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Supper surfing’s goal: Bring strangers together over food

You live in a large and diverse city. You love the idea of its many worlds.

But you rarely leave your own neighborhood.

And your friends are more or less like you.

How do you meet those who aren’t? How do you breach your own borders?

Marissa Engel, 35, of Hollywood long pondered these questions.

Then, last December, she took action.

“Host a meal in your own home,” she wrote in a post on Craigslist. “Make new friends and have a dinner party without spending anything!”

This was her plan: She would get strangers to invite her to dinner. Host and guest would break the ice by breaking bread. They would talk, perhaps drink wine, and, in the course of an evening, get to know each other. Engel would offer to pay her way so feeding her would not be a burden.

At the very least, as she saw it, two people who hadn’t met before would have become acquainted. With luck, they would like each other enough to want to get together again.

And maybe one dinner with strangers would sow the seeds for another. Maybe the concept she called supper surfing would catch on.

“I want it to be like a movement,” said Engel, a Rochester, N.Y., native, who has lived in L.A. for nearly a decade. “I want it to be a way for people to break down boundaries and forge lasting friendships.”

Engel admits she’s an idealist. She’s never once worried about ax murderers.

“I figured anyone who was interested would be like-minded,” she said.

Besides, she isn’t one to shy away from experiments.

Take college, for instance. She went to three. She started at Barnard, then, to expand her horizons, transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. Before graduating from Penn, she lived in a frat house and in the African American dorm and spent a semester at Swarthmore.

“When I think about it, it’s all part of the same story,” said this free spirit, who was active in feminist causes while in college. “It was all just part of learning about people who are different from me.”

At Swarthmore, in a course about nonviolent change, her professor assigned each student to take someone who was not a friend to lunch.

As she made her way in the post-college world, that lesson about reaching out stuck with her. She sought out ways to step beyond the familiar, to learn about what she did not know.

For awhile, in San Francisco, she taught children’s dance and theater. Then she moved around the country in a theater troupe, putting on plays in small, remote communities.

“My favorite was Branson, Colorado, this tiny little town in the southeast corner of the state,” she said. “We stayed in trailers with the families. The kids didn’t have school on Fridays to help out at the family ranch, and the nearest store was something like an hour away.”

Engel came to Los Angeles hoping to land a job as a writer for television or film. In 2006, she left for six months to work for a film company in the Philippines. She had once read a book by a Penn anthropology professor about an Indonesian matrilineal society. While in the Philippines, she wrote to the professor and asked how she might visit it. Then, with just a contact name to go on, she traveled on her own to western Sumatra to spend time with the Minangkabau.

The next year, Engel began teaching writing classes to inmates in L.A. County juvenile detention, people she said she “would not have met otherwise, who live in such a very different Los Angeles.”

Then she and her brother hit the road in 2008 to film a man trying to drive a self-designed solar car across the United States. The car frequently quit when the sun did, forcing its film crew to quit too. Often, they relied on the kindness of strangers to find shelter for the night.

These days, the trips she takes are far less free-form and spontaneous. She now is the mother of a 2-year-old boy.

Last November, hoping to get a jump-start on learning Spanish, Engel and her boyfriend, Eric Dixon, took their son, Mars, to Guatemala. For a week they lived with a host family on the edge of Lake Atitlan. Even without much shared language, the two families enjoyed each other’s company, Engel said.

Part of the impulse behind supper surfing, she said, was to find a way in her present circumstances to capture the joy and discovery of travel without having to stray so far from her home turf.

In her first Craigslist post, though her Spanish remained rudimentary, she requested that her host be a Spanish speaker.

::

Not everyone who came upon Engel’s post understood its big-hearted intent. Some assumed it was written by a kook.

“SO, we should open our homes and our pocketbooks to people we have never met,” railed one person, who then raised the prospect of murderers, robbers and perverts. “Good gag, dude, but I do not think that including homeless people in my own home is a good or productive idea. I have a list of soup kitchens that will allow you to eat every day so you do not have to beg for food.”

Candon Farias’ reaction was very different.

Farias and her Argentinian husband Claudio are 29-year-old full-time students. He’s studying photography. She’s in a nursing program. She stumbled upon Engel’s pitch while browsing online, as she often does, for odd jobs to bring in extra cash.

Unlike most of their fellow students, Claudio and Candon Farias have children — two boys, ages 2 and 6. Engel mentioned in the post she had a child.

“Just meeting other people with kids, that’s so hard. And the idea of speaking Spanish over dinner, sharing culture and food and stories, it all seemed so interesting,” Candon Farias said. “We were totally into doing it.”

The two women made contact and arranged a dinner all by email. They did not speak or meet until Engel, Dixon and the baby arrived at the Farias’ apartment near USC.

Claudio Farias had prepared an Argentinian pasta dish made with parmesan, cream and parsley. In the beginning, he said, “It was a little awkward, I’m not going to lie.”

Using their new Spanish, Engel and Dixon couldn’t quite form words into sentences. The first attempts at small talk just barely sputtered along.

Then the three little boys started playing together inside a cardboard fort. Wine was poured. Spanish gave way to English. The conversation, once flowing, did not cease for four hours.

“Yeah, yeah, we hit it off. It was nice,” Claudio Farias said.

Months later, the families are still in touch. The Farias recently came to Hollywood for Mars’ 2nd birthday party.

In recent months, Engel has traveled in and out of other L.A. worlds — dining at the barely furnished home of a 25-year-old newcomer trying to break into the entertainment business, and eating breakfast for dinner with a group of young people living communally in Koreatown. There has been talk of eating with South African Indians in Culver City and having a Vietnamese meal in Hacienda Heights.

To older people, cooking dinner for strangers might seem a little outre.

But is it really so bizarre in a world of Facebook and Twitter, where you’re constantly chatting with “friends” you’ve never met? Is throwing a dinner party for people you don’t know so different than going to one where you only know the host?

These were the sort of questions raised on a recent night around a dinner table in a stylish Silver Lake apartment, where Engel and her family had gone to meet and eat with 31-year-old photographer Carla Choy.

Choy, whose parents are Peruvian, made a Peruvian meal — arroz con pollo with rice tinted green by cilantro, papas a la huancaina featuring purple potatoes under a chile cheese sauce. Chunks of pear bobbed in a pitcher of sangria. Freshly cut orange daisies filled a glass vase, and festive red lanterns lit the large deck.

Choy’s boyfriend was on hand so she wouldn’t have to go it alone. At the last minute too, Choy had invited another couple.

With the first course, there were some stilted back and forths: “Where did you grow up?” “You’re from Chicago? Are you a big Bears fan?”

But with time the road got a bit less bumpy.

Soon Engel was describing her grand plans for supper surfing — to host and be hosted and to arrange meals for strangers, in Los Angeles and other cities too.

She has a website, she said, and a Meetup group. She even has a slogan:

“Dine your way to a friendlier world!”

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com


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