Swapsies

Sally and I have been swapping homes since 2011. What started as an occasional foray to get a cheap holiday has become a way of life since we moved from the UK to Sri Lanka in 2015. Our only property is Jungle Tide, our guest house near Kandy, so coming back to the UK every year to see family and friends and reacquaint ourselves with the delights of raspberries, asparagus, pies and good ale has to be done on house swaps. Hotels would be way out of our budget and if we spent all our time with family and friends, mutual madness would ensue. Over the years we must have done more than fifty house swaps including a marathon eighteen in 2018 alone when we spent half the year in the UK and Europe. House swapping appeals to our love of the exchange economy generally but also to our love of travel and natural curiosity about other people’s lives.

All the hard work is done by Sally. Organising a seamless series of house swaps is breathtakingly difficult and spreadsheets proliferate. We are on six different house exchange sites and simply remembering which site a particular potential swap belongs to is a challenge. All have different systems and rules; in some cases, one only knows the first name of the potential swapper and their identity is not revealed until the deal is done. Confusing if you’re dealing with two Chris’s, one male and one female, at the same time. Some sites seem happy to let you exchange e-mail addresses, others want all communications to remain on the site which can make things difficult. It’s far easier to find things in an e-mail trail than hidden in the complexities of websites’ messaging systems.

There are three distinct types of swaps: people exchanging their primary or only home, people swapping a second home, and people swapping holiday lets in low season (which is essentially what we do with Jungle Tide). Each has its pros and cons. Swapping with someone’s primary home usually means a great, well-equipped and stocked kitchen, interesting books to read, art to look at and a comfortable, homely feel. Often a delightful garden, whether a tiny urban oasis or a country sprawl with a paddock and orchard. But finding enough space to store your clothes or the food you’ve brought – both are essential when you’re swapping as a temporary way of life rather than for a week’s holiday – is often impossible. And some people’s homes – if they’re a lot better off than us and have no children at home – may be stuffed with antiques, priceless artworks, delicate furnishings, fabrics and floor coverings which I find frankly intimidating, being terrified of breakages and stains. In such houses I rarely move from the kitchen (usually a washable kind of place) until it’s time to go to bed.

Out of season holiday lets and second homes tend to have minimal kitchen facilities. OK for survival but frustrating for keen cooks like us (we’ve taken to bringing with us small but indispensable pieces of kitchen kit). But they do have oodles of wardrobe, drawer and cupboard space, especially the holiday lets. On the down side they can feel soulless and uninspiring. There are few or no books, maybe a handful of DVDs I probably don’t want to watch, and a garden (if one exists) “laid to lawn” as the estate agents put it i.e. dreary. But these are generalisations and we’ve had exceptions.

The first challenge may be finding the place, parking and gaining access. We own a car in the UK and especially in city swaps we’ve learned to check carefully beforehand about parking. Swaps where there is a residents’ parking scheme which doesn’t include unlimited free all-day visitor parking permits are pretty much no-nos for us. Getting up every day before 8am and shifting the car almost a mile to the nearest unrestricted parking street then walking back to the house is a poor way to start one’s day. Having got to somewhere close enough to haul the bags and boxes into the property there is the small matter of gaining access to the house. The variety of methods is remarkable and seems to bear no relation to the value of the property or its contents. We’ve been in very swish places full of priceless stuff where the instruction was that the key was under a flowerpot by the front door, and others where the instructions for getting in and disarming the alarm system ran to a full page of A4. On one occasion the door key was open to view in the shopping basket of the owner’s bicycle, parked in a shared courtyard. This wasn’t in some idyllic village but in inner London. Finally you’re in, and after unloading the car first stop is the kitchen. Partly to get perishable food into the fridge, partly for an initial assessment of its cookability, but mainly to see what the owners have left. House swappers are generous people and almost always leave as a minimum a bottle of wine, milk, bread, eggs, butter, tea and coffee. But very often that’s two bottles of wine, plus a big bunch of flowers, biscuits, cake, local delicacies, cheese and an invitation in a tasteful welcome card that fridge and cupboard raiding is absolutely fine. “And do help yourselves to anything in the garden”. I need no second bidding.

Then there is the house manual. I love reading the house manuals and musing about why people’s minds work in such different ways. Some are thematic (equipment; laundry and cleaning; shopping etc); some do it room by room; some are simply alphabetical which I find especially confusing as adjacent entries are unrelated (… “recycling”, “remote controls” …); others appear to be entirely random stream-of-consciousness creations, often involving scrawled marginal additions. They’re my favourites. They remind me of my mother… Almost all house manuals are written in a friendly way; I’ve only come across a handful which have a forbidding list of Dos and Don’ts. House swappers are almost by definition warm and trusting folk.

The manual is usually accompanied by a folder or box of useful information on local places of interest and often by a folder of manufacturer’s operating instructions for household appliances. Standardly this is just cookers, washing machines and other basics but we have come across detailed instructions for installing central heating or repairing a smart TV which I kind of feel is beyond the call of a house-swapper’s duty. One house-swap included manuals and parts lists for a “heritage tractor” which baffled me completely especially as there was no obvious sign of a tractor, heritage or otherwise, and nor did I feel we were likely to be in need of one.

While my head is buried in the house manual Sally is prowling around selecting our bedroom. Usually it’s a no-brainer – either the biggest room by far, or the one with the spectacular view, or the only one which has an en-suite. But occasionally I am called in for consultation, especially when we are having grandchildren to stay for some of the time which raises a whole agenda of its own – can they be near their parents? Will they be OK sharing a room? What’s their bathroom like? How prone is their sleeping environment to (a) falling out of bed (b) smashing the hosts’ valuable property?

Then it’s time for a thorough assessment of the kitchen, that place of mystery and delight. The variety of kitchen styles is mind-boggling. Leaving aside the minimalist, functional arrangements to be found in most second homes and holiday lets the really interesting stuff is to be found in rummaging through cupboards and drawers in people’s own primary homes. “What might this be for, do you suppose?” “I can’t believe they keep the rolling pin in here!” “They’re obviously keen cooks but they don’t seem to possess a potato peeler”. And so on. Through house swapping I’ve reacquainted myself with Aga-only cooking, a childhood skill which had been lost to me for decades, and faced up to my fear of the induction hob, though I still don’t understand why anyone thinks they’re worth the money and trouble. Dishwashers are straightforward but I’d never encountered an Insinkerator before my house-swapping days. They’re excellent for scaring small children. Then there’s the ingredients cupboards. Some are organised with relentless and impressive logic, others seemingly random with tins, jars, spices, sugars, flours drinks and condiments just rammed in any old how. It takes us about a week to get the hang of someone else’s kitchen. If it’s a one week swap you’ve just got it when it’s time to move on. Then in the next place: “I could have sworn the cling film was in that drawer” “No, darling, that was the last house”.

And so to bed. We’ve rarely been disappointed in our bed but sometimes it’s necessary to peel away a rind of decorative and useless cushions and printed covers before you can get into it. I never know where one is supposed to put them so they end up rolling around the floor. As we almost always have a choice of rooms it’s not hard to find one that meets our basic requirements: you can get out on either side of the bed in the middle of the night; each side has a bedside table with its own reading light… er, that’s about it. But few of our friends and relatives can offer this in their spare room. Wardrobes and drawer space, though, that’s a different matter. We bring our own bag full of hangers as there are rarely enough spare ones, but there’s only so much you can cram into a small space. We’ve had wardrobes of impressive antiquity and probably great value but which were built (I surmise) before the coat hanger was invented and are not wide or deep enough to take one. Or don’t have rails at all, just hooks. I should repeat here that we’re unusual in relying on house swaps for months at a time so we tend to carry more clothing than if we were on a week’s holiday, and it’s really unfair of me to suggest that we ought to be given more hanging and drawer space than we often get.

Bathrooms, en-suite or not, come in many styles and sizes. Some houses have only showers, no bath, which always comes as a disappointment. But so long as the showers are big enough for two old fatties to get in and out of and have a good slosh around in (separately of course!) that’s OK. And that’s usually been the case, but sadly not always. There have been showers one has to insinuate oneself into like an octopus on a reef and wash oneself tentacle by tentacle. And it’s not only our bodies that need washing, it’s also our clothes. Though it is rare to find a problematic washing machine or tumble dryer the same cannot be said of ironing arrangements. I love ironing. As Bob Marley put it, I iron like a lion from Zion.  But occasionally one comes across an ironing board with a stubborn personality or an iron with an unbalanced one, or one of those huge jobs sat on its own water tank. I had the usual boyhood ambitions to drive a steam train but not indoors.

I’m not a technophobe but neither am I technically adept and TV remotes in particular bewilder me. I once saw a comedy sketch where a young man explained to his girlfriend that they had to go to dinner at his parents’ on Wednesday “to show them how to operate their TV remote – again”. One of those Ouch! moments.  In my ideal world all channels would have the same number irrespective of the operating system and a single remote would switch on the TV, select channels, access online services, adjust volume and so on. It’s not too much to ask, is it? I mean, it doesn’t have to draw the curtains, dim the room lighting or switch on the kettle as well. I am slowly learning but mistakes continue to be made. Recently I had to resort to a phone call with the owner, who was on his yacht off the Greek coast at the time (it’s OK for some!) to ask how to operate his TV remote. The same guy later had to sort us out when we left the house for the last time, posted the keys through the letter box and then realised we’d left our phone on charge in the kitchen. He was amazingly friendly and polite in the circumstances.

But even the complexities of different TV remotes pale into insignificance alongside the bewildering range of local recycling arrangements. I’m a keen recycler and composter and am always delighted to find a house with a garden big enough to sustain a compost bin or two. But getting my head around what to do with which kinds of plastic, whether thin card is treated with thick card or with paper, what bins get collected when, whether tins and glass go into mixed recyclables or must be put out separately and so on – these are significant challenges. Surely by now the days of local experimentation in recycling arrangements should be over and councils might have reached a consensus over what is most cost-effective and best for the environment. But it seems not.

Finally, there are the pets. Low-maintenance ones: people with dogs tend to engage pet-sitters or put their dogs in kennels when they’re away. Cats are the most common. They usually have cat flaps and come and go by themselves. They’re not generally fussy creatures and food plus the occasional cuddle tends to suffice. Except once, where the house manual included some very specific cat husbandry instructions. One of the three cats would not drink out of a bowl but only from a two-inch residue of clean water left in the bath. The others had to have their water and food served in specific glass bowls. And whenever we left the house we had to leave the radio on and tuned to Classic FM otherwise the cats would become stressed. We’ve also looked after hens and, on one occasion, rabbits intent on recreating The Great Escape and tunnelling out of their hutch in naïve ignorance of the airborne terrors awaiting them. But the oddest pet we’ve had to look after was a tortoise. “A tortoise? Sure, no problem, what could be easier?” The owner’s daughter met us at the airport and on the way to her mum’s house explained that the tortoise required feeding with specific food (all provided) at specific times but it was free range and had a tendency to hide in the shrubberies and herbaceous borders of the lovely but large garden so it needed to be hunted down at feeding times. She added that the tortoise (an adult) had been given to her mother as a christening present. Given that the lady concerned was in her eighties this made the tortoise almost certainly a centenarian. We were terrified all week that the old fellow would die on our watch – mercifully it survived.

We don’t get to meet all of the people we swap with, though perhaps we meet more than most swappers. Because our house is in Sri Lanka we offer swappers the choice of whether to have us around (to help out with transport arrangements and generally advise) or to have the place to themselves along with our Sri Lankan staff. Most choose the first option and this way we’ve met lots of interesting people and made several lasting friendships. When we talk about house swapping to other people they invariably raise questions about theft and damage. Neither theft nor deliberate damage ever occurs – even our hard-pressed police would have no problem in solving those kinds of crime. Accidental damage does of course happen but only once have we encountered an owner who was anything other than reasonable and understanding about a minor breakage or stain. House swappers are great people, and house swapping is a great way to live. For some of the time, anyway.

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