“British girls: never again!” These were the words of our Swiss couchsurfing host, Nico, as he drove us back to his home at five o’clock in the morning. He had joined us at a forest rave, which he had recommended to us, and kindly resisted the alcohol and more dubious substances on offer to drive us back to sleep in his lounge.
Myself and a friend had found cheap flights from Leeds Bradford to Geneva, and flew out there on a half-empty flight early Saturday morning to visit Beth, my Warwick compatriot there on a work placement as part of her year abroad. Little did we know that by evening we would be sat in a French guy’s car, waiting in a ditch off a country lane, until the police gave up their blockade and allowed us access to the beats we could hear reverberating somewhere within the depths of the woods. This was no teddy bear’s picnic.
Local knowledge and free taxi service back from parties are just some of the perks of couchsurfing.com. On the website the mission statement reads as follows: “CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding.” Cheaper than staying in a hostel – in fact it is basically free accommodation, although it is polite to bring a gift for your host and perhaps wash-up/tidy-up or offer to cook a meal.
Our host’s first words to us – after the obligatory three cheek kisses common in Switzerland – was “make yourself at home”. Beth was the one who discovered couchsurfing, after securing an apprenticeship in an office in Geneva, she desperately searched for somewhere to live. After already spending a night on a toilet floor in St Pancreas station, Couchsurfing.com seemed like a godsend, eradicating forever the possibility of having to sleep rough on park benches across Europe.
Beth became a member of couchsurfing (for free) and wrote a statement about herself and posted it on the Geneva message board. Several couch-surfers replied but whilst some offered their couches for odd nights Nico and Maryem could offer a longer stretch, even handing her a key to their apartment on arrival. After two weeks on their couch she managed to secure permanent accommodation and moved out.
However the friendships she had made remained in place and couch-surfing opened up a whole social network to her – a stranger in a new city. Not only did the guys introduce her to their circle of friends but couchsurfing is a bit like a university society, in that every so often it has social events bringing together its members from across Europe. Thus she recently went to Bern, the capital of Switzerland, with a group of other couchsurfers, staying of course on sofas there and partying together, doing tours and a flash mob frieze in a crowded station. And of course couchsurfing opens up doors to other sharing initiatives, car-sharing to Paris anyone?
For our visit, Beth had once again enlisted the hospitality of Nico and Maryem, allowing all three of us to sleep comfortably in their lounge – saving ourselves money on accommodation. Switzerland is notoriously pricey. Before going everyone had commented on this factor, thus I was already mentally spending my student loan before term had even commenced. However we found some museums were free, a seven franc daily tram ticket was good value, there was no charge for partying under the stars and supermarket food was comparable to Tesco.
Eating in restaurants was more expensive than in Britain, in one place we had the speciality fondue – a migraine-inducing mix of melted cheese laced with wine, served with crusty bread for dipping creating a beige-platter seriously lacking in greenery. However this fondue easily served three rendering it quite good value, the same could not be said for the tomato and mozzarella salad Beth ordered as well, which when it arrived comprised of nothing more than its namesake and cost 20 francs (about 14 pounds). We did not do massive amounts of shopping either, mainly because we doubted whether the numerous security men would even admit us to the Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana stores. One of the main expenses of the trip was a return train ticket along the length of the lake to its eastern point, but in hindsight it was worth the expenditure.
It is difficult to summarise Geneva after such a short visit. It is undoubtedly a fashionable city with the aforementioned luxurious brands dominating its shopping high street and the suits-and-sunglasses brigade. There is a definite gay-vibe with many bars touting themselves as gay-friendly and the seemingly high proportion of groomed good-looking men about, with other equally handsome men, bore that out. Geneva also radiates hard-work and industry as it is the headquarters of the United Nations and a major financial centre which gives it a more serious edge. There appeared to be few tourists meandering the streets and more movement with purposeful direction. Whilst cities like Barcelona and London appear to never switch off Geneva has a more understated dynamism. Beth described how weekends in the city could be sleepy when commuters left for weekends away or returned to their nearby home towns, Geneva being as it is, very much composed of international residents. Despite the formal veneer of the city, couchsurfing and Beth’s own knowledge allowed us access to a more chilled, friendly side of the place.
In the brilliant sunshine we experienced Geneva was dazzling. The lake appeared an almost alarming blue and in the distance the city appeared encircled by snow-topped mountains. Much of the city’s offices and homes are in flats, creating a feel like that of Amsterdam. Along the lake front the architecture consists of many of these tall building with aesthetically pleasing shutters, wrought-iron balconies and hanging baskets.
One of the defining features of the waterfront is the Jet d’eau that shoots high-pressure water up into the air for 140metres at a speed of 124miles per hour. The water is under incredible pressure – the antithesis to our student shower in Leamington – so much so that a barrier prevents direct access. Standing near it and looking up it is impossible to see the top of the fountain blending as it does into the clouds overhead. Walking along the promenade in juxtaposition with the fountain, a fierce wet wind assaults the tourist.
Travelling along the lake we stopped at Lausanne, a university town which attracts a young crowd to its clubs and bars. Montreux is a showy town around the lake famous for its jazz festival and its statue of former resident Freddie Mercury. Montreux is hugged by mountains creating its own sheltered microclimate. The climax of the journey is the Chateau de Chillon which clings like a barnacle on the edge of the lake and according to the guidebook is one of the best preserved castles in Europe (errr have they been to Warwick castle?!). It certainly had a dramatic location and inside one narrow staircase led to a prison, its wall and floors uneven due to its rocky foundations. This setting and the castle’s history inspired Byron’s poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ and earned him a plaque on the wall.
On returning home to Yorkshire I logged onto the couchsurfing website. I looked at how many French hosts there were as I am considering spending a year there after graduating and found 50,166 in France, in comparison with 28,779 in the UK. In descriptions of themselves words like fun-loving, dreamer and peace crop up. Whilst Beth vigorously denied my inquisition as to couchsurfing descending at any point into a hedonistic orgy, one might wish to choose hosts a little carefully too – perhaps not wanting to stay with 50 year old hosts or avoiding the guy with the profile picture of blood dripping down his mouth and chin.
It did prove a difficult concept to explain to my parents who could not understand the benefit to the hosts of this international “crashing”, other than exposure to British customs, culture and colloquialisms. The morning after the rave Nico assured us he had had an unforgettable night with us – and that is the benefit of couchsurfing, it combines unforgettable people with places.