I wrote a piece for the Idler magazine on the merits of petsitting. You can read it in the latest edition, edition 69 November/December 2019, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the excellent magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).
Here’s the piece:
‘Hi Simon, Hi Tam. Welcome to Arizona! This is my husband, John. He thinks you’ve flown 5,000 miles from London to Phoenix to steal all our belongings. Come on in.’
This was the opening gambit from the delightful Vicki, wife of doubting John, who had engaged us to sit for their two beagles, Mojo and Fetch, in their sprawling ranch home in Phoenix while they went off to spend Christmas on Long Beach with their family.
It turned out that this was the first time Vicki had used a house/pet-sitting agency, and it was our first time as sitters. So I could understand John’s caution. Who are these limeys? And do I want them poking around in my sock drawer while I’m supposed to be relaxing with a margarita on the beach?
Well, I resisted the temptation to examine John’s wardrobe. And we had a great time, taking the dogs on walks through the Arizona desert and sitting by the pool in the back garden (the dogs had their own sunbeds, obv). We bought turkey from the organic store in Scottsdale and made Christmas lunch in Vicki’s palatial kitchen. We drank Californian Pinor Noir in a posh restaurant in the centre of Phoenix which John recommended. As it was Christmas, we’d walk the dogs late at night around the wide, deserted streets of north Phoenix and marvel at the fantastical Christmas lights displays put on by neighbours in huge crenellated mansions. On the day itself, all four of us had wrapped presents from Vicki and John to open, with Mojo and Fetch tearing the wrapping paper off theirs with their teeth.
Five years later and we’ve completed lots of pet sits now. There was Bamboo, the charismatic golden cocker spaniel in the eco-house in south-west France, who would sit down on the sofa and watch movies with us after a day running endlessly through the beautiful countryside of the Lot. There were the two grumpy cats in Cyprus who told us off each time we disappeared to the beach, but in true cat fashion ignored us when we got back. And then there was the fabulous smallholding in Devon where we looked after – count them – five dogs, nine cats, two goats, ten chickens and four ducks.
If you’re an animal lover, then the attraction is clear, particularly if, like us, you have a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle which precludes pet-owning. I have tons of photos of animals I now consider to be chums which float up on my screenserver when I’m supposed to be working.
But just forgetting them for a moment, the whole housesitting game is Idle Travel at its finest. No money changes hands for starters, so it is entirely sustainable on both sides. There is no obligation to do anything more than chill out with your four-legged friends and then wander round to a nearby restaurant to eat; the urge to tick off tourist traps never quite seems to kick in once the bags are unpacked. And perhaps most importantly, the mutual exchange of services for property builds trust at a human level which is beyond the control of any politician or capitalist. As Angela Laws, one of the founding members of Trusted Housesitters, says:
‘You look at the news, and you could be forgiven for believing the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But when you get a community such as we have, it really brings it home that there are good, kind, trusting, sharing people in this world. We’re a 70,000-strong, globally-connected community. We’re changing the world from the ground up.’
Angela is one of the brave housesitters who has turned this into a way of life. Three years ago, she sold her house in Vancouver and now has no home, choosing instead to travel from sit to sit. There are other stories of legendary sitters who have criss-crossed the globe with just a suitcase, taking advantage of the opportunities for short and long stays in the 130 countries currently signed up to the Trusted Housesitters service.
I’m not sure I’d go that far but I admire Angela’s lifestyle choice. For us, staying in someone’s home and looking after their pets feels like a really wholesome way of getting to know a city or a country, far more engaging than booking into an Ikea-furnished Air BnB which is contributing to rising house prices and the depopulation of city centres.
And if you’re a houseowner, then it’s comforting to know that you have someone in your house while you’re away, watering the plants and generally making the place look lived-in. So there is a sense, as a sitter, that you’re helping to encourage safer communities, too.
It’s been educational in so many ways. In the old days, I’d certainly have been like John, unable to imagine why I would want someone snooping around in my house while I was away. But having stayed now in lots of peoples’ houses and had no desire of any kind to snoop, I realise just how liberating it is to throw open your door. What do we have to lose? Just stuff. Everyone has stuff. It’s no big deal.
And in the process of getting to know the homeowners before and after each sit, I’ve learned a lot more about their way of life and their culture than I would have done from booking into a hotel.
When you let someone into your home and trust them to look after your beloved dog/cat/mongoose, you move beyond the confines of race, religion and politics, and you enter the slow lane of gentle community sharing. It is a delightfully civilised transaction.
To reduce the potential for ne’er-do-wells or incompetents to spoil this idyllic vision, the process of housesitting is carefully managed, so both parties have an opportunity to read reviews about each other and hold Skype “interviews”. By the time you come to the job, neither of you is really a stranger to the other, and both of you understand the value of clearly defined boundaries. If you tell me you don’t want me to look in the wood shed at the bottom of the garden, then I won’t.
When Vicki and John finally hauled themselves back from Long Beach, we made them supper and entertained them with stories about their boys while they told us about shooting craps in a penthouse casino in LA. Five years on, we still swap stories over the web about John’s new passion for organic gardening in the Arizona heat and our impossibly sophisticated London lifestyle.
So the next time you find yourself flicking through web pages showing empty villas next to a Mediterranean beach with neatly arranged umbrellas on it, imagine what it would be like to get to know the family who live in that ramshackle house at the top of the Old Town who’ve got an elderly labrador that just wants a bit of intelligent company.
This Christmas, we’re actually going back to the Devon smallholding and the mad menagerie, and I am secretly excited about pulling a cracker with Dexter, the ludicrously cheerful and enormous St Bernard puppy.
There are several house-sitting websites, but the one we use is http://www.trustedhousesitters.com.