Tandem Travel Tales: Couchsurfing Trieste, Italy

WELCOME TO ITALY

Trieste is a story of a sobering and difficult time during our travels. Unfortunately, our experience and mood during our three-day stay was dominated by our accommodations. Let this, as it was for us, be more of an informative tale of how Couchsurfing can sometimes not be awesome. Needless to say, it will come with very few pictures.

Trieste from the hills. @travelingintandem
A view of Trieste from the hills.

SETTING THE SCENE

We arranged our stay in Trieste, Italy with a promising host. Call him G for the sake of the story. G had bountiful, positive Couchsurfing references. Little did we know that we needed to read between the lines on this one.

We traveled by way of a peaceful and landscape-filled bus ride and quickly arrived in Trieste, which unbeknownst to us, is a city of hills and sunshine. After a nice trek through the city and into a cozy local neighborhood, we arrived at G’s apartment. It wasn’t until we settled into the living room to chat that we began to notice the red flags that later resulted in a difficult stay.

G, though hospitable and friendly, seemed to continue to position his attention directly to Brittany. Perhaps the interaction was in an innocent-enough manner, but it struck cords in both of our minds. A historian with many endless stories to share, it seemed as though Couchsurfing was his main source of income when it comes to social interaction.

So began five hours of listening to this fellow talk to us about his desire to travel the world and lead historical walking tours through town. To top it all off, G would talk right over us if we had anything to say. It required strategic self-control to remain calm and attentive, and we also wanted to remain polite in order to keep our options open in the chance that we needed to escape.

La Scala Reale in Trieste @travelingintandem
La Scala Reale, Trieste, Italy.

HUGS FOR EVERYONE

Prior to arrival, we familiarized ourselves with our host’s personality and honestly thought we would mesh well. G described himself as having a volcanic personality and references stated that he really liked to give hugs.

That being said, the physical contact was unreal. We both know that there are cultural differences when it comes to physical contact, eye contact, language, etc, but the amount of times that we were squeezed and touched is beyond anything either of us has ever experienced.

Retrospectively, we should have set boundaries right out of the gates. But there’s something about the Midwestern way that sticks in the back of your mind encouraging you to be kind, polite, and flexible. This was a situation when we should have pushed past that.

Piazza Unità d'Italia in Trieste @travelingintandem
Piazza Unità d’Italia, Trieste, Italy.

PERSONAL SPACE?

As if the hugs and the lack of communication paired with constant lecture-style “conversations” weren’t enough, the lack of personal space was the cherry on top of the sundae. Backing up a bit to explain the rough structure of Couchsurfing, know that everyone does it a little differently. Generally, guests browse profiles, read up on hosts, message hosts with requests, and the requests are either accepted or declined.

If accepted, there will be some sort of communication or boundaries established regarding expectations. Will the host allow the guests to be in the home without them? Is there a time guests should be ready to leave in the morning? Are guests there to interact with the host or just have a free bed? Curfew? Does the host have time to spend with guests and potentially show them local spots?

As hosts and guests we have historically engaged and exchanged with our counterparts, but there is always a window of time that everyone cuts ties and does their own thing. Because we’re human. Needless to say, that was not the case here. When you have a codependent host that has no particular work schedule and they freelance from home, things are different. We were with G almost every waking moment. Whether it was to tour the city, or grab a bite, or have a meal, or just walk to the store, we were ALWAYS together. Mixed with the constant hugging, we were leaps and bounds beyond our capacity for discomfort.

At one point we insisted on going to a coffee shop to write and do a little work. Meaning we used this blog as a means of escaping and taking a breather. I can’t say that we accomplished anything other than bouncing our feelings and perspectives off of one another because it had been 48 hours since we had had even a tinge of privacy.

As we left the apartment he became visibly angry, sad, and frustrated. We decided these were blatant displays of insecurity. They were really hard to deal with and felt threatening—like an abusive relationship where a partner controls everything that the other person does. And when we returned? Sunshine, rainbows, and apologies.

We should have run for the hills.

Forense Roman Basilica in Trieste @travelingintandem
Forense Roman Basilica in Trieste, Italy.

SCRUB A DUB DUB

It would be an understatement to say that we are both particular when it comes to certain aspects of cleanliness and organization. That being said, we completely understand that these are our own pathologies and not everyone feels the same. But when you have access to running water, detergent, and a functioning washing machine in your apartment, you do the damn laundry.

Giving credit where credit is due, we’ve never slept on such a comfortable air mattress. But we’ve also not ever put our faces on dirtier sheets. Not even in the dirtiest tea house was stayed in in Nepal where there was used toilet tissue on the ground, no floor, and questionable residue of bodily fluids under the bed. Your standards change a lot at 14,000 feet.

Here the sheets and pillow cases showed evidence of the previous 20 couchsurfers, and had the smell and oil residue to prove it. We essentially slept sandwiched on top of one another trying to not make contact with the bare mattress while also cocooning ourselves under the top sheet to avoid the treacherous sand flea bites that we would get every night.

No, they weren’t bed bugs, we were at least sure of that. Those come into play later.

We were thankful to stay, and for the basics, but the place needed such a deep clean. And we constantly felt like there was a layer of scum on our bodies. Immune system builder? Who knows.

Trieste, Italy Amphitheater @travelingintandem
Roman Amphitheater, Trieste

HISTORY: THE GOOD STUFF

If you look at a map of Italy, Trieste is in the northeast corner, just on the border with Slovenia. As a port town, its history mirrors a game of tug-of-war. We’re by no means historians, but we heard a lot about Trieste from G. And honestly, he knows his stuff. We just needed a breather between the monologues.

To keep it short, Trieste was under Roman rule, had to fight for independence, became a thriving international port town, exchanged borders multiple times, became part of the French Empire, then the Austrian Empire, then the Austrian Hungarian, Yugoslavia and back to Italy. They’ve endured extreme fluctuations in power, independence, and importance. Fascism, communism, corruption, racism. You name it, it seems like they’ve experienced or dealt with it.

That being said, there’s extensive diversity in the city. There are a number of Slovenians and Italians that reside in Trieste today. There are also a lot of hushed tones and private conversations being had on the streets. Maybe that’s tiding over from the days of Fascism, but it is not a place that you’ll receive a reciprocal smile walking down the streets.

We would recommend reading up on the history. It’s good stuff.

Gelateria Nicola in Trieste @travelingintandem
Tiramisu Gelato from Gelateria Nicola

FREEDOM

Our bags were packed and ready the second we woke up on our last day. We politely had a quick breakfast and RAN. A nice trek on foot after days of being cooped up was such a relief and gave us a chance to see parts of Trieste that were peripheral to the history.

We spent the day searching for a phone plan, which we’ll talk about more in a minute, eating haphazard charcuterie on the side of the road, drinking beer, walking, and eating gelato. Essentially doing all of the things we wanted to do the previous few days.

Gelateria Nicola is the only special place that we encountered deserving of a shout out. While we just stumbled across it while trying to find a bit of relief from the sun, it was such a welcomed surprise. The staff was so warm and kind, a customer was translating for us, the beer was delicious and cold, they brought us tapas, and the Tiramisu Gelato was easily the best we had the entire month we were in Italy.

Gelateria Nicola in Trieste @travelingintandem
Steve at Gelateria Nicola.

TIM

TIM, unfortunately, is not a person we had the pleasure of meeting. TIM actually stands for Telecom Italia. In other words, the AT&T or Verizon of Italy. After leaving G’s, we battled through Trieste to find an Italian SIM card for the rest of our European travels. Prior to this we had been in a number of situation where we couldn’t find WiFi to access maps or other resources that we needed to navigate or contact hosts, etc. So we opted for convenience.

We intended to use Vodafone, as G had recommended TIM out of spite for Vodafone, and we weren’t convinced. But as it would turn out, their SIM card activator wasn’t working that day. So we went to TIM.

Long and short, we got a tourist SIM card for 20 Euro and then paid 10 E a month for 15G of data and some credit for calls within Italy. We later discovered in The Netherlands and in Portugal that TIM had very specific constraints. And we should throw in a disclaimer—it’s been a long time since either of us has had a prepaid phone. So this might be common sense, or it might be situational, we’re not entirely sure. But it proved to be a total pain.

Usually phone providers charge you for calls or texts you make, not those that you receive. Here we were charged for both. So when we received a series of unexpected texts and phone calls, our balance went negative. And what happens when your account goes negative? Your service freezes entirely.

Normally this is no problem. Just call them, top up, move on. All is glorious. But that’s not the case for TIM. First of all, their phone line is in rapid Italian. No other language option. Ok, that’s fine. We get it. We’re the tourists. Let’s try the internet. No customer support email option. Ok, I guess. So we go to the TIM store and top up while in Italy. Inconvenient but worth it.

Moving forward, it happens again in The Netherlands. And guess what. They offer you an online option. But the catch? They only accept Italian credit cards and Italian PayPal. So after literal hours of trying everything under the sun we finally realized that there are third party top up providers that you can pay a small fee to and they act on your behalf. So, lesson learned. Always add a little extra to that phone account so it doesn’t coincidentally stop working on the one and only day that you are trying to coordinate three separate, time-sensitive meetups with friends and family around Amsterdam.

Charcuterie @travelingintandem
Brittany and our haphazard charcuterie.

WHAT WE LEARNED

It’s hard to read this and not think, wow, we sound like assholes. But we promised that we were going to provide clear, transparent reflections on our travels that encompassed both the good and bad. So be that as it may, this is honest.

We understand that not everyone has the same access to resources, or social capital, or this, that, or the other. We really do. But this experience went above and beyond our wildest dreams of kooky, codependent, and quasi-threatening situations that we thought we might encounter. Meaning, we couldn’t have made this up. We’re just not that creative.

Looking back, we should have set boundaries. We should have listened to ourselves and trusted our gut that we were seeing red flags clear as day. We should have created more space for ourselves. And more than anything, we should have left.

We were concerned about propriety. Our safety was constantly at the front of our minds, as it can be when you’re spending time with someone who is imposing and controlling. We were also, and maybe more shallowly, concerned about our Couchsurfing reputations and the damage that one bad review can inflict on your ability to find a great host moving forward. At the time, our profile was vital to our budgeting success throughout Europe, and a great resource for engaging with locals. We ended up kind of throwing this to the wind soon thereafter, but what can you do.

So our advice to anyone dealing with a difficult Couchsurfing, work exchange, or social situation is to balance your perceptions. Take into consideration how you were raised, and what that demands of your perspective. Does your gender or demographic require that you be polite, quiet, passive? Don’t disregard discomforts, don’t disregard safety concerns, and absolutely leave as soon as you feel like you need to. It’s not worth it and will occupy your mind for the entire time that you’re there, and then some.

Trieste, Italy @travelingintandem
A view looking back at Trieste.

MOVING FORWARD

Given that this entire post is one big blooper, or blemish, on our trip, we’ll leave the bloopers out on this one. Unfortunately, our arrival to Rome the next day did not bring sunshine and rainbows. But when it comes down to it, Rome redeemed itself. Keep your eyes peeled for our three part series on Rome, coming in the next few days. We’ll call it The Good, The Bad, and The Food.

And if you’re wondering where we are now, head on over to Facebook and friend either of us. We post updates every few days. Currently, we’re sitting in Chiang Mai Thailand about to embark on an artist’s work exchange while planning a motorbike tour of Northern Thailand.

Talk soon!

Steve & Brittany

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