This is why. 

Sitting silently in a surprisingly cozy chair of the McDonalds on the third floor of a Hongdae office building, I caught myself smiling unashamedly at the words, ignorant of my eager ears, crossing the table before me. Both speakers were German, but they were casually tossing perfect English excitedly at their unexpected friend. With the cold night outside, they remained bundled in their limited winter clothing. He in his sweatpants and heavily-pocketed wool coat, she in her leggings and utilitarian scarf. They came together through concurrent requests to stay with me, but they shared so much more. It turns out that they grew up in towns not far from each other, they share a distaste for all things German, and they both have a deep attraction to ancient East Asian meditative practices. As they swapped ideas and advice, I lost myself in wonder at the amazing stories with which these two were filling the pages of their lives.

Two weeks ago, I moved into a 400-square-foot studio apartment in an area near Konkuk University (Kondae) in the southeast part of Seoul. Though the heated faux-wooden floors, stiff twin mattress, and bathroom-shower combination is quite cozy for my lonely life, I couldn’t imagine that a guest (much less two) would be able to sleep comfortably here. Doubts aside, I had the urge to open my home to travelers as Couchsurfing hosts have for me in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Omaha, and San Francisco. Of what types of travelers, if any, I would expect to receive, I had no idea. In the description of my home, I made sure to note that there was no comfortable sleeping surface for my guest and that we would be sharing this closet of a room. Despite my warnings, Joel’s request came only hours after I had updated my profile. He noted that he was fine sleeping on the floor or the kitchen counter, and I believed that he wouldn’t get much better than that in my apartment.

Over the past few days, I have gotten to know Joel as I know some of my closest friends. Born and raised in a small town outside Hamburg, Germany, this young gentlemen speaks with an accent that would have most unsuspecting acquaintances sifting through names of English cities to guess his origin. Practically self-taught in conversational English, Joel often uses words that strain my lexical repository. Straight out of high school, he set off from his home country practically as fast as he could, on a mission to explore every corner of this beautiful planet we share. His second stop on the Asian tour, Seoul proved to be a very useful week, and I am fortunate to have had the pleasure of exploring this city with him.

Although also born in Germany and carrying a German passport, Caroline primarily grew up in the United States and claims New York City as her home. Fluent in both English and German (though her accent betrays her as a native speaker of the other), Caroline has lived and worked in the United States for decades. With experience walking the runway at major fashion shows, designing clothing for the same, and publishing photographs of basically everything, Caroline is all things art and fashion. That in addition to her experience in dance, music, writing, extreme sports, and just about any other hobby you have ever though about picking up, she is a vast library of knowledge. After a very difficult year in 2013, she began to rebuild herself in Munich, but she came to realize that she needed to allow her path to wander outside the confines of her professional life and her original country. Last fall, she cast off for Asia and has since seen the edge of the Earth on a pristine Indochinese island, spent weeks in silence with Buddhist monks in Thailand, and worked the beaches of Cambodia entertaining guests to maintain her travel until her uncertain return to New York. Like a young art student meeting an idol painter, Caroline brought a youthful energy and enthusiasm that would not betray her age.

After our excessive stay in the Hongdae McDonalds, we made our way out to meet a Dutch woman whom Joel met at the airport in Tokyo and who is now working as a model in Seoul. We finally found a table around 10:00, and used our combined infantile Korean (complete with clownish gesturing) to order food and alcohol. We spent three hours discussing plans and experiences that took our minds around the world and back. Having started the conversation at the McDonalds, Joel continued to inquire about Caroline’s time on a silent meditative retreat in a Thai Buddhist temple. Only a few hours before, he had mentioned to me that he was searching for ways to get involved in something precisely of that nature. Joel talked of his plans to work his way through Southeast Asia to land himself in Australia and work to save enough money to continue his travels through Canada and the U.S. I, having already spilled the juiciest details of my short and comparatively dull life story, listened intently as I fantasized about the adventures I too am soon to have.

That evening was my first experience with the sleepless Seoul nightlife, but it was the next night that made me feel connected. Through a bit of a scheduling miscommunication, Joel was supposed to move out on Sunday when Caroline was supposed to move in. Through a series of technical failures, Joel ended up being left with nowhere to go. As the three of us had already gotten to know each other quite well, we had no problem taking him in for another night. He made himself a cozy corner of blankets under the kitchen sink as Caroline and I split the bed and memory foam mattress pad. He claims it was the best night of sleep he got. I don’t understand how, but I do understand that we successfully shared the space I had thought was only enough for one, and none of us was worse off the next day. I made my way to work before sunrise, Caroline met her next host mid-morning, and Joel slept until nearly noon still waiting on his German bank to sort out its problems. We shared lunch and a jaunt out to Gyeongbok Palace before we said goodbye as I went back to class, and he met his new host. Oddly enough, the apartment felt a bit lonely that night

These were my first two guests, and I have already made a pair of friends whom I will never forget and with whom I hope I never lose touch. Some may call me crazy for opening my home to strangers so willingly. Perhaps I am a bit too trusting, but I believe that this happiness was worth it.

Perhaps, one day, I will get burned and find only great pain and loss when some cold soul uses for his or her gain the faith I have put in them. However, when I feel that sting, I will think back to this moment, and I will remember that it was this trust – nay, this naivete – that enabled the happiness of myself, my guests, and the all of those with whom our paths cross due to our encounter. And so, perhaps you, dear reader, have asked, “Why would this young man open his life, his home, and his heart to strangers in such a way?”

This is why. These moments, sitting silently in a third-floor McDonalds, listening to the stories of strangers – nay, friends – are the ones in which I feel wholly, thoroughly, and completely alive.

 

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