Home Exchange: To Europe From the Main Line, With Love

You’re no stranger in a strange land when someone else’s house is your home.

Illustration by John Krause

I grew up in a house where I wasn’t allowed in the living room. Mom was a Depression baby who, as a girl, used to press her nose to the glass of Lazarus Department Store in Columbus, Ohio, and dream of having “nice things.” And when she did, my mother sure wasn’t one to risk her stuff to kids. My siblings and I knew that, if she caught us in the living room, we had better have an explanation. We rarely risked it.

So, Mom would’ve been appalled by the house-exchange concept, which works like this: You give the keys to your house—to everything—to strangers. Then, you leave.

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Mom would’ve imagined people playing Frisbee with her fine china. Pocketing the silver. Putting their feet on the furniture. The reality is that home-exchangers treat others’ homes as well as their own. When we returned last August from two weeks in the Netherlands, the Dutch family in our house left it cleaner than we did.

We played with the idea for a while. We joined Home Exchange in 2006, but didn’t actually do a swap until 2009. That experience, with an English family we already knew slightly, went imperfectly. The Brits accidentally locked themselves out and apparently panicked trying to get back in. One tried to force a door we later had to replace. Things with the Dutch, who were strangers, went much easier.

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House exchanging is like Internet dating. But rather than photos of yourself, you post shots of your house, which is listed by its location (the city, not the street address) and your preferred destinations. As of this writing, Home Exchange has more than 42,000 listings in 146 countries. Want a beach house in California? A flat in central Paris? A grass hut in Thailand? It’s all possible.

After 2009, we waited awhile to try again. Despite the broken door, we did have a great time. In exchange for our house in Wayne, and the use of our cars, the Brits had lent us their flat in London and their country house and minivan in Wiltshire. The flat was new; the country house was a former parson’s residence, built in the 1600s. It had chickens in the courtyard. Our host, a former military man, was on speaking terms with the queen, whose portrait hung in the dining room. The broken door cost less than what some London hotels charge for a single night. Overall, it seemed worth it, if not desirable.

In February 2011, an email from a woman in Rotterdam plopped into my inbox. Sjoukje (pronounced “Show-key”) and her husband, Harry, had four children, aged 6 to 18. Their listing showed a modernist house that looked like it was built from enormous red and white blocks.

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Rotterdam was not on our list of must-see cities. A little reading suggested a city more like Detroit than Athens, which we’ve still never seen. Rotterdam, which sits on the North Sea, is one of Europe’s major ports. But the city was bombed to rubble during World War II and only fully rebuilt in the 1970s. There was no charming city center to visit.

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On the other hand, all of the Netherlands is only the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut, combined. The exchange would include a car. From Rotterdam, Amsterdam is an hour away—Germany and Belgium only slightly farther. There were windmills and Vermeer’s “Girl With the Pearl Earring.” We made the deal.

In late July, I picked up Sjoukje, Harry and their children at an RV rental center in New Jersey. (With a full month of vacation, they’d already been in the country for two weeks, touring New England and Canada in a camper.) I drove them home via the nicest route I could think of—up the Ben Franklin Parkway, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and north on Kelly Drive. At our house, there were hellos all around and a brief tour. I made sure that everyone had a key, and pointed out the houses of neighbors who also had keys. (I didn’t want any more broken doors.)

Then, the four Dixons piled into our smaller car and headed for the airport. About 15 hours later, we met Sjoukje’s father at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. He drove us to Rotterdam, showed us around the house, handed us the keys and went home.

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Our Dutch visitors couldn’t figure out how the balloon curtains worked in the master bedroom and left them tangled. They also confessed to breaking and gluing a stair spindle, but I’ve never found which it was. I broke one of their wine glasses. (I was trying to dry it and it was more delicate than it looked.) We both put a lot of miles on the minivans. We visited all the neighboring countries, most of the Netherlands’ major cities, and some of the smaller ones. The Dutch, it turns out, mainly wanted a base for trips to Washington, Manhattan and the Jersey Shore. They never even saw the Liberty Bell.

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Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. Sorry, Mom.

Mark Dixon is the author of MLT’s monthly history column, Retrospect. To learn more about Home Exchange, visit homeexchange.com.

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