Think of the most precious and intimate of your material possessions: your private papers, your CD collection, mementos of family long gone, bedside reading and even the warmth of your pillow and duvet. Imagine inviting strangers with whom you share no friends or even acquaintances to open your front door and take possession of all of this, for one whole week. If, as Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor argue in their new book On Kindness, most people seem to believe that deep down humanity is mad, bad and dangerous to know, this is indeed a very strange thing to do. Yet this is precisely what our family did over the new year holiday. We swapped our London house with that of a totally unknown French family, who live in an apartment near the Marais district in central Paris.
Like many people who take advantage of the growing number of websites offering home exchanges, my motives were mixed. As we have children, an apartment where the kids have their own room and we can cook for ourselves is always preferable to a hotel. Our French strangers reciprocated by sleeping in our beds while we slept in theirs, so no money changed hands. But the incentive was more than simply financial. For me, this holiday felt like I was embarking on a hazardous and yet exciting adventure. I was taking a risk – a risk of trust not just in one French family but in the notion of trust itself, of being kind to strangers.
I did not meet our alter egos. The nearest I got to them was across the internal tunnel wall as our Eurostar trains momentarily passed each other in opposite directions under the English Channel. The fact that they were totally unknown to me lessened the degree of discomfort I felt upon intruding into their lives. It was easier to feel at home cooking with their pans, placing my coat on top of theirs on their clothes peg or deciding whether to listen to The Killers or Amy Winehouse on their audio system because our French strangers were only imagined.
Part of the attraction of the adventure, however, was decoding the clues in their home. I knew that Cédrick works as an architect. And, like all chic architects, he dresses in a black woollen polo-neck jumper all the time. How did I know this? In his walk-in wardrobe were two shelves reserved for our English clothes. Just above were piled seven black soft woollen polo-necks, one for every day of the week.
Cédrick’s wife, Anne, is a teacher and a very beautiful one, judging from the wistful French look captured in the photo of her propped tastefully on their study desk. She likes knee-length tweed and corduroy skirts, thick, chunkily knitted brown and dark green woollen dresses and a mixture of flat sensible shoes with flourishes of purple velvet, bottle green strappy sandals and black, open-toe kitten heels.
I found it very comforting as well as visually enriching to live in a space that had been curated with such a keen sense of aesthetic awareness. Texture, colour and angles had all been drawn upon to create a modernist temple. As I lay in “our” bed, which was swathed in pale grey sheets and duvet cover, my eyes were held by echoes of other shades of grey. By each side of the bed was a clever shelf: it was as if the dates/doors of an Advent calendar had been flipped down from the wall, creating two bedside tables in a rich pink colour. The bathroom had also been dipped in the same rich pink; it coated the walls, picture frame and bathroom cabinet, extending through the glass shower room. Two African masks and a traditional African sculpture were perched upon their DVD cabinet.
Days before we exchanged homes, we had traded e-mails. The slightly nervous tone of their notes reassured me. Their hesitation revealed a degree of wariness about the journey that echoed my own. They told me about the planned appearance of their friend Bruno to “welcome” us to their home. But if Bruno had considered, on his friends’ behalf, that our hair was too wild or perhaps too straight, or that our attire had revealed too many clashing colours for us to dwell in their aesthetic utopia, quite what he would have done? When he came to “say goodbye” on our departure, was he checking if our stay had contaminated the apartment with a British level of hygiene or, even worse, our British sense of style?
We ordinarily think of kindness as a quality of warm-heartedness or generosity with a sprinkling of altruism thrown in. With our generosity being reciprocated, mutual gain is clearly inherent in trading homes, so there is little of the latter involved. Yet if we take on board Phillips and Taylor’s interpretation, the act of kindness also involves susceptibility. We mingle our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others. It was this mix of interdependence and vulnerability that I felt most acutely as I embarked upon the exchange. It wasn’t potential physical damage or theft that I felt I was most exposed to. It was more that I was laying bare the intimacy of my life, embodied in my possessions, for these complete strangers to taste.
Projecting ourselves with abandon into the lives of others is unusual. The Greek stoic philosophers developed the concept of the self as a centre point of concentric circles. The innermost circles represented parents and children, then blood relatives, followed by friends and neighbours. The circles gradually radiate outward to encompass all of humanity. Through our exchange we were breaking down any order in these concentric barriers, extending an ultimate degree of trust to those with whom we don’t even share a nationality.
Perhaps these sorts of intimate exchanges hold the key to a new thawing between nations and peoples. As Phillips and Taylor argue, the vulnerable sort of kindness encourages a feeling of aliveness that is transformative; we can only fulfil our humanity through being kind. In this era of recession and austerity, it is commonly assumed we retreat into our own cocoons. Yet, as opening our homes and the intimacies of our lives becomes more attractive, we can all find new ways to experience a richer life.
Upon returning to London, I felt a small sense of trepidation, then relief as the taxi turned on to our street and it became clear our house had not been destroyed. I found that it was, if anything, tidier than when we had departed. But, more importantly, it appeared our French counterparts had not judged our lives too harshly. On the living room table I found a bunch of flowers and a good bottle of French wine. Well-thumbed leaflets from the Annie Leibovitz and Francis Bacon exhibitions lay among our guides to London’s architectural treasures.
At the same time, I was surprised to feel strangely unfulfilled. I wanted to know whether our guests had followed any of my London suggestions. I was even keener to uncover their private judgments of our sensibilities and of our lives. In addition, could they tell me how to make our house look more like theirs – stylish, French and chic? It felt a bit like an incredibly personal journey embarked upon, indulged in and then abandoned. As I logged on at the computer to catch up on e-mails, I discovered Cédrick had invited me to be a Facebook friend. He had offered to be a 21st-century virtual acquaintance but left open the possibility of developing a more classical friendship. I accepted.
Emily Kasriel is executive producer of ‘The Forum’, the BBC World Service programme about ideas
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