Adventures in House Swapping
When my family arrived at Nel Olsen's flat in London, I felt like I was house-sitting for a friend. Except these were friends I'd never spoken to, who on that same day were settling into my family's house in Brooklyn. Nel and I had met online and spent the past six months e-mailing about our homes and families, getting comfortable with the idea of swapping houses for five weeks.
An exchange seemed ideal for family travel: a fun, economical way to get an insider's glimpse of a country. My husband and I used to be intrepid travelers, and we were eager to go abroad with our daughters, who, at five and two, seemed ready for an adventure. And because I'm a writer and my husband a cartoonist, our jobs could go with us. As our departure drew near, I looked forward to living like a Londoner, but I couldn't have guessed how much I'd learn about myself.
Opening My Home
The first lesson came before we left for the airport. Previously when I'd traveled, I'd worry about what to bring. Now I worried about what I'd leave behind. I'd always considered myself a trusting person, but I found I was thinking of my home in terms of all I stood to lose.
Should I protect my computer files? Put away the valuable photos? What about the first-edition books, the antique gramophone, my grandmother's piano? In the end, I realized I would have to follow my instincts: During all our e-mail conversations, I'd never gotten the feeling that Nel was the type to make off with the art on the walls. So I locked up the financial data but left everything else as it was.
I also started to wonder what my house would say about me -- my messy office, the peeling bathroom ceiling. I entered a home-improvement frenzy, leaving a house that reflected a version of me that seemed organized and conscientious. By the time I was done, it was in better shape than when we'd moved in. I almost hated to leave it.
In London, my experience became curiously divided. Outside the flat, I was as seasoned a traveler as I'd ever been, parlaying my subway skills into navigating the Tube. My daughters, accustomed to Manhattan's bustle, were game to explore their adopted city, and we spent our days admiring London's parks and playgrounds and traipsing through the city's museums.
But being out in the world was the easy part. Behind closed doors was where things felt foreign. Even simple tasks were fraught: the dishwasher that required special dishwasher "salt" (which ran out after one use), the arcane symbols of the washing machine dials, the plug-in tea kettle that was useless to a coffee person.
I reached for light switches that weren't there and struggled with door knobs that didn't turn. I discovered that home was not only a place. It was a catalog of movements and muscle memories, expectations and assumptions.
In the city, I frantically searched for canned black beans, my daughters' favorite, and seltzer, which I'm addicted to. (Lessons learned: There are no canned black beans in London. And Brits call it sparkling water.) I'd happily eaten broiled snakehead in Cambodia a few years ago, so why was I making a fuss over canned goods and fizz?
My working holiday was feeling like all work and no holiday. I realized that after a day of sightseeing, I didn't want to think on my feet when I got home. On the fourth night, as I scrambled to improvise a familiar dinner after hanging with the mummies at the British Museum, I wondered if I'd have been better off with a more short-term, conventional arrangement, someplace where I wasn't in charge of food, clothes, dishes, and all the other things people generally travel in order to leave behind.
On a vacation, unfamiliarity is part of the game. But this trip inhabited an in-between state in which I was half-Londoner, half-visitor. As a tourist with a set of house keys, I was simultaneously trying to take in new experiences and lay claim to a place, which meant listening to my adventurous and domestic sides at the same time. I'd always been good at compartmentalizing, but in London, it threw me how my expectations and desires changed depending on whether I was inside or outside the Olsens' flat.
Making Peace with My Inner Homebody
By week two, I had accepted that a little thing like seltzer made a bigger thing, like scary appliances, easier to manage. I began to love the Olsens' claw-foot bathtub, the blackberry bushes on their block, and the profusion of flowers left behind by England's rains. I took a fancy to crumpets and to listening to Corrie Corfield on the radio. The flat was filled with fabulous children's books by Quentin Blake and DVDs of British noir classics like Brighton Rock.
Maybe I'm just getting older, but I suspect that had I taken a longer trip to Cambodia, it wouldn't have been five weeks of broiled snakehead. And so I made peace with my inner adventurer and my inner homebody. Out in London, I joyfully ate eels and mash. Back in the flat, BBC Radio chimed the hour while I prepared my daughters' favorite chicken dish.
I've decided that it's okay to be domestic and intrepid. Perhaps it's even the best way to travel.
Text by Myla Goldberg
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