It was going to be a holiday of a lifetime and it was. It took me a few weeks to make the arrangement, complete with a few intense days of negotiations and deciding on our destination through our home exchange site, but we were doing it. We were going on a holiday to Sicily. I knew very little about it besides it being in South Italy. It was an island. There were dangerous volcanoes. The mafia were from there. We arranged a house swap for our home in Jaffa for a big piece of a family-owned villa a bit south of Palermo.
A car would be necessary and despite the extra hours in the airport figuring out which car company would accept my Canadian driving license (I should have brought my Israeli license they told me!), we got our Peugeot and were off to the villa.
As soon as we left the outer limits of Palermo heading south to Santa Flavia there was a very clear memory coming to me. This is northern Israel. Huh? This feels like home. The architecture of the houses, the filters on the light, the rubble, the litter, plastic bags blowing in the wind. Even though I hate garbage there is a splendor in the untidiness of litter when it’s on the backdrop of a Sicilian seaside village. It’s human somehow, like how Israel makes me feel.
Driving in Sicily was something I was told to be prepared for so I was a bit frightened to rent a car in my name. Full insurance plus extras please. But the actual experience of driving on roads without dividing lines for lanes and few traffic signs for competing traffic felt more like sailing a ship. The Sicilians were fast drivers, and like Israelis they were adept. Unlike Israelis they gave and took. Israelis just take the lane or slide into it. Sicilians are more impatient however and will almost ram your backside if you do not go 175 km on the highway. So just move to the “slow lane” which is fast and you will be fine.
When we finally get to our villa, view to the sea — nuts! With olive trees and nectarine groves, I Google the history of Sicily and see us on a map so close to North Africa. A hop, skip and a jump to North Africa — much closer than to London, let’s say and understand how the Islamic Moorish and even Turkish influence touched this place, as it had Israel in the not so distant past. There is a harmony in it, but not clowny the way Gaudi incorporated the Moorish influence in his designs in Spain.
We chose a swap over a rental because it’s more practical for a large family (my mom was going to come to, making it easier to say yes) if we are travelling for a long time. It also gives you a sweet sense of connection to the place. You often meet the swappers’ friends and family, making it a more authentic experience than staying in a hotel.
One thing I noticed is that when I met travelers in Sicily who were staying in Sicily, they were having a hard time with AirBnB. The culture of Sicilian people and the platform was not familiar to them. So it would be common to get an apartment in a less savory part of the city, or worse get robbed. It happened and it can happen anywhere but the complaints about the rental platform in Sicily seemed too frequent. In Israel, I notice more and more tourists appearing in my neighborhood of Jaffa. Yesterday, I helped an AirBnB tourist contact his landlord as he was locked out. Me and my friend Ruth looked at ourselves: what in the world are tourists doing here? A half mile down the street maybe, but in our neighborhood.
So I say this to my friends who want an amazing experience. Sometimes AirBnB is worth it where you have two days in a city like we did in Rome and you notice that all the hotels are expensive and have terrible reviews on top travel websites. If you don’t care where you travel, Italy, Spain, Portugal or France? And you have a few months before your travel to find a willing family to come to your house then home swapping is for you. I have done it four times and never had a bad experience. However, you need to be flexible with times and dates when you go on sites like Home Exchange. If you want maybe Sicily or maybe Costa Brava or maybe Florence or maybe… then it’s okay.
But if you have a specific place and a specific amount of time to be spent, like 10 days or two weeks, it’s much more efficient and less time consuming to just rent a villa. If you are travelling in a group some VRBO equivalent to Europe might help — it’s usually homes well managed by local companies and there are people and there is a system in place to help you with all your problems of being locked out or not being in a great neighborhood. I am looking at Costa Brava villas for my vacation in the spring. It has a lot of the qualities I loved about Sicily — the Moorish architecture, the endless village-side beaches, the colors. I can book a big place and share it with my family.
But with Costa Brava — it’s part of the mainland, a quick drive from Barcelona and also so close to France that hopefully some great bakeries will have migrated down south for us to enjoy. One wonderful experience we had at a Sicilian bakery/pasta making shop was with an old Sicilian woman who told us she was Jewish after we bought some ravioli and shared with her that we were from Israel. It turns out to our surprise that this island is a huge melting pot much like Israel itself (and there was a vibrant Jewish community), having been conquered by a dozen different nations over the millennia.