It's very easy to lose trust in other people. Your whole world can change in a second. With terror attacks, presidential scandals and personal relationships testing our faith in humanity all the time, it can be hard to remember that there are good people out there who just want to meet other good people. We need each other.
My trip reminded me of that. Strangers in my day-to-day interactions in France were nice to me, even with my not-so-polished French accent. They were patient when I didn't know what to say, like when I got mysterious bug bites and had to ask for anti-itch cream at a pharmacy by miming a bug bite, scratching, jumping and - biting? until the salesperson understood, which took about 10 minutes. People engaged with me because they knew I was trying my best. I appreciated this because I really wanted to work on my speaking skills, and being able to interact in French made me feel more like a citizen than a tourist. It made each day a greater but more exciting challenge.
The people I met made the journey worthwhile.. The ones who invited me into their homes gave me everything I could have asked for and more.
1. Daniel in Lyon, France: He was the one person I connected with through a friend-of-a-friend. He's the dude who started his own business making vegan chocolates. They are tasty! Even though he was busy between production, meetings and everything else that comes with starting a one-man business, he invited me to stay for a night before I went to Nice. We met again in Italy the night we were both in the tiny town of Bra. He was such a nice guy and easy to talk to. He also brought me his favorite chocolate croissant in his neighborhood, Croix Rousse, a cool area up on the big hill, originally the home of Lyon's silk workers. I had lots of fun venturing around this neighborhood, through the traboules and tons of staircases leading down the hill. It kind of felt like a maze. Of course the views at the top are awesome. Check out Daniel's chocolate!
2. Susanne in Nice, France: I arrived in Nice late after getting in Carnival traffic in that van full of screaming kids. Susanne had already waited for me at the tram station near her house and went back home. When I finally arrived and called her she came back to meet me. I was excited to meet Susanne, as her Couchsurfing reviews spoke very highly of her personality. She was my first Couchsurfing host on the trip. She's German but has lived in Nice for many years. Her apartment was possibly the cleanest I'd ever seen, and she made us a tasty meals like Niçoise-style fish and pasta with olives and tomatoes for dinner. She recommended that I attend the Fête du Citron in Menton, which was one of my favorite days of the whole trip. She was so accommodating and made me feel extremely welcome and comfortable.
3. The girls in Bra, Italy: I stayed with the only CS hosts in Bra. Lucky me! These girls were incredibly warm hosts and great people to talk to about food. They were all undergrad students at UNISG. I had coordinated with Gaia and ended up spending more time with her roommates, Silvia and Sara. When I arrived we made a healthy lunch with a couple of their classmates. It was great to sit together and enjoy some local cheese and healthy veggies. Silvia and Sara were nice enough to show me around the town afterward, and later we all went to the local wine bar with the other Couchsurfer who had arrived that night. (They also made a lovely soup for dinner, which I opted out of in a quest for gnocchi.) After the wine bar we went to their friend's party for a bit where Suzanne (other CSer) and I were able to talk to a few UNISG students who had been drinking cheap wine straight from the bottle. It was very fun and very college. The girls' house was big enough to host two people in their huge living room. They were a couple months shy of graduating and all unsure what was next. They were all probably moving back to their hometowns in Italy. I'm so glad I was able to meet them; they truly made my stay in Bra a special one.
4. Solène in Lyon, France: This busy gal hustled home from work before a meeting to let me into her apartment. She then led me inside, placed slippers at my feet and gave me my own keys so that I could come and go while she was at her meeting. What was this meeting? It was about starting a food co-op in Lyon, based off of the Park Slope Food Co-op, which is right near my house in Brooklyn. It was fate. When Solène got home from the meeting I had picked up groceries and rosé for us to enjoy together. As we started cooking, she told me about how she used to cook in one of Lyon's top-rated fine dining restaurants and would never go back. Staying with her was great, and her roommate and American neighbor were cool too. I was happy to slow down and cook a few meals to enjoy with them. I also met Solène for lunch at a tasty vegetarian café she likes. It was nice of her to make the effort to hang when she was so busy. She also recommended that I spend the weekend in Beaune before going to Paris, which was great advice. I needed a moment to breathe in some small town air - and drink some of the best wines in France.
5. Margot in Lyon, France: Margot, or "Barna," her nickname, was frankly a real hoot. She messaged me while I was staying with Solène with an offer I couldn't refuse.
"I can say without false modesty that I'm the most knowledgeable person about French food, wine, and about Lyon in general. I can tell you where to go and what to taste and what to see and what to do..."
She also offered to host me for five nights, which made my life easy. I had booked with another Couchsurfing host for two nights and an Airbnb for my final weekend in Lyon, so was able to cancel both. Margot/Barna didn't exaggerate; she is extremely knowledgable about French food and had great recommendations for Paris since she used to live there. I loved eating with her, drinking wine, talking and pondering life questions. We also played a rousing game of Guess Who, which I used to love as a kid, but her version was better.
Margot is a fun, funny cat lady and one of those people you don't forget. She's in school to be a nurse and is very involved in the Couchsurfing community in Lyon, hosting fun holiday parties and other events. If I could describe her in two words it'd be either "worldly diva" or "classy mamacita." Basically, she rules.
Other Couchsurfers I met
Sophie in Nice, France: She had organized a CS group to go to the citrus festival together, and I was the only one who showed up. We had a great day talking about culture, politics and travel. She was living in Nice for a short time and said the Menton journey was her first trip to a town outside of Nice. I'm so glad we went!
Manon in Lyon, France: Though I didn't end up staying with Manon, we met up and spent some time together in the Old City. She was a lovely person to hang with and I could tell would have been a great host. She's been studying in Lyon and was getting ready to graduate.
Suzanne in Bra, Italy: I was grateful that Suzanne was there to visit UNISG to look at the masters program too. Having her support and being able to decompress after a kind of weird visit was crucial, and aside from that she is a really intelligent, fun person to spend time with. I enjoyed our time in Bra and hope to see her again.
Couchsurfing crew in Turin, Italy: I met with a bunch of Couchsurfers and hosts in Turin one Friday night. It was awesome because there were people there from all over the world. It seemed to be a pretty strong community in Turin, though they claim they only meet once in a while on Fridays. But someone hosts Turin tours every weekend, and I tried to join one that Sunday, since I had been ignoring the many statues around town as I trekked to food spots. But that rainy morning I got on the wrong bus, and the tour guide went home. I had also wanted to go hiking with someone I met here, but that didn't work out either. Most of this failed because I ate too much and was sick to my stomach for the weekend, which really slowed me down.
Elena in Paris, France: I met up with Elena on my last day in France. She is studying to be a pastry chef in Paris. Talking to her about local produce and her studies was really interesting as we enjoyed a lovely walk on the bridges near Notre-Dame Cathedral. She is super sweet, and I hope to see her next time I visit.
1. Cristiana in Turin, Italy: Still really nice to me considering 1. I was over an hour late arriving to meet her mother, an old lady who yelled at me in Italian. 2. I could not figure out how to use her keys. I think due to the language barrier she was telling me left when she meant right. I finally got it a few hours before I left to return to France...
2. Pascal in Beaune, France: He has a lovely home right near the train station in Beaune. He's a photographer and rents out his upstairs studio floor that has a bedroom attached. It was really clean and cozy. I shared a beer with him that I got at a wine tasting. (Things that happen when you tell people you're in the food & drink industry.)
3. Jon in Paris, France: Apartments in Paris are shockingly small. Jon rents out his own bedroom and sleeps in the living room, but he doesn't mind it. He organizes trivia nights at local pubs and is from England. When tested on trivia, I scored high on cocktail recipes and movies. I scored zero on geography and politics. I'll be back for another round, Jonny boy! He also helped me take the less smelly express train to get to the airport.