No. 12 Adventures in Home Exchange: Insect Invasion
One of the most economical ways our family has found to travel is by participating in home exchange. The idea is simple: swap houses with someone for an agreed upon number of days. If you wish, you can also exchange cars and pet and plant care.
Consider the savings on travel lodging. If the average three star hotel in Europe is $200-250 USD per night, you’d save almost fifteen hundred dollars in one week. If you’re the type of traveler who prefers the feeling of living local with an Airbnb, the savings can be drastically higher. Add a car exchange into the bargain and your savings can run into the thousands. That’s a lot of pastry and ice cream…I mean museum visits.
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Many people cringe at the thought of strangers living in their home. “Aren’t you afraid they’ll ruin it? Or steal something?” are usually the first questions I’m asked. To which I answer—you’ll be in their homes, too. You could just as easily ruin or steal something of theirs. A kind of golden rule springs up between swap partners—I’ll keep your place safe if you keep mine.
Your exchange partners don’t need to remain complete strangers either. When you find a place that you’re interested in exchanging with, you email the owners. If they’re interested in return and your dates line up (or it’s possible for you both to exchange non-simultaneously), a dialog begins. On our first exchange, we swapped with a family outside of London. We began emailing about six months prior. By the time the swap came around, I knew the names of the children and their soccer coach. I knew the names of the neighbors and who to ask for help if necessary. I knew where the best bakery was and what time to leave to avoid local traffic snags. My exchange partner and I not only got free houses in nice neighborhoods, we got access to local experts (and an invitation to the block party).
That’s not to say that I didn’t take some precautions before we left. Anything that I was afraid of losing or getting damaged, like a beloved sewing machine, I brought to my mother’s house for safe keeping. We left a desktop computer for our guests to use but created a fresh account for them and locked ours behind a password. We also asked them not to put more than one thousand miles on the car, and we agreed to do the same.
The homes we inhabited were universally lovely. There was a duplex in Bavaria surrounded by garden flowers and woods, a home in the suburbs of London, an apartment in Paris with a stunning view of Sacre Coeur. We treated the places like our own. For the most part, our exchanges were very successful.
For the most part.
As guests, we broke a dish once so left 20 Euro on the table with a note of apology. And it took our daughter ten years to tell us that she was terrified in one house because she saw a little girl on the stairs outside her bedroom in the middle of the night. (Note to self—ask exchange partners if their houses are haunted in future.)
As the hosts, of our six exchanges, our house suffered damage once. It was a lack of understanding rather than malice. One of the many things that I love about Europe is that the climate is temperate and lacks mosquitoes. Of a summer evening, families throw open their shutters and enjoy the outdoors without window screens.
Can you imagine that kind of blood-sucking-insect-free privilege?
In summer around my house, I need to shellac myself with bug spray and set the area alight with noxious candles. And still, I will go to bed scratching at a constellation of bites. A lot of Europeans simply don’t understand that because it’s not what they’re used to.
Such was the case with a French family staying in our house. They decided to open all of the windows the way they would at home, and lift the pesky screens that obscured their view. I can imagine their surprise when the house flooded with mosquitoes. And I know it did because the French family squished all of the invading insects where they landed. When we got home, the walls and ceilings were polka-dotted with HUNDREDS of six-legged corpses, their black, buggy silhouettes flattened and fossilized in place. Why didn’t the French family clean them up after? I couldn’t tell you.
When I began to unpack in the master bedroom, I thought it curious that the air conditioner in the window was upside down. Upon investigation, we discovered that the family had opened that window, too. The air conditioner had fallen and plunged toward the ground below. It was saved by the cord plugged into the outlet. When the cord went taut, it ripped the outlet from the wall. The air conditioner had dangled from the open window. Dents in the aluminum siding proved it. When they reeled it back into place, they installed it wrong way up. I found that odd because even if they hadn’t spoken English, our alphabet is the same, and the letters printed on the front were upside down. It turned out our exchange partners didn’t understand air conditioners, or gravity, any better than they understood screens. Perhaps they were simply overwhelmed by the insect army and auto-ejecting appliances.
The other unpleasant surprise was that one or more of their children had used our throw pillows as a handkerchief. Three-inch trails of dried snot reflected the sun on eight of the ten pillowcases. It took several hours to clean up after the French family, and I asked myself repeatedly as I scraped insect legs off the walls if home exchange was really worth it.
We’d had five uneventful exchanges, and one dud. I calculated the car and hotel savings on the five experiences and found that it amounted to somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars. Then I asked myself, if someone offered to pay you ten thousand dollars to blow their nose on your pillows, destroy an outlet, and redecorate the walls with insect parts, would I let them?
As I dropped the throw pillow shams into the washer, I thought,What’s a little snot and bug-scrubbing among friends?
If I haven’t put you off the idea of exploring home exchange, there are a number of sites out there. We always use Homelink.org
Would you consider a home exchange? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.
To one of my favorite Harvard professors, Dr. Elisabeth Sharp McKetta, writer, speaker and teacher extraordinaire. I highly recommend all of her books below—
Take a five second vacation with a fine art print in your space—
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