Monday, July 2, 2012

Home Exchanges: a wonderful way to experience the world

Regular visitors to this blog know that Sally and I are big fans of home exchanges.  This year we are on our 10th exchange in Blackrock, a small Irish village near Dundalk in County Louth. We hadn’t planned to come to Ireland this year…instead we were thinking of Germany or Switzerland. But we were approached by an Irish couple who lived in what looked like a very beautiful house on Old Golf Links Road, and I was sold.

We were last in Ireland in 2008 when we spent time in Lismore in County Waterford and explored the south and the west. We had a wonderful time, exploring tidy towns and playing golf. (Lahinch was a highlight). This year’s house is half way between Dublin and Belfast…about an hour from each, and offers us a chance to explore Northern Ireland.

As I reflect on past exchanges, I am reminded of some true adventures.  Our first exchange was in summer 1999 in a large terrace house in Sterling, Scotland. I’ll never forget Claire wandering around the house searching for bathrooms. She had never been in a house with only one bathroom before!  The location was a great base to explore Glasgow and Edinburgh and there must have been 20 golf courses nearby.  I used to set off each morning for 18 holes before the family work up and got ready. It was paradise.

One year we were on the island of Anguilla in the Caribbean.  The island was rustic…or should I say authentic.  I’ll never forget going into the local fish store only to find no fish. It was like a scene right out of a Monty Python sketch.  “Come at 5” the lady behind the counter told me.  That’s when the fishermen bring in their catch.  I was there at 4:30 and that particular day the fish arrived around 7:30, which was fine except that by the time I got home it was too dark to see to barbq them!

Golf was an adventure since we had to take a ferry to St Martin to play. It’s the only time in my life I had to show my passport twice en route to a round of golf.

One year I really wanted to go to Spain, but no one was responding to my invitations. So one evening after too much scotch, I started writing to people in every country that started with‘s’. We soon got a reply from someone in Lerum, just outside of Gothenburg, Sweden.  It was a great adventure. Golf there was interesting…since on my first round I was accompanied by someone without clubs. He was monitoring the play.  It seems that in Sweden you need the equivalent of a driver’s license before you are allowed on a course to play. He was writing his ‘road test’.

In Australia we had a big new house in a Sydney suburb with a lovely swimming pool where large wild birds would come in for a swim from the adjacent bush. Christmas dinner included many different types of prawns and Queensland Bugs with the kids and our friends Mary and Gary Hiscox who happened to be visiting the country at the time. 

Golf at Castle Hill was an adventure since they wouldn’t let me on the course with North American golfers’ socks.  They were too short.  They wanted me to wear longer calf-length socks…the type that are not allowed in Canada!  They gave me a pair with the club’s crest.

We did two exchanges in France; one in the Loire Valley and one at Cagnes Sur Mer on the Cote d’Azur.  Both were very good, in large part due to the food and wines. We used to take our empty bottles to a shop, not unlike a gas station where they filled them up.

I’ll never forget golfing in the south of France and seeing a fairway all torn up. “Pigs” said my companion.  Yes, I said…today’s youth are so completely irresponsible….driving over a fairway in a 4-wheel drive truck. No he replied…pigs, wild pigs…they are looking for truffles!

In Sweden we were surprised to discover the house was designed around a central whirlpool bath. Sadly, it didn’t work.  But the end wall of the living room was completely covered with hundreds of different bottles. The owner constantly urged us to try out his unusual and different drinks…which I recall doing the last night with the girls, after buying him some Canadian whiskies he didn’t have.

In Belgium we had a 22 room house in Zomergen between Ghent and Bruges, with over 200 plants.  The plants reminded the lady of the house of her former home in Belgian Congo. It would not have been a problem had the person who was to water the plants not broken her ankle.  But we managed.  The owner of the house was a somewhat eccentric psychologist.  I’ll always remember one of his patients coming to the house…he was quite upset when I refused to see him.

Our last two exchanges have been in Spain.  The first was in the exquisite town of Begur, on the Costa Brava north east of Barcelona.  The last was in Javea, on the Costa Blanca near Valencia.  It was a very modern European style house with clean lines inside and out.
Both were fascinating homes in locations offering wonderful tapas and wines….and great side trips. I’ll never forget driving along a frighteningly narrow road along the Mediterranean, hoping there might be another way back. There wasn’t. The journey was made all the worse by Sally’s fear of heights.

Not only do we exchange houses, but also cars.  This too has led to some adventures.  In Cholet, our exchanger was president of a Renault subsidiary and left two brand new cars, and an older vehicle.  We preferred the older vehicle, especially when driving through the extremely narrow roads in medieval towns.  In Australia we had a large van in which we all had to sleep one night when we couldn’t find anywhere to stay between Christmas and New Year’s along the New South Wales coast. The house in Anguilla was quite marvellous with few fixed walls…most were sliding walls opening up to a large terrace and infinity pool overlooking the ocean. However, the car was very beaten up, but then again, so were the roads.

One of the joys of a house exchange is experiencing life in another country for a few weeks. Visits to the grocery store are always an adventure.  In Sweden I remember coming home with 12 different kinds of herring from my first shopping trip.  In France we bought unusual seafood and crabs, aperitifs and wines that were not available in Canada.  In Belgium most of the beef didn’t really look like beef…it all looked quite pale, like veal. Perhaps it was veal.  In Spain we discovered a wonderful store that sold frozen foods.  But not like in Canada…the most exquisite gourmet frozen foods.  I vividly remember perfectly filleted boneless sardines, other prepared seafood and duck.

In most instances we never meet our exchange partners, often crossing the ocean at the same time.  However, in a few instances we have had brief meetings.  Our Belgian exchangers insisted we arrive a day early since the house was very old and there were special instructions the owner wanted to share…how to use the three different water systems and complex heating system we never used; and some unusual pets…including vegetarian and carnivorous turtles and chickens that laid fresh eggs.

Many people say to me they could never exchange their home with someone else. They don’t want them looking through their things, etc. To my mind, the key is anonymity. While I might be reluctant to allow some of my friends to stay in my house, going through my papers and personal things, it’s quite different with foreigners you may never meet. 

Although we might become friends with our exchange partners while in their homes, we have never stayed in touch for long. One day it might be interesting to go around the world and meet each one of them.  But for now, I’m happy to have just the pleasant memories of being in varied, but always interesting homes. 

This year’s house on the Irish Coast is no exception. Indeed, it is without doubt the most comfortable and interesting house we have ever had, as evidenced by the next post. We are very much looking forward to a couple of weeks here.


Morten / Javea Vacation said...

What a lovely idea. Plenty of things to do and see in Jávea for sure when exchanging to a villa here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael, I'd be interested to chat with you about your home exchange experiences at some point. Definitely something we've been considering but have never done.

Richard Wittstock

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