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OUR VERY FIRST EXCHANGE.... AND 24 SWAPS LATER!

by Ray Baxter - North Yorkshire, UK (listing #2)

Plans are finalized...
The first time we heard Manfred Mullner's voice on the phone it was austere:
"You vill arrive in Klagenfurt at 2.30 on ze 27th July 1986 after having traveled through many countries and our friends vill make you velcome in our home." This was our first attempt at a home swap and we wondered if we had been wise to exchange with this Austrian family, but we had sent letters and photographs and maps of where we were and what attractions there were for them and had offered them our home in the north of England for 4 weeks. It was a bit late to pull out!

Preparing for our guests - good time to clear out old stuff.
The four of us Mary, my wife and James (10) and Tom (9) our two boys, had worked ceaselessly for all of June and July trying to get our home in the middle of a huge village green clean and tidy and to have the facilities these strangers would expect. Lists were made and jobs distributed and ticked off on completion. Windows were cleaned, the boys bedrooms sorted, the dining room was painted, the study was rearranged and wallpapered, things that had been lost were found, loads of old toys and paperbacks were thrown out, clothes were packed in plastic bags and moved to the attic to free wardrobes and drawers for our visitors clothes. Bicycles were renovated and tires unpunctured. Valuables were hidden and locked away. A loose leaf handbook of hints about the house and its machines and the area's attractions was written. By the 24th July the house was hospital clean ,the garden was weeded and we were exhausted!

Off to Austria, feeling a little green.
We set out nervously in our ancient Volvo 343 automatic, with tent and a map of Europe and minimal clothing, for their apartment in the Mozartstrasse in Klagenfurt, Austria. It was 1078 miles from our home. It took us three days travelling by ferry to Dover, then camping through France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and finally Austria. Despite the fact that Mary and I had been listening to tapes of Deutsche Direct and Deutsch Heute we could just about count up to 10! I knew some phrases from German operas and Mahler's songs, but "I have a glowing dagger, a dagger in my breast" is of limited value. We thought to  learn "We cannot speak German" "Do you speak English" and "Speak more slowly, please", would be of more use. In fact, we needed only the first two of these as almost everyone we met did speak English. Better English than we did!

We're feeling apprehensive to say the least.
We were very apprehensive as we approached the Mozartstrasse and struggled with the sophisticated security parking mechanism which allowed us under the apartments. Would we find their door? What would their apartment be like? Would we understand their instructions? What if Manfred's neighbours did not like English people? What if their children had different toys to James and Tom?  What if? What if?
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Had nothing to fear,  we had an amazing time.
When the door opened there was everything we could have hoped for! Both Margot and Manfred were teachers of English at the University. Their next door neighbours, who struggled with English as we did with German, took us to Mahler's house, swimming in the Wortersee, and encouraged us to climb the mountains and visit Italy and Lipitzana in Yugoslavia. We cycled around Klagenfurt, had meals with the Mullner's friends and their parents and enjoyed the inside knowledge of the best ice creams and the wonderful sites
and sights of Karinthia. It was a joyous experience.

Lifelong friends are made.
That year we did not meet Manfred and Margot and their children Mattias and Jakob. We have met them 6 times since! We exchange Christmas cards and frequent letters. James has been to visit them. Both their boys are at University in England and speak fluent English. Every New Year's Day during the live televised performance of the concert from Vienna we telephone and wish each other a good new year.

25 exchanges later...
Since that first exchange we have exchanged with 4 families in Britain, 5 families in France and 2 families in the USA. With some we have exchanged more than once and at the last count we have made over 25 exchanges in all. We frequently visit former exchanges on the way and have many times had former exchanges stay with us both on holiday and in our home.

What we have learned over the years.
It is rare for European people who live South of us to want to come North, unless for the sake of their children's education i.e. learning English! European people who live to the North of us are keen to exchange with us. You make very firm friends with the friends of the family with whom you exchange.
If you meet the family with whom you exchange, almost invariably there is an instant and continuing warmth and rapport which seems to stem from the sharing of the intimacies of each others home.

Sometimes you never meet the family with whom you exchange! We have swapped 4 times with a family from Falmouth and have never met them, and yet I would regard them as close friends. I know them well, having lived for a total of 8 weeks in their house, telephoned, sent e-mails, Christmas cards and letters!

Our home is always safe and sound.
Our house has always been in a better state than when we left. We need not have hidden our valuables on that first exchange. We never have bothered since. We have NEVER had a bad exchange - some have been more enjoyable than others, but I would not have missed any of them. There is something addictive about taking the place of a "native" family in a different culture. You are immediately living a life, not being an exploited tourist - the hints they leave: "Don't go to the market on a Thursday, go about 1.00 on a Friday when they have all the bargains", "the best and cheapest restaurant is…", "If you want to see our country at its best then go to…,
People couldn't be more friendly and helpful.
"My friend will take you to…", "If you need any more information then ring my friends -and they will come round", "My neighbours will give you a typical meal from the region and take you to see the best view in our area". I could quote so many examples of seeing the reality of the places we have been to.
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Our family has grown up - in many ways.
This says nothing of the effect it has had on our family. All of us have begun to realize that language is not just a test for schoolchildren, but a really useful tool to acquire in order to understand others and enjoy their wit and conversation and character. Thomas intends to live in France, James to tour the world - Me and Mary to go on exchanging our home because it has brought us so much pleasure and insight and deep friendships.
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RESOURCE BOX
This article has been generously contributed by Ray Baxter, a member of Digsville  - the global home exchange community.

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