Thursday, April 19, 2012

So how do House Exchanges work?

Regular followers of my blog will have noticed that we do a lot of house exchanges. This blog entry describes how we do it and what our experience has been.

We think house exchanges are terrific. Here are some reasons to do them and some ideas that we have found useful.

You get to stay in a real house or apartment where people regularly live. As far as I am concerned, this is far better than staying in the most expensive hotel because for the time you are there, it is your home. You can really relax.

For a few weeks, you get to experience how the locals live. You go to the same shops, supermarkets, local markets etc. You make meals with the local ingredients. In France, you wander down the street in the morning to the local bakery to buy your baguette and perhaps a couple of croissants. In  Sydney, I can sit down with the local paper and drink my coffee.

You don't have to eat out all the time, though if you hate to cook, that is your option. We prefer to cook at home using food bought at the local market or supermarket. It's fun to try the different ingredients that you can't find easily at home.

Since the exchange is usually for two or more weeks, you can take a day off and just hang around the house if you feel like it. You don't have to be a tourist all the time. If you feel too tired or get a bad cold, you can take the day off to recuperate. If it is pouring rain, you can stay home and vegetate.

There is a washing machine and usually a drier. Yes, I am a chauvinist pig and I bow to Marianne's experience and expertise in these matters and let her operate them. There is a refrigerator and stove. I can operate those devices quite well as well as a cork screw. It's easy to have tea or coffee when you feel like it, or a cold beer. There are books to read or just look at if you can't understand the language. There will be a TV and probably something that will play music. There will probably be an old computer with an internet connection. However, we bring our own laptops, tablets etc.

Most exchange families are quite happy to exchange cars. European cars are usually manual so it helps if you can use a stick shift. Our car insurance policy is fine with this. We keep the trips short because there is usually a lot of stuff to see in the local area.

This is a very cheap way to have extended holidays / vacations. For example with our exchange with the family in Selestat, France, we only had the additional cost of the airfares. Beyond that, it was probably cheaper to be in France than at home. The food and wine was definitely cheaper in France. We only used $100 of fuel  in our three weeks there because distances are so short. We paid some entrance fees for castles, museums etc, but that is probably a lot less expensive than the boxes arriving by UPS feeding our hobbies.

No doubt you are worried that strangers are sleeping in your bed and looking through your personal stuff. Get over it. If you are staying at the Ritz Hotel, some nasty strangers slept in your bed the night before and they probably had fleas as well. One can only hope the hotel staff changed the sheets. Think of an exchange as staying at your friend's house or having your friends stay at your house.

The exchange family is not really interested in your personal stuff. All they are looking for is a place to hang their clothes if they are tidy or a spot in the bedroom to put their suitcase if they live out of that. Or a mound on the floor, if you are our daughter.

We all want to make a good impression so we make sure our house is extra clean and tidy before the exchange. The same will apply to the other family. The rule is to leave the exchange family's residence just as clean and tidy at the end as when you arrived. That means the day before you leave, you clean and tidy up and you learn how to operate their vacuum cleaner. Of course you might put things back in a different position from where they were originally when you arrived. It's actually interesting to get home and see where the other family put things. A different logic will apply. Of course, you could always take photos of where everything was when you arrived as they do in the spy films.

It's not always possible to do this, but it is wonderful to arrange the exchange dates so that you meet the exchange family. It's great if you can all spend the night together at the beginning and / or end of the exchange so that you can talk to each other. Food and wine usually makes everybody feel happy. You will probably find you have a lot in common with your exchange family and conversation and laughter flows easily. It's an unusual experience to have somebody else cook for you in your own home, but it is quite enjoyable. At the end of the exchange, I ask the other family about what went well or not so well so that I can update our Exchange Guide and make it more useful.

If you are not meeting at the start of the exchange, it is usual to prepare some sort of meal such as a casserole that can be heated up and perhaps something for breakfast the following morning. A bottle of wine to go with the meal is very welcome.

Ah yes, back to the Exchange Guide. This is a document you prepare to help your exchange family live in your house. I will put an expurgated version of our document at the end of the blog. You will also need to provide a collection of local maps, guides, and the manuals for your various electrical devices such as washer, drier, TV, heating and air conditioning etc.

We use Home Link http://homelink.org/ and have found it works very well for us. It costs a bit over $100 per year. Once you join, you fill out a web form with details about your house, where and when you would like to travel, and pictures of your house and the locality. The photos are very important, so try to make your house look as attractive as possible, the more photos the better. I also include a link to a web page where I can show details about local attractions. The bottom line is that you want to let potential exchangers feel like your place would be a good place to stay.

When we joined, we wondered if we would get any requests for exchanges. It turns out that we keep getting them all the time, even though we don't live in a major city. We do live half way between Baltimore and Philadelphia and this is close enough for a lot of people. There is a lot to see in our immediate area. Our house is round with big windows so we think people are intrigued by the shape and it helps immensely that we have a photo of a fawn drinking at a bird bath in our back yard.

You will be surprised how many people need to come to your area for some reason or other not associated with tourism. They may have a reunion or wedding to go to or a family member to visit. Or they might simply want a quick holiday. If you want to go somewhere, there is no harm in sending out a request. For example on our last trip to Sydney, we were going to stay in a B&B near where our daughter lived. We asked her to check it out and she was not too impressed with it so I sent out a request to a few places on the exchange web site and we finished up in a lovely place in Cremorne, one of the more ritzy suburbs.

It is important to keep your listing up to date, particularly with dates when you can do an exchange and where you would like to go. You have a much better chance of doing an exchange if you send out your requests at least six months in advance, though last minute request sometimes work. Some of our exchanges have been set up over a year in advance.

Since I am retired, we can spend long periods away from home. This year we have set up exchanges in Germany and France with a period in the UK in between. It can be a bit tricky getting the dates to suit everybody, but since we can be flexible, it works out. We have also done asynchronous exchanges where we have been at our other house in New Jersey when the family from Sydney was at our house.

The Europeans generally like to do exchanges in the June, July, August time-frame. The French typically get their vacations or holidays in August, so they generally request exchanges in that month.

We have a cat that we inherited from Marianne's mother. When we get a request for an exchange we mention the cat and everybody so far has been fine to look after her. Similarly we look after their cat if they have one. Dogs or your pet crocodile would probably be a bit much of an ask.

Communicating with your exchange families is very important both before, during and after the exchanges. Most people send out multiple requests when they decide to ask for an exchange and if you respond quickly, you are more likely to be the early bird that catches the worm. Usually vacations and plane trips will need to be scheduled. Be prepared to be flexible when you can to suit your exchange family. In our remote location, it can be difficult to travel from the airport to our house. We generally have to come up with the solution for our exchange family.

When you arrive at your destination house, make sure to send an email to your exchange family to let them know that you have arrived. They will be worried and concerned that all is well with you and their house just as you are concerned about how they are getting on in your house. For the first few days, send updates to let them know you are settling in well. If you have problems, let them know. When one of our exchange families arrived, the hot water was not working. We asked them to send us a photo of the various knobs on the heater and we worked out that Marianne had knocked one of them while cleaning. Digital cameras are wonderful.

Your exchange family will provide you with maps, brochures and suggestions on what to see and do. Use them. Also use their suggestions on where to buy food. We leave some of our Acme and Food Lion cards so that they can get the discounts at our local supermarkets.

Finally, a famous tourist town may not be the best place to stay. We found Selestat in Alsace to be ideal even though it doesn't rate too highly in the tour guide books. It might not have been as drop dead gorgeous as the more famous Colmar, but it was much more pleasant to walk around and its old section of town was absolutely beautiful. However, it was a town for locals rather than tourists and much more in line with the house exchange ethic. We go to these places to see how other people live.

I hope this blog encourages you to try this wonderful way to travel.

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The following is an expurgated version of our Exchange Guide.


Welcome to Rolling Avenue, Chesapeake Isle.
History of our House
Our round house was built in 1986, two years after we arrived in Chesapeake Isle. We rented a house for eighteen months and then another as our house was built. The house was a kit house and arrived in a semi-trailer. There are photos of the construction in the first dark blue scrapbook located on the bookcase by the front door.

Contacts
We can be contacted at our cell phones or email. Marianne cell 410-xxx-xxx Ray cell 410-yyy-yyyy
The neighbours, Txx and Cxxx  (410-zzz-zzz) are aware that you will be here and can help you if necessary.
You can also call some of our other friends in the community:
Cxxx Vxxx-a neighbor who cat sits for us across the marsh behind our house. 443-xxx-xxx
Wxxxx Gxxxxx-a neighbor who also cat sits for us down the road.  410-xxx-xxxx Cell: 443-xxx-xxxx

Access and security
We will give you keys to the locks on the top floor doors (which are different). We spray them with graphite to make them easier to operate but they can be difficult at times, especially when it is cold.

Generally, the area is quite safe and we have not experienced any problems since we arrived. However, there are occasional reported break-ins in our community. If we go out at night, we leave the outside light on since it is very dark without street lights.  I have left a flashlight outside the front door. There is another by the upstairs telephone. Press the end away from the light to turn the flashlight on and off.

If you hear loud booms, that is Aberdeen Proving Ground across the Bay testing bombs. It is normal for these booms to be very loud and shake the house.

Hunting is allowed in the State Park but it is strictly controlled and only occurs for about a week late in the year.

The local community roads and beaches are private. We will leave you a pass that you should leave in your vehicle that allows you to use the community roads and beaches. You would be welcome at the community events such as the 4th July celebration. The speed limit on the community roads is 15 mph.

The water at the beach can be muddy, but it is usually safe to bathe. Occasionally in summer, an algae appears and the beach is closed to swimmers.

 Driving & Maps
It is approximately 11 miles (18 kilometers) to route 40. Make sure you have enough gas / petrol to get back up there.

We have provided you with recent maps of the area. If you plan to return when it is dark, make sure you are familiar with the map of our community since it can be difficult to find our house after dark.  There are a blue reflector and night light at the side of the driveway entrance.

Both cars have E-Tags that allow you to pass through the various toll gates in the surrounding states. The toll bridge over the Susquehanna River on Route 40 allows local residents free passage over the river instead of paying the $7 toll on I-95. We generally use this bridge when coming home from the south and the E-Tag allows us free passage. There is no toll heading south on I-95 or Route 40 over the Susquehanna River.

There is a toll on the border of Maryland and Delaware on I-95. We avoid this toll by using Route 40 and Route 896.

The State Park has its own police and they are empowered to pull you over if you speed through the park. Keep to the limit. On I-95, you can generally get away with 70mph but elsewhere you should stick to the speed limit, particularly through the little towns with 25 mph limits.

http://www.intellicast.com has good radar maps.
http://www.weather.gov/ does a good forecast which is usually pretty accurate.

When driving in and out of the community, watch out for deer. They are used to the cars and won’t necessarily get out of your way. Through the state park, they are more skittish. The fawns are particularly unpredictable so be careful. Don’t watch the deer that is crossing, look at where it came from to see if there are more coming. They often cross in single file. When there are two or more of us in the car, we encourage each other to point out the deer because they blend into the trees and bushes and can be very difficult to see.
Speaking of deer, you may notice as you walk around the community that there are very few flowers and shrubs. As well as eating grass, deer love to eat flowers and unless your fence is very high, your flowers will be gone. The only flowers they do not eat are daffodils.

Train
We have left you a copy of the MARC train service to Baltimore and Washington that leaves from Perryville.  Senior discounts (65+) are available that reduce the cost by 50%. The parking lot closest to the station is usually full, but there is usually room in the parking lot across the street. These commuter trains only run on weekdays.

Car
We have left you the tan Acura which is automatic and the red Honda del Sol which is a manual five speed. The Acura uses 89 octane fuel (regular) and the red Honda uses 92 or 93 octane petrol, not the regular or mid range. We will leave you an AAA card so if there are any problems, you can call them for help. 

If you are new to the USA, we will tell you the procedures for pumping petrol. Please note that some gas stations require you to input your zip code if you use your credit card at the pump. Foreign zip codes and postcodes will not work so you will need to go to the cashier inside before pumping. If you go to New Jersey, attendants will pump the gas / petrol for you.

Food / shops
The closest supermarket is the Food Lion on the corner of Route 272 and Route 40. We will leave you with a yellow Food Lion loyalty card to get the specials. There is also a pharmacy in that shopping center and a few other stores.  There is also another shopping center with a Walmart that also sells groceries across route 40 just beyond the traffic light at route 40.

We also use the Acme in Elkton on the corner of Route 40 and Route 213.

If you are interested in wine, you might like to visit Weavers Liquors on Route 40 between North East and Elkton, and State Line Liquors between Elkton and Newark, DE. They are huge and have excellent selections. Weavers is a little cheaper and we buy most of our wine from ‘the boat’ at 3 for $11.

You are welcome to use the barbeque (R2D2) on the back deck. It uses charcoal.

Be warned that at the end of a long day, you may not want to be bothered stopping at a supermarket on the way home. There is a small convenience store about halfway down the peninsula. We haven’t been in it for years but it did change hands recently so it might be ok in an emergency now. In the summer, there is also a vegetable/fruit stand next to the store.

Mailbox
There is mail delivery every day except Sunday. The postman usually comes between noon and 2pm. If you are not here one day to clear the mail, don’t worry. We are occasionally away for a couple of days so the postie is used to it.

Power / electric / gas /water / septic / heating / cooling
Because of our location, there are occasional power outages. We have left some candles and matches around the house and a torch. The length of the outages varies considerably, but if it is out for more than a few minutes, it generally means a multi-hour outage (a tree has fallen). There is no need to call the electric company and the house is very good at retaining heat. If a very windy day is predicted, fill a couple of jugs of water.

When the power goes out, the pump for the well does not work and water will be limited to what is already in the pipeline and the pressure tank. The toilets will still flush but they won’t fill until the power is restored.
The downstairs phone will still work during a power outage.

The house is heated by gas (LPG). The temperature is set by the thermostat just outside the kitchen.  It is automatic but you can raise or lower it for a few hours by pushing the up or down buttons. During a power outage, the heat will not come on. The gas company (Boulden) may do a gas delivery while you are here and fill the tank (500 gallons) which is below ground level beside the path to the front steps. The thermostat also operates the air conditioning.

The stove is gas (LPG). The stove top burners will work during a power outage if you light the burners with a match but the oven will not work.

Keep the freezer door closed during a power outage. Depending on how cold it is outside, you can temporarily place food and wine outside to cool during the day (winter months), but there are raccoons that will steal the food at night.

We have a septic system so be careful what you put down the toilet.

There is a water softener system that removes the rust from the water. When it cleans itself, water comes out of a hose that is in the laundry tub all the time.  Do not put anything in the sink that could clog the drain. It is all automatic so don’t be alarmed if you see and hear the water running in the sink at 2 am in the morning.

Because of the design of our house, there are no exhaust fans. After a shower, we crack open the bathroom window a bit until the steam clears. When running the clothes dryer, we open the outside door a bit and close the door into the family room if it is cold outside.

The large cylindrical device under the kitchen window is the outside part of the air conditioner. 

There are power points (115 volts) in the floor by some of the large windows upstairs.

Manuals
We have left manuals for most upstairs appliances in the binder. Laundry room manuals are on the shelf with the cleaners and laundry powder in the utility room.

Kitchen / food
Feel free to use any of the dishes, glasses, cutlery etc. Except for the delicate wine glasses, we put everything else in the dishwasher. The soap for the dishwasher is under the sink, right hand door. We use only 2 teaspoons of the powder.

We make our own bread in the bread machine and you are welcome to try as well. We will leave out a recipe that works.

The wine openers are in the drawer to the right of the refrigerator. There are also stoppers and a vacuum pump if you don’t drink it all at once.  

You are welcome to drink any of the inexpensive wine in the wine room on the racks to the left or right in the wine room. We save the wine on the racks on the wall facing the door for special occasions.

You are welcome to try any of the spirits in the cupboard to the right of the refrigerator.

You are welcome to eat any of the food / ingredients you find in the kitchen (except for the fruit cakes in the refrigerator). You may even eat the Vegemite if you wish to do so.

Marianne’s cousin used to be a Tupperware dealer. That is why we have so much of it.

We grind our coffee beans in the manual grinder. The beans are stored in a blue container above the coffee grinder. We do have a plunge pot in the upper cupboard next to the stove in addition to the usual drip coffee maker. There are tea bags in the pot next to the toaster oven and in the upper cupboard and in the ceramic container under the window. We like variety.

The cutting boards are under the sink to the right.

There are two light switches for the kitchen located just to the left as you enter the kitchen. The switch located closest to the door operates the lights under the cupboards. The other switch operates lights above the cupboards which reflect off the ceiling and provide more light. Remember that in the USA, a switch which is down is off and on when it is up.

Rubbish / compost
There is no garbage disposal in the sink. We put the leftover food / scraps in the container in the sink and take it out to the black compost bin in back of the house. Meat scraps we put in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer until we go to the dump.

There is a paper bag for non food rubbish under the sink, left hand door. If you fill it up, you can use a big black disposal bag.  Leave that in the utility room, please. We will take it all to the local dump after you are gone (you need to be a local resident to go there).

Recycling goes in the basket in the pantry then into plastic bags or boxes and out into the blue trashcan outside the utility room door. We rinse out bottles, cans and jars so it doesn’t attract raccoons if it goes outside. We can recycle all clean paper, glass, metal, and most narrow-necked plastics.

Laundry
The washing machine and dryer are in the utility room (down stairs). I make my own laundry powder. Use only up to the mark for a regular wash. There are other cleaners, stain removers, etc. on those shelves behind the door also.

There is an iron and board in the utility room downstairs. Distilled water for the iron is on a shelf in the utility room.

Telephone
The phone downstairs works even when the electricity fails.  Cell phone reception is very weak at the house but is better in higher parts of the community.

Our phone number is 410-xxx-xxx Even when making local calls in Maryland, you must use the area code  first.

To call Australia, dial 01161 before the Aussie number.
To call New Zealand, dial 01164 before the NZ number.
To call Canada, dial 1 – area code + Canada number
To call France, dial 01133 before the French number.

First aid / doctor / dentist / hospital
There are some basic medical supplies in the cupboard in the upstairs bathroom, in the boxes, top shelf.

In case of emergency, call 911. Occasionally for serious emergencies a helicopter lands near the mooring area.

The closest hospital is Union Hospital in Elkton 410-398-4000 – it takes about 30 minutes to get there
Dentist – we use Dr xxxxxxxxx in North East 410-xxx-xxxx
Glasgow Medical Center - http://www.glasgowmedicalcenter.com/  We have heard good reports about this clinic. 302-xxx-xxxx

Warning – if you go walking in the wooded areas, particularly where there is long grass, you may be bitten by chiggers which are tiny mites that really itch. http://www.medicinenet.com/chiggers_bites/article.htm

Warning – the deer carry deer ticks which in this area are known to carry lyme disease. If you have been walking in the woods or long grass, be sure to have a shower when you return to the house. The effects of lyme disease can be very serious and we urge you to read the following link. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyme_disease Over the years, several people in the community have been severely affected by lyme disease.

Local Restaurants
We don’t go out to eat too much but these are usually fine.

Woody’s in North East – specializes in crabs, seafood and peanut shells on the floor 410-287-3541 http://www.woodyscrabhouse.com/menu.html

Captain Crabs – specializes in crabs in an outdoor setting. It is much less expensive than Woody’s.  We went there and enjoyed it. The price of $15.95 for all you can eat crabs and corn is very low. The crabs were small but well filled with meat. Beer is inexpensive. http://www.captainscrabs.com/

Union Hotel up the Susquehanna River from Port Deposit – an old building (1794) made from logs 410-378-3503 http://www.unionhotel-restaurant.com/Directions.php

The Bayard House in Chesapeake City – great location by the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal 410-885-4040 http://www.bayardhouse.com/

Tidewater Grill in Havre de Grace – good location overlooking the entrance of the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay http://www.thetidewatergrille.com/

All restaurants are open for lunch as well as dinner. There are some brochures for others in the bag of info.

Local attractions
We have left you numerous brochures for attractions in the area and neighboring states.

Please note that traffic on I-95 can be very heavy in the late afternoon, particularly on a Friday. Try to take other roads. For example, if you go to Longwood Gardens, take Route 272 north to Route 1 and then follow Route 1.

Computer / Internet
You may use the computer downstairs – use the Ray profile. Internet is available via a community wireless backbone system that is approximately 1 mb (Rolling1) which is password protected. There are no monthly limits so feel free to use as much as you like.

There is also a wireless connection in the house that connects to the community wireless system. There is a password on this link xxxxx and if you have a laptop, you should connect to this (Ray). The system is usually pretty reliable but it stops working occasionally, particularly after heavy rain. The system may also be slower in summer when there are leaves on the trees and particularly when they are wet. This is a common problem with wireless connections. If there is a power outage, the system should power up again of its own accord when the power is restored.

The small white box on the back deck is the radio / antenna for our connection to the wireless community.  Speeds can be very slow at times, particularly in the evening.

TV
Since the arrival of digital TV, we can only receive five stations because of the terrain and distance from Baltimore. There are no analogue signals available. We cannot use a dish because of all the trees to the south of us. Cable is not available in the community because of the distance from civilization at North East. The main channels are 2 ABC, 11 NBC, 13 CBS. 


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