I have just returned from my very first house swap. It was an unbalanced sort of exchange in that my family stayed in my friend Paige’s apartment in Paris for two weeks, and she stayed in my house in Rye for three days. We had more contact during that time than we’ve had in the past 25 years, asking questions about appliances and sharing photos of our families in the other’s town. (I sent photos of my family at the Eiffel Tower; she sent photos of hers at Bar Taco. I told you this was unbalanced, right?) But more than anything, being in each other’s spaces and trying on each other’s lives makes me feel like we’ve actually spent time together. It’s uncanny how much a home tells you about a person.
Whenever people are coming to my house, I do the standard mad dash. I stash the papers in a cabinet or two. I collect armfuls of socks and take them to the basement. I stack unsavory reading material, stray shoes and golf balls on the back stairs. I clean up in a ‘please don’t open any drawers or look at any one surface for too long’ kind of way. If people don’t stay long, they generally leave thinking I’m running an orderly ship. This may be why I don’t usually invite people to stay for very long.
I straightened up my house in this way before I left for Paris, excited to be going on vacation and hyper focused on arriving at the airport my customary three hours before flight time. It wasn’t until I turned the key at Paige’s picture perfect apartment that I started to wish I’d given my place another once over. We were going to learn a lot about each other, and I’d left a lot of myself lying around.
Paige and I went to high school in Los Angeles together. We were great friends, but due to geography we haven’t seen much of each other since then. We now keep in touch in a Facebook kind of way, meaning that we mostly hear about each other’s good days. Neither of us ever posts a photo of vomiting children or personal meltdowns. I would certainly never post a photo of my three kitchen junk drawers.
Paige is preserved in my mind as the California girl that the Beach Boys were always singing about, eternally 18 and always a little sandy. That may be why the reality of her home hit me so hard. It was a shock to learn that in France they don’t have mail. Or dust. Or socks. By the third day I was frantically opening cupboards looking for signs of weakness, or at least a few broken crayons.
With horror I pictured Paige in my kitchen, opening any number of cupboards to find tax receipts and dead batteries thrown together like a poorly conceived blind date. My opened mail sits in neat-ish piles, with story ideas scribbled across the top. Phrases like “Madman takes over sanitation department” or just “slow, untraceable poison” are everywhere. I’ve not scratched the surface of my domestic quirkiness, but standing before Paige’s artfully displayed canisters of coffee, tea and biscuits, I felt a little naked. Yes, Paige, this is what’s become of me.
I was equally shocked to find out what’s become of Paige: Namely, she’s gone French. In her kitchen are handmade mother’s day cards that read “Bonne Fête des Mamans,” or something more correct than that. She has a bowl full of shallots and a bottle of truffle oil. Shallot and truffle oil cooks take sauces seriously. They care deeply about subtle flavor and are usually, among other things, French. Flipping through a cookbook called Qu’est-ce qu’on Mange Ce Soir? I thought, “She’s really a long way from the beach volleyball circuit.”
I’m sure she was just as surprised that I’ve turned into a suburban New Yorker. I buy coffee beans in a three-pound bag and eggs four-dozen at a time. I have paper towels to get me through two seasons, because that’s the only way I know how to buy them anymore. I wondered if she was dying to ask, “Why do you have so many televisions?” as much as I was dying to ask, “Why do you have so many scarves?”
As I fell asleep in her bed every night, I’d run my eyes over her bookcase and happily note that we have read the exact same books during the past decade. I hope that she noticed too. As strange as it sounds, the highlight of my vacation was catching up with my old friend.