February 20, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Couch tales

By |2018-03-21T18:48:39+01:00March 31st, 2012|At Large & Sports|
My paranoia conjured Poe's "Masque of the Red Death."

arrived in Barcelona with trepidation. I had just come up from the Metro in the El Raval neighborhood and I was about to knock on the door of a stranger’s apartment and common sense was at war with my heart. Night was falling. My buzz was met with another and the door popped open, letting streetlight in on a dim, unfinished and claustrophobically tight cement staircase.

Common sense told me to immediately retrace my steps back to the reassuringly bright and crowded Sant Antoni Metro Station, but my heart skipped forward.

I found the door ajar. Candlelight reflected off a faux red leather couch and gave the small apartment a warm glow. I’d only seen a picture of the woman who lived here. She’d been wearing a full-facial Carnival mask. Now as I looked for her expectantly, my paranoia conjured Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”

Suddenly she popped in from a large terrace, a blond, middle-aged, and beaming woman who said “Welcome!” with a trace of an accent I couldn’t quite place. “Come on, come on in! Would you like wine? Come on the terrace, it’s a beautiful night. There’s the bathroom, that couch is yours, there’s a towel there. I’ll meet you outside.”

Soon, we were sitting outside and getting acquainted. She told me that she had been raised in Germany with her mother but had always felt more at home with her father’s Spanish side of the family.

I explained that staying at her apartment was my first experience in CouchSurfing, and I asked her why she was a host.

Then came her story:

“When I was 16,” she began, “I had angst, really. That’s a German word and I had it! I wore all leather and a shaved Mohawk, and I sulked and yelled, until one day I just left. I bought a ticket to Cairo and booked one night in a hostel. From there I was going to Alexandria, and from there, who knew?

“When I arrived, though, my map was in German, so Latin-character phonetic spellings, and the street names were in Arabic. I was very lost. I asked for directions but no one spoke German. Finally I met a man who spoke a little English.

“‘Uuuuf! That street is far, far away!'” he said, when he saw where I had to go. ‘You come with me in bus and we go together and I show you where.’

“On the bus he began arguing with another man. They both gestured toward me now and then. All three of us got off of that bus and, while we waited at the stop, the second man left and came back with two more men. All of us, then, got on another bus and we rode for a long time while they argued and continued to point at me.

“In those days in Cairo there was a curfew at nightfall. Night was beginning to fall and with my blue Mohawk and my leather and my perennial nonchalance, I knew fear for the first time, I think.

“Then my savior! A college-aged Egyptian girl. She was listening to the group of men and looking at me worriedly. She leaned in to me and whispered in very good English:

“‘I think it is best if when I get off the bus, you get off with me. We can arrive to my home before curfew.'” Her name was Farida.

“I snuck off the bus just before the bus sped away and heard rising shouts behind me. Farida told me to wait in the courtyard while she went to talk to her family. She came back led by two men with satchels. They greeted me in Arabic and bowed slightly and left. She explained that in her home men and women who were not related could not sleep under the same roof. I had seen her brother and uncle, who had gone to stay with a relative.

“The next day her mother cooked for us and we conversed with Farida translating. I stayed with them for a week and then told them my plan to continue on to Alexandria. Farida and her mother looked at each other worriedly. A few days later her uncle arrived and Farida explained that he would take me to their country house for a night, and then from there they could arrange for a camel on which I could travel through the desert, as I’d planned, to Alexandria.

“Farida’s uncle didn’t speak at all on the trip to their country home. When we arrived he let me in, he pointed to some food for me, and he left without ceremony. That night I was alone and scared again. I didn’t sleep at all and kept waiting for Farida’s uncle to come back with a group of men and steal me away. So, the next morning at dawn I picked up my backpack and hit the road. But I’d not gone a mile when I turned around. If I feared Farida’s uncle, I knew only my own ignorance was to blame. What would they think of Germans, I wondered, if after all of their warmth I simply disappeared?

“I hurried back, and just in time! A caravan was a arriving. Carloads of Farida’s family! All with food, all smiling, and trailing behind were a donkey and a camel. They had all come to celebrate my departure and thank me for coming to Egypt. They told me to tie the donkey and camel together at night because in the desert there are no trees.

“‘A donkey and a camel can never agree on a direction.’ Farida’s uncle explained in Arabic. ‘They walk only in circles.’

“They told me when I arrived in Alexandria their friends would be waiting and they would buy the camel back from me.

“‘How would we recognize each other?’ I asked Farida.

“She looked at my Mohawk and hugged me. And Julianne, I have been a host ever since.”

About the Author:

Julianne VanWagenen wrote the "Wonderland" column form 2008 through 2014.