Thursday, July 21, 2005

The House Swap

Furniture gets rearranged. Furniture that was broken gets fixed. Animals you thought you’d come home to die. Words fail – and in languages you thought you’d mastered long ago.

Welcome to the world of house swaps.

If you’ve always wanted to know about house exchanges, read on.

It was 1990. My husband and I had both just lost our jobs. We had no kids, and the thought of going abroad for a year was enticing. It’d be easy: we could rent the house, pack things into storage, and take off. Our real estate agent thought it was crazy and said so. She suggested a house exchange instead. So we could try out living abroad. In fact, a friend of hers -- a confirmed house-swapper -- knew of someone in Paris, whose exchange with a Toronto family had fallen through at the last minute. Were we interested?

Hmm, let’s see. Exchange a 3-BR apartment in the Latin Quarter, within walking distance of virtually everything worth seeing in the civilized world, for our sweltering little house on Gerrard St?

A few short weeks later, we arrived at our lovely Parisian lodgings, and I suddenly realized why Parisian women are so slim in spite of the massive quantities of butter, cream and chocolate croissants they consume -- four flights of stairs and no lifts in any of the apartments.

But Paris is Paris, the vacation was wonderful, and we were utterly sold on house swaps. What’s not to like about it? With free accommodation, and car in some cases, you get a European holiday for the cost of airfare. Food is essentially free since you have to eat wherever you are, and the built-in house sitter concept is one that every insurance agent encourages.

We even arrived home to find that our exchange partners had replaced the canvas seats on the ancient directors chairs I had on the porch.

So, when October rolled around and we had to sign up for the next season’s catalogue, we were in like flint. We had house photos, information, exchange letter, and signed check ready.

Then came the hard part. The catalogue arrived in December (now it comes on-line) and we dropped everything including sleep for 24 hours as we feverishly tried to cut a deal. Hot spots like Greece and Ireland go fast but curb your zeal. Entries need to be read carefully -- one year I had eagerly ticked off several Irish prospects until my husband pointed out “family size” – our sweltering little house on Gerrard St would never accommodate those two- parent-six-children families. The process can consume several days while proposals are made and recipients mull over the possibilities.

One year we clinched a deal early on with an Oxford couple, settling dates, car exchange and so on by mail and phone within a couple of days. Then we got a letter which went something like this: we forgot to mention that our daughter and her husband will be staying with us this summer, so you would be sharing the house with them. It’s a big house and we think it might be a lot of jolly fun.….. Visions of English bath facilities danced through my head, so we called it off and began the hunt again.

Since the scent was more than two months old by this time, we found a home in the Midlands for exchange. The area’s main claim to fame in those days was its tenuous connection to the Bronte sisters (think grey vicarage and you get the idea), a few racecourses, and a famous mystery writer.

These days, it’s possible the new-found Midlands claim to notoriety is a certain cat of nine or more lives, which my husband and I managed to kill.

Part of our exchange deal was taking care of this geriatric cat, which didn’t seem a problem considering my vast experience with cats.

Mistaking the cat for one of those garden gnomes the English are so fond of should have been the first tip-off about the cat’s general well-being. The second clue was how it teetered off in the direction of the open field.

The neighbours had lots to tell us about the Cat. The salty Yorkshirewoman on one side provided his medical history: 19 years old, two major strokes -- that she knew of -- complete with middle-of-the-night pet ambulances and sirens blaring. The neighbour on the other side, who was on standby cat care should we decide to take a day trip, was more cryptic: glad it’s you and not me, she said.

Sure enough, one perfect English summer morn, near the end of our stay, it was me (and not her) who found the cat lying prone in a pool of his own saliva. It didn’t take either a rocket scientist or a vet to tell he’d had another stroke and wasn’t so lucky this time.

The bloodcurdling shriek came from my own lips. My husband came running.

“What’s up,” he said.
“I think the cat’s dead,” I said, pointing out the window to the mudroom.
My husband looked out and agreed.
I turned to him, fear creasing my brow. “What if by some chance, a bone was in that chicken I fed him last night?”
“What of it?” he shrugged.
“She’s so fanatical about The Cat, she’ll dig him up and take him for an autopsy. What if we got charged for murder, or manslaughter?”
“For a cat?””We don’t know British laws,” I countered.
“You can’t get arrested for murdering a cat. Besides, it’s not your fault.”
“Would you mind checking?” I asked.
“Checking what?” he said.”His throat.” I gulped, then whispered: “You know. For bones.”
My husband dutifully performed the examination (he doesn’t like cats, anyway) reaching his index finger down the oesophagus.
“I don’t feel anything,” he reported. By then, though, rigor mortis had set in.

The neighbours were sanguine. The salty Yorkshirewoman was sanguine: He’s had good innings. The other neighbour said predictably: glad it was you and not me.

Needless to say the news was not taken well by the pet-owners, languishing in the aforementioned sweltering house on Gerrard St. Particularly the wife. She had several elaborate burial requests. The husband was very understanding and even greeted us at the end of the vacation with two very nice bottles of vintage wine for our efforts.

Dead cats aside, plans falling through can be serendipitous. One year, we approached a schoolteacher in the tiny Pyrenees village of Arties, but he’d already made arrangements with a Calgary family. A month later, when we were on the verge of committing to another location when he called and asked if we were still interested – the Calgary folks had bailed. It was one of the best vacations ever. So much so, we considered giving our son (born about 9 months later) the middle name of Arties…..

Be prepared for personal eccentricities, though – we’re all human after all. The Midlands couple, long before the dead cat incident, rearranged all our furniture, family photos, table runners, knick-knack arrangements, curtain swags, and so on. Which explains why our neighbours reported they weren’t to be seen for the whole first week. It pays to keep an open mind, however -- some of the changes I rather liked.

To date, we have done seven European exchanges -- Paris, Pyrenees, Normandy, Fontainebleau, Midlands, Bath, Scotland. Not bad, considering we aren’t wealthy. Apart from the peculiar things, we’ve had only good experiences. To my view, home exchanges are the only way to travel, especially when you have small children. Picture the alternative: moving from hotel room to hotel room, negotiating Kraft Dinner and hot dog requests in French, German, Italian, and then paying a king’s ransom for the pleasure.

Another advantage is staying in place long enough to get the flavour of the region. In the little Pyreneen village, we had to order our bread every afternoon for the next day’s delivery, and had the opportunity to join the village in its annual summer festivals.

And getting to know the people. On our last exchange, I collared the mother of two boys my son’s age at the little local church. Presto – instant friends, and occupiers of my otherwise fidgety, bored 10-year-old son. An added benefit was the parents showed us little known spots, such as their own secret walking path overlooking the local earl’s country mansion, and where to buy delicious homemade local farm cheeses.

And so, you take the rearranged furniture, the high mileage on your car, and the occasional broken butter knife, because you know at heart what a great deal you’re getting.

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