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House swaps let you make yourself at home when you're far from home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paris -- Before we traded our house in Laguna Beach, Calif., for an apartment in Paris for three weeks, my husband and I took a French conversation class. But we neglected to learn the words for "The electricity is not working."

In Paris, we learned them well.

Swapping your home for another's abroad is a course in comparative cultures -- a course that puts a person smack in the midst of everyday life in a foreign place.

We found ourselves in an area utterly French -- a middle-class neighborhood where shopkeepers stopped into the cafe we ourselves adopted on the corner, where the open-air market sold fabulous white peaches of a type we had never tasted before, where the sounds of children in the small local parks floated on the late summer air. Even though it was August, and the city was half-empty of Parisians, the Montmartre neighborhood was alive.

We soon knew by sight the waitress in the cafe, the man who roasted the rabbits and the woman who sold us dozens of varieties of aged goat cheese in what turned out to be one of Paris' best fromageries. With a Metro station a few blocks from our apartment, we could be at the Louvre in 15 minutes.

In short, it was just what we'd hoped for.

However, house-trading can also be a lesson in self-reliance -- a lesson that not all people might wish to study while vacationing. After all, not everyone wants to cope with finding an electrician in the midst of Paris' summer holiday when pretty much every electrician is out of town.

But let's start at the top. We got into this because of the money.

Or more exactly, we started with the desire to stay in one place for a period of time, enough time to come to know it. We chose Paris because it glittered with art, architecture, good food, history -- everything we love. Because neither of us had been there, we looked forward to discovering the city together.

But three weeks in a Paris hotel . . . We didn't have to use the currency converter to know we could not afford that and still eat.

We'd heard of house-exchange networks -- catalogs listing people around the world interested in trading. I found the names of two, wrote for information, filled out the forms, then waited for the catalogs to appear.

When the catalogs came out in January, it worked this way: We wrote to Parisians who seemed to be offering appropriate housing, who wanted to travel when we could and for about the same amount of time, and whose profile matched what our house could handle.

We sent about 20 letters to Europe; most were to Parisians but, in order to ensure that we found a trade, we also wrote to Italian and British exchangers. About 15 people -- in almost all cases not those we'd written -- approached us.

We hadn't expected that part of the fun would be those letters we received, with their pretty stamps and charmingly awkward English.

Some offers were clearly not for us, such as the house outside of Madrid. It looked like a suburban tract house we'd find in Southern California.

Some of the offers -- a house in Madagascar with the use of a four-wheel drive for when the rains washed out the roads, a Victorian flat in London's center with the use of a "very old" Jaguar -- sounded promising. But we were set on Paris.

Meanwhile, we fielded questions from friends. Aren't you worried about leaving your house to a stranger? Aren't you worried about what you'll find there?

To the first question, we felt confident answering no. We'd lock any valuables and breakables in the garage, we said, but in fact we simply trusted that anyone who would leave us his or her home would take care of ours. And that is exactly what happened.

To the second question, we also answered no. As soon as we had a match, we figured, we'd ask all sorts of questions about the neighborhood, the apartment or house itself and what it contained. We'd know exactly what we were getting into. That is not exactly how it happened.

The letter arrived from the perfect match: Martine Desaintjean, a Parisian who teaches English, single, middle-aged, with a one-bedroom apartment in the 18th arrondissement of the city. Just what we wanted -- a neighborhood off the tourist track, but close enough to be convenient to the sights. After several letters back and forth over a period of about two months -- both of us sending photographs and discussing dates -- we agreed on three weeks straddling August and September.

Meeting Martine

Many house-swappers never meet those they switch with, but we did meet Martine. The night before we left for Paris, we picked her up at the Santa Ana train station. She'd traded her apartment for one in San Francisco, too; we'd be overlapping with those people for a few days in Paris, and Martine had arranged we'd stay those days in her son's flat very near her own. He was also on vacation.

In between showing Martine how the stereo worked and introducing her to our neighbors, we talked about France. She was charming, thoughtful, obviously enthralled with things American. Now we had a face we would remember when we were away, a face we could place in our home. Trust? No question.

So we arrived in Paris. We took a cab to the address of Martine's son's apartment. We went up seven flights of stairs in one building only to find the key we'd been given didn't work.

Eventually, we figured out we were in the wrong building; eventually, we found the right apartment -- incredibly small and a true bare-bones bachelor pad, complete with the stale smell of cigarettes.

But two days later, on the heels of the San Franciscans, we moved into Martine's apartment. Though only the size of a hotel suite, with a small living and dining room, a small bedroom, a tiny kitchen and a tinier bathroom, it was pretty and neat, and fine for our needs.

Like most apartment buildings in Paris, there was no elevator, but going up and down the six flights of stairs allowed us to eat quite a bit of French cheese without gaining any weight.

Except for the fact that we could not call out of Paris on Martine's phone (a cost-cutting measure many Parisians take advantage of during the traditional August holiday period), the apartment gave us everything we needed. We soon got used to spraying off in the bathtub, as there was no shower; we soon got hooked on late-night French television, with its silly commercials (risque compared with their U.S. counterparts) and highly serious talk shows, on which the hosts are clearly chosen for their conversational skills, not their photogenic faces.

But a few days into our stay, we came home to an apartment with no electricity. Zip. Figuring we'd blown a fuse, we cleaned up for bed in the dark, and the next morning tried to buy matching fuses at a local store. No go; the fuses didn't work.

We opened up the Paris yellow pages and tried to call electricians; we got tape machines and no answers -- and then we realized, we had no idea how to say what we needed to say to a French electrician, let alone how to understand him. So far, our conversational French ("Bonjour!" and "Je m'appelle Kitty") had allowed us to stumble along, but now we were utterly lost. My husband was miffed; it looked as if we could waste entire days trying to solve this; me, I was trying to figure out if I could spend three weeks in Paris with no hot water.

Actions speak

We found a lighting store nearby, and a couple in it who understood our frantic gestures. With Mme. James' prodding, M. James came to the apartment, proving to himself that we weren't just Americans who couldn't change a fuse, then cajoled an electrician to come the next day and fix the problem.

In the midst of this -- a two-day endeavor that kept us close to our apartment -- we were anxious that our vacation was slipping away, the sights going unseen. But when finally all was fixed, and we offered to pay the electrician and he waved us away, we realized that in fact we were awfully lucky.

We'd had an experience no hotel guest could have. We'd had to ask for help and we'd received it. Maybe we'd spent a day or so fewer in the Louvre, but we'd met the guy in the hardware store and the Jameses and the electrician who wouldn't let us pay. We'd learned the words for "the electricity is not working."

It wasn't exactly what we'd expected to learn in Paris.

The remainder of the trip was, apartment-wise, uneventful. We left Martine's keys in her mailbox and flew home, to a spotless Laguna house and a note from Martine.

"For me, the home is quite without problem," Martine had written. "All is perfect."

So, too, for us.

HOW TO HOUSE-SWAP

Two major house-exchange networks publish annual directories. Two other services specialize in rentals, but do offer some exchanges.

* Intervac International, (800) 756-4663.

In operation for 41 years, Intervac is the oldest exchange network, and lists some 9,000 households. This service brought us the most inquiries from Europe, our preferred destination.

There are three publications a year -- in February, April and June.

Intervac also has a late service for members who have not arranged their own exchange by midyear. Intervac will try to match these members with others.

A listing and the year's books cost $62 ($55 for people over 62 years), plus $13 for shipping and handling. The cost to include a photograph is $11.

* Vacation Exchange Club, (800) 638-3841.

In existence for about 35 years, Vacation Exchange Club carries about 10,000 listings, most within the United States.

There are three publications a year, in January, March and

October, with supplements in April, May and June.

A listing and a year's publications cost $60 (listings are repeated free on request during the calendar year). The price for including a photo is $15.

* Hideaways International, P.O. Box 1270, Littleton, Mass. 01460; (800) 843-4433. The biannual directories of this service include about 1,000 condos and homes around the world. Most listings are rentals, but some are also available for trade. Two guides a year are available for $99, $155 for a listing.

* Loan-A-Home, 2 Park Lane, Apartment 6E, Mount Vernon, N.Y. 10552; (914) 664-7640. This service specializes in long-term rentals and exchanges, but some short-term listings are available. Two directories and two supplements a year are offered, with about 500 listings worldwide.

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