The two Spaniards arrived on a sunny afternoon bearing one wheelie suitcase apiece, and a hostess gift: a glass cruet for drizzling olive oil. Montse is fair, dark-haired, and petite; Mariano has big, kind eyes and natural comic timing. They spoke Catalan with each other, and Mariano and I could get by in French. Throw in some pantomime and we managed just fine. In a matter of minutes, we developed a rhythm—Montse and I looked over neighborhood maps while Mariano set about boiling potatoes and whipping up fresh mayonnaise.

I learned quickly that hospitality swapping is not for the phobic or the inflexible. You will find a stranger's food in your fridge. They will be using your dishes and reading your newspaper. Mariano and Montse were sleeping in my bed, as I'd given them my room while I camped in a smaller one. One day while they were out, I found their laundry in the dryer, which meant folding it myself so I could dry my own. (No big deal, as I later reassured an embarrassed Montse.) And who knows what they really thought when they found me in the kitchen one morning, standing on a chair in a threadbare nightie, searching the cupboard for more coffee filters. But somehow our quirks coexisted beautifully.

Six weeks later, my sons and I arrived at Mariano and Montse's spacious apartment in a former working-class neighborhood that has been transformed into a trendy one. Knowing my interest in cooking, Mariano told me where to find a shop that sells 30-plus kinds of flour out of huge open sacks. At another place, I saw chocolates shaped like little piles of excrement, mimicking the poops of the caganer, a figure in Catalan nativity scenes since the 17th century. When I got tired, I would head back, make a coffee on Montse's excellent automated espresso machine, and lounge about reading a novel while looking out the window at the castle across the street.

The most memorable moments were arguably the least dramatic, as when Mariano brought some toasted homemade bread to the table with a pork and red pepper pâté from Majorca, cheese, and packages of smoked meats. He lifted a finger to get the boys' attention, placed a piece of toast on his plate, took half a clove of garlic that sat on the table in a tiny ceramic saucer, and rubbed it across the surface of the toast. He drizzled it with olive oil, then indicated that one should choose the topping of one's choice. None of us will eat toast the same way again.

Yes, looking at architecture and scaling the Matterhorn have their appeal, as does the unreal world of smiling bellhops and chocolates on the pillow. But if you really want to learn about another culture, best to sink into the soothing humdrum of daily life there. And not bankrupt yourself while doing it.

Contemplating a summer vacation next year, I've lately been looking at swappers' descriptions of their country houses in France and Italy. My fantasy: that Mariano and Montse will come, too.

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