
up late that night and we crashed as planned in Benoît’s
one-bedroom apartment, sleeping where we could find a space.
The following morning was balmy
and bright for Paris so early in April. We spent the day
gallivanting through Montmartre, stopping every few feet
to ogle at boutique windows. At dusk we found ourselves outside
the Moulin Rouge.
That was when Anouk texted me
saying she could no longer host us. As she put it in a later
email, Benoît had to learn to take responsibility for his
decisions. As his ex, she refused to pick up his slack.
hurried back to Benoît’s and he consented to let us stay.
That night as we headed out
the door to visit a neighborhood near the Bastille, the bell
rang. Female voices crackled through the speaker, “Couchsurfers, for Benoît?” Seriously?
them in: two Greek girls with massive suitcases.
eight of us crammed into the tiny apartment—my three friends and I sharing a bed in the miniscule
back bedroom, the Greek girls spooning on one side of a futon in the living room,
and Benoît sleeping against his new roommate, Bastian, on the other.
couchsurfing, I’ve come to learn.
Despite the absurdity of the
situation, and the disruption in plans—and maybe partly because of it—Paris was one of my favorite
cities on my spring tour of Europe. Comfort with spontaneity has never been my
strength, but being abroad created a certain ease of impulsivity in myself that
I have come to appreciate. The unpredictable nature of travel generated exhilarating,
nerve-wracking experiences I would never have allowed myself prior to Paris.
And I would have learned none
of it without diving into the topsy-turvy world of couchsurfing.