House sitting: the doorway to an authentic travel experience.
Australians Gai Reid and Neil McClean took what started out as a simple holiday in a place they had not yet seen, and it morphed into a journey in four different countries. Neil explains “We’ve lived in other people’s homes – rent free for 9 months!”
House sitting in France
When my partner Gai and I looked for our next travel destination, we wanted something different to traditional holidays. We wanted an authentic travel experience to truly see how people in other countries live their everyday lives. You never really know what it’s like to live in another country with a different culture and possibly a different language – until you live like a local. You simply cannot get that experience staying in hotels and visiting the tourist sites. And so began the search for a way to be able to travel for up to a year, without waiting to win the lottery!
The practice of ‘house sitting’ is sweeping the world, but why would someone invite strangers into their home and entrust them with their belongings and precious animals? Well, it’s based on a mutual trust. Both parties benefit.
For the home and pet owner – instead of locking up your place leaving it unattended, there is someone living there which reduces the likelihood of being burgled. The garden is kept trim and the mail is collected. For many pets, it is extremely stressful when their owners are away, so ensuring pets (of all shapes and sizes) are cared for in their own environment works really well.
For the sitter – there is free accommodation in locations around the work and the joy of caring for beloved animals – without the long term commitment of owning a pet.
We decided to hone our house sitting skills at home. As it happened, friends were off on a break and we jumped at the chance to sit for them and enjoy the company of their adorable little dog. We were only a few kilometres from our own home on the Gold Coast in Australia, but it felt like we were in a different city! After that we took the plunge and joined an agency. We did our research, found an agency on line (based on the one with a high number of sits on offer) and started to make plans. Our next move was three states away!
We drove more than 4,000 kilometres, to spend 5 weeks in the Adelaide Hills, soon followed by a couple of weeks near Port Stephens, one of Australia’s most stunning coastlines. That gave us the confidence to plan something BIGGER! We packed up our apartment and set out for the next leg of our four countries, one year house and pet sitting adventure!
First stop? Paris – of course!
Gai had been to France four times before and loved everything French! She thought that her smattering of French would get us through. And it does in the big cities. But our house sits were in much smaller towns and villages where very few speak English and most don’t understand what you’re saying in the French you think you know! Upholding the French etiquette of “bonjour” on arrival and “merci, au-revoir” on departure helped. Maintaining a sense of humour and being great at charades is also useful.
We met many English speakers who had left their own country for the good life in France. Most of the home owners gave us introductions to their friends and neighbours – who invited us to lunches and gatherings based around food and wine. “Bring the Australians, they might be amusing!” In the Haute Garonne we were introduced to English, Dutch and Americans who had made south west France their homes, mostly because of the space around them in the stunning countryside. Few of them seemed to be missing their old lives in the crowded cities. In Coussac Bonneval we met people walking their dogs in the grounds of an abandoned château and joined the Easter egg hunt in the garden of the château that was still a home.
In Normandy we were lucky enough to meet four British veterans who were visiting. We tried local cider and Calvados at the St.Vaast market. We “went to work” with a British expat who now works protecting the natural environment of coastal Normandy. He showed us the remains of a WW2 German bunker. In Martres Tolosane we saw the horseback commemorative “Bataille de Saint-Vidian” and down the road in Cazeres we came across a parade that would be at home in Brazil! In a tiny village called Saint Blancard – we were shown how to eat snails!
So far we have:
Travelled more than 15,000 km across France and UK in our trusty little Peugeot.
House sat in more than 13 locations, from simple cottages to castles.
Looked after dozens of animals from dogs and cats, to sheep, horses, chickens and hedgehogs!
Established new friendships in every location.
We’ve also shot ten episodes of our TV series “Village to Villa… Living Like Locals”..
Does it take courage? Yes. Does it take an adventurous spirit? Yes. Does it take confidence in your own abilities? Yes.
House sitting has given us the rare opportunity of being able to try out different ways of living in homes of different styles and sizes. We’ve learnt how a well-designed kitchen can encourage cooking. We’ve been reminded of the importance of air in a bathroom and sunshine on winter mornings. We’ve learnt how little we really need and how liberating you feel when you live without clutter.
House sitting could be a great way for you to use your annual holidays to visit another region or country. For those who are now ‘free of commitments’ and can be away from their home base for extended periods it can be the ideal solution to get out and see the world. All it takes is an adventurous spirit and courage to step way out of your comfort zone and live like a local in France.
“Village to Villa – Living Like Locals” By global house-sitters Neil McLean and Gai Reid: www.villagetovilla.com