Saturday 21 October 2017

New York: How to swap your home and live like a local in The Big Apple

"I was living like Carrie Bradshaw..."

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: It’s romantic, it’s impressive, it must be done! Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge takes under an hour and is a thrilling experience.
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: It’s romantic, it’s impressive, it must be done! Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge takes under an hour and is a thrilling experience.
Central Park, New York - the cost of holidays to New York and other American destinations will rise
Bronx Zoo

Constance Harris

House swapping can inject adventure into your life for very little cost, says Constance Harris, who swapped her Irish home for a pad on the Upper East Side.

Whether it be due to middle age, or the oppressive effect of too much responsibility, it is easy for us to slip into feeling like we will never again (afford to) have adventures such as we had in our teens and twenties.

But, hark; fade not into the grey mists of obscurity induced by the grim determination to do right.

I offer you hope.

House swapping is THE way to inject a bit of adventure into your life and all it might cost you is an airfare. In my case, last summer, it was a great price deal with British Airways, flying from Belfast to New York.

You can be a renter of an apartment (subject to landlord agreement), or the owner of a farm and you can swap your home. You can have ten children and swap with someone who also has ten children and thus you have an instant child-friendly holiday home with no hauling of buggies, car seats and cots. You can be a cat lover and luck out with swapping with a fellow feline fan.

No matter your type, there is a match for you. It is romantic. It is possible.

How house-swapping works is you list your property with an organization, many of which are now online. You may put up some photographs of your home and describe it and your locality.

You might say a little about your family, perhaps, such as children/no children so that you can attract a similar set up to your own home. Imagine it, a holiday with no need to haul Xboxes and children's 'must have' paraphernalia, across the world.

You list the times of the year that would best suit you to exchange homes; there is no time limit. You list the countries, towns, whatever, that you would be interested in visiting. You can then look around for suitable matches and suitable matches can seek you.

Once agreements are drawn up between you and your match, you are off.

From the research I did, generally there is little trouble in home swapping - when done right. Which is why reputable organizations such as HomeLink (homelink.ie) and HomeExchange (homeexchange.com) are so invaluable. They offer a lot of support in the form of guidelines, contracts, advice as well as connecting you with an awesome, largely cost-free, holiday.

Small breakages or small damage, may be inevitable. If you are precious about your towels and bed linens, or anything else for that matter, just put them away. It doesn't have to be complicated.

Several years ago, I joined HomeLink. A friend of mine who has done a lot of house swapping recommended it as being great for European swaps and HomeExchange if I wanted to swap in the USA.

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Central Park, New York - the cost of holidays to New York and other American destinations will rise

Central Park, New York

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Founded in 1953, HomeLink is one of the oldest home swapping organizations operating world wide, with a good track record and a lot of support. Track record is very important when doing home exchanges. Homelink is €100 for a year's membership.

My son was then 14. I wanted to swap with someone in France to improve his, and my, French. We were on HomeLink's list for a year. Not one French person approached us to swap homes, nor could I find any. (Typical, smug frogs not wanting to leave their great-cheese, country.)

But the interesting thing to happen was that nice families from Germany emailed me offering me their lodge in the Black Forest to myself, if I would take their son, Franz, for two weeks language experience. Then, Anna, from Milan, wrote that I sounded kind and would I host her daughter for two weeks, in return for the use of her apartment in Florence at whatever time suited me?

These were incredible offers and I hadn't even had to swap my home. But my teenager vetoed sharing his space to facilitate my suddenly exciting prospects and also any further plans I had about home swapping. So I let the dream lapse until the summer when I knew he was gone - and I was free to explore again.

So last summer, I swapped my home with Jo, a lovely, vibrant lady, living on the Upper East side of New York, a well set-up neighbourhood. She had emigrated from Ireland as a young girl and loved getting out of, often unbearably hot and steamy New York in the summer, to visit her friends and family here.

As co-incidence would happen and often does in home swapping, it turned out we were both single mothers with sons. We both loved dancing and literature. We had similar taste in décor in our homes. We enjoyed exploring life, culture and the company of friends. We even had the same herbal teas in our cupboards. We were a match.

In February, we made our agreement to swap for six weeks over the summer. We co-ordinated our needs; I offered her the use of my car, which can be a common occurrence in home swapping, thus you save a fortune on car hire. But being a 'Noo-Yawka', she valued public transport and declined my offer. But a hair dryer was essential.

Over the five months before we swapped, through email and a few telephone calls, Jo and I developed a friendship. She arranged temporary gym membership for me in the 92nd Street Y(MCA), I got a barbecue so she could have her family around for casual summer dining. This was house swapping - civilized, personal, exciting.

In order to get away for a stretch of six weeks, I planned and did a lot of work in advance to be finished while abroad. Within a week of landing in New York, I had a great schedule of getting up really early, to stay in touch with the time zone in Ireland, and then by 3pm in the afternoon, the rest of the day was mine to explore the city that never sleeps.

What I particularly loved about home swapping was that it was like you were instantly at home and a member of that culture and society. There I was, living in New York, with Irish-American doormen trying to match me up with rich, old, guys on the block, and advising me where to go to get the bus to Atlantic City.

I had a local hairdresser, the brilliant Alice on 2nd Avenue and 69th Street. I developed repartee with the guys selling fruit and veg on our street. I had my all-night cinema and local branch of Victoria's Secret. I met friends in their apartments for dinner. I was living like Carrie Bradshaw.

What home swapping did was it gave me a whole new world to explore and the luxury to relax because it wasn't costing me a fortune. So, I lived 'as-if'.

Every morning, I walked around Central Park at around 7.30am before the city got hot. From that I learnt to appreciate what an amazing place 'the park' is and why Woody Allen gives paeans of praise to it. I saw how dedicated fitness-crazy New Yorkers are. I heard guys and gals break up on their cell phones, as they morning-jogged Central Park's reservoir.

It was living theatre.

I joined Meetup (meetup.com), a social meeting site that operates the world over, including Ireland. On Meetup, you click your interests and then are notified about groups meeting near you.

So, I did tango every Friday night in the Ukrainian restaurant in the east village and got to know the crowd there and took part in New York's Argentine Tango festival. I did actors improv classes on Saturday afternoons and attended talks on sales and building online platforms, with young people who were office drones in skyscrapers by day, dreaming of making it big with their idea by night.

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Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo, New York

Above all, no matter the heat, I walked and walked that city. I even went on a few dates and had a fabulous day out in the Bronx Zoo and at a Harry Potter convention in Brooklyn.

This was living as if. For the first three weeks, house swapping had me feeling like I wanted to emigrate. By week five I was missing home and week six, I was happy to get aboard my luxurious, brand new, British Airways Dreamliner plane and fly back home.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle summed up the Victorian era's idealogy when he wrote - change is as good as a rest. I shed twenty years of stress, dreariness and fear of ageing, on my change of a home swap.

Next time, I might go to New Zealand. I could be Zena. The 'Warrior Princess'. Remember that show?!

Anything is possible when you home swap. It is fantasy living come true.

Getting there

British Airways (britishairways.com) operates up to six flights daily between Belfast City and London Heathrow, as well as eight flights daily between Dublin City and London Heathrow, connecting up to eleven flights daily to the USA.

The British Airways 787 Dreamliner is a new airplane design that includes amongst its features improved comfort seating, cleaner air, better table facilities for laptops, and lots more. Currently, the British Airways 787 Dreamliner service operates up to two flights daily from London Heathrow to Newark.

From Dublin city, prices from €502 return, including taxes.

See also homelink.com and homeexchange.com.

The Bronx Zoo

A fantastic day trip - especially enjoyed by adults. Allow at least half a day. You can get a bus to it directly from Manhattan. The Zoo is spacious, built for purpose, with lots of lovely walks that are wheelchair and child friendly, with food courts and play parks. Afterwards, get a taxi to Arthur Avenue, the last genuine Italian quarter in the Five Boroughs and enjoy the fresh pasta and canoli, like a true Italian.

Brooklyn Bridge

It's romantic. It's impressive. It's got to be done. Take a walk across the Brooklyn bridge. New Yorkers believe its best done from the Brooklyn side into Manhattan. It takes about an hour, you see some amazing views, and it brings you into DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), Chinatown, or you can walk to Wall Street, fast-becoming a hip, residential quarter, as all the financial businesses abandoned it after 9/11.

Central Park

New Yorkers adore it and in summer you appreciate why. It provides relief from the heat. It's full of amenities such as the boat house, the 19th century carousel, tea rooms, wild areas, green pastures, landscaped gardens. There are things happening at all times; theatre, music, sports, dancing, community groups, and more. Many city museums and galleries flank its boundaries so you can 'do' a museum, rest in the park, then 'do' another.

Book the best value city breaks with Independent Travel here.

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