It’s been about three hours since I arrived at Oslo Sentralstasjon, Norway. Anchored by cumbersome luggage and a dearth of local knowledge, my boldest venture is to a restaurant 20 metres across the road. There my phone hangs absurdly from the only available power outlet in the ceiling above my booth. I contort my neck and limbs to check for updates with mayo-smeared fingers but there’s nothing new. Never have I felt more profoundly helpless.
I’m waiting for my first couchsurfing (CS) hosts and they don’t finish work for another hour. I ask for their address to save time by meeting them at their house, but this just shows my inexperience. CS is not for the impatient or highly strung. When people are offering their hospitality free of charge, you’re duty bound to accept it on their terms. This includes slow replies and an overly cautious approach to disclosing personal details.
Back inside the station, a steady stream of passengers flows past, leaving only me, fast-food employees and homeless people in limbo (though at this rate I’m tempted to include myself in the latter category). Around 10 pm, I’m finally rescued by Ragnhild, a sweet, bespectacled church organ player who navigates us back to the home she shares with Jørdi, a bob-haired politics student.
Initial conversation is simple enough, if not a little stilted. Fortunately, travel acts as the ultimate icebreaker. As a unilingual savage, I’m made shy by my inability to grasp the pronunciation of simple names and places. In any case, I’m in Norway where, by and large, language barriers are a non-issue for English speakers.
Only when I finally sit down and unpack do I acknowledge the reality that I’m now entombed in a stranger’s house. However, any trepidation is short-lived as I’m bombarded with tea and biscuits. Jørdi even relegates herself to a floor mattress in order for me to have a bedroom to myself.
At its core, CS is an utterly admirable enterprise – a network built on generosity and reciprocity. No host seems to expect anything more than common courtesy, though cooking and washing up will score you plenty of bonus points.
In terms of the CS website itself, it’s easy enough to get your bearings. Despite being littered with fake and inactive profiles, visible references and reply rates allow for a comforting level of self-regulation.
Admittedly, many users are limited by their grasp of English, but the bulk of profiles are frustratingly generic. Everyone claims to be ‘outgoing’, ‘open-minded’ and ‘fun-loving’, which all sounds faintly euphemistic like you’re on some coded dating site. Incidentally, many people use it for exactly that purpose (as documented on disturbingly methodical blogs such as Maverick Traveler). For my own profile I try to opt for a delicate blend of sincerity and self-effacement – something that proudly declares, ‘I am neither a serial killer nor sex offender’ (though I don’t recommend typing those exact words).
When it comes to choosing hosts/surfers, Jørdi believes instinct is the key. “Firstly, you get an idea from their profile. Then you can tell just by exchanging a few messages if they’re normal or not.”
But then there are the horror stories. Jonas, my straight-talking host in the northern fishing village of Sørvågen, remembers when his housemate offered shelter to a pair of middle-aged Hungarians. Having planned to stay a few days, they made themselves at home for a month.
“They didn’t pay for anything,” Jonas says. “They ate our food and never paid any kind of rent. They even brought their dog with them.”
So how did he get them to leave?
“One day after I’d been hunting rabbits, I came home with my shotgun under one arm and suggested it might be time for them to go somewhere else.”
Another Norwegian, Trude, laments the persistence (bordering on harassment) of some male couchsurfers who have visited her hometown of Bergen.
And this is where the system breaks down. Your only real safeguard is your own discretion. And once someone is in your house or has your phone number, you’re essentially backed into a corner.
Luckily – and possibly by virtue of being a guy – I haven’t had any bad experiences of my own so far and for all of my kind hosts, my door is always open to return the favour.
This article was originally published on Live4.