Guest Blog: My Holiday House Swap: California Dreamin'

I’m on holiday now but my guest blogger this week is Helena Halme, a bookseller and fiction writer who was born in Finland, has lived in Sweden and 25 years ago moved to the UK. She blogs about her Nordic view on life here. She writes...


In 1999 the Englishman and I, with our two children (boy of twelve, girl of nine) were looking for a cheap summer holiday. I’d read an article about house swapping. Unusual locations were a bonus, it said.

We lived in a unique place; in the middle of English countryside, two miles from a main road, down a winding single track lane. You had to pass three cattle grids to reach our three bedroom cottage and our neighbours were half a mile away. We had three acres of land, a grass tennis court and a small fish pond. The uninterrupted views across Wiltshire were stunning; cattle grazing under vast oak trees, hazy sunshine revealing hilltops in the distance.

The article recommended two home swapping sites, both of which worked on an annual subscription basis. You had to register for £100 which gave you access to a database of people wanting to swap houses or flats as well as a listing of your property with photos. There was also information on dates and where people would like to go (you had a choice of continents, countries and locations). Very simple idea, really. In a similar vein to today’s eBay, you had a list of testimonials and the number of swaps any house owner had made. Communication was by email. In those days we still used modem connections and checked our mail perhaps once per day (doesn’t that seem so strange?). It took days to hear back from anyone you’d approached for a swap.

Our idea was to find a place in my native Finland, so that instead of travelling around the country visiting my friends and family, we could stay in one place and let them come to us. My dream was to replicate the summers of my childhood – a wooden cabin by the lake with lots of swimming, hunting butterflies, cycling to the nearest village shop and nightly sauna bathing.

In early April 1999 we put up our farm house ad and waited for results. To our disappointed many of those on the database had already firmed up their plans. The annual subscriptions ran from January to December and it seemed the seasoned holiday exchangers had been out early. So we decided to cast a wide net and put as our preferred destination, ‘Anywhere’.

Immediately (the next day) we got attractive offers: an apartment in New York, a wood-clad house in southern Sweden, a house in South Africa and a tiny flat in Stockholm were alternatives. But there was nothing at all from Finland.

We waited a couple of weeks and the US offers kept flooding in. The Englishman spotted one from LA, ‘I’ve never been to the west coast,’ he said.

When the children heard about the LA house and saw the pictures of the kidney-shaped swimming pool in the garden I knew I’d lost the fight for Finland. A few months later, after several emails and pictures had been exchanged, we packed our bags and headed for a three week stay in a stranger’s house in California.

The plan was that we’d meet our hosts-cum-guests at Heathrow. They would drive our car home and we’d hand over our respective keys. I was exhausted; I’d spent the last week scrubbing every nook and cranny in our country cottage. I’d poured over the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ of the Home Exchange website. With great care we left a list of house rules (‘Please feed the cats once per day’), some suggestions for things to do and see (an Ordnance Survey map of country walks around the area, guides to Bath, Longleat and Cheddar Gorge) and a small gift for the family. I was so concerned they would find our country cottage dirty and small that I was hyperventilating when we waited to meet them at the airport.

We recognised them immediately: a very tall man, overweight, grabbed my hand, followed by two equally tall but slightly less rounded teenage boys. Finally their mother, a slight French woman, appeared. We made quick polite conversation. When the large US family packed their bags and themselves into our six-month-old Volvo (freshly washed and polished), I saw the Englishman’s face fall at the same rate as the suspension of the car.

‘It’ll be alright,’ we assured each other and headed for the departure gate.

No-one feels quite themselves after an eleven hour flight with two children, but I cannot remember ever before, or since, being so beside myself with worry as I was arriving at LAX – Los Angeles International Airport.

After the tenacious immigration controls, clutching the keys and parking ticket given to us by our LA home exchange partners, we headed for the car park and immediately realised why there’d not been a picture of the family’s car. What waited us was a battered old Chevrolet. The Englishman and I glanced at each other but said nothing. He put the key into the ignition and when he turned it the car started with a loud cough. We drove into the LA sunshine, rolled down the windows, and began to navigate the scary multi-lane highways to our temporary home in Claremont.

It was a typical Californian one-storey suburban house – not unlike some of the smaller ones in Desperate Housewives or in the film American Beauty. There were lemon trees in the ‘backyard’. When night fell automatic sprinklers would suddenly start hissing, competing for the airways with the loud cries of the crickets. The pool lights would also come on, giving the backyard the eerie quality of an empty film set.

Inside there were three bedrooms, with an en-suite master and fierce air-conditioning throughout. The open-plan living area had a three-piece suite facing a huge TV set. A large kitchen was well stocked with ready made packet food. ‘But she’s French’, I muttered to no-one in particular.

When we arrived, it was just past midday and the street were empty. The children dived into the pool while I studied the ‘do’s and don’ts’ our exchange family had left for us. Slowly I began to relax, especially as in the garage we found the largest motor vehicle we’d ever set eyes on. The car-cum-caravan-cum-Winnebago (basically a small UK flat on wheels) became known as ‘The Monster Machine’.

We drove it everywhere – Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, Venice Beach. We took it on a five-day-long trip to San Francisco, driving along the Big Sur coastal road, Highway One. En route we visited Hearst Castle and intended to stay overnight in Monterey, but due to a hotel mix-up drove straight to San Francisco. Getting the Monster Machine up and down the famous hills of SF was an experience I’d rather not repeat, as was driving on the double-decker Oakland bridge.

Back in LA we had a family day out at a Lakers baseball match at the new Staples Stadium, spent a wonderful sunny afternoon body-boarding on a nearby beach, had a day in Raging Waters water park, visited Disneyland. I introduced Daughter to some serious retail therapy (something I’ve come to regret) at the many malls and discount warehouses around LA.

For some reason, this three week trip to LA has remained our only holiday home swap experience – I think real life got in the way somehow - but I would not have missed it for the world.

Exchanging homes through a reputable agency is a brilliant way to experience a place, a country, through the eyes of the people who live there. I love staying in hotels but find life there rather artificial and touristy. It feels as if a PR company somewhere has made the decisions of what to see and do, for you.

What I didn’t, however, enjoy was the preparation for the holiday. Instead of just getting yourself and your family ready, you also had to make your home presentable.

A lot of people asked us if we worried that the people we exchanged with were wrecking our home while we were being ultra careful with theirs. Truthfully I didn’t think that at all. Ours was a rambling old cottage anyway; besides the people we exchanged with had a very good reputation with the exchange company – something that I did really trust.

I would definitely do a holiday house swap again and now we’re in London we are seriously considering that for our next big winter break.

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