It's not easy adjusting to a talking Chrysler Le Baron roadster, when you are used to a one- litre Nissan hatchback that doesn't answer back. But this is the kind of change of scale and style you have to get used to if you choose to home-swap with Californians.
George, a middle-aged, dapper and embarrassingly rich northern Californian, had introduced us to the car before he and his wife Sandy jetted off to our home in Chiswick, west London, leaving us with directions to their home, which was situated 30 miles down the coast at Half Moon Bay.
In the gloom of the airport car-park, George and Sandy had unloaded their half-dozen pieces of luggage on to a waiting trolley. Symbolically, we replaced their matching calfskin Gucci numbers with two battered fake-leather cases, which looked lost in the cavernous boot of the Le Baron. What we were actually exchanging was not just luggage, but lifestyles. For the next few months, like the characters in David Lodge's novel Changing Places, we would be living their lives and they ours.
About half-way to Half Moon Bay, we found the off-switch for the on-board computer and silenced the car. The drive along Highway 92, a ribbon of concrete that winds through the Santa Cruz mountains to join the Pacific Coast Highway, was a hairy introduction to freeway driving. We were pushed along at well over the 55mph speed limit by a tide of rush-hour commuters escaping south San Francisco, the industrial side (so don't be fooled by its glamorous-sounding name).
As we bowled along past glorious views of redwoods, man-made lakes and, incongruously, a 'Fred's Christmas Tree Emporium' sign half-way up a hillside of conifers, we wondered if George and Sandy would find our Nissan Micra in the bowels of Heathrow's long-stay car-park, and whether they'd manage the short journey to Chiswick without verbal hints from the dashboard.
You don't fully appreciate how car-dominated US life is until you spend some time driving around American towns. On a two-
week fly-drive, you are likely to stick to interstates or highways, and so miss some of the richer textual detail of everyday auto-life. In Half Moon Bay, metal boxes stuck at the edge of the sidewalk, each with a tube stretching out to the roadside, had us foxed, until we saw two elderly ladies in a Buick stop beside one and drop their letters into the funnel-like mouth.
Even the phone booths in lay-bys are at wing-mirror height, so a driver only has to slide over to the passenger seat and wind down the window to make a call. Entering George and Sandy's palatial house was also achieved without leaving the car. We just pointed the Chrysler at the garage, following George's instructions, and pressed a button in the roof. Up rolled the garage door, and we docked.
Ocean Colony is a development of large houses built at the edge of the Pacific. Inexplicably, the trend among chic northern Californians is to live in a development that is part of a golf course, with the houses not merely next to it, but on it. 'Our' house was next to the 17th green, and the fairway ran right past the patio windows. After the second week, the crack of ball on toughened glass didn't bother us quite so much. But we tended to keep our heads down when we ventured out on to the sundeck overlooking the fairway.
In the evenings, with the golfers gone, it was safe to walk across the grass to the cliff-edge, where we watched the sun setting over the rim of the Pacific and listened to the sea-lions shouting to each other as the waves crashed on to the rocks below.
The house was palatial, in a gaudy, Dallas- like way. Our ambition was to have used all the bathrooms by the time we left, though I don't think we managed it. Our eight-year-old son, with a yelp of delight, discovered the media room on the second day, complete with large-
screen, surround-sound TV, 36 channels and a library of hundreds of videos to choose from. There were three other TVs in the house.
Part of the fun of home-swapping is the way that everyday tasks - everything from shopping to using the washing machine - shift from being mundane and automatic to challenging and novel. Sink plugs were different in George and Sandy's house; the waste disposal was a revelation (swallowing a whole chicken carcass without complaint); the controls on the industrial-size washing machine were impenetrable. It took two weeks to work out the timer on the automatic coffee-maker. Everything felt re-invented and different, from the shape of a cup in your hand at breakfast, to turning the television on to Arsenio Hall instead of Terry Wogan, to locking a door by pressing a button in the handle instead of turning a key.
The house, for all its luxury and novelty, was a little overpowering. We escaped as often as possible to nearby Half Moon Bay, an upmarket, clapboard-fronted, picket-fenced, David Lynch sort of a town. 'Half Moon Bay - Pumpkin Capital of the World', declares the roadside sign at the town limits. And that's about all you could say for it, except that Moll's Diner serves a mean pumpkin soup.
This civic boasting is common in small-town America. Further inland, if you drive down California's central valley, you pass through acre after acre of monoculture, sustained by the rich soil that attracted Steinbeck's Dust Bowl refugees in The Grapes of Wrath. Five miles of highway flanked by artichoke crops will take you to a small town signposted 'Artichoke Capital of the World'. As if separated by a line drawn in the soil, artichokes suddenly give way to mile after mile of courgette farms, culminating in a small town that, inevitably, declares itself 'The World's Zucchini Capital'. At the annual Hayward Zucchini Festival, you can eat courgette-flavoured popcorn and try on shoes made out of courgette skins. Or not, if, like us, you decide there are better things to do in California.
We preferred the cool of the Pacific Coast Highway. Heading north along this natural roller-coaster took us, eventually, over the Golden Gate Bridge to the picturesque and strangely European fishing village of Sausalito. Wealth oozes from the jewellery and clothes stores along the waterfront here, much of it originating in the giant houses of the Napa Valley vineyards further north.
Northern Californians like to think they are classier and a lot less ostentatious than their brasher cousins in the beach-dominated culture further south. But driving north of Sausalito in search of redwoods, and stumbling instead into the landscapes of northern California's vineyard society, showed us what ostentation really means.
Napa Valley houses tumble down the hills in layer upon layer of terraces, turrets, gables and wrought-iron entrance gates. The style is mostly European, with chateaux a popular theme, but timbered mock-Tudor monstrosities also loomed out at us from the early-evening hillside mist. We turned the Chrysler around and fled back to our four-bathroom hovel.
Exploring south down Pacific Coast Highway One took us to Monterey, Carmel and, further inland, Salinas, the heart of Steinbeck country. Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and most other Steinbeck books centre on this stretch of coast and the hinterland.
Cannery Row has been 're-created' in Monterey, with signs pointing the way to 'Doc Picketts' lab', in the kind of hazy overlap between reality and fiction that characterises Americana. The breathtaking Monterey aquarium, which allows you to stare through giant glass walls into the shark- and ray-populated bay itself, more than makes up for the Row's slight tackiness, however - as do the seafood restaurants, where the clam chowder is delicious.
This stretch of Highway One also took us to Big Sur, which is Kerouac-inspired biker country. The hills around Big Sur are where a large acreage of California's considerable marijuana crop is reputedly grown, which may account for the surreal scene we encountered as we rounded a bend in the highway near the summit.
To our right was an outcrop of rock, overlooking the Pacific hundreds of feet below. Perched on this, silhouetted against the half-
light of the evening and surrounded by a full-size drum kit that took up the entire outcrop, a lone wild-haired drummer crashed away on cymbals and toms, trying to match the rhythms of the waves crashing below. In a second, he was gone, as the car rounded the bend. A few inches to the right, and we'd have tipped him and his kit over the edge.
As well as exploring Highway One, we signed petitions against offshore drilling, as if we were locals (well, we felt we were acting on George and Sandy's behalf), and became familiar faces at the 24-hour Safeway. We looked after the cat, put out the trash, made friends with the neighbours (one of whom, Mary Jean Place, an art dealer, kept a small Henry Moore outside the back door) and watched television most nights, just like every other American family.
George and Sandy insist that, in return, they enjoyed the 'quaint scale' of our two-bedroom Chiswick maisonette and had felt at home. Whether that's true or not, we don't know. But at least for a couple of months they didn't have to duck every time they went out on to the terrace. Chiswick is mercifully short of low-flying golf balls.
THE TWO best-known 'home-swap' agencies are Intervac and Worldwide Home Exchange. For a fee, they list your home in an exchange directory. You write to people whose listings interest you, and vice versa. Once you've found a match, you sort out insurance details for the car, feeding instructions for the cat, dates etc, by phone or letter, and away you go. No hotel costs, no car-hire, and the option of cooking at home instead of eating out every day mean you can usually stay much longer, for an equivalent price, than on a hotel-based holiday.
Intervac, 3 Orchard Court, North Wraxall, Nr Chippenham, Wiltshire SN14 7AD, tel 0225 892208.
Worldwide Home Exchange, 138 Brompton Road, London SW3 1HY, tel 071-589 6055.
Green Theme International Home Exchange Holiday Service, Little Rylands Farm, Redmoor, Bodmin, Cornwall PL30 5AR, tel 0208 873123.
Home Base Holidays, 7 Park Avenue, London N13 5PG, tel 081-886 8752.
Homelink International, 84 Lees Gardens, Maidenhead, Berks SL6 4NT, tel 0628 31951.Reuse content