It’s 8.30 p.m. and I have just paid the taxi driver for the ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport. I am standing in front of a closed entrance door with a heavy suitcase. And a stroller. And my two kids, a two-year-old and a five-year-old. I open the letter with the instructions again. Dear Cristina, bienvenue à Paris. Our cleaning lady will be welcoming you upon your arrival… I ring the doorbell once more, but in vain. I try to look for a phone number. There must be a phone number somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it. The kids are getting nervous, they are tired from the flight and are hungry. Small kids are extremely routine-oriented and don’t understand why they haven’t eaten dinner at this late hour, let alone comprehend why mom has taken them to Paris instead of staying home.
This is one of the many situations that home exchange has put me (or shall I say us?) through. One of those situations where you can only ask yourself: What the hell am I doing here? Yet in this case, like all the others, things turned out to be all right. The cleaning lady did show up and let us in. My kids and I spent one of the most wonderful holidays we have ever had in that house. I loved to cook in the big kitchen, the kids enjoyed the toys they found there and we all appreciated the nice garden where we chilled out after wandering the streets of Paris during daytime and buying our groceries in the magnificent fruit and vegetable market nearby.
Yet, if I think of that experience, the first thing I remember is my sensation of feeling lost with my two kids. Of course, now I realize that my sense of abandonment had a lot to do with the simple fact that it was my first vacation by myself since my husband had left. But then again, we had also done a home exchange in Rome when we were still a “regular” family. Yet, honestly, I don’t have a single memory of my husband. I can perfectly remember I was pregnant. I can remember everyone talking to my small, adorable two-year-old, all blond in his brown coat, but I can’t recall one single image of my husband. So I guess he was actually gone long before he left for good.
The thing about home exchanges is that you connect memories to places, like when something huge happens and you remember where you were and what you were doing. Instead, with home exchanges, you remember where you were and what you were doing and thus remember what stage of your life you were going through.
Staying at someone’s place, rather than in a hotel, is also a great way to live like a local. You learn where to buy your groceries and where coffee is the best; you read the local paper and you water the plants; or, if you are staying in North Vancouver, you learn that you can’t leave your garbage outside at night because that might draw the local bear’s attention. (My son, by the way, was so impressed by this instruction that he still swears he saw an actual bear from his window on the second floor in the middle of the night — while fast asleep, of course).
Not only does home exchange provide great anecdotes about local life style, it is also a wonderful opportunity to connect with other worlds through the spaces that people have organized for themselves to feel comfortable in. When you choose a house, you choose it for the way it looks or for its location. Its appearance tells a lot about the people who live in it. I am particularly attracted to houses with a lot of books, or maybe a piano, or a lovely kitchen. Details that are not details and that tell you that you are about to enter worlds that are appealing to you and likely to meet like-minded people.
In fact, home exchanging is about homes, but it’s also a lot about people. Since I organize my exchanges mostly on a simultaneous basis, I usually cross my exchange partners somewhere in the sky, while flying from one place to another. But I have met many of them afterwards, months or years after our actual exchange.
I have never met Eric, though, the husband and father of the folks from Washington D.C. that thought Italy was a good place to spend their summer holiday. We agreed to exchange our homes for three weeks a few years ago. I took a fancy to that house on Capitol Hill and enjoyed exploring the city from there. I liked to stroll around Eastern Market but especially loved the house itself, a cozy and warm place to call home. I was sleeping on Eric’s side of the king bed in the master bedroom, I could tell that from the books and objects resting on the night table; and I was sitting on the same leather armchair at the bay window he probably used to read the Washington Post delivered daily. So, although I have never met Eric in person, I felt like I knew him in a way, so much that when the news of his unexpected death arrived a couple of years later (he was in his 40s), I cried right there and then, as if I had lost a close friend. This experience confirmed my intuition that home exchanging is much more than simply exchanging homes. (I did eventually meet Monica, Eric’s wife, and we have been in touch ever since, following each other’s evolutions through life).
Since home exchanging is such a personal experience, it often happens that I find — far away from my place and my routine, from the “role” I have where I live — parts of me I have lost on the way or not yet explored. Even the dynamics inside a group like a family change totally if you change homes, since your perspective changes. It’s like traveling, but in a deeper sense. It allows you to see there is a different way to be, as long as you organize your life differently. You can walk to the grocery shop, rather than drive. You can have coffee in the nearby coffee shop and mingle. Or pull an armchair near the window to get more light and thus be more willing to read a book. A whole new world opens up when you live in a new home and neighborhood and you have the opportunity to see how you can reshape your daily life in a way that may suit your actual needs better. From a home exchange you can reveal new options for your life and choose to become a happier, if not a better, person.
If you consider what an intense experience home exchange can be, it is no wonder that after more than 40 swaps I have become good friends with many of the people I exchanged homes with. I found a literary soul mate in Nathaniel; two good friends that are almost like family in Janet and Richard (whom I now meet on a regular basis in NYC or Paris); a travel companion in Linda, who invites me to join her each time she travels to Europe. As a single mom, I even met a single dad during a non-simultaneous exchange, and my kids found friends who speak in different languages that they don’t know, but they seem to understand each other perfectly.
I have not yet been to some peoples’ places; and some people still haven’t come to mine; others had to give up their trip because something came up last minute, but nevertheless let me stay at their place as agreed. All these gentlemen’s agreements have told me a lot about the world: There are extremely nice people everywhere, from Seattle to Bali, from Philadelphia to Madrid to London, Berlin, Oslo and Singapore.
I love to hear people tell me how much they liked staying at my place, reading one of my books or listening to my music, shopping at the local market and eating at my favorite restaurant. It’s like sharing life with good friends. I have myself been very happy in places I can now call home all over the world. I have shed tears and laughed in bedrooms that were not mine. I have written poems and love letters on tables otherwise used for family dinners. I have unintentionally taken snapshots of single moments of my life the way you rarely do in your own routine at home. And I have found out a lot about myself in every single home I have lived in.
So now, each time I am standing in front of a closed door, I never panic but rather look forward to the moment that the door will open so I can start exploring new parts of me that will reveal themselves there or that I will bring home with me and maybe find out about years later.
There’s a spare set of keys that has been on the bookshelf next to my desk for a couple of years now. It opens the door to an apartment in Manhattan where I stayed for a few weeks some time ago. Although I have written the owner several times asking her what I should to with the keys, she has never sent me instructions. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, but I keep the keys as my lucky rabbit’s foot for more successful home exchanges to come. • 14 March 2013