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Trading Places

An inveterate mover finds her way home


Published September 21, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.


In the past 15 years, my husband and I have lived in 17 different abodes. Among others, there was a loft in Montréal; an old hunting cabin in Huntington, Vt.; an antebellum Victorian in Staunton, Va.; a tiny, marble-floored condo in the Little India section of Singapore. And, lest I forget, a brand-spanking-new house in Québec’s Eastern Townships that looked eerily similar to the one in Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World.”

Last month, we put an offer on No. 18 in New Orleans, where we relocated partly because the architecture is so damn seductive. I was also lured by an exciting new career and the prospect of being closer to my aging parents in Florida.

Since we’d already lived in a traditional shotgun-style apartment back in 2001, in Brooklyn, we didn’t feel the need to go that route in the Big Easy. Our new house captivated us with a soaring stone fireplace, which gave it the appearance of a lodge in Whitefish, Mont. — another place we love and have considered living. We may be the only New Englanders who moved to the Deep South to take up residence in a dwelling straight out of Big Sky Country.

Friends have openly wondered if we have some sort of shared obsessive-compulsive disorder, or, worse, a terrible case of bourgeois excess. I am both proud and sorry to report that we are just as sane as we are broke. Our motives have always been more banal.

Actually, I mean carnal.

Allan and I have built a strong marital foundation on house swapping. Throughout our 15-year marriage, neither of us has ever been involved with another person — only other homes. To paraphrase two of our best friends, a lesbian couple living in a gorgeous, postmodern farmhouse in South Hero: Real estate is our mistress.

We cruise homes the way Charlie Sheen trolls for goddesses. We lust after every pretty structure in our immediate vicinity, and we continually monitor websites around the world to see what else is out there. For us, house hunting is like speed dating. The adrenaline rush of first sight is followed by the roller-coaster ride of counteroffers, appraisals and inspections. Closing is akin to consummation.

The two of us are often attracted to different domiciles. I had a major crush on a beautiful Filipino beachfront property last year. Alas, Allan did not agree. He was uncomfortable with the threats of tsumanis, terrorists and coup d’états. But I was born in the Philippines and, on seeing the listing for a bamboo-thatched, marble-floored mansion for under $100K, believed I was being called back.

We were living in Singapore at the time, and my husband was eyeing the famed black and white bungalows built by the British colonialists. But I refused these advances based on my need for an air-conditioned, cobra-free existence. The black and whites were designed to combat tropical heat with huge, unscreened windows and slow-turning fans. Real estate listings for these properties still come with a unique warning:

The black and whites are not suitable for Caucasian wives who get hysterical when they see snakes and fruit bats, as these will be your neighbours, together with butterflies, birds, crickets and mosquitoes.

Before our foray into Asian edifices, we briefly shacked up with a condo in South Burlington, on the heels of a bad relationship with a hexagon-shaped ranch in Colchester. The only good thing about the latter home was the people across the street. Last summer, one of them gave a great toast when we renewed our vows at another pal’s fetching Dutch Colonial Revival in Burlington: “If Nancy and Allan aren’t your neighbors yet,” he said, “they will be.”

Once we own a property, our burning desire to buy is transformed into an insatiable thirst to sell. For us, nothing says home sweet home quite like a for-sale sign on the front lawn. House hunting keeps our marriage fresh. If one of the Ten Commandments were “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” we’d be guilty as sin.

It wasn’t until we moved to America’s most Catholic town, the city of New Orleans, that we realized we weren’t really hot for the next notch on our real estate belt. Rather, as was quickly apparent, we were looking for love in all the wrong places. Within days, my great new job with the Jesuits had become the most punishing missionary position ever. And we’d inadvertently enrolled our son in a school full of zealots. Fortunately, the wonderful couple providing us with temporary asylum in their exquisite, gas-lamped Creole cottage helped us see the light. “What are you doing here?” they asked repeatedly.

As Tropical Storm Lee raged over Louisiana on Labor Day weekend, we raged over why we’d ever left our home and friends in the Green Mountain State, which had just endured the wrath of Tropical Storm Irene. That storm shattered many of our favorite haunts, including the Waterbury used-car dealership where we trade cars like we trade houses. Worse, Irene took homes and farms away from families — places people had inhabited for generations. Those were houses built on the firm foundations of love and history.

I knew one like that once — my paternal family’s 200-year-old farmhouse in Virginia, where I spent all the summers of my childhood. When it was sold in 2000, I was devastated. It had been Nancy’s World to me, where I frolicked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with my cousin, Nancy, under the watchful eye of our grandmother, Nancy. The only structure where I’d ever felt both free and safe. I had hoped it would be handed down through generations like my very name.

Suddenly, with three days before closing, hell on earth seemed like life in hot and humid New Orleans inside a house with a two-story, wood-burning stone fireplace, without friends or family. Besides, my work place had become as inhospitable as the city’s climate and crime rate.

Not even the finest house in the Garden District — where another pair of house swappers, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, reside from time to time — would have satisfied us. For the first time in our lives together, what Allan and I needed was sanctuary.

When Tropical Storm Lee’s squalls died down, I quit my job in a fury. Our mortgage loan fell through, since I no longer had income. We came home to Vermont — a place that always takes us back, no matter how often we leave her out in the cold. Our state of grace.

Back in Burlington, we’ve decided to rent for a while and give the house buying a rest. Faster than we could say, “relocation, relocation, relocation,” a friend’s pretty, raspberry-colored colonial on a neighborly cul-de-sac was available for lease. In the comfort of its gracious living room, unpacking the boxes around us, I think we’ll finally ditch the notion that buildings are what keep us together. Paradise found.