ALHAMBRA AND ROME — Editor's note: In November, Times staff writer Susan Spano and Times website producer Jason La exchanged dwelling places. La, a twentysomething, got to nest in Spano's apartment overlooking the Forum in Rome, and Spano, who's not a twentysomething, took over La's bachelor quarters in Alhambra. Like thousands of others who swap homes each year, sometimes as part of an organized exchange program, sometimes informally, they found upsides and downsides. Here is their report:
Susan Spano: Though I live in Italy now, I sometimes need to return to Southern California. Paying for hotel accommodations and car rentals on previous trips had cost me dearly. So this time, I looked for -- and found -- a willing participant in Jason La, whom I knew only a little. But my colleagues vouched for his character.
Jason La: Most of what I know about Susan, I know from colleagues or from reading her stories. But this I do know: We both have a thrifty side to our travel character. In fact, when it comes to traveling, I'm cheap. I book flights with two stopovers to save money. Instead of taking cabs, I walk, even if I don't know where I'm going. I've stayed in a one-star hotel with shared bathrooms and towels that smelled like sweat. I skip meals so I don't have to eat as often.
Despite my penny-pinching ways, I wouldn't consider myself the apartment-swap type. On top of being cheap, I'm a little paranoid. But it wasn't hard to make the trade. I had two weeks of vacation time and had never been to Italy.
Who turns down a chance to stay in the Eternal City for free?
Spano: It really pains me to learn that Jason used to skip meals to economize on the road. He says it's because he's cheap, but it sounds to me like mortification of the flesh.
I used to be a big bargain traveler. Never mind sweaty socks. I've stayed in rooms with dead snakes. But as you get older, you find that the travel experience is enhanced by staying in a place with a few creature comforts.
La: In my excitement to solidify the swap, I threw in the use of my new car. Like many of the hasty decisions I've made, I regretted it as soon as co-workers announced that Susan has a reputation for -- how shall I say it? -- adventurous driving, including backing into a guardrail at a toll booth north of Milan, Italy, last summer. Fortunately, a colleague offered Susan the use of an old beater truck, saving my car.
With car worries behind me, I assembled a team of travel buddies. My college friend Jane planned to join me three days into the trip. Lily and Julie, friends from high school, arrived the next day, followed by Miranda, another friend working in Spain.
Spano: I was somewhat taken aback when Jason sent me an e-mail asking whether it was OK for his friends to stay in my place.
"How many of them are there?" I asked. He never replied.
And I am still a little miffed at my colleagues for perpetuating the idea that I'm a bad driver. OK, so I have had a few fender benders (in L.A., I often used to run into my apartment building, which was way too close to the driveway) and I got a few speeding tickets when I lived in France. (Why I was singled out I'll never know, given how fast the French drive.) On the other hand, I love that old truck, which cuts a striking figure at L.A.'s finest restaurants.
My biggest concern remained Alhambra. Precisely where was it? The only Alhambra I knew was in Spain.
La: After exchanging a few e-mails and keys, I was off to Rome. As I left the subway on the final leg of my journey, the first thing I saw was the Colosseum.
Susan's apartment was a 30-minute walk from the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, where my friends and I threw in coins to wish for romance. A 10-minute subway ride took me to the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica, truly awe-inspiring. Because the Colosseum was nearly on my doorstep, I would often wander over during the evenings to see it illuminated against the night sky. There is nothing more beautiful in Rome.
Spano: Once I finally found it, I found Alhambra to be a nice little town populated largely by Asian immigrants. It also has lots of car dealerships. I wouldn't call it scenic. Many stores along Main Street have gone out of business, which served as a good reality check for me. With socialistic safety nets embedded in the Italian system, the financial meltdown hadn't yet been fully felt by average Italians.
Still, the venerable Diner on Main in Alhambra serves terrific chicken Caesar salads, and the YMCA has an indoor pool so I could swim laps.
Jason's place is a one-bedroom on the second floor of a small apartment complex on a busy street, next to a construction site. It wasn't quiet, a feature I've come to crave with age. But the sheets were clean and the bathtub had been scrubbed.