There is nothing embarrassing or untoward in my wife’s drawers.
I’ll clarify that at the outset, because when we tell friends that we enjoy regular holiday home swaps, their first question is invariably: ‘Aren’t you worried about them going through your drawers?’
Our response is always the same: no, because unlike you filthy people, we have nothing to hide – and if we did, there’s a lockable cabinet.
Since we first exchanged our modest London home ten years ago, we’ve arranged holiday swaps across the world. We’ve spent midwinter at the Arctic Circle and summer in suburban San Diego, lived it up on Broadway (the doorman tipping his cap as we swept through the lobby) and snorkelled with goldfish in a furry-bottomed Flemish eco-pool. In Vancouver we barbecued on a balcony as a concert took place beneath our feet. In Bonn, our toddler son wandered next door, naked, and entered the home of a German family having lunch: the father greeting him with a hearty ‘Hi!’.
When my wife first tentatively suggested we try a bit of swapping, I was unsure. What if we didn’t like the other couple? What if we had different needs and desires?
When she explained she meant swapping homes, after my initial disappointment I was soon won over. We had always been determined not to let parenting stop us seeing the world, and let’s face it, sharing a hotel room with small children is about as enjoyable as sharing one’s bath with a badger.
Our first swap, to Paris, was a steep learning curve. On arrival the key snapped in the lock – just as my five-year-old daughter declared she needed a poo. This entailed rushing around the streets in search of a toilet, my daughter on my shoulders, farting ominously.
Finally, I entered the town hall and approached a prim receptionist. Pointing up at my daughter I smiled cheesily and uttered the only French word I remembered from school: ‘Merde?’
Once the caretaker had fixed a new lock, we entered the flat – where our excited kids immediately began playing with toys, trying on clothes, and smashing plates. Not to be outdone in the naughty stakes, my wife and I were scolded by the caretaker for hanging washing on the balcony – a capital crime in that snooty locale – and throwing empty wine bottles down the rubbish chute in the early hours, causing the sound of clanging and smashing glass to reverberate throughout the block and indeed the arrondissement.
We’ve now swapped homes upwards of 30 times and have had so many bizarre experiences it inspired a comic novel, Kidology. Improbably, considering our socio-economic circumstances, we’ve become experts in swimming pool maintenance: skimmers, tablets, deadly chemical cocktails, the robot in France which scoured the floor of the pool as we drank cold beer. We’ve also become adept in using left-hand drive cars: where once we were too nervous to drive to the Carrefour we now think nothing of cruising through Paris and Los Angeles, and through northern Finland in a blizzard.
We’ve rarely had mishaps when driving swappees’ cars – unless you count the time we were looking for Father Ted’s house in County Clare and managed to scuff our hosts’ €80,000 Audi when the satnav sent us up a country lane. Usually we manage to dissuade our guests from driving our ancient C4 through London, loading up Oyster Cards for them instead.
As well as a booklet of instructions, it’s customary to leave your guests local delicacies so that when they arrive, they are made to feel welcome. Whenever we swapped with French families, we always left a bottle of English wine – which remained untouched for a decade. In the end we changed it for English ale and sausages, which were much better received.
On occasion, as we enter a magnificent detached house in rolling countryside, with two cars in the drive, pool, hangar-sized garage with every conceivable tool and machinery diligently labelled and maintained, I can’t help feeling inferior, wondering how our swappees will react on entering our modest home. What will they make of the shabby-chic furniture, the neglected garden, the family next door who spend their leisure hours fighting on drugs?
Then I remind myself – they’re in London, yards from the tube. They really should be grateful and to be fair, most of them are; even the family who got locked in when the front door lock broke.
Of course, there’s always an exception – in our case that Nantes couple who left a nasty note complaining that our downstairs neighbour smoked and that our cat had pissed in their shoes – neither of which my wife and I felt able to do much about.
The quality of home offers you receive depends on the size and condition of your home, but more importantly, its location. Generally speaking, the closer you are to landmarks, transport or beautiful scenery, the more offers you will receive. We are lucky enough to rent a five-bedroom terraced house in a quiet street yards from Tufnell Park, which might explain why we have to bat off exciting offers from villas in Patagonia and palaces in Sri Lanka.
As well as financial savings there are many advantages to house swapping. You are in a normal family home in a non-touristy area, shopping locally, mixing with real people and having to attempt the language. Plus, if you have cats, there are no expensive cat-sitting or kennel fees (just occasional shoe-cleaning fees).
Of course, that means you might be responsible for your swappees’ pets: like the Jack Russell in Ireland which seemed unconvinced of our right to stay in its master’s home, or the cat which stalked my wife round that Galway kitchen. Or the chickens in Paris that had to be let out of the hutch as day dawned yet refused to provide us with a single egg, or the cockerel in the Lakes which chased my screaming son round a field as my wife and I sipped our drinks in the sun.
There are disadvantages to holiday home-swapping too. By staying in family houses rather than resorts our children don’t always get to meet other kids. And, though it’s nice to be in a residential neighbourhood, sometimes you wish you were closer to touristy bars and restaurants. A lot of your time will be spent together, as a family: reading, playing cards, swimming, laughing, exploring.
It’s also crucial to make sure the people you plan to swap with are genuine. It’s advisable to use a reputable home-swapping website. We signed up to Home Exchange, which has links to over 400,000 homes in 187 countries, but another reputable site is Love Homeswap.
I would recommend avoiding sites that are free to join as they might not vet members. Whether you choose to insure your home for damage is up to you (we hope our standard contents insurance will cover us but, fingers crossed, have never needed it), though insurers might question a claim for damage by strangers you’ve never met.
I understand home swapping’s not for everyone: but for us Piggotts, holiday home-swaps have not only allowed us to see the world, they’ve allowed us to remain incredibly close as a family unit.
If I haven’t persuaded you yet, I believe you can purchase lockable boxes for the contents of your drawers at a very modest price. Just saying.