Friday, August 14, 2009

House Exchanges: a wonderful way to travel

Today, we leave Vancouver for a three week house exchange in Belgium. It has been arranged through Homelink ( a 50 year old non-profit organization that was originally established to help school teachers swap houses around the world. Why school teachers? Because they have a lot of time, but not a lot of money!

Whether you have money or not, home exchanges are a wonderful way to travel. Instead of being just a tourist, you get to experience more of what it is like to live in a country. Often our first task when arriving is to visit the local supermarket...that's after checking out where we will be sleeping and what kind of car we have been left. Yes, we always exchange houses and cars. One year we exchanged cats. And in years gone by, we used to exchange cell phones!

We had originally planned to get a house in Greece, Turkey or Croatia, so that we could head over to Mykonos for John Evans 60th birthday around Labour Day. But nothing was available, and then we were approached by a family in Belgium who wanted to come to Canada. They lived in a large house in a small town near Ghent...and we decided to do it, assuming we could get to Greece from Brussels. However, for a number of reasons, we may not get there.

But it's not a hardship. If you have ever been to Belgium, you will know that it is a very remarkable place. While I haven't been for over 30 years, I remember Ghent and nearby Bruges as remarkable places. Brussels and Antwerp are also fascinating world cities. And within an hour, one can get to a few other countries by train or car.

One of the advantages of a house exchange is that it encourages you to fix up a few things around the give away some unnecessary clothes, to tidy the garage, and in my case, to repair my bike. I ride a 35 year old Raleigh that needed new rubber brake blocks. For some reason, none of the Vancouver bike shops carried them...but I found some in my garage...Sally had bought them years ago when visiting a specialty bike shop in London...thinking that one day we might need them! So now our new friends from Belgium, who ride bikes, will be able to stop. (Although they may also wonder why anyone would keep this particular bike!)

If you have never considered a home exchange, I would urge you to check out the idea. While some people say they don't want 'strangers' in their home, the fact is, these are not get to know each other a little bit during the 'dating' period, and you are in their home. In some respects, I think it is the anonymity that makes them work. I don't worry if someone wants to go through our drawers or papers...they usually don't, but if they do, it doesn't matter.

Some people worry about exchanging cars. While we sign an agreement covering what to do in the event of an accident, so far we have never had a problem. And that's after 6 Scotland, the south of France, the Loire Valley, Australia, Sweden and even Anguilla, a small Caribbean Island.

So while you enjoy the rest of this summer, I do hope you will check out house exchanges for a future holiday. It doesn't really matter what kind of accommodation you have. You can exchange your 500 sq.ft. apartment in Vancouver for a similar sized suite in Amsterdam, or Barcelona, or New don't have to go too far away. We have a four bedroom house in Belgium, large enough to invite friends from UK to come and stay with us.

We generally go for 3 weeks, but it is possible to go for a week, a month or 6 months! You'll probably have a wonderful time, and if nothing else, you will have cleaned out your kitchen cupboards and freezer.

Over the next three weeks, I will share some observations from Belgium...including any planning ideas that might benefit Vancouver.

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