February 7, 2023

Off we go on a home exchange!

By John Guy LaPlante

Oops, make that off we went on a home exchange.  To France!

By we, I mean Milady Annabelle and me back in 2005. We were of retirement age, of course.

We were innocents in all that. Now there are companies and clubs that facilitate pulling that off. They charge for their services but countless people decide it’s money well spent.

Are you familiar with home  exchanging? Well, thousands and thousands of Americans swap every year with people in countries all over the world practically. More than 180 countries!

They swap not only houses, but condos and apartments.

They swap with folks living in big cities and middle-sized cities and little villages. Whatever they fancy.

We swapped my condo for a palatial home. Well, nearly palatial to us. With a man and his wife in Poitiers, a centuries-old and prestigious university city in southwestern France. Yes, a condo for a big home!

We swapped not only our homes. We swapped automobiles. Computers. Everything except the ladies, I tell people with a chuckle.

How lucky we were! In two ways, the right couple and the right property.

Now an alert. I have much to tell you so I am presenting it just the way I wrote it up and got it published in a newspaper back then that I wrote for a lot. Which was in two lengthy and detailed reports.

You are receiving the first report now. The second one you will get in a few days. This will give you the time to mull if home-swapping would be a great adventure for you. As it wonderfully turned out to be for Annabelle and me.

If you’re curious, just Google or Bing “Home swapping” or “Home exchange.”

And know what? I got the idea and the opportunity while traveling solo in Chile deep down in South America. My oh my!

So, here is my Report No. 1.

Off to France for a few weeks.  Prices are sky high,

but our house swap is minimizing the sting.

I write this from Poitiers in France.  I arrived yesterday on the TGV – the super-fast train from Paris, a two-hour ride.  Being here is a dream come true for me.

I’m here on a house swap.  I’m swapping my small condo in Deep River for their very big house here. I’ve got the better deal. “They” are Fernando and Violette Diaz, in their late 50s, I’d say. Both retired. He was an M.D. with psychiatry his specialty, and she a professor of education.  They are being ultra-nice to me.

We’ll be together for 10 days, so I’ll have the advantage of a thorough orientation before they take off for my town of Deep River, Connecticut.

I’m here alone but Milady Annabelle will be joining me in a week.  She is visiting her daughter and family in Dallas. There’s another reason also for her arriving late. I speak French. She does not. She will come two days before Paco and Mimi – yes, we’ve reached the nickname stage – will fly off to Deep River.

“I’ll get to meet these wonderful people,” Annabelle says, “but I won’t feel like the odd person out.”

The three of us here have hit it off and already we’ve plunged into what is really a wonderful, never-ending conversation. It’s good for both of us, but better for me.  They are instructing me in everything – how to get around the city, where to shop, what things to see. And briefing me about so much – the history, the customs, the trends.  Already a terrifically enriching experience, as good as – in fact, better than I had hoped.  This will consume every day until they leave May 1.

I’ve tried to organize things for them back home. I’ve lined up people to help them – my sister Lucie, who also speaks French of course,  plus good friends. As many French-speaking friends as I can recruit. Paco speaks some English; Mimi does not.

If you speak French and would like to make wonderful new friends, please call them.  You will find my name in the Deep River section of the phone book. Paco will answer the phone. It’s that simple.

Yes, this is a dream come true. You see, Poitiers is the area where my LaPlante ancestor came over from in 1665. He was a soldier in the Régiment Carignan-Salières. They went to France, now Québec, to protect the small colony of 2,500 people from the fierce Iroquois attacking them from what is now New York State. They did that.

When the regiment was called home three years later, half of the soldiers decided to stick it out in Québec. Yes, very rough, especially in winter, and surely they would miss their families back home, but they felt the chance for greater freedom and opportunity worth it.

My ancestor married in New France. Far too few women there.  As the story goes, his bride was either an orphan or a girl of the streets,  shipped over for that purpose in a boatload by the King.  The bachelors stood in line on shore.  The gals stood in line on the ship.

The first one down the gangplank linked arms with the first man, then the second with the second, and so on. They walked over to the priest, waiting to hear their marriage vows.  That’s how it was done.

“God himself is selecting the two of you to become one,” they were told.  And that’s why I exist, of course.

That saga is one I’ve become well aware of.  It’s a prime reason I’ve long thought of coming here someday. There is a museum about that whole story nearby.  It’s at the top of my “must do” list.

My opportunity to come came up in a strange way.

I was on a day-long bus ride in Chile during my Around the World tour 15 months ago. Two more people got on, a man and a woman. Only two seats were left, one being next to me.  She sat in the other, and he plunked down next to me. The two of us soon had a grand talk going. In French. Told me he and his wife were here to do some light mountain climbing.  He said he was from Poitiers. I really perked up. Poitiers! Eventually I mentioned a house swap.

“Good idea,” he said, “but a person has to be sure about the person he’s dealing with.”

Yes, indeed. I got his address. Back in Deep River, my hometown in Connecticut that is right on the great unspoiled Connecticut River, I got to work. I began sending him info about how delightful and historic Deep River is , plus the endless opportunities  in the area. And behold! He and his wife agreed to swap. And we worked out all the details.

Now about my trip over here. I bought a round-trip flight Newark-Paris on Orbitz.com.  The best deal Orbitz suggested, definitely a good one, was on Continental for $549.

On Tuesday morning I took the commuter train at 9:15 to New Haven, and there changed to the train heading to Grand Central Station, New York, all for just $15 with my senior discount.  Then an express bus to the airport, normally $12, but only $6 for me.  So, quite a bargain for $21 in all.

To be honest, the train was grimy and the ride not smooth, in fact surprisingly rough for one stretch. The bus ride, right to the door of my terminal, was excellent.  A bonus was that the bus gave me more interesting views, particularly of Manhattan from the Jersey side of the Hudson. I must say Newark is a sparkling, marvelous airport. Well, I think so.

Our Continental Boeing was jammed but the flight excellent, the crew attentive.  I had ordered a vegetarian dinner not really thinking I’d get it on such a cheap ticket, but I did. We took off at nearly midnight, but I dozed only an hour on the six-hour crossing, at dawn just before landing..

A gray, cool morning in France.  That was a disappointment. Charles de Gaulle, a very impressive airport as you would expect in France, is on the outskirts of Paris. I felt it too much trouble to dash into the city, then dash back for my train.  That was okay. I’d been to Paris half a dozen times.

I had hoped to take a Eurolines bus to Poitiers, but not available. Eurolines is the Greyhound Bus of Europe, so to speak, but better. Most of the time I prefer buses, but that’s a topic for another time.

Paco had given me specific instructions: take the TGV, the very fast train, right from the airport to Poitiers.  I checked and on this day the TGV was the only choice. I bought my ticket but had to cool my heels for more than three hours, a long time. So I scouted, poking into various shops.  I read just about the full LeMonde, the great Parisian daily.

And I got into a couple of conversations.  One with a mustached Australian, in Paris on a sales mission.  Hoped his light French would be good enough. Another with a husky Norwegian with grimy fingernails but fine grooming. Told me he was just back from western Africa. He had  been summoned there to repair a big ship with a nasty diesel engine problem.

What struck me was his perfect English. “All Norwegians learn good English,” he said. “We begin at age 4 and keep it up all through school.”

Finally the train.  Superb.  Remarkably clean, remarkably smooth.  I didn’t feel it when it began rolling.  We cruised easily.  Much faster than 100 mph, I know, but I’m not sure how much.  It often does better than 150.  Much faster than our touted Acela.  A great ride.

The problem was that I had an assigned seat, one where I and my seatmate faced the couple opposite us.  That can be very bad if they’re not up to some conversing. These two were stolid.  After a while I didn’t know how to avoid the eyes of the fellow facing me. Bad, bad.

We made eight or ten stops. Interesting.  The land was flat.  This was the great agricultural plain, with magnificent fields stretching to the horizon.  I was amazed by vast fields aflame with yellow flowers.  So thick they seemed an endless, gorgeous yellow carpet.  Van Gogh would have gone wild with his paint brushes here.

When I asked, the fellow across from me told me it was colza.  Had never heard of colza.  My little dictionary told me colza was rapeseed.  I’m not familiar with rapeseed.  Used to make a table oil, Paco told me later.  The good kind, low in cholesterol.  Beautiful in the field.

Paco was waiting for me in Poitiers.  Big smile, hearty embrace. “Bienvenu!” he said. “Welcome!”  He led me to his big blue VW van and we got to his house in less than 10 minutes. Mimi greeted me with a big sunny smile.

Oh, I must tell you.   The train ride was twice as long but took me about 40 minutes less than my ride to Manhattan.  This was a much better train and ride, as I said. But it cost a whopping 45 Euros — $61.75, in fact, and that was after a 25 percent senior discount.  Remember, I paid $21 back home.  That was the beginning of my severe sticker shock.  So far everything seems far more expensive.

Here are two more quick examples.  A gallon of 87 octane gas is $8.75.  A cup of coffee is $2.  Remember, prices here are in Euros now.  The Euro and the dollar were even just a few years ago, when the Euro was introduced.  Today the Euro is worth $1.35.

Paco believes the Euro has led to this inflation, at least in France.  The Euro is the currency of the land in 15 countries, I believe. I plan to talk more about prices and the cost of living in a later report.

That’s what makes this house swap so wonderful. It makes our trip so economical and affordable despite the inflation.  As I mentioned, we’re also swapping cars.  I eat with them at their table.  At this minute Mimi is doing my small laundry along with theirs in their washing machine.

I am writing this on their computer in Paco’s study.  They’re always asking if everything is fine.  Couldn’t be better!

Paco and Mimi will love our low prices in Connecticut.  Low to them, that is, if not to us.  I hope they’ll live it up.

We’re hitting it off.  It’s early in the swap, of course.

Paco takes me out twice a day.  Sometimes we take his car. Most often we go on walks.

Poitiers is a city of about 80,000.  It is an old medieval city, heavy with history and rich with charm.  It has an acclaimed university, centuries old.  It has thousands of students.  Right now they’re off on vacation, and Paco breathes a sigh of relief. They’re great kids.  Just that it’s nice to have a break.

Poitiers is worth plenty of words, and I’ll pour them out later. For now I’ll simply say it’s a fine destination, perfect for what Annabelle and I have in mind.  Which is to soak up the very best of everything French for a few weeks.

Paco and I have been having wonderful talks.  We go on and on, about so many things.  Mimi is always busy cooking and puttering, but she’s constantly listening and often offers comments. Definitely a sharp lady.  She smiles and laughs a lot. Her students must have loved her.

A fine cook, too.  Honest French food.  A zucchini cream soup this noon, made from scratch.  Then two cheeses, a creamy one and a hard, nutty one, served with chunky bread and a salad of lettuce and olives.  With a robust red wine. Then a crème brulée for dessert.  Finally an espresso coffee. How good it is.

Paco cleaned off the table.  I offered to do the dishes.  I was serious. I wash the dishes, I mean by hand, in Deep River. Mimi smiled but said Non, Non, Non!  She was utterly serious, too. But maybe I’ll get her to give in.

Hope…and trust…are what this whole undertaking is all about.  So far, it couldn’t be better.  I’ll keep you posted.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Please remember, dear reader, that was back in 2005.

You’ll be receiving my second report in a few days. You’ll see in detail how Milady Annabelle and I made out on our own in Poitiers and environs. A bientot, as the French say. Until then!






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