One Cathedral Too Many

Our first home swap—in 2006 in L’Haÿ-les-Roses, outside of Paris—was such a resounding success that I hatched a plan to spend even more time in Europe the next year. So where that first swap was three weeks long, we arranged to spend four weeks in France the following year, this time in Fontenay-sous-Bois, also on the outskirts of Paris. If that went well, I imagined, maybe we could work our way up to spending most of every summer in Europe.

That didn’t work out. In retrospect, it should have been obvious why.

Our children, Mark and Kelly, were aged 8 and 5 on that first swap. And we seemed to cut a good balance between the beginning of their summer school break—which would often start very late in June because of snow days accrued the previous winter—and the beginning of the next school year, which happened right after Labor Day where we lived near Boston at the time. The idea was that they’d have some off time at home to go to the beach and hang out with friends on either side of the trip. That way, the home swap would be a welcome break in the middle of summer and not an unwelcome intrusion they’d come to dislike.

Home swap schedules don’t always work out that nicely, of course. You have to accommodate the other family, and their needs and time frames. And so it was that our second swap, in 2007, didn’t start until July 31 that year. And we wouldn’t fly home until August 28, just a week or so before school would start.

The trip was excellent, overall, We spent most of our time in Paris, of course, but we also visited Toulouse, by train, because some friends of ours there were planning to move, which they later did. We also visited with the family from L’Haÿ-les-Roses we had swapped with the year before, which was fun. And come on, we were in Paris, my favorite place on earth. What could be better?

Look, we’re lucky. Our kids have always been well-behaved, and they love each other, and they enjoy spending time with each other and with us. But as the weeks dragged on, it became obvious that they were getting homesick. They missed their friends and their normal summer activities. And Paris, great as it is, was still a repeat from the year before. This was fine for Steph and me; we would, in fact, go back to Paris again and again and again in the coming years, often just the two of us, sometimes two or three times a year. But our kids, at that time, needed more variety. This swap was just too long for them, at that time, and too late in the summer.

Things finally came to a head during our side-trip to Toulouse. Our friends were eager to show us where they’d soon be moving, but Toulouse isn’t really a tourist-friendly city with lots to see. It’s a nice place to be … if you’re an adult. But lacking in anything of interest for the kids.

Kelly, finally, had had enough. After hearing that we planned to visit a cathedral on a weeks-long trip that had admittedly had its share of cathedrals, she finally had a meltdown. So we pulled our two-family caravan over to a cafe, sat outside, and ordered drinks and ice cream so Steph could talk to Kelly and get her to calm down.

When I could do so discretely, I asked Steph how Kelly was doing, and she told me that “maybe we’d visited one cathedral too many.” Kelly, she confirmed, was homesick. She just wanted to go home.

These trips were an exercise in compromise, especially when the kids were younger. We’d split up days into events and rewards, so that a trip to a monument or whatever would be bookended with things the kids wanted to do, too. This seemed to work fine most of the time, and it worked fine after this event too. But we just hadn’t hit the right balance this time.

Kelly did great for the rest of the trip, and of course we laid off the boring stuff more than usual. But this event also triggered a rethinking of our home swap plans, and going forward we stuck to three weeks for virtually all of our summer swaps. And tried to position the swaps in the middle of the summer as much as possible so the kids would have time at home before and after the swap.

And this seemed to work for us. The kids still love going to Europe in the summer, even though they were 20 and 17 on our most recent swap and Mark, our son, could only stay a week because he was working between semesters at college. Finding the right balance early on was key to this, I think.

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