Separation and Sarkozy: The Story Of A Couchsurfing Ambassador

November 1, 2009 § 5 Comments

Photo by Eole

Is it truly possible to live vicariously through someone else?

I did for one Saturday afternoon.

Today was Couchsurfing Orientation Day Singapore. Having joined Couchsurfing in June of this year, I hoped to be able to learn and find leverage on a community of travelers. Couchsurfing day brought back that sense of excitement I had for meeting people of different nationalities, that sense of the unknown, strangeness the morning I had breakfast at the Peace House in Hanoi with volunteers from the UK and Spain.

For the uninitiated, here’s what the New York Times ‘s Penelope Green had to say about Couchsurfing:

In an age of cheap airfares and porous borders, where nearly every corner of the earth, from Bulgaria to Bhutan, is open for tourism, the home is the final frontier, the last authentic experience. Instead of being in some sanitized hotel in Hanoi, said Erik Torkells, editor of Budget Travel magazine, “if I couch surf I could be on some cool ex-pat’s or local’s sofa.” He added: “I’ve already leapfrogged barriers.”

The group’s philosophy:… I will offer you my couch free, along with the company of my friends and a tour of my favorite spots in my city. In return, you will give of yourself. In this way, we will be friends, if only for a day or two.

Thanks to Michel, shy Singaporean couchsurfers got a chance to meet up with friends from overseas, as well as locals who are curious about this ever-growing community of vagabonds, and would be world explorers.

Michel is an ambassador for couchsurfing, and Singapore is his current pitstop around Southeast Asia. He travels from location to location, teaching would-be couchsurfers the art of building a good couchsurfing profile. The first impression I got from Michel that he certainly knows how to put a stranger at ease. He is a good storyteller, and uses this to his advantage to tell someone more about himself to establish a connection.

So on a Saturday afternoon, you would have found 12 couchsurfers at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf having conversations, while Michel worked individually on our online profiles. What intrigued me the most, however, was how Michel came to be a Couchsurfing Ambassador. After patiently waiting out everyone to leave (wasn’t that hard, I made good friends and had good conversations!) I could have a Q&A with Mr Nomad.

Michel is on a 5 year retirement, leaving his job as a web designer. Right now money comes from web owners renting virtual space on his servers in California. He is forty-five this year.

What brings you around the world Michel?

“Two reasons. Separation, and Sarkozy”

A native of Villeurbanne (the second largest metropolitan area in France), Michel, for reasons undisclosed, separated from his partner, wondering if they might get back together again if they gave themselves a few years apart. Sadly, things did not turn out well for the couple, so they remained two separate entities. At the same time, Sarkozy won the French presidential elections of 2007. This, for Michel, was the last straw.

Sarkozy, Berlusconi, they’re all the same. Mindless womanizers.

Michel claims that Sarkozy gave unacceptable promises to win the elections, most notably, on the issue of immigration laws. When Sarkozy was Minister of Interior during the mid-2000s, the number of deportations in France doubled. Most of France’s basic wage jobs like window cleaning and waitering was done by immigrants. Jobs that most middle class French shunned. What pisses Michel off is the unfairness in all of this: Even sans-papiers immigrants (illegal immigrants) who contributed vastly to France’s economy, who were paying taxes, were deported from France.

You know there are Chinese and Blacks cleaning the windows of police stations in Paris? This guy is hired by the police commissioner to clean the windows for years. The window cleaner has a family to feed in Paris, he has no citizenship, but he pays taxes. Then there is a change of police commisioner. The new guy discovers that all this time an illegal immigrant has been cleaning the windows of the station. So you know what he does? He deports him. Just because Sarkozy has a minimum set on the number of immigrants to deport every year. This was in the papers all over Paris. Ridiculous.

Forgive me if it does sound so one-sided, black-and-white here. I am doing injustice to Michel, who is such the lively animated storyteller. Strike Two was enough for Michel to decide to pack up and visit friends living around France. Having been around the country, visited all his friends, he returned to his parents home confused, wondering if he can go on living life as a traveller.

Then one day my mom saw in the papers this thing about Couchsurfers being popular all around Europe. She told me “Son, since you want to live like a nomad, why not try this?”I am thinking, why not? So I worked on my profile, then my story of traveling began…

Michel is proud to never have to depend on a unemployment benefit from the French government, which is about 400 Euros per month for those without a job. He feels disgraced if he ever has to “pay taxes to Sarkozy” too. This is a man that is living the vagabond’s life. I got an insight into his money habits as well. Seeking out the cheapest meals wherever he goes (less than 2 euros). At our Couchsurfing Orientation at Coffee Bean, he suggested all 12 of us share a big pot of tea, which was supposed to amount to S$2 for each of us. (I paid S$5). He doesn’t keep much possessions with him. In fact, he gives away the cheap T-shirts (less than one Euro in Penang) he buys in Asia, once he’s done with them.

Michel is a living example of a bootstrapping traveler.

But is all this coming to a close for him? The traveling seems to be taking a toll on Michel, who says he’s starting to feel both physically and mentally bogged. Being a Couchsurfer means sometimes you get hosts who want you out of the house at 7am when they go to work, simply because they don’t trust you. But thats ok with him, he goes look for a public library with wifi. After all, a large part of his time now is dedicated to contributing as a Couchsurfing ambassador online, and offline.

For me I think the most painful thing being on the road long term is that you make no deep personal connections with anyone. One masters the art of building a rapport with strangers very easily, but hesitates to take those necessary additional steps to have and become a good friend or partner. After all, they’re not going to be part of your lives for a long time right?

Ben Casnocha says:

The best way to build intimacy in a relationship is to spend quality in-the-flesh time with each other. If you’re always on the go, or never in the same place for more than a few years, intimacy can be hard to come by.

The idea is familiar to me… the long term volunteers at the Peace House in Hanoi tell me about this all the time.  Because we were all volunteers for different lengths of time, its hard when solid friendships are formed, and the long term volunteer sees all his good friends disappear one by one, and have to take the effort to build new friendships again, when new people arrive every two weeks.

Michel’s stories were truly vicarious, and kept me thinking about the reasons why people travel.


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