Home Swap

My place is yours...and yours is mine.

For two weeks, our Millburn family swapped homes with a family from the South of France. We marveled at their neat rooms and tiny closets. They marveled at our household clutter and our sprawling shopping malls.

“Mommy, why are we letting strangers live in our house?”

It was the first day of our home swap last summer, and my youngest daughter, Annie, 6, was worried. The truth was, I’d been asking myself that same question in the days before my family was scheduled to trade our suburban New Jersey house, with all our worldly possessions, for a house in a French village so obscure it wasn’t mentioned in any of the five guidebooks I’d consulted. 

Like a growing number of American families, my husband and I had joined a home-swapping website last spring, thinking it would be an economical way to satisfy our wanderlust. Given that we live in the Garden State, still a favorite punch line of comedians, we figured we’d be lucky to get two or three offers. Instead we got close to two dozen—from couples in Sweden, Holland, Germany, England, Scotland, Australia, Switzerland, and finally, the South of France. 

When Nelly and Bernard Blavec e-mailed us photos of their three-bedroom villa in Carqueiranne, a gem of a village on the Côte d’Azur smack between Provence and the French Riviera, my husband, David, was stunned.

“Are you sure they know we live in New Jersey?” he asked.

Every time I had a phone or e-mail conversation with the Blavecs, my husband would urge me to remind them that our house is in Millburn, New Jersey, not New York City. I did. They knew! They still wanted to come!

To them, our house was well situated, a fifteen-minute stroll into either of two villages (Maplewood and Millburn) where they could do their shopping on foot, as they did at home. They also could take a 35-minute train ride to the center of Manhattan, yet were close enough to make day trips to Philadelphia and the Secaucus shopping outlets, which, to my amusement, were on their sightseeing list.

So we agreed: we’d exchange houses for two weeks in August. My husband and I consider ourselves hardy travelers; we’d spent much of our honeymoon trekking through Indian villages in Guatemala. Since becoming parents, we’d moved to suburban New Jersey and favored more conventional destinations, but we’d steered clear of the prepackaged “family-friendly vacations,” instead schlepping our kids to the Louvre, the  Jewish quarter in Krakow, and funky cafés in rural Spain, without a kids’ menu in sight. We figured that spending a few weeks in someone’s house on the Côte d’ Azur would be fun but similar to the kind of traveling we’d done with our kids, Annie and Emily, 11, since they were born.

Oh boy, were we cocky—and wrong. Immersed in a French family’s life—shopping in the Blavecs’ neighborhood markets, eating at their favorite local restaurants, befriending their relatives and neighbors, and even using their doctors while the Blavecs inhabited our home in New Jersey—we found ourselves living outside the tourist bubble. It wasn’t just that we discovered another side of France, or Europe, though that happened. It was that all of us, my daughters included, were forced to reevaluate our American lifestyle, values, customs, even the way we handled chores. In the process, we also gained a fresh perspective on our home state of New Jersey, the place we’d been so reluctant to call home.

PRE-SWAP JITTERS
The week before the swap, I began to panic. What if the Blavecs were part of some international burglary scheme? Home swaps require a leap of faith, a belief that most people are basically trustworthy. As a journalist and a skeptic by nature, I tend toward the opposite. I view strangers with suspicion until proven trustworthy.

It didn’t help that some of our friends thought we were crazy to swap, especially when I told them that all our phone calls and e-mails had gone through the Blavecs’ twenty-year-old daughter, Marine, the only one in either family fluent in both English and French. “How do you know their house isn’t in a dog field somewhere?” a friend asked.

“You know, French people are dirty,” Josefa, our cleaning lady, declared with authority.
I spent hours on Google staring at satellite photos of the Blavecs’ house and researching their backgrounds to reassure myself that they were the nice, normal family they seemed. After reading in Internet chat rooms some memorable horror stories of house swaps gone bad, including one in which a couple returned to discover grape jelly smeared across their kitchen walls, I decided to ask Josefa to clean our house while we were away, which she thought was a very good idea. 

We also arranged to meet the Blavecs at our house a few hours before we flew to France. Soon after I picked them up at the Maplewood train station (they were coming from Manhattan, where they’d spent a few nights at a hotel), I felt relieved—and a little guilty for my suspicions. Chatting with them, with Marine translating, I felt as if my husband and I were meeting our European counterparts. Culturally curious forty-somethings with two daughters, Nelly and Bernard Blavec have a passion for world travel, ethnic food, and adventures off the beaten path. Unlike us, they are both civil servants.

We got our first whiff of the cultural chasm when we gave them a tour of our 1925 colonial. I had always been embarrassed by our kitchen, with its dated 1970s country décor and chipping paint, and considered our 12-by-16-foot master bedroom way too small, but Nelly and Bernard seemed impressed. They marveled that our house had three floors and literally gasped in delight upon seeing our appliances, especially our standard-sized refrigerator and eight-year-old washer and dryer. It was mystifying—until we arrived at their house the next day.

SUBURBIA, FRENCH STYLE

When we first saw photos of the Blavecs’ villa, we thought it was a second home because it was so sparsely furnished. The minute we lugged our bags into their house, we realized they didn’t just have different decorating tastes—they had less stuff.

Their kitchen had a half-sized refrigerator, the kind I had in my dorm room in college. We couldn’t find the Blavecs’ freezer (we later learned it also was mini-sized and was stashed in a closet). Their washing machine was tiny, with about a quarter the capacity of ours. There was no dryer; the Blavecs used a clothesline.

The one-story house was about half the size of our New Jersey colonial, with only three closets, no attic, and no basement, yet it felt roomier and less cluttered than ours. Yes, they had stored some of their belongings in their garage, as we’d stored some of ours; but our house was still crammed with books, toys, CDs, family photos, three computers, wall hangings, tchotchkes of all kinds, and countless electronic gadgets. 

As I helped my daughters unpack, I started to get agitated, thinking about how many more things my kids owned, and how much more they still coveted. “Look!” I said, flinging open the closet of the Blavecs’ sixteen-year-old daughter, Pauline. “Do you see most kids don’t have what you do?” 

My daughters were silent, but I could tell that they—and we—were absorbing the lesson when, the next day, we hung our laundry on the clothesline without complaint. In New Jersey, I prided myself on my (and my husband’s) ability to keep our consumerism in check. We didn’t give in to our kids’ demands for Nintendos, video iPods, or more American Girl dolls. But standing in the Blavecs’ house, it was obvious that we were every bit the American consumers. I made a silent vow not to gripe about the lack of air conditioning in the bedrooms or the fact that it took four hours to wash the equivalent of one load of laundry at home. We may be accustomed to certain creature comforts, but I wanted to prove that we didn’t need them­­—at least for two weeks.

EXOTIC NEW JERSEY

David and I would periodically talk about the Blavecs in Essex County and wonder if they were having as much fun as we were. Did they find our lifestyle hopelessly gauche? We needn’t have worried.

The Blavecs were reveling in New Jersey suburban living. First, they were fascinated by the plethora of nail salons in Maplewood, Millburn, and nearby towns. (A mystery to us, too, we told them.) And why do so many people walk around listening to iPods and drinking coffee? (Europeans relax over a cup of coffee; everybody here is in a rush, was my guess.)  

Instead of sneering at our big house and big appliances, they appreciated our American conveniences. They liked New Jersey’s lush greenery, its easy proximity to New York, and, yes, even the factory outlets. Although my husband and I tend to think of the big-box stores and vast malls as eyesores, the Blavecs saw the pluses—a huge selection of merchandise, often at hefty discounts. As far as I could tell, the Blavecs shopped the gamut, visiting both the chichi Mall at Short Hills and the Secaucus outlets. “Very good brands and amazing prices,” Marine said.

Most appealing to them, though, was how friendly people were in our corner of New Jersey. Whether they were in the Whole Foods in Millburn or the ice cream shop in Maplewood, if they were speaking French, strangers would stop and ask if they needed help. A few of our neighbors extended themselves to the Blavecs, too, offering to give them lifts, directions, and, in one case, dinner.

While the Blavecs’ relatives and friends showed us great hospitality, and their next-door neighbors even invited us to their house for dessert one night, strangers didn’t stop us to offer unsolicited advice. Hearing Marine talk was a small reality check; there were good reasons why we had moved to the New Jersey suburbs and stayed there.

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD

I had urged the Blavecs to shop at Whole Foods in Millburn. Given that Bernard had been a chef and that the French have a reputation for food snobbery, I didn’t think they’d be satisfied with the fruits and vegetables sold elsewhere. But I later learned that the Blavecs weren’t happy with Whole Foods, either.

“It’s too expensive, and the fruits are too perfect looking,” Nelly sniffed.

After our stay in France, my family was inclined to agree. Without a large refrigerator (let alone a freezer) to store groceries, we shopped daily and locally, as the natives did. Breakfasts consisted of freshly baked bread and croissants from the local boulangerie; dinners usually included exquisite desserts from the town patisserie and fruits and vegetables from the local produce market. We also ate the strawberries, eggplants, and tomatoes that our kids picked each morning from the Blavecs’ garden. 

In New Jersey, our daughters typically had to be coaxed into eating fruits and vegetables, but in France, they happily feasted on them. “The strawberries are so good here,” Annie said.

“Everything is better here,” Emily said.

BONJOUR, MONSIEUR DOCTEUR

Midway through our vacation, I woke up with a piercing earache and sinus infection. The Blavecs had left us a phone number to call in case of medical emergencies. I heard my husband speaking in broken French on the telephone and expected the worst: no appointment for days, or a several-hour wait in an emergency room. Instead, David told me that an English-speaking doctor would be coming to the house—in 45 minutes.

A few weeks before our trip, we’d seen the documentary Sicko, in which director Michael Moore waxes poetic about France’s health care system and even rides with S.O.S. Medecins, a 24-hour French emergency medical service that provides house calls. Somehow, though, I didn’t think this service would be available in a small town like Carqueiranne—at least, not to U.S. citizens.

The doctor drove up in a tiny car with a little siren on top. He spoke English perfectly, performed as thorough an examination as I’ve ever had, and didn’t rush through my questions. About 30 minutes later, he handed me prescriptions for six or seven medicines, along with  the bill: 31 euros, or about $48. If I had been a French citizen it would have cost 10 euros, and I could have filed an insurance claim with the government and received full reimbursement. The cost of my six different medicines would be just 23 euros, or about $35.

At the end of the examination, I asked my husband—sotto voce—to grab his camera. I wanted to show my friends a photo of a doctor making a house call. David thought the idea was nuts and refused. (“Can you imagine if someone from France asked to photograph the doctor at the end of an exam?”)

Three days before the end of our trip, the neighbors invited us to join them and some of their friends for drinks and dessert at their house. After learning that French citizens receive five weeks paid vacation a year, are guaranteed 80 percent of their pay if they are too sick to work, and enjoy subsidized child care, I began praising the French social welfare state, recounting my experience with the French doctor. 

 “Wait,” said one of my new French friends. “Don’t doctors in the U.S. give house calls?”

“No.”

“But in America, you have everything!”

“Maybe, but not house calls.”

They were incredulous and began talking over each other. “But what do you do if you’re sick in the middle of the night?”

“We go to an emergency room and wait,” I said.

My husband often accuses me of having a grass-is-always-greener mentality; “You’d want to move to Detroit if we went on vacation there” is one of his lines. But now he was fantasizing with me about living in France. We may have bigger houses, bigger cars, and a lot more stuff, but the French have a better quality of life. Yes, I know that they pay a bigger chunk of their income in taxes than we do, government regulations may stifle business growth, and their system may not be sustainable in the long run. But for now, at least, the French don’t live with an underlying anxiety about health insurance or the affordability of quality childcare.

I was reminded of what a friend of mine said upon returning to the States after two years abroad in France: “In some ways, we lead a harsh life here in America.”

REALITY CHECK

Around the same time we were having our epiphany, the Blavecs were having one of their own. One afternoon, driving back to Millburn in their rented car, the Blavecs got lost in a rough neighborhood in Irvington. It simply isn’t possible to drive ten minutes from Carqueiranne and land in a dangerous area, so the Blavecs were terrified. As they drove slowly, trying to read street signs and their map, men walking the streets glowered at them, they said. One angrily ripped off a T-shirt that had been wrapped around his head to show off blood and a gash so deep that Marine thought it was a hole. It wasn’t a plea for help but a threat, Marine said, concluding, “In America, I think you have a bigger gap between poor and rich. In France, we don’t have such big differences.”

Of course, such generalizations oversimplify. The United States is far more racially and ethnically diverse, with large numbers of recent immigrants trying to lift themselves out of poverty. And certainly, France has its own share of socioeconomic problems. (Witness the rioting in the slums outside Paris last year.)

But I’m glad we traded places with a French family for two weeks, because it made us think about these questions—and how we want to live. We still buy too much stuff and complain about the big box stores, but at least now we’re working harder to strike a healthy balance and appreciate what we have.

 

SWAP SMART

If you want to swap homes, the first step is to join a home-swapping website. We used Homelink International (homelink.org), one of the oldest and largest sites, which charges $110 a year. Intervac International (intervacusa.com) and Home Exchange (homeexchange.com) are also well-known sites. Craigslist offers free home-swap listings.

Home-swap sites allow you to post photos, describe your house, and search listings based on location, schedule, the number of bedrooms and baths, and criteria such as acceptability of smoking, pets, and children.

Once you find a potential swap, it’s up to you to check out the family and their house thoroughly. Send and ask for photographs of every room. If the house looks messy in photos, assume it will be even more so in person. Veteran swappers often offer references, but you can get a good sense of the other family just by e-mailing and talking on the phone. I recommend looking up the house’s exact location on Google maps and verifying the family’s identity by doing an Internet search of their names. 

Work out house rules in advance. If you want to swap cars, who will cover the deductible if there’s an accident? What is the maximum number of people who can stay in your house or theirs? (Check your homeowner’s and car insurance policies to make sure that guests are covered.) Generally, swappers don’t ask for security deposits; if you break anything, you pay for it. To avoid misunderstandings or people reneging at the last minute, put your agreement in writing. Homelink offers template agreements.

Before you depart, lock your valuables in a separate room or in a safe, and ask a friend to check in on your guests. It’s common to offer a list of emergency contacts, home maintenance information, local maps and guidebooks, and food to make a first meal. Our home swappers surprised us with more: wrapped gifts and a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator

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