My experience on CouchSurfing

When I was in London (where I lived for nearly six years) I met up with an old friend from my childhood, Dani. He told me he was going on a trip around Europe for a month. ‘But you just said you don’t have much money!’ I said confused. He didn’t. He had just enough to cover train/bus tickets and food.

Dani was going to couchsurf across Europe. This cool concept means people offer their sofa or their spare rooms to travellers who are visiting their city for a few days at no cost. But it’s not about staying somewhere for free. People are genuine: most of the travellers on CS want to get to know the culture, the language, the customs and the people from the country they are visiting. And most of the hosts want to show their travellers around, hear their exciting stories, share some moments with them and get to know different people and cultures.

Now, back to the story – when Dani told me about CouchSurfing I was living with my housemate Julia, a wonderful girl I met in Rio while volunteering. Julia’s family lives in Austria so when she’d go there to see them, we would rent her room out on Airbnb as our flat was super expensive (but what isn’t in London). So unfortunately, CouchSurfing was not an option for us. At the time, over a year ago, I had just got engaged to Charles, my then boyfriend. A few months later Charles and I decided to move to Madrid. I needed to get some experience in journalism and London – even though multicultural and open minded – didn’t seem to want me there as I’m not a native speaker. So I decided to go back to my country and be a native speaker again.

Four months after we had moved to Spain, over a period of two days, Charles left. One Thursday he told me Spain wasn’t for him and he had to go back to England for a weekend soon. The same afternoon he left his job. On Friday he said he missed his family, and the weather (Madrid can be terribly hot in the summer). Charles also said he didn’t like having all the responsibilities he had, like taking care of the dogs, cleaning the house and having to cook (being an adult). That evening he said he would go back to England indefinitely. I asked him ‘what about us?’ I was scared as we had just bought all the furniture for our new home in Spain and most importantly, we had just adopted a dog, Frida. I would not be able to work and study at the same time as I was spending 12h out of the house every day.

He went for a walk with my dog and came back. Then told me he had been talking to his parents who had begged him to come home. His dad said he’d get him a job in his field, and his mum supported the idea of him coming back. Note to self: Do not go out with a spoilt child.

On Saturday Charles came home to pack everything and drove back to England. I begged him to stay, I said I wouldn’t finish my master’s degree and I would just go back with him. I said he was being a selfish bastard and forbade him to leave. I said I didn’t care and I could do better than him. I said a million things, and nothing changed his mind. ‘We want different things, I want to live in England forever and you keep changing your mind, saying you want to live in South America, or Australia or so many other places!’. He was right though. I was so willing to sacrifice my nomadic spirit for him. But I really wanted to travel around, move to another country, learn another language, live in many more places before settling down.

So there I was, in a two bedroom flat in Madrid until at least April, when I finish my master’s. I had to give Frida back to the rescue centre, which was heart-breaking, and I also left my job as an English teacher in order to spend time with my dog, Ollie. Ah, dogs are love. Unconditional pure love. They never give up on you, they never abandon you. They’ll always love you and be there for you.

As the flat was quite expensive, I started looking for a smaller place for Ollie and me, but Madrid is not a very dog-friendly city – no matter how well you’ve trained your dog, because let’s face it: not many people bother to train their dogs here, so they naturally misbehave, and owners are okay with that. ‘She’s a very stubborn dog’ no Miss, your dog is not stubborn, she doesn’t come back because for her any other dog is more exciting than you. Ignorance is a bliss so I don’t like to interfere.

After two weeks in the flat on my own I felt incredibly lonely, and I created a profile on CouchSurfing offering my sofa to anyone who needed it. Two hours later I had a request for that very same night. I was watching Eat, pray, love which I found extraordinarily shallow and painfully long, and I stopped to clean the house as fast as I could. Then, my first couchsurfer arrived; Kave was a man from Iran who had been living in Denmark for the past five years. He was also the key to unlock a greater understanding, that life goes on and this is just a new chapter in my journey. A new opportunity to study abroad if I wanted to (we looked into it, master’s degrees are free in Denmark!) and to embrace anything that came from now on, because I had just been set free and I didn’t even know. We spent two days sight-seeing Madrid and we walked Ollie around Retiro Park, which is especially beautiful. He told me about his experience in an open relationship which blew my mind, and about some other couch surfers who had got an upgrade to his bed. Kave could also be quite funny. He was a wonderful man full of wisdom, the perfect friend to have deep conversations for hours if you needed to.

My second couch surfer was David, a dog lover from Colombia. He even brought some dog treats for Ollie! He told me about his life, how he found out who his dad was, and how life had been good to him in the end. A life story that could have come out of a telenovela, he reminded me of the characters in García Márquez’s books and made me miss South America. People with warm hearts and gentle spirits.

Anna was the third one to stay. She was a 20-year-old girl from Berlin who studied medicine but decided to take a gap year to explore South America (I was so jealous!). First stop before getting there, Madrid. Anna was so kind and nice. A bit shy but friendly. I took her to a vegan restaurant, we talked about life and experiences… It was fantastic to have her.

My fourth stay was also from Germany. 29-year-old Simon was a free soul, he had been travelling around Asia on a motorbike and before that, Australia. We watched some films together, and he convinced me to ride those electric scooters around the city. So glad he did! I had so much fun. He was also, like the rest of my guests, extremely polite and considerate. Simon also bought me some chocolates to thank me for letting him stay one more night. He was truly a gentleman.

Meanwhile, I had been talking to Nick, my next couch surfer. By the time he arrived we had been texting each other for a week, so I felt a bit more familiar with him. I considered the possibility of something happening between us, but I also knew I was hurt, and I didn’t feel quite ready yet. It took me three days to make up my mind, and it was the best decision ever. Nick was a 23-year-old nurse from Minnesota living in France for a year. He spoke English, French, Spanish and Arabic. I was so impressed. He also played the guitar and sang well, although I didn’t have the pleasure to see it live. He had the body of a Greek God and was very handsome, so one day when he picked me up from uni I challenged him. I said, ‘What do you think of the Arab Israeli conflict?’ He then said ‘Well I’m not really into politics’ I knew it – I thought – he couldn’t be perfect, there is the flaw, he’s an ignorant person: Just a pretty face. Forget him. Then, he started talking about the conflict and gave me some historical context with specific dates included. He had been reading a book about it not long ago. Hit and sunk, my theory went down the drain and so did my excuses. I was just so afraid of rejection and goodbyes and having sex with someone else. Nick taught me that there are men out there that can be much better than I thought. Kind, considerate, caring, selfless, well-cultured. What a wonderful young man. Note to self: Do not lose contact with him. Life might end up rewarding you and you might end up with him, God knows.

My next guest was Mikaela, a sweet 21-year-old girl half Colombian half French who was studying in Toulouse. I learnt so much from her and her vision of life. Mikaela was a very mature girl who had come to Spain hitchhiking. She was so brave and had had the guts and the instinct to do it. She was such an introspective girl, she had analysed her mother and forgiven her already for any mistakes she had made when bringing her up. It took me quite a few years (recently) to go through the same process, and some friends of mine are still on it and are much older than her. Mikaela was so open minded and tolerant with everyone. When she left I felt I was missing a friend.

Laura, a 26 year-old-dreamer from Barcelona was working in Salamanca. She stayed over the weekend while Mikaela, who was supposed to leave on Friday, asked me to stay a couple of more nights. ‘I’d love to, but I don’t have any more room’ I said, ‘I’ll sleep on the floor, I don’t mind’, she replied. Of course I didn’t let that happen, so I offered to share my bed with Mika. The three of us had so much fun together. Girly nights talking about men, me mainly talking wonders about Nick, and them telling me about their recent love experiences.

The girls left on Sunday and I felt extremely lonely again. I had just been looking at a flat where they allowed dogs and it looked promising. Then, a CouchSurfing request. Joe, from London. He was looking for a room in Madrid and asked me if he could stay until he found one. And he did. He is my current housemate, who cooks well and cheers me up. And most importantly: He loves Ollie (who doesn’t anyway). Joe was also looking for a Spanish tutor – guess what my job was in London, “Moni the Spaniard”. Yes, I was a Spanish teacher for AIG and before that a private Spanish tutor for over four years. So all of a sudden I had a housemate and a job. Ultimately, a great twist in my life.

I had been too scared to look for a housemate as I’m really picky with people and not very tolerant with noisy housemates or people who aren’t very aware. That’s why I love CS so much, because travellers are usually super considerate and kind. If you choose well it can be a wonderful experience. We’ll keep being hosts on CS as Joe has just bought a bed, so the sofa is free again. I can’t wait for the next guest to arrive!

Where are we going?

An update on life in Spain and the impressions I get, and a retrospection on our modern lives.

Where are we going with all of this? I mean, where is this technological era taking us? Are we evolving or devolving? I have realised the more time I spend in the city the more I would like to go back to what the earth was like a good few decades ago.

As humans, we might not always listen to our need to for being surrounded by nature. But when we pause our busy lives for a second and take a break, visit a forest, or a lake or somewhere isolated we can experience the connection. In my case, I feel complete when I’m close to the sea. I feel the need of being near, in, or on it. I just cannot explain the feeling of happiness and fondness for that great body of water. There is a magical overwhelming sensation that surrounds the sea, and when I go in I feel embraced. Then, nothing is important anymore. We are finally one.

As we come and go, and fill our most primary needs such as eating or paying rent by working we focus on the city lifestyle, and end up losing the connection. In fact, we don’t even need it, there are many more important things in life like making money. Being promoted. Buying things. Having a good social image. Social media.

It’s all things we have created. A frivolous life we feed while someone makes sure we don’t question it – mainly the media. Which makes me think of big companies buying, selling, buying, selling. Fast fashion. They exploit workers in 3rd world countries so we can comfortably buy clothes or shoes for a ‘fair price’. We should ask the workers how fair it actually is. But we all know about it. Nike exploits children. H&M, Gap, Primark, Zara (Inditex)… exploit garment workers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Brazil, Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam. And don’t get me started on Apple. We turn a blind eye, because getting clothes or things from non-mainstream brands is too complicated. Because we’d rather have a crappy life in which we spend most of our day in a low paid job (Spain) in order to re-pay the mortgage we’ve got, and of course we cannot afford ethical brands nor can we be bothered to find them online – even when it takes less than two minutes.

This country is funny like that. Spain is full of corrupt politicians as everyone knows. But then again, the media is also corrupt, so there won’t be a revolution because everyone has learnt to focus on more important matters. What surprises me is that so many people will defend the system. Many of them are even proud of their country, and will defend the injustice and unjustified unfairness that surrounds us. For example: Politicians are found to be involved in a massive corruption scandal and what do we do? Nothing, we worry about the situation in Catalonia, and we complain about people wanting to be independent (They’re breaking our country!) instead of giving them the opportunity to have a referendum and make them choose democratically what they want. And when they try, like it happened last year, what did the police do? They beat up the people who had gathered ‘illegally’ to vote and have a saying. And what does the media/the country say? They haven’t asked what the rest of Spain wants, what if we want them to be part of us still? How dare they want to vote! – Imagine this situation from a couple’s perspective: ‘John, I want to divorce you’, ‘But Martha, you haven’t asked me what I want, what if I don’t want to divorce you? I want us to be together for life!’ ‘Uhm… Okay John, but I just don’t want that. I don’t love you anymore, I think I’m going to get my things and go somewhere else.’ ‘You can’t do that! That’s not the legal procedure! I’ll call the police to tell them you’ve been a bad wife and make you change your mind!’. And basically that’s what they did. Police brutality of course won the argument.

A year later they still haven’t had their referendum and it would still be illegal to have one. The politicians who carried out the movement had to run away from Spain not to be imprisoned. Which slightly reminds me of the times of the dictatorship in this country – a very controversial topic now as the new government wants to move the corpse of the dictator somewhere less glamorous and good old fascist supporters are coming out of the woodwork to complain about it. There is a Fundación Francisco Franco by the way, which is the equivalent to Hitler having a foundation to honour him and have meetings every now and then to remember his glorious soul. Meanwhile the rest of the world tries to comprehend the craziness of the situation, whereas in Spain it is something completely normal. (The president of the foundation even speaks on national TV!)

We are the sons and daughters, the grandchildren of that dictatorship, and many many people won’t ever be able to see the atrocities committed by a murderer. Instead, they’ll only see that there wasn’t criminality on the streets – curfew; whoever was an opositor could go to prison and be tortured if discovered. People like gays, or lesbians were put in psychiatric institutions for many years in an attempt to make them ‘normal’ again. But of course none of this would affect you if you were a good loyal supporter of the right wing dictatorship.

A couple of months ago I couldn’t see much difference between Spain and the UK on many aspects, but now I do:

Coming back from the UK, Spain seems to be a very backward country. In their politics, their infrastructure, education system, bureaucracy, and their high tolerance towards deceitfulness. A very disappointed image to be unchanged (I left precisely because of that). In a way, I’d like to stay to work on fixing it. As a journalist, I believe I have a voice and should be used to create awareness and fight against injustice. However circumstances force me to stay only for a while before returning to the UK.

We have a plan though, we want to live in the countryside, isolated from the world for a few hours a day. In contact with nature on good quality walks with my (now two) dogs. We adopted one here as I know Spain has a much higher dog abandonment rate, the highest in Europe apparently.

And while I can, I will try to ignore that companies listen in and record random bits of conversation through my phone, that my life will be dedicated to work in order to pay for a piece of land, that modern slavery does exist, and all those normalised horrible aspects of the human world.

Please buy ethic. There’s a bunch of brands that do only ethical clothes and whose workers are paid a fair salary and work in good conditions.

Please stay in touch with nature. For your own health. Do not forget that we are here on this planet to take care of it, we are lucky enough to see it and experience it. Life is so much more than making money or having thousands of followers.

I’ll stop rambling now, thanks for reading and a happy week to you!

The runaway

A white page on a digital platform where to share my feelings. Digital era they call it. Gone are the days where I would spend the whole evening writing notes in my little notebook. Everything seems to be so connected yet disconnected. I am not sure I like it.  I guess I’m being dramatic, I’m only from the 90s, I should be used to it – ‘it’s not like you were born six decades ago!’ I tell myself.

Yet still, I feel like we are going uncontrollably fast, speeding up to the limit and rushing into what will inevitably be a mixture of destruction and dust, if that makes sense.

If someone asked me how I would define this era I would say digital. I can’t help but feel we would be better off without that much technology, apps, and overall social media. Lonely people overshare on social media. That was the headline of some news report I read the other day.

Europe is for good and bad pretty much the same everywhere, so when I say I’ve moved from the UK to Spain again, contrary to most people’s opinion I believe is not such a big deal. Health system is the same, applying for jobs requires the same digital process, shopping online is practically the same with different products (supermarkets here have much more variety at much cheaper prices!) and overall it feels like there’s not much difference. Same banks, fast food, clothing shops… Same fashion, style, and lifestyle. We have lost our identity to an alarming rate and in order to feel abroad one has to go very very far, where the influence of the west isn’t so strong. All of this makes me feel sad and overwhelmed. But of course, when emigrating it makes things ten times easier, so I shouldn’t be ungrateful.

This month I said goodbye to the UK. Hopefully for a long time. I came back to my hometown, Madrid, and I am living in a sunny place.

Places are colourful and so are the people. It has taken me five years to miss it. I used to hate it. Madrid is where I grew up in a not very healthy environment with very toxic people, but I had to fight my demons and that has taken many years. I come back now to somewhere different in Madrid, so the neighbourhood is different, and I’m still trying to get to know the area.

It feels good to be back however it doesn’t feel like home to me. I don’t belong to anywhere nor do I feel the need to stay or come back. I just wanted to run away from England, like I did from Madrid one day, and my friends were still here so I came to them. They are home. I have now a fiancé and of course my dog – they are home too – so I took everyone with me on this new adventure and I’ll take this time in my life to reconnect with my loved ones. To start a new chapter in my life. ‘The comeback’ or maybe not. That doesn’t matter, I probably won’t stay here for too long, and when I’m ready and I have recharged my batteries I’ll feel free to leave again. This time I won’t run away.