I traveled on trust and couches

Who’d let a stranger stay with them? A lot of people, it turned out.

John Kehe

A while back I caught a news report on something called “couch surfing” and the network of unbelievably trusting souls who make this phenomenon possible. They offer to put up travelers, free of charge, for one or two nights to give them a place to lay their heads and help them on their ways. At first blush, it sounded dubious. I mean, inviting strangers into one’s home? For a sleepover? Gimme a break.

However, I was intrigued. I decided to investigate. I read profile upon profile of members of the couch-surfing community, and then my curiosity went into overdrive and I decided that the only way to truly learn about this phenomenon was to dive in. And so I planned a trip to Finland, a country I’ve always wanted to explore. I would travel the length and breadth of the place by train, and I would couch surf at every stop. 

If ever any anxiety existed – and there is always an element of anxiety when stepping into the unknown – it evaporated when my first host met me at the train station in Helsinki. Ari looked like my idea of a typical Finn: tall, blond, and blue-eyed. However, Finns were also supposed to be famously reserved. Ari was anything but. He was a live wire, giving me an effusive welcome and hiking with me to his apartment, where he showed me the sleeper sofa, served me tea, and then engaged me in animated conversation. He also handed me a key with a directive to come and go as I pleased. 

If this was what couch surfing was all about – trust and welcome – then I had gotten off to a spectacular start.

I quickly discovered one of the bittersweet aspects of couch surfing: having to say goodbye so soon after getting to know somebody. But to paraphrase Robert Frost’s famous words, I had miles to go before I slept, and so, after two days, I headed to my train and the coastal city of Turku, where my next host, Juri, met me. 

Lean and wild-haired, Juri was the anti-Ari, but no less generous. He wanted to hang out and dedicated a big chunk of his day to showing me around his city and teaching me how to use the bus system for the forays I would make under my own steam.

As I boarded my next train for the north of the country, I began to dwell upon this couch-surfing idea. What impelled these people to open their homes to strangers? To hand over their keys? To want to spend time with these travelers? I concluded that there was an element of curiosity, but also a desire to reach out and lend a hand to like-minded folks who might, at some level, enrich their own lives. This came home to me in spades when my next host drove 30 kilometers – nearly 20 miles – to pick me up at the train station and take me to her family’s home in a rural area of central Finland. 

The family of five received me like a long-lost relative, showed me around, shared their food, and chatted with me into the night. The day before I was an unknown quantity, but now they were asking when I would be back.

The journey continued – to another Ari in Kokkola, to Jamppa in Oulu, and Ville in Kuopio, where my host took me to a traditional Finnish smoke sauna on the banks of a mist-shrouded lake in the woods. As we cooled off by the lake after one of our rounds in the sauna’s inferno, I spoke up. “Ville, this, as we say in English, is the icing on the cake.”

Seven cities in 14 days. Seven hosts. Seven new friends. Before I left for my Finland odyssey an acquaintance back home remarked, “Aren’t you afraid?” I wasn’t sure of an appropriate response then, but I am now: Of what? If couch surfing taught me anything it’s this: Most people are good. Most people are generous. And there is a basic human impulse to connect. 

Where will couch surfing take me next? Who knows? But I can’t wait to find out.

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