Thursday, August 06, 2009

surfing couches and first impressions

The idea of seeing a country through the eyes of a local interest me so much that I decided to try out Couchsurfing (CS). Basically, it's sleeping on a stranger's couch in a foreign country. How scary can that be, you may ask.

A lot of people got quite worried when I told them I was going to do this. That's why I didn't tell many people about it! Surprisingly, my parents were pretty okay with that idea.

If I was traveling alone, I wouldn't have done it. It helped that there were verification processes in place, one of which were references left by couchsurfers on their hosts' profile.

You can imagine the amount of reading I had to read in addition to my studying for the JLPT exams. I had to vet through the profiles of potential hosts, on top of writing a customised email for each of them, and then communicating with those who responded positively.

Some sounded very nice on the email, some took their time and did not respond until I was already in Europe and even had to call one to ask for directions to his place. But generally you get a feel of who your hosts are through all the correspondences.

Staying with hosts would sometimes mean that you have to follow their schedules and be subjected to their whims and fancies, but I would say I had positive experiences overall.

Each of our hosts were different in their personalities and lifestyle. Inadvertently, we formed impressions of each city through our interaction with the hosts.

Our first host was the happy-go-lucky funny man kinda guy. His childhood friend from Sardania happened to stay with him during the time we were there. Together we had hilarious moments, especially the one where we all made a video of them speaking in Japanese.

We had a lot of fun learning about each other's culture while driving through the streets of Roma and mingling with other CS'ers on the steps of Piazza Trillusa. We were his first Asian guests (he actually thought I was Japanese and was disappointed to find out otherwise and even said he couldn't host me, all jokingly of course) and he was our first impression of Italy.

Just right after we arrived after 20 hours of flight (including transits at Incheon and Milano), he asked if we would like to meet up with other CS'ers in town. I was a bit tired, but didn't mind since I needed to eat anyways. We were oooh-ing and aah-ing at as we whizzed through the ancient city of Roma. It felt like doing the Italian Job flying around town in that little car of his!

Ancient ruins and relics everywhere we turned, the city was lit up beautifully at night. We were so amazed at everything we saw, nevermind the fact that all we wanted to do was to shower and get some rest. We were still very excited at the fact that we were actually in Europe and everything looked so different from where we came from.

So much so that we had forgotten to take pictures!

Our first meal was pizza, no surprise there. Thin crust has always been my favourite over thick ones, so I loved REAL pizza even more. For a square slice with toppings, it cost about Euro2-4, depending on the size. Everytime we bought pizza, we would try out different flavours.

Being on the steps of Piazza Trillusa we were instantly educated on Italian culture. We met so many other people that night, not just Italians out for a good time. Sitting on the steps with a slice of pizza and beer in hand, Italian youth hang and chill out with their friends, usually going back at around 2am even though some have to wake up early to work the next day. Speaking of lepak, this was quite different from Asia.

We were probably the only Asians there, and for the first time I knew how it felt to be a minority! Don't even mention Australia, there were as many Asians as Australians where I went that I didn't feel as if I left Asia at all.

If I had ventured out on my own, I wouldn't have ended up at a place like this. Not that it wasn't safe, but it was as local as it could get, we were very glad to have our Italian hosts with us to show us around.

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