A Cheapskate's Passport to Paradise

If you’re willing to swap homes with a (somewhat vetted) stranger, you can globe-trot for a song—and live the fantasy that you’re a native, not a tourist

By Naomi Wolf
home swap Thailand photo
Stay virtually free in places like this luscious abode in Phuket, Thailand
Photograph: homeexchange.com

I would never have thought that a kitschy Hollywood romantic comedy would utterly change my world, ushering in real-life magic and romance, but it happened.

The movie in question was the 2006 chick flick The Holiday, with Cameron Diaz playing a rich but stressed-out L.A. producer and Kate Winslet a bookish Brit. Each woman, on a whim, visits a website that enables people around the world to take largely free (except for airfare) vacations by exchanging homes. The two end up trading not only spaces but, to some extent, friends and lives, and that in turn brings out aspects of their hidden selves. The stressed-out mogul takes the time to find love, home and family (via her new boyfriend’s adorable children); the repressed English homebody finds her inner rock and roller and a caring beau.

Forget the rock and roll; what raised my temperature was the houses, one a Beverly Hills mansion, the other a sweet English cottage. Moving into either for a week or two would be fun—and much more exciting than the usual hotel experience, which I have lately found to be ever more processed and predictable. Twenty years ago, you were more likely to discover a small hotel dominated by the crazy, megalomaniacal eccentricity of its owner—like the Parisian fleabag I stayed in as a graduate student. Presided over by a massive, heavily made-up North African woman, it was decorated in a wild, hand-painted, ancient-Egyptian motif. When I passed that same hotel not long ago and peeked inside, it was yet another cutesy, trendy boutique operation, with a standardized dried-flower arrangement in the sterile lobby.

None of that in Kate Winslet’s little Mr. Mole’s house. I was also intrigued by the home-exchange concept because at my age (49), I’ve realized that identity can become all too fixed. Though I have an interesting life and a fun job, I sometimes get bored with my category: Greenwich Village yuppie mom and journalist. So after seeing the movie, I set out in search of some new destinations and perhaps a new life or two to sample. First step: registering on the website that inspired the Winslet movie, the well-established HomeExchange.com. (See “Trading [Vacation] Spaces for details about this and other home-exchange sites.)

The sign-up process is simple. You fill out a questionnaire listing your ideal destinations; this even includes a “surprise me” option. You write a paragraph about who you are, when you hope to travel and how many people are in your party. Then you post photos of your own house or apartment, answering easy questions about location, number of bedrooms and whether you have cable. Filling out the form makes you see your neighborhood with new eyes: You scan familiar landmarks looking for what might please or deter people from abroad. And preparing to photograph your home’s interior is definitely a long, hard look-in-the-mirror moment. That broken Roman shade? Not cute. The bookcase clutter? Must be cleared out. References are encouraged but not required; the site is set up so that guests can leave feedback about their stay. And the swaps don’t have to be simultaneous; you can go to Italy in May and not lend your own home until December. Of course, in that case you need to have another place to stay, since you obviously have to vacate your abode before the visitors arrive. I’m lucky enough to have that kind of flexibility: My kids divide their time between my apartment and my ex-husband’s, and I also have a small cottage upstate, so there are places for us to go when we are “hosting.” Other options are to schedule visits for when you know you’ll be on vacation or traveling for work.

Business travelers also play a big role in the swap market. In return for even, say, a modest home near Detroit or a small flat in Queens, European businesspeople will offer a plethora of beguilements, which sometimes include their second homes in the Champagne region of France or their ski chalets in the Alps.

After placing my own unexceptional but well-situated three-bedroom apartment on the market, my world exploded. Every day I would open my e-mail and find dozens of seductive offers. It was like an online dating service but far more tempting. How about an Indonesian luxury home with a thatched roof, on stilts? A Turkish beach villa? A Renaissance farmhouse in Tuscany! A houseboat in Amsterdam! A condo in Crete! A penthouse in the heart of Barcelona! A few e-mails later, I was off on an adventure with my two kids, Rosa and Joe.

LIVING LA VIE FRANÇAISE: The first exchange was a leap of faith. When we arrived at the apartment in the Marais district of Paris, what would we find? What if the place was scary or creepy or uncomfortable? Was I a bad mother? What was I getting us all into? I asked myself.

The anxiety vanished the moment I turned the ancient key that the apartment’s owner—Fabienne, a lawyer in the government’s culture division—had sent me. I pushed open the massive wooden door, and an enchanting private courtyard with foliage, fountain and 18th-century stonework spread out before us.

We settled into the flat, which felt like an artist’s atelier: narrow, dark-wooden bedsteads from the 19th century (family heirlooms, more impressive than comfortable); a rich library of books, in French and English; simple couches and an ornate sideboard from turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna; and a lively collection of vegetarian cookbooks in the tiny kitchen. Fabienne shared the flat with her mother, Françoise, who is a German teacher, and they left us a list of their favorite places and activities. So the next morning we followed their directions to the bustling street market a few blocks away.

My son, then five, had been in many a supermarket, but never before had a beautiful young woman with long blonde hair handed him delicious free samples of roast potato basted in duck fat. We would, like typical tourists, spend the afternoon exploring the nearby Luxembourg Gardens or the Natural History Museum one metro stop over—but unlike all the other Americans at these spots, we knew the way to walk “home” at the end of the day, with a baguette and other dinner ingredients in our arms. It was delightful to get to know the local pâtissier and news vendor. By the third day, we had the overall sense, valuable in Paris, of not feeling completely clueless.

I learned there are downsides to a home exchange compared with a hotel: You do your own housework, for instance—loading the dishwasher and tidying up before you leave. (Not to worry, though. Usually your stay is too short to require any major effort, and generally hosts bring in professional cleaners before and after a visit.) But something I could not ignore, after that first hesitant foray, was how much money you save vacationing this way and how rich that makes you feel. The math is simple: If you are not spending $150 to $250 a night (the absolute minimum for a two-star hotel in tourist season), you are saving at least $1,000 a week. Then throw in the leisurely breakfasts at home, with croissants from the nearby boulangerie and those afternoon snacks of fruits, cheeses and delicious pâté from your own refrigerator. All of that saves you from being at the mercy of cranky waitstaff and hostage to tourist prices. You can eat out for every meal if you prefer—but if you’d rather not pay a fortune for every bite and every nosh, you could save a few hundred dollars a week more, which would leave you ready to splurge, guilt free, on a fabulous meal you’ll remember forever, or a wonderful luxury item, or an excursion to Versailles.

A couple of years later, we tried again—and won every conceivable tourist jackpot. This time my kids and I—joined for one week by my boyfriend, Avram, and the second by my friend Tracy and her daughter, -Olivia—stayed at a home in Saint-Gély-de-Fesc, a charming suburban village outside the magnificent white-walled university city of Montpellier, in the South of France. Our villa, with its sparkling pool, was in the land of vineyards, of produits de terroir, the source of incredible pâtés and delicious rosé wines that lose much of their delicate flavor when they’re shipped overseas.

It was a solid, five-bedroom, middle-class piece of heaven. The swimming pool, draped with bougainvillea, overlooked a garden in which hammocks hung from olive trees and grape arbors. Teenagers Rosa and Olivia were able to explore Montpellier by foot on their own. Avram and I took Joe on a tour of the city’s majestic hilltop park, the two of them climbing trees to survey the sweeping vista below.

Yes, we were in France again, but this visit gave us a taste of a very different kind of life. Our hosts—a businessman and a homemaker—were more bourgeois than the rather bohemian intellectuals Fabienne and her mother. Whereas the Parisian flat was furnished with antiques, our home here offered comfy chairs in bright, cheery Ikea-style cottons. My new hostess was extraordinarily neat and well organized. Looking at the big boxes of biscuits in her pantry and the crisply folded towels in her linen closet, I admired her from afar for having all the qualities I lack. As in Paris, our hosts had left us a list of their favorite destinations, and here they included a dammed-up river where you can duck under walls of white cascades. After a day of exploring, we’d sit under the plane trees behind old-fashioned inns and eat traditional regional cooking, surrounded by local families dining in their Sunday best. Later, when the kids were in bed and Av and I lay by “our” pool, sharing a bottle of wine and admiring the jasmine and thyme in the beautifully laid-out garden, I could imagine for a few moments that I was a French Martha Stewart—an efficient, Gallic homemaker with a flair for domestic order.

AN OUTDOORSY IDYLL IN BEND, OREGON: Three Christmases ago, we sampled yet another life, this time in a gated community of sprawling homes in the Pacific Northwest. The affluent population we were joining was composed of healthy-looking blonde men and women wearing REI fleeces and ski pants. Julie, our swap partner, was a homemaker who had helped her husband, an attorney, to campaign for state senator, and she, too, left us a binder of recommendations: best pizzeria; best shopping; best hikes in the nearby national forest.

I imagined myself as one of Julie’s neighbors: tall, physically fit, Labrador-loving and fiscally conservative. Though cooking is not my game, the big granite-countered kitchen made me keen to produce giant pots of pasta. We were 15 minutes from Mount Bachelor, the center of Bend’s ski action. But our hosts also told us what tourists didn’t know: that the state had opened a nearby area for sledding. We spent an afternoon zooming down the hills, getting rosy cheeked and drinking hot cocoa in a shed heated by a woodstove. As we trudged home to “our” massive fireplace, “our” comfortable couches and “our” double soaking tubs with Jacuzzi jets in the four bathrooms, I felt how lucky I was to be sneaking into yet another dreamy lifestyle so different from my own—one that I could enjoy to the fullest exactly because I had no responsibility to fund or maintain it and could dip into and out of it at will.

LIVING RICH IN SAN CARLOS, MEXICO: A spring-break excursion last year took us into a world of over-the-top, who-wants-to-be-a-millionaire luxury. Our host was Britt, an American tech entrepreneur and home exchanger who had used our New York flat for business and became our buddy. My only born-again-Christian capitalist friend, he is yet another example of how the home-exchange experience widens my horizons far beyond my demographic niche. He and his family welcomed us on our first night in their vacation home in San Carlos, Mexico, with a delightful dinner before turning over the keys and orienting us to . . . paradise.

A spa and vanishing-edge pool lay just outside the front wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Below were our own private beach and cabana. To our left was an ascent to the famous El Mirador lookout, where majestic views drop away on all sides to the deep-blue Sea of Cortez.

We were supplied with two kayaks and adopted by a lovely Mexican-Swiss family who invited us to a party at their own vacation home. At that gathering we met two famous race-car drivers, one of whom won the world’s record for speed by attaching jet engines to his vehicle. Seeing my son’s excitement, he invited Joe to his house the next day to check out a model of that car and of the racetrack.

MI CASA ES SU CASA: The price of borrowing other people’s homes, of course, is that they also borrow yours. For me, that end of the deal has been remarkably unproblematic. To be safe, I always lock away important papers and personal items. But our guests have been uniformly thoughtful with our home. We haven’t come back to any damage; in fact, I usually return to find an immaculate apartment and a nice note, accompanied by a gift from abroad—such as artisanal French strawberry jam from Fabienne and Françoise—and a bottle of wine to replace the one I always leave to welcome the newcomers to Manhattan.

I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of strangers putting their feet up on my coffee table; in fact, I welcome it. I like to think of our home giving pleasure, instead of being left empty, when I travel. Just as we love to try on other lives and make new friends, there are people out there who actually find it gratifying to try on ours, who delight in our local coffee shop and grocery store—all the places where we do chores or start our own days, places that we scarcely notice anymore. Our swap partners give us the gift of realizing that our ordinary lives can be the apex of a Manhattan idyll of their own.

NAOMI WOLF is the author of the forthcoming book Vagina: A New Biography.

Want to explore home-swapping for your next vacation? Click here for info on home-exchange sites.

Click here for a slideshow of other great places you can trade for a stay in your humble abode.

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First Published Thu, 2012-03-01 10:01

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