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Special Report: House Swapping

They have your keys. You have theirs. They shop at your supermarket. You fall in love with their pizza joint. You're essentially strangers, making yourselves at home in one another's bedrooms, kitchens, even cars. Introducing the thrilling—and affordable—world of trading houses. It's the insider way to show your kids how another culture lives and plays. Two families—one from the Bay Area, the other from London—met on an Internet swap site and changed places. Here, their true-life tales.

california goes to london

BY PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN

Had we not moved from Paranoiaville—New York City—to California five years ago, chances are we would never have considered a swap. But shortly after our arrival in Piedmont, next door to Berkeley and across the Bay from San Francisco, we began hearing about house trading; it sounded like our kind of vacation. I'd dreamed of showing our two boys London, where I had lived for two years during and just after college. It was the first place I'd fallen in love with on my own. At the suggestion of friends, we joined Intervac, a popular house-exchange program with both a Web site and catalogues. Soon, what is known as The Book arrived in the mail: a deliciously voyeuristic orgy of possibilities, from Norwegian farmhouses to condos in Sydney.

In no time, we spotted GBL004829, a fetching brick Victorian in Ealing, an area of London I vaguely knew. The cryptic blurbs accompanying the photos—the home-exchange equivalent of Internet dating ads—identified the owners of the house as radio journalists. My husband, Roger Cohn, and I are both journalists, so we immediately fired off an e-mail. It was, and remains, our deep conviction that fellow journalists are kindred spirits, with similar values and interests. So there was a built-in trust.

Six months later—after an e-mail courtship and a final phone call—we were in Ealing, a wonderfully diverse neighborhood with a picturesque village green, about a half-hour's tube ride from central London. We were exhausted, and not just from a sleepless 10-hour flight. We were reeling from a month of de-cluttering and perfecting our place for our visitors, Martin Rosenbaum, Jane Ashley, and their three kids. (Rule No. 1: The weeks leading up to your swap are not the time to give your house a total makeover.)

Part of the joy, as well as the challenge, of trading places is adapting to another family's domestic style. Our son Gabe, age 10, immediately claimed 13-year-old Ben's room, with its mini snooker table; Jacob, 13, gravitated to 10-year-old Adam's third-floor lair. It quickly became apparent, as we looked around at the stacks of books and papers, that Marthafying our abode had been completely unnecessary. It became even more obvious upon discovery of the collapsing metal clothes rack in the master bedroom. Well, what did we expect, a hot tub in Big Sur?, Roger and I asked ourselves, trying in vain to eke out some romance.

By far the most intimidating aspect of the swap agreement was our stewardship of the family's two pet rabbits, Smokey and Salome, outlined in several pages of daunting instructions that greeted our sweaty arrival: Two types of hay daily. Freshly snipped grass each morning. New sawdust. And every evening, sweeping bunny droppings from the hutch and the parlor floor, where the pets were allowed to romp. (Rule No. 2: Think hard about whether your idea of a vacation involves rabbit poop.)

Nevertheless, it didn't take long for all of us to fall in love with the place. We met the charming neighbors, Will, Lesley, and 17-year-old Anna French, who welcomed us with a glass of wine and a mother lode of local intelligence. We also met Jane's delightful aunt, Barbara Crispin, who had studied economics at UC Berkeley. We wanted her to be our aunt too, especially when she appeared fairy godmother-like to stock the fridge for her niece's return.

It's difficult not to fantasize about one's hosts. We gleaned from a large container that Heath& Heather's Evening Primrose is Jane's favorite tea, and pictured her sipping it. We imagined Martin, who is a producer of political programs at the BBC, as a menschy wonk, entombed in his office reading the autobiography of former prime minister James Callaghan and the diaries of Labour politician Tony Benn.

There were Lucy and Ethel moments. It took awhile to figure out that the "hob" referred to in the household instructions was the range. Then came the evening when, as I frantically searched for the cheese grater to finish a frittata dinner for a visiting friend, the phone rang. It was Martin, trying gamely to conceal his panic at the Marx Brothers situation back at our house, in which all the toilets had stopped up (we had forgotten to explain the quirks).

On a three-week trip involving heavy-duty museum-going, it helps to have a comfy place for downtime, some of it mindless. Unable to shake our jet lag, we evolved a daily routine in which the boys slept in and then played a bit of Game Cube (banned at our house), while I, a type-A personality, went to the gym where I had taken out a temporary membership. We would head out together in late morning, riding the District Line (green) or the Central Line (red) to the Tower of London (a sticker-shocking $75 for the four of us), the British Museum, or Westminster Abbey, where Gabe remarked on the strangeness of "walking on dead people."

The trip was full of the sort of things one lives for as a mom, such as an afternoon with Jacob exploring the Inns of Court off Fleet Street (my favorite haunt), following barristers down hidden lanes that led to quiet courtyards unchanged since Elizabethan days.

Just as enlightening, in a different way, was seeing British culture through the lens of a single neighborhood. We bought the Guardian and the Herald Tribune at the Budgen's Quickstop by the tube. We exchanged money at cash machines in a converted Victorian church. We bought tandoori-flavored potato chips. We befriended Kalina, a Bulgarian student moonlighting as a waitress at our Ealing hangout, Pizza on the Green. From placards in the windows, we learned about a local controversy concerning the widening of a medieval street.

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