Do you know why I am writing to you today? I am not a writer, not one bit.. In fact, I pretty much dread having to put thoughts on paper for anyone because my skills lie in other areas. I have not really found what those areas are but please bear with me as I tell you my story.
I had joined PLU because I thought it seemed like a really cool concept, changing places for a moment in time and exchanging surroundings, immersing ourselves in another existence, and imagining what life would be like by walking on another path for a space in time. I envisioned myself on a farm or a meadow, while someone else would greet lobstermen who would be delivering the daily catch behind my home.
What happened was so far beyond my imagination, I felt indebted to Drew and PLU and compelled to share my story.
It began with a disappointment. I had planned an African Safari to celebrate my and my husband's 30th wedding anniversary this past fall, but suddenly a new variant emerged "out of South Africa" which obviously derailed our plan (and so many of our collective plans). Since our kids sort of ho hummed our 25th anniversary and the 30th was turning into a non-event, we thought, we better take matters into our own hands and plan something special. When the South Africa trip fell through, I dejectedly found myself on the PLU Facebook page when a beacon called to me in the form of a post offering an available home in beautiful Montreux Switzerland. Switzerland? Hmm. Never considered, and did not think we had a compelling reason to visit but then again, didn't they have Christmas Markets? Check. And wouldn't my husband enjoy the Gluhwein? Check. That Gluhwein would really come in handy as I was traipsing him through said Christmas markets. I wrote to the individual who published that post and the next thing I knew, I found myself with a consolation trip planned to Switzerland, feverishly researching all things Swiss- from Rail passes, to gruyere cheese, to castles and ski resorts.
I then did something that was about to change our lives. Never before had we visited a country with the idea of connecting to locals or natives from the places we would be seeing. I reached out to four women in Switzerland in PLU and told them about our upcoming trip. I asked each of them if they would be willing to look at our itinerary and critique it, and if they would have any interest in meeting. These women ALL answered and said Yes. With humor and good nature, they reviewed our itinerary, and asked for the vitamins we were taking to undertake such long drive distances in Switzerland. These lovely women merrily helped us to make sense out of my crazy plans. None of these women knew each other but every one of them welcomed my inquiry and responded in unique and special ways. They were gracious, humorous and kind.
The day before our departure, we were thrown a new virus curveball. Suddenly, new testing that was both extremely costly and inconvenient was being implemented. If not for the exchangers counting on us to come, we would have likely thrown in the towel on this trip. What happened next was really inspiring. These four women rallied around us like the Red Cross. One of the four women and her husband started to send links from Switzerland and information about new Covid regulations and how to conquer the obstacles and embark. This is the first woman of Switzerland, Delphine, who impacted us in an unforgettable way.
When we arrived to Switzerland, Lynn (the second woman), our exchange home host, made many provisions to ensure our comfort from having staples and wine in the fridge (as we arrived on a Sunday when the markets were closed) to securing tourist passes, writing out suggested itineraries for us, and leaving detailed notes that we never left without and referred to lovingly as "The Bible". Beyond these exceptional gestures, she did something that was even more remarkable. She introduced us to a friend of hers in her neighborhood via WhatsApp. We were invited to have a happy hour with our host's friends RoxAnne and Alain and we ended up spending several evenings in each other's company. We made such a fabulous connection that we actually drove back to this town to spend Christmas Eve with these new friends after we had left that part of Switzerland. We continue to stay in touch with our host in Montreux as well as these friends.
The third woman we met through PLU, Alexandra, was a French expat living in Zurich with her Swiss husband and she invited us for a traditional raclette dinner in their beautiful home. We had such a fun evening and we agreed they would most certainly be coming to New England which is now on their bucket list. We can not wait to see them again!
The fourth woman, Kylie, was due to be our second exchange host. She and her husband made arrangements to meet for lunch and spend a day together. They also organized a place to find Covid testing by appointment for our return home. Many tourists were unable to get on flights home due to limited testing options but we were spared any heartache or issues because we were looked after by locals. These hosts were also instrumental in helping us to find unique experiences that we were keen to try and were translator lifelines particularly when faced with things like the parking passes and laundry day rules. Thank goodness for Facetime and their warm and tender care.
While we did not have the pleasure to meet the first woman (and her husband) that I wrote about in person due to her family's busy schedule, she was no less impactful to our experience. She checked in on us and stayed in contact with us throughout our trip. We only hope we have the chance to meet them one day soon.
I hope that the reason I am writing is clear. This trip was not so much about the homes, or the ease of travel and savings- though of course these were great benefits to traveling in one of the most beautiful, albeit expensive countries in the world. The real benefit for my husband and me was meeting amazing people who brought life to geography that made it personal, authentic and breathed their love of country into our perception and impression. We fell in love with a country we had no inkling to see. My husband and I agree it was one of the best trips of our lives to date, and truly, PLU and the features that PLU offers, were what made it so. I want to express that in thinking of PLU, it is more than exchanging homes, it is a group of us who want to welcome each other to make connections in the places we live, and make it easy for us to share the world in a way that brings us closer to one another. When we take care to make it easy for each other, we can get down to the pleasures of enjoying the scenery and the experiences, instead of the obstacles that travel can sometimes throw at us. My trip was fraught was speedbumps and curveballs, and our PLU community made lemonade out of lemons. I, along with my husband wish you deep connections through shared experiences that happen when you open your heart and trust in the possibilities that occur when you change things up and do something different.
Thank you for reading my story and I hope to read yours too. Happy Trails to you and Safe Travels!
Michelle Strager is a self-employed wholesale broker in the fashion industry. She loves all things food related, family, art, travel, and people. She has been a PLU member since August 2019, completing 4 exchanges. She lives outside Boston with her husband Marc and their two grown daughters. Her favorite food is veal parmigiana and her dream day includes unlimited coffee, preferably an italian roast, a beach walk, reading a book by a fire and spending an afternoon catching up with family and friends entertaining them at her and Marc’s home.