Image: Couple in Paris © Corbis

My wife insists she came up with the dream; I'm pretty sure I did. But you don't trifle over a great idea. Paris is the City of Lovers. So Nancy and I, who have declared that after 45 years of marriage we are more in love than ever, wanted to soak up that atmosphere -- for a month.

The question, of course, was how to finance it. I am retired from journalism, which mostly pays you just enough to starve with dignity. Nancy is an RN, still working a couple of days a week to keep her nursing jones tamped down. We enjoy life, but we do have a budget. And it does not include spending between $6,500 and $10,000 on a hotel.

Instead, we spent $120 -- total -- for 29 nights of housing in Paris. All we had to do was temporarily swap our condo in San Diego for someone's home in Paris.

Finding a place to stay

Because it was our first venture into home swapping, we went looking for a company that specializes in such things. There are plenty -- this site lists nearly four dozen -- that handle the estimated 100,000 Americans who swap homes each year. Nancy is our in-house travel agent, and she selected HomeExchange.com, mostly, she said, because she found it easy to place photos there. The $120 (actually $119.50) bought us a year's membership, good for all the exchanges we could put together.

Then the search began. We didn't know what to expect, but we thought our condo had a lot to offer: San Diego's best-in-America weather, a golf course and big-sky view, 1,800 square feet of living space, a green belt (OK, brown this time of year) with coyotes, rabbits, soaring hawks and the more-than-occasional deer. All within 20 minutes of downtown, the airport and beaches, the famous San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld.

We first posted without photos but got no bites. When the pictures went up (free registration may be required to view link), the response was immediate. Mary wanted to swap her New York City brownstone; David his condo in Pak Kret, Thailand; Daniele her 18th-century lake house near Rome. Every offer -- except Iceland in February -- seemed enticing. Still, the closest we came to what we wanted in Paris was Jacques' offer of his home overlooking the Mediterranean in Cannes, France.

As far as our own search, we responded to only two listings: Sylvie in the Saint-Germain area of Paris, and Junichi in the close-in Parisian suburb of Puteaux. Neither answered back. We talked, just a bit sadly, about going to Cannes.

Making a deal

About a week later, Junichi contacted us through HomeExchange.com. He and his wife, Felicia, had already arranged a swap for a condo on the San Diego waterfront, but were interested in staying in San Diego for an extra month. Would mid-April to mid-May work? We jumped at it.

In our excitement, we told most of our friends and relatives about our plan. To our surprise, the response was muted. Almost to a man, my golfing buddies asked, "Aren't you afraid they will steal all your stuff?" One of my neighbors promised -- and he seemed quite serious -- to call me immediately when the moving van showed up to haul away all our possessions. The women seemed more enthusiastic, but at least a few expressed distaste for the idea of total strangers living in their homes.

We talked to a couple of people who had done home exchanges; they had encountered almost no negatives, much less theft or damage. But we still began to fret a bit when, after agreeing in early November by email to swap condos, computers and cars with Junichi, we heard nothing for more than three months.

Still, we did our trip preparations, buying plane tickets, getting reservations, doing all the things HomeExchange.com suggested. We prepared a "contract" for signing, got letters of reference to give to Junichi, created a binder containing instructions on how to operate our electronics, appliances, heating and air conditioning, as well as condo rules and lists of golf courses, services and restaurants. And, we began to plan on which of our few "valuables" we would lock up.

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Finally, on Feb. 20, we emailed Junichi, delicately mingling the questions about contracts and references with more mundane items such as key exchanges. He responded immediately, writing: "We have already agreed to exchange with you, so we do not need references from you. We have done many exchanges and have not needed them."

It was our first swap, but their 11th through HomeExchange.com, so Nancy and I just shrugged and decided to flow along with the veterans. Perhaps sensing our unease, Junichi emailed us eight times over next two months, asking an occasional question but mostly giving us detailed information about such things as when to water the plants, how to operate the window canopies, names and numbers of friends to contact for help or translating. A lot of it was just chitchat about grandkids or their visits to our longtime home of Seattle.

"Well," I joked to Nancy. "If he's trying to rip us off, he's sure playing the long game."

The home away from home

By departure time, we were at ease -- although we did move all our financial papers and a couple of pieces of jewelry into our storage unit -- and if any misgivings remained, they vaporized when we walked into the Paris condo.

It was, to be quite honest, jaw-dropping: There was a view of a half-mile of the Seine, one of the world's most famous rivers, with its barge and tour-boat traffic flowing past just 200 feet from our 14th-floor window. The Eiffel Tower preened in the center of the 140-degree view of Paris from the living-room window, with the Arc de Triomphe to the left and Sacré-Coeur clearly outlined in the distance. And looming outside the master bedroom windows were the ultramodern skyscrapers of La Defense, where the French seemed to have exiled anything built after the 18th century.

The rooms were large, airy, bright and dominated by a pastel butternut theme that contrasted perfectly with the blacks and grays that all the French were wearing. It was one of the happiest spaces this side of Disneyland.

After Nancy and I finished high-fiving -- and yelling "Score!" -- we immediately went into some kind of reverse-swapper remorse over what Nancy referred to as "the dump back home." Fortunately, we pulled ourselves out of the funk in about, oh, 15 seconds.

So we went exploring. Puteaux turned out to be an urbanized suburb 5 miles from the Paris city center and settled quite recently -- in 1148. Unlike the sparkling-new La Defense district of Puteaux, the buildings in our neighborhood appeared to be a mix of 20-year-old condos and pre-World War II apartments. And it was definitely a neighborhood, the narrow zigzagging side streets filled with children, pensioners, restaurants and the little shops that are sadly disappearing from America. Our grocery, part of the Monoprix chain, looked like a 1950s Safeway.

Near as we could tell from clothing and behavior, we were the only tourists around. And no one seemed to speak English.

My two years of high school French had survived nearly 50 years of disuse, so I often could decipher signs, but despite taping essential phrases -- "Ou sont les toilettes?" -- to the walls at home, and some "survival French" lessons from a neighbor, we struggled with the language. In neighborhood restaurants, for instance, we would use our menu decoder book to order, then sit baffled as the waiter reeled off 30 seconds of options. Usually, we would repeat one word and then see what eventually came out of the kitchen.

But this was why we'd opted for a home swap; we wanted to be "tourists" only when we so chose. If we'd stayed in a hotel, we probably would've dined where the waiters spoke English, but in Puteaux, we ate out on just eight of 29 evenings. Instead, we tramped the few blocks to the retail district each morning to buy our food, always including the famed baguette -- bread by the yard -- and some pastry.

We made two out-of-town trips: an overnighter to Normandy and two nights with cousins we had never met in my grandfather's home village of Fleringen, Germany. The rest of the time we never spent more than a few hours a day away from the condo.

In our two previous trips to Europe, we had stayed in hotels and been 12- to 16-hour-a-day tourists, because who wants to sit in a cramped European hotel? At 67 years old, however, we opted for a more leisurely pace.

We would hop on the Metro, a subway system with stations never more than a 10-minute walk away and trains every three minutes, and head into the city. Sometimes we were gone two hours, sometimes six. On one day, we choose to walk in across the Bois de Boulogne, a 2,090-acre park.

Although we hit plenty of museums, we had been to most of the tourist attractions on a previous visit, so we took lots of guided walks (usually 12 euros a person) or just freelanced. Sometimes we rode to the end of a line or jumped off at a station just to see what was there. We were never disappointed. Nancy insists we walked every square foot of Paris, but I suspect -- although I'm not sure -- she's exaggerating.

Like many working couples, we have spent too many years living parallel, but too seldom intersecting, lives. The month in Paris we were together almost constantly. It was different -- and wonderful.

And how did it go on the other end? We had dinner with Junichi and Felicia twice after we returned. They were delightful but not very Parisian. He is Japanese and she German, and they met and fell in love in San Francisco.

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When I commented on the fashionable dress of almost all the French women we saw, Felicia responded, "You know what Germans say about French women: 'Beautiful on the outside, nothing on the inside.'" And when we ventured that Paris was the most wonderful place we had ever been, Junichi, a retired airline executive, had a different choice: "Southern California," he said.

But they seemed delighted with our condo. "We loved living in the country," Felicia said, adding that on the days the weather was a bit cool, they moved the deck table inside and ate their meals in front of the window overlooking the golf course and green belt.

I guess it was the perfect swap -- and nothing was stolen or damaged.