At the beginning of the year, when we started thinking of travelling to Canada, the discussion arose of doing a home exchange. We wanted to spend quite a lot of time in Toronto, and paying hotel bills in a city that size for the length of time that we wanted to stay was pretty much out of the question. Besides, I’ve always liked the idea of home exchanges – not only are they economical, they also provide all the comforts of a home when travelling, plus you get unique insight into other cultures.
So we signed up online and almost immediately I received an exchange offer from someone who wanted to visit Iceland along with his wife, and offered in exchange their home in Whitby, Ontario – a town about 45 minutes east of Toronto. We politely declined, saying we’d like to actually be in the city, at which he wrote back with another proposition. His wife was of Icelandic descent, he said, and it would mean a lot to them if they could visit with their two daughters, both of whom lived in “the heart of” Toronto. We could have either of their two places. One was in Etobicoke [hardly “the heart” of Toronto – was this little white lie a sign of things to come?], the other downtown, on Adelaide St. East, near Sherbourne. After a brief deliberation and email exchanges with a couple of others who were ‘warm’, we decided to accept his offer, choosing the condo on Adelaide and Sherbourne to stay in. We also decided that we would exchange cars.
In the succeeding months we had minimal correspondence, just what was needed, giving details of our travel plans, etc. Our exchange partner’s style was very businesslike and curt; he never put his name under any of his email messages, for instance, which I found a little strange. As the time drew nearer, we stepped up the correspondence somewhat, and while there was always a reply to my queries, the replies were completely devoid of any warmth.
Somehow – and I can hardly believe this of myself now – the idea of drawing up some sort of home exchange agreement or contract simply didn’t enter my mind. Which is probably why I didn’t go looking for those on the home exchange website. Now – much the wiser – I see they have all sorts of forms, both for home and auto exchanges. Of course.
Fast-forward to our arrival in Toronto. We found the daughter’s condo as they had described it and our stay there was uneventful in terms of the home itself. More than once, though, we remarked on how strange it was to be staying in someone’s home and to have someone staying in ours, and yet have no contact. So in the end I sent an email to the daughter [whom I had corresponded with briefly prior to our arrival] just to say hello and wondering how things were and if they had found everything they needed. The reply came back a few days later: they had been travelling and yes, the had everything they needed.
Cut to the end of our trip, and arrival at home. Our flat was tidy and clean and there was no correspondence from The Others, save for a typically terse note on the table that read:
Laundry – hanging downstairs
Whale watching – to be used*
Hope you had a wonderful time, as we did.
[* i.e. some kind of ticket for a whale watching excursion, most likely a freebie they’d received for not seeing any whales.]
A brief look around determined that all was as it should be. However, when I got into to my car a short while later, I was stunned to see that it had been driven nearly 4,000 kilometres, or 2,700 miles, in three weeks. Closer inspection revealed that both headlights were burnt out, the paint was chipped off on the front from pebbles flying up on gravel roads, and it needed an oil change, despite having had one a couple of days before we left.
Call me naive [I am!] – I really did not see that coming. Stupidly I assumed that there’s only so much driving you can do in three weeks, and it’s not 4,000 kilometres. It’s equivalent to three times around Iceland on the ring road – and most people take a week to complete one circle on the ring road. Christ, they must have spent their every waking hour in the car!
To my mind, driving someone else’s car that distance is far beyond what is normal and reasonable, and I’m sure they knew it. After all, on the home exchange web page they claim to have exchanged homes twice in the past. And stupid, naïve me – I didn’t even look for those agreements, the ones that stipulate that after 500 miles of driving you must check the oil, tires, etc. of the car and after a pre-arranged mileage amount you pay a fee per driven kilometer, much as you would at a car rental agency. No – I simply assumed these were decent people who would show restraint and care for our property. I was wrong.
I sent them an email. I knew I had nothing on them, having no written agreement, but I wanted to let them know that I considered this a dark blemish on our exchange. It’s been almost a week and I’ve received no reply. Clearly they have nothing to say. And they have no honor.
There is no major harm done. My car is still functional. But my faith in people has suffered. At the risk of sounding like a martyr, I will nevertheless say this: I trusted them enough to admit them into my home, I made sure they had everything they needed to be comfortable, and left them the car that we thought would be the more reliable of our two, as it had less mileage on it. And they reveal themselves to have this sort of character. I feel violated. Angry. Taken advantage of.
And I have learned a valuable lesson, which I hereby pass on to anyone who may be considering a home exchange: draw up an agreement. For the house and the car.
UPDATE: Having received a response from the Home Exchange people in which my feelings that this was not normal or natural were confirmed, my anger has abated somewhat. At least enough to have reconsidered my position in identifying these people. However, if anyone is considering an exchange with someone in Whitby or Toronto, and wishes to avoid the people in question, feel free to e-mail me.