After hopping off a bus in the small town of Drumnadrochit, a friend and I stood awkwardly huddled together on a cold February night in the Highlands of Scotland. We looked from her phone and up to the house in front of us, checking and then rechecking that the address was correct. We glanced at each other with questioning eyes, hoping the other would volunteer to knock. Finally, my friend mustered her courage and knocked on the door. Soon, warm light poured out of the doorway, and we were greeted by a boisterous man, Eamon, welcoming us into his home and introducing us to his family. They provided us with food, beds, a warm home, adventures around the town and surrounding Scottish forest, as well as a Twenty-One Pilots serenade from his daughter. Even though we had never met them beyond messaging on the internet, Eamon and his family accepted us as one of their own.
According to Eamon, “couch surfing is a great way for my children to meet and learn how to converse with new people from all over the world from the comfort of their own home. It is important to us to teach them how to interact with others so that they will gain the confidence to couchsurf when they are older. They already have a network of friends over the whole of Europe, and it keeps growing!” Couch Surfing is how my friend and I found Eamon. It is a website where travelers can find local home and apartment owners who will let you sleep on their couch (thankfully, in our case, two separate beds). There is no cost, even though they may provide you with not only a bed, but also food and transportation. Interacting and meeting people from the internet is beneficial and important, as it allows us to make connections with people around the world in seemingly random places.
This life-changing couchsurfing experience in Scotland actually took place during my year studying abroad in Bern, Switzerland, where my eyes were opened to the concept of being able to trust strangers more than I had thought possible. Living with Eamon and his family was a large stepping stone toward gaining this type of trust, and a couple months after backpacking across Scotland, I decided to volunteer at Vidcon Europe in Amsterdam, which is a convention celebrating videos on the internet. After talking with another volunteer on Facebook, a girl from England, for a couple of days, I booked my flight to Amsterdam, where we rented out an Airbnb together. Though our first meeting was quite silent, awkward, and largely dominated by small talk, this girl, who I had only ever spoken with on Facebook for a week before I met her in person, became one of my good friends. We both admitted we were nervous about meeting, but after our debacle with a Dominos pizza, where our fear of answering phones in a different country caused our pizza delivery man to turn back around on his way to the AirBNB, caused us to forge a friendship. Though we only hung out in person for that one weekend, we still message today and hold out hope that we will be able to meet again sometime.
The idea of strangers is not the same in Europe as in the U.S. Europe, for example, is filled with hostels, where you can pay around 10 Euros a night for a bed, breakfast, and information about free tours in the city. The catch is that you will be sleeping alongside people you may not know, who come from around the world--and who occasionally snore. While going out to explore the city, you leave most of your things in a room easily accessed by many “strangers,”. At first, I had constant anxiety about leaving anything alone in our room, as I was scared that someone would take our bags or other items. However, my Belgian friend showed me that things were different in Europe. Interacting with strangers is a norm, and is somewhat expected, especially from travelers, so that they can learn more about the culture and be able to explore the city with more information on directions and sights to see. By the end of my year abroad, I was willing to be more trusting of people, such as trusting that I would not be judged by others when attending traditional dancing lessons, all of which were in Swiss German, and is something that I never would have considered before I studied abroad.
Before studying abroad, I never dreamed of interacting with complete strangers to the extent that I did, from couch surfing, staying in hostels, and hitchhiking. Being abroad has showed me a different side to people, which ultimately changed my perspective on the world. I am now more open minded and willing to interact with those around me. I highly recommend that everyone have a study abroad experience to widen their horizons and make new connections around the world. If you are interested in studying abroad, contact the Center for International Education at NAU to find a program that is right for you.