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On The Couch

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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So who was waiting for us out there? Were couchsurfers enlightened new-age ideologues, Freecycling, foraging and living in perfect political correctness? Were they party hardies, hoping to corral all strays on their radar? Or were they, like Ollie and me, keen to reach into new frontiers? What would ‘make yourself at home’ really mean? Was this really pure altruism, or did they expect something—like sex, for example, in return? The lack of personal space concerned me. How did marathon couchsurfers nourish the complex requirements of the soul?

In addition, we’d be going cold turkey on choice, a luxury we had grown so used to in the Western world. How would we tolerate having to eat that Kazakh camel-cheek stew? What about varying attitudes to hygiene, to punctuality, to alcohol (Russian and Kazakh hospitality were notoriously spirited). And surely it was only a matter of time before we’d be embroiled in an excruciating domestic, faced with a malfunctioning toilet, or with intimate body bits we shouldn’t see.

And what about our Britishness? Hopeless at instant familiarity, we were the islanders who shook hands at arm’s length to avoid the Continent’s kiss. And now we thought it would be a good idea to sleep in strangers’ homes? What’s more, I had an overactive sense of British social protocol—I was obsessed with doing the right thing. We’d be constantly on the spot, always having to guess at other cultures’ codes of conduct. There was also a moral niggle—as wealthy Brits, we’d be freeloading off our less affluent hosts.

I felt an epiphany coming on—being so out of our comfort zones was going to be an adventure in self-development. We were all going to be on the metaphorical couch.


And so began that cringeworthy business of compiling our profile. As a travel networking site, couchsurfing worked along the same lines as Facebook or Myspace, requiring droll personal declarations, illusory photography and pretentious lists of recherché books, films and musical preferences. It asked for a personal description, a personal philosophy and our ‘mission’. I had a selfconscious bash:

Fleur and Ollie


12,000 overland miles from Moscow to Mongolia to China to Kazakhstan to China again and then back to London in time for Christmas.

Personal Description:

Open-minded, easy-going and always up for new experiences, we’d like to think that we’re the kind of people you can take anywhere. Never say never is our mantra. Except to nuclear bombs, maybe. Left to our own devices, you might find us watching films, reading, gazing at art, walking in the wilderness, debating the issues of the world (in a polite British way, of course), and dancing and singing wildly to comedy pop (very Brits abroad). OH! And we are not boyfriend and girlfriend, but just great, old friends (much better that way, non?).

I uploaded a couple of ‘sweet’ photos of us and sent it into the ether. At least we didn’t have an empty profile any more—the mark of the much-loathed amateur.


Now we were ready for a little Russian roulette: Ollie and I must set up a series of these random acts of kindness across our Trans—Siberian route. We would meet during our lunch breaks and look at couches together—but Moscow’s 1,890 listed couchsurfers mysteriously scuttled into the darkness in the glare of our searchlight. Were they dormant? Dead? Or were we asking for too much?

We had some exacting parameters: they had to be native, we wanted full security verification, our own room, no language barrier (we didn’t speak Russian) and no children of early-morning screaming age. The Russians had their own conditions: one redoubtable Muscovite had written a full constitution on her profile: ‘In Russia water is cheap (sorry dear environmentalists) and I do expect you to look clean and smell nice when you come out of my flat. Please try to be invisible in all ways. In Russia we do not call it sexual harassment when a guy opens a door, helps a girl to put on a coat, helps a girl to carry a shopping bag. This is called GOOD MANNERS. Don’t be afraid to show how polite you are.’

She wasn’t alone: another supplied a terrifying list of dos and don’ts: ‘DON’T bother applying if you’re one of those free accommodation hunters who just read about CS in a newspaper. DON’T feel obliged to bring a present. A bottle of crappy wine from a store around the corner is only a waste of money. DO have your own agenda. We are not gonna sit down and smile at you for the spirit of couchsurfing…’

A culture of kindness? Not necessarily. But then we found the thirty-year-old musician, Olga, who lived in a spacious and central flat, and who ‘LOVED’ showing people around. And, she’d written, ‘every night you can hear horses walking across the yard, so if you are a sound-of-hooves fan, this is definitely the place.’

A match! Well, at least, she matched our requirements, but, with no references and no ‘friends’, did we match hers? We were ashamed of our virgin profile; but shame, we concluded, didn’t seem like a useful emotion—so we overstated the case.

Dear Olga,

I hope this finds you well. We are Fleur and Ollie from London and you are the very first door that we have knocked upon in our first foray into couchsurfing.

So why you?! Well, wouldn’t we be mad to overlook someone described as ‘the nicest/kindest person I have ever met’?! We are also fully charmed by the idea of horse hooves. You seem fully conversant in the couchsurfing spirit—that it’s more than free beds and instant company, but a will to bridge cultures and dispel stereotypes.

Why us? Well, we may be absolute beginners, but we come fully house-trained and domestically skilled and would be thrilled to regale you with tales from London and life.

Well, do let us know if we might have made it through the first round!

Fleur and Ollie

Factually slippery (‘domestically skilled’?) and shamelessly jolly, it reminded me of my first job application. But we’d been warned—even by Olga on her profile: ‘Unfortunately I still receive many “hi there”-style requests from people with empty profiles saying that they are “cool, open-minded and easy-going…”’

We’d already fallen into couchsurfing cliché; and I wasn’t even easy-going. I quickly deleted the offending article from our profile. Just as with an overly ambitious job-hunt, it all went quiet. We spread our bets.

Hello Maxim!

I hope this finds you well. We are Fleur and Ollie from London and you are the very first door that we have knocked upon in our first foray into couchsurfing…”

Precisely 23 hours, 13 minutes after Overture Number One, our Inbox had a visitor. I experienced a momentary episode of abnormal heart activity—it felt a little like receiving love-mail.

Hi Fleur and Ollie,

thank you for your very kind request. i will be very happy to host you at my place, and show you a bit around the city. you will find my phone number, address and a link to a google map at the bottom of this message. could you just confirm that you’re coming, 2-3 days before. since you’re coming on Saturday, I can pick you up outside the metro station. also, if you need some tips or some information about moscow don’t hesitate to ask.

see you soon,


Meanwhile Maxim also wrote back.

Welcome to Moscow!

I like your letter very much!!!! Usually it’s OK to be hosted in my flat, in case I’m not hosting or travelling at this moment.

So you can count on me!

Regards. Max

P.S. We have CS meetings on Tuesdays & Thursdays.

Well, we weren’t expecting a double-hit, but maybe coming from London boosted our appeal. We decided to stay three days with Olga, two with Max. From reading others’ profiles, it appeared that much more at any one place was too much.

We wrote back with more blandishments, and both hosts and guests were suspended in a happy communion of sweet, innocent friend-making. Perhaps they would like something from London, I offered—I didn’t believe that they could possibly be happy to just give, give, give and wait for the universe to give back. Paying it back instantly was surely obligado.

Just time to complete one prior experiment before departure: The Emperor and I had agreed to spend three days together— yes, just three small days—and if we got on, we were go, if not, that would be it—the end of us. War descended within hours. We made up, pretended it hadn’t happened and continued, only to fall out again. It was no use. By the end, we had to agree that we had failed.

CHAPTER 2 MOSCOW: UNDER OBSERVATION (#ulink_6442645e-a70b-5c2c-8b3e-49a10f51cf5c)


1900 hours, Pushkin Square, Moscow. Night had fallen. In front of us was a confusion of old Soviet apparatus competing with new capitalist trappings: shadowy communist towers illuminated by the neon glow of monuments to money-making; a Vegas-style casino; an American coffee house; fast-food joints. Around the square, glossy European 4x4s beeped at dirty little Ladas. Ollie and I fell silent. Excited yet anxious, it felt like first date territory.

‘I’ll be waiting for you by the benches near the Pushkin statue.’

The romantic poet would surely have approved of Olga’s instructions. And indeed, this was to be a blind-date of sorts, for Olga’s profile picture was, enigmatically, of dense foliage.

We scanned the horizon and shrugged. A crowd of disconnected individuals lurked around the benches in dark, heavy clothing. We had no idea what we were looking for—we were the conspicuous ones, be-rucksacked and bewildered. Like exposed rabbits on an empty hill, we could only wait and be hunted.

Suddenly our view was filled with Olga. A slim girl wrapped in a fitted, navy, three-quarter-length corduroy coat, her pale, colourless face luminesced in the darkness, and was framed by a sandy coloured Jim Davidson hairdo, token blond highlights and all.

‘Olga! Hello!’

Olga’s smile was shy and short-lived. The Slavic hug I’d rehearsed hid behind British prudishness—instead, my left arm shot out to touch hers in odd, lumbering affection. Ollie held out his hand like a man. She took it, and then came to my hand, but it was full of rucksack. The critical moment, fudged. She pointed to the far corner of the square: ‘Let’s go this way.’

We probably talked about the journey or something, but the sensory overload made me forget everything. Now she was visible in three dimensions, I stared unblinkingly at Olga. Couchsurfing’s internet profiles had not prepared me for the storm force of human life: suddenly, couchsurfing seemed to be about choosing a house on the merits of its front door.

Sensitive and birdlike, Olga’s chin trembled and her head bobbed when she spoke. She seemed surprisingly nervous; yet, with twenty previous guests, wasn’t she the experienced one? When it was my turn to speak, a voice usually reserved for other people’s parents came out—I was being so ‘good’, answering pleasantly about our Russian visas and asking about her work. Was I about to be ’good’ for ten weeks?

We turned into a dark cohort of daunting Soviet blocks, whose seemingly lowly status was belied by an assortment of prestigious cars; already I felt the thrill of access. Hotels weren’t built in Soviet blocks, after all. We entered a simply tiled, beige stairwell, went into the functional, matchbox lift and out towards a dusty, pleather-padded door, which Olga unlocked before neatly removing her shoes in the hall. We neatly copied her. She handed Ollie a pair of brown leather, open-toed sandals of dubious sexuality, and me some pink towelling slippers. Hit by the smell of a second-hand bookshop, we looked up from our feet. Bearing down on us was an object lesson in cold Soviet life: peeling ochre wallpaper covered with old theatre posters, dusty cabinets and shelves piled with books, old photos and dead flowers. We were in a 1950s time warp.

‘Wowwww,’ Ollie and I emitted in unison.

‘Well,’ explained Olga, without uttering the vowel. ‘It was my grandparents’ place. My mother was born here, my parents used to live here—it hasn’t really changed since then.’ Her eyes darted around. An only child, she now lived alone. I wondered, was couchsurfing supposed to bring the company she craved?

It was hard to ignore the blood-boiling heat.

‘Russia has a centralised heating system,’ Olga said, fidgeting with her hands like they didn’t belong to her. ‘The heating is turned on at the same time every year by the government. Residents have no control. If we go on holiday for two weeks, it is still on.’

Her windows were wide open.

‘What about the environment?’ I spluttered.
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