Meet French TV Star Antoine de Maximy, the World's Televised Couchsurfer

©  Antoine de Maximy
© Antoine de Maximy
Antoine de Maximy is a French backpacker and TV host of J’irai dormir chez vous (meaning ‘I’ll sleep at your place’), a popular travel show airing on Canal+ and France 5. The aim is to secure spontaneous accommodation with locals, and to be immersed in the local culture and way of life.

Each episode features self-recorded videos from his solo travels around the world, exploring the limits of human kindness and making lasting friendships along the way. For the last 14 years Antoine has been showing up in countries across the globe and finding a place to stay just by asking people he bumps into on the street. He has visited 57 countries so far as part of his show.

Beside the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery on Inle lake, Myanmar © Antoine de Maximy

Antoine’s method of travel has worked across the continents, in countries like Albania, Thailand, Nicaragua, the Caribbean, Portugal, the Netherlands, and even deep in the desert with the Massai tribe. He has stayed in some bizarre places, like a hospital, dentist’s surgery and primary school. What’s even more incredible to watch is how he gets by when there is no common language with which to communicate.

With the Sydney Opera House in the distance, Australia © Antoine de Maximy

Do people generally surprise you with their kindness?

Yes, people have been very welcoming, especially in Morocco. So many people wanted me to come stay at their place that I had to choose between them; they all wanted me to have tea!

Morocco © Antoine de Maximy

Is there a particular act of kindness that stuck in your memory?

When I’m making these documentaries my goal is to stay with someone in a house. But I don’t have a crew with me so I put my gear in a hotel, meaning it’s always possible for me to return. This means I don’t have to be rude with people, I’m never in a bad position. Usually I have a spare solution.

One time in the village of Catemu, Chile, there was no hotel. It was closed, making it more important to succeed. There was a baker who saw me as someone in a very bad situation, and came to give me cake! I asked him if I could stay with him and he said he didn’t have room. But he saw me still in the street later and insisted on finding a solution.

His brother was a dentist and opened his surgery up for me, putting a mattress on the floor by the dentist’s chair. He was very kind, and even offered me food the next morning!

Are some countries more difficult to couchsurf in than others?

There are some countries that were tricky, like the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Iran, because it’s a very different way of life to Europe. But that’s more interesting for the film. Like in life, if it was sunny all the time it would be boring. The sun is interesting because you have the rain.

It also depends on the neighbourhood, just like in England. But, I have never been hit by someone, or had many problems. There were people shooting with guns in Santa Lucia in the West Indies, so of course it can be scary at times and a little bit tricky, but no one has touched me.

Somewhere in Berlin © Antoine de Maximy

Is staying with locals the best way to get to know a culture?

Definitely. If you go with a guide you’ll see what tourists like to see, like traditional dressing, but it’s not always the truth. Times are changing. When I see a Massai with a motorbike, he does wear traditional dress, but also a suit and leather jacket. This is real life. If you take a guide you will not see that. He will hide this guy because this is not what tourists are looking for.

Ethiopia 2006 © Antoine de Maximy

How do you get over the fear of approaching complete strangers, striking up conversations and asking to stay at their place?

There is no need to have fear! If you smile and they smile, you already know that the contact is going well. If you smile and they don’t, then you just turn back.

With a monk, who was a former air force pilot and English teacher, in Sankar, Myanmar © Antoine de Maximy

Where’s one of the strangest places you’ve spent the night?

I was in Lalibela, in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia, and we slept in a line under a shelter of branches in the dust. We were so close that I could feel their breath in front of me. I was sleeping on a big stone and there were lots of mosquitoes, but after two or three hours I fell asleep, I was that tired.

What do you enjoy best about these experiences?

I like everything,from driving the motorbike in the bush, laughing with the Massai – even when my motorbike was broken. When things are going well, it’s good for the film. But when things are not going so well, it’s good for the film too! It’s why people like this programme, we never know what will happen next. In Nicaragua last October, I was just eating a hamburger and saying nothing much was happening when suddenly there was a huge crash.

With two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco © Antoine de Maximy

Antoine de Maximy’s exciting next step is to make a film for the cinema. ‘I’ve just written a script for a feature film with actors. It’s too early for details, but I’m working on it.’

You can watch an episode of J’irai dormir chez vous with English subtitles below.