Summer Home Exchanges in Europe
Each summer my mother, a high school teacher, and I, an eternal graduate student, breathlessly packed our bags and boarded a charter flight for Europe as soon as the final school bell rang in June. We could never have afforded to stay in a hotel for months at a stretch and would have missed the element of unpredictability if we had.
No two summer exchanges were ever the same. Each was an adventure, an insight into the daily life of another culture. We approached the challenge of navigating a new city, converting dollars into the local currency, finding the grocery store, and figuring out household appliances as a new puzzle.
We never met the people whose homes we lived in: our paths crossed over the Atlantic. We left the keys with the neighbor and crossed our fingers that our house would be there when we returned. Spreading out our maps and guides on the coffee table, Mom and I chose beds and tucked the knick-knacks and plastic flowers into a closet, only pulling them out again before departure. Our first Parisian exchange was with a couple of young intellectuals. The modern apartment on Rue Miollis, just across the street from UNESCO, had no television but every room was lined with books in many languages and on every subject. Erotica was located near the beds. Humor was behind the bathroom door.
Years later we exchanged with a Parisian sculptor. Nestled in the bohemian area of Menilmontant, all sorts of human tragedy and mystery unfolded in the alleyway below the kitchen window. Our quartier was filled with African immigrants, wrapped in bright fabrics and turbans, who carried on their lives beneath us, chatting and singing exotic melodies.
In Florence, we exchanged with a middle-aged divorcee who worshiped Frank Sinatra and hungered for Hollywood. Marissa's cozy apartment overlooking the Arno provided a comfortable hub for visiting northern Italy. In a tiny red Fiat, which had the power of a moped, we wandered the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside. That is, when we weren't shopping for leather goods at the central market, discovering Bottecelli at the Uffizi, or tanning at the public pool.
My beautiful friend Liza and her travel companion Sue, the ingénue, arrived on our doorstep in Florence with dirty laundry and spine-tingling tales of assaults in elevators and on the streets of Rome. Sue's innocent face seemed to attract disaster. After a couple of days recovering at sidewalk cafes and planning their next destination, Sue finally inquired, "Who is this David we've gotta see?" She was thoroughly tired of the subject of Italian men.
Another summer we stayed in a beautiful mock Tudor 2-story house near Hampstead Heath in London. That summer was our only 3-way exchange. The Italians came to our house, the English to Italy, and we, the Americans, to London. The bathroom on the second floor had a full-length Hershey chocolate colored bathtub and a tricky door. Our first evening in the house I retired for a long soak to find myself sealed in the bathroom. No amount of rattling, banging, and thumping on the door would budge it.
As a last resort, my mother knocked on the neighbor's door. "Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering whether I could borrow a ladder," she inquired. "We're staying next door and my daughter is stuck in the upstairs bathroom."
The concerned husband, a sort of Mr. Bean character, leapt to her aid and called the fire department. How anxious she must be, he assumed, her little daughter trapped in the bathroom, in a foreign country and a strange house. His face was a picture of shock when I, then 25, carefully made my way down the ladder, clad only in a white hand towel.
The summer we spent in Copenhagen was called the California summer because it broke all existing temperature records. Our house was situated in the posh suburb of Holte; the Queen's hunting lodge was at the end of our street. After having visited most of the Danish castles and museums, we took the ferry to Rostock and drove to Berlin. As was typical of my driving style, we veered off the autobahn into what was then East Germany. It was time travel, an exit through a time portal-farmers loading rickety wooden wagons with hay, oxen pulling a single plow.
What an oddity we were. Two American women, my mother in her Oakland Raider cap and I in my turquoise sunglasses, driving a Russian car with Danish license plates through the Soviet Bloc. But when we entered Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, the solider glanced at our passports and whooped, "Amerikaners! Wunderbar!" We were liberated.
Sometimes our temporary home felt like a welcoming inn, so many ex-boyfriends, friends of friends, and relations accepted our invitation to visit. The curious combinations of people, from different times and places in our life, shared long meals en plein air or al fresco and were captured in my photo collage.
But the lasting effects of our summertime adventures were more than brimming photo albums. Our summer forays gave both of us the confidence to move anywhere without a moment's trepidation. Mom stuck a pin in the map and moved alone from LA to a tiny mining town in New Mexico. And my husband and I, now with our children in tow, are planning a 6-month sabbatical in London. In fact, I found him one summer 21 years ago in a house exchange.
Those summers in Europe-a constant reference guide for my life, whose pages are well worn with use-are a gift my mother gave me. While we learned there are many ways to turn on a light switch, we also uncovered more about each other and ourselves. Those summers in Europe cemented a deep friendship between mother and daughter. Never just a mother to me, she is the independent woman with whom I wiled away many sweltering afternoons in cafes by the banks of the Seine, the Arno, and the Thames.