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.