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.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

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.