Ah, Paris. The food. The art. The sights.
The hotel bill.
It was the little matter of finding a place to stay that kept an international vacation off our radar. As we discussed a European getaway, we realized that a hotel stay for my wife, Nancy, our daughter, Hannah, and me would cost us as much as our airline tickets.
I had read about house exchanges, but Nancy was hesitant to let strangers into our home.
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But the prospect of staying for free in a Paris apartment with a car at our disposal proved irresistible.
I began investigating the better-known house-swap websites before settling on HomeExchange.com, thanks to the advice of Marla Fisher, a friend who had used it to take her kids to such places as Mexico and Italy.
But, why, I asked Marla, would anybody want to stay in our house? We’re halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego in suburban Orange County and 20 minutes from the closest beach. The best thing going for us: We’re near Disneyland.
“That’s why,” Marla said. “Listen to yourself.”
Convinced, I signed up, paid the $119 annual membership and wrote a description of our home and neighborhood, playing up California’s attractions, celebrity connections and brand-name beaches. It sounded so good I wanted to visit.
Meanwhile, I trolled the HomeExchange website “favoriting” homes in places on our wish list: Venice, Italy; Paris; Athens. A photographer friend offered to make our home look good for the photo gallery.
Fearing rejection and feeling smugly confident, I decided to let others make offers rather than send out inquiries about places that looked good.
I kept knocking on the computer screen, asking, “Is this thing working?” Not one of the 46,000 members wants to trade with us? This must be what online dating feels like.
We consulted Marla, who told us that we might have to make 10 to 20 offers just to get one successful exchange.
Making new friends
After getting an automated — automated! — rejection on an inquiry to Venice, I iced my bruised ego and focused instead on our top three choices in Paris: an architect’s duplex, an interior designer’s loft and a young family’s apartment.
The next day, I heard back from the young family: Iris, who was hoping to come to Southern California for three weeks with her husband, Julien, and two young daughters before heading up to San Francisco for another home exchange. After a few messages, we set up a Skype video meeting.
Julien, a musician who is more comfortable speaking English than Iris, did most of the talking. We hashed out the details, discussed a car swap and gave virtual tours of our homes.
We quickly began to feel as though our families were already friends.
Three weeks in Paris sounded like a dream vacation. We estimated we would save $5,000 on lodging and live like locals.
Other inquiries continued to roll in, usually one a day and more than 50 in all. I finally crafted a kind and personal thanks-but-no-thanks response for all requests.
Soon after we touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport, our taxi dropped us off in front of the green doors I knew so well from Google Street View. Iris greeted each of us with kisses on both cheeks, and I felt as though we were finally in Paris.
The contemporary two-story, 900-square-foot apartment in the 11th arrondissement was big by Paris standards. What once had been two apartments had been remodeled with a kitchen and living room on the lower floor and three bedrooms and a bathroom on the top floor. Although it was about half the size of our house, it felt like a penthouse suite compared with the size hotel room our budget would have afforded us.
While Iris gave Nancy and Hannah a tour of the place, Julien showed me around the neighborhood, pointing out where the car was parked and taking me to the nearest ATM and Metro station. Then they said goodbye — and we were on our own.
When I plugged in an American power strip using a plug adapter, I blew out the electricity in the entire apartment. I was reminded of what one home-swap veteran had told me: You’re going to have to fix something. Don’t sweat it. Soon, I found the breaker box, deciphered the French labels and reset the power.
Our new home sprang other surprises on us: The compact combo washer-dryer took five hours to complete the tiniest load of laundry, and other little snafus.
Minor problems, especially considering the ideal location of our apartment, which was just on the fringe of Paris’ tourist areas.
Using social media, we followed our swappers’ adventures. It was a bit surreal to see photos of someone else sitting on your front porch, but surprisingly reassuring to know they were enjoying our home as much as we were theirs.