Eric Smiley: Seattle's Couch Surfing Ambassador

The city's host with the most on how he got his start in ad hoc hospitality.

A thought experiment: Who is Seattle's ambassador? When people who aren't from here think of the city, whom do they think of first? The answer, of course, depends on who they are. If they're baseball fans, it's probably Ichiro. Gadget geeks, Gates or Bezos. A&E addicts—unfortunately, that honor is bestowed upon two men who don't deserve it: Ridgway or Bundy. Those are the names you know. Here's one you probably don't: Smiley, as in Eric, a hospitable hairstylist who's hosted more out-of-towners than any Seattleite not named Hyatt. Smiley, 47, is a veteran of the site CouchSurfing.com, which connects travelers with free places to stay. Started in 2003 in San Francisco, CouchSurfing now has more than a million members worldwide, approximately 850 of whom have ended up crashing on the couch—or floor or inflatable mattress or queen-sized loft bed, so long as they "don't fart too much"—in Smiley's Capitol Hill apartment. No one keeps hard and fast stats on whose couch has been surfed the most. But it's hard to imagine anyone in Seattle besting Smiley's tally of close to a thousand road-weary tourists. He had a head start—Smiley is a friend of CouchSurfing's founder and joined only a year after it launched—and was bitten by the travel bug at an early age. At 17, he ditched Eastern Washington and the farm where he'd grown up and hitched his way to Seattle. By 25, Smiley, the son of two deeply Christian parents, had already spent three years in Amsterdam as a missionary with a youth group whose goal, he says, was "to look as cool as possible and be as theologically conservative as possible." His faith in the group waned. ("I started to realize how fake we were," he says. "The music, the art—everything was derivative of things in pop culture, but we couldn't let creativity rise organically out of us, it had to be forced.") His interest in travel, and hosting other travelers, did not. Smiley has made a number of big trips around the world, often returning not only with pictures and tales, but also new friends. He says Turkey might be his favorite country, because he went in December and saw no signs of Christmas kitsch. He spent two weeks in Buenos Aires, and was once hosted in a FEMA trailer by a Norwegian student during a trip to New Orleans—another host on that trip eventually moved to Seattle, and is now Smiley's doctor. These days Smiley doesn't have as much time to travel. He just started renting a chair at a salon in San Francisco (he also owns a salon here, Swing, at 2423 E. Union St.), and the debt he had to take on to get started makes it hard to justify going anywhere. Yet despite the lean times, Smiley remains committed to being the best damn host he can possibly be. Case in point: Koen Clijmans. The Belgian native was in the middle of an around-the-world trip and in need of a place to crash when he saw Smiley's ad, which insists that all prospective surfers write to him in his or her native tongue. To Clijmans it seemed like a challenge, so he sent Smiley a message in Flemish—littered, says Clijmans, with regional colloquialisms. Expecting no response, he was impressed when he got back a fluently written note (Smiley also speaks German, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian), and even more surprised when he talked to his future host. "He [was] the only English-speaking person who [could] pronounce my first name correctly," says Clijmans. "Even my girlfriend still can't do it." (Koen is pronounced "Coon.") Smiley met Clijmans at Swing, leaving during his break to treat Clijmans to coffee and waffles at a neighboring restaurant. Although he was busy with customers, Smiley still found time to entertain Clijmans and two other German CouchSurfers with YouTube videos. By sunset, they were eating Mexican. By sunrise, they were the best of friends. Now, a betta fish, a gift from Clijmans, swims in an aquarium across from the green couch where Smiley sits. Getting a present for hosting a traveler isn't uncommon—amazingly, considering his prolific hosting, Smiley has no negative references on his CouchSurfing page, and says his wine rack is always full thanks to generous guests. Becoming Seattle's ambassador for close to a thousand visitors has perks beyond free vino. Smiley now has more friends than he knows what to do with, a community of like-minded people willing to repay his hosting gifts in kind, and the mind-broadening advantages of inviting the world into his living room. There's just one perk he's adamant he doesn't take advantage of. "It sounds like a single man's dream," he says. "But I'm just too old for that."

 
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