mailbox with vacancy sign
Illustration: Tamara Shopsin
No bellhops or chocolates on the pillow. Someone else's laundry in your dryer. It's not for the squeamish, but if you really want to see the world on a dime, swap lives with a stranger.
About a year ago, I was itching to go to Europe with my two teenage sons. A splendid idea, until I calculated the cost: Beyond the $2,100 for three airfares, figure $2,400 for seven nights in two unfancy rooms. Throw in three restaurant meals a day, and I'd be dropping a fat five grand for the week. Suddenly that cabin in the Poconos was looking pretty good.

Then a French friend told me about the home swap, the next best thing to visiting friends abroad. As it happens, there are people all over the world who want to spend their precious vacation in our house; in return we get to bunk in theirs. The commitment was minimal—$115 for a year's membership to the site, where I could browse opportunities to visit places like Greece, London, Iceland, or the Caribbean. Although most members offer their homes vacant, some are open to the adventure of personally hosting foreigners—what's known as a hospitality swap.

As soon as I posted photos and details about my place in New York City, invitations poured in. It was daunting at first. Sure, the lovely blonde couple had a gorgeous apartment in Copenhagen, but did I really want to go to Copenhagen? The idea of New Zealand excited me, but it's so bloody far.... And how could I know that the husband and wife in the photo weren't going to rob me blind and carry my tatty furniture back to the antipodes?

In August I received a promising e-mail from Mariano and Montse, an architect and a painter in Barcelona. They wanted to check out the art scene in New York. In exchange, I'd get their centrally located two-bedroom apartment in an elegant 19th-century building, with 15-foot ceilings and original ceramic tile floors. The catch: They needed to travel in November, and the best time for us was December. The only way to make it work was to take our chances on a hospitality swap. But was I prepared to host strangers? At one point during our e-mail courtship, Mariano sent funny videos of castellers, people who practice the Catalan tradition of erecting great human pyramids—scores of men clustered at the base while others form peaks by standing on one another's shoulders. Yes, I suppose he could have been an ax murderer, but I sensed humor and warmth, and that clinched the deal.

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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