10 FAQ on Couchsurfing

You have heard me mention Couchsurfing in some of my articles, or even seen me looking for Couchsurfing hosts, ever more desperately as the trip comes nearer. “Why is he so crazy about couches? Why can’t he sleep in a bed, like everyone else?”, you may have been wondering.

And you know that I am a big proponent of traveling without much money, both to make it possible for more people in the first place and to have a richer experience. In that respect, Couchsurfing can help, too.

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1. What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is an online platform where people offer a place to stay, whether a couch, a bed, an extra room, or sometimes a space on the floor in their home. These are the hosts. Travelers can look for hosts, contact them individually, ask for a place to stay, and the host can decide whether to accept. There is absolutely no obligation on anyone. The host can even simply ignore the e-mail.

There is no money involved whatsoever! Hosts are not allowed to charge anything for the stay, nor should guests offer any money. The duration of the stay is up to them, but usually it’s for one to three nights, rarely longer.

The Couchsurfing website/app itself can be used for free as well. For a full membership, there is a one-time fee, but even without it, you can send 10 requests per week, which should be enough. You just open one profile, and you can be both a host and a guest with it.

There are several other websites/services like this, for example Servas, Trustroots or Warm Showers, but I haven’t tried them yet. I would love to hear from you if you have any experience with those!

2. Why would people host you for free?

I think there are two main reasons:

(a) People have experienced hospitality themselves and they want to return it, even if it’s to a different person.

(b) It can be quite interesting. I use Couchsurfing in both ways, as a traveler and as a host, and I actually prefer to host people. I have people come to my house and tell me about life in a distant country or life on the road, about their adventures and dreams, and I get all of that without having to pack my bag or even leaving my couch. It’s like the world coming into my living room!

And often, these are people with interesting and motivating stories. As an example, let me pick John and Eva, because they happened to make a video when they stayed with me in Peru. They were on their honeymoon, for which they had set out to hitchhike around the world in two years. As I was listening to their stories, I kept thinking that I should be a bit more brave and daring and adventurous, too.

I have sometimes been hosted by elderly people who couldn’t travel themselves any longer, but still wanted to feel something of that spirit. Or by people with young children, who wanted their kids to meet someone from a different country, speaking a different language (often to motivate them to pay better attention at school, I suspect).

3. I have written several requests, but received no offer to stay. How can I increase my chances?

First of all, it may simply depend on location and time. If you are looking for a host in Venice for Carnival, you will probably be out of luck. (Although I once got hosted in Venice by Enrico, who is an architect there and could give me so much more information about the city than I would have found in a guidebook. And then he took me to the roof of the Biennale building, where he worked, for a truly unique view of Venice.)

But there are a few tricks to increase your chances:

(a) Fill in your profile. Add several photos, write something about you, tell people what you like and don’t like. After all, you are asking to be staying in someone’s house for a few nights, so they want to know whom to expect.

As this is a very self-centered blog, I’ll point you to my own Couchsurfing profile as an example. And be creative! Don’t be the 50,000th profile saying that you “like to travel” or that you are “open-minded”.

(b) Read your potential host’s profile and respond to specific information there. You already want to read it to avoid staying with a weirdo, and if you find something interesting or a commonality, mention it.

(c) Reviews are an important element of Couchsurfing. (More on that in question 7.) Once you have a few positive reviews, people will be much more relaxed about hosting you. If you haven’t traveled yet, you can try to find friends on Couchsurfing who can give you reviews based on knowing you. Or you can host people yourself. Or you can simply meet people for half a day and give them a tour of your town (more on Couchsurfing activities without staying overnight in question 9).

4. That all sounds very stressful, to be honest. Why would you do that?

Indeed, it’s not as easy as booking a hotel. But then, going to an office every day to earn the money for that hotel is stressful, too. And with Couchsurfing, you can travel longer and more often than you could otherwise afford.

But you get so much more than a free bed! Actually, even when I have money (which happens rarely), I sometimes seek out Couchsurfing hosts on purpose. It changes the whole experience of a place. You meet with a local who knows the city and the country inside out, who can explain everything, translate for you, tell you about culture and history, and take you to some tiny restaurant in a basement that you would never have found.

When I was in Jerusalem for the half-marathon, I stayed with Daniel, who went to the registration with me the evening before and took me to the start of the race early in the morning. Alone, it would have taken me much longer to find that. And the days before, I stayed with Jonathan in Haifa, who took me for a really tough training run at night. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the race in under two hours, if at all.

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Whenever I moved to a new country, I met people through Couchsurfing who gave me tons of advice, from practical to cultural. People have taken me on hikes or on day trips. They have introduced me to their friends, invited me to barbecues and organized a library card for me.

The countries where you can benefit the most from Couchsurfing are the ones where you don’t speak the language and don’t know much about. For example, a few summers ago, I went to Abkhazia. There was one young guy on Couchsurfing whose profile was in English and luckily, he invited me to stay with him and his parents. Without Omar, I might have walked through the town, up and down the coast, and understood barely anything of the country. With his help and his connections, I met politicians, artists, sociologists and linguists and learned a lot in just a few days. And thanks to his father, I drank the most alcohol-rich drink ever, ufff!

To sum it up, if you are the kind of tourist whose main objective is to post photos on Instagraph, then this might not be for you. It’s more about people than about places. And you might be surprised how often you have the feeling that you have known someone for quite a while, although you just met them that day.

On a long trip, though, I admit that I alternate Couchsurfing with hotels/apartments because I do sometimes need time for myself.

5. How to be a good guest?

Be clean, be polite, be considerable, be helpful if you can. All of that is obvious.

Some guests want to bring presents, but I personally don’t find that necessary at all. Also, without knowing someone, it’s hard to pick the right present, especially as I like to give books. When I lived in Vilnius, I had a lot of guests from Eastern Europe. They all brought booze instead of books. Back then, I didn’t drink any alcohol, so I just passed the bottles on to hosts when I traveled myself.

Some guests offer to cook, but I have neither talent for that, nor do I expect it. Only once, when I stayed with Valdis in Latvia, he was so interested in baking that I made a Kaiserschmarrn, spreading Austrian culinary delights beyond where even the Habsburgs had gone.

I do need to mention two guests here who were so prepared that they read my blog before visiting me in Romania. Thus, Matt and Hunter had found out that I like cigars and chocolate. They brought both, and those cigars from Virginia were the finest ones I have ever smoked.

hiking with Matt and Hunter

But the main thing to do as a guest is not to treat hosts as a hotel. They devote their time, they have probably cleaned the extra bedroom, they have cancelled dates, all of that just to be with you. The least you can do is give them some of your time. If you have a list of 15 sights per day that you need to visit, then maybe Couchsurfing is not for you. Nor if you think that your mobile phone is the most important thing in your life. You should be prepared to spend a few hours sitting on Timo’s couch in Romania, listening to his incredible adventures from hitchhiking around the globe, or smoking cigars on Susanne’s balcony in Vienna, contemplating life and literature.

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6. How to be a good host?

The most important thing for a host is to communicate expectations clearly and from the beginning. Sometimes, you have time and want to go hiking together, sometimes you have a lot of work and you just want to give the guest a few tips, a map and your bicycle. If you don’t have time or don’t feel like it, there is absolutely no obligation to be a tour guide.

It’s your house, so just tell guests when you get up, when you go to work, and when you go to bed. If someone wants to go out partying until 3 am and I don’t have a spare key for them, I tell them “no”. (This is why clear communication is already helpful when looking for a host.)

I generally try to give people the feeling that they are not in the way. So I tell them what I will do, and if they want to participate, then it’s fine. If not, it’s fine as well. When I will make dinner, I can make an extra plate, but I won’t cook anything super-special to accommodate their ketogenic diet, nor will I change my eating hours just because someone thinks that food after 8 pm is evil.

And one more tip if you have guests coming by bicycle or who have had a long journey: Show them the shower first. They will appreciate it.

7. But what about safety? How can you trust complete strangers?

This is the concern I hear most often, and I don’t even know why. People are afraid of staying with someone who is nice enough to host them for free, and then they pay 50 $ to stay at an AirBnB, which could be the same person in the same house. Capitalism has really messed up people’s minds.

But let me take your concerns seriously:

(a) You can read the references on a profile. If someone has plenty of good reviews over a long period of time, you can be fairly certain that the person is a decent and helpful host. You can even click on the profiles of those who provided the references to find out if they seem legitimate. Also, usually people will use their full name and you can google more information about them. In my profile, I include the link to this blog and to my TEDx talk, so people can research as much about me as they want.

I have also stayed with people without any prior references or accepted them as guests, and I never had any problems. I just read their profile and stay clear of people who sound like Nazis (there are not many on Couchsurfing) or who are into drugs (there are a few more).

(b) By the time you meet, the other person won’t be a stranger anymore, ideally. You can contact them weeks before, you can e-mail, you can speak by phone or Skype. It happened to me once that a potential host asked to speak over Skype before accepting my request to stay with her. I found that absolutely legitimate, and it worked out well.

(c) I would say that in countries where there is reason for concern, you are actually safer if you stay with a local. If I was going to Venezuela or to Afghanistan, I am not sure how I would feel alone. But if I already had a contact who picks me up from the bus station, I could relax. For as silly as I myself might be, I know they wouldn’t want to risk my life.

8. Sure, you as a tough guy don’t need to worry. But how safe is it for women?

The best answer I can give is this: I don’t know because I am not a woman. On that topic, I am looking forward to read comments by female Couchsurfers.

But I have hosted and stayed with many women and spoken about their experiences. Their consensus was: It’s generally fine, people really respect Couchsurfing as a traveling platform, nothing more, with one exception. The exception is Italy.

But there are a few things you can do:

(a) Look for female hosts or for families. Or maybe you have a certain age range that you feel less worried about (very old or very young).

(b) As above, check references and ask them to speak by Skype before. Especially if someone has many references and is traveling a lot, they don’t want to ruin their reputation because it would severely limit their own chances of getting hosted in the future.

(c) If a male host has only hosted women, that can be a warning sign. Having said that, I think my profile also shows that I have hosted more women than men because women are usually more organized and write longer in advance. (I also prefer staying with women because when they say they have a place to sleep, you know there will be a bed in an extra room. If a guy says he has a place to sleep, it can be a spot on the floor next to the washing machine. But people will clarify this in their profile.)

(d) The two creepy stories I heard personally were both from Italy and both from profiles without any references. In one case, the boy said that there was an extra bed, and then there wasn’t. In the other case, the profile was set up as a female one, but a boy (“the brother”) opened the door, saying that “his sister” was away. – In both cases, the female travelers didn’t stay, reported the profiles to Couchsurfing, and they were deleted within less than a day. Obviously, nothing prevents those people from opening a new profile, but then we are back at (b).

Lastly, on this topic, I am ready to concede that Couchsurfing can pose extra threats to women that men are usually unencumbered by. But the same applies to women going to an office, or to university, or going for a run in the park. I don’t think traveling is any different, and therefore it’s not a reason against traveling.

9. I like the idea, but I don’t have a free couch/bed. Or I am not quite ready to spend the night at other people’s places.

Most of the time, I don’t have a house or apartment of my own and therefore can’t host, either. I already miss it!

But Couchsurfing offers a whole range of other ways to enrich your travels and to meet locals, from Couchsurfing meetings where you can simply show up, to hikes or theater visits or language-exchange events organized by locals. I absolutely like the hiking groups, because there I usually find like-minded people. And they often know the way to some beautiful spots that I would never have found myself.

When I stay in a city and I already have accommodation, I will still post on Couchsurfing that I am looking for locals to meet, to go for a walk, to tell me something about their country. This is usually just for a few hours, so no big commitment from either side, but it can give you so much more insight. And of course, it’s all for free.

10. What was your worst experience?

The worst Couchsurfing story actually didn’t happen to me, but to a friend from Iran. He stayed with a woman in Hamburg, they noticed that they got along really well and they got married soon thereafter.

Admittedly, that’s a terrible thing. But I don’t think it happens very often. And anyway, I don’t know why he didn’t simply run away.

Now I am curious to hear from you. What did I forget? What is your experience? Have you tried it? Do you want to?

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Posted in Travel | Tagged | 3 Comments

Now, Christmas is really over

Most readers of this blog probably live in the Western churches’ (both reformed and unreformed) as well as the Gregorian calendar’s sphere of influence, where the three magicians already put an end to Christmas two weeks ago.

But here, in Odessa in Ukraine, in the empire of the Eastern church and the Julian calendar, the poor trees were only put outside yesterday and today.

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Uman: Communism or Cheesy Story?

There is really no reason to visit Uman. It is a small city like hundreds of others in Ukraine. But because it lies halfway between Kyiv and Odessa, I decided to break the journey and to spend a day and a night there.

The way to the hotel leads across muddy roads, past yawning potholes and yapping dogs. The hotel has five levels and stands out from the neighborhood of one-family or half-family houses. Either a bad investment or big-time money laundering.

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“105 hryvnas tourism tax per day,” the boy at the reception adds about 4 € to the invoice, inflating it by more than 40%. The walk from the bus station to the hotel was long, but I didn’t spot anything that would warrant a tourism tax.

Actually, Uman is known for the opposite of tourism: The Koliyivshchyna rebellion. The massacre of Jews and Poles in 1768. The deceitful overpowering of the Haidamaks by the Don Cossacks. The encirclement battle of Uman in 1941, in which the Wehrmacht and its Hungarian and Romanian helpers crushed 20 Soviet divisions. The Holocaust. The Uman–Botoşani Offensive, in which the Red Army retook Uman in 1944. NKVD camp no. 33.

As depressing as this makes the town sound, it looks just like that.

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The pedestrian lights weakly and faintly playing Beethoven’s “For Elise” when they switch to green just makes everything more sad.

In the main street, the cars are waiting for an abandoned dog to walk across the zebra stripes. And it wanted to get run over to be relieved from its misery.

On the grey square in front of the grey city hall, someone adorned the ball on the column with a smiley. It keeps smiling a grey and senseless smile.

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Because pogroms and tank battles aren’t enough, there is also a Chernobyl monument. If only the people here knew that even Pripyat was more beautiful than Uman – and still might be.

At the hotel front desk, there are business cards promising “Massages for Men”, but next to the phone number, they show the name Pavel. I really don’t feel like making his acquaintance. The clock in room no. 502 stands still at 14:37, where it has probably stood for years.

I am going to the supermarket to buy high-proof beer and high-sugar pastries, to drink and eat myself to sleep early in the afternoon. Without that, I wouldn’t know how to escape thoughts of suicide in such a gloomy place.

The supermarket has a small tobacco shop, more of a tobacco corner. I had already quit smoking because I couldn’t find my favorite cigars in Ukraine and because I am slowly running out of money after traveling for a month. But I want to give it one last try, which shows my desperation: “Do you have Toscano Classico cigars, by any chance?”

“Yes, of course,” the elderly lady responds, clears out the humidor and takes the last box of the world’s best cigars from the very bottom. In a small town in the Ukrainian steppe!  Such trifle things can make me quite exuberant. In that mood, I inform the tobacco seller that she has just saved my life.

“Why don’t you go to the Park of the Third Communist International, that’s a nice place to smoke,” she sends me on a way that will lead past further traces of the Soviet past.

But is it really the past? In the West, we often believe that everyone in the East rejected Communism or the Soviet Union, maybe because it was mainly those in opposition who sought refuge in the West. But the Order of Lenin at the memorial for General Chernyakhovsky is crisply polished, and thankful wreaths of flowers have been laid this morning.

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The Shigulis, Novas and Nivas are also still working perfectly fine. Only the old ambulance is chugging across the bumpy road disconcertingly, as if it needed help itself.

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And then I’ve reached the park.

It is as oversized as the ideas of the Communist International once were. To avoid getting lost in the Marxist-Leninist labyrinth, I try to memorize the five-year plan.

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Oh, how the theoreticians have given vent to their ideas here! But they have overlooked the practical details. Even worse than the lack of capitalist Coca Cola vending machines is the fact that this map is only shown at the entrance. Hence, one will inevitably get lost in the thicket later on, unable to tell the right from the wrong path. The group of hikers who was once united will split into different factions, who will soon fight each other as obscure groups like the United Left Opposition and the Left Opposition in the Communist Party.

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Quite in line with the revolutionary goal of the Comintern, nature as it used to be was completely turned on its head. Here, White Sea Canals were dug where nobody needed them, and monumental buildings were erected simply because of the abundance of labor. A purpose could always be found later, and if not, one would simply hold the next World Congress of the International here.

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Lenin missed Switzerland, and thus the mountains were removed elsewhere (which explains why Ukraine is a predominantly flat country now) and deposited here.

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Trotsky, who always dreamt of exile in the Caribbean, wanted an island. Thus, an island was built. An island hardly makes much sense without water, so a lake was built.

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The figure 223 in the flower bed probably refers to the number of parties participating in the Communist International, coming from all over the world. (Back then, there were many more countries than today, because the Capitalists had used World War I to divide the workers of the world and to let them fight and die for old and newly created national states. This was actually the reason for the failure of the Second International.) When you see people in camouflage uniforms in the park now, you needn’t worry, though. It’s not another invasion from Russia, the park guards just like to dress for the final battle of the proletariat.

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The water fountains are switched off in winter, but the metaphors keep spraying like fireworks at the anniversary of the revolution. If part of the park is closed for repairs, that is absolutely within the intention of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. An amphitheater, in which the hedge-rowed paths are winding their way up is a symbol for the different stages of development that society needs to undergo on the path to Communism.

Amphitheater

Because that thing with the Communist International is not attracting many visitors anymore (you are barely staying awake yourselves, if you are honest), the Uman city council had the idea, no doubt inspired by Hollywood, to give the park a different name and a different story. Allegedly, a Polish count had given the park as a present to his wife Sophia, who was supposedly as beautiful as the park was to become. That’s why the park is now called Sophia Park or Sofiyivka Park in Ukrainian.

What a ridiculous and pitifully unfeminist story. If the women of the Communist International had wanted a park, they would have built it themselves and collectively. They needed no bourgeois bloke for that. But they didn’t want a park. They wanted to become patriotic partisans shooting down Prussian panzers and Teutonic tanks, or become aviators acing their airships through avalanches of antagonistic anti-aircraft artillery, but definitely something with arms and alliterations.

But Kitsch is more attractive than Communism, tackiness more than history. The Sophia story has conquered all guidebooks and most travel blogs. It seems I am the only one left still fighting for the truth.

To deceive the visitors, the monuments of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and Stalin are covered by green tin containers throughout the park. Alas, they are only locked away, not destroyed, because nobody knows which times will be next.

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Only the politically innocent statue of Perun is brave enough to show itself.

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By the way, try to imagine this park in spring or in autumn and not on a cold January day, it should be very beautiful. This doesn’t save Uman as a city, but you can easily spend half a day here. And, in case you are looking for it, the cigar shop is at the Furshet supermarket in Velyka Fontanna Street 31a.

This was the best place to enjoy the cigar, the sun and a book, so hidden away that I could be certain not to be picked up by one of Stalin’s purges:

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Practical advice:

  • If you insist on going to Uman, the easiest way is a bus from Kyiv or from Odessa. If you research it online, it won’t show all buses. Just go to the bus station, ask for the next bus to Uman, and I bet you won’t have to wait more than 20 minutes. From Kyiv to Uman, I paid 200 hryvnas, from Uman to Odessa 250 hryvnas (well, I only paid 230 hryvnas because I didn’t have more with me, but I am not sure if every driver accepts that).
  • The entrance fee for Sophia Park is 70 hryvnas (= 2.60 €), but at some point in the afternoon, the guards decide that this is too much for the remaining hours and will look away as you walk through the gate.
  • If you want to enjoy the park in relative quiet and to find cheap accommodation, don’t go to Uman for the Jewish holidays (according to the Julian, not the Gregorian calendar). It would be too complicated to explain, just trust me.
  • If you have a car or you speak enough Ukrainian/Russian to hitchhike in the countryside, the nearest attraction is the Museum of the Strategic Missile Command near Pobuzke. If you are on your honeymoon, this is a good opportunity to test if the wife really means it when she keeps saying: “Of course we will also do what you want on some days.”

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Posted in History, Photography, Travel, Ukraine | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

“East West Street” by Philippe Sands

As a lawyer and budding historian, I found Philippe Sands‘ idea of telling the story of international criminal law through the biographies of Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin interesting.

71_1_97But the book East West Street is overloaded with the irrelevant family history of the author’s grandfather as well as countless unimportant details from the protagonists’ lives. It may be meticulous research to find out at which house who lived when, who his neighbors were, whom he dated and what concerts he went to. But it’s not important.

A history of ideas would have been more interesting than a hotchpotch of details.

And, if he picks Ukraine as the backdrop for that legal discussion, why does Sands not mention the Holodomor once? Of course, Lauterpacht and Lemkin were more relevant to the Nuremberg Trials, but the Holocaust clearly doesn’t pose the tricky question of what constitutes a genocide. The Holodomor would have done.

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Posted in Books, History, Holocaust, Human Rights, Law, Ukraine | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Kyiv – Day 21/21 – Train Station

And the three weeks are over. Too bad.

On the other hand, I like going to Kyiv’s main train station because it shows the way that train stations everywhere should aspire to: large, majestic, comfortable, open around the clock, and with everything you need for survival, from a warm soup to newspapers.

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Kiew Wartesaal erster Klasse

Where to next?

I don’t know yet, but I will definitely stay in Ukraine longer because when you only know the capital city, you can never be sure if you know the country (except in the Vatican). I might simply walk to the train station, ask where the next train goes to, and buy a ticket. Let’s just hope it won’t be to Pripyat or Donetsk.

And maybe the military band will play a farewell song:

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Kyiv – Day 20/21

Yesterday was such a beautiful day that I went for a long walk. That long (and aimless), in fact, that I apparently walked far beyond the city limits of Kyiv. Because suddenly, it looked rather rural. And pretty.

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The whole day, I felt like walking through paintings by Konstantin Kryzhitsky.

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Kyiv – Day 19/21 – Communism and Capitalism

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Capitalism’s triumph over communism most certainly wasn’t due to aesthetics.

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Posted in Economics, Photography, Travel, Ukraine | Tagged , | 9 Comments