What is it like to have total strangers living in your home while you live in theirs? It’s a different sort of houseguest… not family, but outsiders, met briefly over the phone and through the internet.

When we returned home, she had left us some homemade peanut butter cookies.  We had left for them some flowers and a bottle of hard cider that we had bought in Normandy. Oh, and thank you notes all around…People say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but a three week home exchange in Paris never once made us long for our San Diego home! We loved the excitement of living in a new environment – not as tourists, but as locals.   What is it like to have total strangers living in your home while you live in theirs?   It’s a different sort of houseguest…not family, but outsiders, met briefly over the phone and through the internet.

We stumbled across a wonderful web site called www.homeexchange.com, posted photos of our home and got over 2000 hits with a number of families interested in San Diego.  One particular family met our needs exactly and the deal was sealed after we found out one of their 2 teenage sons had the same name as ours!  Then the questions started. Are they trustworthy?  Will our TV be gone when we return?  Will the expensive knives be put in the dishwasher to be forever ruined? Will they rummage through our personal effects and laugh at our eclectic book collection?  

Many friends and family members also brought these questions back to our attention, but strangely enough, it was our sixteen year old son who was most anxious.  He is a very private child and the notion of unfamiliar people in his personal space was worrisome.  Having parents completely onboard with the idea provided the best evidence to change his mind.  We talked up the benefits of Parisian city living at every chance, invited a brave friend to keep him company, and in the end, our hesitant son  loaned his surf, skim, skate and boogie boards to the French teenagers and gave valuable insider advice with regard to teen hangouts for our home manual.

Manual is a scary word for guide book, but one need not be Stephen King – a few pages with some home operation details will do.   These instructions were important; we could address the knife worry, set up directions for vcr, dvd, and play station operation, and offer information about the neighborhood.  To check out our personal home operating manual, click here.  A general checklist is available here.  We added our favorite restaurants and doughnut store, the best markets for fresh fruit, the popular surfing beaches, and left all the grocery cards, coupons and entertainment books for our guests to use. We also left numbers of good friends, with and without children of the right age, who might join them for spur of the moment amusement.  or our personal San Diego Fun Manual, click here.  

My husband busied himself with research about health, car and home insurance and I went about the business of home prep.  Although insurance coverage may vary, our “guests” were covered in our home and with our car for up to 30 days.  He also notified the credit card companies of our trip and put my jewelry in the safety deposit box.  That was the easy part.  We may have gone a little overboard with the painting of the bathrooms, stairs and hallways, carpet cleaning and general fixing up of the house! Once the “remodel” was done, we cleared out some drawers and closet space into big plastic bins and stored them in the garage.  In the meantime, we made lists of possible fun things to do and places off the beaten track to see.  We did not want the company of teenage boys complaining about “nothing to do”!  We also stopped going to the grocery store and ate up as much food as possible.  Milk, cereal, orange juice and ice cream were bought the day before we left, so our visitors didn’t have to run to the market before breakfast.

The night before going away was frantic with last minute organization …did we clear enough space?  Do we need to add any more last minute details to the house manual? I worried most about the logistics of getting up and ready, washing sheets and towels AND putting them back where they belong – all before the airport shuttle at 6:30 am! Normally, I like to leave a tidy house when I go on vacation, but this was a level up from regular clean!  A trusted housekeeper would have taken some of the worry out the door.  Finally, when we ran out of time and had to go, a neighbor offered to put the second set of sheets in the drier and back on the bed.  Whew!

Biggest piece of advice? Discuss everything, no matter how small it may seem, with the other family and don’t let simple worries add unnecessary anxiety.  During our preparation time, I had one tiny feeling in the back of my head regarding our Jewish household.  Our guests were still strangers and we had no idea of their thoughts regarding other religions.  I thought long and hard about putting a few of our pieces and books away.  We did not know if our guests were religiously tolerant and were very tentative about leaving some of our precious pieces.   In the end, we figured we are doing a home exchange and left our Jewish home as a Jewish home.  Imagine our great (and mutual) relief when we found they were Jewish, too!  Although we did not draw up any sort of formal contract, we have heard of others who have done so.  We expected no problems and none came up.  A positive attitude and sense of adventure go a long way in the house trade adventure.   As we told our son, home exchangers are people just like us – we like to travel, have ample time off, and don’t want to stay in a sterile hotel as a tourist.  A certain unwritten element of trust exists amongst home exchangers, and honestly, if our television was gone when we got back, it’s not the end of the world.  OUR trip was going to be wonderful!

Do we long for our Paris home? After our return, we had a few weeks of getting back into the swing of American life. After spending hours in corner cafes sipping café creme from real cups and saucers, we couldn’t drink coffee on the go from paper cups, our son craves his daily eclair, and we still miss the formality of French life. We live each day all over again through our photos, especially the ones the boys took of strange people and funny signs.  In our case, absence did make the heart grow fonder… just not the way we had expected!