Taking exception to the “New York Times”

March 3, 2015 at 7:22 pm (Uncategorized)

A “New York Times” article from early January caught my eye: “Take My House, Please” details the writer’s experience swapping folks’ houses worldwide, both to reap the benefits of vacationing on the cheap and avoiding meeting the homeowner(s).

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/04/travel/home-exchange-101.html?_r=0

I feel terribly sorry for this world traveler and reporter.

With initial trepidation, we Knudsens in 2009 did a home swap with a family in the tiny hamlet of Avelin in Northern France. (Closest city you might have heard of: Lille…or Paris.) The Millescamps were looking for an adventure like we were.

And we learned through HomeLink, our swapping site based out of Britain, that the Millescamps were a success story returning for another coup. Knowing the Millescamps’ previous experience – with an Italian family – went swimmingly gave me a sense of confidence. But Italy is a mite closer to France than is the U.S.; had the Millescamps’ experiment raté (failed), they easily could have driven home to safety.

Our risk was greater. And thank God we took it.

Our experience remains not only seminal for each of us Knudsens, but one of the best of our lives. And why? As opposed to only staying in the Millescamps’ home and seeing such intimacies – like where they keep their underwear and which special dishes were hidden away to avoid our sullying them – our two families planned in advance to meet one another. Not only that, but we schemed to spend a few days together, too.

The French family’s time in Portland ended a few days before ours did in the Pas de Calais region. On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, the four Millescamps came knocking on the door of their 1-and-½ bathroom home, having left their key in our care. I opened the squeaky front door of their red brick, Flemmish-style, delicately plumbed farmhouse to anxiously gaze upon the equally anxious Millescamps.

As we immediately sized up whether or not everyone resembled the photos in each other’s homes, we simultaneously broke out in warm smiles. “Faites comme chez vous!” I joked, and they laughed at my ice-breaking attempt. Of course they’d do just as they liked! After a month-long absence, at last they were back in their home.

Our blind date a’ huit could have crashed and burned. They could have found our habits in their home horrid. We could have found them cold and boring. The possibilities to get on each other’s nerves were endless.

Far from a failure, our three-day vacation together was a gift we’ll all always treasure. Sound cliché? Perhaps. Was every last moment together a golden nugget of perfection? Nope. Did our eldest lose her cool more than once? Yup. Did our youngest whine terribly? You betcha. Did their youngest make demands that when not met, she threw epic tantrums? Uh-huh. Did their eldest not quite grasp that my kids didn’t understand one syllable of his rapid-fire French? Nuh-uh. Did my husband get sick of understanding nothing while I was like a pig in shit surrounded by French? Mais oui.

In a three-day period, the Millescamps became some of our closest friends: We’ve since vacationed with them (summer 2011, on the East Coast of the U.S.); we stay in touch with their Lillois friends to whom they’d introduced us; we hope to see them again this summer; we often exchange wonderful multicultural satire (sorry, François Hollande, and sorry, American quest for world domination); and the Millescamps’ kids inadvertently inspired my daughters to learn French, as they plan to be fully conversant with Inès and Hugo when next we meet up.

Part of the incredible adventure in exchanging homes is meeting, if not getting to know, its regular inhabitants. The “Times”’ piece correctly argues in favor of home swapping, for the authentic cultural experience and its lightness on the wallet. “Every night we spent in someone else’s home is a night of not paying for a hotel room, and that can add up to thousands of dollars over the course of a vacation,” writes Amy Virshup. “But more important has been the chance to experience a place like a local, learning which bakery has the great bread and which one is better for pain au chocolat, keeping an afternoon appointment with the gelato stand one block over, navigating by local landmarks…to get back to ‘our house.’”

But in addition to living like a native, what could possibly be more of a local experience than meeting the owners of the property you – the dumb American – inhabited for the duration of your vacation?

So my advice is contrary to the Times‘: Far from avoiding the hyper-local native who owns your swap, take the risk of getting to know him/her/them. Nothing authenticates an experience abroad like at least meeting those in whose bed you slept and who’d slept in yours.

And what better way to get honest answers to your burning questions, like, “Do you hate your teeny dryer as much as we do?” and “Do you get used to the donkeys braying every day at 5 a.m.?” And, from their end: “Why is your fridge so big?” and “Don’t you find you have too many bathrooms?”

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