This guest post about holiday home exchange is written by Kathy from Yin Yang Mother
If a change is as good as a holiday (or maybe we don’t subscribe to that theory on a travel blog!) then a year spent living overseas on ‘exchange’ is even better.
Home exchange experience and lessons
This time last year we were packing up the life we lived in Canada throughout 2011.
Our luggage comprised three large suitcases, one medium/large suitcase, a big duffel bag and one of those cheap striped bags, extra-large because we still had more stuff to fit in including ski boots! Even then we were forced to leave the baby pram behind, which we’d intended packing up with still more stuff and wrapping it in bubble-wrap for maximum weight. It wouldn’t fit in the car.
Then there were our carry-ons!
As we’d done on the way to travel to Canada, we smiled effusively at the airline staff, coaxing our cute little kids to wield their not inconsiderable charms, so that it didn’t matter that most of our bags were too heavy.
We brought far more stuff to Canada than we needed, and returned home with even more (I had managed to travel to New York twice during the year and a girl has to shop)!
But mostly we brought home wonderful memories, along with a new perspective that only immersing yourself in a different place and culture can gift you. Priceless.
Lesson no 1: You cannot travel light when doing a year-long exchange
(especially to a cold climate country) with two kids (especially with a baby)!
Lesson no 2 – you can always travel lighter than you think.
Exchanges come in different forms – from the traditional student exchange/gap year, which isn’t an exchange per se, but a rite of passage into the world at school or university; to opportunities to exchange jobs, shorter term house swaps, and what we did – a twelve-month job exchange that included a house exchange and we even swapped cars!
I can’t speak from experience on other types of exchanges, but I can tell you that ours was a relatively complex process.
When you do the sort of exchange we did, it takes quite a bit of preparation and planning.
Lesson No 3 – expect to do a fair large amount of planning and plenty of paperwork.
We had dreamed of an exchange for so long, but couldn’t make it a reality as we waited on the adoption of our second child from China. The uncertainty over the timing of the adoption (we waited more than five years) made planning in advance particularly difficult.
My husband is a fire fighter, and there is an established program of job exchanges between the Queensland Fire Service and Whistler Fire Hall (yes I did say Whistler, skiing, après, are you jealous yet?). I understand teachers, nurses and paramedics are among other professions to offer work exchange opportunities.
In mid-2009 my husband responded to an expression of interest from the Whistler fire fighter we would ultimately exchange with. A family man, with a typical Canadian home that backed onto the school our daughter would attend, it seemed like a good match. He and his family were keen to come to our lakefront home on the Gold Coast, 10 minutes from the beach. They loved the idea of swimming in our pool, while soaking in their backyard hot tub surrounded by snow certainly appealed to us.
Several emails and phone calls later we agreed to pursue the exchange, subject to them pushing back their preferred start date, due to delays with our second adoption.
As in most things in life, compromise helped make things work – we compromised in exchanging our larger home for their smaller one while they agreed to be flexible with dates.
Even though there had been four or five other previous exchanges, my husband still had to go through a fairly lengthy approval process that involved negotiating a contract which needed to be signed by both fire fighters, approved by their respective union representatives and authorised by the Fire Commissioner in my husband’s case. The contract covered everything from training to workers compensation, holiday leave and time off in lieu. The arrangement itself was straightforward enough – each fire fighter continued to get paid by their employer and the working conditions and rosters were largely the same.
It’s important to note that the contract only covered the work arrangements. We didn’t go as far as drawing up a contract covering the personal aspects of the exchange – our homes, cars, insurance, utilities etc, although we did put things in writing via email.
The exchange approval process was underway by the time of our adoption finally looked imminent in mid-2010. When we received the wonderful news that we’d been matched with a 7 month old baby boy, we also celebrated that we could finally proceed with certainty to plan our Canadian adventure.
Of course nothing was going to be simple.
With the signed letters of approval we were able to lodge the paperwork with the Canadian consulate in Sydney to get the necessary work permit. We also needed a student permit for our then seven-year-old daughter, so she could access free schooling. My husband needed a medical clearance due to the nature of his work.
We submitted the forms and associated documents (certified copies of birth certificates, passports etc) just two weeks before leaving for China, along with a complicated explanation to the consulate detailing our need to forward our new son’s paperwork once we actually had our new son!
On faith we booked our airfares to Canada to secure seats, even before we left for China.
So much could have gone wrong – with the adoption process, our new son’s health, the work-permit application and the sheer tight timeframe we were working to – only ten weeks between arriving home with our son and flying out for Canada.
My head spins now recalling the three layers of paperwork – Chinese, Australian and Canadian. We were unsure whether we’d have enough time to secure our son’s citizenship (he arrived in Australia on a permanent resident’s visa) in order to get his Aussie passport and avoid having to get a temporary residents visa for him to come to Canada! Complicating things further, as a Chinese national he required a medical clearance, so our poor little man had two separate medicals within the space of a few weeks (and there was the emergency hospital visit in China, but that’s another story!).
Thanks to friendly and efficient Australian immigration staff, we had our son’s passport in the nick of time. But just a day out from our scheduled departure date, we were still waiting on the Canadian work permit letter! All contact with the consulate was supposed to be via email, but in desperation we had to ring their answering service to get the permit through at the 11th hour, despite all our earlier email entreaties that it was urgently required.
Lesson No 4 – things always take longer than you think to organise.
I hope I haven’t put you off the exchange process – think of it this way – if we were able to do it given our complex set of circumstances, it should be a relative breeze for most people.
After a 15.5 hour flight to Vancouver and slow and surly service at Canadian immigration on arrival, we were given a stunning introduction to our new ‘home’ on a blue-sky winter’s day.
Vancouver is a vibrant oceanfront city back-dropped by beautiful snow-capped mountains. It rains a lot in the lower mainland of British Columbia, but as we headed out of the city on the Sea to Sky Highway we enjoyed what must be one of the most spectacular drives in the world in picture-perfect weather. Lush tree-covered mountains hugged one side of the road, warmly embraced by the snow-capped peaks soaring behind them. Below us glistened the glassy blue-green waters of Howe Sound. We had to wonder whether we really had found a new kind of paradise.
A couple of weeks into our exchange we experienced our first Canadian snowfall – I rocked my baby boy to sleep in my arms while watching the flakes fall softly and silently outside, turning everything clean, crisp and new. I had to pinch myself.
Lesson no 5 – it’s all worth it!
We had a great time in Canada. We were proud of how our daughter settled into school, even though she’d missed the first part of their school year. There were moments of home-sickness and cabin fever (in the often miserable weather), but we soon made friends, revelled in the snow and skiing and made the most of opportunities to travel within North America (did I mention I got to go to New York twice and we had a lovely time with my parents in the Rocky Mountains and took the kids to Disneyland before driving up to San Francisco).
Living in another country for a year is never going to be one big holiday, even if it was a big adventure. Life settles into its routines, complete with day-to-day dramas (we got robbed in the September – thieves stealing my laptop, our camera and video camera in a break-in, so we lost all of the video and most of the photographs we’d taken throughout the year).
But it was the day-to-day living, as much as the travels that made the experience so rich (apart from the robbery that is). Fortunately our own home insurance policy provided coverage, however it is worth checking the fine print of policies as the exchange family had a large excess so there was no coverage for a small household accident we had, leaving us several hundred dollars out of pocket.
As both families were paid in their own currencies we had to come up with a plan to transfer money to each other without paying hefty currency conversion rates. We each opened an account in our new countries and agreed to transfer between $2,000-$3,000 for our standard living expenses each month, plus we did a lump sum at the start.
Each family saved approximately $1,500 over the year through our arrangement of monthly money transfers for household expenses which enabled us to bypass bank exchange rate fees. Of course it relied on trust, as is necessary for any exchange to work, with each party treating the other’s property with respect.
As a family, a job and house exchange is an affordable way to experience another country and culture. We are richer for it.
Bio: Kathy Kruger is an adoptive Mum to two beautiful kids from China. She struggled against the universal flow that brought infertility into her life before having to surrender control in the long and difficult adoption process. Now she is trying to remember those lessons and strive for balance and contentment in life. She blogs at Yin Yang Mother
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