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   Date: 10/4/11 Bookmark and Share

Couchsurfing in Paris

By Anna Roberts '12

158 Rue de Damrémont.

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.

I was 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.

Suppressing 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 bag.

“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.

After 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.

We 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?

I buzzed them in: two Greek girls with massive suitcases.

That night, 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.

Such is 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.

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