Once upon a time there were two ladies. They were both INTERVAC members. One, her name is France, lived in Kehl, the other, Dagmar, in Berlin. One day France asked Dagmar if she was interested in an exchange.
Since Dagmar and her partner love travelling she agreed right away. At the same time she found out that France had two daughters. The youngest, Claire, wanted to move to Berlin. She had just finished her studies. She was looking for a job as medical doctor and needed a place to live. Now it happened that a friend of a friend of Dagmar had an apartment that was available. And sure enough Claire got the apartment. Not only was it newly renovated and affordable but also in a beautiful neighborhood in the center of the city. How fortunate she was and how happy!
Meanwhile France and Dagmar became good friends…and this is not the end of the story!
It was already in the early 1990’s that I learned, through a magazine, that a group of French and Dutch teachers (it seems that they were actually Swiss) had created an organization to allow the exchange of houses. I, who was already passionate with travels, found the idea extraordinary, once, besides allowing to save on stays and meals, gave us above all the opportunity to know the country, the city or the region like a local inhabitant. So I joined quickly. At the time, new entries were published in booklets and we received them with updates twice a year. The booklet contained an identifying photo and a short description. The real proposals arrived by regular mail, inside an envelope, with detailed and appealing descriptions and more photos of the house and region. Sometimes the interested partner called to shorten the process.
I made my first exchange in 1991 with a family from Saint-Ismier, a French village just outside Grenoble for Geneve, Switzerland. From the balcony, where we sometimes ate, we could see the snowy peaks of Mont Blanc on the horizon. I went with my wife and a couple of friends, whom we travelled on other trips, and we visited several interesting cities in ancient Savoy, Geneve and of course the Alps, especially Mont Blanc. My daughter was two years old and we thought it was too early to travel with us, at the time a car trip. She stayed with grandparents and almost every day we called her and sometimes she couldn’t stop sobbing and cried with longing. I promised myself that she would go on the next trips. So it was, when two years later we made another exchange to the south of England, in Rye, near Hastings. With this family we established a special friendship and we visited them when two years later we made another exchange to the city of London and several years later, on a visit to Portugal, they called me, we met and they slept one night in my house. On the trip to London we also take my son, who was 3 or 4 years old at the time. When I got divorced years later, my children became my favourite companions on the trips I made through Intervac exchanges, but sometimes friends or family travelled with me too. Of course I looked for specific attractions for them, such as Disneyland, PortAventura and others, but I also tried to teach them the local culture and what motivated me to travel. That’s why they fell in love with Florence or Rome like I did. It was a suffocating heat in Rome in August when we went for the first time, but there are sources of fresh water everywhere. But my children, still kids in 2001, preferred ice cream, so we became customers of an ice cream shop on the corner of Piazza Navona. That’s why every day, on our daily trips, we had to go through Piazza Navona. When the employees saw us arriving, they said: “arrivanno i portoghesi!” Five years later, on an exchange to Florence, we went to Rome and at the ice cream shop they still remembered us.
I usually say that I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller. That’s why Intervac met my preferences, because I like to choose the attractions I want to see, how long and how often I want to see them. This makes me to prepare the trip very well and while I am preparing it, I am already enjoying it, even before it begins. And in order to get to know a city or region we need to know a little about its history, its culture, habits and a little bit of its language. So besides the languages I speak, I always learn the basic sentences of the language of the country to where I travel. Gastronomy is part of the culture. We can also try local products at our Intervac partner’s house, but a typical restaurant is always advisable. In Iceland, Lára (read Laura) left us a decent amount of fish, especially fresh cod, all very tasty. We tried other local specialties at restaurants, but I just didn’t have the courage to try the most famous one – Hákarl. They are cubes of shark meat that are buried for 2 to 4 months to “ferment” (understand: rot) and those cubes have a very strong smell and taste. In a restaurant near the port of Reykjavik, the delicacy was advertised and added: “eat first and ask later”. But I already knew and I didn’t need to ask.
My Intervac partners always leave tourist information, more or less detailed, and a list with practical information about the house and the area. I also leave detailed information, but I have always enjoyed meeting them whenever possible. That’s why, even in the simultaneous exchanges, I try to delay our journey in order to receive the Intervac partners, show them the house and the area and often take a short tour of the most important spots of Porto (the city and the surroundings where I live) and we ended up having lunch. This gives them important help and establishes bonds of friendship and trust. We have already found partners that when they receive us, also did the same. Once in a while I even took a full day trip to show them the wonders of the Douro landscape and the best places to admire it. After a new affective relationship, in which we both live in our own house, it’s easy to delay the date of our departure. But before, I tried to sleep at a relative’s house and I even went to sleep in a hotel twice. I strongly advise you to do this, because it strengthens the bonds of friendship and trust with those with whom we are exchanging.
I don’t have pets and I rarely find exchange partners with animals. But the ones we found with animals (usually cats) were very independent and lived outside the house. I remember an exchange we made to a mI don’t have pets and I rarely find exchange partners with animals. But the ones we found with animals (usually cats) were very independent and lived outside the house. I remember an exchange we made to a mountain village of Brengenz (near Lake Constance). They had a cat that lived outside the house, but every morning he came to show what he had hunted – a mouse or a sparrow. I am pleased with Intervac. I even joined two other services of the same kind. In one of them I still made two or three exchanges, but I just gave up, because it’s at Intervac I find almost everything I want.
Our first home exchange was in 2008. We wanted to bring our two young girls to see the Netherlands where my husband’s grandparents emigrated from after WWII. In the one photo, my husband is standing in front of a home formerly owned by his ancestors in Holland.
In the other photo, the girls and I are in front of the Batavia ship in Lelystad, Flevoland.
We chose to arrange a home exchange because living out of suitcases and always searching for restaurant food appealing to young children didn’t sound like much fun. An exchange allowed us to settle in (baby gear and all) to much roomier accommodation, enjoy private gardens and do our own cooking. We included cars in the exchange which allowed us to see parts of the country not easily accessible by train or bus, especially if you’re pushing baby strollers. The family we exchanged with even had the same kids cutlery and plates from Ikea that we had back at home in Canada! We are still friends with the family we did the home exchange with – we visit them every time we go back.
The last exchange we have had with a family in Amsterdam. It was a fantastic holiday, where we have enjoyed the city. We did as the Dutch do: Beautiful walks through the history centre, enjoying the canals, mingle at the multicolors of the night, walking lightheadedly through the big and small streets of this wonderful city.
Welcoming and available
We enjoyed the efficiency of the Nord. Since we live in Sardegna, where we have a beautiful nature, the scenery at the sea and a lot of sun – but to say the truth, we lack in efficiency.
It was so easy to take buses everywhere (which were very efficient), without taking much time even to reach places far from the house in which we were guests. Dutch lifestyle suited us, not at all like the stereotypes; welcoming and available. We visited Haarlem, Delf, Rotterdam with its futuristic port, got to know the geography of Holland and the skill of the Dutch, who have been able to transform lowlands into a real opportunity for richness & wellbeing. We were satisfied with this journey. However, our partners have told us of their enthusiasm for Sardinia and its enchanting sea.