One of the keenest and slightly guilty pleasures of doing a house-swap is the chance to check out other people’s homes. When we were in California two summers ago, I was struck by the scale of everything. As Sonoma County homes go our accommodation wasn’t palatial, but it had a scale and edge of luxury not routinely found in Europe. Our fellow-swappers in California were two attorneys. Here in Perpignan we’ve swapped with two academics. It’s hard to know what contrasts are down to personal taste and what to cultural differences, but here are a few I’ve noticed.
1. No family photographs. In our house, our guests will find them everywhere, many framed and hung. Our four children’s graduation photographs; our oldest son as a pre-teenager with his arm around his brother; our middle son in a plastic mac grinning beside Niagara Falls, our youngest son grinning beside Bill Clinton – the list goes on. Here, although our hosts have two children, not a single photograph. Maybe like many people today, they’re nervous that a photograph of their children will somehow lead to abduction, blackmail, who knows what horrors. Or maybe they just don’t like nosey paddies looking at personal snaps.
2. No TV. I’m pretty sure this is down to personal preference - the French are no more TV-averse than any other nationality, as far as I know. There is a DVD-player which I haven’t quite worked out how to use. In our house, our French guests will find hundreds of Sky channels, most of them ghastly, a DVD player, some Coen brothers movies and a few 30 Rock episodes.
3. Lots of music. There’s a big hi-fi system with muscular speakers and shelves of classical music – Mahler, Bach, the works. In our place there’s a very compact ipod charger with a single speaker and Bob Dylan, Christy Moore, Dire Straits. Will their commitment to playing music mean their children grow up loving music? Hard to say, although I do now wish I’d filled our house with music during the growing years.
4. Wi-fi. Snap. Our house has wi-fi and so has theirs, which is like finding the same magic portal in two places separated by nearly a thousand miles. We’ve exchanged passwords for gaining access so I’m able to post these blogs as if I were at home. The house has two desktop and one laptop computer but I’ve found all three too tricky to use – unfamiliar keyboards, confusing messages in French warning me of something or other and blocking my access path. Instead I use my own laptop which works perfectly with their password. And it strikes me that if I’d written the last few sentences twenty years ago, they’d have sounded like the ramblings of a madman.
5. Clothesline. Snap. We’ve both got one. Ours is a rickety affair out the back which spins around in the blasts that come bustling up off Belfast Lough. Theirs is a neat little line with multi-coloured clothes-pegs, tucked modestly into a corner of the balcony. At first I think they’ve cut their drying possibilities by half, since the wind can get at their clothes from one side only; then the present Mrs Collins reminds me that we’re on the border between France and Spain, where clothes dry inside half-an-hour.
And maybe that’s the biggest difference of all – the sun. As I get older, the greyness of winter seems to go on and on, and I long to feel the sun on my back and face and any other part that can get it. The downside of this is that sunny days leave my body and brain mildly bleached. To do more than wander around eating fruit, drinking cold beer and staring at the squeaky-clean blue sky seems a terrible imposition.