This summer, we took a vacation at home. A different home, I mean, someone else’s home but which was to be our home for two weeks. It was our first experience with home exchanging, the type of travel where you find a family to switch homes with you during an agreed period – they come to yours, you go to theirs. We went to a family’s apartment in Paris, and they came to ours in Rome.
Our friends were nervous on our behalf. “So you’re letting strangers unwatched in your place? What about your valuables?” We felt fine, though. It’s not that we keep gold and jewels at home anyways; our broken TV is the most expensive thing they could steal. We exchanged homes with what seemed like a nice family, I told them, also with two young boys like us. And, if they stole anything, we could steal something in advance, just in case. (How that would work I’m not sure, but the answer satisfied a dude friend of mine.)
When we got there, our first reaction was a thrill. A new home just for ourselves! And in Paris! It had a really nice HD TV with hundreds of channels (while ours at home I very kindly left still broken), the kitchen was state-of-the-art, and inside the fridge camembert cheese and champagne to welcome us. The boys were in shock with all the new toys they could suddenly play with, switching overwhelmed from one to the next – a baby equivalent of what it would be if someone told me that a whole bookstore was suddenly mine. Where do you start? And everything, the best of all, for free.
But what got me thinking was the sudden twist on my concept of home. It was curious to have a home in a new place, a hybrid between traditional traveling and daily life. It was different than paying big bucks in a hotel and coming with the tourist king attitude – I’m bringing money to your economy, so serve me well and give me all the comforts. “The great advantage of a hotel is that it is a refuge from home life,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. “I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.” Instead of this, our trip was an experiment in seeing how our life would be if we lived somewhere else, looking at the world from Paris, with French cultural lenses. The books on the shelves made me think of that family’s inner world too – how would I think had I grown somewhere else, with a different background and culture?
It was, in other words, an exercise in home-embracing. It was a generous offer of a new home and a new place, and, by extension, of a new if temporary sense of self. It was a moment to expand my sense of home, to enlarge my notions of hospitality, to enrich my family memories with a new home background.
But these two weeks were also an exercise in letting-go of home. To let another family be in our place and live our life made me feel less attached and defined by my stuff, less dependent of where I live for my sense of identity. It was a practice of generosity on our part too, almost like a spiritual discipline that made me remember big words like simplicity, frugality, gratitude, and that made me both more appreciative and less attached to what I have.
In all, these two weeks left a different taste in my mouth. Previous travels made me appreciate foreign places and cultures, bring home souvenirs and T-shirts. This time I had that but had also an inner type of traveling, a reflection also about my sense of home, of self, of place. It was an exercise in letting go and embracing home, a practice in gratitude and generosity, in the receiving and giving side of hospitality. It was a curious new type of travel for me – not that I mind if anyone wants to pay me a stay at the Hilton’s presidential suite next time, may I add – and curious to return back home, to find also the TV now fixed. Thank you, nice French family.