What kind of Brexit do you want? No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!

With only a few hours left before the Brexit deadline and with the United Kingdom still unclear about what it wants to do, British Members of Parliament were presented with eight options today, some of which they had already refused in the past, some of which were new, some of which remained vague.

Prime Minister May had been complaining that Parliament keeps telling her what it doesn’t want, but cannot agree on what it does want. Among eight options, one would hope, at least one could garner a majority.

Alas, that didn’t happen.

So what will happen next? Chaos and mayhem, even more of it.

But, respected loyal subjects of the Crown, you must not despair, for Parliament did find time – on the same day! – to discuss such pressing matters as the Queen in Parliament, the Civil War of 1648 and the sovereignty of the mace.

The mentioned mace, for the illumination of readers not versed in arcane political symbols, is a silver-gilt ornamental club and a symbol of royal authority. Without it, Parliament cannot meet, debate or pass laws.

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So, if you want to bring British parliamentary democracy to a standstill, you simply pick up the mace and walk out of the Palace of Westminster. As the monarch has no real executive or legislative powers according to the constitution, which, by the way, nobody can seem to find and nobody has ever seen, the Queen would be rendered ineffective too.

But surely, that would never happen, would it?

Well, last December, a Member of Parliament tried. The end of the political system as we know it was only averted because a lady with a sword stopped him. And what country wouldn’t have ladies with swords in their parliament in the 21st century?

Fun fact 1: If the right honourable member for Brighton Kemptown had managed to get to the nearest church with the mace unscathed and found a bishop to perform the necessary ceremony, he could have become king. But only if he is not Catholic.

Fun fact 2: One argument of Brexiters against the European Union was that it was, allegedly, an undemocratic body with opaque rules.

Links:

  • More articles about Brexit.
  • Another example of everyday objects being mythologically supercharged in Great Britain is the Stone of Scone.
  • This story was also published on Medium.
  • Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.
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Posted in Politics, UK | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Where do Babies come from?

The other day, I overheard a conversation at the restaurant:

  • Everyone on my Facebook is having a baby.
  • That doesn’t mean we need to have one too.
  • These baby photos receive a lot of likes, though.
  • How many?
  • 33, 25, 28. Look! Even Anna – you know? the ugly one – her baby got 17 likes already.
  • Mmhh. Yeah, maybe it’s a good idea.

Before we judge, let’s remember that we have no idea what our parents thought back then. If you investigate, you may find out that government subsidies for newborn children or other unromantic reasons played a role.

girl with teddy

“I don’t even want to know why I am here.”

There really seems to be a pattern that I have observed again and again. In a circle of friends, one couple has a child, whether by accident, out of boredom or because they think it will save the relationship (it won’t). Usually, within no more than half a year or however long it takes to produce these babies (I don’t really know anything about that), at least half of the couples in that circle of friends will have babies, too. And thus, a number of little extra pollutants are put on the planet just because people can’t withstand peer pressure.

Links:

    • More posts about children.
    • And, as a warning, some articles about family law. In short: just don’t do it!
Posted in Economics, Facebook, Life | Tagged | 16 Comments

The Border between Europe and the Orient

Where exactly are the boundaries of Europe? With that question, you can entertain your guests for a whole evening of barbecue, especially when serving ćevapčići and kebab.

It can’t just be the European Union, because why should San Marino, Norway and soon the United Kingdom not be part of Europe? Also, that would make Mayotte and French Guyana parts of Europe. The sea is a nice natural boundary, although Iceland wants to be European and Carthage had much more to do with Europe than the barbarian tribes of Germans. And in the east, there is no continuous sea anyway. The Ural mountains are a rather arbitrary choice. They are not even very high, are they? The Pyrenees or the Alps are higher, but nobody allows himself to be cut off from Europe by them. And then there is the silly Bosporus, not exactly a very impressive body of water, small enough to be crossed by bridges even. If rivers, then why not the Volga or the Danube, along which you can walk for days without finding a bridge? Some Greek islands are just a few kilometers off the coast of Turkey. And what about Cyprus?

As I said, the discussions will last until late at night. You may even have to get the old school atlas from the children’s bedroom.

For me, ever since I traveled through the Caucasus, it has been clear where the boundary between Europe and the Orient is situated: between Georgia and Azerbaijan, exactly on the Red Bridge. At this border crossing, locally called Krasny MostTsiteli Khidi or Qirmizi Körpü, all of which you have to remember because you don’t know in which language the bus driver will put the sign behind the windshield (which he might, to confuse you even more, spell Красный мост or წითელი ხიდი), you step across the threshold from one world into the other.

red_bridge

In Georgia, everything is calm and relaxed, but as soon as you enter into the border building on the Azerbaijani side, chaos, noise and quarrels rule. An unorganized swarm of people is pushing in front of the counters, with no specific lines attributable to either of them. In between, sacks with potatoes, bread and sunflower oil as well as two children’s bicycles are being pulled and pushed, tossed and torn. People insult each other, scream at each other and almost hit each other. The Azerbaijani border guards don’t seem to care. I speak none of the languages used in the disputes around me and hope that all involved parties recognize that I am neutral. This is how the blue helmets must feel between the frontlines.

If I don’t want to be standing in the waiting hall for anther week, I too must start to push and squeeze a bit. With my civilized queuing method, learned in Britain, I am not going to advance a single meter.

The actual immigration check is carried out rather quickly, as I had already applied for and received a visa beforehand. But right after the border, on Azerbaijani soil, the matter gets even worse.

Hordes of money changers and taxi drivers all run towards me. All of them deny that there is a bus to Ganja. The bus to Baku denies that it goes past Ganja. (Is there even any other way?)

At a small shop, two men are arguing heatedly because both claim to be the owner of the shop, asking me to pay for the bottle of Coca Cola with the one and not the other.

I know that there is a bus to Ganja. It’s Azerbaijan’s second largest city, and there are always buses. But I can’t go looking for it in peace, because four or five bearded men are constantly an inch beside my face, screaming at me in Azeri-Turkish. Just to get away from this mayhem, I finally relent and allow one of them to take me to Qazax, the next town. There, I hope to be able to organize onward travel to Ganja in a more relaxed setting.

The country road runs in a straight line for the most part. On both sides, there are hills, somewhat dry (it’s July), but golden-grey. The blue sky is interspersed with photogenic fluffy clouds. Tractors are taking home bales of hay. Field workers are riding horses to the next village bar. A flock of sheep, led by a goat, crosses the street, not at all afraid of the oncoming taxi.

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It could be beautiful, if only I wasn’t sitting in the car of a liar and fraudster, who is still speaking of going all the way to Ganja, pretending not to understand me. Worst case, once we get to Qazax, I will have to jump out at a red light or subdue the driver. Worryingly though, he looks as if he is much more used to violence than me.

We pass an army truck, Soviet model, being loaded with firewood. The soldiers cut one of the trees on the side of the road for that purpose. Or maybe the wood is for a nearby furniture factory, whose name is the only remaining reference to Europe: Avropa Mebel.

As we are getting closer to Qazax, I ask the driver to drop me at the bus terminal. As one might expect, he claims that there isn’t any. That’s it. End of my patience. “Of course there is a bus terminal,” I retort with a smile of superior know-it-all. I am bluffing, but the town has around 20,000 people and it is the first larger stop after the border. There has to be a bus terminal. “I never heard of that,” the driver counters, shrugging his shoulders like a poker player who doesn’t care about your cards because, in the end, he will shoot you anyway.

I raise the stakes: “I will show you the way,” I say, as cool as if I had grown up in this small town in western Azerbaijan. From my backpack, I take out the tablet with GPS and Maps.me, adjuring that somebody has marked the bus station. Success! Not only does it show the avtovağzalı, but also the taxi as an arrow moving rapidly towards the town.

Flabbergasted and fascinated, the pirate driver can hardly take his eyes off  the arrow showing our position in real time. I better put it away again. I have memorized the route. Lo and behold, the driver suddenly remembers the way to the bus station, too, where – the magic gadget has left a noticeable impression – he drops me right in front of the bus to Ganja, which he now points out with surprising helpfulness and politeness.

Unnecessarily, I have spent 10 euros for 30 km. Thrown in free of charge, I got a bad first impression of the country. There was once a James Bond film made in Azerbaijan, called “The World is not Enough”, but I already have enough of it.

No country should be judged by its cab drivers, I try to calm myself. But then, the same happens in Ganja. At the bus station far outside of the city, I am surrounded again by taxi drivers, screaming at each other. The lucky one, in whose Lada I get, doesn’t know Tabriz Street (it’s in the center), has to call the owner of the house twice and ask a passer-by for the way. Because the ride takes longer than planned (however one would plan a route to an unknown destination), he raises the fare from the agreed 10 to 20 manats (= 10 euros). If you don’t speak Turkish or Russian here, you will be fooled again and again.

Three days later, exhausted, drained and somewhat disturbed (thanks to the Aliyev family!), I return to the same border. By now, I am an expert and can ignore all providers of unnecessary transport services. All I seek is a money changer, to get rid of the remaining manats. In this particular business, competition seems to work. The exchange rate is fair.

On the Georgian side of the Red Bridge, I pick up plenty of cigars in a walkable humidor, but then, during the payment process, I am confronted with the question about the direction of my travel. As is my habit, I answer truthfully. “I am very sorry, but we are only allowed to sell the cigars when you are leaving Georgia, not when you are entering Georgia,” the young gentleman bursts my pipe and tobacco dreams. Not even pointing to my birthday melts his heart. I am genuinely back in Europe, where rules are rules.

Practical advice:

  • When traveling between Georgia and Azerbaijan, better take the train.
  • And there is almost always a bus, regardless of what cab drivers say. Except in North America and in Germany, but then, there are not even enough cabs there.
  • If there really shouldn’t be any bus, for example late at night, other people will be stranded too, so you can share a taxi and the expenses. I once had to do this on the border between Ecuador and Peru, ending up with petrol smugglers.
  • I probably should have simply walked for a few kilometers and then tried to hitchhike. Having said that, even with hitchhiking I had a bad experience in Azerbaijan, but more about that in my report from Göygöl.

Links:

Posted in Azerbaijan, Europe, Georgia, Travel | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Communism in Canada?

With elections less than a month away in the province of Alberta, political placards are sprouting faster than crocuses.

“Communism coming soon,” I read on one, coincidentally as I was walking to the grocery cooperative, and I thought: “Well, that should be exciting.”

On the way back, giving it a second look, I saw that I had misread the message. Rather than social change, it promised yet more “condominiums coming soon”. How disappointing.

By the way: don’t worry, comrades, I am not really a communist.

Links:

Posted in Canada, Elections, Politics, Travel | 4 Comments

Arms exports to Saudi Arabia

I used to be skeptical about arms exports to Saudi Arabia. But then I learned that the weapons are mostly used to celebrate weddings:

Posted in Military, Politics, Saudi Arabia | Tagged | Leave a comment

Of Human Bonding

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.

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Posted in Fiction, Love, Travel | Tagged , | 6 Comments

FAQ on House Sitting

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.

Albertina gelber Saal.jpeg

How can you do house sitting if you are afraid of dogs?

I only work with cats.

alice nap

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.

Katze streicheln Sessel

The only exception is our neighbor’s dog in Germany, but she is so cute and harmless, she is basically a cat.

Lilly

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.

  • Mind My House was my first try because the fee is quite reasonable at 20 $/year. I scored a few jobs quickly after signing up. Most of the offers are in North America and in Western Europe, with occasional offers from other regions.
  • House Sitters UK only has offers from the UK, as the name suggests. They have the best-organized website, I think, and I personally love staying in the UK. So, the 20 £/year are worth it. I have already secured a few placements through them. If you want to sign up with House Sitters UK, ask me for a referral code (it changes every few weeks), and you will get 25% off your membership fee!
  • Trusted Housesitters is rather expensive by comparison. They charge 89 €/year and I have just signed up recently because there was one particular offer that I really wanted to get. I was not successful. But I still have one year to find out if the steep fee is worth it. Anyway, you will get 25% off if you sign up using this link or the promo code RAF253501.

Other websites are:

  • Nomador has a focus on France, but also offers from around the world. The membership costs 65 €/year, but they offer a free trial membership, with which you get 3 applications. Having just discovered this in the course of this research, I will sign up with them next. And I have always wanted to reactivate my French anyway.
  • Housecarers charge 50 Can$/year. I haven’t checked them out yet, mainly because I already find enough placements through the other websites.
  • The standard membership with House Sit Match costs 49 £/year, but I haven’t been able to properly use the search function on that website yet.
  • Luxury House Sitting costs 25 $/year. I find the website a bit confusing, because they don’t remove filled positions.

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:

  • Summer 2018: two months in Vienna, Austria, taking care of the apartment of friends.
  • Fall 2018: one month in Venta Micena, Spain, taking care of a cat. (I found this job through MindMyHouse.)
  • Winter 2018/19: three months in Calgary, Canada, taking care of a cat. (MindMyHouse)
  • May 2019: two weeks in Newquay, Cornwall, England, with one cat. (House Sitters UK)

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:

  • Fill in your profile with meaningful information, be witty and likable, and have photos of you with animals. (Having said that, let’s not kid ourselves that everyone has the same chances. I don’t think I would have gotten all the offers if I was an 18-year old black dude with a crazy beard instead of a 43-year old white lawyer from Germany. This is unfair, of course, but that’s reality. Some homeowners have told me that they only look for women, and one of my applications for Canada was explicitly declined because I was not Canadian.)
  • Respond to specific points in the ad.
  • If you can make it, offer to visit the homeowners long before the house sit, so they can get to know you and see how you interact with their cat/dog/crocodile. If that is not feasible, offer at least a video call.
  • When the ads come up on those house sitting websites, you need to be quick. Homeowners have told me that they typically receive tons of applications in the first few days. Many of them deactivate the ad after two or three days.
  • As I wrote above, tell everyone that you are up for this kind of job.
  • Stay away from offers that read something like: “We have 5 cats, 7 dogs, 2 horses, a flock of sheep and 18 acres of fields, from which we expect you to collect the potatoes. You should also take care of our B&B guests, change their sheets, clean their rooms and prepare them breakfast.” Seriously, some people are trying to abuse house sitting for cheap labor. If you will be working day and night, you won’t benefit from living in another country.
  • When homeowners make the application too cumbersome, you may want to abort the process. I had one couple from New Jersey once who kept asking for ever more references and documents, then sent a 12-page contract for me to review, and ultimately told me that they decided to give the job to someone they knew. I should have sensed that earlier.
  • I know you all want to go to Hawaii or to Paris, but if you don’t get any of those jobs, maybe apply to some in your own country. Everything will be easier once you have a few testimonials on your profile.
  • Think before you apply! If you have never handled dogs or cats, or only played with them once for an hour, this is not for you. If you are not sure, if you will have time, this is not for you. Once you commit, you can’t walk out of it (or it would be really shabby).
  • Plan the trip in a way that you have at least an extra day before the job begins. Often, the homeowners already allow you to stay at the house, so you can all become familiar, especially with the animals. But even if not, it’s worth booking a hotel/hostel/AirBnB for a night before to give you all plenty of time.

And once the house sit has started:

  • As described above, take the house sit seriously. It’s your main job during the stay.
  • Take care of issues yourself without bothering the owners. If light bulbs needs to be changed or small repairs need to be done, take care of them. If you break a cup, replace it. If the cat vomits on the carpet, clean it. None of this requires the owners to be disturbed on their holiday.
  • Ask the owners how often they want updates. These usually refer to the pets. I have found it the easiest to befriend the owners on Facebook and then post photos of the cat from time to time, so they see that the cat is alive and happy.
  • Before the return of the owners, you should obviously clean the house, replenish food supplies, change bed sheets, bake a cake and pack your bags, so that you are ready to leave. When people come home from a safari or a six-month stay on the International Space Station, they usually want to spend time with their pets or just be left in peace. Don’t hang around. The job is done. You are on the road again.

bicycle Andreas Moser.JPG

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.

Posted in Travel, Video Blog | Tagged , , | 19 Comments