Natalia Lusinski is a writer and expert couch-surfer. She is currently working on a memoir about finding home, “52 Weeks, 52 Couches: How I Slept My Way Through Hollywood (Without Sleeping With Anybody).”
You graduated from the American Film Institute with an MFA in Screenwriting at age 23 – the youngest student to get an MFA from the conservatory – and then worked in film and television for a number of years. What has been your favorite project to work on so far?
NL: The fun thing about working in film and TV is that it’s always different. One moment, you are working on a storyline about long-lost soulmates; the next, you are climbing the Hollywood sign with Bill Nye the Science Guy to help him solve an algebraic equation for a Disney Education show.
What inspired you to give up your apartment and rely on the generosity of other people for your accommodations?
NL: The recession! In 2009, when it was at its prime, I was laid off and could not find a job to save my life. I had worked in film and television for eleven years, and had five temp agencies on hand for in-between projects, so rarely had to worry about not working. After calling the agencies and learning they had hiring freezes due to the economy, I knew I had to get creative.
I was subletting a room in a friend’s place and was paid up through the end of the month. However, I had $98,122.30 in student loan debt and was at the highest level of default… which meant I had to start paying the Department of Education fast – before they garnished the little money I had.
I thought about my biggest financial detriment: my rent. I figured that if I eliminated that and lived with every one of my Facebook friends for a night, I would have free housing for two years. Moving each night would be a lot, but I hoped some friends would help out, a few nights apiece. So I put most of my things into storage and changed my Facebook status to: “Natalia Lusinski needs a couch to crash on for a few days.” And the offers came in…
So you just stay with friends?
NL: I have the best friends a person can ask for. I think it helps that, in L.A., I am surrounded by artistic, creative, free-spirit types who understand the freelance (and hospitality exchange) lifestyle. I only stay with people I know: friends, acquaintances, or friends of friends, and I try not to repeat anyone.
Your 52 weeks have passed, but you’re still sticking to hospitality exchange? Why not settle down?
NL: I planned on surfing couches for a year; I figured that would be enough time to save up for a new apartment as well as pay off some of my aforementioned, excessive student loan debt and keep afloat with other bills and debts without drowning as I was before, when I lived paycheck-to-paycheck. However, I soon learned that trying to whittle $98,000 down takes a while. Plus, I still had so many more couches to stay on…
I’ve been doing hospitality exchange for just over two-and-a-half years now – though it feels like I just started yesterday. And I have to say: I love it. The only difference between you and me, someone with an apartment and someone without, is that the Department of Education is my landlord instead of a typical apartment manager. And let me just say – they are not as lenient if your rent is late. So don’t skip payments with them!
What has been most challenging about living as a nomad? Is it okay to
call you that?
NL: Hah! Yes. When I first started, my biggest challenge was packing. I wanted to bring everything with me—from a light jacket to a wool coat (just in case!)—and did. Nine suitcases’ worth. But with a MINI Cooper, I soon realized that being able to see out my windows was more important. Plus, since I was staying with new people each week, no one would know if I wore the same clothes week-to-week. (I was unemployed at the time, so no co-workers would notice if I had the same pants on each day, either… though black pants are the easiest to get away with wearing again and again, as long as you keep changing your shirt.)
Initially, another challenging aspect of staying on couches was being single. When I began my couch quest, my boyfriend and I had recently broken up and more than one guy friend suggested I sleep in his bed instead of his couch. I’d simply say, “This is about couch-surfing, not bed-surfing,” and tried to move as quickly as possible:)
Any tips or tricks you’ve picked up for packing light?
NL: The lighter the clothing item, the better. And one of everything is more than enough. (More on that in a sec.) Also, Woolite has become my best friend. (As a kid, I was raised on hand-washing clothes and using a clothesline instead of a dryer. Who knew that would come in handy now?)
When I first started couch-surfing, I liked traveling with anything and everything. I must have mistaken my MINI Cooper for a cart mule.
You may be thinking – so what if I carried around more than one suitcase, the rest could just stay in my car. But, like any big city, you don’t want the contents of your car to look like a target to be broken into. Plus, if something’s in your car, it’s obviously not being used, so you don’t need it. You may want it, but you don’t need it.
You can see more of how I became a “MINImalist” here!
Now, 132 weeks in, I’m happy to say that my “Couch Kit” that I bring place-to- place only contains my sleeping bag (a sheet rolled up with it to cover the couch-of-the-week) and one airline-sized suitcase.
What have been some of your favorite hospitality exchange experiences so far? If you can pick just a few…?
NL: There are far too many to name here, but my favorites are probably the hosts who got me most out of my comfort zone. Before my couch-surfing project began, I worked insane hours, averaging 60-100 a week. Going from that many to none gave me plenty of time to get to know my hosts.
I did everything from hold (and baby-sit!) a newborn (not common for me as many of my friends are still single and childless)…
…to going on a moonlit grunion run with my friend’s teenage sons (you catch the
little, slimy fish with your hands and I could not catch any to save my life; I’ll have to try again with those boys this summer!).
It’s all about getting to know the people I’m staying with. I try to cook dinner with them at least once during my stay (you’d be surprised how many people rarely cook–then find they like it). In my former, overworked life, I spent more time “talking” to friends electronically, via texting or Facebook. Through surfing couches, I’ve managed to stop texting altogether and get to know people face-to-face versus solely Facebook-to-Facebook or text-to-text. I think more people should do this: they should call and visit their friends and have live connections with them instead of just internet ones.
In exchange for housing, do you re-pay your hosts? And how?
NL: I try to help my hosts out as much as I can, whether it’s babysitting their children, helping them write or proofread something, assisting my friend with a sprained ankle to clean his apartment, etc. And when I depart, I always get each person a very specific thank-you gift: tea from their favorite store in Vancouver (David’s Tea) or a gift card to a grocery store they really like.
Similarly, I love the little touches the hosts make, like this very thoughtful one who left bananas and coffee by my contacts in the morning.
Or another who left little travel soaps on a towel for me.
Little things go a long way – for both the couch host and surfer.
What’s been the most surprisingly thing you’ve learned on your couch-
surfing journey so far?
NL: In as big a city as L.A. is, it did not occur to me how isolated people are. Many work entertainment hours, 60-100 a week, go home, go online, then repeat. Several of my hosts reminded me of the old me and rarely talked to friends on the phone or had visitors over (many even told me I was their first house guest). And still others asked me to stay longer than my allotted three-to-seven nights. All these things never cease to amaze and fascinate me. And people who started as acquaintances have become some of my best friends. Some people say, “Staying with me will be boring,” yet those are the ones I usually find most fascinating.
In a sense, travel is a regular part of your life in L.A. But as far as hopping on a plane and heading somewhere and meeting up or stayingith locals, where would you most like to go?
NL: Great question. Probably somewhere the opposite of L.A., like Iceland or Antarctica. (The Chicago girl in me still loves the snow.)
What advice would you give to someone who’s never tried hospitality exchange before and is on the fence about going for it?
NL: There’s nothing to be afraid of. Sure, you hear random scary stories sometimes… but for every one of those, there are probably 10,000 wonderful ones. The benefits—building community, friendship, getting out of your comfort zone, learning more about others—far outweigh the risks.
Regarding hospitality exchange, it’s like I am traveling the world… without leaving L.A., since I still get to experience several cultures and homes out of my usual realm. And for free. (Aside from my monthly student loan payments, of course.)
This was an interview with Natalia Lusinski, a writer and expert couch-surfer. Over two years ago, in an effort to reduce her gargantuan student loan debt, Natalia gave up her apartment and started couch-surfing through L.A., living with a different friend each week. In the meantime, she started writing a memoir about her journey, “52 Weeks, 52 Couches: How I Slept my Way Through Hollywood (Without Sleeping with Anybody).” When not on a couch, Natalia freelances in TV, associate producing and script coordinating from show-to-show. Her credits include “Desperate Housewives” and “Hung.”