/ 9 June 2005

Sofa, so good

‘This unorthodox idea was kindled by an article I read about a new website. It is called the Couch Surfing Project and the premise is simple: need a place to stay? Couchsurfing.com will match you with someone who will let you bed down at their place for free.

It sounded simultaneously intriguing and scary, and with 13 391 couches to choose from in 134 countries I needed to narrow down my selection. I had never quite got around to visiting Scandinavia, partly because of its reputation for being expensive, but with no accommodation costs to pay the excuse fell over. Plumping for Sweden cut the number of available couches down to 170.

Then came the tough part. I figured that if I was going to have an outside chance of remaining married I needed to avoid female Swedes offering a sofa. It took an entertaining hour reading about Maria, Martuschka and Jessica to settle on that conclusion, but finally up popped Johan, a 25-year-old journalist who listed his likes as football and drinking. Sofa, so good.

A few e-mails later and we had arranged to meet at Stockholm’s Central Station on the forbidding date of Friday 13, when amazingly my new pen-pal showed up.

Though the idea may seem deranged, it has certain benefits. I may have slept for two nights in the same room as a strange Swede, but there was no charge and I got a free chef and guide thrown in. Initially, we took in the obligatory attractions, such as a stroll around the Old Town, a maze of cobbled streets and ancient buildings that include the Parliament House and Royal Palace.

Then east to Djurgarden, where we visited the awesomely restored 17th-century warship, Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, was preserved in mud for more than three centuries and was finally raised intact in the 1960s.

Any visitor to Stockholm would have probably done the same. The difference with visiting a city with somebody who knows it well is that you get something extra. Johan took me on his own tour of the Olympic Stadium, built for the 1912 games, where he told me about a Japanese runner who took a break from the marathon in somebody’s garden, drank a beer and couldn’t be bothered to finish the race.

Elsewhere, we stood outside the former bank in Norrmalmstorg, the scene of the kidnap that gave birth to the concept of Stockholm Syndrome. And then there was a nerve-racking Saturday night on Sodermalm in a sports bar packed with crazed Swedes, cheering on the national ice-hockey team.

All of that before Johan’s speciality, a morbid tour of the sites of two recent political assassinations: the Nordiska Kompaniet department store where former foreign minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death in 2003 on the eve of the planned Euro referendum; and Sveavagen, where then-prime minister Olof Palme was gunned down in 1986.

Hearing these tales was great for me, but what was in all of this for Johan, I wondered? ”It’s interesting as you get to meet different people,” my host explained. ”There are drawbacks. When my flatmate Martin was in Stockholm, we had two French guys to stay. Their English wasn’t very good so after a while we got bored of them. Martin ended up throwing a spare set of keys at them and saying ‘We’re off out. Look after yourselves.”’

Some would say that being abandoned by your hosts is the least of a couchsurfer’s worries. There is quite evidently a security risk to these capers and on the bus to meet Johan for the first time I even sent a text message to my wife, instructing her to inform the police to find a Johan Anderberg should I disappear, which settled my nerves and freaked her out.

The website offers its own safeguards and like other Internet hubs it encourages members to vouch for each other. Additionally, the website can verify if members are who they say they are by charging $25 to a credit card and sending a letter to the card-holder’s address which requires a reply. According to the founders, these features help determine a person’s trustworthiness.

Naturally, many users will choose to contact only those with the highest security rating, but you can also refuse to offer anybody a bed. For my part, I would do it again, although I doubt I would offer a stranger my couch.

Couchsurfing.com was launched in January by Casey Fenton, a web consultant based in Alaska, who hit upon the idea after using the Internet to find a local person to stay with when he found a cheap flight to Iceland.

Dreading another night in a hotel room, he e-mailed more than 1 000 people from the University of Iceland’s student directory and ended up staying with a student and her friends. ”They showed me their Iceland. I had a ball. When I was on the plane back, I thought to myself: ‘That’s how I want to travel every time.”’ — Â