Tales from the Crypt


As I was reviewing the 200 most recent home exchange listings on Homeexchange.com, I came across a picture of an eclectic living room. Fashionable striped upholstered chairs in Louis the something style, stools made from Elephant's legs, zebra-skin rug--in short, Old World elegance meeting Out of Africa.

The listing itself was written in a joking style by a Swede who was at the best statistically and at the worst behaviorally deviant. He had four children. He was a hunter and decorated the house with game trophies. He was funny. He made fun of the pretentiousness of his neighborhood. He said the local beach was convenient even if it was not the Copacabana. He suggested including his two youngest children with the exchange. There was a ready explanation for this irreverence; he had received a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley, a place that transforms normal folks into zany crazies, a place where most students spend too much time in the chemistry lab.


I should tell you that I went to Stanford University which is across San Francisco Bay from UC Berkeley. The two schools have an intense but generally friendly rivalry in academics and sports, particularly American football.

My family and I had no intention of considering a home exchange in Sweden, land of trees, tundra, and socialism. Then I started thinking and remembered that Stockholm was a beautiful city surrounded by lakes and the ocean. Further research revealed thousands of islands, the Stockholm Archipelago. Summer days are long up north and the weather can be good when it isn't bad. I sent Peter an e-mail in the spirit of his listing. Here is an excerpt:

My compliments on your home exchange listing, which is the most entertaining I have ever read. I am familiar with the odd collection of students, revolutionaries, and panhandlers at UC Berkeley, which is why I went to Stanford. . . I could introduce you to some of our hunters and fisherman if you so wished. You can hunt from our terrace if you wish to add skunk, gopher, ground squirrel, jack rabbit, opossum, raccoon, or stray dog to your collection. I must decline the offer of the exchange of your twins. . .

It turned out that Peter had an ambitious plan, a summer in California with three home exchanges. The first would be in San Francisco and we ended up being the second. The third was in a beautiful home in Los Angeles that had been used as a movie set.

Peter was an Internet entrepreneur; he was the President of what we might call the Scandinavian E-Bay equivalent that was acquired by the British E-Bay equivalent. Peter was too modest to talk about this; I found it all on the Internet. As far as I know he is our only exchange partner who has had his photo in the Times of London.

Peter ordered a used Harley Davidson motor cycle over the Internet in Florida and arranged to have it shipped to my business in California. His family arrived in San Francisco and we arranged a party in their honor so they could meet our friends, and they drove down from San Francisco. Swedes are notorious drinkers when the booze is free but Peter was careful to drink sparingly confirming once again that he was not stereotypically Swedish.

We arrived in Stockholm on a bright morning. Peter had arranged for a friend to pick us up. We were exhausted but the friend explained that we had a few hours to kill as the maid needed time to get the house in order from the first exchange family. Stockholm is beautiful in the summer sunshine, a diverse collection of old buildings and green trees framed by blue water and blue sky.

Peter's house was in Djursholm, which can be loosely translated as Animal Home; it was a wildlife reserve for the Royal Family before being transformed into a prestigious suburb around 1900. The house was large and of a modern 1950's style, a full basement with two floors above ground. The neighborhood was a forest peppered with attractive houses and the odd apartment block as this is egalitarian Sweden. The train station was 300 meters away; it took us only 20 minutes to get into Stockholm.

I loved cycling in Djursholm, especially after discovering that it was home to the Czech and Swiss ambassadors and a member of the musical group Abba, who had his own private island. The beach was 10 minutes away by cycle or three minutes by car. Stockholm is not considered a beach resort yet the Baltic, because it is shallow warms up quickly during the summer. It was glorious to swim in a sea surrounded by granite rocks and evergreen forests and to be able to park the car 50 meters from the beach. Other Baltic Sea advantages--fewer waves and less salty water than the oceans. We had fantastic weather, only one day of rain in three weeks.

Peter had arranged for us to go to his favorite butcher shop in Stockholm, Latin American Meats, where we met the co-owners from Uruguay and Turkey. We received a pile of steaks, lamb chops, and chorizo, which had been paid for by Peter. He had also left several bottles of his favorite wines for our consumption, which were quickly consumed. The only place you can buy wine in Sweden is Systembolaget, the state liquor monopoly. Systembolaget is a great place to buy liquor if you like limited hours and prices double those in the US.

Swedish anti-alcohol laws are strict. One drink can put you over the limit. There are control points on major roads and highways. The only good news is that during the summer months many Swedish police are on vacation and we always found these check points empty.


Peter arranged for his friends to take care of us. One greeted us the day we arrived and took me on a quick tour of Djursholm. Another took us on his boat for a day long excursion through the Stockholm Archipelago. We stopped at several islands, the highlight being a private island owned by a friend's family that fed us cake.

One friend had a son the same age as my son and they played Warhammer together.

I visited the local Rotary Club and met an old, but vigorous man who asked me my opinion of President Bush. This led to a serious discussion. He had a great story about how his father had been a lawyer in Berlin for a German company. He was sent to Stockholm in the 1930s to collect money that had not been paid by their Swedish distributor. He took a taxi from the station but they were stopped short of the address by the police, who were investigating a crime scene. His father got out of the cab and walked the rest of the way to discover that the distributor had just shot himself. The head office asked him to stay in Sweden and sort things out; he ended up being in charge of the local subsidiary and going native.

This man's first wife had died and he had remarried to a charming woman. She seemed intelligent, something that was confirmed when she told me her daughter was working on a doctorate in Nuclear Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They took us to their summer house on an island where we talked, walked through the woods, picked fresh blueberries, swam, had dinner, and drank. We admire the Swedish command of the simple pleasures of life.

While we were driving to their summer house my friend explained there had been a scandal: several high ranking Swedish military officers had gone on business to Thailand and had contrived to arrange for their wives to accompany them at the government's expense. I was surprised that these men would break the law and was astonished they would want their wives with them in Bangkok.

Peter knew we liked soccer and arranged at his expense for us to attend a match at Sweden's Olympic Stadium. He arranged for a friend to take us out for an outstanding dinner. We had champagne at a Hotel that had been originally built by this chap's grandfather.

Stockholm is a beautiful city. There are outstanding museums. Two of the most interesting are the Vasa Museum, which holds a ship from the 1600s that sank on its maiden voyage, and Skansen, an open-air museum and zoological park that could take days to see completely as it has over 150 historical buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Royal Palace is extensive and grand and Drottningsholm, another Royal haunt, is a world class site that we somehow never found time to visit in the three weeks we were there. The natural history museum is another winner as is the city's extensive network of parks. To my way of thinking Stockholm has 75% of the urban charm and interest of Paris in a much cleaner, greener, and serener environment.

There are wonderful walks either along the water or on ridges overlooking the bays and lakes. Gamla Stan, the old city, is picturesque and interesting. The city is bicycle friendly; it took me forty-five minutes to cycle to the center of Stockholm from Djursholm.

My wife has an Australian cousin married to a Norwegian lass; they visited us from Oslo for several days and we appreciated that the house had five bedrooms. They told us that alcohol was even more expensive in Norway than in Sweden. We took a road trip to Uppsala, a University town with a world class Cathedral and botanical garden named after native son and botanist par excellence, Linnaeus.


Another of Peter's unique choices were his vehicles, a Chrysler Van and a Ford Explorer with seating for five that had a short pick-up bed. We would have preferred Volvo or SAAB, but he didn't like Swedish cars. The Ford Explorer was convenient for hauling the mountain bikes and we received frequent incredulous looks from the locals. I was tempted to display a sign, Yes, we are ugly Americans but we didn't choose this monster truck.

When I was twenty-five, I spent a month in Aix-en-Provence studying French. I didn't learn much of the language but became best friends with a tall, handsome, and charming Swedish boy. He and I enjoyed talking, drinking, eating, sightseeing, and lusting after the female students. He was rather more successful with the ladies than I was. We kept in touch for a few years but lost track of each other.

I started thinking of him while we were in Stockholm and typed his name into the computer. It came up and I gave him a call. A few days later we spent a wonderful day together. He had turned into a respectable and successful business man, ironically spending substantial amounts of time in California. It turned out he and Peter had done their military service in the same regiment.

This was an outstanding home exchange and experience in many different ways.

We had a great house in a beautiful coastal forest and on any day could combine visiting world class museums or palaces with a trip to the beach. We lived in one of the world's most green (literally and politically), attractive, historic, and efficient great cities.

The people were great and we made many friends. Our only regret is we can't be in Sweden every year to learn more and get to know them better. We enjoyed hearing about winter sports while drinking beer with them in the summer sunshine. We were so seduced at the time by the country that we wanted to visit it in winter. We have not had the courage to follow up on this idea.

We came to love and appreciate Sweden. By researching it before the trip, living there for three weeks, and then focusing on it with greater insight after being there, our understanding improved. There are many countries with generous social welfare systems but few that have vigorous and successful economies. The Swedes manage this by sensible policies, having their own currency, a great work ethic, and an honest character. Their system has problems but it works much more efficiently than social welfare governments in France, Germany, or Italy, for example.

Sweden is a country that welcomes immigrants if they integrate and become Swedish. Two of our friends in Sweden had German ancestors; one had parents from Poland, and all were welcomed into the country and became Swedish. The country has been generous in allowing refugees and economic migrants from all over the world and integrating them is turning out to be a challenge.

Peter had another of his ubiquitous friends drive us to the airport. By coincidence the lady immigration agent checking us out of the country was the same that had processed us upon arrival. I have always been a sucker for tall, authoritative, and attractive blondes in a uniform. She probably doesn't see many otherwise normal American families headed by an ugly troll so she remembered me and made a point of asking us about our vacation and wishing us well.

After we had returned from our vacation my wife told me that Peter probably was checking out California because he was interested in living here. I am used to my dear wife leaping to conclusions without being encumbered by the facts but this comment surprised me. I would never have dreamed that this could have been a motivation for Peter's three California home exchanges. I told her that nothing in the facts supported her conclusion.

Peter and I have stayed in contact and eighteen months after our exchange he sold his home in Djursholm and moved his family and business to Los Angeles. He visited us and did business with two of my friends in Los Angeles demonstrating another benefit of home exchange. They have since moved back to Sweden. We will be doing a home exchange in Stockholm in 2008, and look forward to seeing Peter and his friends again.

Peter penned an essay on his three sequential home exchanges in California and it is reproduced below in its entirety. This first appeared on the website of www.Homeexchange.com.

Peter's Essay

The law of nature is grim and harsh. When you reach out, in all humility, and expose yourself, it hits you in the face, like the copper studded oak doors at the ``The Heritage Club'', when you ask for help being down and out. It treats with the same forgiveness and kindness as the bank's repo department when you missed the last (of 36) installment on your car. Any way, we decided to take on Murphy, and his law. I selfishly decided that my family want to spend three months in California. I want to swap house and car for three months. I want to go to California with my family and I want to let the Californians use my house for three months and see if it still exists when I get back. Right on!

It's kind of easy to do a complicated swap with yourself. No arguments or problems. No risk. It's much more difficult to find someone inclined to swap sunny California for Sweden. And for three months. We believe in Sweden that we have nothing to offer. That's correct - to some extent. In the winter we can throw in free ice-fishing, a bottle of Absolute and a snowmobile but it will not help; I can't imagine anyone be so deranged to want to come to Sweden in the middle of winter. Summertime is another story. And, as an added benefit, it's the place where history comes from.

happy happy

What happens then and how does one go about it? A task like that. A family from San Francisco (or the City as we cosmopolitans - now - knows it) wrote us and reminded us that we actually had discussions about a swap. That was very convenient. We did not want to spend the entire period at one place (that would kind of forfeit the purpose) so we quickly decided to do the swap with them so we could get going with the task to find one or two more families. The SF family was of Swedish ancestry (on both sides) so their minds was already set. We carved it in stone - we were going to swap. We soon thereafter struck a positive chord with a family from Modesto. They had no intentions of going to Stockholm and they were dumbfounded to meet someone who wanted to come to the place of origin for the movie ``American Graffiti''. After some emailing we ``found'' each other and decided to swap. I think that we both decided to do the swap more on the fact that we liked each other than anything else. And, we decided to do the swap immediately after the SF family would leave our house.

Then, we got a note from a Los Angeles family in Silver Lake inviting us to swap with them. They didn't want to bother to send photos. Instead they said: ``In the event you would like to see how our house looks, you can rent the movie The Next Best Thing with Madonna and Rupert Everett. The house Madonna lives in, that's our house. It was used by Paramount Pictures as location for the movie.'' Even if the house hadn't been absolutely wonderful we would have done the swap. And, believe it or not, they suggested doing the swap around the date when the Modesto-family was supposed to leave our house.

Now we had the incredible saga of three consecutive swaps for a period of two and a half months. Slowly dangling in front of us.
The door now waiting to slam shut in our face!

Could anything go wrong? Was this a blatant challenge of sound and prudent behavior in a manner not seen since the good ole' dotcom days?
Probably was. But it worked out fine. We had a great stay in California. We became good friends with our respective families, the different communities and the people there; which added something that just money can't buy. Something intangible. One can without problem travel the world but still only be a tourist in reality. But now we got a firmer grip. Now we know a little bit more about something else. Something different. And each other.

Any drawbacks? Yes of course. The biggest one is that as you don't meet the people you swap with - they live in your house and you live in theirs. After weeks of emailing and phone calling, they are in your house and you are in their. We were lucky, as we actually got to meet all of our swapee's as we had lots of time to meet both the Modesto as well as the LA families before they left for Stockholm; and when the SF family came back we of course met up with them (in their home). As an odd consequence you actually become more acquainted with their friends. Especially as in our case, our families had time to introduce us to friends and neighbours before they left. Also I bought a Harley Davidson so I soon found new friends in the Sons of Thunder Motorcycle Club in Merced and the MidCities HOG Chapter in Los Angeles.

We did the same in return - introducing our guests to our friends - and I found out (a little jealously I have to admit) that they had a good time together and our guests became friends with my friends. And that was never the intention.
So, to sum it up, we had a fantastic time in California. We made lots of new friends; we visited places one does not always think about in the first place; we had someone house sitting our place when we were away; we did not need to spend money on hotels and cars. What can I say? It's nice to beat the odds sometimes - at least once... or three times...

What was the best place you might ask? If I answer you would never understand. It's all in the mind and no one understands the other guy perfectly. It's too complicated. Especially as the answer is ``Modesto''. Suck on that!