UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Spring 2010
Home Away
Trading spaces pays off in family’s adventure of a lifetime
by Kelly Knufken

photo by Tim Mantoani

Shelley Miller is downplaying the view.

This isn’t easy. When you enter her Point Loma home, the gorgeous sight of downtown San Diego and the Coronado Bridge beckoning from her living room window immediately draws you in.

“I want you to know that you don’t have to have a view to do this,” she says. Indeed, her family of four didn’t even live in this showstopper of a house when they put their normal life on hold for five months in 2000 to embark on a home exchange vacation that would take them to six countries over five months. It turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.

Miller ‘03 (MSEL) has become an ambassador of sorts for home exchange, the practice of trading homes with people all over the world. She opens the guidebook, asks where you’d like to go. She tells you how, after a total of eight such trips, they’ve never returned home to find so much as a broken glass. She tells you having faith in people has let her family have amazing travel experiences, the kind you just can’t get in a hotel. But first things first.

It’s not about the house.

The Millers’ home is listed in the HomeLink International guidebook like this: “Lovely, casual home on Point Loma, quiet family area near many attractions.”

There are any number of reasons someone may be looking for a home exchange vacation. For example, the family from Italy that they first swapped houses with, near the town Miller’s grandmother hailed from, had a brother in San Diego.

And for their part, on the first leg of the family’s “European Adventure” (as Miller dubbed it in her carefuly assembled itinerary), they were staying in a Tudor home in England built in 1485. Quite a contrast to say, San Diego, which was established as a city in 1850.

At age 8, daughter Michele was shy and introverted. But on that first misty morning in England, she got up before her mom, put on rainboots that the other family kept by the door, donned a jacket over her pajamas, and went outside to feed the geese. “I was surprised and thrilled,” Miller recalls. “At that time, she was full of fear at home. She had difficulty sleeping through the night, evil things lurked outside and they were going to come in and hurt us. The fact that she got up on her own while we were all asleep was outside her comfort zone, but she did it.”

Miller smiles at the power of her memory. “We were privately jubilant. We took these kids out of their neighborhood world and transplanted them to these many countries. And especially with someone like Michele, who was so fearful, well, some might have thought travel was the wrong move. But in fact, in that very first country we realized that this was the right move.”

The extended trip allowed Miller and her husband to see new facets of both her children. Unlike Michele, her son Dillon was outgoing and relatively fearless, but one day in England, Miller found out just how extroverted he really was. “We were touring King Henry the VIII’s home, Hampton Court Palace, which has the most famous maze in the world,” she recalls. “Across a grass courtyard, I spotted a juggler.” It turned out to be her 12-year-old son, his father’s baseball cap serving as a repository for coins and pound notes from the appreciative crowd surrounding him.

“The kids learned about themselves during this trip, and Stan and I got to watch them as they opened up to who they are, as they came into their own.”

It was growth experiences like that — seeing what her children were capable of and interacting with them absent the family’s everyday routine — that sealed the trip in Miller’s memory.

You gotta have faith.

“A lot of people can’t get past the fact that we don’t know these people we trade houses with.” But for Miller, there are ways of getting to know their partners in this adventure without meeting them in person.

The leap of faith becomes a little easier, she says, when you receive an e-mail like this from Ireland: “This offer has created quite a stir, and we are very keen to exchange.”

“Well, mass murderers don’t talk like that,” Miller asserts. The writer had gone on to mention the christening of her sister’s twin boys.

They stayed in a “teeny town” on the southwest coast of Ireland, playing card games in the evenings as they burned peat in the fireplace. Dillon, then 12, played hurling — a game played with sticks and a ball —with the boy next door, which helped him to get past a sudden and somewhat extreme bout of homesickness.

“Dillon asked Stan to see the trip itinerary. He looked at it as if he’d never seen it before, as if it hadn’t been posted in our kitchen in San Diego for three months, as if I hadn’t made 84 copies for family and friends and him,” she recalls. “He studied it, and told Stan, ‘I want to go home.’” Miller sighs, the memory still fresh.

“It had been about five weeks at that point, and I took him aside for a heart-to-heart. It was April, and we weren’t due home until August. I told him, ‘All these people are coming to our house, and they’ll be really sad if they can’t see San Diego.’ Later, we sat down to play cards or something, and he looked across the courtyard and saw Edward and Luke. He saw these kids, and looked at me, and it was like he’d seen a mirage. I said, ‘go!’ and he did. And that was it.”

Another memorable moment came during the family’s sojourn to Italy. They stayed in Florence, but Miller was after more than art and shopping. Her grandmother hailed from Barga, Italy, and Miller wanted to find her great-great-grandparents’ grave. She had only this clue, from a letter her great aunt wrote in 1980: “It’s the most beautiful monument in the cemetery.”

Her parents and an uncle had searched for the gravestone on past trips to no avail. Miller, too, searched for some time on her first visit to the cemetery and had to leave without finding her forebears’ resting place. Undaunted, she and her family returned the next day with tools from the local hardware store: a bucket, scrub tools and cleaning fluid to neutralize the lichen that clung to the old stones, obscuring names.

Clutching the old letter like a treasure map, Miller went from stone to stone, searching for Antonio Gonnella’s marker. A caretaker got in on the hunt, but it was looking like Miller would come up empty again. Each lichen scraped from a stone revealed another family’s ancestor. Finally the caretaker pointed her toward some catacombs. Still no luck, but upon emerging, Miller saw a 12-foot-tall monument partially hidden by an evergreen archway. An angel rested on a post. The post read 1912, with the name Antonio Gonnella — her great-great-grandfather.

“It’s a miracle,” proclaimed the caretaker. He joined the Millers in the Lord’s Prayer.

Serendipity happens.

In retrospect, she sees that the entire trip was even more profound than it seemed at the time.

“It was important to my husband and me for our children to learn that there was a world beyond San Diego,” Miller says.

She knew they were on the right track when, in Spain, Dillon commented, “Everybody here speaks Spanish.” Thinking fast, she answered, “That’s why we think it’s so important that you learn Spanish.”

The children actually attended school in Spain, becoming little stars that the other children pelted with questions. There, they learned even more about the differences in culture.

“You were allowed to go home for lunch, and they did long division upside down, or maybe we have it wrong, who knows?” Dillon remembers now.

And there was a shiver-inducing moment on a later home exchange trip to Hong Kong in 2005. The Millers lived in Hong Kong when Dillon was born and had always promised him they would return so he could see the country where he’d spent his first days.

On that return trip, Miller’s husband Stan had to have some stitches removed. They ended up at the hospital where Dillon was born, and mentioned to the doctor that Dillon was delivered there by Dr. Tsai. He’s right down the hall, they were told, and Dillon — then a senior in high school — ended up meeting and having his picture taken with the doctor who delivered him. “I think the doctor was genuinely thrilled,” Miller says.

It’s all about new beginnings.

But it was on that first, meandering European trip — at a little cafe in Paris over breakfast with her husband — that Miller decided to pursue her master’s in a program she’d been mulling, USD’s Master’s of Science in Executive Leadership program.

“When you hear about something like that, it spoke to me. I had in the back of my head that maybe someday, someday, someday. Those five months were a magical time, and it allowed my brain to wander and not think of the stuff that normally eats up our day. On this trip, the words actually came out of my mouth to my husband. Then you start owning it.”

When she returned, she applied and was accepted. And USD’s architecture reminded her of her time in Spain. “It warmed my heart because it was so familiar to me.”

She put her new leadership training to work at her position as executive director of a local business revitalization district for Pacific Beach, then moved in 2004 to the San Diego-Imperial Counties chapter of the American Red Cross, where she headed up the Women, Infants and Children program, overseeing six outside offices and 100 employees for four years.

In spite of her busy schedule, they’ve managed to take seven more trips since the grand five-month adventure that started their house-trading escapes. Each time, Miller leaves a tour guide notebook for the family that will inhabit their home. Often, they meet the other family in the course of the trade. Friends of the Millers sometimes have the vacationing families over for dinner in San Diego.

If you trade homes with people in big cities like Paris, you can generally expect a smaller flat, Miller says. But there are advantages.

“If a place is clean, you can live anywhere. The bed in Paris was on the floor, but it was around the corner from where Hemingway wrote ‘Moveable Feast.’”

Miller and her family kept journals during that 2000 trip; she’s using this raw material as the basis for a book, “Postcards from Home: One Family, Five European Home Exchanges, Five Months.”

Celebrating common ground.

The pages that make up the latest draft of the book that Miller’s writing are neatly organized in a three-ring binder. A chapter about Schull — the “teeny town” in Ireland where the family became immersed in the community — recounts Michele’s First Holy Communion, which took place in the local church:

“The priest invites our family to receive communion first,” Miller writes. “He steps down from the sanctuary and we move into the aisle; Michele’s at the head of the line, a most rare position for my shy daughter. Her unsmiling face appears calm. She folds her hands and moves forward with deliberate steps.

Father Nolan looks down at her with kind eyes and a warm smile. He says, ‘The body of Christ.’

‘Amen,’ Michele replies. She extends the palm of her small hand. Father Nolan rests the host into it. She places the holy wafer in her mouth and makes the sign of the cross. The rest of us receive communion. We arrive back to our pew. Michele beams. Stan and I place ourselves on each side of her. It’s hard not to grab her hands and push them into the air like she’s a prizefighter.

Michele tugs on my sleeve, cups her hand over my ear, and whispers: ‘Mama, it tasted like a fortune cookie.’

The altar is cleared and Father Nolan says, ‘The Lord be with you.’

‘And also with you.’

‘The Mass is ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’

Parishioners begin filing out of the church. An older lady in a plaid coat approaches our pew. She stands before Michele.

‘Congratulations to you, child.’ The lady crinkles her eyes and shakes my daughter’s hand. Michele blushes and directs a smile towards her Mary Janes.

A man in a brown coat and newsboy cap walks over and says, ‘Welcome to Schull!’ He offers me his burlap hand. He looks at Michele with sparkling blue eyes and says, ‘What a grand place to celebrate your communion.’ He tips his cap and exits the church.

Another woman comes over and I suddenly feel like we’re in a receiving line and my daughter is the guest of honor. She shakes Michele’s hand and coos, ‘Bless you, wee one.’

In the Roman Catholic Church, a sacrament is considered ‘a rite in which God is uniquely active.’ God danced the jig at Michele’s sacrament of First Holy Communion.”

The real meaning of home.

The experience of traveling with her nearest and dearest while leaving her own house to relative strangers has deepened Miller’s views on home and family and faith.

“Home is not a place. It’s a feeling.” Her eyes well with tears. The words get harder to say — this is big for her. “The shell is shelter. My home is my husband and children. I traveled with my home. I had what was precious with me.”

Clearly, the family’s shared adventure has changed all of their lives. Even Dillon, now 22 and away at college, still expects that the family will travel together for home exchange vacations.

He credits that first trip as expanding his worldview and remembers it as a time when his parents “broke me out of the comfort of my little bubble.”

“It was an amazing, eye-opening experience for a boy who celebrated his 13th birthday in Germany and was allowed to eat ice cream for breakfast,” Dillon says now.

But getting the okay from the kids’ school to miss 10 weeks wasn’t easy. The principal strongly discouraged Miller from the family’s plans, even though the couple planned to homeschool Michele and Dillon on their travels while, of course, immersing them in other cultures.

“She was not very positive,” Miller says with wry understatement. “In fact, she said it was highly irregular and that she couldn’t promise that they’d be promoted to the next grade.” In some ways, that negative attitude made her more determined than ever to carry out their plans for the grand tour.

“We were still on the fence about whether we were going to do it, but her reaction to the plan brought out such strong emotion that it made it clear that we should do this.”

In the end, of course, the children learned at least as much as they would have in the classroom. “Eventually you realize that you don’t have to be rigid with how you teach them. In Germany, we visited Dachau. That’s a pretty important class trip. In Amsterdam, we went to Anne Frank’s house. I mean, come on.”

Miller recalls that Dillon’s teacher reacted to their plans with much greater enthusiasm; in fact, it was very nearly a polar opposite. “She was so positive, and she verbalized all of the things that were in my head. It was important to hear a teacher say these things. She said that she thought our trip sounded fantastic.” In fact, the teacher gushed so effusively over what a life-changing experience it would be that Miller still remembers how much the encouragement meant to her.

Once home from a trip where the family had only each other to lean on as they learned a new town, a new language, Miller finds it doesn’t take long until everyday life creeps back in. Back home, there is school, Boy Scouts, work, friends, activities, all the bustle of modern American life. “You slowly let your family go again. You just say, ‘Thank you God,’ for those five months,” Miller reflects.

She always knew that the trip they took in 2000 would be one of the best experiences of her life. But with time comes perspective.

“The trip was about searching for roots. It was about educating the children. It was about family — carving out five months with my family. Looking back now, that was the Number One experience of my life.”

Well, at least so far. To celebrate Michele’s graduation from high school, the family is planning a trip to Italy this summer. While their plans are still fluid, what’s certain is that once again, the Millers will be on the move, and once again, their journey will take them to places they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

“What could be better?” Miller asks. “I mean, these three are my favorite people, the most important people in my life, and we’ll be discovering the world together all over again.”

To learn more about home exchange, go to www.homelink.org.