Samad was surfing the Net one night when the words “HomeExchange” beckoned. Several days later he paid US99 for a one-year membership, shot pictures of our house and the surrounding golf course, and posted them on the site.
Within a month, people from England, Canada, Scotland, New Zealand and France offered to swap homes with us. We also had the choice of an apartment in New York.
We were drawn to a house in the village of Dambelin in France, near the Swiss border, and emailed Stephane Dumont, an Export Director, who lived there with his wife, Beatrix, and 8-year-old twin girls, Sydney and Kayleigh. We hit it off very quickly and on Samad’s birthday, July 23, 2009, we left for France.
For three months before that we frantically made preparations to receive our French family. Samad put together a very professional-looking manual containing a contact list of doctors, car mechanics, electricians and contractors, information on how to operate our household equipment, the location of hospitals, grocers, shopping malls and restaurants, and places of interest, near and far, complete with Google maps.
Elena, my live-in domestic helper, and I spent time decluttering. Our efforts yielded clothing and furniture which we sent to an orphanage. We built a store-room for things we wanted put away. Ann, of Frangipani Design, reupholstered our sofas and sewed black-out curtains for our bedroom, tablecloths for our new dining table and comforters to match new bedding for our room and the second bedroom.
Aris thought we’d gone slightly overboard!
Four days before we left I went to the bank to settle some bills. I parked the car, slung my handbag over my right shoulder, opened the door and was viciously attacked by a snatch thief on a motorcycle who sped off with my handbag. I was thrown out of my car and lay on the road in pain and shock, my left foot pinned beneath the tyre of an approaching car. I used all my strength to free it before its pock-marked driver emerged and helped me up. He claimed to be a member of the Selangor State Roving Police Unit, had seen the snatching and said he would track down the thief.
When Samad saw my bleeding knee and swollen foot, he took me to the nearest Emergency clinic where I was given an anti-tetanus shot, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication. We made a police report before heading home.
That night I had dizzy spells and threw up my food. My doctor suggested a head scan. I spent a wretched night. Aggrieved, I wanted to cancel the trip. Aris suggested I go in a wheel-chair and recuperate in France. But, thankfully, my condition improved the following day and, slowly but surely, I began to mend.
Aris drove us to the airport and we got there just as a smiling Dumont and his lovely family arrived. So we were able to have a brief chat before Aris took them home.
I called Aris before we boarded and was delighted to learn our dear cat Pasha had taken to the twins and had purred most energetically.
Arrival in France
We spent a night in Zurich before boarding a train for the 2-hour journey to Dambelin, passing through peaceful countryside dotted with small villages. Laurent, Stephane’s friend and neighbour, met us at the station. Another smiling Frenchman, I thought. He drove us to Stephane’s house and before leaving, invited us to have dinner with him and his family.
We quickly made ourselves at home in Stephane’s comfortable house with its many flowering potted plants; we studied the pictures on the walls and looked with interest at his large collection of French music. Cows grazed in the nearby field. The peaceful and beautiful country setting made me want to quiet my mind, brew some hot tea, put my legs up, and just rest and relax.
But Samad suggested we took a walk.
Dambelin has one Town Hall, one restaurant, one car repair shop, an excellent bakery (the French love their bread I was told), and grocer. And many large, splendid green fields. We even discovered a place to deposit kitchen refuse for recycling.
The following day we jumped into the car and explored the nearby towns including Point de Roide and Montbeliard and sampled some delicious French cuisine.
Dinner with Laurent, his vivacious wife Pauline, and their three boys, Luc, Axel and Tom was a fun experience. While Laurent and his wife spoke English, the boys didn’t so we tried out our limited French on them, to their amusement! Each of them deserved a “well-behaved child” award, I thought, with their impeccable table manners. Before bidding them, “au revoir”, we exchanged email addresses so we could stay in touch.
Each morning I would rise, open the window and look out at the wind turbines on top of a hill some distance away. I was fascinated with the way they kept going round and round. We decided to drive to the area and we saw a whole long row of them. They stood tall and erect, like gigantic, white table fans, their slanted, pointy blades spinning and whirring continuously with the wind, generating electricity for the area. It was our first close encounter with wind turbines.
We own a French car, a Peugeot 126CC, so we thought a visit to the Peugeot Museum at Souchaux near Montbeliard would prove interesting. We were amazed with what we saw.
The Museum, founded by the Peugeot family, opened in 1988 and is located across the road from the Company’s huge automobile plant. It is dedicated to the automotive history of one of the most fabulous stories of French industry. The exhibits begin with products over 100 years old – coffee-grinders, sewing machines, tools, radios, carriages, bicycles and motorcycles. The old cars, elegant and stylish, form the core of the collection. They are displayed in chronological order beginning with the first releases and going on to prototypes of the futuristic cars of tomorrow. We couldn’t help feeling a little proud to be a tiny part of this great history.
Colmar/Lion of Belfort
Some say that Colmar is the most beautiful city in the world. Indeed, we found the views there breathtaking. Probably that was what drove Malaysia’s company, Berjaya, to build a mini-Colmar at their Hill Resort in Pahang. It is a French-themed village with a hotel that boasts a distinctive design borrowed from the original Colmar.
Built at the confluence of two rivers, Colmar is an open-air museum. It attracts millions of tourists who come to see its House of Heads, an Italian renaissance guards’ house, the old Customs House and the Petite Venise quarter. Others are attracted by the house of sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, who created New York’s Statue of Liberty. Yet others come for the food and wine and the many delightful shops.
After spending a thoroughly enjoyable day at Colmar, we went to see Bartholdi’s famous sculpture, the Lion of Belfort. What a monumental piece of work it is! Made entirely of sandstone, the lion symbolizes the French resistance during the siege of Belfort by the Prussians.
I have no doubt that the citizens of Belfort feel they are favored by good fortune to have this strong and imposing beast watch over their city.
One morning I received an unexpected call from Malaysia. It was from the police station where I’d reported my loss. They had apparently arrested the snatch thief and recovered my handbag. Well done! I told them. I was filled with relief that my credit cards and other identification documents were safe although all my money had gone missing.
English was not widely used in the parts of France we visited and we only spoke “un petit peu” French. But whenever we got lost, there were always people to show us the way. At supermarkets we had assistance with the items we needed. At restaurants people would help us translate the menu.
We were strangers in a foreign country, surrounded by strangers. But we felt at home. And safe.
Well disposed to attempt another exchange experience, we returned and soon, thereafter, agreed to swap homes with a family in Melbourne, Australia.
(See Santha Oorjitham’s article, Exchange Getaway – Would you swap homes with total strangers? that appeared in the New Straits Times, November 18, 2009 in which she wrote about the experiences of Malaysians who had exchanged homes).
(Also see YouTube videos at “Samahyahaya – Dambelin”)