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Bob Meyer

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Try Out a New Country the Easy Way - Swap Homes!

In 1969, as a recent graduate and newly married to Francis, an English post-grad student at my university in Hamilton, Ontario, I made a big �leap in the dark� and moved from my home in Canada to England. I shudder now at how little thought or preparation I had given to this major life change but, at 22, life is a great adventure and I thought myself lucky to have this chance to break away from conservative rural Ontario where I grew up. After all, this was the 60s and London was swinging!

However, when Francis and I arrived in England reality soon set in. Neither of us had jobs nor anywhere to live and, even in 1969, London was an expensive city. Necessity instead took us to the East coast town of Grimsby where Francis managed to get a teaching post at a local college. I soon found a job in a local library and began to settle in. But that first year in England was not an easy time � I was often homesick, and worse, I had brought North American �big is best� attitudes with me. Francis wondered why (on our low wages and with just the two of us) we needed to buy the biggest fridge in the shop along with a huge chest freezer (just like the one we had filled with home grown produce and sides of beef on my parents� farm back home).

That big freezer was always under used as I soon got into the local habit of �popping down to the shops�, with the local greengrocers, bakers, butcher and fishmonger (Grimsby is a fishing town), providing much fresher and better quality food than I had been used to with infrequent trips to a supermarket as a student. I also noticed on my first trip back home a year later that my Canadian friends and family kept all sorts of stuff in their fridges that would keep fine unrefrigerated.

Everyone who moves to another country has to learn to adapt to a new environment to have a happy experience. My move was comparatively easy � same language (more or less) and my husband�s family immediately made me feel welcome. After a year in Grimsby we did move to London and have now lived in the same North London suburb for over 30 years. I have dual Canadian/British citizenship and truly now feel a citizen of both countries. I still get a lump in my throat when the plane takes off from Toronto airport and I see the neat straight lines of roads and fields gradually disappear but I also get a real feeling of excitement and of �coming home� when the first higgledy fields of the English countryside come into view before landing in London.

We are now living in a global world. There are negative aspects to this with citizens of the poorest countries not sharing in the advancements in communication and travel that make living in another country much easier for those of us more fortunate. When my ancestors set sail for Canada in the 1860s they did so knowing they were unlikely to ever return to their home in Northern Ireland. Now, it is perhaps too easy to give up and go back home if unable to adjust to life in another country. However, despite our advantages, it is still not a simple decision for many people to live far from family and friends. A good first step? Swap homes for a short period in the country you would like to live in.

I started a home exchange service, Home Base Holidays, in 1985 and in recent years there has been a great increase in interest in the idea of swapping homes. Home Base Holidays is now well established and part of a group of co-operative agencies, the First Home Exchange Alliance, sharing listings for the benefit of all our members.

I first became interested in home exchange from the aspect of feeling more secure knowing my home was occupied while my family was away. It is always interesting to learn the various reasons why home exchange appeals to people. For some it is the cost savings (no hotel bills), for others the space and convenience of living in a home (especially families with young children) but probably the overwhelming reason sited is the chance to try out a different lifestyle, getting to know a neighbourhood rather than spending the whole time meeting mainly other tourists. We have also found, however, members who use a home swap to �try out� a country they are hoping to move to or, if they already have firm plans to move, to search for permanent accommodation or jobs before making the �big break�. Although most members look for vacation exchanges of, on average, 2 � 4 weeks, there are also members on sabbatical or with a job offer in another country who are looking to arrange exchanges of up to a year.

Swapping homes can at first seem just as daunting as moving to another country for many people! A recent enquirer expressed this very well:

'I put an ad somewhere saying I might like to swap houses, and got a response many months later from an English family, BUT am sort of cold feetish, not knowing about my art collection, loads of nice things in my house, and while I am confident their stuff is safe with anxious about them. Ha ha ha .....isn't that the way?' - Diana M.

Diana expresses a natural reaction many people have initially to the idea of having 'strangers' in their most private spaces, their homes. If you can accept that other people will have exactly the same concerns about you as you do about them when you are first in contact, and are willing to take the time to get to know potential exchange partners and make careful preparations before an exchange holiday, the risks involved in home exchange are minimal. You will join a growing band of enthusiastic exchangers worldwide with many wonderful exchange possibilities to look forward to.

Older children can take an active part in their family�s exchange arrangements and the preparations beforehand can be an important part of the whole exchange experience. Tom McGonigle from Belfast, Northern Ireland, describes his family�s first exchange to Texas in summer 2000:

�Ultimately we had three possibilities, with Austin, Texas proving to be most compatible in terms of child-friendliness and dates. Having set up the exchange in December 1999, we really enjoyed the long lead-in. Communication by e-mail and phone reassured us that we were dealing with responsible people who shared our priorities and interests. The children enjoyed getting to know each other via e-mail, planning theme park visits, comparing toys and games, favourite things to do locally and preferred restaurants. The sense of anticipation was enhanced by exchange of photos and books about local activities, and organising flight arrangements.

Our family had a marvellous time in Texas. The different way of life engendered a sense of fun, education and adventure. Besides driving a large van with automatic gears on "the wrong side of the road", we swam in creeks with turtles and catfish (while buzzards hovered overhead!), ate BBQ, rode all the nearby roller coasters, shopped at Outlet Stores, listened to Tex-Mex music and the Austin Symphony Orchestra, won the prize for "Most Patriotically Dressed" at our local July 4th Street Party (definitely a rigged vote by hospitable neighbours!), and of course visited the Alamo.

The home in which we stayed was large, well equipped, and very suitable for our four children, especially as we were enrolled at the nearby swimming pool. It was pleasant to chill out indoors with the air-conditioning and fans (no central heating radiators here!). The children enjoyed the range of different toys, videos and books, and found it novel to watch a sprinkler system operating, and the squads of Mexican workmen from "Perfect Lawns of Austin" tending the grass. The local daily newspaper - the Austin-American Statesman - provided a good flavour of local issues and concerns. Prices were quite similar to those in Ireland - apart from petrol, which is only a quarter of the price that we pay! We ate out frequently, sampling a range of Mexican food, though resorted to burgers and "fries" on a few occasions to placate young palates!

Flexibility and readiness to compromise are required for a successful home exchange. We had to adapt dates and shorten our ideal length of stay (though compensated by making a four day stopover in Boston on the way home); it was difficult to obtain insurance cover for Americans to drive vehicles in Ireland, whereas it proved very straightforward for us to be insured to drive in Texas. However there is no doubt that the advantages significantly outweigh any inconvenience, and detailed planning reaps its reward. It was very interesting and enjoyable to meet people in their own community, staying in a home where children and adults could be comfortable; we affected major savings in accommodation and transport costs. In addition a wider circle of our family and friends shared this holiday experience.

In particular the friends and relations who met each family at airports (in our case arriving four hours late - at 3 am - into Austin airport), and those who organised day trips or evening meals all gained from the experience by making their contribution, and are consequently more interested in seeing the photos and video to learn how the other half of the exchange worked out.�

A large percentage of Home Base Holidays members now have Internet access (and email makes contact between potential exchange partners very easy) but we also publish three directories each year which enables many members worldwide without Internet access to take part. Visitors may browse all current exchange offers (often with photos) and join Home Base Holidays on-line for instant access to member contact information:

Home Base Holidays also publishes a free bi-monthly newsletter, Home Swappers which includes stories from experienced home exchangers, tips and advice on arranging successful swaps plus links to useful travel sites. You may read all editions at:


Lois Sealey is a 50+ year old, living in London with husband Francis. They have two grown-up children, Tanya and Mark, also with dual Canadian/British citizenship but who for now remain �Londoners�. Home Base Holidays is a full-time occupation for Lois but she is also interested in travel, vegetarian cuisine (so much for the beef farm in Ontario where she grew up!), the theatre and local community.

Contact Lois to subscribe to Home Swappers and to ask any questions you may have about home exchange vacations:

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