We had wanted to try couchsurfing for quite a while but the idea of rocking up at someone’s house and staying with them for free, sleeping in their bedrooms, eating their food and living alongside them is also quite a nerve wracking thing to do. But we were keen to give it a go, to step into someone else’s shoes and to see how they live their lives instead of just passing through a place as a nameless guest in a hotel or hostel. We wanted to experience real life whilst on the road, and despite our nervousness it was time to bite the bullet and go for it…the result could not have been any more amazing!
We had contacted many people before setting of but many didn’t give us a second though as we had no references. This was a lot harder than we first imagined! Let alone the actual reality of staying with a stranger in their house, we had to even just convince them that we were nice and trustworthy people. It’s kind of a hard thing to do really…not because we aren’t, but because over the internet it is just so hard to appear genuine!
What appealed to us was not getting a free bed for a few night, I mean of course, that is also a great benefit and welcomed to our budget, but really it wasn’t about what we could save but what we could gain. We knew very little of Slovenia. It goes quite anonymously about its business without really the outside world knowing too much about this small Balkan nation. We had heard rumours of it being beautiful, green and friendly (all of which are very much true and more) but even our research left us slightly non the wiser on Sloven culture.
So for us to stay with locals, to follow their way of life and to interact and be able to ask as many questions as we liked was perfect. I believe one of the reasons we fell in love so much with this country was in part due to how much contact we had with locals and how that allowed us to get so much more under the skin of the place. One of the aims of travelling long term was to be able to have much deeper experiences with the place that we visit rather than just passing through or skirting along on the surface as short trips can sometimes feel like. To get inside knowledge and information. To discover not just the token pieces of culture but how it really is! Whether that be Slovenia or anywhere else that we visit!
Getting a gig:
We tried many, many people! At first we vetted them quite closely for the first few places we would be visiting around Italy, then we started to just send messages out to nearly everyone, cut and paste!! This was completely the wrong approach and it is really no wonder non of those first people accepted us. This had to be personal, honest and heart felt. We had been put off by rejection after rejection initially but decided to try again, this time with a different approach. We opted for the city of Ljubljana in Slovenia, cities always seem to yield the highest amount of opportunities: naturally!
This time we studied each host a little more closely. Do they enjoy similar things to us, are these people we would feel comfortable with and also be able to get on with and learn from? We wrote personal messages to them mentioning some of the things we had in common or interests they had that we would like to learn about. We explained who we are, what we are doing on the road, where we are going and what we want out of couchsurfing. It took much more time but in the end it gain so many more responses. Even those that turned us down because they already had guests or were travelling themselves were lovely in their replies.
After many numerous attempts finally we got accepted to stay with someone. Oh crap, this is real now.
Our tips for getting a host:
Be honest and be yourself! Make sure you read about the person you want to host you and write from the heart about who you are and what you hope to gain from staying with them. Check their references too, not only to make sure that they are decent people, but to see what others got out of the stay and if that is also something that is alighted with your expectations.
Don’t do the whole cut and paste thing either, write to each person and make sure they know that you have actually read what they are about, looked at their photos and actually take an interest in them! Also make sure to add lots of information and photos of yourself too in your profile and requests. The more they know, the better they can judge if you are genuine and a good fit. But don’t try too hard either, I think early on we were so worried about being genuine that it actually made us seem a little fake!!
Our amazing experience and how it made our time in Ljubljana!
So, we were accepted by a couple called Tina and Borut. They were much older than us and had 6 kids. In someways this was perfect. We could see true family life in Slovenia and speak to people much more experienced in life than us and hopefully who would be much more socially equip in these situations than us- on our first time! We also have quite a few older friends and don’t judge people at all on how they are going to be because of age. Some of our best friends are on their 40s and 50s and we find them so inspiring and their experiences one of the reasons we really value their friendship so dearly. Although sometimes it is strange to think that they are the same age as our parents and yet have more in common with us than them!
I also think it is great in general to keep company with a variety of different people, young, old, somewhere in between, single, married, of all colours, religions, races and nationalities. It makes for a much wider frame of references, experiences and knowledge rather than just hanging with white English folk in their 20’s!
We also have very little experience with kids too, we have cousins, nieces, nephews, but we really haven’t spent that much time with them over the years. I think we are sometimes a little awkward around them, not really knowing what to do or what to say. Partly maybe because we still feel like kids but are expected to act like adults! So staying in a house full of them was just one more way to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone!
But really, we needn’t have worried at all. Of course, we were nervous, we were a little shy at first, but we went into it with the attitude that we would just give is a go, whole heartedly and not let our sometimes stunted social skills hold us back. We were welcomed with open arms into what was a lovely family home and indeed a very special family.
Borut was cooking up a storm in the kitchen and all the kids were helping, even their cute 2 year old! It was really quite wonderful to see family life in full flow and straight away we tried to get involved in conversation as much as we could. It proved to be such a fascinating experience, not long after we arrived we felt so comfortable with our hosts. Sharing food with the family and tales from where we had been and their recent trip to Costa Rica. We really felt like we were staying with freinds rather than strangers.
We also got to learn so much about Slovenia culture and history. Not to mention amazing tips on where to go for a coffee and snack in the city, when the food market was on, the local favourite of hiking up the nearby Smarna Gora (and sampling the go to food up there: Struklji), arranging for us to hire a canoe from the local kayak club and just generally showing us so much more about Ljubljana than we could have ever known ourselves.
We also managed to strike a good balance between spending time with our hosts and getting to explore Ljublajana ourselves (armed with their tips of course!) It was important to us to get to do both and before hand it was a worry that our time would be too heavily weighted one way or the other. Sitting around the table at night with a glass or two of wine, and delicious home cooked meal and discussing endless topics from Yugoslavia to languages truly was something you could never put a price on.
We also left feeling so inspired by Tina, Borut and the Kids. We had never been too sure if we ever wanted kids to be honest, we always saw them as a bit of a burden! But watching the wonderful way in which these children were being brought up left a lasting impression on us. They were all so responsive, kind and open, taught not through force or shouting up love and communication. They were never shoved in front of a TV to keep quiet, or sent to their room for not eating their veg, and yet they were the best behaved kids I have ever seen! Learning languages and instruments from a young age, taking interest in other cultures, people and places. They have a bright future ahead of them and hopefully one day we can do at least half as good a job as these two with our own kids!
Couchsurfing: Our tips!
Be open and be yourselves! Tell your host it is your first time, or if you are nervous! But make sure and just jump straight in and go for it! Talk about the things you love, ask them about their passions, learn about their country and of course, most importantly be respectful and courteous.
It is hard to generalise too, every host is going to be different and even after having such an amazing experiences we know we have to find the right people again and again. It is also then hard to know what you must do in return, what the expectation of you are. Most people accept that couchsurfing is a free gig, but it shouldn’t be thought of as such. Whether you cook a meal or just buy your hosts a nice bottle of wine as we did. I think you should always look to give something back as a token of your appreciation and view the sharing as a two way thing.
Would we do it again?
Of course!! With out a doubt we would and we are on the look out for more hosts. It isn’t easy to just get up and find someone else as nice as Tina and Borut, but we are ever hopeful and would like that to happen again soon! It provided us with such a much more intense and interactive experience in Ljubljana that we just wouldn’t have gotten from a hostel. For that we will be forever grateful. We have even already been keeping in contact with them and hope it isn’t the last time our lives cross paths.