stories

At Home in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

Posted on Oct 30, 2011 in stories | 0 comments

Alright, it’s time to spill the beans about where we are right now. I haven’t meant to be so elusive about this, but we’ve had some crazy travel stuff happen this past month (which I will get to, I promise).

 

Location

So, Ryan and I are in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, which is a small but super wealthy town on a peninsula in the French Riviera. To give you an idea: the small, ground-floor, 2-bedroom house we are staying at is rented for $2,000 per month, and we’re right next to Monaco–the second wealthiest country in the world.

(I know; our life is hard.)

We got here this past Wednesday, October 26, from Cannes–a 1-hour journey by train. We’ll be staying here until early January (when our 3-month EU tourist visa expires).

 

The Project

What are we doing here? Well…maybe you should sit down. I’ve told this story to a few people now, and they all acted surprised.

Ready? …Okay. So we are basically live-in pet-sitters tasked with caring for a paranoid old dalmatian named Bailey, a 5-month-old (wild) cat named Piccolo, and, in a round-about way, the homeowner, whose name is Jan. In 1 month’s time, there will be a new addition: a 17-week-old long-haired weimraner puppy named Ruby.

We have our own quarters, complete with bed, couch, shower, sink, closet space, and outdoor patio. What we don’t have is an ensuite bathroom; instead, our bathroom is just outside our room, directly off the living room (which can get a bit awkward if you think about it too much).

There is only one kitchen, so we all kind of do our own thing or cook for one another. This really isn’t that bad, though–it was like this for the two days we lasted through our first farm experience. Ryan and I are pretty into cooking these days–we like our food fresh, healthy, richly flavored, and cheap, so we usually opt to make it ourselves instead of eating out. Jan is also a very good cook, so it’s a win-win–we’re all good with sharing.

We don’t have to watch the animals all the time. When Jan is home, we can do our own thing, and she is usually home. (I like to keep the cat around, often in our room, and block out the dog in my mind; no offense, Bailey.)

While we’re here, Jan will head to Scotland for a week or two at a time to see her husband, who lives and works in Edinburgh. While she’s away, we’ll watch the pets full-time, just like all our other pet-sitting gigs. At the moment, it’s looking like there will be one, maybe two, trips like this.

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Lifestyle Designers Are We

Posted on Oct 28, 2011 in stories | 0 comments

A definite benefit of housesitting is trying different lifestyles and seeing the ones we like and the ones we never want to experience again.

Ocean, mountains, or prairies?

Big city, suburbs, or small town?

Big house, small house, or apartment?

Big yard, small yard, or no yard?

Pets or no pets?

Car or no car?

Traveling this way means finding answers to these questions. It’s lifestyle design in the making. If we don’t like something, we can be done with it after a week or two and move on for good, knowing we’ve come closer to our perfect fit.

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The Birds in Dunoon

Posted on Oct 4, 2011 in stories | 0 comments


We’ve got two birds to care for here in Dunoon. Both are as quirky as the house they live in.

Sweep is a one-eyed cockatiel. 19 years old—so practically ancient by cockatiel standards. He screams at you every time you open his cage to change his water or fill his food bowl. I assume he acts this way because it is freaky to have someone poking their hands in your tiny world and only be able to supervise them with one eye.

Then there’s Bird. Yes, that’s its name. Yes, that is a non-gender-specific pronoun. The homeowners have no idea whether Bird is a girl or a boy. What a poor creature this is, to not have any identity whatsoever. Bird is an African Grey, which is probably the smartest avian on earth. They have something like a 75,000-word vocabulary, which is simply astonishing.

In fact, if you’re feeling inclined to be amazed, here is a quick video of Einstein, the African Grey. I was so floored by this video that I’ve seen it about 10 times. (You may have seen it already, too.)

 

Anyway, this is the first time I’ve cared for birds before. So far, I like it. I’ve made friends with the parrot. He is always repeating sounds you make for him, like tongue clicking and saying “Good morning!”

I feel kind of badly for Bird, though. What would it be like to stay in a 3” x 3” area your whole life when you’re beautiful, intelligent, and made to fly? What a waste. It’s certainly made me think twice about owning a bird in the future. Cockatiels and parakeets are one thing, but parrots fit into a category all their own.

The birds here are tucked away in large cages in an area that acts as both a tiny room and a hallway to the lounge. The light in the bird room is yellow and old, which gives it a creepy look in the evening. Add that to Bird’s maniacal laughing (in several different voices) and his/her sounds of doors opening and you’ve got yourself a very creepy place.

 

Photo by Peter, under a creative commons license.

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Tales of 3 Gordons

Posted on Sep 30, 2011 in stories | 0 comments

Here in Dunoon, we’re watching 3 Gordon Setters (among other things). Rowan is the 6-year-old mommy dog, and Willow and Aaron are her 2-year-old puppies.

dogs from right to left: Willow, Aaron, Rowan

These dogs are pretty good-sized, and having three of them around in the tiny hallways of this quirky, old house makes them seem bigger.

 

From Cats to Dogs

Everywhere you go in this house in Dunoon, there are dogs draped on the floor or standing in clumps behind you, poking their noses into your bum, mouthing your hand, or rubbing eye goobers into your clothes. (Basically violating your space in every way.) Just walking around is a precarious endeavor; I’m always pulling myself around corners like a rock climber in order to avoid stepping on a dog.

When they get excited, they become bundles of energy that fly at you from every direction, and I find myself wondering if I will make it out of Dunoon. The simple act of filling a water bowl is so exciting to them that they forget I’m there, which means I’m bouncing off dogs while trying to keep the bowl upright and maneuver my way out the door.

No matter. Apparently the kitchen floor is better when it is covered in a fine goo anyway (at least to a dog). If I don’t spill water tripping over a dog, the dogs will lap up water until it dribbles down their jowls and all over the floor anyway. Or they’ll track a new pattern into the linoleum with their muddy paw prints.

This is a bit of a change from the calm, clean, collected cats in King’s Lynn.

 

Stinky Sharing

These dogs are a bit smelly. Yes, when they’ve been outside, they have that characteristic dog smell, but they are smelly in another way, too. Like last night, when we had two dogs lying at our feet and this awful rotten-egg smell filled the room.

“Was that you or the dogs?” I asked Ryan, plugging my nose with one hand and waving the other around frantically.

“Was what me?” was the reply. He looked innocent enough.

A few minutes later, Willow made the usual attempt to get on my lap (more on this later), and when I pushed her back, her throat contracted and the same gag-inducing scent wafted into my face. She looked back at me with huge, sad eyes that said “sorry” instead of “that’s what you get,” and I forgave her.

 

Naughty Doggie Moments

The dogs are pretty well-behaved, but they can’t be good all the time. We’ve had a few naughty doggie moments–and the trouble is almost always in the lounge. One morning, I walked in to find all the couch pillows on the floor. There were a few frayed edges, but all in all, it was a minor offense.

I walked in later to find various pieces of the fish food container (I’d been looking for that) scattered about the floor and multi-colored fish flakes stamped into the hard wood. A much more serious offense, because it involved more work on my part. (No worries. I found another can while looking for millet sprays in a random cupboard in the dining room. It’s probably 5 years old, but I’m using it anyway.)

Yesterday, I found Aaron hiding behind the dining room table, ripping plastic wrap off the brown sugar. (Brown sugar?! These dogs must be starved!) I caught him early in the act, much to his disappointment.

In the early days in Dunoon, I could tell the dogs approached us like middle school students approach a substitute teacher–with a mischievous grin and a winking eye. With me, the winking eye is still there, but I think it’s lessened a bit with Ryan.

Dogs will be dogs.

 

Human-Sized Lap Dogs

Willow brought out her most surprising weapon on our second day here, when she tried to sneak onto my lap while I worked on my computer. I’ve come to know the process well since then, for Willow is a persistent one: she’ll lay her head on our laptops first, smearing gooey drool everywhere. (To Ryan, in particular, this is a crime against humanity.) Next comes a front paw on the chair, followed by the other front paw, followed by one back leg and then the other.

I tested just how far she’d go with this one time, and she was literally on top of me in the chair. She’s as big as I am in that position, which is just ridiculous. The only way to get her to stop is to take her by the scruff of the neck and push her firmly to the floor with a deep “No.” Of course Ryan has a deeper voice, so she now listens to him and continues to maul me on an hourly basis. It’s tough to be small.

Aaron and Rowan do this lap dog thing, too, and we keep trying to figure out where the habit comes from. (At least Rowan responds immediately to “no” and Aaron doesn’t try it very often.) It seems like they do it when they want something, but I’ve never seen such an annoying habit. You want to go outside? Well, go scratch on the door, for heaven’s sake, like a normal dog! You want more dinner? Well, go wail in the kitchen or steal food! You’re bored to death? I’d rather have you whining than trying to climb all over me. I can handle normal dog behavior; it’s when they get into our space and threaten to ruin our clothes and electronics with drool, paws, and full-body contact that I get a bit miffed about being here.

 

Dogs in My Future

Looking into the future, I’d say my prospects of having a dog are getting grimmer by every dog-sit. Dogs are great, don’t get me wrong, but I’d much prefer the softer, more independent cat to the bounding, drooling, stinking, chewing canine.

The lap dog behavior alone has almost sent us over the edge at several points during our stay. Fortunately, Ryan and I have had our breakdowns separately: while the insane person is hiding and cursing upstairs, the other person can pick up the slack. Then we trade places the next day. Fun!

Sometimes I wonder if it is the cluttered house or the animals that has sent us over the edge at times. It’s probably a bit of both, but I really think the dogs are the culprits in this situation. It isn’t their fault, and it isn’t really ours either. We are all new together and figuring one another out, and there are bound to be growing pains in that environment. It’s just hard to understand why anyone would want three dogs. One dog seems like plenty.

The area we are staying in is beautiful, but sometimes when you’re dealing with the challenges of pet- and house-sitting, you start to question your sanity for wanting to travel this way. There are good days and bad days, but every time I look out the window (any window) at the rippling water, the moored sailboats, the changing leaves, and the shifting clouds of Dunoon–and I remind myself that I’m here basically for free–I start to change my tune a bit.

It is all a matter of perspective, after all.

 

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Build Me a Summer Home in Dunoon

Posted on Sep 27, 2011 in photos, stories | 4 comments

 

 

This place is beautiful! It reminds me of Alaska and Oregon, rolled up into one.

on Loch Eck, a fresh-water lake a few miles from the house in Dunoon

Ryan on the ferry

view from the ferry route between Goulock to Dunoon

a cute little cottage on the way "home" from Glasgow Airport

an old hotel in Tarbet, a small town on the A83 highway

 

Holy Loch in the evening (our view from the house)

a kayaker on Loch Eck

 

 

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Pet Sketch: Jimmy

Posted on Sep 15, 2011 in photos, stories | 1 comment

September 15, 2011

Animal: Feline
Petsit area: King’s Lynn, UK

Jimmy is a huge orange tabby. I’m talking bigger than any cat I’ve ever seen in the US. He’s like a lion. This cat is friendly but not overly so–like Muki is. He’s still getting used to us. If you move too quickly or do anything too loud, he sneaks away as fast as he can.

This fur ball is hungry all the time, and he tells us so. When he isn’t basking in the sun outdoors or lazing on our bed, he’s staring at us with eyes that bore into your mind: “If you don’t feed me, you have no idea what I’m capable of.”

Jimmy has all kinds of health concerns, mainly digestion related, so he gets lots of pills–one capsule that we take apart, so the powder can be hidden in his food each evening, and a quarter pill that he gets twice a week. Laura, the homeowner, said he was pretty good about taking the quarter pill, but I think she lied to me. lol To give it to him, I have to corner him, pry open his mouth, and drop it down his throat–but I have yet to see him be cooperative about the whole thing. Usually, I just end up wrestling this big cat on the ground and trying not to gouge my nails into him as I open his mouth and get the pill inside. Doing this two times a week is two times too many, me thinks. And I feel bad, because he usually acts less civil to me after we go through the pill routine. He is plotting against me, i know it.

The funniest thing about Jimmy is his relationship with the cat flap (kitty door; call it what you will). He is afraid of it and for good reason–he barely fits. The problem for him is that the cat flap is the only obstacle between him and the outside world. So he sits by the cat flap and pushes it back and forth with his paw. And the door creaks every time he moves it.

Creak. Creak. Creeeeak. This is what we hear from the other rooms in the house. And we laugh, because it is so funny. I will have to capture it on video before we leave. Jimmy will move the cat flap over and over again until he finally gets up the nerve to jump through the hole.

If you are in the kitchen, the cat flap no longer becomes a last resort. Jimmy just has to convince you to open the door for him. I’ve learned his language, and I feel a bit badly for him, so I usually comply when he looks at me and meows pathetically. Ryan is a bit harder to sell. He usually just holds the cat flap open for him, and when Jimmy jumps through, it’s very obvious that he barely fits. There is zero room between the sides of the hole and his big belly.

Jimmy also makes me laugh when he stretches. He has this way of stretching his whole body out lengthwise on the floor and then extending every toe on each paw, and then yAWNing in a totally zen kind of way. And then he’ll toss himself back and forth and meow while he looks at us.

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Frustrations in Bristol

Posted on Aug 25, 2011 in stories | 4 comments

August 25, 2011

 

Well, this housesitting opportunity is shaping up to be…interesting. Dare I even disclose the details of our time here in Bristol?

First, to be fair, the location of the house we are staying in is superb. In both directions down our street, there are loads of little shops to explore–including supermarkets and bakeries that make shopping a breeze. The bus for the rail station comes right by the house–which means we have cheap and easy transport to just about anywherae. (Cardiff, Bath, and the Cotswolds are only a few minutes away by train.) The rooms in the house are spacious, and the decorative crown moulding is beautiful. The people have a piano. And hey, I already mentioned how easy a rabbit is to care for, right?

That is the optimist’s story. Now for the realist’s story.

The house is extremely cluttered, and dirty, and just plain uncomfortable. The large rooms seem a lot smaller because every wall is lined with plastic bins full of stuff. (My skin was crawling for the first 48 hours after we arrived because I wanted to take everything and toss. it. out.)

I understand the concept of keeping junk, as long as there is some kind of purpose and organization involved. I haven’t seen much organization here. I’m talking kitchen cupboards and drawers with spices, vitamins, sauces, pans, hot pads–all strewn together in one space. All the weird stuff–essence of rose water, sesame oil, pickled pears, wasabi, chick peas–is reachable, but where is all the normal stuff? If it exists, good luck finding it. (It took us 2 days to find the peanut butter.)

The broom is missing. I’ve no idea where to get any additional kitchen/bathroom towels or toilet paper. I’ve searched all the “normal” places for these things and wound up empty-handed. (Did these people take pains at hiding the essentials from us, or do they really live like this?)

There is also this drawer in the kitchen that, when opened, releases a smell so potent, so nauseatingly toxic, it’s faint-inducing. I think the smell is just a really disgusting flavor of tea, but I can’t say for sure because Ryan and I swore we would not open the drawer again during our stay. The smell permeates the house and lingers for about 5 hours. (P.S. If you want to keep anything safe in your space, create a drawer like this. It’s a very effective weapon against intruders.)

These people are new to the whole housesitting concept, but I thought it was a given that they would clean their house in preparation for our arrival. The dirt and grime is slowly revealing itself to us. We walk around with our shoes on–socks at the very least. I found a huge toenail clipping on the living room floor today and very nearly gagged. I later went upstairs in hopes of finding some nail polish remover and found head lice remover instead. (Ryan about flipped a lid at that one.)

And did I mention that the rabbit’s litter box is in the kitchen? Yeah, it is. That makes the whole indoor rabbit thing so not okay. Because you’ve got the dusty hay tracked all over the floor. You’ve got the fur floating in the air and riding over the hardwood. And the best part: you’ve got bits of poopy newspaper and straw and, well, poop that the rabbit tracks out of his litter box every time he goes. A desperate search finally revealed a hand broom and dust pan, and I’ve been following the rabbit around with it ever since.

All of this would perhaps be bearable if there were a cozy room with a plump couch and reliable wi-fi to hide in, but alas, no such thing exists here. We’ve tried many areas, and I can report that there is no comfortable place to hang out during the day. (Except maybe our bed, but who wants to stay in bed all day?)

All the couches are angular, low-backed things that contort your body in strange ways. The sinks in the bathrooms are miniscule. You can fit a toothbrush and a contact case on them but nothing else.

The shower in the one working bathroom is composed of an attractive glass wall and a flat slab of stone, but the stone’s grading is all wrong. Instead of keeping the water in, the stone holds the water to a breaking point and then releases it flash-flood-style–over the shower’s edge, onto the tile floor, out the door, down the hallway. (This experience comes with lots of yelling and a few strategically placed towels–because, as I mentioned, I can’t find other towels beyond the few we’ve got. Good thing we’ve got access to a washer and dryer.)

Before she left, the homeowner mentioned that the house can get a bit breezy. The walls are thick brick but the windows are very old and thin and let in drafts. A couple of days ago, it had to have been 40 degrees fahrenheit indoors. I was turning blue. Before bed, we scrounged around the house and finally located another huge down comforter to put over us. We didn’t toss it off once in the night.

And the wi-fi–don’t even get me started on the wi-fi. It only works in three rooms of the house: the nasty kitchen, the cluttered game room in the basement, and this random tiny guest bedroom across from the TV room upstairs. This has probably been the one thing that keeps me upset half the time. (When you’ve got work to do, projects to start, and travel legs to plan, wi-fi becomes as much a necessity as anything else.)

Maybe Ryan and I were just spoiled by our last housesitting opportunity. It was pretty nice in that brand new house with the simple, clean, organized rooms and the high-tech gadgets. But I don’t think we are being ridiculous. I’d give any normal, (even somewhat) clean person 24 hours to live here and see if they don’t run screaming from the vicinity.

So for now, Ryan and I are hiding together on the least uncomfortable couch in the house, with the door to the backyard open. We can’t cook in this environment–we can barely live in this environment–but at least we have wi-fi (however limited), a decent bed, and a free place to stay while we explore the area. That’s the optimistic attitude we’re trying to focus on.

In terms of the long haul: we are more aware than ever of how much we value a clean, organized, clutter-free home. That will be put to good use in the future, I’m sure.

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