A hotel room, Cyril Connolly once said, is the writer’s spiritual home. Of course it is: stripped of personality and emotional association, neutered and bland, the hotel bedroom frees the imagination to roam elsewhere. A house-swap does the opposite. It pulls you into a stranger’s life. I find that by the end of a swap (I’ve done nine), I have discovered – or invented – the owner’s personality. It’s a completely different experience from a holiday in a hotel or a tent or a rental property.
It starts off with close inspection of books, CDs, family photographs, taste in furniture and so on. Then other sensibilities emerge. My family and I did a lovely house-swap on the Greek island of Lesbos. On arrival the owners, both academics, emailed us from our home in London to say that their family dog had just had puppies in the large yard, and on no account were we to feed or water them, as they were to be encouraged to flee the family home and live as feral dogs. To be fair to the academics, this reflected a general Greek attitude to animals, but it was too much for my young sons, who had to listen to the tiny, flea-ridden hounds howling at night.
Cultural aspects of parachuting into another family’s life are usually more positive. In Morocco, our swap included the services of the cook, Fatima. My husband went shopping with her in Agadir market – a far more enriching experience than going alone. He joined in as she picked and rejected, and looked on as she argued, bargained and laughed. Similarly, when Fatima produced her meals, our children, whose table manners are appalling, were thrilled when she showed them how to eat the pyramids of fragrant nosh with their fingers. We developed one of those relationships with the smiling Fatima that flourish despite the lack of language.
In Kentucky, we stayed in an antebellum house in Lexington – horse country. Mexicans would mysteriously appear on seated mowers and glide around the grounds. Some days we had breakfast in the canteen at Keeneland racecourse, home of the Derby, and watched the horses train. (Bluegrass Airport was directly opposite, carefully positioned to allow visiting sheikhs to emerge from their planes and visit their thoroughbreds without undue exertion.) Then we would proceed to the country club – we had our swappers’ membership as part of the deal.
A house exchange encourages you to do what everyone else does, in a good way. In Naples, at New Year, we dressed up to see “Lo schiaccianoci” (“The Nutcracker”) at the 18th-century Teatro San Carlo, like all our neighbours in the Vomero district. Other times, you learn about something completely new. In New York City’s East Village we exchanged homes with a professional clown. Until I sampled his large library, I had no idea of the complexity of clownery. I fancy having a go, if the writing work falls off.
The gripping business of getting to know people you’ve never seen solely through their house is contaminated, in my view, if you meet the folk in the flesh. When we borrowed a fabulous beach house on the north shore of Nova Scotia, the family was there to greet us and show us round, departing to stay with relatives before flying to London the next day. As we took our tour, I noted with a creeping sense of terror that every surface of the large house was gleaming with polish. It was the cleanest and tidiest place I had ever seen; the armchairs were covered in plastic sheeting. “It’s so sparkling!” I remarked nervously. “Oh yes!” said the woman. “My children say I’m OCD about scrubbing!” Her tone of voice indicated that she thought it was a good thing.
It can go the other way. One summer, we decamped to a smallish, low-ceilinged and not-very-nice house in the south of France in which every surface was piled to the ceiling with stuff. When I opened any cupboard, more stuff poured onto the floor like lava. Ranks of empty shampoo bottles crowded the rim of the bath. I found this irritating. And then, despite following instructions on swimming-pool maintenance, I somehow turned the water green. The owners didn’t like our house either, on the basis that the pigeons outside the bedroom window made too much noise. Sometimes you make the wrong decision: we had chosen France over Johnny Weissmuller’s house and pool in Los Angeles.
Often a swap comes with a holiday cottage, so one gains an insight into the household’s leisure hours. A stylish home in Morgan Hill, at the bottom of Silicon Valley in northern California, came with a 1930s cabin on Huntington Lake, a couple of hours drive away in the Sierra Nevada (we usually swap cars, too). The woman’s father had built the cabin himself and everything remained as it was two generations before. Over the years the knotty pine walls had acquired a glowing orange patina. A journal preserved in the cabin described how, during the depression, mother and children would spend the whole summer on the lake, walking down the road every Friday to meet father driving back from a week at the office in San Jose with warm watermelons on the back seat.
My husband and I were in paradise up there, but our teenagers growled about the lack of internet access and mobile coverage. They preferred another swap in California, in the surfing mecca of La Jolla (pictured), where they spent all day on the water with the jeunesse literally d’orée before returning to a barbecue in the back yard every night.
That swap was our most recent. When we returned home, we found a hat and cardigan that our exchangers had left behind. I immediately started wearing both: I just couldn’t let that unknown family go.