How a whirlwind and highly-planned couchsurfing trip to Europe helped a young traveller become the person he’s choosing to be.
Story and Photos by Brandon Schultz
I cleared customs at Oslo Airport just after sunrise, and my amazing race began. There were no cameras or production crews because this wasn’t a game show, but I was given a series of instructions and tasks that included making my way to a train station to hunt down a particular store (indicated only by a WhatsApp photo of the sign) and asking a clerk for an envelope with my name on it.
Inside I would find a map to an apartment where I would stay, and a key to open its door. It felt as far-fetched and unreal as any reality television show, especially considering I had never met the person who arranged this scavenger hunt, and while half a million dollars was not up for grabs in my amazing race, much more was on the line. This was the first day of a 55-day journey through 27 locations around Europe, and I would be staying with strangers in each spot. If I couldn’t even locate the home of Stranger Number One, I didn’t have much confidence I’d survive two months on the road.
A few months earlier, my partner of many years abruptly left me, and as someone who had lived all of my adult life as part of a duo, I wasn’t sure who I was as an individual anymore. I had even lost touch of what I wanted to do with my life; I only knew what two of us were going to do with our life, and that was gone.
Worse, I suddenly felt insecure and anxious in new social situations because I no longer had the built-in security blanket of a partner by my side, and I became angry that someone’s departure from my life seemed to take my identity along with it. I avoided almost everyone.
One snowy night in Philadelphia, where I had taken refuge with my moms in their new house, after everyone had gone to sleep and I was alone by the fire watching trashy TV shows about people with lives more miserable than mine, I realized that the only time in my life I felt truly independent and secure was when I studied abroad in Rome for a year, living with strangers and learning to get by in a place with a different language, different customs, and a different rhythm.
Only when I was truly helpless did I discover myself, and I wished I could do it again. With the help of Google Flights, I spent the night mapping a dream itinerary across Europe, choosing the cheapest destination as the next stop for each leg of the journey.
When I had plotted nearly two months of flying to a new city every two or three days, I cut off my hypothetical journey. Through budget airlines, red eyes and frugal selection, I identified more than 20 flights, including two transatlantic crossings, for under $2,000 US, and the trip suddenly seemed somewhat attainable. I no longer had a partner or a traditional job anchoring to any one place, so I asked my best friend what she thought of the idea, and without hesitation she said, “Stop thinking about it. Just go. You have to.”
It took more than four hours to book 23 flights—my credit card was flagged for fraud twice in the process—but I instantly felt a sense of promise I hadn’t known for months. Unknown places, new adventures, the hope of discovery, and more importantly, I’d be forced to interact with new people daily, becoming comfortable and secure in social situations again.
Or fail. I needed success in this part of my personal rediscovery the most, so I put myself to the ultimate test and traded interacting with strangers for depending on them by creating a profile on Couchsurfing.com.
I would get to know someone new every few days, and discover a new life through each of them. It would be like window-shopping for a life of my own, finding my identity by living a few days in the life of so many others until I recognized the one I wanted, all while learning how to trust and engage again.
It poured my first day in Oslo. It was April in Norway, so even a sunny day wouldn’t have been the most comfortable, but I was too excited to care. My host was unexpectedly called out of town for work (hence the Amazing Race-like expedition to locate a map and keys) so I would never meet him. But his roommates were generous and gave me a tour of the apartment, before asking if I would stay indoors all day because of the weather.
Of course I wouldn’t. I didn’t run away from home to hide in someone else’s. I took my host’s city bike pass, which he had left along with a lovely note welcoming me to “my” new home, and headed for Vigeland Park to check out its famed sculptures. Vigeland is the world’s largest sculpture park from a single artist, and the 200-plus works of granite, bronze and iron depict people in various states of movement, often in pairs, reflecting an incomprehensible range of life’s emotions and needs in massive scale. In school I was taught that water in art and literature represents baptism and rebirth—some major change in a character always comes after a rainfall, a shower, bath or swim.
I hoped the rain was a sign of change for me, as I interpreted the emotions of countless sculptures as contorted and seemingly confused as I felt. Despite being drenched after hours in the park, watching the water wash over the inanimate people was cathartic.
My Oslo roommates hosted a small house party on my last night in town, and after an evening of learning how differently young Norwegians interacted with their communities than young Americans, I was informed by Susannah, one of my unwitting hosts, that I was open and easy to talk to. I was sure most people saw me as aloof and cold (I’d been told this many times), so that night I fell asleep wondering if the people and art of Oslo had already begun to change me.
Helsinki was my next stop and here, too, I was given instructions for finding my next home. These directions were less of a fun game with maps and actually a multi-page document with detailed instructions on tram usage, timetables and logistics. As I rode the tram car to my host’s neighbourhood a bit outside the city center, I ogled the impressive range of architecturally-mishmashed buildings, with each seeming to vie for attention rather than work together, more like a crowd of competitive soloists than a harmonious choir.
It was simultaneously exciting and unnerving. It was raining in Helsinki, too, and while some cities sparkle in a shower, Helsinki’s imposing structures seemed cold and foreboding under grey skies.
My Finnish hosts couldn’t have stood in starker contrast to the Norwegian friends I had just left. Their requirement that I be out of the house 12 hours a day seemed a bit severe, especially in such miserable weather. I passed the morning splashing around a seemingly empty city, no longer appreciating the rain and very seriously resenting it.
It was my fourth consecutive day of being wet and so very cold, and I still had hours to go before I could dry off and rest. The symbolism was no longer meaningful, and I just wanted to be dry. It seemed I may have made a horrible decision subjecting myself to near-homelessness for almost 60 days, and I wasn’t sure if I should stick it out or cut my losses. Inside the neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral, with its white columns atop steps so steep they seemed to be daring me to approach, I found a moment of respite. Here I began a tradition of sitting quietly in churches and cathedrals across Europe, listening to organs and choirs practising, and escaping the elements or just resting my overworked legs.
While I didn’t come for spiritual rejuvenation, I couldn’t help but consider thousands of years of others who had similarly sought some sort of refuge inside glorious buildings like this one. I knew their issues were usually more serious than being cold and wet, but I felt some sense of camaraderie with these unknown souls, and journeyed back out into the city.
My hosts had given me maps of potential walking tours, and I decided to pass the time by following one of the longer routes. I don’t typically advocate using travel opportunities to “pass time,” but the relentlessly inhospitable weather had brought me more to survival mode than tourist mode, so I had resorted to bargaining with myself to push through one more hour, one more activity, one more mile until the day would end.
By mid-afternoon, I nearly lost my resolve as I sat on a bench along the canal outside of Uspenski Cathedral (the red brick, green spires and gold onion dome evoking the strong Russian history in Helsinki). While ruing the decision to bring only canvas sneakers on this journey, I considered the possibility that despite all my spreadsheets and early enthusiasm I was too ill-prepared to live two months out of one carryon bag. Perhaps it really was time to acknowledge my foolish choices and go home.
As I walked along the canal weighing options for ending this trip quite early or perhaps cutting straight to Rome, where I knew my way around and the weather was so much better, I noticed that the entire path was lined with a plant newly familiar to me. My mothers had this succulent plant in the garden of their new house, and I had recently photographed a rain droplet cupped between two of its leaves, so I stopped to take a photo to send them.
Through the lens, I spotted the euro version of a penny. I’m not superstitious and don’t believe in this particular lore, but one of my mothers firmly believes that pennies are left by her father to encourage and support her, and as I stopped at this one random plant from her garden across the ocean and found a penny that she would believe was from her father, I knew she wouldn’t want me to give up on this journey. So I wouldn’t.
That night, my host invited me to chat in his kitchen, where he shared his homemade Karelian pastries and asked what I did with my day. I left out my consideration of defeat—he didn’t seem the right audience for that emotional saga—and instead told him of the itineraries I accomplished and the many buildings I visited. Joni didn’t ask why I was on this journey, but wanted to know how I had planned it and how I managed the logistics of so many flights and Couchsurfing hosts. He was impressed, and told me I knew how to get things gone. He taught me about the varied histories of Swedish and Russian influence in Finland, and I began to appreciate Helsinki’s architecture more.
I spent the next (rainy) day investigating the circular rock church, the eerily empty Olympic stadium area, and a shop where I purchased a scarf and a pair of cheap gloves.
In Stockholm, my daily marathons caught up with me. It turns out walking for 12 hours a day with little sleep and not much food is tough on the knees. But Arian, my host here, allowed me in the house while he was at work, so I took a rest day and spent it on the couch that was, incidentally, the first couch I slept on during this trip. It turns out couchsurfing has very little to do with couches, and I would sleep on only six throughout my stays with 22 different hosts.
The sun came out on day seven of my adventure—and Arian offered to spend the day taking me around, so I had company, too! Arian took me first to King’s Garden where Sweden’s most famous cherry trees were in full blossom, casting a rosy glow everywhere. I sat by the reflecting pool, watching the pink petals fluttering all around, grateful I hadn’t given up. We spent most of the afternoon in Stockholm’s Old Town, navigating cobblestoned alleyways and 12th–century buildings painted mostly in deep yellows with occasional pops of mahogany red. As he toured with me throughout the city, Arian told the tale of his emigration from Iran and his new life in Stockholm.
It was here that I began auditioning not just other people’s lives to find the one I wanted for my own, but cities, too. Perhaps I would also emigrate. It rained as I arrived in Gothenburg, Sweden, taking a series of buses to my next host’s home. Yonas answered the door wrapped in a blanket and nothing else.
He was a nudist. This was not something I had ever experienced before, and that’s exactly why I chose to stay with him. This was a journey to experience other lives and to abandon my comfort zone.
Gothenburg was a charming city where I learned the Swedish custom of fika—a little social snack break of tea/coffee and a pastry—and met the penguins of Slottskogen park while Yonas photographed a tightrope walker practising on a line strung between two trees. Yonas was passionate about the restaurant he managed and taught me about the industry. He had a lot of questions about the American restaurant industry, and when he came to stay with me for two weeks in New York six months later he took copious mental notes at various bars and restaurants. I was fairly sure that nudism wasn’t the lifestyle for me, but did learn I wanted to find a job I loved as much as Yonas loved his.
Denmark was my last stop in the Nordic nations, followed by a too-brief jaunt through Ireland, Scotland and England where, despite millennia of history and culture, it was again the people who impacted me most, though just not my hosts.
In Copenhagen, my new friend Palle insisted on meeting me at the airport and escorting me through the simple public transportation so I wouldn’t get lost and wouldn’t feel stressed. I don’t think I would have, but he made me realize how unnerving foreign city systems can be to some, and I decided to be more useful to strangers when I got back to New York. To this day, I do go out of my way to help tourists understand our enormous Metro system, and I always think of Palle when I do.
In Edinburgh I stayed in what would be my favourite home of the trip, one with an art collection so sprawling and eclectic it could be a museum of its own, with Julian, its curator, the most interesting piece of all. His passion for living a life of culture and adventure reignited an art obsession of my own, and his love for Scotland, particularly Edinburgh, was infectious. It remains one of my most memorable experiences, and I really don’t know if it was because of Julian, the magical architecture that helped inspire the Harry Potter series, the art in both of its museums as well as Julian’s house, the hidden nature walks my host shared with me, or some combination of all of these. Whatever it was, I left there needing to write. Not like J. K. Rowling, but about the magic in the real world.
I lost my cellphone in Amsterdam. I had survived interminably wicked weather and knees that took several days to fully rehabilitate—but the loss of my phone abroad (and all the information in it!) seemed an insurmountable obstacle. Fortunately, by this point I had learned not to panic, and so set out to find it.
I knew with certainty it had fallen out of my pocket on a bus, so I traversed the city’s quaint canals and made my way to Amsterdam Centraal, the city’s palatial train station, to seek out the transportation office nearby. The best advice I received was to wait at the bus station and check each bus as it came through.
“There should only be three or four,” I was assured. There were 12—and it took hours to wait for and search all of them. And I didn’t find my phone. Only when I ran out of options and returned to my hosts’ apartment did I learn that my phone had been found by a stranger who took the initiative to contact the only Dutch number in it in hopes of finding me. He’d seen me hurriedly searching the bus and assumed I lost something, so after I left, he searched the seat more carefully and discovered a phone.
I’m sure he knew he was doing a very kind thing, but I can’t imagine he had any idea the scale of the journey he’d saved. Amsterdam’s museums, canals and red-light district are legendary, but it’s this man’s random act of kindness that elicits my fondest feelings for the city.
Lisbon, Portugal rounded out the first half of my Couchsurfing tour of Europe, and whether it was the dramatically warmer climate or the psychological success of reaching the halfway point, the second half would be fraught with far fewer perils, either natural or self-induced.
Between the heat and the hills, life moved slowly in Lisbon and, despite coming from New York and loving efficiency, I adored it. Scaling hundreds and hundreds of steps up each hill for the most sprawling ocean vistas, and discovering countless scenes of quaint home-life in the nooks and crannies tucked among those unfathomable outdoor staircases, I let go of pieces of the past that were weighing me down.
I suppose it was those unending Lisbon climbs—otherwise torturous in the sweltering heat if I didn’t distract my mind—that inspired so much introspection, but for the first time I found myself willing to move on with my life, and later I recognized this was the most important step, because no amount of discovery or support could help if I wasn’t willing to make use of it.
I rode the famous Tram 28 from start to finish, winding my way downhill through colourful neighbourhoods, turning around corners so precariously tight I certainly would have lost an arm if it had been hanging out the window. It was an absurd and hilarious ride, and by the time I reached the end of the line I deliriously made my way across the sweeping walkways of black and white mosaic known as Portuguese pavement, and laid down along the sloping pavement that dropped into the water. I closed my eyes to listen to street musicians while someone danced maniacally nearby, and when I opened them again, I made lists of hobbies I wanted to explore and things I wanted to learn when I got home. And I started writing about my trip.
Madrid and Palma de Mallorca extended my euphoric honeymoon stage, enchanting me with old-world architecture, beautiful outdoor spaces, and the slow living of Spain best exemplified by the siesta. Madrid even became a top contender for a new home abroad. Contrary to my “real life” personality, it was becoming abundantly clear I was very much a Southern Europe kind of guy, preferring the less efficient, more flâneur-friendly aura of the region.
Or maybe—as I was beginning to wonder as I passed a few dreamlike days in Monaco and ethereal nights in the French medieval villages of Eze and La Turbie—I was wrong about my “real” personality.
On day 34, I returned home. Not home home, but Rome home. My plane was hours late, and thanks to an overzealous airline employee, I was forced to wear about a dozen outfits so my carryon would be under the overly-restrictive limit. But my mood would not be dampened by a flight! I didn’t need directions to find my host’s apartment because he didn’t live far from where I’d lived just over 10 years earlier, in the medieval neighbourhood of Trastevere. I made my way to his home, merrily dragging my carryon behind me.
I’d only be in Rome for one full day, and I intended to do nothing but revisit my few favourite spots, with a bottle of wine and a few pieces of pizza, and eat gelato each time I strolled to a new spot. No stress—just taking a quiet break in the middle of a very not quiet city.
Rome is overflowing with must-see attractions and surprise masterpieces on every corner (in a literal sense, there are ancient and renaissance masterpieces to be found on countless street corners, sides of buildings and seemingly-abandoned alleyways), and the nickname “Eternal City” could just as well refer to the eternity it would take to discover all of its secrets.
I lived in Rome for a year, and have returned to explore its ruins and marvel at its monuments and priceless art collections more times than I can accurately recall. But my list of to-sees is still daunting. On this visit, I would not seek to accomplish any of them—and it was one of the happiest days of my life.
If there was a single “aha!” moment throughout my odyssey it was at the end of this day, when I realized I didn’t want such a rigid, scheduled, ordered life anymore. Perhaps that had never really been what I wanted, but just a style I used to try to prevent collapse. And that hadn’t worked.
Budapest, Hungary introduced me to a side of Europe I hadn’t encountered before, one that was more recently communist and still reflecting so much of that influence visually, economically, and beyond. My money may as well have been gold there—the living was good for someone with foreign income and I indulged, albeit on a small scale. A few dollars bought plenty of dishes and drinks for my host and me, and he later brought me to a dinner party where I saw how well one could live with so little, compared to both home and the other European cities I knew.
But that is also only possible when the majority of the population is struggling, and this was a tough pill to swallow. I had a fantastic time in crumbling Budapest, but it felt somewhat exploitative in retrospect, and I knew I couldn’t live there.
Brussels was a seamless blend of old and new, from the magnificently gilded Grand Place, a massive plaza of opulently carved and decorated buildings dating back centuries, to the ultramodern European Union headquarters, where I spent hours learning the complicated relationships between member nations, and held the door for a man I would later meet again on the other side of the city, just after he was mugged while taking a photo. After our second chance encounter, we went to Delirium Café to sample some of the more than 2,000 beers on tap (the largest selection in the world), before parting ways for the final time.
I would continue what I thought was a long journey, but Pleayo, my new friend from New Zealand, was exploring Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, and would be on the road for nearly four months. My itinerary was less extensive, and I spent the following day in Bruges, the picturesque medieval village of canals that was just a short train ride from Brussels.
The most indulgent leg of my travels was to Corfu, one of Greece’s Ionian islands. I flew here for one very specific reason and, since it’s primarily a vacation destination with not many permanent citizens, I was unable to couchsurf here, so I spent two nights in a hostel called the Pink Palace, where I was given a shot of ouzo at check-in. I could see from the contents of the room that I had a roommate at the Pink Palace, but he didn’t appear at all the first night.
In the morning, I rented a four-wheeler and made my way across the island to Achilleion, a palace built by the Empress of Austria in the 1890s and devoted to the Greek hero Achilles. Packed with sculptures of Achilles and paintings of his story, Achillieon is gratuitous, garish, and wonderful, and it’s the sole reason I came to Corfu. I’d always wanted to see this house, but I would never have travelled from New York City to this Greek island just to spend a few hours gawking. This journey was the perfect opportunity to cross an item off my bucket list, even if I had to stay in a questionable party hostel to do it.
The second night my roommate appeared, and he was quite older than I had anticipated. He had suffered through a nasty divorce, sold his business and his house, and had been wandering from country to country with no aim, partying every night and moving on only when he became bored. Though my separation hadn’t been nasty and I didn’t sell anything to fund this adventure, I saw plainly how our journeys began in a similar fashion.
But they wouldn’t end the same. I never had any intention of wandering aimlessly. And meeting this man restored an inner awareness that this was not my future, and I would return home to create something new for myself soon.
Bucharest was in many ways like Budapest, and I had similar feelings toward both. I would like to visit each again, and I’m interested to see how they evolve through my lifetime. For now, my fondest memory of Bucharest, aside from my endearingly cynical host, Titus, who humoured my desire to scour the city’s gnarled cemeteries, was the sidewalks, made of large paver stones unevenly dislodged more often than not. It’s not that I’m a fan of disorder or disrepair, but whenever I stepped on the loose stones (which was near constant), they tapped out various notes as they clunked back down on top of each other. Like a kid cracking frozen puddles or stepping on the crunchiest leaves, I found the music of the dangerous sidewalks irresistible.
I didn’t like Venice. It’s an unpopular opinion, and I agree that everyone should go once because it is beautiful, and such a singular experience, but I found it impossible, and certainly not worth the four days I had scheduled for it. The twisting alleys and directional signs that were even too outrageous for GPS, which gave up on me more than once and demanded repeated 180s as it attempted, fruitlessly, to locate a path toward my intended destination.
After one day, I gave up on having any semblance of a plan, and instead enjoyed the sweetness of wandering aimlessly and discovering adorable footbridges and beautiful, quiet palazzos, all perfect settings for enjoying multiple gelatos. Without an itinerary, Venice was a delight, but one day was enough. I found an impromptu host in the village of Lazise on Lake Garda, 140 kilometers from Venice, and hopped a train the next morning.
Lazise was largely a German resort town in an old Italian lakeside village, but it was less frustrating and certainly more relaxing than Venice. I wouldn’t traditionally opt for easy over rewarding travel, but I don’t regret my decision to amend my plans and go somewhere I enjoyed more, whatever the reason. I was learning to be flexible, and in Lazise I treated myself to a long, gluttonous alfresco dinner by the lake, and savoured every moment of it. That was the first time I dined solo at a quality restaurant and I considered it a date with myself, which was fair, since I was out to get to know me.
A bus ride from Lazise was Verona, where I passed a day watching hilltop painters interpret views of terracotta roofs surrounding the Adige River, and visited the made-up site of Juliet Capulet’s house and balcony. Scores of visitors rub the bronze breast of Juliet’s statue in the courtyard for luck, and leave prayers for romance all around. I wasn’t looking for a new relationship just yet, but I stopped by just to build up some good will for the future.
When I reached Zurich, Switzerland, I was, for the first time, not upset at the thought of returning home. I hadn’t yet chosen whose life I wanted to live, or in which city I wanted to live it, but I was finally sure there was another life for me, and that I had rediscovered enough of my own individual strength to seek it.
I passed a tranquil couple of days touring Lake Zurich, swimming in the Limmat River with my hosts Martin and Romain, and admiring the stained-glass Chagall windows of Fraumünster Church. It was the beginning of my decompression from the whirlwind adrenaline rush that had sustained me for nearly two months of nonstop travel, visiting airports every two or three days, and hoping against hope that I’d always find my hosts’ homes in a time before I had international service on my cellphone.
My final stop in Europe was Paris, only the second repeat destination on my itinerary, and another city I’d visited enough to spend a day just wandering through, without needing to check attractions off a list. I toured a cemetery, hung out at a street fair, passed by the Eiffel Tower because it seemed silly not to, and took a nap by the fountain in the Tuileries Garden.
I had come to adore public parks, where I could simply sit, listen, observe and occasionally doze off—a new hobby I’d picked up over the past two months. Before leaving, I intentionally wandered neighbourhoods I hadn’t visited before, and did not look up the names or top tourist destinations within them. This time, I didn’t want to know; I just wanted to experience.
And then I crossed the Atlantic again.
I stopped briefly in Montreal before returning fully home to New York City, and a friend from home met me there. It was something of a gradual reentry and, while I didn’t intentionally plan it for that purpose, it was a welcome assist. Montreal was grey and rainy, so my adventure would end much the same way it began: with a city entrenched in clouds, and a body soaked for most of the day! But this time, I didn’t wonder if the rain was symbolically washing something away before I started a new life. I didn’t wonder because I already knew.
I never did find a life I wanted to replicate, but that’s because I found my own. I can see in me now small pieces of many of the people I stayed with along my journey, and I’m not sure if they helped reawaken parts of me or inspired qualities I didn’t have before, but it doesn’t matter. Each host and each city played its part in helping me realize who I was and that, wherever I ended up, I was ready for the next chapter. ♦
- After this first epic step into the wider world, Brandon Schultz became a travel and lifestyle writer, and now thinks he has the best job in the world.