Two years ago I embarked on a year-long house exchange with a total stranger halfway around the world—well, almost a total stranger. We met online through a house exchange web site in December of 2009, set up a Skype call to talk live the next week, and then I flew out to Madrid in March 2010 for a few days to see the apartment. The apartment was impressive. It had been recently renovated and was updated with the latest in European style…all sleek surfaces, lots of glass, stainless steel appliances and modern paint treatments on the walls. On top of that the second floor had a wrap-around patio with a view of downtown Madrid. It seemed like a good trade for our traditional Berkeley bungalow.
Living in someone else’s house took some time to get used to. The first week I felt like I was a guest intruding on someone’s private space….sleeping in their bed, using their fancy bathroom, and attempting to cook with their ultramodern European appliances–with little success. By the second week, though, I had settled in quite well and very soon became comfortable with the surroundings. I worked up the nerve to examine the book collection, pulling out a few to read, the CD collection and take a peek at the liquor cabinet. I noticed a stack of family photos on an upstairs shelf but I never cracked those open the whole year. That felt too intrusive. They (and we) had put away our personal photos along with our clothes and a few other valuables.
After my initial settling in, the smallest of things became my focus, much to my surprise. It wasn’t the style of the house, so different from mine, that drew my attention—in fact that was a thrill. It was that fact that there were no wastebaskets in any of the bathrooms. How do you live with that? They did have a maid that came every day, but still, where do you put garbage for even a few hours. And in the kids’ bedrooms there were no bedside reading lights. This was a necessity. Granted, their kids were younger than ours, but our kids have the habit of reading before going to sleep. Their whole nighttime ritual would be thrown off. Other small things bothered me. Where were the small knickknacks that one buys on vacation and places on a kitchen window sill? I knew they hadn’t put these away in storage because I hadn’t seen them when I visited the first time. And the kitchen was sorely lacking in many ways. Despite the high-tech touchscreen stove that beeped and lit up (and which took us no less than two weeks to understand), there was no measuring cup or measuring spoons. How can you cook without these things? I later learned that for one thing, Spainards don’t bake at home and for another thing they cook much more by feel. So I guess that explained that.
Needless to say, I became very familiar with the local ferreteria (hardware store) across the street. I bought tiny trash cans for the bathrooms, bedside reading lamps for the kids, measuring spoons and cups and a few other kitchen necessities. Unfortunately the ferreterria was always closed for the siesta so I became quite adept at visiting the store before 1 and after 4.
Knicknacks were a problem easily solved. Since we traveled much during the year, we amassed a large collection of small souvenirs and placed them on bookshelves and windowsills. I especially liked a particular long postcard of a medieval townscape and strung that along the living room shelf. Above all, those things, which cost next to nothing, made me feel at home.
My biggest addition to the house during the year was a Picasso poster I bought in Barcelona. It is a painting of a window looking out at the sea. I put that poster up in the stylish kitchen nook and it comforted me. You see, Madrid is landlocked. We had a wonderful view from the apartment of the downtown area, including the Royal Palace. But there was no sea, the only water in the city a pathetic little river that trickles around the old town. I missed the sea, the large expanse of water, the wind and the fog. I’ve only lived in three places other than Madrid in my life and they all were next to water. Some days walking around Madrid I felt like I was trapped in a gargantuan metropolis dry and cracking from lack of water. So my Picasso picture comforted me. I could look at it every time I ate my American cereal for breakfast or tried some new Spanish confection in my superfashionable kitchen.
At the end of the year it was time to pack up all our belongings we had accumulated. Ridiculously, I packed every trinket, every brochure from every excursion and even the small plastic toys the children had purchased. I knew I would throw much of it away but it seemed like a big part of me by then. The house looked sterile again once our bags were packed. I did leave the trash cans and reading lights of course. I wonder if they kept those things. As far as the measuring spoons I gave those plus my collection of Betty Crocker baking mixes to a friend who likes American baking.
When I arrived back at my Berkeley house I was initially surprised to see how cluttered it looked. I wondered how our house exchange family had lived with my knickknacks. I actually disliked the look of it and wondered if I should streamline things. I went to an open house one Sunday not long after returning and feel in love with the house– a brand new modern place free of clutter and with sleek, modern countertops and furniture. For a time I thought maybe I should change my style. Maybe I had grown to like the pared-down style afterall. I made a few changes to my own house. I rummaged around and threw a lot away, especially the junkier souvenirs from the trip. My family is still a little upset about some of the stuff I got rid of.
Now, another year later, my house looks pretty much the same as when I left for Spain. I have my knickknacks and I’ve even added more stuff, like an old pew I found at a rummage sale. I like to sit in the pew and watch neighbors walking by. I can’t see the sea from my house but I feel the fog rolling in and I know that I’m home.