We did a Home Exchange

We swapped this. . .

We swapped this. . .

. . . for this.

. . . for this.

Last year we spent a month in Europe by swapping our house in Sedgefield for a killer apartment in Berlin.

The expense of international travel is not really the airline tickets, the price is in the real estate. Anything better than a dorm room full of unwashed backpackers named Trev from Melbourne, was going to cost more than we could afford.

We began looking for an alternative and found it in the form of home exchange. At the same time, halfway across the world, a well-travelled but skint German family were doing the same thing. Jochen and Laurie, a Berlin couple with two small daughters, faced the prospect of a grey winter with dread. What they wanted was sun.

Our garden - a big drawcard for Berliners living in an apartment

Our garden - a big drawcard for Berliners living in an apartment

What they didn’t have was the money to take themselves and their kids to a warmer climate for the decent length of time required to make it worth the trip.

So naturally they turned to the internet. As did we. There are several home exchange web sites, some free and others for subscribers only. We selected a site that requires a $100 registration fee, as we figured the payment would eliminate chancers. To pay the cash would indicate commitment to the concept. It takes a leap of faith to let strangers into your house, and to travel across the planet on no more than a promise that there will be a bed waiting for you.

Once registered, we tidied up the house, spruced up the garden and made it look as appealing as possible. Then we took a group of digital pictures from the most flattering angles. The web site allowed us to post the pictures, together with a few paragraphs about ourselves.
“We are couple of writers with a sea-view house in a country setting along the Cape coast, a large garden and lots of room for kids to play,” we wrote. “Looking for anywhere that is a big city, bright lights and good restaurants.”
Within hours the first mailed responses came in. A hippie preacher from New York, who did ‘non-denominational, non-sectarian weddings,’ for a living, offered us her Manhattan loft. The only hitch was, she wanted to swap in 2009. Too long for us to wait.
Soon after, a literary professor from Paris contacted us. We eagerly checked out his listing on the web site, a fabulous, book-lined old world apartment near the Sorbonne university. The professor, his wife and two adult children wanted a swap in December, only they wanted it for 10 days – to short for us, so we reluctantly turned them down. “Don’t worry,” he wrote back. “Maybe next year we can do it better time. We stay in touch, yes?” Of course we said yes.
Then Jochen wrote. “What about Christmas in Berlin?” his mail began. “We have lights in the trees outside our apartment along the legendary Kurfürstendamm, there will be snow on the ground and the biggest party in the world for New Year.”
Gavin and I jostled around the computer screen to call up their link to their apartment.
Jochen and Laurie’s place was in the same block as some of Berlin’s best hotels, where a single room would have cost us 100 euros per day, per person. They lived in a five-roomed, two bathroom apartment with restaurants in the street below and towering chestnut trees that reached up to the windows.

That settled it. We agreed. A couple of days later we exchanged a phone call.

“This crazy, but exciting,” Jochen said. “Our friends think we are mad, but you know what, I don’t care. I want to see some sun. We do this, ja?”

Their apartment was everything we hoped it would be. Large, with a kids playroom, and well heated against the Baltic chill outside. For the next month we wandered the city, ate at the restaurants and cafe’s in the streets below the apartment, and watched as our boys shrieked as they romped in snow for the first time in their lives.
We’d left our car for Jochen and Laurie, and they had let us use theirs so we were not confined to the city or public transport. We saw every square inch of the city.
Traveling and children are usually mutually exclusive pleasures, like mixing oysters and ice cream. But with a large apartment, we could make the most of down-time. The boys would watch TV and build Lego in the playroom while we took a nap.
Great playroom in Berlin

Great playroom in Berlin

On Christmas day we awoke to the sound all parents dread: Little kids throwing up in bed. This would be disaster at a B&B or hotel; here, we had Laurie’s washing machine and plenty of spare linen to help quickly clean up the mess. Within a day both were fine.

Evenings that we did not want to go out for dinner we cooked at home, trying German specialities bought at local delicatessens. On days when we arrived home, sodden from the snow, the trusty washing machine and a vast bath with steaming hot water were there to welcome us.

We arrived back home in January, with a few days overlap with our German guests. For three days we beached and braaied with Jochen and Laurie and the children, all becoming instant friends after the quick intimacy sharing our homes had created.

“You know,” said Jochen as he sipped a beer in our garden on our last day together,” this is not like a holiday, it’s like we are not just swapping houses; we are also swapping lives.”

Our New Year's Eve in Berlin

Our New Year's Eve in Berlin

5 Responses to “We did a Home Exchange”

  1. 1 erichason February 8, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Ever been to Brooklyn, NY?

    • 2 Jeannine February 8, 2009 at 1:41 pm

      Hi there. I haven’t been to Brooklyn but would love to . . . just need to get through this damned recession so we can afford air tickets again!

  2. 3 ian in hamburg March 6, 2009 at 11:03 am

    You mentioned this, I remember. What a wonderful way to see how others live their lives. I bet the kids will always remember it.

  3. 4 Pierre du Plessis March 12, 2009 at 8:19 am

    Ever been to the island, Sedgefield? The house will come with 3 kids, a hamster, 2 dogs and a fish. O, my mom lives in the cottage but you will be able to use the pool.
    Interested ? Call the doctor or wane be currency trader @ 555 – 555 (like in the movies)

    Love your blog !!!!!

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