House swaps let you make yourself at home when you're far from home

December 26, 1993|By Kitty Morgan | Kitty Morgan,Orange County RegisterOrange County Register

Paris -- Before we traded our house in Laguna Beach, Calif., for an apartment in Paris for three weeks, my husband and I took a French conversation class. But we neglected to learn the words for "The electricity is not working."

In Paris, we learned them well.

Swapping your home for another's abroad is a course in comparative cultures -- a course that puts a person smack in the midst of everyday life in a foreign place.

We found ourselves in an area utterly French -- a middle-class neighborhood where shopkeepers stopped into the cafe we ourselves adopted on the corner, where the open-air market sold fabulous white peaches of a type we had never tasted before, where the sounds of children in the small local parks floated on the late summer air. Even though it was August, and the city was half-empty of Parisians, the Montmartre neighborhood was alive.

We soon knew by sight the waitress in the cafe, the man who roasted the rabbits and the woman who sold us dozens of varieties of aged goat cheese in what turned out to be one of Paris' best fromageries. With a Metro station a few blocks from our apartment, we could be at the Louvre in 15 minutes.

In short, it was just what we'd hoped for.

However, house-trading can also be a lesson in self-reliance -- a lesson that not all people might wish to study while vacationing. After all, not everyone wants to cope with finding an electrician in the midst of Paris' summer holiday when pretty much every electrician is out of town.

But let's start at the top. We got into this because of the money.

Or more exactly, we started with the desire to stay in one place for a period of time, enough time to come to know it. We chose Paris because it glittered with art, architecture, good food, history -- everything we love. Because neither of us had been there, we looked forward to discovering the city together.

But three weeks in a Paris hotel . . . We didn't have to use the currency converter to know we could not afford that and still eat.

We'd heard of house-exchange networks -- catalogs listing people around the world interested in trading. I found the names of two, wrote for information, filled out the forms, then waited for the catalogs to appear.

When the catalogs came out in January, it worked this way: We wrote to Parisians who seemed to be offering appropriate housing, who wanted to travel when we could and for about the same amount of time, and whose profile matched what our house could handle.

We sent about 20 letters to Europe; most were to Parisians but, in order to ensure that we found a trade, we also wrote to Italian and British exchangers. About 15 people -- in almost all cases not those we'd written -- approached us.

We hadn't expected that part of the fun would be those letters we received, with their pretty stamps and charmingly awkward English.

Some offers were clearly not for us, such as the house outside of Madrid. It looked like a suburban tract house we'd find in Southern California.

Some of the offers -- a house in Madagascar with the use of a four-wheel drive for when the rains washed out the roads, a Victorian flat in London's center with the use of a "very old" Jaguar -- sounded promising. But we were set on Paris.

Meanwhile, we fielded questions from friends. Aren't you worried about leaving your house to a stranger? Aren't you worried about what you'll find there?

To the first question, we felt confident answering no. We'd lock any valuables and breakables in the garage, we said, but in fact we simply trusted that anyone who would leave us his or her home would take care of ours. And that is exactly what happened.

To the second question, we also answered no. As soon as we had a match, we figured, we'd ask all sorts of questions about the neighborhood, the apartment or house itself and what it contained. We'd know exactly what we were getting into. That is not exactly how it happened.

The letter arrived from the perfect match: Martine Desaintjean, a Parisian who teaches English, single, middle-aged, with a one-bedroom apartment in the 18th arrondissement of the city. Just what we wanted -- a neighborhood off the tourist track, but close enough to be convenient to the sights. After several letters back and forth over a period of about two months -- both of us sending photographs and discussing dates -- we agreed on three weeks straddling August and September.

Meeting Martine

Many house-swappers never meet those they switch with, but we did meet Martine. The night before we left for Paris, we picked her up at the Santa Ana train station. She'd traded her apartment for one in San Francisco, too; we'd be overlapping with those people for a few days in Paris, and Martine had arranged we'd stay those days in her son's flat very near her own. He was also on vacation.

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