Swapping Homes Anybody?


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Farewell to Villa Villekulla (Kunterbunt)

Did you read Pippi Longstocking when you grew up? Pippi Longstocking was the protagonist of a series of children's books by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. A tomboy living with her monkey, Mr. Nilsson, in a colorful villa, Vill Villekulla, was my hero as little girl. Ah, yes, and she had a horse living with her in it.
Because of the multi-colored decorations and wallpapers in our swapped home in the Alsace, my friend who visited us called it "Villa Kunterbunt" - meant in the most endearing way. We loved it and its decor.
It was time to pack and make arrangements for our return trip. Readers of this blog may remember that we often have to pay for a rental car to go to the house we are swapping. There we often pick up the home owner's car and have it at our disposal. 
The same happened this year. We had to go and pick up a rental car. Since that was not possible (due to their Terms & Conditions) in Strasbourg, it was a longer way to Stuttgart from where we flew back. The next day, having closed up the house,  we drove back to the airport and returned the rental.
It seems a bit of a nuisance to do the distance  (90min) twice, but it's the only possible way of getting back to the airport.
Our exchange family was lucky . They had a family member to collect them when they arrived (in Frankfort). At least I had helping to clean the house. It was a heart-felt good-bye with the 89 year old "Oma", grandmother' of our exchange family. She had looked after us and welcomed us in a very endearing way.
Maybe we'll see each other again.Maybe indeed as we have heard since form our exchange partners that they are interested in repeating this stay.
So we spent the last night in an airport hotel in comfort instead of getting on the road at an ungodly hour. Transatlantic flights depart around 9.30 -10.00 most of the time. With the drive to the airport or 90 min plus an extra 2 hours necessary for check-in we prefer to arrive at the airport the night before.
The inconvenience of stripping beds and cleaning a whole house is just too much for me to bear on an early morning. So you see: planning and organization is the name of the game of a successful home swap. More tips to follow in the upcoming eBook: Insider Tips for Successful Home Swaps.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wrapping it up...

All good things must come to an end! The three weeks we spent in France went by so quickly...Isn't that always the case when you're having fun?
With 5 seasons under our belt now, I'm quite confidant to recommend this type of travel. It is a safe and inexpensive way to explore countries you always wanted to go. Planning it well, however, and in advance is necessary when you aim for 2 or more exchanges.
Let me sum up what seems to be vital:
- Choose  a reliable, well established home swapping agency online. You can compare prices and what they offer- also what type of clientele they have. Send me a message and I will reveal who we have been booking with.  (I just don't want to promote that company here for all to see as they refused to promote my blog. I think that is a fair quid pro quo..?)
- Prepare you online profile well in advance. The pictures of your house are the most important ingredient. If they allow you to put up 20 pics, do so. I hate to look at possible homes who only reveal glimpses into a couple of rooms. Those who have no photos up don't seem to be too engaged and serious about it.
- Our online agency shows the response rate of individual members. I never bother to send an inquiry to those whose response rate is low. Who would you rather expect an answer from? The ones who reply 98% of the time or those who only bother 14% for whatever reason. Maybe they are highly eligible properties in supreme locations where everybody would like to vacation and they are inundated by offers. Even then they could apply the short cut answer: NO THANK YOU.
-You will also see the professions of your potential exchange partners on this online site. I like to take that as an indicator of what to expect. A lot of members have their own webpage now where they provide even more information about their properties and suggest  sights in their surrounding areas.
- There are agencies for seniors only. This means you're only dealing with couples, not families with children. Maybe that will take some of your trepidation about the safety of your home. At the same time, they are likely to have smaller homes. Like we have now with the result that we are of no interest to some families with three or more children any longer. Last year we still could accommodate them.This year we had to send our regrets. You will also find that seniors are interested in longer stays because they don't have to go back to work or school  anymore.
- Start your search early! Germans for example will start planning as soon the new travel brochures are out and as soon as they know when their children will be on holidays. That varies each year from state to state within Germany. French families are likely to search an exchange in August as their offspring is off then. October-November seems to be a good time frame for your inquiries. Closer to Xmas people are busy with the holidays. Again in January, I find members are susceptible to offers. Especially us inquiring from Florida when our European counterparts  are still in the throes of Jack Frost!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Time to Cool Off

Towards the end of our trip we had a scorcher of a day again. While in Berlin, I had visited a public swimming-pool but naturally it was mobbed. The grass for lying down and tan had long turned brown. In this part of the world where we were vacationing, our home swappers had left us a leaflet about a natural pool - bath in the open or Freibad- situated in a forest near Gaggenau, on the German side. "In harmony with nature" is their slogan. Being the environmentalist that I am- and the organic Ex Farmer's Wife- this description piqued my interest.
Located about 1 hour away, the experience was worth the drive, especially since the car had AC. We were about 30 minutes from the border which is an open border now like with all the European countries. No stopping or passport control. Suddenly you can tell from the different shape and colors of the tragic signs that you are in a different country.
It is a public, municipal pool which most German cities and towns possess but pool doesn't look like your typical pool but is just hewn into the landscape with stones all around and as walkways into the water. And all the surrounding meadows were still nicely green! Obviously it was not heated and several degrees too cold for the taste and comfort of these Floridians. We walked in at the shallow end step by step and the cooling effect was very welcome. It also had a jumping block for the adventurous and a shallow grotto where a number of children were playing.

This pool in Gaggenau is the oldest in Germany. Built in 1929, its waters came from local rivers. By 1957 its appeal had grown so much that it had to draw water from the local water main supply. Since 2006 , again it is run without having to add chlorine.Microorganisms and plants in special regeneration pools minimize the growth of algae. From there it is pumped back into the swimming area. Even in high temperature like those we were experiencing and many customers in the water, the purity is guaranteed.
The entrance free for adults was a reasonable EUR 3, whereas the Berlin one charged EUR 5,50. A nice extra!
On the way back we stopped at a German Aldi -which now has made it to these shores in the USA as well. A cheap chain for food and other household times. I was surprised to see that the whole roof was covered with solar panels. In the southern part of Germany, most private houses have at least part of their roofs under solar panels. I had never seen it on a shop.
Why can't we do it here in Florida? I'm ashamed to say that I had panels on my previous house in Kissimmee that I rented to Disney tourists.But here? I haven't even seen one in the greater Jacksonville or beaches area.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Gourmet's Paradise

If you like food and wine, the Alsace is the ideal vacation area for you. Its mix between French and German guarantees a wonderful combination of love for excellent food prevalent in both countries. It is famous for its wines which are very similar to German wines, but have a better reputation worldwide for reasons unknown to me. I refuse to blame the bad rap on that Black Tower  or Blue Nun people all drank allegedly when in college. Lucky the ones who have moved on!
Our swap partners had left us some Pinot Gris that was divine. It is my favorite white wine competing, however, on my palate with a dry Riesling. We wanted to get more of it and found out that it only sells around the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg and on the Internet.

Another grape is totally unique to the Alsace: the Gewuerztraminer. Don't despair if you can't pronounce the name. It is a very fruity wine full of different aromas, strong, perfume scented,some say it has an exotic lychee-nut flavor. This delicate variety is difficult to grow. Funnily enough it is a red grape and the wine is white if a bit yellowy or coppery at times. Gewürztraminer wines are an excellent match for fresh fruit and cheeses (especially Alsatian Münster) and a good complement to many simple fish and chicken dishes, especially recipes that include capsaicin (hot pepper) spices, oriental five spice, or even curry.
It's a shame that you can't take too many bottles with you on the plane. There is only one remedy: Drink it while you're there.
For a really nice informative 10 min video that also shows the scenery click here.
The Alsace comes close to perfecting dry hard salamis like the one made half of hog and half pork.
These are easier to transport but forbidden to import to the US in case you're tempted after sampling some. With some luck, you find them in a good delicatessen.
Pates are a must.  With chicken liver,truffled, a la provencale or a multitude of different other flavors, it's all there for you for the tasting.
particularly enjoy the baked varieties, baked en croute. My husband wouldn't touch any of them as they remind him of cat food.

Last but not least the most famous Alsatian dish : Choucroute; a dish made with lots of meat, sausages and the essential ingredient sauerkraut. Honestly, this is a dish more suitable to fall and winter weather than the high temperatures we had to endure.
And a dish that everybody will recognize, the Quiche Lorraine. Lorraine is a region in northeastern France bordering Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. The capital, Metz, just to the west of Strasbourg. I hope I haven't made your mouth water too  much- or else...go shopping for some decent food!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Strasbourg- the old and the modern city

Like so many of the smaller idyllic, picturesque towns, Strasbourg has an old part of town and preserved its medieval houses.
You may know that Strasbourg is the seat of several European institutions, such as the Council of Europe (with its European Court of Human Rights, its European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines and its European Audiovisual Observatory) and the Eurocorps, as well as the European Parliament and the European Ombudsman of the European Union. The city is also the seat of the Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine and the International Institute of Human Rights. A pretty nice, cosy quarter of town where these buildings are situated. I could certainly live here. And they have Italian ice cream Gelaterias! An extra bonus as my Irish housekeeper would say.
It is also only a day trip away from Frankfurt and you can tie it in with the Black Forest.

Most tourists are interested to see the cute, photogenic houses in their twisting lanes with the Cathedral of Notre Dame completed in all its Gothic splendor in 1439.

We were there on a Friday afternoon and picked up my best friend who came on one of these long distance buses for a very keen price: EUR 41. The train ticket would have set her back by over 200!
Naturally we ambled straight to the Cathedral...like everybody else.In other words:it was busy.But I have never been to Strasbourg or any of the other Alsatian towns when it as not busy.
 The altar area fascinated me most because of the blue shine it had in this light anyway. The multi-colored glass stained windows would have been worth many shots too.

Here are some street impressions that make you want to go- if you have the travel bug like me that is.

With hundreds of restaurants vying for your business it is always hard to tell the good ones from the tourist rip-offs. The closer you get to a tourist attraction like the Cathedral, be aware that some of these great sounding or looking restaurants don't need to offer great food and service because busloads of more tourists will come every day. Maison Kammerzell is the most renowned, maybe oldest house with the longest tradition. My friend had fond memories of eating their as a youngster with her parents there. So naturally we did her the favor and headed there. At the higher end of the price scale as expected, we had a wonderful seat outside overlooking the madding  crowds.
The restaurant was busy, I give them that but service was bad. We waited for our food almost an hour and when it came, mine was cold. I like my food warmer and usually, here in the States, ask them just to zap it. We waited another 30 min. By then hubby and my friend were through their dishes, kindly   sharing them with me. My appetite was gone and I hungered for another ice-cream, honestly. The management was not pleased when I told them I had lost my appetite and was unwilling to eat the food when it eventually appeared; never mind pay for it. In an establishment like this, I had expected they'd warn us that one of the dishes needed extra time for fresh preparation and maybe send an appetizer together with an apology. Not so. 
Well, I had room for what I was yearning for now.Got it on the way back thru the busy streets. There is so much more to see but the heat of almost 90 degrees had worn us out already.

Lonely Planet says, "History seeps through the twisting lanes and cafe-rimmed plazas of Grande Île, Strasbourg's Unesco World Heritage-listed island bordered by the River Ill. These streets – with their photogenic line-up of wonky, timber-framed houses in sherbet colours – are made for aimless ambling...The alleys are at their most atmospheric when lantern-lit at night."

Read more: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/france/alsace-and-lorraine/strasbourg/sights/neighbourhoods-villages/grande-le#ixzz3kWnSZcoU"

While sitting outside the restaurant, four heavily armed French soldiers made their way through the crowd. We had read that Strasbourg's Cathedral was among the most protected historic buildings in Europe in these terrorist endangered times. The next morning, we woke up to the terrible news of the attempted attack on the Amsterdam- Paris train, Thalys, which was prevented by three brave American young men, tourists themselves on their way to see Paris.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

When Tourists & Refugees Meet

Strasbourg was going to be the topic for my next post.
Listening to the news of political developments all over Europe, the Refugee Crisis, which have to do with vacation make me sad, however, and rethink our trip: How lucky we are, how privileged to have the means and freedom to travel wherever and whenever we choose to. I never thought I'd write about this topic!
Refugees, asylum seekers, economic refugees flood the gates of Europe. They come from troubled or civil war ridden countries via Turkey, they risk their lives on tiny boats over the Aegean to little Greek islands, Kos and Lesbos, that are only a few miles away.Over 7,000 only last weekend.300,000 in total so far; that is more than in all of last year.When they are in Greek, they are in Europe and close to a safe, civilized and dignified life.
The problem is that these islands are popular tourist destinations. This is peak vacation time and Greece needs the income of tourists badly to survive. But these refugees who are often washed ashore want to survive too. Some hotels have put fences and guards to keep the paying tourist apart who are paying for their annual holiday and are entitled to their cocktail brought to them on the beach while a few meters away a refugee lathers up with some soap and shampoo he was given and swims out to wash it all off." I know it's not good for the sea, but I need to look after myself first."
Approx. 140,000 come over the border into Hungary who started to build a fence - like the Berlin Wall with barbed wire on top. Continuing into Serbia, they walk for days to reach trains that take them to Montenegro and again, they are in Europe with all its social benefits.Montenegro declared a state of emergency. No refugee wants to be registered there as the ultimate destination is Germany, Great Britain or Sweden. They walk along the motorway from Calais to the Channel Tunnel.Whole camps have sprung up where thousands wait to make it onto the train under the Channel somehow. Great Britain is blaming France for not doing enough.I saw them personally in smaller numbers when I was still doing my wine import routes that way. Heart-breaking, frightening, embarrassing: you drive by in your safe car and can't do anything..
200 thousand have come from Libya to Sicily or Lampedusa. so far 2,3000, however, have drowned because  of overloaded, inadequate vessels, lack of life jackets for people who can't swim. Human traffickers are involved on all routes charging thousands of dollars.In another tragedy,over 70 people suffocated on a truck in Austria trying to reach the West, probably moved my human traffickers.
German is considered the "Schlaraffenland", the land of milk and honey or Cockayne. (See Wikipedia: "Cockaigne or Cockayne /kɒˈkn/ is a land of plenty in medieval myth, an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist.")
We're expecting 800,000 refugees/immigrants this year alone. That is 40% of all humans fleeing one disaster, regime or other  in the whole world. About 104,000 came via the Serbian corridor this year already.The Minister of Economics, Sigmar Gabriel, assures us that Germany needs these people in our workforce as our numbers are dwindling. At the same time, the governor of Bavaria admits that his officials are tired and overworked and that people are not all registered and fingerprinted as they should. So they can slip through the net; not be registered and just disappear. Let's hope they are not all criminals.
All this in the light of the biggest refugee crisis Europe ever experienced since World War II - and this is not the end of it. It reminds me of my own family's plight, just a few individuals of 13 million people who were on the move in 1945-47. (See my short story below).
In the Balkan war crises we got 250,000 asylum seekers whereas France AND GB together got 50,000.Not only do the Germans pay for Greece's malaise but for the rest of the EU and now the rest of the world. The horrible truth and irony is that our weapon exports to the likes of  Saudi, Egypt, Yemen, etc.doubled! Tell me there is no direct connection, please!

Now let's resume our vacations. There are only few days left.American children already are back to school; the French will start again on1 September. We'll be home soon too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


If you have an interest in glass and crystal, the name Lalique will mean something to you. On a coolish day, after yesterday's deluge, we drove ca. 40 minutes to Wingen sur/Moder to see this exceptional exhibition. The name is famous worldwide, but hardly anybody knows that these ornaments are produced here and not in Paris.

Glass has been blown in this area of Alsace/France for hundreds of years.Workmen originally moved here from Germany because the necessary types of sand and other minerals are to be found here galore.
This map shows how the factories concentrate in this area. And now to the superb, delicate, impressive artifacts on show there.
A tiara, a brooch showing two butterflies and the head of a horse took my breath away.The pictures need no further comments.Enjoy!

The coffee shop served some decent meals in spite of a bad write-up on TripAdvisor which had also mentioned the Chateau across the road did wonderful food.Except it was only available for prebooked functions and groups.