A Boston family trades its place in the burbs for a Paris apartment and the perfect Burgundy retreat
Christopher Corr
| Credit: Christopher Corr

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.

Any lingering trepidation disappeared when we arrived at the Paris apartment and were greeted by the Peroux's housekeeper, Madame Mercier. The Newton family had just left to spend a few more days in the Burgundy house. Madame Mercier was changing sheets. Did we want to sleep, she asked? Non, merci, we replied, and set out for Jean-Michel's favorite bakery—he had left explicit directions with a hand-drawn map. It was 8 a.m. and there was a long line. Two perfect baguettes, three croissants, and the ultimate lemon tart later, we felt fortified enough to tackle the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Élysées.

When we returned to the apartment, we were better able to take its measure. The bedrooms were almost unbelievably small. Jean-Michel had warned us that the washing machine, which was in the kitchen, was tiny—but not that it could easily be mistaken for a bread box. Still, the apartment was just what we needed: the kids each had a room, the living room came with a CD player and TV, and the one bathroom suited us fine. Most appealingly, the apartment was in the China Town section of the 13th Arrondissement, one of the few areas in Paris that has no major tourist attractions. The air smelled wonderful there, faintly of soy sauce and rice wine. The buildings were contemporary concrete and glass mixed with 19th-century storefronts and apartments. All of the signs, on the school across the street and on the tiny hotels and shops, were in both Chinese and French. In several small, neat parks I noticed old people practicing Tai Chi or reading Chinese newspapers. Many of the houses had courtyard gardens visible from the street. Sidewalk vendors sold crêpes, penny candy, nuts, and—the kids' favorite—foot-long rainbow-colored frozen ice concoctions called Géants. We wanted to sample the neighborhood's Chinese and Thai food, but the first night, we simply stopped by a grocery and bought our idea of a French dinner: bread, cheese, pâté, prosciutto, fruit, and cookies, which we ate seated on bar stools at the kitchen counter.

That night, despite jet lag, none of us slept well. Our first-floor bedroom faced the street, and the sounds of Saturday nightlife filled every crevice. We later discovered that on weekday mornings, garbage trucks, motorcycles, and gabbing pedestrians competed with the din of the school kids at recess. But we quickly grew accustomed to the sounds and rhythms of the neighborhood. They became our Paris sound track.

By the time the Newton family returned from Burgundy a couple of days later, we pretty much knew our way around the city. Still, their tips on Paris and Burgundy restaurants, a video store, and shops (for Megan, their teenage girls recommended the Gap-like chain Kookaï and Printemps) were helpful. Best of all, they brought the family car, with warnings about the tiny underground garage slot. Sure enough, when my husband went to park the van, it was like trying to wedge an elephant into a phone booth. Both side mirrors had to be folded in. Then he had to scramble over the seats and climb out through the back. How could he help but nick the bumper backing out?

Our city routine began to take shape: I'd run in a nearby park, then undo any benefits by a stop at the boulangerie. After a full day of exploring—the Latin Quarter, Monet's house and gardens in Giverny, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Musée D'Orsay, the view from the top of La Samaritaine department store—we'd cook at home, or hit one of the restaurants on Jean-Michel's list. Some evenings, we'd walk to our neighborhood Géant, a hard-to-believe cross between Zabar's and Wal-Mart, selling everything from dish soap to a dozen kinds each of Roquefort and Brie to nicely made costumes and Tin Tin- and Babar-themed school supplies. Nick was thrilled to pick up a book devoted—in French—to NBA superstar Karl Malone.

Roast ducks hung in many of the neighborhood restaurant windows. "What are those nasty things?" Megan had asked the first day. She later devoured much of one with gusto. Peking duck, Paris-style, became a cultural lesson. The waiter wheeled the duck over to the table and began carving. When he had gotten the fatty skin off—the part you generally try to avoid—he presented it to us, along with a plateful of warm pancakes the size of half-dollars. "Where's the rest of the duck?" groused my husband, while we scarfed down the measly scraps. Finished, we called for the check. That's when they brought the second course: a thick, rich duck stew. And then the third: pan-fried noodles with duck.

After a week we decided to take some country air, so we eased the van out of the garage and made our way to the Peroux's Burgundian village, Villon. From the instant we could see the stone church rising, just past the sunflower fields, we were in love. Their vine-covered house, dating from the early 19th century and built as a presbytery (its original church stood across the street), was as large and rambling as the Paris apartment was small and compact. Jean-Michel had left us a welcoming bottle of 1996 Domaine Laroche chablis. We lifted a glass to his family.

As busy as Paris had been, Villon was absolutely still. From our bedroom window we could see sunflowers and haystacks, and a changing palette of Monet colors. The first dusk, as the sky darkened from rose to violet to deep blue, a new moon appeared.

There were only 85 people in town, so we quickly became a curiosity. Our neighbors across the road, the woman who is the Peroux's caretaker and a man who sells wine in a nearby shop, advised us where to go for the best wine-tastings, and seemed very pleased with our passion for all things French. The old couple in the corner house waved each morning as I jogged by. Megan and Nick spoke shyly—in French—to village children, who replied—shyly—in English.

For my morning run, I found a dirt lane between hayfields. A bicycle provided Fran with a look at back roads. Best of all, perhaps, the country gave the kids some needed space. They scaled stone walls and played tag on the church green. Tonnerre, about 15 miles away, was where we bought groceries for a fraction of what they cost in Paris. Each day a truck would pull up to the church, and a crowd would gather alongside. From the back hatch, the driver sold fresh baked goods one day, dairy products another, meat (including pâtés) another, and general groceries yet another. For our dinners at home, Megan and Nick helped fix trays of bread and cheeses (goat, Camembert, Brie) and grilled meat and vegetables—pork or veal or whatever roast looked good that day, along with asparagus, eggplant, or brussels sprouts—and carried it out to the garden.

Burgundy, of course, is all about wine. By late summer, vineyards heavy with grapes line the roads around towns with famous names such as Chablis, Beaune, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Nuits-Saint-Georges. Wine cellars are open for tastings and purchases; and champagne country is just down the road. At one vineyard, a woman wearing a navy Chanel suit and heels, with matching burgundy nail polish and lipstick, showed us to a private living room. She started to pour four glasses of champagne until the children politely declined. During our stay we visited Dijon, famous for its mustard, and hiked in the Parc du Morvan. We stopped in extraordinary medieval towns and watched house barges inch down canals. And, of course, we drank too much great wine.

Five days later, with real sadness, we stripped the beds, cleaned out the fridge, locked up, and returned to Paris for our last two days. The woman at our corner boulangerie greeted us with a grin and a free baguette. We called Jean-Michel to make sure everything was okay back in Boston. It was—they'd found Cape Cod, Concord, Boston's North End, many museums, the South Shore Plaza mall, and some "real American meals." We confessed to the dent in the bumper. "That's okay," Jean-Michel said, "I'm sure you noticed the bigger one I put in it." Whew!

Our flights home coincided, and to save both families the cab fare, we asked the Peroux to drive our car to the airport. Right on cue, they pulled up to the curb as we were lugging our bags out the door. We exchanged quick stories, keys, and good-bye kisses. After using each others' pots and pans, beds and towels, we felt an enormous bond. They laughed at the dozen bottles of wine we'd stuffed into our carry-ons. We were impressed by the computer they'd assembled. Back at our house, everything seemed to be in order. The worst damage suffered was a broken grill brush. And we were amused by the staples they'd left behind: a 16-pack of Devil Dogs; a tub of fudge-swirl ice cream; several packs of frozen onion rings. We recently received our renewal form in the mail from Intervac. Our check is in the mail. This year, we're shooting for Italy.

Agencies specializing in house swaps act as middlemen. For an annual membership fee, you post pictures and descriptions of your house on the group's Web site, along with a list of what you're looking for—type of house, location, time of year. Members browse the site and strike deals with one another.

Most agencies don't screen their members, and there's no such thing as home-exchange insurance—though you should check with your broker to find out what your homeowner's policy covers. Try to arrange a meeting with your swap partners beforehand, and get some friends to drop in on them during their stay. For peace of mind remember that the arrangement is mutualÑwhile they're living it up in your quarters, so are you in theirs.

Digsville (www.digsville.com) charges $50 for a year's membership, and if you don't find a match within that time, they'll extend your terms. · For $30 a year, you can list your house on the International Home Exchange Network (386/238-3633, fax 386/254-3425; www.ihen.com). · HomeLink (800/638-3841 or 813/975-9825, fax 813/910-8144; www.homelink.org) updates its directory of 11,000 house exchanges three times a year. Membership is $70. · There's no fee to search the Home Exchange (800/877-8723 or 310/798-3864, fax 310/798-3865, www.homeexchange.com) web site, which has over 7,000 worldwide listings. (Posting your own home is $50.) ·Intervac U.S. (800/756-4663 or 415/435-3497, fax 415/435-7440; www.intervacus.com) lets you choose whether you want to post a photo of your house or just describe it. Membership is $50 without a photo and $68 with.