Gavin du Venage This Christmas past, we were broke. An overseas holiday appeared out of the question for our family of four, unless we settled for a dorm room in a dingy backpackers' hostel full of unwashed Australians. I figured we'd have to resign ourselves to wandering the mall and watching child-friendly movies. As it turned out, we decorated our tree and saw in the New Year in a vast 18th-century apartment with windows that looked out onto a wintry European boulevard, lined with snow-covered trees decked in twinkling fairy lights. And it cost us little more than a weekend in, say, Oman or Fujairah.
It was my wife who came up with the solution. "We'll swap our house," she said. "There's bound to be someone out there who is as desperate for sun as we are for a white Christmas. So let's give it to them." Like many expatriates, we'd indulged in property speculation and with the proceeds bought a house along South Africa's Garden Route, on the coast a few hours from Cape Town. This, we figured, could be exchanged for a destination elsewhere.
As it turned out, Jeannine was right. Unknown to us, a well-travelled but skint German family - Jochen, Laurie, and two small daughters - faced the prospect of a grey Berlin winter with dread. They wanted sunshine. Badly. What they didn't have was the money to take them and their kids to a warmer climate for the length of time required to make it worth the trip. So naturally they turned to the internet. As did we. There are several home exchange websites, some free and others for subscribers only. We selected homeexchange.com, a site that requires a US$100 registration fee, as we figured the payment would eliminate chancers. To pay the cash would indicate commitment to the concept. It takes a leap of faith to let strangers into your house, while at the same time travelling across the planet with two small boys, on no more than a verbal promise from a stranger that there will be a bed waiting for us. Commitment in this context, then, was a comfort.
Once registered with the site, we arranged to have the house cleaned and the garden spruced up to make it look as appealing as possible. Then we took a collection of digital pictures from the most flattering angles. The website allowed us to post the pictures, together with a few paragraphs about ourselves. "We are couple of writers with a sea-view house in a country setting along the Cape coast, a large garden and lots of room for kids to play," we wrote.
"What we are looking for is a big city, bright lights and good restaurants. All destinations considered." Within hours the first emailed responses came in. A hippie preacher from New York, who did 'non-denominational, non-sectarian weddings,' for a living, offered us her Manhattan loft. The only hitch was, she wanted to swap in 2009. Too long for us to wait. Soon after, a professor of literature from Paris contacted us. We eagerly checked out his listing on the website, a fabulous, book-lined old-world apartment near the Sorbonne university. The professor, his wife and two adult children wanted a swap in December, only they wanted it for 10 days - too short for us, so we reluctantly turned them down.
"Don't worry," he wrote back. "Maybe next year we can do it at a better time. We stay in touch, yes?" Of course we said yes. A flurry of correspondence followed between us and prospective swaps. A villa in Qatar, with its own Olympic-sized swimming pool, was turned down because we wanted to leave the region. The next inquiry offered a house in rural Belgium, set in a vast, rambling garden; pretty, but not the city life we were looking for.
Then an email arrived from Jochen. "What about Christmas in Berlin?" his mail began. "We have lights in the trees outside our apartment along the legendary Kurfürstendamm, there will be snow on the ground and the biggest party in the world for New Year." My wife and I jostled around the computer screen to call up their link to their apartment. Jochen and Laurie's place was in the same block as some of Berlin's best hotels, where a single room would have cost us 100 euros (Dh510) per day, per person. They lived in a five-room, two bathroom apartment with restaurants in the street below and towering chestnut trees that reached up to the windows. And of course, there was Berlin's claim to hold the world's largest New Year's bash.
That settled it. We agreed. A couple of days later we exchanged a phone call with Jochen. "This is crazy, but exciting," Jochen said. "Our friends think we are mad, but you know what, I don't care. I want to see some sun. We do this, ja?" Three months later we touched down in Berlin, about the same time as Jochen's clan was landing in Johannesburg. We found our way to their apartment block and as the icy wind whipped around us, we rang the bell of Torsten, Jochen's neighbour. Torsten let us in, wide-eyed, and handed over the keys to the apartment. Later he confessed: "We were a bit worried. Letting strangers into the apartment seemed like not such a good idea." I could understand this - for all he knew, we could have been a bunch of Somali pirates.
In any case, Jochen and Laurie's apartment was everything we hoped it would be large, with a kids' playroom, and well-heated against the Baltic chill outside. For the next month we wandered the city, ate at the restaurants and café's in the streets below the apartment, and watched as our boys shrieked as they romped in snow for the first time in their lives. Neither we nor our hosts had had time or space to pack any of our personal items - clothes, books, fishing gear - away, but this didn't bother us. Short on winter clothes, we took up Laurie's offer to raid their cupboards. Gloves, coats, rubber boots: we had everything we needed without having to buy cold weather gear, which we would then have to schlep back home to lie as unused clutter in our apartment.
We'd left our car for Jochen and Laurie, and they had let us use theirs, so we were not confined to the city or public transport. We saw every square inch of the city. On the evenings that we did not want to go out for dinner, we cooked at home, trying German specialities bought at local delicatessens. On days when we arrived home, sodden from the snow, the trusty washing machine and a vast bath with steaming hot water were there to welcome us.
Travelling and children are usually mutually exclusive pleasures, like mixing oysters and ice cream. But with a large apartment and plenty of space, we could make the most of downtime. The boys would watch TV and build Lego in the playroom while we took a nap. On Christmas day we awoke to the sound all parents dread: little kids throwing up in bed, thanks to a dodgy doner kebab the day before. This would be disaster at a "bed and breakfast" or hotel; here, we had Laurie's washing machine and plenty of spare linen to help quickly clean up the mess. Within a day both were fine.
Soon enough, the time came to do the reverse swap. The day before we departed, I spoke with Jochen on the phone. As his voice came over the line, I could hear, in the background, the familiar sounds of birds and the distant ocean. We spoke with a new familiarity, the result of a month of living in their apartment, sleeping in their beds, and at times, wearing their clothes. "You know," said Jochen, "this is not just a holiday. We are not only swapping houses - we are also swapping lives."
Home exchanging is the cheapest way to stay in faraway places. All you have to do is find a like-minded person or family who will swap their home for yours. But how safe is it, really, to hand over the keys to your home to a perfect stranger? Think of it as internet dating for your house. Once you have made contact with a possible swap, exchange photographs, e-mails and phone calls before committing. "In 14 years and tens of thousands of exchanges, we've never had a report of a theft, malicious vandalism, or a case of someone getting to their exchange home and finding a vacant lot," says Homexchange.com, one of the biggest sites where house swaps are arranged. Still, it's wise to lock up or remove valuables and put granny's dinner service away; household mishaps do happen, so remove anything you feel precious about. The exchange can involve cars as well. It saves a fortune in transport costs. Just be sure to check your insurance, and that the other party has a valid drivers' licence. Accidents do happen, and the rule is, you break it, you replace it. My brother-in-law, who swapped his Cape Town apartment for something in New York last year, accidentally poisoned his hosts' hyper-allergic Persian cat. After the animal had a fit and collapsed into a coma, he had to carry it two blocks to the vet and fork over US$200 to have it returned to health. It should be possible to exchange your UAE apartment, but be sure to get permission from your landlord first. Exchanges do not have to be simultaneous; many people swap second homes, so it is possible to arrange to use a place at a time that suits you, provided you have somewhere to live while your exchange partners are using your premises. Home swaps, like property sales, depend on the three l's ? location, location, location. A one-bedroom flat on Muroor road in Abu Dhabi is not likely to get you a Manhattan loft space, but if you are lucky enough to own a well-located property in a particularly popular city ? London, New York and Cape Town are among the most sought after ? you can have your pick. Still, even a modest dwelling can be exchanged and a shortage of hotel rooms and apartments has meant the UAE is particularly desirable at the moment. The key, and the real joy of homeswapping is to be flexible. Some people have a specific destination in mind, but most don't. "Surprise me" is a frequent reference in the 'destination' slot on the home exchange website. One couple I came across worked as missionaries in Kenya and listed their mud hut for an exchange, offering a tribe willing to cut firewood and slaughter chickens for dinner as an incentive. We settled on Berlin because it was the first offer that suited our timetable and our basic requirements. But we could just as well have ended up in Tokyo or Paris. And that's what its all about. As well as @email:www.homexchange.com, check out www.homebase-hols.com, www.stay4free.com and www.swapadoo.com.