When a huge plumbing disaster strikes, most Airbnb guests pack up and demand a refund, while their hosts gloomily write off their profits and try to forget about it.
But for German travelers Elke Thau-Montgomery and Rudi Thau, and their American hosts Beth Ann Moon and Jennifer Steinberg, a calamitous situation on Airbnb turned into a five-plus-year continental friendship.
Beth and Jennifer, a Florida-based couple, first listed the apartment attached to their home on Airbnb in 2017. Beth and Jennifer are gay and were suspicious of their guests’ homophobia (Beth jokes that she hid early reservations.)
But guests from the United States and elsewhere came and went, and largely stayed for themselves.
Elke and Rudi stood out from the start. They were friendly and relaxed and arrived with a bottle of gin as a gift.
Elke and Rudi were drawn to Beth and Jennifer’s Airbnb because of its location — near the Everglades on the southern tip of Florida — and Beth and Jennifer’s inviting back pool.
But what sealed the deal was the Volkswagen Beetle parked outside. The German couple thought anyone with a VW Beetle was likely to be on their wavelength.
“Let’s go, they must be nice people,” Elke recalled thinking.
When Elke and Rudi introduced the gin to their hosts, Beth entered the house and pulled out another bottle from the same distillery, about double the size.
“We made fun of each other,” Elke says.
“We hit it off as soon as they arrived,” says Beth.
The two couples found themselves sitting outside all night, drinking and chatting.
“It was really the first time we had contact with people who were here,” says Jennifer. “They were like us, we had so much in common.”
But a few days later, disaster struck. Airbnb plumbing stopped working. To fix the problem, Jennifer and Beth had to employ emergency contractors who quickly shut off the water supply and dug a giant hole in the garden.
“They hammered the outside, because the floor is made of coral rock,” says Jennifer. “It was a hell of an interruption. Elke and Rudi couldn’t use the bathroom. It was a bad situation.”
Jennifer and Beth apologized. They expected their German visitors to leave the next morning.
“I think most people who were in an Airbnb would demand their money back and demand that we get them a hotel,” says Jennifer. “I didn’t know what to expect. And the next thing I knew, they were in our backyard building us a home.
Rudi and Elke made it clear that they weren’t going anywhere unless Jennifer and Beth wanted to. The Germans were unfazed by the mishap, finding it entertaining more than anything else.
Elke says they just felt bad for their hosts and their plumbing issues. The hearth was the first in a series of kind gestures that Elke and Rudi hoped to cheer up the panicked Beth and Jennifer.
And rather than drive away their guests, the crisis only brought the two couples closer together.
“They just became our very close friends,” Jennifer says. “They knew we were upset. And they tried to do things around our house to make us happy. And they didn’t go anywhere. They stayed with us.
An arrangement was soon made for Rudi and Elke to use the bathrooms in the main house. Evenings were spent sitting around the new hearth. The two bottles of gin were emptied, as the two couples spent hours chatting about cooking, family, travel, their respective countries and cultures and their thoughts on life, politics and friendship.
“We all think the same way about things – politics, cultural things and all that,” Elke says. “We connected and it was cool.”
Elke and Rudi were avid travelers who always greeted Airbnb hosts with warmth and friendliness. But they had never bonded with anyone like they had with Jennifer and Beth.
“We’ve never had an experience like this before and we’re so grateful that we were able to make some wonderful friends out of it,” says Elke.
“I’ll tell you, I’ve never had that experience with anyone,” Jennifer agrees. “Because of our age, we didn’t really expect to make such close friends so late in life.”
As Elke and Rudi’s trip drew to a close, plans began to be made for Beth and Jennifer to visit Rudi and Elke in Bavaria. Before the German travelers left, the Americans booked flights for later that year.
The quartet parted ways as close friends. And once Rudi and Elke returned home to Germany, Beth and Jennifer refunded their stay.
“We knew they wouldn’t accept if we did it while they were here,” says Jennifer.
A few months later, the two couples reunited in Germany as if nothing had happened. Jennifer and Beth loved seeing the country through the eyes of the people who live there. They also visited Austria and the Czech Republic.
“None of us had ever been to Europe,” says Jennifer. “We just saw the world and that’s thanks to Rudi and Elke. We could never have done what we did and what we saw in Europe on our own.”
From there, a tradition was established. Every winter, Elke and Rudi spend long vacations with Beth and Jennifer. And in the fall, the Americans pay a visit.
Beth and Jennifer no longer rent out their space on Airbnb — it’s reserved for Elke and Rudi, and they’ve since adopted dogs.
Five years after they first met, the couples’ relatives have also met and bonded. Today, Rudi, Elke, Jennifer and Beth consider themselves an extended, intercontinental family.
“Even when we go to Germany, their family is our family,” says Beth.
Rudi and Elke erected a homemade maypole (a tall wooden pole traditionally used at European folk festivals) in their yard in Bavaria, topped with a picture of their family. Naturally, Jennifer and Beth are included in the illustration.
“It’s such a sweet representation or symbol of our cultures combined and how we feel about each other as family,” Jennifer says.
While the two couples bonded from day one, they credit the plumbing incident for cementing their friendship, at least in part.
“I don’t know if I can say that one thing was the chemistry that clicked, because it just happened. But I think it was the plumbing,” says Jennifer. “Maybe we would be friends anyway. But if we hadn’t had a crisis to go through together, it wouldn’t have been the same.
“Besides this chemistry between people, I think it’s kind of how we reacted to this little mishap with the plumbers,” Elke says. “Rudi and I tried to take it with a lot of humor, because things happen, it’s just the way of life.”
Right now, Rudi and Elke are visiting Beth and Jennifer in the US, and the group is busy planning a 2023 summer vacation in Croatia. When the friends aren’t physically together, they catch up through regular video calls. They don’t just see each other as best friends, but as surrogate family.
And they’re thrilled that the trip — and more specifically, a travel accident — brought them together.
“Travel and you learn”, summarizes Rudi.
“You never know who you’re going to meet,” says Jennifer. “Just be open-minded and let people into your heart. These chance encounters can change someone’s life, and Rudi and Elke certainly changed my life. It’s not always about romance. It’s about the people and the energy they have and how you never know.