CouchSurfing | Hope for the World

1_4_Hospitality
This train ride is different from the many we’ve taken lately – no chaiwallahs or hijras walking down the aisles, no dust floating through broken windows, covering everything in the car. We can slide the door closed, giving the six of us in the compartment a relative privacy. Our arrival will be late; our steps onto the streets of this unknown city will be in the dark, and I feel a hint of fear creeping inside as we pass the city lights bringing us into the heart of Belgrade. As we approach our destination, long-hidden stereotypes reveal themselves.

Serbia. I’m painfully ignorant about some parts of the world and this is one of them. Many of us are. We think of these Eastern (Central/South) European places as a bit less civilized, a bit more primitive than their Western counterparts. Maybe it’s the general prejudice against any formerly communist lands. Or Maybe it’s because most Western movies with characters from the Balkan states or other Eastern European countries portrays them as immigrants in London or Chicago or Belfast, dealing in drugs or trafficking in women.

A group of young men with close-cropped hair, some wearing tracksuits, walk through our car and scenes from the movies play through my head. I feel uneasy, and in that unease I find awareness of the prejudices I didn’t know I had.

We leave the train station with packs on our backs and satchels slung over our shoulders, attempting to follow the screenshots of maps on my phone. It proves less than easy. The street names on my maps are in Roman script, while everything in the city is in Cyrillic.

We get off track, turn down a street with fewer lights, lined by trees that add shade to an already dark lane. A man leans against a car talking to a woman. He is bald and strong, his biceps are bigger than my head and his tight t-shirt emphasizes his massive pecks. The woman is wearing a mini skirt and a long jacket. I will myself to drop my stereotypes into the sewer as we approach the curb. The woman smirks as we ask for directions in English, and the man points us in the right direction, repeating his instructions to make sure we find the place we’re looking for.

We stand at the bus stop near a main square of Belgrade and life is all around us. Like every European city, people are relaxing outside restaurants on wide sidewalks, drinking beer, eating dinner, adding their conversation to the noise of the city.

***

We slide open the gate to the driveway and are greeted by hugs, handshakes, and kisses. We drop our packs on the pavement, joining our hosts and their two friends at a picnic table outside their home. We are offered cigarettes, poured spritzers, and enveloped into the night’s festivities without thought or invitation. Like old friends, inclusion is assumed. But we’ve never met these people before this moment. They are not even friends of friends. Our only connection is an internet program, yet for the next three nights we will sleep in their home.

To many of us in the United States, CouchSurfing is a suspicious concept. Travel to a place where you know no one, walk into a stranger’s home, and sleep comfortably through the night? Or worse, welcome a stranger into your home, based on no recommendations but other strangers? No, thank you. It is in the same category as hitchhiking – maybe a nice possibility in the ‘safety’ (naivety?) of the ’60s and ’70s. But the world is too dangerous today. We know too much. We’ve seen too many news stories, watched too many movies to trust our neighbor, let alone Mr. “Open-Minded” Backpacking Hippie. To me, though, CouchSurfing gives me hope for a better world.

***

We wake up slowly. Stepping outside into the sun and the blue sky, we yawn and rub the sleep from our eyes, joining our hosts – Nevena and Filip – back at the picnic table. They are our age, travelers like us, open and easy conversation.

Per the guidelines of CouchSurfing.com, nothing is expected of hosts besides a free place to sleep – often, as the name suggests, on a couch. I consider this as Nevena carries out a platter of breads, cheeses, meats, and fruit for breakfast. We eat our fill as we swap stories of our travels. By the time we get up from the table we have had a glass of water, a cup of tea, a homemade sweet Serbian mint juice, a yoghurt drink, and a mug of coffee.

“We have a plan for our day if that’s okay,” Nevena tells us. “You don’t have to feel like you have to.”

“No, we are free,” we tell her.

Soon the four of us are on bicycles, riding single-file down the streets of Belgrade. We pass parliament and St. Mark’s church as Filip shares some of the history of the city.

Couchsurfing

“What’s going on there?” I ask, nodding to a parade marching through the street.

“That’s bullshit is what that is,” Filip tells me. “The man on the posters is on trial at The Hague for war crimes. I didn’t think anyone still supported him.”

We walk our bikes on cobblestone streets through the busy market center in Belgrade, cycle through Kalemegdan Park and the old citadel of Belgrade Fortress overlooking the city, and stop for ice cream cones on the banks of the Danube. The perfect weather and the companionship of our new friends both contribute to our growing feeling – we love this place. We feel at home here.

We travel across Belgrade to Filip’s parents’ home, meet two more CouchSurfers – Italy and England – and eat a late lunch with Filip’s grandmother.

“In a little bit we’ll go to the private party,” Nevena tells us.

“You keep calling this a ‘private’ party,” I tell her. “It sounds so exclusive and fancy. Am I under-dressed?”

Filip laughs. “I don’t know why she calls it ‘private.’ It’s just a group of friends. There will be music in their yard, and drinks.

Belgrade BackyardWe pick up a pack of cheap Serbian beer and chat with England and Italy on our way to this private party. The house is on the outskirts of town and the setting sun is shining on the Orthodox Church nearby. Drums and guitars are setup in the back corner of the yard and music is playing on the speakers. Friends, acquaintances, strangers are arriving, greeting each other and offering their liquid contributions to the night. Someone hands me a beer and we mingle the way you mingle at backyard parties, bobbing to the beats.

Becca and I glance at each other and smile. We are thinking the same thing: We might as well be on our back porch on Emerson Avenue in Minneapolis, eating hummus and handing out Summit EPAs, listening to a hipster music mix before Philips Phonograph takes the grassy stage and serenades our friends, acquaintances, strangers, neighbors.

Hours later the ‘concert’ has turned into a jam session and a short Cuban man in a fedora is repeating “chicky-woop-woop” into the microphone. Where the heck are we? we wonder, amused and content. We leave the party and I fall asleep on the bus taking us back across town. In the city center, Nevena’s brother picks us up in a car. The night is not over – at least, not before we buy a large slice of greasy pizza and a meat-filled pretzel, the way people do after parties. We return to their house and crash on a bed provided by strangers-turned friends with full stomachs and hearts.

***

I’m not sure if this story is interesting to the outside reader. It’s less exotic than camel safaris, less epic than landslides, and less heart-wrenching than death camps. Big breakfasts, bike-rides by rivers and lakes, and house parties are the stuff of everyday life. But the hospitality of Filip and Nevena should not be glossed over for its simplicity. We should not miss the radicalness hidden in their simple acts. And the simple nature of their hospitality is of colossal importance, giving us guidance and hope.

Radical Hospitality: Extending Hospitality Beyond Borders

The world has become small, we say; we are a globalized world. Yet, for all that smallness, for all of the apparent knowledge of the world and of other people, we do a remarkable amount of otherizing. We all do it, we put up boundaries and borders to define who is in, who is out, who is welcome and who is not. The Balkan states have their share of conflict and boundary embracing, and for Serbs, one of their ‘others’ might easily be the people who bombed their country during the Kosovo War in 1999 – NATO under the guidance and leadership of the United States.

And yet, on day two of our visit to Belgrade, Filip and Nevena continued their extension of welcome and friendship over an equally large breakfast, followed by a lazy boat ride on the Danube river. Not only did they open their lives to complete strangers, but to the ‘enemy.’ Of course, Nevena and Filip don’t see it that way – they don’t consider us enemies, but brothers and sisters. And that is what makes it radical – their refusal to submit to the barriers of otherness that our politics and economics demand, and to instead welcome strangers as family.

Nothing In Return, No Hidden Intentions

Nevena and Filip’s hospitality was also radical in its selflessness. They opened their home, welcomed us to feast at their table, told us bits of their stories, showed us their city, introduced us to their friends, and never with a hint of ulterior motives.

There was a total absence of expectation or hope that we might become something for them. There was no attempt to get us on board with their organization or their worldview. They are simply two young people, struggling with under-employment. They did not give out of excess resources, but out of excess kindness and love. Their only return is friendship – and maybe one more couple who will open their home to strangers, because kindness fosters more kindness.

Danube River

Simple Hospitality: Small Acts that Change the World

While this hospitality was radical, it was also incredibly simple. All it took was a willingness to give time to visitors, to open their home and their hearts, to welcome strangers into the rhythms of their lives.

And yet, it is these simple acts of kindness and beauty that hinder the violence too prevalent in this world. They break down barriers between us and replace the walls with hands grasped in friendship. When I say CouchSurfing is a hope of the world, I refer to much more than Couchsurfing, but to all the simple acts of kindness beyond boundaries that posture us toward the ‘other’ in welcome and love. As we build habits of hospitality, kindness, gentleness, love for others, and friendship with strangers and enemies, maybe our capacity for violence decreases. Maybe more friends across lines means we refuse to participate in violence against them or their communities.

Regardless of how it might prepare us to resist violence, it is an act of beauty that matters in itself. It goes out into the world, and surely does not return void.  The kindness of Nevena and Filip adds to the beauty of the world, and their friendship makes an impact on our own hearts – uprooting prejudice and replacing it with love and gratitude.

 


We are increasingly convinced that resisting violence in this world requires a lifestyle of radical hospitality. Our small acts of kindness beyond the borders of family, tribe, nation, religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender, denomination, political affiliation, economic class are not only preparation for resisting more violent situations, but are also themselves the embodiment of love that create a more peaceful world. This September we are sharing a few of our own reflections, and those of our friends, on hospitality.

 

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