NB. This was originally written in September, but I completely forgot to post it!!
The most interesting thing about houseswapping is getting an opportunity to see how people live from day to day. Every house we’ve gone to has had its own little quirks and idiosyncracies. Like the flat in Copenhagen, where the bathroom was cupboard sized with only a handheld shower and a basin with a waste water pipe that wasn’t actually connected up! Or the flat in Barcelona with a fridge that emitted the strangest smell. Or the house we have just stayed in, whose owners did not appear to possess a cheese grater – bit of a nightmare the evening we planned to cook macaroni cheese.
We’re on our 7th home exchange, and feel like old hands now. We were introduced to the joys of it by a friend of a friend who said she would never consider swapping with anyone who didn’t have a pool. We certainly started out with considerably lower expectations about the exchange rate for our small semi-detached in Forest Hill, but the places we’ve been offered have never ceased to amaze us. An immense ancient farmhouse in the rolling hills of southern Belgium, with an outbuilding bigger than our home, set in its own valley, with horses for the children to ride, for instance.
House swapping is incredibly easy, though a touch scary the first time you do it. I have lost count of the friends who, on being told about the idea, have looked aghast at the thought of a family of strangers staying in their house. But then you too are strangers staying in their property, so there is an element of quid pro quo and mutual trust. It’s a simple concept. You join a home exchange website, and there are many of them (including some quite specialist ones – Jon’s brother told us of one exclusively for architects!) You pay an annual fee to join (around £30 a year; usually extended for another year if you don’t exchange in the first) and then create your own page with photos and details of your home and its amenities, plus info on the local area and a bit of background on you and your family. You can also specify where you’d like to go and when.
Then you either sit back and wait for offers to come in – we got over 20 in the first few months we were on the site. Or you can proactively search the site and send out your own emails. Once you find willing swappees, you exchange emails with the owner and agree dates – mostly these will be at the same time, although some people swap their holiday homes too, so there may be more flexibility. We got a free week in a holiday home just north of Sydney this way. Sometimes your dates might not meet exactly – I know friends who have had an evening with their prospective swappees before they left for the other house… the closest we got was bumping into the family we swapped with in Copenhagen at Kastrup Airport on our way home. Finally, you can also negotiate to swap other aspects of each other’s lives, such as cars. I suspect everyone draws the line at children and spouses though!
So this year we went to Lyon. The email offer came a year ago; extremely organised for the French we thought. We figured then that after six months travelling around the world, a couple of weeks in France would be a perfect (and cheap) antidote holiday. It did seem slightly strange to be planning it so far in advance, but then again if we hadn’t done so I’m not sure we could have brought ourselves to organise anything once we had returned from our big trip. As the date drew near, it did feel slightly surreal to be going away again so soon. In our defence, it was actually over 4 months since our return, and I’d been working flat out for 3 months. The excitement of our return had now worn off, we’d caught up with most of our friends and had all the travelling conversations we were likely to get away with having, I already felt knackered and very stressed again, and we were all starting to feel a bit flat.
What I love about going to France is that it is just ‘next door’ to England and therefore easy to get to, but scenically, culturally and culinarily, it feels a world away, French people appear more sophisticated and exotic to me, and I love attempting to speak another language – even if I do it badly. And because it’s so close, you can make getting there part of the journey. Not for us an anonymous flight, that in any case would have ended up with us either having to get up at 5am, or arriving in Lyon at 9pm. We also rejected driving, thankfully, as we’d probably have spent at least a week stuck on the M2! So the train… as it turned out the most expensive option, but by far my favourite. You can now get a train direct from London to Lyon, although not on a Wednesday apparently, which was the day that we happened to be going. Anyway, when we had been in Thailand and really missing our family, we had hatched a mad plan (in the words of my father in law) to travel via Lille with our parents and spend the night there with them. As it turned out, with dad’s hospital stay now in its sixth month, it was only Jon’s parents who came with us, but it was a fabulous start to the holiday. Incidentally, on the way back we went via Paris and had a fantastic lunch of snails and lobster and a cheeky glass of rose – before boarding our Eurostar to London.
Our Lyonnais family had 5 children – but they were very definite that they would be happy in our compact 3 bedroom semi. This meant that in exchange we were in a 6 bedroom detached tower, well that’s what it felt like, with its winding staircase and stone walls.
So spacious was it that friends of ours, another family of 4, came to stay for the second week and it still felt like there was room for more people… I nicknamed it the house that kept on giving. And surrounded by a pool, table tennis, a trampoline, baby-foot (table football), a Wii-U, the kids would have been happy never to leave the property.
However, there was much to explore. Lyon itself, split in 3 by the Rhone and the Saone rivers. With the glorious Parc de la Tete d’Or, including a free zoo;
its old town with its winding streets leading up to the glorious Notre Dame on the top of the hill; and some great shopping opportunities.
We also spent a Sunday exploring the delights of the most brilliant outdoor ‘brocante’, Les Puces du Canal;
a day languishing by a stunning lake set at the foot of the Alps,
and a morning in a hilltop medieval village, where Joe managed to forget his shoes (and had to wear fluffy slippers which we purchased from a tourist shop) and we had the most glorious lunch of frogs legs washed down with cider.
It was a great two weeks, and perhaps because our previous trip had been for 6 months, it passed unbelievably quickly. House-swapping is perhaps not for everybody, but we love it. The generosity of families who swap – this time we were left a bottle of wine, a bottle of champagne and the most amazing chocolates (that Jon continues to dream about); the experience of living the life of another family, and getting to go to places you may not have even considered, works for us.
Although we never did find the cheese grater!