My 20-year-old daughter Ally is studying in Spain for the year, meaning she occasionally attends classes in between jetting around the continent. Recently she emailed that she and her friend Amy were off to Belgium, where they planned to save money by couchsurfing.
Parents lucky enough to dwell in a state of ignorant bliss might not know about couchsurfing. It’s no longer a euphemism for being one step away from living on the streets, but a new social networking sensation among the young. When Millennials tire of tweeting about revolutions in Tahrir Square or Wall Street, they log on and find
people willing to put them up for free anywhere in the world.
Ally was excited because a 41-year-old man had offered to host them.
“Stay calm,” I commanded myself, trying to take deep breaths instead of hyperventilating. This helped curb my impulse to alert the State Department. Instead, I did what any normal mother would do: Googled “couchsurfing,” and immediately clicked on the “bad experiences” link that jumped out from midway down the screen.
First up was a Facebook page subtitled “The Dark Side.” It read like a plot-pitch competition for the sequel to Taken, a movie about college girls in a Paris nightclub who are picked up by cute guys. “Picked up” as in kidnapped, since it turns out the cute guys are really working for Albanian sex traffickers. Luckily, one of the abducted ingénues has Liam Neeson for a father; a former CIA operative who proves to all that he is not so much paranoid as prescient. And pretty skilled in dirty tricks.
Ally’s mother and father, alas, are not so skilled. Like a lot of parents these days, our talents consist of hovering and fretting about our children’s happiness. We belong to the generation that drove kids everywhere and wouldn’t let them play in the woods lest they stumble into the creek or an outpost of perverts. Our preschoolers’ circle time featured picture books about green, red, and yellow lights to inoculate them against stranger danger.
So like all good parents, my husband and I drilled Ally to run away from the hypothetical nice man with a litter of puppies in the back of his van. No, she declared, she would never go see the puppies, no matter how cute he said they were!
“How about a man who wanted to show you a litter of kittens?” I quizzed.
“What would be wrong with kittens?” Ally asked, perplexed.
Having reached the limits of generalized thinking rather quickly, it seemed pointless to expand the horizon of potential danger to include 41-year-old men with couches. Particularly to a five-year-old.
Now the Stranger Danger Generation is all grown up. And going couchsurfing. Who says irony is dead?
I clicked out of Facebook’s “Dark Side” and went directly to the source: www.couchsurfing.org. True, this is a bit like relying on Big Pharma for advertising failed drug trials, but what’s a mother to do?
Couchsurfing International’s motto is “creating a better world, one couch at a time.” The website features a large world map festooned with pushpins, creating the impression that you can track your far-flung child the way politicians track every last voter in every last precinct. “The World is Smaller than You Think,” proclaims a headline. This subliminal leap to Disney’s “It’s a small world, after all” induced a nostalgic trance, and I felt myself being lulled into a more trusting state. No matter that predators are equally skilled in setting up their prey.
By far the biggest section was devoted to security. As I read further under “Safety isn’t one-size-fits-all,” I encountered the same conversation about stranger danger that I had attempted years earlier. It wasn’t so much about puppies and kittens as checking references, trusting your gut, paying attention to the internal red, yellow, and green lights. This time, the target audience had the cognitive skills to make such assessments.
I recalled a service trip to Mexico Ally had made a few years earlier with a church group. Before our teenagers embarked, the minister tried to assuage parents’ anxiety about drug violence. “The world is a risky place,” she said. “I worry each time my own children travel to faraway countries. But then I realize that the far greater risk comes from never leaving home.”
Now as then—as with every stage of parenting--I had to swallow hard and trust in the universe and Ally’s judgment. From crib death to solid food to sleepovers to dating to driving to leaving home—couchsurfing was just one more thing on the list of stuff I couldn’t control.
Ally returned from Belgium an ecstatic and avowed couchsurfer. Their host had taken them ice skating, handed over the keys to his apartment, and prepared a feast of mussel stew.
Thank you, universe, for taking care of my daughter.
And thank you, kind stranger, for making her feel at home.