People-to-People: pre-internet Couchsurfing
comment Comment Written by on October 16, 2012 – 6:47 pm

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Over the last couple of months, I turned detective.

I long had the idea to re-visit Jim Haynes’s fantastic People-to-People series from the early 1990s and, finally, this summer I was in Europe with time to take on a new project.

“Why do you have a little book about Poland in your hand?” my editor asked as I hovered by his desk ready to launch into my spiel.

“This,” I explained, “is the a pre-internet version of Couchsurfing.com. In it are contact details for 1,ooo people across the country, who 20 years ago all offered to help any travellers visiting their homeland. I’m going to see if I can find them. And the old-fashioned way, by writing letters.”

And that was it. I was off on my mission.

Admittedly, my romaticised vision of communicating only by post didn’t last long. I was too impatient. And stamps, I soon remembered, were extortionately expensive.

I resorted to Google. I searched through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. I took clues from the very short profiles in the book, some of which were just a sentence long. I sent out heaps of emails that never got replies. I emailed galleries asking if they had heard of a particular artist (Success! I met Ewa a few weeks later and she took me on an incredible tour of Krakow’s underground arts scene, quite literally). I emailed offices asking if they had a member of staff with a certain name (Success! I found Krystyna, who had such inspiring stories from the Gdansk shipyard strikes that she reduced my Anglo-Polish friend to tears).

I think I freaked out a few people, too. Possibly the girl on Facebook with a cat photo as her profile picture, to whom I wrote something along the lines of “Hi! I found a book from 20 years ago where someone with your name also liked cats! Can I meet you please?” Funnily enough, she never got back to me.

Finally, I got more than enough replies and filled a split-destination week away in Krakow and Gdansk.

The short story was published in the Observer last week and can be read here (The alternative travel guide to Poland). The long story is, hopefully, coming soon in documentary form. Watch this space.

Photo: © Dave Depares/Brave Spark Media

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