When I decided not to go back to work after Anna was born we had to do a lot of very careful budgeting to ensure that we could still afford to live. Everything we spent money on got listed, and we worked out what we could still afford. Some things – mortgage, council tax, fuel bills etc were a given, as was food, although the way I shop and cook had to change significantly. We allocated sums of money for clothes, shoes, one-off household expenses, mobile phone bills, travel costs within London etc, and with a few tweaks here and there (and me coming to the painful realisation that clothes shopping could no longer feature as one of my primary recreational activities), it all looked as though it was working out.
Then we realised that we’d failed to allocate any money for holidays, and that, no matter which way we looked at it, there just wasn’t going to be a lot of money left over. On Twitter this would no doubt be hashtagged as a first worldproblem, and of course it is. However, travel is very important to us, and we want Anna to grow up with a sense of adventure too, so finding a solution mattered.
I’d just been reading India Knight’s fabulous book Thrift (my go-to solution to any problem being to read a book on the subject), and she suggested home exchanges as a great way of holidaying for virtually nothing. I suddenly thought that maybe we could give that a whirl. The more we considered it, the more advantages there seemed to be. Hotels with small children are miserable – who wants to be confined to their room, eating an over-priced room service burger, unable to talk above a whisper every night of their holiday? Or even downstairs in the hotel restaurant, baby monitor balanced precariously on table, refusing to talk in case you miss something, and sending your husband up to ‘just check’ every five minutes anyway. No, of course I’m not speaking from experience…
With a home exchange you can put your child to bed and retire to a comfortable living room, and then maybe cook dinner with some lovely local ingredients you picked up at the market earlier. You don’t have to worry about finding restaurants which cater to picky toddler appetites, because if all else fails you can pop to the supermarket and buy a bag of pasta. And, as it often seems to be families with young children who go in for home exchange, your little darling has a whole set of new toys to play with, and you don’t have to worry about carting all the changing mat/highchair/travel cot paraphenalia with you.
It’s absolutely fascinating getting a window into someone else’s way of living, and you get far more of a handle on the country’s culture by actually living it. Our first home exchange was to Paris, and it went perfectly. Despite my panics about the house being trashed in some way, it was left immaculate, and our exchange partner even fixed a dodgy hinge on a cupboard door for us. Then we had a non-simultaneous exchange last summer – we went to Santa Margarita on the Italian Riviera for a blissful 1o days in May, and then descended on first my parents and then my husband’s during the Olympics so that the Italian couple could stay in our house (in a host borough, I might add). The Italian Riviera is notorious as a playground of the rich and famous, and accommodation prices are eyewateringly expensive – we could never have afforded that holiday in any other way, and yet it was one of the best we’ve ever had. We had a week in Strasbourg last autumn, staying in a city centre apartment with views of the cathedral. And now we’ve just got back from an impulsive bank holiday weekend in Amsterdam, organised just a week in advance.
In every case, our exchange partners, with whom we communicate by email, text and phone prior to and, if necessary, during, the exchange have been totally charming and friendly, and have taken impeccable care of our house. The website we use is basically internet dating for houses, with enticing photos and glowing descriptions galore. My biggest worry at first was that no-one would want to swap with us – how exciting can a bog-standard Victorian terrace in East London be? Very, turned out to be the answer. Living in London it is easy to forget that it is one of the most visited cities in the world for a reason, and we are surrounded by amazing attractions and sights which people will travel vast distances to experience. And as London is also an incredibly expensive city, with even the most basic hotel room costing upwards of £100 a night, the attraction of staying for free in a comfortable family home is suddenly a little clearer.
And although we haven’t gone far afield, with exchanges to France, Italy and The Netherlands, nonetheless the culture shocks can be quite amazing, and I’m sure that works both ways. The house we stayed in in Amsterdam was very modern, and kitted out with every mod con. Turning on the downstairs lights required a page of instructions and a remote control with fourteen buttons. The self-cleaning whirlpool bath had a whole booklet of instructions. And one of the highlights of the holiday was speculating on just what the robot, which the note from our hosts informed us came out between 1330 and 1430, might get up to. We found some of these gadgets slightly intimidating, but the poor Dutch family arriving at our house must have felt they were plumbing the depths of Dickensian squalor. Our most modern gadget is probably the microwave, and given that I inherited that from my nan, and it wasn’t new when she died nearly eight years ago, it isn’t exactly the latest model. We have no walk-in shower, no jacuzzi bath, and the only thing with a remote control is our tiny 12 inch telly. I did leave them some homemade muffins, though.
We’re currently planning an August exchange to Corsica, and have grand plans for venturing beyond Europe next year, and frankly it is down to home exchange that we can afford these breaks, and aren’t looking forward to another long weekend in Skegness.