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Traveling on a Shoestring

By KATHLEEN WOODRUFF

© St. Petersburg Times


The aroma of a fresh-baked "brownie cake" -- a dish my French host thought of as typically American -- greeted me as I entered the apartment on the seventh floor of the turn-of-the-century immeuble (apartment building) in the trendy Marais district of Paris. Jean-Charles, my host, had baked the cake to welcome me to a five-day stay as his guest. After a pleasant hour of chatting and eating, I settled into my private bedroom and admired the classic Parisian view of rooftops and chimneys across the courtyard.

My good fortune of having a French friend in much-sought-after Paris is not what it may seem -- in fact, I had never met Jean-Charles before. We had become acquainted through mail and the Internet. I had arranged a "hospitality exchange" with hosts in Paris to experience that great city as a local, not a tourist.

Hospitality exchange is an excellent way to meet local people and experience the culture of a region. There are variations on the theme. In one version, you stay in a person's home as their guest while they are present; in exchange you will, at another time, host them in your home. Home exchange involves swapping dwellings simultaneously. With a home exchange, you usually don't meet your "hosts" but simply stay in their home while they occupy yours. More flexible than a home exchange, hospitality exchange solves one of the main problems that vex would-be home exchangers: finding a period of the year when you and your counterparts can take a vacation simultaneously.

Another variation of hospitality exchange defines the "exchange" more loosely: Members of an organization -- such as Servas, Hospex or Hospitality Exchange -- agree to host other members for a stay typically lasting two nights. The guest is not necessarily expected to reciprocate. Because I was seeking longer-term stays in Paris -- one to two weeks -- I pursued an exchange arrangement, using the listings published by a home exchange organization.

I visited Jean-Charles with the understanding that during his future visit to the United States, he would stay at my home. The exchange I made with a couple in a Paris suburb is slightly more specific; they will come visit me in San Francisco during July or August -- the exact year yet to be decided.

After my stay with Jean-Charles, I took the Metro, then the RER train from Gare de Lyon one stop to Maisons-Alfort, a suburb just outside Paris. My congenial hosts Isabelle and Laurent, both teachers, owned two apartments, and I stayed in her apartment for nearly two weeks while they occupied his apartment, as they customarily do.

The first step in planning my sojourn in Paris was to join a home exchange organization. I chose Intervac because it is one of the oldest and largest, and because it has more than 1,600 members in France. The membership fee -- including a photo of my house, postage and sales tax -- totaled about $95. This included my listing and a subscription to three books, which are sent to all members in December, March and May.

I browsed the books for France listings with certain criteria in mind: a single or couple in a location in or near Paris with an interest in visiting the United States.

In all, I sent 36 letters, starting in March, to the most likely prospects. My letter asked them to look at my listing in the March book and offered either a home exchange or a hospitality exchange.

The modest investment of time and money paid off when I received letters from Jean-Charles and Isabelle.

During my stay in Paris, I enjoyed a lot of hospitality, along with good tips on sightseeing, restaurants and special events. Jean-Charles sent me to a street fair in Chatillon which featured jugglers, surrealistic theater and a spectacular trapeze act. Isabelle and I visited an off-the-beaten-path house museum (Musee Nissim Caimondo) of 18th-century antiques and explored the covered passageways that Paris is famed for. The many conversations I had with my hosts and other Parisians over the dining room table began to give me a fuller sense of the culture and people of France.

Some general advice on hospitality exchange:

1. Choose an organization that has lots of members in the area you are interested in visiting. Ask for this information before you sign up. Home exchange organizations generally have good coverage in the developed world (United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia).

2. Take the initiative and write to many members whose listings meet your criteria. It's partly a "numbers game" -- the more letters you send, the better -- and partly a matter of selection, of picking people who are seeking the same kind of exchange you are.

3. Have realistic expectations about the type of accommodations and neighborhood you will be staying in. Many Europeans, especially in cities, have smaller dwellings than Americans. If you have questions about the apartment, the location or the availability of transit and shopping, be sure to ask.

4. Have a fall-back plan in case the exchange falls through at the last minute. Some possibilities: The host may have a friend or relative who can offer accommodations; the home exchange organization can give assistance; or you may book a hotel or apartment. Resource List Two well-established home exchange organizations:

Intervac, P.O. Box 590504, San Francisco, CA 94159; (800) 756-4663 or (415) 435-3497; fax:(415) 435-7440; e-mail: IntervacUS@aol.com

Intervac has more than 9,000 members worldwide, with 2,000 in the United States and most of the rest in Europe. Books issued in December, March and May to all subscribers. Subscription fees: $65 per year; optional photo, $11; postage, $13.

HomeLink USA (formerly Vacation Home Exchange), P.O. Box 650, Key West, FL 33041; (800) 638-3841; fax: (305) 294-1448; e-mail: homelink@conch.net

HomeLink has approximately 15,000 members worldwide, with about two-thirds in Europe, most of the rest in North America. Books issued in January, March, May, June and July. Subscription fees: $78 per year; optional photo, $18 to $22. An up-and-coming home exchange organization for those who like to crawl the Web:

Internet Home Exchange, No. M St., Newburyport, MA 01950; (508) 463-4376; e-mail: exchange@wln.com; Web site: http://www.wln.com/

exchange/

Internet Home Exchange has about 600 listings in 40 countries. Listings are published online on the Web. One-year membership, $39; optional photo, $10. Three hospitality exchange organizations:

United States Servas Inc., 11 John St., Suite 407, New York, NY 10038; (212) 267-0252; fax: (212) 267-0292; e-mail: info@servas.org; Web site: http://servas.org

Servas is an international peace organization with about 14,000 hosts worldwide. Although there are members in more than 130 countries, most are concentrated in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Israel. The typical homestay is two nights, but some hosts may offer longer stays. Membership costs: traveler fee for overseas visits is $55 per year; for traveling within the United States only, $10. In addition, a refundable deposit is charged for host lists.

The Hospitality Exchange, 704 Birch St., Helena, MT 59601; (406) 449-2103; e-mail: wphillips@mt.gov; Web site: http://goldray.com/hospitality/

The Hospitality Exchange is a 30-year-old organization with about 250 members in more than 20 countries. Typical stay is two nights. Though it has a Web site, its listings are not published online. Two directories per year are mailed to members. Membership fee is $20 per year, $35 for two years.

Hospex; e-mail: Hospex-owner@icm.edu.pl

Run by volunteers, Hospex is a free hospitality exchange service on the Internet. Hospex has about 200 members -- about half in North America, one-third in Europe. Subscribing to Hospex puts you on an Internet mailing list. A database query function to locate members in specific countries or areas is provided. An organization that promotes peace through group exchanges:

The Friendship Force, 57 Forsyth St. NW, Suite 900, Atlanta, GA 30303; (404) 522-9490; fax: (404) 688-6148; e-mail: 254-9295@MCIMail.com

A non-profit organization with members in more than 50 countries, the Friendship Force organizes group exchanges to promote international understanding. Membership fees: $18 per year, individual; $25 per year, couple or family. Travel fees charged for participation in exchanges. Kathleen Woodruff is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

Originally published June 8, 1997


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