Luckily, our daughter was so thrilled at the prospect of being the temporary owner of a wolf-dog that she overcame his opposition. And it was fine. The dog only nipped two of the children and after an initial froideur we became good friends. All in all, our first house swop was a success. We arranged over the internet to spend our two-week summer holiday at the home of a French family we had never met, while they holidayed in our place.
This kind of exchange has been possible since the 1950s but has grown in popularity since the advent of the internet. Before September 11, it was growing at about 20% a year but it has averaged about 7% since then.
The oldest agency, Homelink, which has 13,000 members worldwide and offices in many countries, still runs a largely postal-based service, but it is now possible to book a holiday entirely over the net using websites such as Homexchange.com, Exchangehomes.com, Homebase, and Intervac. There is a French agency, Homevasion, a gay and lesbian site ”Mi Casa, Su Casa”, and the National Childbirth Trust also has a list.
Although it is a growth area in travel, Jim Anderson of Homelink recognises that it will only ever appeal to a small minority. ”There are a lot of people who would just think, ‘Oh, heavens, I would have to decorate the bathroom or empty the wardrobe’, and they just wouldn’t consider it for a moment.”
However, the hassle of emptying drawers and de-cluttering the sitting room is worthwhile, particularly for retired people and families who often own one big asset, their home, and have less available cash, if it means much better accommodation than they could afford. Retired people also have the option of swopping for much longer than the usual fortnight.
Archie Campbell, a widower, arranged a six-month house swop to Canada because he wanted to spend time with his emigrant daughter and her family without being right on top of them. ”The house I was in was just down the road so I could walk to visit them,” he said. The arrangement ended a little awkwardly after five months because his exchange partner wanted to come home early. But Campbell returned from his Canadian adventure having met a new life partner and now spends half of each year over there. ”It worked out very well in all sorts of ways.”
For families there is the added incentive that swopping with someone with youngsters means their house will be childproof and equipped with toys.
Rental cottages, decorated in the inevitable floral prints, are not usually as well furnished as homes, and it can be hard work producing meals without crucial kitchen equipment such as sharp knives, food processors, casserole dishes, and so on.
Hotels are little better, as a family with three children cannot stay in one room and they like to give you two without connecting doors so that pre-schoolers can have easy access to the balcony or the unsupervised swimming pool, or so that mum can be in constant danger of a heart attack.
So we decided to try something different this year and agreed an exchange with a family with four children in Normandy.
The weeks before we departed were spent manically emptying cupboards and turfing out junk, although we soon found out not everyone does this.
Arriving in the wheatfields of Normandy , we found a farmhouse with a thatched roof in a shady garden which had been in the same family for 200 years. Clutter belonging to previous generations lurked everywhere, with old peasant clogs and handmade lace on display in the kitchen. Our hosts were extremely relaxed people or perhaps had not left enough time to get ready because after cooking us dinner the first night, they simply walked out the door, leaving piles of clean clothes to be put away and a fridge full of food.
But it was lovely to be staying in a well-equipped and spacious home: the children spent hours playing with a fine collection of Lego and Playmobile. We mastered the espresso machine and used their bikes and tools and, thanks to the space, were able to have a couple of visitors. When a friend’s car broke down we rooted around and found some jump leads – an impossible feat in any other kind of holiday home.
Having saved money on our accommodation, we were able to eat out more and visited a Michelin star restaurant and local brasseries.
We met the neighbours – one a little spaniel who kept coming to visit the Alsatian and had to be returned immediately. ”Suzette est amoreuse,” her owner explained.
Our daily routine usually encompassed a stroll with the dog to the post box, and often a chat over a garden wall. Soon we felt quite involved with village life. One morning two large pedigree dogs appeared in the garden and we shooed them away, discovering later that the mayor, an active elderly man of great courtesy, had spent the rest of the day searching for them, as they were the escaped pets of a local notable.
Off the tourist track, we were in the heartland of provincial France . The nearest town, a tiny place of perhaps 5000 people, boasted three charcuteries, a boulangerie, and two patisseries making beautiful glazed tarts. We had to adjust to the delicate civility of French country life, to realise that it is comme il faut to say ”Bonjour madame, comment ca va?” in a shop before ordering.
When we were taking a visitor to the station, a taxi driver tapped on the window of our car to ask if we were lost and then led us there.
We left the house cleaner than when we arrived, although it was impossible to return the thousands of children’s toys to the correct bedrooms. Returning home, we were nervous. What if they were still there? We drove round the block to check. What if our house was wrecked? It wasn’t – it was better than we left it as they had bought a couple of new toys and fixed our coffee maker.
Living for two weeks with ancestral junk on every side made us glad to be in a newly clutter-fee environment – most of our belongings are still in the garden shed where they were banished before our trip. And after making friends with an Alsatian, the children are lobbying hard for a dog.
17th September 2003
© Jackie Kemp 2003