We had longed for a vacation in France, but didn't relish the thought of sharing a hotel room for two weeks with our 13-year-old daughter, Megan, and our seven-year-old son, Nick. Nor did we relish the expense of booking a two-room suite. So my husband, Fran, snapped a picture of our suburban Boston house in its most flattering light and we submitted it to one of those international house-exchange catalogue agencies, along with a check for $111.
The company we went through, Intervac U.S., offers a bimonthly alphabetical listing of countries, from Australia to Venezuela, in which home-owners are looking to swap their digs for a stranger's. Like a personals column, the catalogue (also available on the Web) lists vital statistics: "physical therapist and lawyer with three kids aged 10, 12, and 14 seek 4-bedroom house in English countryside. Our house: 5 bedrooms in suburb of Philadelphia." And once the ad runs, it's up to the interested parties to make their own match. Our catalogue arrived in early December, a perfect time to envision ourselves in France, going down the Seine in a bateau-mouche, or sipping wine at a picnic table in a vineyard.
A few days later, our phone rang. It was a woman speaking English with a heavy French accent. Would we be interested in swapping with her in August? She had a big place in Versailles, in the shadow of the grandest palace in Europe. We talked a few more times, and then our caller moved on to someone else. I felt like a rejected suitor, but got over it when an e-mail arrived from Jean-Michel in Paris. He and his wife, Laurence, had two teenage boys and a two-year-old girl. More important, they had a four-bedroom flat in Paris and a weekend house in Burgundy, both of which could be ours for two weeks. They wanted a house and yard within an easy drive of Boston's museums and historic sites (and Burger Kings) and nearby beaches. And so it was that we found ourselves in mid-August, locking up a few valuables in our wine cellar but leaving the rest of our place comme ça, and then handing over our house and car keys to strangers.
The Peroux family wanted to spend an entire month in the U.S., so they'd arranged to trade with a family in another Boston suburb for two weeks before they were due to arrive at our house. It wasn't until the night before we flew out that both our families' schedules allowed for a meeting. We invited them over for dinner—we wanted to check them out, of course, and were surprised to learn that many Intervac participants never meet. The entire family, in jeans and T-shirts, looked at least as Western as we do. Jean-Michel was a tall, burly guy, and Laurence, extremely petite. The boys were approaching their father's height. They spoke almost no English—though they knew the words "American restaurants," which Jean-Michel translated as "fast food"—but our kids, who have been participating in the French immersion program at their public school since the first grade, are both more or less fluent. The two-year-old, with her universal baby antics, was the icebreaker. Soon, the adults were struggling gamely with pidgin French and pidgin English while the kids chatted easily.
The next day we dropped off our minivan (exactly the same Plymouth Voyager as theirs, down to the color: deep purple) at their Newton house and picked up Jean-Michel, who drove us to the airport. I have to admit, it did seem odd to see this man—a total stranger 24 hours earlier—drive away in my "mom-mobile" with my son's crooked wooden fish dangling from the rear-view mirror. "Have a good time!" Jean-Michel called. "Don't forget the Chinese restaurant." "Au revoir," I yelled back. Both families had left lengthy survival lists with each other: how to operate the electric garage door and the cell phone (like many Parisians, the Peroux had traded in their crackling phone line for the wireless alternative), the location of our nearest supermarket, the phone numbers of neighbors, and favorite local spots.