One Big, Global Slumber Party

What normal person would be waiting on some bench at night before going to sleep at a stranger's house? Me, as I embark on my own private journey into the world of couch surfing

To surf: to ride on the crest of a wave, typically toward the shore, on a surfboard.

Danna Harman couch surfing Tal Cohen
Tal Cohen

I cannot surf. Something about that spring up from the belly onto the board eludes me and I always end up losing my balance, crashing into the wave instead of riding it, and often also knocking myself on the head with the board.

Couch surfing, however, is another matter completely. At that, I'm a natural, it turns out. To couch surf: to travel from place to place in the world, typically toward nowhere in particular, while sleeping, for free, on the couches of strangers you meet on the Internet.

Not long ago, I had never even heard of it.

"What's the point of this? Sex?" my friend Richard asks. I am not sure, but when your editor suggests traveling around Italy and France recently to write an article - any article - you don't nitpick.

I Google "couch surfing" and discover a Web-based community ( ) founded in 2004 by a young Alaskan named Casey Fenton, who came up with the concept when, as a student, he traveled to Iceland and needed a place to crash for the night.

Unlike other online social-networking communities, this one is all about getting away from your computer, and getting to know new people face-to-face. It works sort of like the old home-swapping idea, except there is no requirement to reciprocate. You register (for free ), write a profile and specify whether you want to host other members on your couch, or stay on their couches - or both. Hosts are under no obligation to agree to invite someone if they feel uncomfortable after reading about them, and are allowed to set ground rules: for example, that people have to bring their own sheets or cannot stay for more than three nights.

The network is based on trust, and you are encouraged to write reviews of the people you meet to build up a system of verification, a sort of safety net. A few thousand users turned into a torrent, and today there are over two million members of the community, from 238 countries, including some 8,000 registered Israelis - all of which makes the largest hospitality-exchange network in the world.

I start my week-long couch-surfing adventure scrolling through hundreds of hosts listed on the Rome page and randomly pick one. "Hi there, could I stay on your couch Sunday night?" I write cheerfully, to a handsome-looking guy named Biagio, who has glowing references and says he likes to cook pasta for his guests. His couch, also pictured, looks rather plush.

A few hours later I check my message box: no answer. The next day Biagio finally responds to say that he is renovating his apartment and can't help me out. Is that true? I wonder, feeling insecure. Would it be better if I were 22? From Holland? Was something wrong with my request?

I have 24 hours before my flight to Italy. I spend the afternoon reworking my profile, trying to be both impressive and modest and a little funny all at once. I list my hobbies and search for the right photo to upload. I decide on one of me with my friend Amber's husband, Tal, who is muscular and fiercely good-looking. That will put off any potential rapists, I think. Meanwhile I try to gauge online who would make a good host, who seems uptight or weird, and who may have interests in common with me. I send out a whole new batch of requests to various places and decide to skip Rome altogether, striking up a connection with Stefano in Lucca and Sergio in Milan, while putting out feelers in towns and villages across Italy and France. I peruse the Paris couch-surfing group and decide to join the Milan community. And then, there you go, I'm doing it. Surfing, surfing - and I'm off!

I arrive in Lucca by bus in the early evening and wait for Stefano, my first couch-surf host, outside the closed tourism office. I feel like I am about to go on a blind date. I don't like it. Plus my bag is too heavy. How will I know what Stefano really looks like? Wait, is his name really Stefano? What normal person would be here waiting on a bench before going to sleep at a stranger's house? I wonder, getting increasingly bleak. It starts to drizzle.

A car drives up. It turns out Stefano is lovely, roly-poly and friendly. We walk along the cobbled streets in the town and go for a drink. We chat about how the Italians always dub their movies, and how the local guy who did the voice-over for Woody Allen just died. Stefano is 35 and also a journalist, working at a TV station in Pisa, so we move on to discuss the demise of the typewriter and his recent trip to South America. Forty-six percent of Argentinians are actually Italian, he says. That can't be true, but I don't want to contradict my host, lest he write a bad couch-surfing review about me.

We head over to a pizzeria and eat cecina, which is basically a chickpea patty that has more in common with hummus than a slice, and drink a cheap, sweet, sparkling concoction called Spuma Bionda. We talk about couch surfing. Stefano says he joined the community because he likes to travel alone, but not after 8 P.M., when it gets lonely and you wish you had some company. He has couch surfed in Turkey, Portugal and across South America; back home in Lucca, he has hosted 60 people so far. He likes to receive one guest at a time, as he specifies on his profile, so he can really get to know them, and also prefers older surfers because he has more in common with them. The average age of couch surfers, according to the website, is 28, although there are families and even elderly people who are members of the couch-surfing community, too.

The bill comes and I hesitate. What is the etiquette here? Is the surfer supposed to pay? Did those rules take into account the lowly Haaretz budget? We split it. Is that okay? Is he disappointed?

We drive some six kilometers out of town into the countryside and down a gravel lane to his house in relative silence. It's late and I'm looking forward to the couch. My first one is actually more of a narrow bed, in Stefano's study. There are sheets on it already. Wonderful. I need only to sign into the couch-surfing site to see what is happening with my requests for later in the week, but he doesn't have Internet at home. Good night, he says, and a girl walks out of another room; his sister, it turns out, who lives with him. We nod at each other. The whole thing is a little strange, I guess, but whatever.

A stilted hug

The next day Stefano and I part with a stilted hug and wish one another luck. I tell him I'll give him a call if I ever write about Tuscany; he says he'll be in touch too and waves as he drives away. I wander off to find a wireless spot and a cappuccino. How painless was that? Couch surfing is so easy!

What is not easy, however, is getting online to check my couch-surfing account. Have they not heard of Wi-Fi in Italy? I catch a train to the coastal town of Viareggio where, schlepping my bags down to the boardwalk, I continue my search for the elusive Italian Wi-Fi cafe. I finally pick one up. First order of business: a glowing review of my stay with Stefano - first because he is nice, and second because I hope he will write something nice about me, which in turn will convince others to host me.

I add him as a friend, my first couch-surfing friend. It's exciting. Ah, no. I see he has to confirm me. Is it strange that he has not written a review of me yet? What else could he be doing? I then reconfigure my settings so I can get messages sent directly to my BlackBerry, and I correspond a little with Mickael from Grenoble, who has agreed to host me later in the week. He is new to the site and has no references, and is also a member of the "Grenoble SOS group" - which means he is willing to put up travelers who get stuck and need a last-minute bed. Is that suspicious? He has no friends, I note. But then again, neither do I. Why has Stefano not confirmed me as a friend? It's all so stressful, this process, in a laid-back surfing way.

On my BlackBerry, meanwhile, I have begun to get about a message a minute from the Milan group I signed up for. "We are meeting for a drink Tuesday," reads one. "I will be there," replies someone called Patrizia. "Me too," chimes in a guy called Popey. And so it goes.

I head back to the station to catch a train. The journey is stunning. The train whizzes between the green mountains and bright blue sea, and deposits me in Milan, where I set off to find Maurizio, Italy's couch-surfing "ambassador," at the drinks gathering.

Maurizio, 51, a computer expert with graying hair, is originally from Sicily, but has lived in Milan for 28 years. He discovered couch surfing three years ago when traveling to Bremen, Germany. He now lives and breathes the community: He moderates groups online, organizes local couch-surfing activities, and undertakes other responsibilities as a so-called ambassador. There are both city and country ambassadors like him, all volunteers, all over the world.

Maurizio arrives for the interview with me with three women: a 22-year-old Latvian and two 20-year-olds from St. Petersburg, one of whom, it later transpires, has family in Haifa. "Shalom," I say. "Shalom," they say. Wonderful. All three, along with a young Canadian woman who shows up later, are couch surfing with Maurizio that night. Since he joined the community, he boasts, he has hosted 500 people, making him the top host in the country; but, he adds, if he accepted all the requests he received, he would have hosted double that number.

Maurizio has certain guidelines for selecting guests. He prefers women, he admits, "because they are much neater," and he rarely replies to people who have not posted full profiles or uploaded a photo, because "I don't want to host a ghost."

Maurizio explains that the two main misconceptions about couch surfing are that it is a free bed and that it is a means for finding a date. Okay, you do get a free bed and sometimes even a date; in fact, he met his girlfriend - a violinist from Latvia - when she was hosted by him two years ago. But couch surfing is much more than that: It is a way of life.

"This is a community of like-minded people," he explains, "who are open-minded and young at heart, who love to travel and meet travelers and share experiences." Milan, he continues proudly, has one of the most active couch-surfing communities in the world, with some 3,000 members and activities attended by at least 250 people. Don't I know it. I am drowning in new bulletins from the Milan group.

Asked why he hosts so many people, he explains that some years ago he got cancer and his fiancee left him. He survived the disease but was left unable to have children - and alone in a big apartment.

"This project helps me fill the hole of not having children in my life," Maurizio says. "It's not like everyone who comes to stay is like my child, but I imagine that if I had kids, I'd want them to be looked after the way I try to look after these visitors."

Soon my host for the night, Sergio, a 37-year-old lawyer, shows up on a massive motorcycle, gives me a spare helmet and whisks me away for a tour of the city. He points out a hospital for elderly musicians, the Brazilian restaurant where Ronaldinho and other AC Milan soccer players hang out, and a prison where inmates on the top floor can peer out of the windows onto the traffic circle below. This is not the stuff of usual tours, that's for sure. We pass by the monastery where Leonardo's "Last Supper" resides, zoom by the Duomo, under repair as always, head over to a synagogue, and squeeze down the narrowest street in town. "Do you want to see Berlusconi's home?" he asks.

I'm so tired I may fall asleep and off the back of the bike. I need a couch. I am offered one in his office, a pull-out; there's a bottle of mosquito repellent on the side table. On the wall is a map of Guinea and we chat about West Africa - where he has, of course, also couch surfed.

I wake on Wednesday in a panic about Dijon, the weak link in this operation. I plan to be there Saturday night, but have not yet secured a host. I resubmit some requests and scroll down through approximately 450 e-mails from the Milan couch-surfing group, which I received overnight. How much is it costing me to get all these e-mails on roaming? I say thank-you to Sergio, hit the road and un-join the Milan group.

My next host is Ilaria, a 26-year-old part-time student, part-time nutritionist in Bergamo, just north of Milan. She welcomes me into her messy ground-floor apartment with a box of matza in hand. Matza? She's apparently a big fan. How random. Random, in fact, is a good description of my evening. It is shared with fellow couch surfers Helen, a saxophonist from Estonia who speaks half a dozen languages, and Pauli, a Finnish mathematician.

We go folk dancing - of course. When I first heard of the plan, I conjured up images of old-fashioned dancing in a quaint village in the hills, but instead we take the highway and get incredibly lost in the suburbs, going through one desolate traffic circle and onto the next, and down dead-end streets that lead to mega-supermarkets. Finally, we reach a suburban sports center where a celebration of Scottish jigs and Polish polkas is taking place on the basketball court. Helen pulls me in and we twirl around and around.

"I love these dances, they are so inclusive," says Ilaria. "They have music from all over the world and immigrants come, with their children, to show people the different cultures."

A lovely comment - "inclusive." A good way to describe this whole couch-surfing experience so far. Then, oh dear, I knew it was coming, the band strikes up a lively debka. I stumble. Are you not Israeli? my new friends ask me, unimpressed. "It's Syrian!" I protest, but they aren't buying it.

Then I hear "Tzadik Katamar," the one Israeli folk dance I know. What a relief. I sing along loudly, as we, the couch surfers, together with the Italian suburbanites and tourists and immigrants, all hold hands and sway this way and that.

When I wake early the next morning, on my couch in the dining room, Ilaria is shuffling out of her room to drive me to the station. I am touched. "I like helping others," she says. "I know what it's like to be a stranger in a town."

Ilaria hosts anywhere between one and eight people a week, often leaving spare keys for guests. "It's good karma," she says. I give her my Fodor's Italy, kiss her good-bye, and get on the train heading across the mountains to France.

Review panic

Nine hours, several trains and a little hitchhiking later, I arrive in the student town of Grenoble and wait. I'm a bit concerned about Mickael, the 24-year-old interior designer with no references, who is to be my host. We walk back to his cramped apartment, shared with three others: Thomas, Camilla and Mathilde. They wander in and out. Other friends wander in and out. They play music and smoke cigarettes and drink beer.

Strangely, Mickael does not speak English. But wait, we have been corresponding in English for days! He uses Google translate, his roommates explain. They set out a mattress for me in the space between the TV set, the coffee table and the bicycles. Sheets? Nah! No need. We all make dinner: hot dogs and cabbage salad. I cut up some carrots. Other friends wander in and out. I get online and discover excitedly that Sergio in Milan has written me a review. My first one.

"Don't miss the opportunity to know her," he says. Oh, how wonderful. But why hasn't Stefano posted anything? Did he not like me? Was it because I didn't pay for dinner? I write a glowing review for Sergio and another, even more glowing one for Ilaria. Speaking of Ilaria, isn't she online? Doesn't she want to write something about me?

I e-mail back and forth with a potential host in Dijon, who says I am welcome to stay, but he is renovating the bathroom and it has no door this week. Is that weird? All along, I keep looking at my Blackberry and feel something is missing. I can't put my finger on it. And then it hits me. The Milan couch surfing group's messages - I miss them. I am becoming addicted to this couch surfing.

The next night, in elegant Lyon, I go out with my host Guillaume, a 28-year-old air-traffic controller, and Sumeyra, a glamorous 23-year-old math teacher from Istanbul who is couch surfing at his place. We talk about the flotilla incident off Gaza, as one does, and then about couch surfing.

In Nice, the night before, Sumeyra confides, her host came onto her. It was late and she had nowhere to go; he was drunk and insisted she sleep in his bed. She asked our advice: Should she write a negative review? If she does, no doubt, he would write something bad about her, and then it might be hard for her to find hosts. Guillaume tells us that an American girl wrote a negative review of him, which he countered nastily. She took down her negative review, and he took down hers . The couch surfing site has both a public peer-review section, and also another section, seen only by administrators, where you rate the trustworthiness of hosts and guests. But clearly the system is not foolproof. Maurizio in Milan said a guest stole $30,000 worth of electrical equipment from him, and in Leeds last year, a young woman from Hong Kong was raped by her host. "Sometimes there are cultural misunderstandings," Maurizio says, "and sometimes there are real problems. Of course you have to always take care."

It's the last day of my trip, and my train rolls into Dijon. There, on the platform are my long searched-for hosts: two 27-year-old musicians, Pauline and Romain. He plays acoustic bass; she is a viola player, wearing a summer dress and holding a fresh baguette. Would anyone ever want to be greeted in Dijon any other way?

Later I'll be taken to their cozy house, chockablock with posters of old movies, music books and knickknacks. We'll sit down to a dinner of fresh fish from the market where Romain has a day job, and potatoes gratin, cheeses with 70 percent fat and a good bottle of Chambolle-Musigny. And my bed will be a rickety couch in the music room with a sleeping bag on top. (I will need to go through both the kitchen and their bedroom to reach the bathroom - where, when I shower later, the water explodes out of the shower head, but I don't mind. ) But for now, at the station, they just greet me, kiss me warmly on both cheeks, take my bags and lead the way. Surfing, surfing and off we go.