When I was married and owned a home with my husband, we used to travel a great deal. We were (and are) both teachers, so we had three summer months to work with. Both our children were off from school, too, so we could have family vacations. This is one of the upsides of teaching, those months during the year that you can have to yourself. Of course, back when we were a young family and struggling, I often taught summer school the old fashioned way--on land. Now, I can teach summer school online, but back when I had young children and needed to put them in daycare, no such luck.
Anyway, we had time off and not a lot of money, so I investigated house swaps. The whole thing seemed too good to be true. You look online for a place, a house, a time, and start writing to people. It's like dating online but with houses. Some people never wrote back, their houses in great demand. Some people would carry on a long Internet courtships, but then drift away. But then, there it was--the house, the family, and the place you want.
The best way to do this is to write back and forth for a while, sharing photos and ideas. This is easiest when the other family speaks English, of course, but it can be achieved otherwise. Back and forth, figuring out dates and ways of getting each other information and keys. Arranging drives to and from the airport. The information about the cars (yes, we swapped those, too). And then the big commitment--buying plane tickets.
The first time we swapped houses, we went to Kent, England, to a tiny town called Tenterden. The house actually had a name that I've since forgotten, though it wasn't a manor or anything. It was a pleasant four bedroom house with all the amenities and a dog named Nellie. Also, a rabbit and instructions on how to burn the dog shit. Really, we burned the dog shit. We also gave Nellie her medication a couple of times a day, and when we could not, the house cleaner came to do it The milk came daily, delivered to the door. And every day, we set out on adventures, visiting castles and beaches and pubs and Lego Land, and London. We had their Mercedes, and drove on tiny roads to go visit Tunbridge Wells and the little village that A Room With A View was filmed. We drove to Rye and Battle and an amazing botanical garden. Julien and I floated in the English Channel. We went to Dover and Dover Castle. We ate as much fried fish as possible.
But we lived in Tenterden. We went to the market there and the bakery and the pubs and restaurants. We met the neighbors. We walked in the park. For two weeks, we lived in Kent, England, cooking our food on the aga, trying to figure out the way the English cut meat and how to get some tortillas (not a god idea, don't try). It was different than staying in a hotel, which we had done six months before in London, staying at a hotel near Hyde park and taking tours and walking the town. This was what it felt like to live in England, to be in an English house.
After that first swap, we swapped with families in Victoria, BC and France, twice. Each time had the same experience of feeling that we lived in the place, learning the life there. Only one swap was not as wonderful as the rest. That time, we were in a slightly seedy Parisian suburb, in a great old house that had a slight flea problem. It was also located at an intersection, and from that point, I will never be a fan of a two-stroke motor. My marriage was also quickly going down the tubes, but still, we did what we did the times before, learning the area, feeling like we actually lived in a slightly seedy suburb of Paris. We went to the supermarche, we frequented the pizza parlor owned by the Greek family, we went to the metro station and took the train into Paris daily.
And in none of those times did anything awful happen during the swap. No one took off with all our goods. No one wrecked the house or the car. Maybe we had good luck, but we had it often, and given the chance, I would do it again.
But Michael isn't a teacher, and we can't leave for three weeks (the duration of our longest swap). And you do have to have faith that people will take care of your things, and that isn't for everyone. I did read about horror stories, and I'm just thankful none happened to us.
But it's a great, wonderful way to travel, even with the fleas.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org