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A place to sleep

I’ve been travelling a good deal recently, and I’ve decided to do my best to avoid flying within Europe – partly for environmental reasons, but also because I like trains, and I love the journey itself.

I’ve also been making a point of couchsurfing rather than staying in hotels – and while the university research projects I’m working for have budgets that would pay for hotels, I actually prefer staying with strangers. I like meeting new people, hearing new stories, getting a bit of local knowledge and stepping outside of the tourist sphere. Also, the money that would ordinarily be spent on hotels can then be used to pay for more train tickets to more places.

I use Couchsurfing.org to find places to stay, and it’s really great, because it has a recommendation system that lets you see what other people have said about the person you’re going to be sharing a home with temporarily… but I’ve also been using Twitter, which has been really good on this front.

As a result of this ‘ground travel only, no hotels’ policy, I’ve spent some time with an assortment of really fantastic people on my journeys. You should meet some of them…

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L1230366.jpgInka is a young German economics student. I slept on an inch-thick camping mattress on her floor when I was in Hamburg last week. She’s a seasoned couchsurfer herself, and had travelled all around Australia and New Zealand staying with people, collecting stories and seeing interesting things.

Her gap year was an adventure, to say the least, and she vowed that when she got back to Germany, she’d extend other people the same hospitality that she’d experienced, to the extent her budget as a first year university student would allow.

We watched kiwi film Boy on her laptop, and I had my first ever taste of curried pasta.

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IMG_0458.jpgAna is a PhD researcher and Fulbright scholar who was at the Media Studies academic conference I attended in Hamburg. She’s based in Glasgow, but she’s originally from Transylvania, Romania where she presented the international news bulletins on radio.

She was travelling back by train as far as Brussels, where she was going to spend a week or two – so we sat together and chatted to pass the time. We had half an hour to kill in Köln, so we did a whirlwind tour of the cathedral there (which is conveniently close to the train station).

Ana was a particularly good travelling companion because she knew a great deal about architecture, and could also speak four languages – which was handy when travelling across Germany and Belgium and you need to buy food or ask directions.

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IMG_0517.jpgJackie was my travelling companion on the way from Brussels back to London. She’s a mechanical engineer who had divorced and then married a devout Catholic man she’d known from her youth. Originally from Essex, she now lives in Liège, where she and her husband run a margarine factory that supplies the catering industry, and manages to generate all its own electricity.

She was on her way to visit her son, who was appearing in a stage musical in Windsor. We spoke a good deal about our families, wine and food, travel and religion… and I have the offer of a place to stay if I’m ever in Liège. In fact, I was told to make a point of it – and bring the family.

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L1230367.jpgLouis Barrabas is the stage name of John Louis, Creative Director of Debt Records, and an amazing live performer. When I realised that I hadn’t yet organised a place to stay in Manchester – the day before I was to leave for a radio conference – I put a message out on Twitter that I was on the hunt for a couch to sleep on.

Louis got back straight away, and told me that he was a friend of my friends Ruth and Jeff from Fat Northerner Records and Unconvention. In fact, Louis had spoken at the last Unconvention, but we’d missed each other, because we’d been at different bits.

We spoke about music and books long into the night over a couple of beers, and he owns the most comfortable sofa I’ve ever slept on.

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L1230392.jpgI arrived at Holyhead by train from Manchester, and had several hours to kill before the 2.30am ferry to Dublin. I got talking to Michael, who was a seasoned traveller on trains and ferries all over Europe.

A fascinating man with thousands of stories to tell, Michael has made his hobby of ground travel into his whole life in retirement. When I met him, he was partway into a journey from Florence to Galway, but in fact, he pretty much hadn’t stopped moving for a decade… and his reasons are more or less identical to mine: people are fascinating, they all have brilliant stories to tell – and travelling is amazing and enlightening.

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L1230529.jpgI stayed with Dylan in Dublin. Another Twitter find, rather than through the couchsurfing website, Dylan is an Art History and Classics student at Trinity College, he’s a music journalist on national Irish radio broadcaster RTE, a documentary filmmaker, and has just become a band manager.

Dylan, and his housemates Fionn and Una share an amazing three-storey apartment right in the centre of town. It’s a former photography studio called Lafayette’s, which secured its place in history with a mention in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Una was off to Paris for a few days, so she generously offered me her room. I managed to get to see a couple of bands with Dylan, and of course, we talked at length about music, art, culture and the internet.

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It’s such an amazing privilege to meet such fascinating people as I travel about, and while there are downsides to the rules I’ve set myself (I’m writing this on a train crawling through Wales, eight hours after I set off from Dublin, and I have a long way to go home yet), I’m really enjoying the experience, and grateful for the adventures.

But I love coming home even more.