Saturday, December 5, 2009

Life (Not Wife) Swapping

Part of what I like about house exchanges, beyond the cost saving and convenience, is that you get to live inside someone else's life for a couple weeks. You get to shop at their markets, visit their pharmacist (or doctor as I once had to), sleep in their bed, maybe borrow a sweater on a cold night, and perhaps if you let your imagination roam, take on their story. Or find one of their own.

We have done twelve swaps thus far (with more planned) and each time I've managed to eke out a story or two. In Barcelona we had this secluded house with a swimming pool, but people kept showing up. Maids, the pool man, the Culligen man. The gardner and hedge cutters. We'd wake up in the morning and there'd be a small man in powder blue shorts, standing just feet from our bed (the pool man). In Todi I thought I heard voices coming from the cellar of the old medieval tower where we lived. And later the owner told me that indeed that cellar had a dark story of its own.

In France on a cold afternoon I slipped into a woman's sweats and, over lunch in a nearby restaurant, learned the sad story of a girl who'd died a tragic death, leaving her parents bereft. In Ireland there was the drama of the missing calf and the discovery of something at a local aquarium, known as a "mermaid's purse." And in Belgium, perhaps the strangest of all, we stayed in a house where an old woman had died just weeks before.

You don't find these kinds of stories in hotels where strangers make up your bed and waiters bring you your meals. Stories take time to evolve. Not just days, weeks, and sometimes even years. But each of these narratives came because we lived somewhere. We had walked into a world we didn't know.

As my teacher, John Gardener once said, we were the strangers who came to town. And everything unfolded from there. I don't want to think of that sad family in that balloon hoax (who were trying to get on that reality TV show, "Wife Swapping"). I prefer life swapping - switching tales, not partners, and walking for a brief time into someone else's dream.

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