Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Surfing couches across Europe

Europe, like India, is a cultural melting pot with a million cultures. Ask a European to travel 250 kilometres from where he is and he'll probably feel like a stranger in a strange land. People, opinions, outlook, culture, leanings are all very different as you travel across Europe. I was lucky enough to interact personally with a great number of these different souls and all that happened thanks to the Couchsurfing Project ( Couchsurfing is based on a very simple premise. Travellers all over the world are a kindred spirit and a traveller will be more than glad to host you for a couple of days if you happen to be travelling to his city. The name of the project comes from the fact that hosts will at least be able to give up their couches for you to sleep in, if they have nothing else to offer. I used the Couchsurfing network to make friends in Hamburg, Milan, Venice, Paris and Berlin and each experience was extremely fulfilling.

My first Couchsurfing experience was with Leif in Hamburg. Leif is a Scandic name and apparently it is common for Northern Germans to have such a name. Leif was the perfect host. He drove us down to Lubeck and Scharbeutz apart from showing us around Hamburg. Leif introduced us to popular local selections from Astra beer to the Reeperbahn (Hamburg's Red Light district, where the Beatles played in the 60s much before they got so famous that John Lennon in his characteristic style said "We're more famous than Jesus Christ"). We did the typical touristy guy stuff in the Dollhouse and also did the Sunday morning at the fish Auction hall. His parting gift to me was an East German flag that made it to the display back at home.

I love the Italians. My mother tongue, Telugu, is often called the "Italian of the east" because all words (or almost all) end in vowels. This gives an impression of symmetry and structure to the language and makes it sound very pleasant. Italy reminded me of home to the extent that I felt homesick. I was hosted by Ray Tarantino in Milan. Ray has a band of his own and inspite of his busy schedule showed me around Milan's nightspots. Being one of those Da Vinci Code trivia fans I couldn't resist visiting Vinci's Last Supper Painting. Milan has so many Japanese tourists that they found it common sense to install squat-pans in toilets in most places. With the amount of money the Japanese tourist pumps in, anyone would bend backwards to indulge them.

If people were to be given the choice to visit one European city then they must choose Venice. Venice is charming, mesmerising and frustratingly beautiful. What made it even more memorable was to be hosted by somebody like Sara. We discovered some wonderful Osteries and Cafes in Venice and had a great time. She had some wonderful stories about her experiences in Galway and Granada and her passion for the Lynx. By the end of the trip she surpassed Gondolas, Marco Polo and Cassanova as far as recall value with respect to Venice was concerned. Venice also introduced me to other travellers and Couchsurfers. Sebastien a French-Canadian who had just finished a trek in the Julian Alps in Slovenia, Anna and Fanny an Italian and Belgian pair who had just come for a break.

You can't do justice to Paris if you stayed less than 3 days. I was there for almost 5 days and I still felt like I wanted to be there longer. I stayed with Won the first few days. Won, an American of South Korean ethnicity had a passion for mime and that brought him to Paris. I attended a few of his rehearsals as their official photographer and it was amazing how passionate Parisians are about art. Mime is an old South East Asian art that looks so fabulous when done the right way and Won's team was so good that at times forgot about my role of clicking pictures. (I remember a mime artist performing in School and being booed away from Stage and our Headmaster making the whole school stand in the chilling December cold in the middle of the night). I then moved to Vincente's place in Le Gobelins. Vincente worked for a foundation that helped young kids discover their scientific leanings. I met him at a time when France had just voted Sarkozy in and through his friends who were a great bunch of people we drank wine late into the morning and talked about Paris, India, French Politics and France's 264 patented varieties of cheese.

In all these people I found a common theme: A genuine love for travel, an interest in meeting people of different cultures and sharing experiences, and helping fellow travellers so that they get the best travel experience. People don’t expect a community purely based on good will to do well ... but Couchsurfing has all the ingredients to become a much larger and widely used community. Good bye seedy hotel rooms !!

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