Tootlafrance editor Conor Power sings the praises of the Home Exchange Holiday
“How do you trust people?” the man in my local tyre repair centre asked me. I had just popped in to settle a bill for a burst tyre that a French man had accidentally inflicted on my car the week before. He and his whole family had been using my car and my house over a two-week period while I was in his house in Brittany with my family doing the same.
His question made me think: How does one have such trust in a situation like home exchange? I suppose that the answer is that it’s not for everyone. For most people, the notion of handing over your house keys to some foreigner is no basis for a holiday.
As far as I’m concerned, however, there’s no better way than home exchange to really see a place, connect with it and its people on an intimate level. And have a really great holiday.
The first major plus is the cost. Transport is the only real cost involved in a home exchange holiday – that and the membership fee of your chosen house-swap organisation (about €100/year). If you swap your car, you may have to pay a small supplement – it’s a great excuse for Irish insurance companies to lighten your pocket a little more but it’s generally not too much.
The second important benefit is that rather than taking a “risk” with a total stranger, you actually gain a friend. Our first house exchange was with retired couple from northern Italy. They were dying to come and stay in our cut-stone house in West Cork while we were drooling over the pictures of their summer apartment on the beach in Albissola-la-Marina on the Italian Riviera. Our three boys were small at the time so a bucket-and-spade holiday in Bella Italia was just the ticket.
The months and weeks leading up to the exchange involved lots of questions and answers and exchanging photos and information through email. For Nino and Rita, it was a well-trodden path – they had already been it doing for ten years. We were worried about the state of the house. We were worried that it was too small for them, we were worried that there would be nothing to do for them once they got here, we were worried about the weather and felt certain that they would get two weeks of torrential rain where they wouldn’t even be able to see the great scenery, which was the only thing we had going for us. Essentially, we were worried that it wasn’t a fair swap for them.
So there was a certain amount of panic at our end that manifested itself in frantic cleaning, repainting, tidying and repairing. We tried to ascertain precise expectations in terms of what you should put away and what you should leave out. The rule of thumb is that you lock away rare or valuable items and leave everything else as it is. In our state of confusion, we ended up putting away ALL the food in the kitchen – including back-up tins of peas and beans. We also cleared out the fridge.
That must have been quite a surprise for Nino and Rita because they had done the complete opposite for us. When we arrived at the airport in Genoa, we immediately recognised Nino’s face in the crowd. Meeting him for the first time felt like meeting an old friend. I sat up front with him on the drive to Albissola, skirting the lush mountains and cutting through long tunnels, chatting animatedly in a mixture of his basic English and my pidgin Italian. The sea sparkled so brightly that it dazzled. At the flat, we met Rita and sat at the table to have a sumptuous lunch involving a dizzying array of Ligurian produce. The ciabatta, the olives, the pesto, the aqua frizzante, the vino… it all tasted fantastic. Then they showed us around their kitchen. The cupboards were full and so was their cellar/wine cupboard.
“All this is for you,” Nino said with a wave of his hand. I nodded my head approvingly while in my mind, I flew back to our kitchen in Ireland and ran from cupboard to cupboard trying to find something to eat in them. We had left them a bottle of wine and some home-made bread on the table but that was it.
Such situations can be part of the adjustment process but you have a friendly situation here – not a business arrangement – so you always find a way around them. That holiday turned out to be one of the most memorable and wonderful that I’ve ever had. Reading the hand-written letter that our Italian friends had left for us upon our return, they were even more moved by their wonderful experience in Ireland and they loved our home.
Since then, we’ve been to France, Spain and Holland and back to Italy. Each time, we’ve made friends and each time, we’ve had a brilliant holiday – sometimes (as in the case of Holland) in places that we wouldn’t have even considered beforehand. One of the best features about the home exchange holiday is that you are parachuted into someone else’s life. You’re using their stuff in their home, essentially. When you have young children, that’s particularly useful as you have all the bits and pieces that you might otherwise be tempted to bring with you at additional cost. You also get introduced to their friends and/or relatives and you get an experience that leaves you with the feeling of having truly been there and not in some gated apartment complex or hotel or even campsite, where you’re always set apart from the local populace.
There are inconveniences. One of the big ones is the clean-up beforehand. The advisable approach is to prepare your home as you would if there were an important guest coming. There is a stress factor in this which will invariably involve one spouse repeatedly encouraging the other to get certain repair/replacement/repainting jobs done well in time for the exchange. All this hassle is counterbalanced by the fact that once you leave your house to depart on your holiday, the stress completely dissipates into thin air. Then, when you come back home all deflated because the holidays are over, you return to a house that is perfectly clean and tidy and up to date with repair jobs. You’ve not had to worry about break-ins or burst pipes while you were away and you know that the cat was fed.
As for Pascal – the Frenchman who burst the tyre on my car? When he rang me to explain his little accident, I could have easily insisted that he pay for the new tyre but I didn’t because I wanted him to have a nice time in Ireland. That’s how friends tend to treat one another. Besides, I had picked up a speeding ticket while I was driving his car in Brittany and when it came around to paying it, he had no hesitation in looking after it.
We always used Intervac (www.intervac-homeexchange.com). They’re the original home exchange site founded in 1953 and claim to have the highest number of active members at any given time. Annual membership of €84 (€150 for two years) gives you access to its 30,000 members worldwide. They offer a 20-day free trial period.
Home Exchange (www.homeexchange.com) is the largest American organisation. Going since 1992, it claims to have over 65,000 members (though not counted in quite the same manner, according to Intervac). Their annual fee is €130.
Love Home Swap (www.lovehomeswap.com) is a British organisation with a points-based scheme allowing non-simultaneous exchange. It offers monthly membership starting at €17/month. They also offer a 20-day free trial period.
Behomm (www.behomm.com) is exclusively for “creatives and design lovers”. It’s a club that you join by invitation or by approval of the founders upon filling out an application. Founded in Barcelona in 2013 by a graphic designer couple. Annual membership is €190.