I used to be skeptical about arms exports to Saudi Arabia. But then I learned that the weapons are mostly used to celebrate weddings:
I used to be skeptical about arms exports to Saudi Arabia. But then I learned that the weapons are mostly used to celebrate weddings:
Over the years, I had become accustomed to living alone, had grown to appreciate independence, freedom, solitude even. It’s an easier life, not having to care about anyone, let alone for anyone, not having to worry about the expectations of others and, quite frankly, often not even about my own.
“Selfish” is how people called me for my choice. “Happy” is how I would have described it.
But then, something changed.
Now, I sometimes cut my walks short because can’t wait to get home, where I know, or hope, that she will be waiting for me. On the way, I pop into a store, getting a surprise for her.
When she is happy, I am happy.
All those who once called me selfish would be surprised by how readily I share my time, my thoughts, my food and even the bed.
It’s nice to live with a cat.
Sometimes, one random encounter changes the course of our lives. Last winter, as I walked down to Tivat from a hike on Mount Vrmac, I bumped into a lady with a scary dog. The dog wasn’t hers, she explained, she was from Hawaii and just staying in Montenegro for three weeks, house sitting and taking care of the dog in the absence of the owners. And that’s how I heard of house sitting for the first time.
What is house sitting?
When the owners of houses or apartments want to travel, they are sometimes worried about their house, about plants and, above all, about their pets if they cannot take them on holiday. Sure, you could put the animals in a shelter, but these places are not as cozy as one’s own home. (People don’t seem to have those reservations about their grandparents, though.)
Therefore, homeowners look for someone to live in their house during the time of their absence and feed the dog, water the plants, shovel the snow, empty the mailbox and make sure that nobody breaks in. The owners feel more relaxed, knowing that someone takes care of everything and contacts them from time to time, sending photos of their pet.
“Hmm,” I thought, “this would be perfect for my traveling lifestyle.” Jessica, the lady from Hawaii, was very encouraging and gave me plenty of tips and help. Combined with the experience I have gained in the past year, I am passing this information on to you.
So, you get to go on vacation for free?
No. You really must not see it as a vacation or a holiday. I rather treat it as a job, with responsibilities towards the house, the owners and the animals.
There is usually no payment involved at all, but if someone allows me to stay in their house or apartment for free, it’s like they are paying my rent and my utility bills. So I should take my responsibilities seriously.
Particularly if there are pets, this means that I will invest serious time to take care of the pets. Merely keeping them alive is not enough, I also want them to be happy. If they need cuddling for a few hours every day, then they get the cuddles. (I can still listen to podcasts or watch a movie while doing that.)
I am also mowing the lawn, watering the plants, taking out the trash, checking on the solar panels and picking up the mail. Most important are regular updates for the owners, so they know that the house hasn’t burned down and that the cat or dog is still alive. I also inform the homeowners of the mail received, offering to scan and forward it to them.
So, as you see, it’s not a holiday and you don’t have complete freedom of your time. Particularly if there are pets, you shouldn’t really spend the night elsewhere, so you cannot go on longer trips in the area. But for me, requiring a lot of time for studying, reading and writing anyway, it’s perfect. For the opportunity of living in another city or country, it’s a small price to pay, I think. And sometimes, you get to stay in real palaces.
How can you do house sitting if you are afraid of dogs?
I only work with cats.
This severely limits the number of jobs I can apply to because around 80% of house sitting offers include dogs. So, if you want to apply for house sitting jobs, please only apply to the ones with dogs, horses, sheep and snakes, so we won’t be competing.
Leave the cats to the cat lover.
The only exception is our neighbor’s dog in Germany, but she is so cute and harmless, she is basically a cat.
How long do these house sits last?
Some people only look for a house sitter for a weekend, others are going away for half a year, to spend the winter in their summer house in the Caribbean. Most offers are for a few weeks, coinciding with the average time of a vacation. A lot of people want to get away for Christmas, and who can blame them?
I prefer to stay for several months, particularly if I have to fly somewhere. When I am already in the area, I am also open to shorter assignments.
How do you find these jobs?
There are special websites. They all charge an annual fee, so I only signed up to three of them so far.
Other websites are:
I am curious to hear about your experience with these websites, if you have any, or additional links, of course. None of the websites is really perfect when it comes to search parameters. For example, when I specify that I want to care for cats, I always get plenty of offers with cats and dogs. Also, none of them allows for tailored e-mail alerts. For example, when I block out certain dates, I still get offers for those dates. That could be much improved.
What is missing on all the websites I have seen so far, are offers from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Maybe in those parts of the world, people simply ask their neighbors for help. Too bad, because I would be very excited to spend some time there.
Because competition on the house sitting websites is quite high, I also recommend telling your friends and relatives that you are available for this tough job. And if any of the readers of this blog has a cat and wants to go on holiday, or if you have a summer house that you don’t use for the winter, and want somebody to live there and to write stories, please let me know!
Where have you done house sitting so far? And where will you go next?
So far, I have done the following house sits:
On this page, I always list my upcoming travels, including the next house sits.
Do you need a visa to house sit?
That depends on the country and on your citizenship, of course.
But because there is typically no money involved, you can usually do it on a tourist visa or the visa waiver for tourists. When I was questioned by Canadian immigration, for example, I explained the concept and said, correctly, that it was unpaid. It did not pose any problem at all.
EU citizens can of course stay in other EU countries for as long as they want. Great Britain poses some uncertainty at the moment and, ironically, that’s exactly where I have three more house sits lined up this year. We shall see if I will be able to go there legally or if I will have to sneak in through the backdoor.
Do you have any tips for me, based on your own experience?
Plenty of tips, and I will probably expand this list:
And once the house sit has started:
What are the risks?
Oh, come on, don’t be so negative!
Just be careful, lock the door, turn off the stove after cooking and don’t smoke inside the house.
Honestly, I only have one fear: that a cat will die while in my care.
Probably, I forgot some really important questions, so just fire away in the comment section below. If you already have experience either as a house sitter or a homeowner, I am also curious to hear from you.
I read a lot, but, with few exceptions, I feel no urge to maintain physical possession of books after having read them. Quite the contrary, I find them put to much better use if I pass them on as gifts, leave them in public places or donate them to a library.
Walking through Calgary, I came across this beautiful box, part of the Little Free Library network, next to a bus stop on 4th Street/27th Avenue NW.
Enchanted, but not expecting much, for these boxes usually hold thrillers, fantasy or girly novels and other books that are given away for a reason, I nonetheless peeked inside. Hope never dies.
To anyone waiting at the nearby bus stop, it must have seemed that I had found a chest of gold or, to use a metaphor more suitable to Alberta, struck oil, for my smile widened and my eyes lit up, discovering that some gentle soul in the neighborhood had deposited books by William Somerset Maugham. To whoever it was, thank you very much!
Rarely have I found such good literature and exactly what I have been wanting to read in one of these little library boxes, but this was perfect! I had just read Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence and the Ashenden short stories, satisfying both my guilty pleasure of spy stories as well as my appreciation of good literature.
In the old days, before Erasmus, academic exchanges were still complicated: visa, health insurance, exchanging money. And then there was no internet, so you couldn’t start looking for accommodation before the move. The first week was usually spent at a hotel, buying a newspaper every day and telephoning all the “room offered” ads in the classifieds section. Foreign students coming to Germany faced an additional hardship: they had to decide in which of the two Germanys they wanted to study.
If you are surprised by the last sentence, you are either too young or you grew up (like me) in West Germany, where we would assume that, given the choice, everyone would naturally prefer West Germany over East Germany. “And you couldn’t travel that easily to East Germany,” many will object, but I just listened to an audio document from 1988, which completely destroyed this and other assumptions I had been holding.
In the last full year of German separation, Deutschlandfunk, a West German radio station, interviewed British students of German studies who had spent exchange semesters in West Germany and in East Germany, some of them even in both countries consecutively. Thus, they could report from both Germanys with first-hand experience and were able to compare their experiences. If you speak German, I recommend listening to the show. The students’ observations are refreshingly open and spot-on. And there is a ton of surprises in there, beginning with the mere fact that there was an academic exchange between the UK and the GDR (German Democratic Republic, the official name of not so democratic East Germany) at all. To the students from Britain, East Germany seemed more exotic than the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany, the official name of West Germany and indeed of the now reunited Germany), the latter of which one could always visit as a tourist. Thus, many students opted for a stay in the socialist country.
The British colleagues experienced the West German universities as rather anonymous mass universities, where they felt left alone, which pretty much describes the state of German universities today. It was hard to make acquaintances, let alone real friends. “The Germans weren’t interested in talking to us,” they said, and many who are currently trying to integrate themselves in Germany are nodding knowingly. In East Germany, on the other hand, the reception was better organized, but also more friendly and heartfelt. The British students suspected that this was due to their exotic status as West Europeans in the GDR. Because they also reported that exchange students from “socialist brother countries” (for example Bulgarians and Poles) were not treated brotherly at all, but with German nationalistic condescension.
Any foreigner coming to Germany is afraid of bureaucracy (even today), and both countries were bureaucratic. But in East Germany, there was always someone willing to help, while the students in West Germany all reported hearing the sentences “this is not within our purview” and “that is your problem” over and over again.
What they did prefer in the west, was studying itself. The freedom prevalent at West German universities was confusing at first, but the lectures were at a high academic level. In East Germany, the students felt that too little was demanded of them, and parts of the lectures even seemed “childish” in their anti-capitalist propaganda.
Interestingly, they couldn’t make out huge differences in economic terms. Like we in West Germany, the British students had heard stories of long lines in front of empty stores in East Germany and were surprised when they didn’t see any of that. They did find people in West Germany to be more materialistic (if they already made that finding in the 1980s, I wonder what they would say today), but the quality of life in East Germany was slightly better. There, restaurants were not only better, but also accessible to average citizens. Even students didn’t cook themselves, but went out. Food in the university canteens was the same in both German countries, by the way: “Every day potatoes, meat and some gravy. And in both countries the same cheap plastic dishes. I had always imagined a prison canteen to be like that.”
Outsiders are of course the perfect people to find out what West Germans thought about East Germans and vice versa. Taking German studies in the UK, the students had apparently learned about both countries in detail (as we have learned from John le Carré, the British Secret Service preferably recruited scholars of German). They were shocked how little people in West Germany knew about East Germany, how little they were even interested. There was an incontrovertible negative image, not based on personal experience and, more tellingly, with no curiosity to make one’s own experiences that might shake the preconceived notions. These descriptions resonated with me, because even today, this is the image of Eastern Europe that many Germans or indeed West Europeans have. It is poor, it is negative, one doesn’t want to travel there, one doesn’t want to meet anyone from there, and one doesn’t want to learn that it’s really not like that. One of the students said that she always received the same reaction when she told people in West Germany that she had previously lived in East Germany: “Oh”, followed by silence. The same reaction I receive when I tell people in Germany about Romania or Lithuania. “Oh”, and then an empty facial expression, laying bare the emptiness of the mental map east of the former Iron Curtain.
In East Germany, on the other hand, people had an overly positive image of the West, which was not in line with reality. A funny anecdote: the young British academics spoke of unemployment in Great Britain. The East German students were shocked, because “we have been reading about this in our books, but we always deemed it anti-western propaganda and didn’t believe it.”
The interviews end with a surprising moment (from minute 42:25 in the recording). The journalist asked the students, who had gotten to know both German states, where they would prefer to work if they had to choose between East and West Germany. The choice was unambiguous. These intelligent, educated experts on Germany all preferred going to the country which would no longer exist in that way just one year later, not least thanks to the contribution of their fellow classmates there.
There are countries where I am received with car bombs and threatening phone calls (Malta), and then there are countries where I am received with hospitality and curiosity, leading to newspaper articles and invitations to speak at TEDx conferences (Romania).
I am happy to announce that the most beautiful country in Europe, Montenegro, is in the second group. Last winter, when I lived there, I met Ljiljana Lukšić, who writes a travel blog, Lily’s Travel Notes. She asked if she could interview me for her blog and I, hoping to get out of it, explained that my Montenegrin was not good enough by far.
But then, remembering that even my grandfather had made an effort to learn Serbo-Croatian when he was a prisoner of war in Yugoslavia, I kept studying until I reached the level where I could at least conduct an interview in writing.