Trading Places: An alternative way to get away,
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Trading Places: An alternative way to get away,

Situation:Two teachers with two school-age children, my wife and I have lots and lots of time for traveling -- Christmas, Easter, Summer -- however, being two teachers with two children we don’t have lots of money.    Question: Since we have time to see the world, how

Thu 12 Jan 2006 1:00 AM

Situation:Two teachers with two school-age children, my wife and I have lots and lots of time for traveling — Christmas, Easter, Summer — however, being two teachers with two children we don’t have lots of money. 


Question: Since we have time to see the world, how are we going to do it?


Solution: Exchange homes with people in a similar situation, thereby eliminating the expense of hotels and restaurants.


With plans for spring break right around the corner, it’s useful to remember that having an apartment in Florence is a veritable gold mine for home exchanges. There is only one Italy, one Florence, one Renaissance and as long as Western Civilisation endures people are going to come to Florence where you are surrounded, in a sense, by the culture that helped form your culture. 


So far we’ve gone wherever we’ve wanted to and have received offers from all over Europe and North America.  We’ve made three home exchanges in two years: London in spring, and then New York and Paris. In New York we stayed for eight days in Chelsea in a pretty two bedroom, two bath apartment with a living room-dinning room and backyard. It was nice having an American sized refrigerator again and it was fun stocking it full of food that we bought as cheaply as any New Yorker. 


I leave you to do the math.  Think about what two rooms in a decent hotel in a decent part of NY would cost, and then add in three restaurant meals a day.  And now think of paying nothing for the room and paying the same for food that you would at home. I’d bet the math you’re doing shows savings in the thousands. But money is not the only draw, we are simply more comfortable in a home where we are welcomed guests.


And, yes, although we have never met, we have always become quite friendly with our host families. In Paris we “got to know” a nice, educated French family, as their apartment – two minutes from the Pompidou Center, ten minutes from Notre Dame, in fact right in the middle of museum land – showed. They had been everywhere from Florida to Thailand to Mexico to California with home exchanges. We know this because they had mementos and postcards displayed in their old but hip split level apartment. You get to know folks by visiting their homes, you get to see how others live. For instance, the American kitchen in New York was practical and orderly, while the French one was also practical and orderly but with three times the number of cooking utensils, sets of dishes and types of glasses and cups, not to mention a gigantic wine collection. We always knew the French take food and cooking more seriously and joyously than Americans, but now we could feel it. 


No, we didn’t touch the wine. The rule is: replace what you use and leave the home as you found it. It’s not hard to follow this rule. Generally your host family will leave a bottle of wine along with instructions on the peculiarities of the house. We always leave instructions on how to reactivate the electricity in case someone turns on the dishwasher and oven at the same time. We also leave a bottle of delicious olive oil that comes from a cousin of my mother-in-law just to brag about how living in Italy has its rewards.


The agency we use is called Home Link, the oldest and largest of the home exchange associations. To join costs a bit, which tends to keep out cheats. If something goes wrong there is complaint procedure and anyone misusing the agency would eventually be weeded out, because each region has a rep who contacts you every year and vets you before you can join. And in the end, cheats would have to fake a whole life by the time they’d get around to the exchanging of the keys. Which brings me to my next point: In a world full of danger and craziness, home exchanges work on trust and common sense. And keys are the key here: you can leave them with a friend who’ll meet your exchange family or mail them, and though exchanging them may seem like the most dangerous part of this type of vacation, it actually provides the most security.


As your guests are opening the door to your home, you are opening their door.  If you don’t like what you see, you could call them — you know the number – and give them a piece of your mind.  After your stay, you’ll probably take their keys home to be mailed back to them.  If you don’t like the way they left your home, you could fly back to their city, open up their door with their keys and punch them in the nose.  I’m exaggerating of course, but you see my point: There is every incentive for mutual respect. 


It works. You can go just about anywhere in the world and feel good that you’ve hosted fine people who left you a lovely home to stay in, in just the place you’ve always wanted to visit. We’ve had seven offers for this spring and we’re tempted


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