Finding Myself in the World, From the Seat of My Couch

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A peak at my apartment last summer


 *Editor's note: Lengthy post!


Last summer after I moved back to D.C from Maryland and stumbled upon a gem of an apartment in a charming neighborhood by some odd luck, I realized soon after that I wanted to fill my home again with faces and stories that would make the walls and floors feel warmer.

For as long as I can remember the doors to my past apartments have always been revolving with guests. Friends coming by for weekend brunches, late-night talks over wine that went until 2am, five family members cramming into a space fit for two, friends needing a place to crash for a night after traveling or partying, hosting holiday parties, entertaining book clubs, etc. I love having a crash pad, if you will. A place that feels as much like home to me as it does to anyone who stops by.
 


I had the idea to join the site Couchsurfing almost overnight, really. Because life and scheduling didn't allow me to travel as often as I had hoped in 2013 and 2014, I wanted a way to still connect with others around the world, and with my natural penchant for wanting to host people, Couchsurfing seemed like a good fit.

I recalled my friend Erin first telling me about her couch surfing experience a year prior, and after doing about a day or two of research--reading stories of people successfully hosting and surfing and meeting potentially life-long friends--I knew this was exactly the kind of personal experience I wanted.

I like that Couchsurfing was a bit different from other home sharing or swapping sites in that it was an exchange program where guests wanted to see the city from your eyes along with you. They want you to be apart of their experience by showing them around. They want to share meals--whether at your home or on the town. They want to tell you about their home countries, their friends, their cultures and dreams. The experiences I had with each of my surfers turned out to be some of the most life altering I've had to date, and I can say with no hesitation that each of them have become friends in the world.

I didn't tell friends that I had joined Couchsurfing because it didn't cross my mind. I only remember being so excited and clear that this was what I wanted to do that I simply began the process of creating a profile, practically giddy at the prospect of people from France, Italy, Germany, Korea, or California e-mailing me to say "I'm traveling with my best friend and we would love to meet you! May we stay on your couch for a few nights?" It wasn't until much later--perhaps even after I had already hosted two people--that I mentioned it casually in conversation to a few friends. The initial reaction was something along the lines of "Oh, Nicole. Always the carefree one in the group." Followed closely by "What? Are you sure that's safe? Are you hosting men?? Aren't you concerned about bed bugs??" And I get all of it and didn't take it as more than genuine concern, which I appreciate. I don't see myself as a frivolous or haphazard person, and after sharing some stories of my experiences with couchsurfers and the precautions I had taken prior to accepting their couch request those friends relaxed a bit.

The very first person I hosted was a woman named Annika from Barcelona. Sporty and cool, and incredibly smart and genuine, she stayed for just one night. We met up after I got off work and walked the city for a few hours as the sun set, and then talked for a few more hours over pizza at one of my favorite spots: Comet. I remember admiring her for traveling solo for so many years, since barely out of her teen years, and moving freely throughout the world. I was even more curious to host her because I knew I'd be traveling to Barcelona a few months later and wanted to pick her brain about Spanish culture, great places to see, eat and dance. And later, when I was in Barcelona, we touched base again but weren't able to physically meet up because of scheduling. But I'll be back, Annika!

Among others that I had the chance to host, there was a beautifully spirited Irish couple who had been traveling together for years: energetic and kind Andrea and Eoin. They had been wwoofing across the country together, working on farms and in fields doing all types of labor, and had just gotten engaged shortly before coming to D.C! For about three nights we all talked like old friends over oysters, lobster, hamburgers, pizza, drinks. And Andrea inspired me to keep a travel journal on my future trips. Hers was robust, filled with photos, ticket stubs, stamps, notes. Every type of memorabilia you could think of, neatly placed on the thick pages amid notes about her day, the people she had met or observed, the things she smelled or ate, quotes she wanted to remember. Soon after we parted ways on a Monday morning train, I began my search for the ideal travel notebook and found one via Toms Shoes, which I suppose is very fitting. I made excellent use of it in Barcelona and London recently.

There was the handsome, stylish and incredibly chivalrous Amr from Syria. He had been traveling all over the world and was traveling before settling in Eastern Europe for a banking job. Though he requested to stay for three nights he never stayed for any because he was so popular :) He wasn't sure if friends would be in town that particular weekend, but as soon as he confirmed that he was coming friends began reaching out from all across D.C wanting to meet up with him. And understandably so. He was incredibly friendly and kind, and apologized profusely for not being able to stay at my place. I wasn't concerned or upset at all. I would most likely be out on the town as well if I had friends I hadn't seen in years suddenly in one place. But he asked to treat me to dinner on his last night in D.C and we talked about his life and his family's life in Syria, his hopes to find a great job (which he ended up solidifying right after he left!), girlfriends, his adorable niece who he's crazy about, and everything between. To this day we still check up on each other via Instagram or texts.

With Amr from Syria


There was Amelia. Amelia! Sweet, jovial, cool, and funny as hell, Amelia from England. She had been traveling with a friend earlier in her trip, but after they parted ways and her plans changed she stayed with me for a few days longer and it was the most wonderful time having her here. We hit it off almost right away. Gabbing away into the night about EVERYTHING. You name it, we talked about it. You name it we walked it! We even ventured out to Frederick, Maryland for a little day trip walking through antique stores. Having found someone who is like a long lost girlfriend was awesome, and I was excited when we were able to reconnect in London during my stay there in May.

Amelia during our day trip to Frederick, MD.


But the surfer who really changed my perspective on myself and my life was a young 21-year old skateboarding engineer student from Austria named Frido.

We first greeted each other outside the metro station near my job during my lunch break. He arrived--tall and thin--in camouflage shorts, white graphic T-shirt, holding his skateboard, the top part of his hair dyed blond and the sides brown, a big smile across his face. He had this unique ear piercing where a thin black pin was shooting from the top to the bottom of the inner ear. I'm still contemplating getting one myself! Little did I know this guy would come to feel like my kind and cool little brother, despite being a whole foot taller than me :)

I remember I had to go back to work so I gave him my spare key and my address, but I had forgotten to give him my apartment number and didn't realize it until after we parted ways! I spent hours trying to e-mail him or call the number he had provided because I felt terrible that he'd be sweltering in the August heat in front of my building and bored for five hours. But to my surprise when I got home he was sitting on the couch cooling out. Ever the resourceful guy, he had scoured for names on the mailboxes in the lobby, and of the three boxes that didn't have names on them (mine included), he found mine.

I hosted Frido longer than any other couchsurfer, roughly four or five nights, and we probably saw more of the city in those few days than I had seen in months! Typically with couch surfing, the surfers offer to cook for the host or pay for meals as an extension of their thanks. But me being me and wanting to make sure Frido still had money to enjoy himself in Miami--where he was traveling to next--I didn't feel comfortable taking him to all these spots and having him dish out money that he might have preferred to save. There was this instinct to make sure this trip was special for him. We walked around the National Mall, ate Mexican food from a place called Mission in Dupont Circle that was so spicy we were both crying at the table. I introduced him to my friend Leslie over dinner, and later to my friend Sasha at a pool party. We talked about his girlfriend back in Austria and spent time picking out a beautiful scarf for her at Eastern Market. We ventured out to the infamous D.C. drum circle that happens on Sundays, walked around Georgetown's cobblestone streets, went to a pool party in Yards Park, and spent a lazy afternoon watching hula hoopers while he practiced flips on his skateboard. In an odd way, hosting Frido was like a vacation for me as well.

The time with Frido also made me reflect on the idea of image and perception. A mellow guy, he was the most thoughtful, friendly, smartest person you could have met, and anyone who had the chance to meet him during his time here felt that spark about him. I thought about how odd people must have thought we looked walking around together: a lanky, white skateboarder with graphic tees and Vans shoes smoking cigarettes, and a short black girl with flowy sundresses, DSW wedge sandals and a bushy Afro sticking out from under a summer hat like I was going to the horse racing track. But I loved how completely comfortable with himself and in the world Frido seemed to be, seemingly oblivious to any outside perception. By the time he left, a seed had been planted in my spirit, one that confirmed how free I was to be myself--a person in the world with many contradictions and quirks--not tied to the worry of being misperceived. It's almost like a "duh!" concept. But I needed a personal revelation for it to become an "aha!" moment.

Frido doesn't know this, but after I had dropped him off at the train station in the wee hours of the morning and returned home, I cried, but not out of sadness or loss. It was a completely unexpected, vulnerable moment in my living room. And as I looked down at my coffee table to see the kind note he had left for me, it was like the dam had officially broken and I was awash in joy from having met a friend who touched my life in the most positive way.
Frido
And after Frido there were two incredibly sweet girls from Hungary: Csilla and Georgina. I loved their energy. One more quiet, the other more brazen. But both equally cool and open-hearted. We strolled all across the downtown area, visiting the Georgetown waterfront in the September humidity. The stories they shared about Budapest made me add it to my wish list of cities to visit. I still regret that I wasn't able to host them on their final night in the city because of a previous engagement.

I'm grateful to all of my guests--and to Couchsurfing--for letting me see this city again with fresh eyes. I realize I take living in D.C for granted because the ground is always here and the doors to museums are always open. Gratis.

But more than that I'm so thankful that couchsurfing has opened me up to people who live a world away and who still managed to leave a part of themselves with me. Who entered at a crucial moment in my life, when I was going through a personal transition of accepting my oddities, my carefree attitude, and helped me shed a last shred of timidity that was preventing me from fully living out loud as myself. And I'm grateful to CS for letting me see others in the same way by all of us being open to sharing stories, vulnerabilities, hopes, ideas, bad jokes, and great meals. And for the gift of letting us keep in touch long after they've packed their bags. I encourage everyone to open your doors to the world and try Couchsurfing. We're all guests here so why not try to become friends in the process ;) And I'm planning more trips abroad to meet each of you, too.

3 comments:

  1. Beautiful writing, Nicole. Thanks for sharing and giving me an idea for future travels!

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  2. Thank you so much, Danielle! I really really appreciate it. Can't wait to read about and see the beautiful photos from your future travels :)

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