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Couches and Canals

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Couches and Canals

  1. 1. Couches and Canals: An Ethnographic Analysis of Couchsurfing in Amsterdam Name Alexander Bower UvA Student Number 10861491 Email Thesis Supervisor Dr. I. L. Stengs Degree Program MSc Cultural and Social Anthropology Affiliation University of Amsterdam Secondary Readers Dr. A. T. Strating and Dr. R. J. van Ginkel Date 21st June 2015 MSc Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science, Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, University of Amsterdam.
  2. 2. - 1 - "Verklaring: Ik heb de UvA regels ten aanzien van fraude en plagiaat gelezen en begrepen [ plagiaat/voorkomen.cfm]. Ik verklaar dat dit geschreven werkstuk volledig mijn eigen werk is, dat ik alle bronnen die ik heb gebruikt zorgvuldig en correct heb aangegeven, en dat ik volgens de regels heb geciteerd. Ik heb dit werkstuk, in deze of gewijzigde versie, niet eerder ingediend voor een ander vak of als onderdeel van een ander werkstuk." "Declaration: I have read and understood the University of Amsterdam plagiarism policy [published on]. I declare that this assignment is entirely my own work, all sources have been properly acknowledged, and that I have not previously submitted this work, or any version of it, for assessment in any other paper." Alexander Bower 19/06/2015
  3. 3. - 2 - Abstract is a global hospitality network that seeks to create a community that encourages members to share their lives with each other through staying with local people. With a membership base of nearly 9 million members, Couchsurfing has become an important leader in the world of alternative tourism and an interesting source of anthropological study. This thesis deals with some of the ways in which members use the Couchsurfing network within the city of Amsterdam. Based on three months of participant observation amongst hosts and travellers within the city, I seek to discover how hospitality is enacted by Couchsurfing members in Amsterdam and the practices that allow the community to continue to function. In doing this I focus on a number of different aspects of the Couchsurfing phenomenon including the reputation system, member organised events, authenticity, and the importance of the reciprocal hospitality relationship between host and guest (c.f. Germann Molz, 2007). In particular I use the example of food as the carrier of hospitality through the sharing of culture and personal memory (c.f. Appadurai, 1981; Seremetakis, 1996) as well as the role that cooking can play in the building of relationships and reciprocity. There is also a dark side to Couchsurfing exhibited through events that are deemed to not be in keeping with the spirit of the network’s ideology. Whilst these actions include ‘extreme’ cases such as sexual assault, they can also be revealed through invasion of personal space and disrespect of property. I use the domain of the kitchen and food in order to highlight how tension between hosts and guests can arise. Key Words: Couchsurfing, hospitality, reputation, food, reciprocity
  4. 4. - 3 - Acknowledgements I want to take this opportunity to thank the people who have been instrumental in driving me throughout the last ten months to reach the finish line of this Master’s thesis. First and foremost I wish to thank my thesis supervisor Dr. Irene Stengs whose support, encouragement, and honesty have proved invaluable in helping me write this thesis. Her continued guidance and patience have been invaluable and her criticisms have helped me strive to make this project something that I am proud of. I also want to thank the other academic staff from the Anthropology department at the University of Amsterdam who helped me create a formulated research proposal and guided me on the right path – in particular Dr Alex Strating and Dr Adnan Hossein – who have at various points helped me strengthen my methodological and theoretical approach to anthropology and have kept this project from falling off the tracks I am forever grateful to my friends and family for sticking with me through the constant complaining and frequent swearing. In particular Jess Dye and Brandon Moskun whose proof reading and editing have been beyond helpful. Adam Ronning, Sean Dugan and Jacob Harbich have been a continual source of strength and motivation and their support has kept me going when I wanted to give up. The 2014-2015 cohort of the Master’s in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam have provided me with new ways of looking at things and their suggestions throughout the course of the programme have helped me mould this project into this final thesis. Finally I am indebted to those members of the Couchsurfing community who took the time to talk to me and provided me with the inspiration for this thesis. Without them this work would not have been possible. They have truly shown me how a community can become a global phenomenon and I have had the privilege of making friends from all over the world.
  5. 5. - 4 - Table of Contents Introduction 5  Sharing your Life: An Introduction to Couchsurfing 6  Understanding the Phenomenon: Research Questions and Couchsurfing in the Literature 7  Researching Amsterdam: Methodology, Setting, Population 12  Thesis Structure 15 TITLE 17  Meeting and Greeting: Couchsurfing in Amsterdam 19  “Stay with a local; become a local”: Authentic Experiences and Couchsurfing 24  “You feel at home wherever you are”: Creating the Feeling of Home 27  “I get to make new friends”: Building Friendships through Couchsurfing 28  (On)gastvrijheid: Deconstructing the Stereotype of Dutch Inhospitality 29  Mitigating Risk: The Couchsurfing Reference System 33 “Food is our common ground, a universal experience”: Food as the Carrier of Hospitality 37  “Reminds me of home”: Food as the Conduit of Cultural Memory 38  “The kitchen is the heart of the home”: Building a Relationship through Cooking 45 “And then it all went wrong”: The Dark Side of Couchsurfing 53  “That isn’t Couchsurfing behaviour”: Bad Hospitality 55  “Too many cooks spoil the stew”:The Kitchen as a Site of Conflict 59  “I don’t give a damn about my reputation” (But really I do): Reputation and the Negative Reference 64 Conclusion 70 Bibliography 72 Appendices 77
  6. 6. - 5 - Introduction It was the afternoon of August 13th 2014 and I was sat sweating on a low wall in a residential neighbourhood in the west of Amsterdam. I had a bottle of water in one hand and my phone in the other, which I was constantly checking to see whether I had received a new message. Next to me were a large backpack and a suitcase containing almost all of my earthly belongings. After sitting in the heat for ten minutes my phone buzzed – ‘Just got on the tram. See you soon’. The text message was from Maarten, a Dutch marketing assistant in his mid- twenties. The wall I was sitting on was opposite his apartment. Fifteen minutes later Maarten walked around a corner. After we introduced ourselves he led me into his building and after hauling my luggage up six floors we entered his small apartment. There were four rooms in all – a bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom and a dining room – and the place was not particularly tidy. Boxes were stacked against walls and the washing up had not been done in a couple of days it seemed. Maarten pointed at a folded up deflated air mattress in the corner of the living room, ‘That’s for you’. Whilst I sat on the floor blowing up my mattress, Maarten entered the kitchen and started making tea. I had just moved to Amsterdam from England to begin my postgraduate studies at the University of Amsterdam and it would be a couple of days before my student room was available for me to move into. I had contacted Maarten the previous week through, an online networking site that allows members to send ‘couch requests’ to other users around the world to ask for a place to stay for free. A popular site amongst travellers, ‘with Couchsurfing, you can stay with locals in every country on earth. Travel like a local, stay in someone's home and experience the world in a way money can't buy.’1 I stayed with Maarten for two nights and during that time I got to experience a side of Amsterdam that was missing in the Lonely Planet book I had religiously studied before my move. A bike tour around the canal rings was followed by an all-night party at the house of one of Maarten’s friends with the theme ‘cereal killers’ (everyone dressed as their favourite cereal mascot – I was Tony, the Kellog’s Frosties mascot), an interpretive dance retelling of the fall of Rome that his sister was performing in, and a night time picnic at Strand West, one of Amsterdam’s urban beaches. My two night stay was not my first experience with 1 [Accessed on: 01st June 2015]
  7. 7. - 6 - Couchsurfing. I had been a member since the previous summer, but had only used it a couple of times during a trip to Canada. Faced with a tight budget I decided to utilise the website once more to orientate myself in Amsterdam and to meet some people before my course began. Out of ten couch requests I had sent to hosts in Amsterdam, Maarten was the only one who had replied saying that he would be willing to host me, and those two days and nights I spent with him not only planted the seed for this thesis but also gained me a good friend. Sharing Your Life: An Introduction to Couchsurfing The thought of sleeping in the home of a total stranger in a foreign city is enough to make mothers all over the world shudder. Yet this is precisely what the millions of travellers who use the hospitality network do. Couchsurfing greets potential members with the grand statement ‘We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.’2 Couchsurfing originally launched in 2004 after an American student sent an email asking a number of students in Iceland for a place to stay during his trip. He received more than fifty offers and this planted the seed of an idea, which eventually was to morph into Couchsurfing. With approximately 9 million people in more than 120,000 cities having created profiles on the site as of early 2015, and frequent mentions in travel publications such as Lonely Planet, Couchsurfing as a hospitality network has created a truly global community that allows people from all over the world to experience an alternative form of travel. It is a non-profit organisation although members have the option of paying a small fee in order to get ‘verified’ – a marker that simply proves you live at the stated address. Joining the site is a relatively simple process. Members sign up to the website entering basic information – name, age, gender, location - and create a profile detailing a bit about themselves through a number of headings such as ‘About Me’, ‘One Amazing Thing I’ve Done’, ‘Countries I’ve Visited’, and ‘Philosophy’. The more detailed a profile is the more likely it is that an individual will be successful in finding someone who will want to 2 [Accessed on: 01st June 2015]
  8. 8. - 7 - host them or stay with them. Adding photographs and having friends who also use the site can help to improve a profile and allow a new member to begin their usage of the site3. Once they have created a profile they can search for hosts or travellers around the world and send ‘couch requests’. As well as allowing members to find hospitality, Couchsurfing allows them to create events and organise meetings creating a network that reaches far beyond a dyadic host/guest relationship. Couchsurfing also functions as a social media site, allowing members to exchange messages and join sub-groups such as Queer Couchsurfers or Christian Musicians. Members can add friends and participate in discussions, which whilst not as streamlined as other social media sites, still provides the opportunity for continued communication with members even if an individual is not participating in a host/guest interaction. Throughout the course of this thesis I will make continual reference to Couchsurfing using a number of terms that it will be beneficial to define here in the introduction. During a stay couchsurfers typically take on one of two roles – the host or the guest. Whilst the host is always called as such, I also use the term ‘surfer’ to denote the guest. The guest can be viewed as the active member – moving into the static realm of the host – and therefore I use ‘surfer’ as a noun to distinguish them from the host. ‘Couchsurfer’ I use as a catch-all term to encompass any member of the site. On the other hand I use ‘couchsurfing’ as a verb to describe the act of being involved in the Couchsurfing community and therefore both host and guest can be described as couchsurfing. I only use the capitalised form of Couchsurfing as a noun to refer to the network and site itself so as to distinguish from the verb. Understanding the Phenomenon: Research Questions and Couchsurfing in the Literature This thesis is driven by a desire to explore Couchsurfing practices as they occur within the city of Amsterdam. In particular I use the theme of hospitality as a broad cover to discover how Couchsurfing members use the network. My primary research question that I seek to answer within this thesis is ‘How is hospitality enacted by Couchsurfing members in Amsterdam?’ This is quite an open-ended topic and my research brought up numerous aspects of Couchsurfing that all serve to help build towards the notion of a hospitality 3 An example of a members profilepage is included in the appendices of this thesis.
  9. 9. - 8 - network. From these topics I selected a number of them to create the secondary research questions that I explore more thoroughly throughout the course of this thesis, namely ‘How does the reference system affect members usage of Couchsurfing?’, ‘What role do the events play in creating community?’, ‘What role does food play as a carrier of hospitality?’ and ‘How are negative experiences during the reciprocal hospitality relationship dealt with?’ These research questions arose as a result of my own fieldwork as well as from my reading of the literature surrounding Couchsurfing. As a form of tourism there is a large body of literature that can be drawn upon to begin to understand the phenomenon of Couchsurfing. Tourism has been of interest to anthropologists since at least the 1960’s with Theron Nuñez’s “Tourism, Tradition, and Acculturation: Weekendismo in a Mexican Village” (1963) oftenbeingcreditedasone of the earliestexampleof anthropological enquiryintothe worldof tourism.Since thentourismhasbecome animportantpartof the anthropological literature with NelsonGraburn(1977; 2001) inparticularleadingthe charge.Anthropologistshave focusedona myriadof differentformsof tourismfromsex tourism(Brennan,2004; Bunzl,2000; Williams,2013) to volunteertourism(McGehee andSantos,2005; Conran,2011; Mustonen,2006) andEcotourism (Stronza,2005; Russell,2007; Westand Carrier,2004). Pilgrimage hasbeenoftendiscussedwithin the discourse (Eade,1992; Eade and Coleman,2004; Badone andRoseman,2004) and recently several scholarshave turnedtheirattentiontobackpacking(Muzaini,2006; Binder,Richardsand Wilson,2004) to provide buta fewexamples.The wide bodyof literature thathasbuiltup surroundingtourismservesasananchoringpointforany discussionof Couchsurfingasanaspectof tourism. Since the site went live in 2004 there has been interest in Couchsurfing amongst academic circles which has naturally started to grow as the network gains more attention in the public sphere. As a research topic, Couchsurfing has been approached from a number of different disciplines, including anthropology, and scholars have drawn attention to a number of issues including authenticity, trust, belonging and reciprocity. There is still only a relatively small body of scholarly literature devoted to Couchsurfing but an ever growing number of doctoral and master’s theses are serving to bring attention to the world of computer mediated hospitality exchange. This literature review will discuss a number of the most important academic studies on Couchsurfing as well as those that have provided inspiration for specific themes that I discuss within this thesis. One of the earliest and to date most comprehensive articles on Couchsurfing is Cosmopolitans on the Couch: Mobile Hospitality and the Internet (2007) by Jennie Germann Molz. Whilst she does not draw on any ethnographic research in her article, instead focusing
  10. 10. - 9 - on the theoretical argument, Germann Molz turns her attention to the question of how the internet is used to sustain the relationship between the host and guest through the lens of hospitality. She focuses on three key areas – hospitality as a reciprocal arrangement; the role of reputation systems in maintaining the hospitality relationship; and the paradox of a ‘global’ community that delimits the boundaries of a community that focuses on like-minded but diverse individuals (Germann Molz, 2007). Using Jacques Derrida’s notion of radical hospitality, Germann Molz notes that the roles of guest and host are closely linked to those of parasite and enemy and therefore the reputation system, exhibited through references, serves to minimise risk. She also suggests that couchsurfers try and play into a ‘cosmopolitan fantasy’ through the desire to appear open-minded and accepting of the world outside of their own cultural surroundings, ultimately proving this to be a fabrication through the construction of boundaries that serve to exclude non-couchsurfers. In Couchsurfing and Network Hospitality (2011), Germann Molz introduces the term ‘network hospitality’ in an attempt to link the online world of the Couchsurfing website to the offline interactions that occur when members meet face-to-face. She notes that the core of Couchsurfing is the meaningful interpersonal relationships than about the offer of accommodation and therefore the intersection between the offline and online world is an interesting site of study for anthropologists. Germann Molz’s work has been central in grounding my research in the current literature. I particularly draw upon her ideas surrounding the reciprocal hospitality relationship and the construction of a ‘cosmopolitan fantasy’. Recently an edited volume by David Picard and Sonja Buchberger Couchsurfing Cosmopolitanisms: Can Tourism Make a Better World? (2014) brings together chapters from a number of researchers that look critically at the computer-mediated hospitality that is facilitated by Couchsurfing. Based on ethnographic research amongst couchsurfers in places as diverse as Tunisia, Vietnam, and Siberia, the chapters within this volume make an excellent starting point for further research into how sites such as Couchsurfing are changing hospitality and tourism. Of particular interest is Jun-E Tan’s chapter (2014) focussing on subcultural capital and the role it plays in creating a network of trust. She conducted three years of fieldwork amongst couchsurfers in Taiwan, hosting and surfing numerous times herself. Tan suggests that cosmopolitanism is seen as a form of subcultural capital amongst the Couchsurfing community - the more Couchsurfing experiences one has and the more countries one has visited therefore presenting oneself as a ‘world traveller’ serve to bolster a members perceived status amongst the rest of the community. Tan’s work on references particularly informs my work in the third chapter of this thesis.
  11. 11. - 10 - Vicky Steylaerts and Sean O’Dubhghaill (2012) focus on the emergence of Couchsurfing as a trend and challenge the true nature of the authenticity that it seeks to harness, as well as the role the host/guest dichotomy plays in creating individualised experiences for members. Their research is based on their own ethnographic fieldwork amongst couchsurfers in Flanders and acts as part of a larger research project on tourism in the area. This focus on the applied effect of Couchsurfing on the regions tourism serves as an important study for the implication of internet based hospitality networks in the wider field of tourism studies. This work especially becomes relevant in my first and second chapters when I look at authenticity and the ‘real’. Although I do not use Steylaerts and O’Dubhghaill to inform my theoretical argument in these sections, they provided me with a direction on which to focus. Dave Rosen, Pascale Roy Lafontaine and Blake Hendrickson (2011) conducted research on the engagement of Couchsurfing members by focusing on aspects such as trust, connectedness, and belonging. In conjunction with Couchsurfing they used a survey method that asked every tenth member who logged into their profile over the course of a week to complete a survey, gathering information from 1094 participants. Their article suggests that belonging in the Couchsurfing community is linked to the amount of face-to-face contact members have, with those who attend meet-ups or host and surf regularly feeling more involved with the community than those who do not. This article is of particular relevance during my discussion of the Amsterdam meet-up in the first chapter In her Senior Honors Thesis, Clare Toeniskoetter (2013) examines the roles of gender in the creation of feelings of safety and trust amongst couchsurfers. She does not confine her research to one specific geographical area, instead focusing on her experiences couchsurfing in a number of countries as well as one case study involving the negative experience of a female Canadian couchsurfer. Toeniskoetter notes that trust is at the core of Couchsurfing and that even though members are aware of negative experiences they believe in the ‘community’ of Couchsurfing, which makes them continue using the site. This provided me with the basis of my sections on the referencing system, particularly those dealing with negative experiences. Alexander Chaplin (2012) tackles the authenticity of Couchsurfing encounters, and how members experience constructed notions of authenticity as ‘real’. Although Chaplin conducted research amongst couchsurfers in Serbia, his ethnographic accounts do not feature within his thesis, yet he provides a clear theoretical stance on how couchsurfers construct a
  12. 12. - 11 - reality based on contact with an ‘other’. Chaplin’s work is of particular interest in my first chapter when I look at the idea of authentic experiences. Throughout this thesis I refer to the members who participate in Couchsurfing as a community. Couchsurfers often use the term ‘community’ to denote the network of members who have joined the site and who participate in the activities that make Couchsurfing what it is thus creating an emic informed usage of the term. It is nevertheless important to understand what is meant by community within an academic setting. Anthony Cohen (1985) defines a community as ‘members of a group of people that (a) have something in common with each other, which (b) distinguishes them in a significant way from the members of other putative groups’ (Cohen, 1985 :12). Cohen’s definition creates a dyadic group founded both on inclusion and exclusion. Couchsurfing does in a way also create its sense of community around this. From my interactions with Couchsurfers, as well as my perusal of various profiles on the site, and my own position as a Couchsurfer, there seems to be a definite sense of a unified ‘we’ versus the ‘them’ of mainstream tourists and travellers, with quotes such as ‘we see the world differently’ or ‘support your fellow Couchsurfers’ appearing on profiles or coming up in conversation. Couchsurfing seems to create a sense of community simply through the act of Couchsurfing as by either surfing or hosting you are granted access to this network, and further participation helps to solidify ones standing within the network and therefore increase status within the community. Bellah et al (1985) proposes a definition of community that includes a group of people who are socially interdependent and involved in decision making and discussion. The Couchsurfing network relies on interaction between members for its continued usage. Without socially interdependent members there would simply not be a site for Couchsurfers to use. Members create the network which allows surfers to find hosts. Members are also able to create events, ranging from picnics in a park to language exchanges to parties. These serve to help build a community that is not simply reliant upon the host-guest dyadic but also utilises the social aspect of the site to create interrelationships between members. The website acts as a platform for these interactions but there is a reliance on other members to ensure that the site remains active. This is shown through the providing references to act as a form of subcultural capital - as pointed out by Jun-E Tan (2014) - as well as through events and groups which help to solidify the sense of community. Rosen et al also pick up on this, tying it into the time a member has spent as a part of the Couchsurfing network, ‘As length of membership in the community increases, there is a parallel increase in the amount of contact with other members. This positive relationship leads to the accumulation of references,
  13. 13. - 12 - friendships, and social capital that helps members build a positive reputation’ (Rosen et al., 2011: 994). This discussion of community helps to show couchsurfers see themselves as a group and serves as a platform from which we can understand why aspects of Couchsurfing that are discussed within this thesis such as reciprocity and the reputation system are so important Researching Amsterdam: Methodology, Setting, Population My fieldwork took place over three months solely within the Couchsurfing community of Amsterdam. Throughout my fieldwork period I met many members of Couchsurfing – both Dutch and international travellers, who participated in a number of ways. Some only hosted, others only surfed and many did both. Amsterdam as a city is a huge destination for travellers from all over the world which makes it an interesting site from which to conduct my research as there is a constant flow of couchsurfers moving in and out of the city. As an international hub for millions of travellers every year, Amsterdam is a good city from which to base an anthropological enquiry of Couchsurfing. As of April 2015 the Couchsurfing website page for Amsterdam reveals 83,951 members that are listed as living in the area, although only 2,874 of these have logged in within the last month, suggesting that the rest are either inactive profiles or belong to members who only sporadically use the site. There were also approximately 1400 travellers who were looking to stay with hosts in Amsterdam within the near future, and this number is likely higher during the peak season of the summer. There are also 325 events scheduled between the end of April and the beginning of November, although this number will continue to grow as members add new events. Couchsurfing is not just limited to younger travellers. A search for a host in Amsterdam filtered by age reveals 13,763 hosts aged between 18 and 30, 7,670 hosts between the ages of 31 and 60, and only 261 older than 60. This wide span of ages shows how Couchsurfing can appeal to a wide range of people. All of my informants were contacted through the website, I started by putting a message on the public forum explaining my research and what I hoped to achieve. This attracted a number of research participants who were interested in talking to me. I also sent private messages to a number of members, both hosts in the city and travellers
  14. 14. - 13 - who had advertised that they were looking for hosts in Amsterdam. Whilst some people were hesitant to participate, the response I received from my messages was almost overwhelmingly positive. The Couchsurfing community seems to be from the outset a very friendly and welcoming place, although of course like any group of people there are exceptions. I wanted to talk to a varied group of people who represented the diversity of the Couchsurfing demographic, so my initial messages were focused on a group of people who varied in age, gender, status on the site, participation, family, and sexuality. I was aware however that I did not want these to become stereotypes or markers for a whole category, and so I quickly abandoned this approach and instead took up offers to help wherever they came from, an approach that I believe led to a more interesting group of participants. I also attended a number of the weekly meet-ups that are organised by members every Saturday in a local bar in the centre of Amsterdam. I found a number of participants during these meetings, and the meet-ups themselves provided an interesting research setting for me to gain a better understanding of the Couchsurfing world and the importance of the community to those who actively participate within it. The research conducted for this thesis was based on a three month period of participant observation within the city of Amsterdam. I also engaged with Couchsurfing members through online forums such as the website itself and social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Although couchsurfing is of course an important act to undertake when trying to understand the phenomenon as a whole, I found that it was not a truly necessary action for me to undertake in order to gather the information I required to begin to answer my research questions. Instead I focused more on informal interviews and ‘deep hanging out’ in both private and public spaces as they were sufficient for me to get the information I needed. Many of my interviews and conversations with members took place in public spaces such as café’s or restaurants. I also engaged in activities such as biking or visiting museum exhibits with a number of couchsurfers, although these tended to be those who were travelling to Amsterdam and therefore had limited time and wanted to see some more of the city. I found that joining them for these sorts of activities created a closer bond between myself as the researcher and my participants than I was able to conjure up through a simple talk over coffee. In my position as a researcher I felt that it would not be appropriate for me to leave references for the Couchsurfing members I met with, no matter how positive or negative the interactions were. I removed myself from the expected reciprocal arrangement of reference
  15. 15. - 14 - provision (a topic I discuss in greater depth within this thesis) by ensuring that my informants were all aware of what I was doing and that I was there primarily as a researcher and not as a couchsurfer. As with any ethnographic account, my informants are central components of this thesis. Many of them I met through the Couchsurfing website as I sent them messages asking if they would be willing to help me with my research. Others I met at the events I attended or through snowballing from other members who introduced us. Whilst all of them were interesting to talk to and provided me with different insights on the world of Couchsurfing and what it meant to be a member, some were naturally more relevant than others in the writing of this thesis. Whilst I mention a number of them throughout the course of this thesis I would like to take this opportunity to introduce a number of my key informants. Hanneke is a 33 year old Dutch language teacher who lives in the west of Amsterdam. She had been active in the Couchsurfing community for around a year when I met her, hosting travellers in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend although she has yet to use the site as a surfer. I spent a night surfing with Hanneke in late February and much of the following day ‘deep’ hanging out with her in De Pijp. As a vegan she also provided some interesting viewpoints on food and cooking with couchsurfers. An Amsterdam native, Diego (38) was one of my key informants due to his role in organising the weekly Amsterdam Couchsurfing meet-up I attended. Both he and his wife have been active couchsurfers since 2010, using the network to both host and surf, as well as to meet people through events. I met Diego several times over the course of my fieldwork, always at the meet-up. Claartje (28) is a PhD student from Nijmegen now living in Amsterdam and studying molecular biology. She has been using Couchsurfing for a couple of years, particularly in her travels around Europe. She also enjoys hosting but cannot do it as often as she would like due to her studies. I spent two nights staying in her apartment and met her several times throughout the rest of my fieldwork period. Her comments and views on ‘Dutchness’ and the character of the Dutch were important in helping to understand how Couchsurfing plays into the sensibilities of the Dutch. Tia and Cassie are both English and working for a magazine in London. Both in their mid-twenties they have some interesting stories from their six years of involvement with Couchsurfing. Several of these involve the dark side of Couchsurfing and acted as inspiration for my final chapter.
  16. 16. - 15 - Many of the other informants I mention in this thesis are Dutch and often take on the role of the host whilst in the city. I also mention a number of surfers from various other countries. It is the combined experiences of both host and surfer and the interaction between members that make Couchsurfing such a rich source of anthropological study, and I hope that this thesis illuminates this at least in part. Thesis Structure The first chapter looks at how hospitality is approached by couchsurfers in Amsterdam. I start by looking at Amsterdam as a Couchsurfing location and I pay particular attention to the weekly meet-up that is organised in Amsterdam by a number of couchsurfing members. I also deconstruct some of the stereotypes surrounding Dutch hospitality. I will analyse the themes of authenticity and home in relation to hospitality and how Couchsurfing builds upon these, as well as ideas of friendship. I also look at the role of the reference system and reputation in how members enact hospitality and how it helps to minimise risk. In my second chapter I focus on how food acts as a carrier of the reciprocal hospitality relationship that is created between a host and their guest. I use two main themes to highlight the role food plays in the creation of this relationship. I highlight how food is used as an embodiment of culture and personal experiences, and how the sharing of this with others creates an intimate bond built upon a desire to reciprocate in part the hospitality offered by the guest. I then show how cooking as an action is seen as a form of sharing part of oneself and how this is used by couchsurfers to create and maintain relationships. The third and final chapter tackles the dark side of Couchsurfing. During my fieldwork my participants brought a number of examples of times when the Couchsurfing network had created less than favourable experiences showing an aspect that is often overlooked by the Couchsurfing ideology. I spend some time looking at some of the ‘extreme’ negative experiences of Couchsurfing members before moving to how Couchsurfing can cause conflict around food and the kitchen to tie this section with my previous chapter. I end by analysing the role of the negative reference and how it is perceived amongst members of the community, as well as the situations in which members feel the need to leave them.
  17. 17. - 16 - Finally in my conclusion I will reflect upon my previous chapters to answer the question ‘How is hospitality enacted by Couchsurfing members in Amsterdam?’ and make suggestions for potential follow up research.
  18. 18. - 17 - (I can’t think of a title right now…) Jos’ living room was intriguing. It was so full of all sorts of paraphernalia that I didn’t really know where to focus my attention. There was a stuffed fox sitting on a rock in one corner and what appears to be half a surfboard propped up against one wall. The walls were covered in photographs, all of which are Jos’ own work. He works as a freelance photographer and much of his work is focusing on decay and abandonment. One photograph in particular caught my eye, of a small child sitting outside the ruins of a house which looks like it has been severely damaged by a fire. ‘I took that one in New Orleans a couple of years ago. I like the contrast. The innocence of the child against the destruction of the house’. I agreed. A number of Jos’ other photos are inspired by his trips using Couchsurfing. He has a set of portraits of all of his hosts – twenty nine in total – all of which have been signed by the person they depict. Jos has been a member of Couchsurfing since 2010 and has used it all over the world. He has just returned a couple of weeks earlier from an assignment in Mongolia and even managed to find a host in Ulan Bator. Jos is Dutch and in his late twenties. His boyfriend, Andy, is also a member of Couchsurfing, they met in Budapest whilst they were both staying with separate hosts when they attended a free walking tour organised by a local member. I was spending the afternoon with Jos, first meeting him for coffee at his house before going to a Lebanese restaurant that he had recommended for dinner. We had met the previous evening at the Amsterdam weekly Couchsurfing meet-up. He was there with Andy and another of their friends and was interested enough in my research to invite me over without me having to ask. He goes to the meet-ups occasionally because he ‘likes meeting different people and it’s an easy way to do that. And I know I will probably get on with them because they are couchsurfers as well’. Jos handed me a mug of tea and a piece of boterkoek before
  19. 19. - 18 - settling down next to me and telling me his Couchsurfing stories. He really seemed to embody the spirit of Couchsurfing. As he told me about his encounters he was constantly smiling and laughing. Frequently he would point to a photograph on the wall that is associated with whatever he was telling me – about the time he went fishing at night in Australia and saw a crocodile, or ate a fried tarantula in Phnom Penh. The photographs of his hosts serve to put a face on these stories and made me feel like I am living them with him – even though they took place far away and with people I have never met. This is what Couchsurfing is. Sharing your life with other people, even just through stories. He told me that he still talks to most of the people he has surfed with or hosted, he will drop them an email from time to time and if he ever is in the area he makes sure to look them up. I felt at ease in Jos’ apartment almost straight away, he was friendly and inquisitive, constantly asking questions and making sure I was comfortable. I asked him what his favourite thing about Couchsurfing is and he replied without hesitation ‘the people’. Jos appeared to me to be a perfect example of a couchsurfer. Someone who is truly passionate about meeting new people and experiencing new things and who shared his life with those he met. The way in which couchsurfers use the network is of course varied. Some members only use it as a way to find a place to stay, but others – like Jos - are much more involved and it is because of theses that there is a sense of a Couchsurfing community rather than just a fleeting host-guest interaction. Within this chapter I will turn my attention to a number of aspects of Couchsurfing, in particular Couchsurfing in Amsterdam. I first focus on one particular example of Couchsurfing in Amsterdam – that of a weekly meet-up that is organised by a couple of users. I want to show that Couchsurfing is not just about finding a place to stay, but is about meeting people and creating new experiences. I then use my ethnographic account of one of these meet-ups to look at three themes that are central to Couchsurfing – the search for authentic experiences, the creation of a feeling of ‘home’, and friendship. These themes are important ones to consider as they are constantly found in the rhetoric surrounding Couchsurfing.
  20. 20. - 19 - Next I move on to deconstructing some of the stereotypes surrounding the Dutch and hospitality, using the work of Nepalese sociologist Rajendra Pradhan (1990) on hospitality in Schoonrewoerd in particular. The Dutch are stereotypically a quite insular people, almost to the point of rudeness, and I discuss how these stereotypes stand up to my own experiences with Dutch couchsurfers. Finally I turn my attention to the Couchsurfing reputation system which is created through references. References play a large part in how members conduct themselves and participate in the reciprocal hospitality relationship and therefore I feel it is important to understand exactly what they are and how members use them. They serve to build trust between members and act as a form of subcultural capital and I explore how this affects members and their actions. Meeting and Greeting: Couchsurfing in Amsterdam Amsterdam is a popular tourist location, drawing in millions of international travellers every year. It is no surprise then that it also home to a thriving community of couchsurfers. As mentioned in the introduction to this thesis there are around 3000 active hosts and a constant stream of surfers looking for somewhere to stay and people to get to know. As a hospitality network, Couchsurfing provides travellers with the opportunity to get to know a city through the eyes of a local and to make travel a social experience by creating meaningful connections between people4. The world of Couchsurfing in Amsterdam is no exception, and the popularity of Couchsurfing in such a culturally diverse city serves as an example of the global appeal of the network. Whilst many Couchsurfing interactions take place within the dyadic relationship of a host and guest, another aspect that is important to acknowledge in a discussion of Couchsurfing practices are the events. When a member searches for a city they have the option to look for events that are happening during their stay. These events are created by members and in Amsterdam they range from helping to fix a houseboat to language exchanges and baking lessons. They provide couchsurfers the chance to engage in activities that are not on the agendas of a typical tourist, providing them with travelling experiences that they will not find in the pages of their guide book. They also provide the opportunity to 4 [Accessed on: 08th June 2015]
  21. 21. - 20 - get to know other people, both locals and travellers and therefore really amplify the idea of Couchsurfing as a community of people rather than just the individuals involved in a host- guest interaction. One of the most common forms of activity that take place in many cities is a weekly meet-up. These usually involve members congregating at a public place such as a bar or café and just spending time with fellow Couchsurfers in a social setting. This section focuses on one such event – a weekly meet up that occurs every Saturday evening at a bar a short walk from Amsterdam’s Dam square5. Organised by a couple of hosts from the city, the meet-up’s main aim is to allow members to: Hang out with the coolest locals & visitors in a homely artistic atmosphere → Exchange experiences → Hear what's going on in town → Make plans to reconnect → Make plans for the rest of the night and weekend6 An analysis of this rather simple looking advertisement reveals a lot about the Couchsurfing ideology. To start with it is written in English. Couchsurfing is a global phenomenon and English is used as a default lingua franca acting as a common language that is understood to varying degrees by people all over the world. As the meet-up is intended to allow international travellers as well as hosts to get together, it makes sense that the message would be written in a language that is more widely understood than Dutch. The language of the advertisement is informal suggesting that the meeting itself takes the form of an informal get together, as indeed many of the Couchsurfing events are. It suggests that it is a meeting between friends and equals, a feeling that is reinforced through the use of ‘Hang out’ and ‘coolest’. Even so, these terms are often associated with the vernacular of youth culture. Whilst a large proportion of Couchsurfing members fall within the 18-30 age bracket, there are also a significant number of older members. The use of these terms rather than ‘spend time with’ or ‘interesting locals’ seemingly taps into the image of Couchsurfing as a ‘young person’s game’. This however does not stop older members from attending the meet-ups – during my fieldwork the oldest attendee I spoke with was 67 years old. ‘Homely’ is an interesting choice of word on the part of the author, as despite the public location of the event it is suggesting that there is a more intimate ‘family’ feel to the 5 A screenshotof the event page for this weekly meet-up can be found in the appendices. 6 [Accessed on: 08th June 2015]
  22. 22. - 21 - meet-up. Home as a space is associated with comfort and privacy and the use of this particular adjective extends this sphere to the group in the back of this bar in the centre of Amsterdam. Another interesting point is the use of ‘make plans’ suggesting that the meet-up extends beyond just the one evening and that people continue the relationships they form. As Couchsurfing superficially seems to focus on fleeting temporal interactions, it is perhaps important to note that there is more to it than just the accommodation aspect and that it also facilitates the creation of friendships. There is however a paradox at play here as the permanency conveyed through the choice of language evoking images of home and friendship is mediated through the brief time period in which these meet-ups occur. For all the talks of making lifelong friends in a ‘homely’ atmosphere, when the bar closes the members disperse, often never seeing each other again. The themes of friendship and home are discussed more thoroughly later on in this chapter in relation to Couchsurfing. One final aspect of the advertisement that it is important to note is the use of arrows to separate the sentences where other forms of punctuation would perhaps have made more sense. Arrows tend to by symbolic of movement, from moving from one place to another, going forward or back (or indeed up or down or any other direction). In the description for the weekly meet-up these arrows can show a movement from hanging out to exchanging stories and getting to know events in the city to making plans for the future. There is a sense of movement from the state of stranger – having drinks with new people – to acquaintance – getting to know the people you are with – and finally to friend – creating opportunities for further interactions and activities. This could be seen as a microcosm of Couchsurfing as whole. Members move from strangers by simply being active on the site, to acquaintances by sending messages and couch requests, to friends through staying with a host or offering space to a surfer. My first attendance at the weekly Amsterdam meet-up occurred in the middle of January. The weather was terrible and the bike ride from my apartment to the bar had left me cold and miserable. Fighting through the press of umbrellas in one of Amsterdam’s busiest tourist areas, I found the bar were the meet-up was organised and made my way inside. The group of Couchsurfers was seated around a couple of tables in the back, all wearing coats and jumpers and nursing biertjes. There were ten members already present, and six more joined us as the evening progressed. After introducing myself to them, the rest of the evening passed by in a mix of conversation, playing pool and eating and drinking. One of the attendees was Diego, one of the
  23. 23. - 22 - members who were responsible for organising the event and for writing the description on the website. Diego is 38 years old and he and his wife have been members of Couchsurfing for nearly five years. They originally joined as a way to cut costs during a backpacking trip through South America but quickly fell in love with the alternative form of travel that Couchsurfing can offer. He explains: It’s all about the people really. You can go to a city like Paris that is beautiful and the architecture is stunning but having people who live there that can show you or tell you about the place makes everything much more real. The people bring travelling to life. (Diego, 13th January 2015) This comment essentially gets to the very root of what Couchsurfing is about – meeting people and creating experiences rather than simply finding a place to stay. Of course the accommodation finding aspect is a major factor, but without the people there simply would not be a Couchsurfing for travellers to use. I asked Diego what made him want to create the event: Pretty early on after I had started using Couchsurfing I was in New York and saw that they had a meet-up. I went and there were around 40 people there, from all over the world. It was a really good time and I enjoyed getting to meet people that I wouldn’t just by staying with my host. I came back to Amsterdam and thought we should try and have our own. Amsterdam is just as popular as New York! There already was a meet-up event on the page but it was very… not filled out. And hardly anyone seemed to be going. So I made my own. I invited some friends from Couchsurfing who bought their surfers and it just built from there. I get to make new friends whenever I attend these meet-ups and the people are just incredible. (Diego, 13th January 2015) The creation of an event is fairly simple. A couple of clicks on the website brings you to a form where you fill in details such as event name, location, date, maximum number
  24. 24. - 23 - of attendees, and a description.7 Further links can be made to other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and members who join the event can leave comments, providing the opportunity to get to know other attendees before the event begins. The varying demographic make-up of Couchsurfing members is visible in the group of people at the bar. The group is a mix of local hosts and surfers who are visiting from other countries – including Australia and Vietnam. The youngest attendee is eighteen and the oldest is sixty-three. Amongst them is Floris (27, Dutch), one of the regular attendees of the event. He has been a member of Couchsurfing for three years and in that time has become one of Amsterdam’s most active members, with an impressive 450 positive references – and no negative ones - on his profile. I think that for me the appeal is that I have the opportunity to meet and help people from all over the world. When I went backpacking around Europe a few years ago – before I joined Couchsurfing or even knew it existed – and I met some great people in the hostels but I felt like I was missing out on that whole travel experience. It was just bars and tourist sites you know? That was not what I wanted. But with Couchsurfing you can stay with a local, you can become a local. You feel at home wherever you are. (Floris, 13th January 2015) It is this opportunity to temporarily inhabit the role of a local that appeals to many of those who use Couchsurfing as a way to aid their travelling. That appears to be a part of the appeal of these meet-ups as well. It gives travellers the opportunity to spend time with local hosts in a comfortable social atmosphere. The tourist bars that Floris seems to revile are still present however, as evidenced by the fact that I am sitting in one that is also hosting a stag party of English men with bright orange t-shirts bearing obscene nicknames. According to Diego this location was picked because of its location and the owners willingness to host large groups, however the charm is not in the location – it is in the small group of members who have chosen to meet through a shared interest in Couchsurfing. 7 A screenshotof the event creation screen can be found in the appendices of this thesis.
  25. 25. - 24 - I attended this meet-up eight times throughout the course of my fieldwork. The amount of participants fluctuated from a low of nine in late January to around 45 one weekend in March and with a constant rotation of travellers attending it provides a good opportunity for meeting new people and making friends. This is especially welcome for those in the city who do not have the facilities to act as hosts themselves as it allows them to still be included and feel like a part of the community despite not occupying the role of either a host or surfer. Participation in these member organised events can help to make members feel more included within the Couchsurfing community and give them the opportunity to meet new people, try new things, explore more of the city, and ‘just generally have fun’ (Tak, 20, Croatian). Dave Rosen et al found that attendance at community gatherings had the ‘strongest impact on an individual’s sense of belonging to the Couchsurfing community’ (Rosen et al, 2011: 993) as they provide the opportunity to meet more members outside of the host-guest dyad. Through participation in these user-created events members are able to create a larger presence on the network as it provides them with the opportunity to add more friends and therefore expand their subcultural capital – a topic I will discuss further later on in this chapter. My experience at that first meet-up I attended in January brought three key themes to my attention that I would like to take this opportunity to discuss briefly. These are authenticity, home, and friendship. They are themes that are commonly cited by Couchsurfing members and indeed the organisation itself with variations of phrases such as ‘it was a real experience’, ‘I made a friend for life’ and ‘I felt at home’ cropping up in many stories by members. Whilst they are not explicitly central themes for this thesis, an understanding of what they mean and how they are enacted by Couchsurfers serves to help us to understand how Couchsurfing moves beyond a simple exchange of hospitality. “Stay with a local; become a local”: Authentic Experiences and Couchsurfing One of the main appeals of Couchsurfing is its promise to deliver authentic experiences to its members. Couchsurfing is an alternative form of tourism (Germann Molz, 2011), taking travellers out of the world of large resorts and all-inclusive stays, and instead placing them into the private domain. Couchsurfing ‘positions itself outside the field of tourism’ (Chaplin, 2012: 17. Emphasis in original) through a desire to detach members from the staging and
  26. 26. - 25 - exoticisation that often comes hand in hand with more traditional forms of tourism. It does this by giving members the opportunity to enter the home of a local and therefore experience a place from the ‘insider’ knowledge that such an encounter provides. As a form of alternative tourism, Couchsurfing ‘speaks to a growing desire among tourists to have more authentic, individualized, and intimate embodied experiences with the people and places they visit’ (Germann Molz, 2011: 213) through providing a means for members to experience a place through connections made with people. In Amsterdam, tourism focuses mainly on the area surrounding the Dam square, with a high concentration of coffeeshops, the red light district, and numerous shops selling miniature clog keychains and wooden tulips. Couchsurfers often seek to avoid this by finding ‘off-the-grid’ areas using the local knowledge provided by their hosts to get to know a city beyond the tour books. Authenticity is the perception that something is real – whether that be ‘real’ flamenco dancing in Seville or ‘real’ pizza in Italy. Of course what makes something real is debateable but most couchsurfers would agree that it is found in a world that is removed from the pageantry of mass tourist spectacles and instead is rooted in the idea that ‘this is what the locals do’ (Seger, 26, Swedish). For couchsurfers the search for authenticity is often found manifested in a desire to experience the local everydayness. Mundane acts such as buying groceries and cooking dinner serve to bring them further away from the tourist arena through doing just what the local people do. Alexander Chaplin (2012) discusses the illusion of authentic experiences within Couchsurfing and how members accept constructed notions of authenticity as real. He argues that the ‘real’ is intimately associated with spontaneity – a quality that is often mentioned in the profiles of couchsurfers – as it suggests the lack of control over events, a far cry from the organised tour groups or suggested day plans that are provided in guide books. Couchsurfing however has ‘institutionalised spontaneity’ (Chaplin, 2012: 25. Emphasis in original) as it almost seeks to facilitate spontaneous occurrences. Simply by entering into a Couchsurfing interaction and therefore entering the home of a stranger or letting one into your home, couchsurfers are opening themselves up to the unexpected. Stays are often only loosely organised – “I will arrive on this day and leave on this day” – and everything that happens in between is often filled with whichever opportunity arises. This creation of spontaneity leads to the illusion that members are having authentic experiences, although the actual spontaneity is somewhat minimised through the expectation of spontaneity. Couchsurfers often actively seek out the spontaneous rather than letting it happen. Hosts also play into this creation of the spontaneous as authentic by taking their surfers to events or places that may appear to be
  27. 27. - 26 - ‘real’ yet have been carefully chosen specifically for that reason, as exemplified by Claartje (28, Dutch) who told me that: If I have a surfer on a weekend I will see if they want to come with me to this bar I know where they have these informal gigs held by old Dutch men and they will sing traditional Dutch songs. (3rd March 2015) The conscious choice of venue somewhat dissipates the spontaneity of the event, however the authenticity lies instead in its perceived ‘Dutchness’ which is created through the presence of ‘real’ Dutch men singing ‘real’ Dutch songs. Another of the ways in which couchsurfers seek authenticity in their experiences is through food, a topic which is the main focus of the next chapter of this thesis. Couchsurfers often seek ‘real’ food as opposed to the food that is commonly available in tourist areas and therefore seen as being explicitly linked to the world of mass tourism from which they try to escape. Diego is passionate about getting couchsurfers away from the tourist traps and finding other places to try Dutch food: Around the tourist sites you always find places offering cheese and stroopwafels in fancy packaging. It’s the same stuff you get in the Albert Heijn [a Dutch supermarket chain] for half the price and double the quantity. And pancakes for example. There are places selling the traditional Dutch pancakes or something. Sure they are pancakes but if you want a real Dutch pancake you need to go into the home of Dutch person! (13th January 2015) Whether couchsurfers use food or events or the mundanity of everyday events to seek authentic encounters, they often seek to get to know a place through finding the ‘really real’ (Chaplin, 2012: 37). This is also brought about through perceptions of home and the feeling that one can be ‘at home anywhere in the world’ (Diego, 13th January 2015).
  28. 28. - 27 - “You feel at home wherever you are”: Creating the Feeling of Home The rather throwaway comment made by Floris – ‘You feel at home wherever you are’ brings up the question of what is ‘home’. The anthropology of the home is somewhat underrepresented in the literature surrounding the ‘West’ with most of the attention focusing instead on the ‘exotic’ home (Cieraad, 2006:2) however most scholars agree that it is closely tied to ideas of domesticity and domestic space. As a private setting it is somewhat difficult to research the home thoroughly as a boundary between private and public is created at the front door. The distinction between private and public in relation to the home has been attributed by some to the mercantile homes of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic with the home being a focal point for gezelligheid [comfort] in contrast to the chaos of the outside world (de Mare, 2006: 13). This idealised version was often depicted in art and was transported to other ‘western’ countries such as the United States in the nineteenth century where it became the popular image of the home. The association of home with qualities such as comfort and cosiness contrast the perceived discomfort that can arise from allowing a relative stranger into your home vis-à-vis Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing by its very nature suggest that the ‘world’ is brought into the home of individuals through surfers. This intersection between the intimacy of the home environment and the public sphere is blurred somewhat through allowing a stranger in, however Couchsurfing actively seeks to create these encounters making the home a place for openness and friendship or conflict. There are a number of popular idioms surrounding the notion of home including ‘home is where the heart is’ and ‘home is wherever you hang your hat’. These idioms suggest that home is not a fixed spatial location. It takes on a transient quality that is powered through feeling – wherever you feel your home to be, that is where it is. Couchsurfers often take this sentiment with them, allowing them to ‘feel at home anywhere in the world’ (Darryl, 24, American. 5th February 2015) and it serves to help fortify the sense of community as members are able to find their ‘home’ wherever they want. It may not be a temporally extensive location of home, maybe lasting only one night, yet by accepting an invitation from a host to enter their private domestic space temporarily makes that space the home of the surfer as well. The use of the adjective ‘homely’ in the advertisement for the Amsterdam meet-up serves as an indicator of how Couchsurfing and its members create the feeling of home even
  29. 29. - 28 - outside of a domestic sphere. It evokes a sense of comfort and familiarity, something that many hosts endeavour to create for their guests within their own home. This is echoed in the frequently used phrase ‘make yourself at home’ suggesting that a guest should treat the home of their host like their own home, although this is not without its problems as I discuss in the third chapter of this thesis . “I get to make new friends”: Building Friendships through Couchsurfing One sentiment that is often found in the rhetoric surrounding Couchsurfing is that you can make friends all over the world. On the website, an ‘About’ page has a description of the Couchsurfing story saying ‘An email to a group of students in Iceland gave birth to the idea that people anywhere would want to share their homes with strangers (or, as we like to call them, friends you haven't met yet).’ 8 Friendship is also mentioned in several other places on the page including offering members to rediscover their city through ‘making new friends’ and promoting the idea of becoming a host in order to ‘make the world a little smaller; a little friendlier.’ This idea of making friends through travelling is at the very heart of Couchsurfing and is a feature that sets it apart from other forms of tourism. What, though, is meant by ‘friend’? Friendship is a culturally relative thing and cannot easily be defined (c.f. Desai and Killick, 2013) nevertheless according to Bettina Beer – a German ethnologist - ‘Friendship is an informal social relationship. Contrary to kinship it is based on choice and voluntariness’ (Beer, 2001: 5805). In the ‘West’ one of the most prominent attributes to the creation of friendship is that of sentiment – or the idea that ‘feeling is the relationship’ (Papataxiarch, 1991: 178). This feeling is often reinforced through shared interests. Couchsurfers often pick their host or guests based on the information provided in the members profile and therefore can select members who have similar interests or ideologies. This creates a common ground from which to build a relationship, although many Couchsurfers have the opinion that ‘simply by being a part of Couchsurfing it’s like we have something in common. Providing they are using it for 8 [Accessed: 12th June 2015]
  30. 30. - 29 - the right reasons’ (Gabriel, 34, English) – the right reasons being using the network through the concept of ‘sharing your life’ rather than just free accommodation. Stays through Couchsurfing tend to only last a couple of days and once they have finished the people involved may never see each other again. The fact that these interactions are located in a small temporal window means that often relationships are formed much more quickly then they might otherwise be in a different social environment. The intimacy involved in the sharing of a private space with a stranger often causes people to feel more comfortable with each other and therefore less guarded than they would in a public space. Leah (23, Australia) told me that she often goes from ‘talking about my trip into the city to my deepest hopes and dreams in the space of about half an hour’. Couchsurfing provides members the chance to add friends on the website, in much the same way as other forms of social media. Many also expand their friendship onto these other platforms, adding each other on Facebook or exchanging email addresses to keep in contact. This continuation of the connection, albeit through a virtual presence, serves to reinforce the idea that Couchsurfing is about creating lasting relationships with other people rather than just a platform for the finding of accommodation. These continuing friendships that are made between Couchsurfing members are nicely summed up by this comment by Jess (22, English): ‘I now have friends all over the world and that’s pretty awesome.’ (On)gastvrijheid: Deconstucting the Stereotype of Dutch Inhospitality As this thesis is concerned with Couchsurfing in Amsterdam and my fieldwork took place solely within the city it will be beneficial to understand something of the national character of the Dutch and their approaches to hospitality. Like every culture, the Dutch have been subject to a number of stereotypes ranging from the ‘traditional’ image of a milkmaid with clogs and a roll of cheese to liberal hippies constantly using drugs and prostitutes. Whilst these images may certainly be evocative of the general image of the Netherlands and the Dutch in much the same way as tulips and windmills, they are over exaggerated caricatures of a diverse country. Joep Leerssen writes about the rhetoric of national characterisation noting that the ‘strongest effect lies in the familiarity and recognition value rather than in their empirical
  31. 31. - 30 - truth value’ (Leerssen, 2000: 280). This creates overly caricatured perceptions of people and places that are often based on minor characteristics. When it comes to hospitality, cultural stereotyping often paints the Dutch as a rather miserly and antisocial people. Visitors to the Netherlands are apparently taken aback by the ‘general bluntness of the Dutch, their lack of consideration of others in public places, their wild children and their unrefined manners’ (Boissevain and Boissevain, 1999: 26). The expression ‘Going Dutch’ is often used when people choose to pay just for themselves in a social situation such as a group dinner, where in other countries it may be considered normal to split the bill equally. Similarly, one of the first things I was told as a new international student at the University of Amsterdam is that the Dutch are very hard to become good friends with and that being included in a social circle should be regarded as an exceptional feat worthy of praise. Leerssen writes that the ‘The Dutch are either staunch individualists defending personal liberty or moralistic pettifoggers maintaining strict social control over each other’s conventionality’ (Leerssen, 2000: 279). It would be presumptuous of me to make comment on the national characteristics of an entire country, yet my encounters with a small percentage of Dutch couchsurfers show that the stereotype of an ungenerous people does not apply to everyone. Rajendra Pradhan’s (1990) article on social exchange in the Netherlands is primarily based on his ethnographic research during the 1980s in a small, traditional town in the South Holland region. Although there is a disparity, both socially and temporally, between Pradhan’s research and modern Amsterdam, the social values and cultural categories that Pradhan discusses are still valid amongst the urban Dutch today though admittedly to a lesser degree. Pradhan distils Dutch attitudes to hospitality down into four categories – hospitality (gastvrijheid), generosity (vrijgevigheid), sociability (gezelligheid) and intimacy (intimiteit) (Pradhan, 1990: 48). Pradhan uses the term gastvrijheid in the ‘sense of welcoming and entertaining guests in both the domestic as well as the public domains’ (Pradhan, 1990: 52) and it is in this sense that I also use the term hospitality. Couchsurfers fulfil both of these requisites as members are invited into both the home and the public spaces that are exemplified through the meet-ups and events. The Dutch may have a more conservative view of hospitality than other cultures, in the sense that they like to be prepared for guests, as Pradhan notes ‘When the Dutch say that they are inhospitable (niet gastvrij) they mean that they do not so readily receive or welcome guests (strangers and acquaintances) into their homes’ (Pradhan, 1990: 53). Claartje reinforces this view, saying:
  32. 32. - 31 - We are maybe a bit more private than other people because we don’t like people turning up unannounced or really getting too comfortable in our houses. But I think that the younger people are more friendly than the older generations, and of course Couchsurfing is completely different to that (3rd March 2015) Pradhan’s focus on a small, rural town means that his research cannot be translated ad verbatim to the modern, urban landscape of Amsterdam in 2015. There are still remnants of the more insular social norms that he mentions, but in a city such as Amsterdam that is a fusion of differing cultures and values, the traditional principles are increasingly being replaced with more open ones. Jeremy and Inga Boissevain’s reflection on life in the Netherlands notes that ‘there are two very different Netherlands: Amsterdam… and the rest of the country. Much more goes on and is accepted in Amsterdam, an intriguing combination of international metropolis and small town’ (Boissevain and Boissevain, 1999: 33). As my research was only centred on Amsterdam I cannot comment on the conservativeness of the rest of the country, however Amsterdam is often viewed as a haven of liberality and it is therefore understandable that there is a contrast between the multi-cultural atmosphere in the capital city and the more rural areas that can be found in other parts of the Netherlands. Throughout my fieldwork I noticed that the Dutch hosts I spoke to almost always suggested we meet at a neutral public space such as a café or bar rather than in their homes. During my previous experience with Couchsurfing in Canada my hosts always gave me direct directions to their homes and our first introductions occurred on their doorsteps. In Amsterdam however introductions occurred at a location where there were other people to see us. These public locations serve as a boundary which allows the participating members to make a final decision to go through with the stay before admittance into the private space of the home. I met Claartje at a bar in Amsterdam Oost on a Wednesday evening in early March. Her reasoning behind her choice of location was that she: …really needed a drink after work. And I also like to meet my Couchsurfers somewhere like this, outside of my home. It makes me feel more comfortable around them because I don’t want to let a stranger into my house… I know a bit about them from their profiles,
  33. 33. - 32 - but it is good to talk to them face to face first I think. (3rd March 2015) This meeting outside of the home echoes Pradhan’s remark that the Dutch ‘emphasize the closure and boundedness of homes, couples and individuals’ (Pradhan, 1990: 63). The act of letting an unknown person to enter and stay with them can be seen as something out of the ordinary, something that may cause your neighbour to raise their eyebrow. There is a paradox here between the inherent openness required for couchsurfers and the reluctance of Claartje to allow them into her home. Her hesitance however is perhaps rooted in trust. Whilst members like Jos are incredibly open and willingly open their homes to others, there is still an air of uncertainty as what one member writes in their profile may not be an accurate reflection of how they act in person. This hesitance is not however solely held by the Dutch. Couchsurfing subverts the boundedness of the home by causing the boundary between private and public to shift. The private space of the home becomes a space that a host shares with a stranger. These stays are however prearranged and last for an agreed upon amount of time. For Pradhan, Dutch hospitality becomes more pronounced through the actions of eating and drinking. According to Pradhan ‘mealtimes, especially dinner, are occasions for the whole family (parents and their dependent children) to come together as a family and exclude others’ (Pradhan, 1990: 59) however this coming together of family comes through the exclusion of outsiders, even those who are seen to be close with the family. It is more typical for someone who is not immediate family to be invited for a coffee than it is for them to be invited to a dinner, and this applies to eating out as well. The intimacy of eating and cooking is a topic that I discuss in the following chapter. According to the Couchsurfing statement that members are simply friends you have not met yet, meeting for drinks outside of the home is in line with how the Dutch interact with acquaintances and friends. ‘The Dutch love privacy and intimacy but they also love company’ (Pradhan, 1990: 56) so meeting in a neutral place allows them to express both of these by having company without compromising the privacy of their own homes. According to Pradhan’s article, Couchsurfing by its very nature should create tension between those who use it and the ‘traditional’ Dutch values surrounding gastvrijheid. Although my research only took into account Dutch couchsurfers, none of them thought of there being any tangible tension between their Couchsurfing and Dutch identities. It may be that the fact that they are already a part of the community means that they do not think about a rift between these two aspects of their identity.
  34. 34. - 33 - Whilst it may be difficult to gain access to Dutch inner circles ‘I think that once you are in you are forever welcome’ (Chris, 22, English and Dutch). The idea that couchsurfers often create quite intimate relationships in short periods of time perhaps means that they bypass some of the initial hesitation of the Dutch to allow outsiders into their personal spaces. Through the profiles on Couchsurfing members are able to see whether prospective guests or hosts have similar interests which allow them to begin their interaction with at least a minimal amount of knowledge about the other person. As members will often also message each other before a stay begins, they do not begin as total strangers and therefore the relationship already has a base from which to build upon. The Dutchness of a Dutch Couchsurfing member is perhaps overshadowed by their participation in a global network such as Couchsurfing. The rules and regulations that are imposed upon members in the Netherlands also apply to members all over the world and so their membership of the Couchsurfing community precludes their ‘Dutchness’. Mitigating Risk: The Couchsurfing Reference System Despite the fact that Couchsurfing is now a global phenomenon it is still often seen by many people as a somewhat risky venture. When I talked to friends and family about it I often received variations of comments such as “Are you crazy?” or “What if they turn out to be a total psycho?” For many people the idea of staying in the home of someone you do not know in an unfamiliar city sounds like a dangerous and even idiotic one. There is an inherent amount of risk that is involved in Couchsurfing, but thanks to mechanisms such as the reference system it is possible to at least minimise this. The reference system serves to mediate the risk members may feel through the creation of a feeling of trust between members. References play a large part in the creation of trust amongst members as they serve as an indication of what another member is like as a host or guest. After a Couchsurfing interaction, members are prompted to leave a reference for their host or guest in order to provide feedback on their experience and to tell other members about the encounter. Couchsurfing has three types of reference that a member can leave for another member –
  35. 35. - 34 - positive, neutral, and negative. Positive references are given to signify a good interaction whereas negative ones are given when a member feels like the Couchsurfing community guidelines have been breached by another member. Members with positive references receive more requests for a couch or are more likely to be accepted as a guest than members without any references or negative ones (Rosen et al, 2011). Lisa (18, German) has only used Couchsurfing three times but says that every time she sends a message to a host she will always pick people who have positive references. It shows that other people have stayed with them and that they had a good stay and that means that it should be ok for me to stay with them… If someone has no references then I will not even consider them. I am sure they might be nice but it would be just my luck to find the one cannibal in Amsterdam or something…. Negative references I also will be like ‘No thanks’. It might just be one but it still shows that something went wrong and I don’t want that to happen to me. (Lisa, 23rd February 2015) Piotr Sztompka notes that ‘trust is a bet about the future contingent actions of others and involves specific expectation’ (Sztompka, 1999: 25) and the references serve as a platform upon which to base a members expectations of a positive experience. The presence of positive references act as an insurance that the individual is a good couchsurfer. According to Paula Bialski and Dominik Batorski ‘trust is a social reality, part of the ideology and practice of the community’ (2009: 185). Their study focuses on how Couchsurfing helps to create a sense of familiarity and trust amongst its members using the reference system as an example. For many members trust really is something that you have to be willing to give to be able to consider yourself a true couchsurfer. How are you going to let someone in your home or go into someone else home if you don’t trust them? And if you aren’t going to go into their home then you are basically not going to be couchsurfing. (Tess, 28, American) Opening up your home or entering the home of someone who is practically a stranger involves placing your wellbeing in the trust that they are not a risk, and as Couchsurfing
  36. 36. - 35 - inherently involves entering or allowing entrance to a private domain, trust is a vital quality for couchsurfers to have. The references usually consist of the impression that the receiver gave to their host (or their surfer) and a brief explanation of some highlights from their time together. The following is an example of a reference left for Tess, and American postgraduate student travelling through Europe, by one of her hosts in Amsterdam: Tess made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’ve hosted her for a couple of days and I must admit that she’s a wonderful guest to have around in your house. She’s a very sociable signora and brings a lot of happiness and positive energy into your room. She came from far and decided to enhance her life by crossing the ocean and checking out Europe before going to sleep with the fishes. You can’t make her more happier than to talk about or be around with animals, especially horses with their head still attached to their body, dogs and bunnies in the park. Her rapid-fire way of talking and ability to switch from one subject to another is brilliant. She totally understands what CS is about: connecting, sharing, laughing. Very positive experience! (Reference left for Tess, 6th March 2015) These references are often filled with positive words and sentiments in the hope that they will be reciprocated in kind, thereby boosting both members standing within the community. David Fennell approaches the interactions between tourists and hosts by analysing the relationship through a theory based on cooperation. He makes use of a sociobiological theory known as Reciprocal Altruism to drive his article which suggests that cooperation occurs because there is a chance that each party might benefit, either immediately or in the future (Fennell, 2008: 105). The reference system shows how reciprocal altruism is used amongst couchsurfers. Cooperation between a host and guest helps ensure that a positive reference is given which will serve to boost a member’s credibility on the site and therefore increase their chances of securing a host or guests in the future. A positive reference shows other members that an individual is a good host or guest and can be trusted. They also act as a form of subcultural capital helping to improve a members social standing within the Couchsurfing community. Accruing more positive references helps members to gain status as they are then perceived to be members who are
  37. 37. - 36 - embodiments of the Couchsurfing values. Sarah Thornton suggests that individuals who possess subcultural capital are given status ‘in the eyes of the relevant beholder’ (Thornton, 1996: 11) – in this case the beholder being other members of the Couchsurfing community. Within the Couchsurfing network, status is acquired through positive references and friendships, as well as a number of mechanisms that are intended to highlight trustworthiness, such as the ability to ‘vouch’ for members. In order to vouch for other members, an individual must themselves have been vouched for three times. This enables vouching to elevate members to a higher status, and gives them the ability to confer this status onto others in an important form of reciprocal action within the community. Perceived status can also be reflected in the quality of hospitality that is extended to guests by hosts, or how guests gain reputation through the way they accept and pay back the hospitality offered to them. A host can expect a guest to be thoughtful and respectful of their rules and property as it is socially expected of them to be. Likewise a guest can expect to be treated with respect. A breaking of the social expectation through antisocial behaviour not only creates barriers between the host and guest, but also creates a barrier between the individual and the rest of the Couchsurfing community. A poor Couchsurfing experience is reflected in a negative reference which then inhibits further usage of Couchsurfing which I discuss further in the final chapter of this thesis. The references serve an important function in the continuation of a member’s usage of Couchsurfing and help to play an important part in the building of trust and sense of community within the network. The references also serve as a public indicator of the relationship between host and guest, a dynamic which is at the centre of hospitality. A part of this comes from the way in which a guest repays the host. In traditional tourism this comes through a direct of exchange of money for accommodation, but as Couchsurfing forbids hosts to charge surfers other ways must be found and writing a positive reference serves as just one way in which a surfer can make their gratitude known.
  38. 38. - 37 - “Food is our common ground, a universal experience”: Food as the Carrier of Hospitality Layla (18) and Maria (19) were in the kitchen cooking empanada’s and taco’sstuffedwithporkandvegetables. I was sat on the floor in the living room whilst Joost (43) and Ellia (38) sat on the couch, each holding a mug of coffee.Iwas in a house in Watergraafsmeer, a neighbourhood in south east Amsterdam. Joost and Ellia had lived there for eight years after movingjustbefore the arrival of their first son Charlie (6), who was in the kitchenwatchingthe girls. Their second son, Tobias (5), was sat in front of me building a spaceship out of lego and telling me off when I didn’t do things the way he his five year old imagination envisioned. Joost had invited me over for dinner after I reached out to him through the Couchsurfing website. He and his wife were already hosting the two girls fromMexico,but were more thanhappyto letme jointhemfor some food and conversation.Afterinitiallyhearingaboutthe site throughafriend,the couple set up a profile two years ago because they wanted to provide a place for travellers to stay and in turn they would be able to meet people fromall over the world and provide small interactions with other cultures for their children. The idea of Couchsurfing as ‘cultural exchange’ is somethingthatreallyappealed to them and they enjoy the opportunity it has given them to learn a bit about other places and people through meaningful interactions. As if to reinforce the point Tobias introduced himself tome inverybasicFrench,somethinghe pickedupfromone of the family’s previous couchsurfers. Joost and Ellia do not really see the travellers who stay with them as ‘guests’, nor do they take the title of ‘host’.Theyprefertosee themas “passingfriends”.AsJoostexplained‘We see it more as if we are looking after some friends or family for a few nights,ratherthan runningsomething like a bed and breakfast or a hotel.’ The familytypically hosts travellers for a number of nights, preferring not to just have one night stays as they feel it can get a bit too much with a constant flow of travellers who don’t have time to make a connection. Layla andMaria hadbeenstayingwith them for two nights already when I metthem, and had three more before they moved on to Berlin. The meal they were cooking in the kitchen was something they wanted to do for their hosts as it was their way of saying thank you. As both Joost and Ellia work full time jobs and have children they couldn’t go out or spend long periodsof time withtheirsurfers,exceptathome in the evenings, and the cooking of a meal helped them get to know the people who were staying withthem.Once the girlshad finishedcooking,Elliaput the food on plates and brought them to the living room where we sat and ate together. The
  39. 39. - 38 - food was excellent, simple yet flavourful. Charlie kept talking to me in Dutch, askingif I liked the food, but I could only speak enough back to say ‘Lekker!’ My experience with at Joost and Ellia’s house was the first time that the importance of food came to my attention with reference to Couchsurfing. The meal we shared, cooked for by their surfers, served as an important focal point around which our meeting had revolved. Food and cooking are integral parts of everyday life and by understanding how couchsurfers utilise them in the creation and maintenance of relationships, we can better understand both the meaning behind Couchsurfing practices surrounding food and the way in which they act as an example of the Couchsurfing ideology of ‘sharing your life’. This chapter will focus on the role food plays as the carrier of hospitality and how it serves an important role as an act of reciprocity between Couchsurfing members through the creation a number of sociocultural meanings. First I will argue that food plays a pivotal role in the sharing of ‘oneself’. I will look at the importance of food as a marker of cultural and ethnic identity and how it creates a distinction between the self and the other using the work of Arjun Appadurai (1981; 1988) on the ‘gastroethnic image’ in particular. I also explore how the sense of taste can be linked to nostalgia and positive memories, drawing upon the work of Nadia Seremetakis (1996), and how the sharing of food that evokes these sentiments can help to create a closer bond between Couchsurfing members. I then move onto to exploring how the action of cooking can be used to build relationships and act as a form of repayment for the hospitality that is offered to surfers by their hosts. I also develop on food as a gift, using the work of Misako Nukaga (2008) and Marcel Mauss (1950) to explore the significance of hosts and surfers performing a gift giving exchange using food. “Reminds me of home”: Food as the Conduit of Cultural Memory There is a well-known aphorism by the famous French gastronomy writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin ‘Tell me what kind of food you eat and I will tell you what kind of man you are’ (2011 [1825]: 3) which is perhaps more widely recognised as ‘You are what you eat’. This phrase is often used in relation to the nutritional value of food, but it can also be applied
  40. 40. - 39 - to the cultural value we instil in it as well, a sentiment that drives this section of my thesis. The kind of food that is eaten can tell a lot about an individual – from economic wealth, to perceived cultural class, and most importantly for this thesis, our cultural and ethnic identities. Food is a vital aspect of human existence and people are continually creating new forms of consumption through the utilisation of advancements in technology, as well as upholding traditional food pathways and preparation methods. Food is as an important marker of culture, allowing us to mark differences through the way we prepare and consume it, as Wenying Zu puts it ‘Food operates as one of the key cultural signs that structure people’s identities and their concepts of others’ (Xu, 2008: 2). Food acts as a symbolic embodiment of a person’s personal history. The sense of taste can transport us back to points in our past and evoke memories and feelings that we were not aware we still had. Food and specific dishes can be associated with people or places or events and having the opportunity to re-taste them can stir deep emotions. One is reminded of the famous passage by French author Marcel Proust in his famous novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’ (1913) in which he uses the taste of madeleines to bring up the idea of involuntary memory, conjuring images of his childhood that sight alone did not. Take for example confectionary: many of us have some form of candy or chocolate bar that we enjoyed when we were children but may not have had for many years, and yet now simply seeing the packaging or name can evoke nostalgic images of one’s youth. Similarly slogans such as the widely used ‘Just like mama used to make’ (or some variant of this) are intended to make people associate products with the nostalgia, comfort and safety of a home environment. Away from advertising food can still have a similar effect. Meals can remind us of visiting our grandmother’s house, or our cousin’s wedding, or day trips to the fairground. Taste can create a trip down a sensory memory lane. There is a sense of familiarity that is embodied within certain dishes and cuisine, and the choice to share that with somebody is the same as sharing a part of oneself. Building upon this idea of remembrance of the past, Ghassan Hage (1997) refers to the idea of positive nostalgia, the creation of a feeling of being in a different place or time that is aroused by experiences – in this case food. Nostalgia creates a sense of familiarity that food can help to replicate and helps to strengthen our own connection with our past. It also acts as a link to cultural heritage and the choice to share that with others often has connotations of national pride. Roberta James, and Australian anthropologist looks at food and culture and brings the idea of a ‘sensory autobiography’ (James, 2004) to the table, suggesting that our senses have made on impression on the people we are today. A part of
  41. 41. - 40 - this is the sense of taste and our interactions with taste can have lasting impressions. Similarly, C. Nadia Seremetakis suggests that the senses act as forgotten conduits of cultural memory (1996: 12-13) which helps us to understand how food can be so instrumental in the creation and maintenance of cultural identity. Eating is a multi-sensual experience and it often only takes a singular sense to link food to specific places or experiences. Couchsurfers sometimes play upon this nostalgia to prepare dishes for their hosts or guests that carry personal meaning. Take for example this comment by one of my research participants, Inge, regarding a recipe for her Appeltaart: This was my grandmother’s recipe. She gave it to my mother and she gave it to me and I will probably give it to Lisa [her daughter] when she is older and if she wants it. It’s a family thing. (23rd January 2015) Inge is Dutch and originally from the south of the Netherlands, but moved to Amsterdam to work. When I met her in her house she offered me a slice of the freshly made cake, something that she said she does for any Couchsurfer that she hosts. She does so because she wants her guests to feel welcome in her home because ‘who doesn’t love cake?’, but also because it is a typical Dutch cake and she feels it is nice to welcome travellers by presenting them with something from the country they are visiting. It is the intrinsic ‘Dutchness’ of the cake that makes it something of value for Inge to present her guests, and the representation of the appeltaart to her homeland also helps to create a tangible link between her, the food on offer, and her guest. The added emotional value that is instilled in the meal can perhaps be seen to increase the perceived worth of the meal as a gift or form of exchange. This will be dealt with more thoroughly in the next section. Sylvia Ferrero in her work on Latin American restaurants in Los Angeles, notes that ‘food practices represent a symbolic and cultural connection with the homeland’ (Ferrero, 2002: 194) and so the act of cooking or eating a meal that is associated with a distinct geographical location creates a momentary connection between the individual and place. It also creates a link between the preparer and the receiver, as through the meal the receiver is eating a symbolic representation of the preparer’s homeland and by extension their personal history. Food ‘is therefore a highly condensed social fact. It is also, at least in many human societies, a marvellously plastic kind of collective representation’ (Appadurai, 1981: 494).
  42. 42. - 41 - It is the everyday that can have some of the deepest influences on who we are as people and it is often more revealing about local people and culture than the more specialised events that are often the focus of academic discourse. Seremetakis deals with this in her book The Senses Still by rather eloquently noting that: ‘Everyday life is mythicized as the atopic and as the repository of passivity precisely because it harbors the most elusive depths, obscure corners, transient corridors that evade political grids and controls. Yet everyday life is also the zone of lost glances, oblique views and angles where micro-practices leak through the crevice and cracks of official cultures and memories’ (Seremetakis, 1996: 13) According to Seremetakis, the everyday hides the most interesting aspects of culture and as food and cooking are integral facets of everyday life, they become some of the most telling parts of any analysis of cultural activities. The everyday can be seen through the search for authentic experiences that Couchsurfing aims to provide. As I mentioned in the first chapter, whilst many tourism companies and activities seek to exploit the difference between ‘home’ and the destination, Couchsurfing does the opposite. It allows travellers to live with a local and to get to know a place from a local’s perspective – an experience that is embedded with everyday activities, such as eating. Through embracing the mundaneness of the everyday, couchsurfers can maximise the authenticity of their travel experiences. This idea of authenticity can also be explored through the concept of ‘homemade’ food. Whilst it is arguable that authentic food refers to the food that is seen as belonging to the locality, it can also simply refer to the ‘honest’ food that is prepared in one’s kitchen. Many would argue that Amsterdam does not really have a distinct food scene as it is a city made up of many different ethnicities. The following example from my ethnographic fieldwork can help to illustrate how homemade food can aid in the creation of an authentic travel experience. It was a freezing February morning when I met Saddan by the famous I AMSTERDAM sign on Museum Plein. Originally from Morocco, Saddan’s family moved to Amsterdam when he was five years old. Now 28 he works as a security guard at the Rijksmuseum. He has been a member of Couchsurfing since 2009 and uses it in both capacities – as a traveller and as a host. Saddan also occasionally organises walking tours of Amsterdam and this is why we were standing bundled up in coats and scarves on a bitter -2°c morning. With us were a