My first French reader in school was called La clé sur la porte – the key to the door – and funnily enough our first home exchange was with a French family. This exchange happened many years after I’d forgotten most of my French, so when the French family’s cleaning lady came to hand over la clé and tell us a lot about the house and the neighbourhood, we had a hard time understanding her rapidly spoken Parisian French. She had a simple solution to that communication problem: she just spoke louder!
But we got our key and had a fantastic two weeks in Paris. Since then we have done more than 30 exchanges and have received keys to our exchange homes in many different ways: picked it up from the neighbours (friends, family etc.), found it under a flowerpot or the doormat, inside the rabbit cage etc.
Our second home exchange was with a family in North London, who decided to mail us their key in an ordinary envelope. We did get the envelope – but with a big hole in it and no key! Fortunately, there was still time to send us a second key which arrived before our departure, so with all the trouble our exchange partners had gone through, I thought I’d better keep their key safe and therefore put it in my desk drawer.
After we arrived in London, we took the Underground and walked from the station to our exchange home. It wasn’t till we were actually standing in front of the door that I realized I didn’t remember packing the key! And it turned out I hadn’t! It was still lying – safely – in my desk drawer at home which our exchange family confirmed when we called them. Luckily for us, their teenage son had not been able to go with them to Denmark but was at work that afternoon in a restaurant not too far from the house, so we were able to go there and borrow his key. Since then my children have made sure that I’ve remembered the key (or the instructions on how to find it) for all our exchanges!
In our own house we solved the key problem once and for all when we got new locks with keypads some years ago. Now no one loses or forgets their keys and we can just key in a new code for each exchanger that we swap with. So we can really recommend that solution, if you don’t feel safe leaving your keys under the doormat – or risk it getting lost in the mail. If you don’t want to spend as much money you could consider getting one of those little key safes which some rental vacation homes have (see picture). They come in many designs and price levels, but even the cheapest ones are probably safer than the doormat or the rabbit cage.
Several of our exchanges have also involved a car exchange, and for most of these, we have left our car in the parking lot of our local airport for our exchangers to pick up. In the beginning, we left our car key at the information desk where the staff was happy to keep it and give it to our exchangers when they arrived. But one year we came there and realized they no longer had an information desk! So what to do? Ask the police, someone said. And yes, the friendly airport police very kindly agreed to pass on our car keys to our exchangers. In other airports, we have picked up car keys from the left luggage office or something similar (for a small fee), and some people use valet parking for this. But I’ve also seen small magnetic boxes that you can place in the wheel arch of the car.
Whatever you do with the key, just make sure you explain the location of the car well! After an exchange in Northern Ireland, we returned to our local airport and picked up our car key with a note from our exchange partners about where they had parked our car. But we found it difficult to read their handwriting, so it took a little while to work out that they thought they had parked the car in row U D. The only problem was that UD is Danish for OUT as in WAY OUT! Needless to say, it took us a while to find the car that day, but we had a good laugh!