The Swapping Party

True story: when I was six I swapped my house for a cabbage patch doll. It seemed like a good deal at the time. That cabbage patch doll was amazing and we’d lived in the house for years so it was pretty old news. 

Tragically, it didn’t go down well with my parents who felt more attached to bricks and cement and proved unable to let go of their material possessions in order to make space for something much more magical in their lives – mine. The cabbage patch doll went back to school. But I never forgot… I bided my time, quietly, but I did NOT forget…

Now that I’ve got my own house, I can do what the hell I like with it. So last week, I swapped it. I swapped my house for a scene of total and utter anarchy.

And it turned out, of course, that I was right all along. I was a child genius, misunderstood by my generation and even my own parents. Swapping is BRILLIANT, especially when pared with cake and biscuits and tea and a bit of a party vibe.

Here’s how it happened: I posted a message on an online ‘swap and sell’ site run on Facebook by some amazing women in my neighbourhood, offering to host a swapping party at my place. The rules were simple: kid’s stuff only, and no money could change hands – you’d swap toys and clothes you didn’t want anymore for things brought by other people that you did. Then I baked some cakes, got out all our mugs and tea cups and waited for an unknown quantity of strangers to start knocking on the door.

Was I worried about inviting strangers into my house? A little, I suppose, but not much. I’d already met quite a few local families through using the Facebook page for individual swaps.

I’d bagged  two pairs of 2-3yr old trousers in return for a home-made jar of marmalade last month, a bundle of books and toys in return for home-made chutney, swapped a box of not-really-our-kind-of-chocolate left at the house by a supper guest for a toddler craft table belonging to a little girl who’d outgrown it and loads more.

Each swap meant a (very) short journey to collect things which, in turn, meant making friends (both for me and for Johnny) with families who live on our doorstep but who we’d never spoken to before. Finding new homes for unwanted things, making a tiny stand against the rising mass of landfill, making new friends… It’s been great, the best part of this experience so far.

My local street map, which last month looked to me like a slightly grim and anonymous urban jungle, is now punctuated, in my mind, by warm homes and friendly faces – an actual neighbourhood in that old fashioned, nostalgic sense.

So I was looking forward, if a little nervously, to meeting more people. And it was totally worth it. By 3pm the house was full. I’d only met one of the women before but it scarcely seemed to matter. Cake was eaten, babies were breastfed, kids played, women chatted and laughed, things were swapped in a very loose circle: someone would give up a newborn snow-suit to another woman, then find a pull-along dog that their kid would now love from a different woman who’d like a pop-up-book from some-one-else…

The slightly soppily named Centre for a New American Dream has guides for organising community swapping parties here. As they write, ‘It’s one of the first things we’re taught as kids: how to share. But this practice usually fades as we become adults.

Our houses become filled with our own “stuff.” Garages, attics, basements, and closets transform into cluttered warehouses. When we need something, whether it’s a chainsaw or a roasting rack, our first thought is to go out and buy it. But why get it new when our neighbor down the street has one we can borrow?’

If we’d followed their rules things would definitely have been less anarchic and more ordered but, you know, that’s just not the way we traditionally do things in this house. And there was something lovely about the open spirit that developed as people relaxed and shared so generously with virtual strangers.

A lot of tea was drunk, quite a few swaps were done, stuff was given away but mostly, friends were made between parents and children. Next time I go to the playground, we’ll know more of the faces in it. And of those faces we do recognise, more will be real friends. And despite the litter on the scruffy streets round here and the paint peeling from so many houses, that’s the kind of neighbourhood I want Johnny to grow up in.