This year, before I left for my trip, I didn’t lock in all my plans. I made sure I had some places to stay at the start, and then I had a chunk of open time, knowing that I would by flying home from Oslo on a certain date. I thought that this would give me the freedom to follow opportunities that came up, to take suggestions offered by others, and also to do a bit more of what I felt like at the time.
Mostly, this was great. Depending on what I needed (solitude? nature? the city? stimulation?), I organised plans for myself a few days in advance. I was terrified, though, that somewhere along the way this would fall down and I’d end up with nowhere to sleep. But I decided to challenge my terror, and I’m glad I did, because the freedom and flexibility were fabulous.
But, at one point, exactly the thing I’d feared arose. A lovely woman I’d met through couch surfing, who had generously offered me the use of her spare room, texted me at the very last minute to say that she’d had an emergency, was stuck out of town, and wouldn’t be home to host me! What to do? I went back to couch surfing, and there were a bunch of others who had also offered to host me but I had politely turned them down. So I contacted them again, and one, Arne, kindly offered to have me, even though it was really short notice. I wasn’t really planning to stay with men. As a woman travelling alone, I’d figured it would be safer to stick with women hosts. But I wasn’t in a position to be choosy now. Arne seemed like a nice guy, and my experience with Norwegian men in the past has been positive, as they have always been respectful of women and non-sleazy.
Just before we were due to meet, I texted Arne to check his address, suggesting I could walk there, as it was a fairly small town. His reply, ‘No, it’s too far for ladies.’
Hmm.. This was not a good sign. As far as I knew, Norwegians were into walking and ladies would be expected to walk as far as men! I started to feel a bit nervous. When we met at the place he suggested, for him to escort me back to his place on the ‘free bus’, he quickly commandeered both my backpack and my suitcase, leaving me nothing to carry. I thought it was likely he’d offer to take one, but taking both seemed excessive and I felt uncomfortable about that. Especially my backpack, which contained my money and passport, which I really wanted to have on my person. I tried to get it back, but he wasn’t yielding. He wrote in my talking book, (in Norwegian, not English) ‘In Arabic culture the woman should do nothing.’ Oh. So I was not dealing with a Norwegian guy, but a man who identified with an connected with Arabic values. This was not welcome news at all, because while there are many fabulous Arabic men out there, I do find it hard to cope with some of the attitudes towards women, such as, for example, taking my bags from me so I didn’t have control of them any more. I hoped I could trust this guy.
When I wanted to go to the shop, he said, no, he would go. No way was I remaining prisoner in his tiny apartment. So I argued back, insisting emphatically that I needed to take a walk, see a bit of the place, and choose some food to buy. Okay, eventually he decided he would allow that, but he was coming with me. I was getting antsy by now. Maybe I should have just left. But I still didn’t know where to go, and I was a lot further away from the city centre now and not entirely sure how to get the bus back. It had turned out not to be free ‘Just free for you,’ he said, as he let me use his transport card. I was a bit worried that with him giving me all this stuff, beyond a bed to sleep in, he might expect something in return, something sexual.
I nearly flipped out when he showed me the bedroom. Yes, THE bedroom. Two single beds, very close together. ‘This one’s mine,’ he told me, ‘and you can sleep here.’ I needn’t have panicked. When the time came, he took his bedding out to the couch and slept there. I would have been happy to take the couch, but I was so relieved I didn’t say anything. Happily I found a lock on his bedroom door, which I made use of overnight.
Nothing sexual turned out to be required, thankfully, but the next day he started flirting with me, telling me how beautiful I am, and how I didn’t need to leave, I could stay longer and let him give me a better tour of the place… At one point, he wrote, ‘Everyone thinks we are terrorists.’
I answered in Norwegian, ‘That hadn’t crossed my mind. I’ve been too busy worrying you might be a rapist.’ I thought that if I admitted my fears, he might back off a bit and even give me some reassuring signs that this was not his intention. But unfortunately his reply was ‘Well….’ and then he changed the subject. Actually, since Norwegian was not his first language either, I thought later that he hadn’t understood the word for ‘rapist’, but wasn’t the kind of guy who would just ask what I meant. His handling of the conversation reminded me of what I do when I haven’t understood people and don’t feel comfortable to let them know. Anyway, this exchange hardly helped me feel better!
I was a bit alarmed by the way he insisted on being with me, all day, and wouldn’t let me go out by myself. So when a friend of his dropped around, I hastily packed my bag, waved a cheery goodbye, and headed out. It was a good day, full of raspberries and clambering over Norwegian rocks and writing my novel and journal in nature. So it wasn’t all bad. But I couldn’t get rid of the sense that I’d had a lucky escape.
Eventually, after much deliberation because I’d sworn I’d never do this again, I told Arne that he had to stop flirting with me because I was married and my husband wouldn’t like it. I HATE excuses of this kind. They suggest that a man should behave a particular way towards a woman, because she is already owned by another man, rather than because his behaviour makes the woman herself feel uncomfortable. But I thought it would be best not to challenge the status quo and to speak a language he would understand. It worked. He backed off after that.
To be fair, he was a very solicitous host, making me food, sending me off with a packed lunch on the last day, sleeping on the couch so I could have the bedroom alone, escorting me on the bus and so on. It was just my fear that was in the way. If I hadn’t been so afraid, maybe it would have been fine. But the flirting and the fact that I had to fight to be able to go out alone were not good, and the little ways I lacked control, like over my own bag, made me feel very uncomfortable. Still, it ended well and nothing bad happened to me. I think, though, that if I’m in that situation again where there’s only men available on couch surfing, I’ll go to a hostel or budget hotel or shell out for AirBnB instead.
Have you had any experiences like this? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.