(photo courtesy of John Thackwray)
The doorbell rings. “Password please?” buzzes the intercom inside. “Helicopter” they answer outside.
Real passwords don’t belong to this place, this game is just another way to check if the person is actually coming for the house, and to see how the new visitor might respond. If people say they don’t know the password they are asked to make one up. “But how do you track people,” someone asked once.
Welcome to casarobino, or as most people simply call it ‘casa’, a small apartment in a central neighborhood of Amsterdam that has hosted more than a thousand people over the past three years. They came to “be a host” and share the place, to join in for the weekly vegan open dinner or for some tea. A map of the world on the wall is filled with pins, people leave them to mark their places of birth.
The house is an apartment I rent that, as long as I’ve lived here, I’ve shared with people who are lifestyle travelers – nomads. When I began, I described it as a hospitality-house, then a shared travelers’ home and later as a (perhaps edgier) nomad-base. The house is a shared space in the truest sense, visitors are encouraged to see it as their shared place, and hence to care for it as if it were not just their own, but one that belongs to everyone present, as well as to the people yet to come.
They make it a better place by offering small acts of kindness, by receiving and giving hospitality. They choose to be part of the growing community of people who have visited already, and experienced the type of sharing and hospitality the house offers. Visitors come and contribute what they have and who they are, the space changing with every opening of the door.
But not everyone who comes also has to give; some just come to receive. Maybe they need a place to sleep, are tired from a trip, or just need to be taken care of — for at least a little while. The group cares for as many people as it can, and things come together best when nobody tries to enforce an arbitrary reciprocity. Every visitor brings a new presence, something it’s impossible to measure on any chore wheel.
Tonight, the living-room is full with people from many places, chattering away. Some are local, while others come from the United States, England, Finland, Argentina, and France. Many are travelers, some experienced hitchhikers, sailors, or cyclists, and others are people of the first generation of digital nomads, all sharing in some degree a desire for togetherness and an uncharted life.
They celebrate that one of the long-stayers, a young woman from Canada, is parting to continue on a trip that has been her life for five years now, traveling over-land from Australia to here, working in a few countries as a chef, fruit-picker, or waitress. Now she’s going further to as-yet undetermined places.
The person who rang the door-bell comes in, we share hugs and pass around some glasses of wine. The smell in the kitchen where others prepare food is great, the atmosphere even better.
The house is small, but shared space always expands. “Where can I sleep tonight,” a returning friend asks, and someone answers: “I have some space in the room I’m using.” People adapt to the space they are in, and the house, although small, is made for adapting.
An example is the living room, which is called “The Zula.” Two couches, one low to the ground and the other a bit higher, a chair in a corner, a mattress, and some pillows fill up the sides of the living-room. In the middle, there’s a low round table that seemingly appears out of nowhere when food is ready.
People bring in the pots, pans, plates and cutlery, and move around to wedge everyone in. If someone arrives late for dinner, everyone moves a bit closer together.
The cooks introduce the food, where it came from (dumpsters), who fetched it and how it was prepared. A plate goes around, and different people add food from the pans. Amazingly, no one starts before the food is passed and all are served.
Dinner-serving doesn’t always go this smoothly, but somehow it works out like this most of the time, even though (or maybe because) there are no fixed protocols or practices. With walls full of different art, a toilet-door with brainstorm-papers on sharing, and randomly left notes and postcards in the kitchen, the space breathes community and lends itself to giving. It’s a place for passing plates around, for offering food to others before starting to eat yourself.
“Think of others, before you think of yourself,” is one of the guidelines of the house. It compliments “Share what you want, take what you need,” and “As a guest, be a host”.
The latter is the most groundbreaking aspect of the house and the major reason why people love it so much and want to set up similar spaces. Here, every guest is both captain and sailor. Both consumer and producer. Tutor and pupil. Not one role or the other, but equal and together. Everyone is the host of everyone.
For the traveler who goes from host to host, from house to farm, or from community to the road, life is lived almost always as a guest. Hosts tend to expect the traveler to perform or to entertain them, to listen or tell stories.
For people who live like this, after traveling for years and years, or even only for a couple of months, it is a wonderful thing to finally feel you are home and share with people who live like a family of friends. They get to enjoy the freedom to go further, to stay until needed and, if it fits, to return when they want.
When these new hosts arrive here, I encourage them to take what we might consider “ownership,” but not to own. A room doesn’t belong to one person, neither does the bread belong to any individual. Everything is shared, except the things people don’t want to share — obvious enough in practice, but sometimes hard to make known and understood.
It’s a shocking change for some; most people are not used to give for the sake of giving. Folks are used to having other people working for them, for example, especially the ones who just left the traditional family structure. But for the ones who have been traveling for quite some time, it can equally be a challenge to think of everybody’s food-needs, instead of having to secure their own first, or to clean everyone’s dishes and not just their own.
And things do not always work out so fantastically. The bike-sharing project is mostly non-operational, and sometimes people would rather chill and hang out than make things happen. Being in Amsterdam, where people often come to get legally stoned, doesn’t always help in that respect either.
But all goes mostly very well; I’ve found it’s the attitude that matters. The bigger problem is often how you deal with things, not the dishes that haven’t been done. It is the frustration that costs you energy, not the cleaning. It helps if people understand that if they don’t feel they’re enjoying doing something in particular, it may be better to leave it for the person who will, and move on to something else.
It is equally important to make people understand how the house functions so well. The things needed (material and immaterial alike) to make the house what it is come from people. You are able to ride this bike because someone who came before you worked his or her butt off. You can eat because someone has cooked and another has cleaned or collected the food. And you can be here free of charge, because someone else does pay the rent, and because people before you left donations to support this way of life.
It is these acts of giving that make ‘casa’ happen, which is also the essential understanding for community, of how to do this all together. If you want to be parasitic — to put it bluntly — another will have to work harder to make that possible. It’s not about what you think other people owe you, but what you receive back from the continuous cycle of giving. The earth, just a nest of ants on a big scale; society at large and a society in small. This house, one planet, so to speak.
The house teaches more lessons: If you want to stay longer, others may not be able to come. If you take this book, you decide it serves you better than the person who comes after you. That it’s great to have ideals, but being practical and flexible is what allows you to put them into practice.
And of course there are little secrets that make this life work, and mistakes that can make it collapse. If one person or a couple of people take on too big a burden, you know they will eventually fall down — no matter how much love and dedication they put in.
A cycle of people is essential to keeping the house going. The turnover of people avoids entrenching problems in people’s relationships with each other, and it keeps the place dynamic. Therefore not all people can stay for long, but hopefully at least long enough to understand the culture of being a host while being guested, and to make sure that they pass this culture on to the next arrival, and maybe even further into their lives.
An important question is how to filter people, in other words, who to accept. Hospitality exchange networks such as Bewelcome and Couchsurfing can help to get the right people in, but the number of requests can easily flood the space’s capacity. So instead of relying on these systems, we now have our own website thanks to one visitor who build that.
First it was just for fun, but later we started using the site to handle the requests, to keep parts of the community together, and to be our online presence. As a result, this website has also become a meta-community in itself; people share their stories and it enables them to meet up with other ‘casa-people’.
But regardless the technology, nothing actually works better than word-of-mouth and people sending more of the “right people” – the independent traveler who doesn’t need much explanation how these communities function and who loves to meet similar people.
In terms of diversity, the house needs more than nomads; it also needs the student who just took a vacation, the person who works in an office, the activist who fights for social justice, the tech-nomad who loves to hack, the artist who travels as a way of life, as well as the traveler who has just left home for the first time. It’s in this type of environment that we can make and find mutual inspiration.
I’ve also learned that you can’t ignore stress and feeling burned-out. It happens, at times there is simply too much on someone’s back and they lack the space to express their emotions. Dealing with this can take time and it can also be a kind of sharing to get out of somebody’s way or to let them have their private space.
But the real key to avoiding burnout, the kind of depression that can corrode the foundation for any collective venture, is the mutual care and friendship that provide people a sustainable basis. A community is not simply the sum of its people, it is the connections between us all, the intimacy, the love, and the space to express our individuality that serves as fuel for our capability and willingness to share with each other.
The night has come to an end. Dinner has been served, we’ve taken turns toasting our departing friend, we play musical instruments, and others are eating desert. When the last visitor leaves, people go to sleep, and the house comes to rest, I play a bit with the cat, walk around and listen to the (uncommon) emptiness and silence of the place.
This time no one did the dishes, and they’re still laying dirty in the sink. I leave them be, to discover the next day that they have vanished. ”Why did you do the dishes,” I ask the guy who cleaned the kitchen in the morning, even though he was too tired to join the dinner. “Because they were here,” he says.