Some of you may already be aware that I largely afforded my nearly two month trip to Europe by making use of the ingenious system that is house sitting. That, and a little something called “questionable hostels above bars”. House sitting is actually kind of a misleading term, because more often than not it involves pets. Which makes it pet sitting. Unless you get super lucky and find a homeowner who is really invested in their potted plants. No judgement. Plants are people, too.
My experience started with an investment in a TrustedHousesitters membership. And if you’re interested in signing up you can start right here with my referral link, which will get you a lil’ discount. Everything’s better when you can buy it with a coupon. Plus I get two free months when you sign up, so it’s a win-win situation.
Your membership pays for itself after you secure just ONE house sit. I spent 3 weeks on the border of Germany and The Netherlands for just the cost of signing up and the transport to get there. I would do the math on how much regular accommodations would have cost me but I am the master of my destiny and it does not include voluntary math. You save a lot of money, folks, that’s the long and the short of it.
Now that we’ve talked about the biggest benefit, let’s get on with the rest of it. The next best thing about house sitting is the ability to have what one might consider a more “authentic” travel experience. Authentic being in quotes simply because I’m normally a huge proponent of hostelling – it’s cheap, it’s social, and you are usually situated in the midst of the action. House sitting is an amazing alternative if you are looking to get a taste of what life is like for a local. At a hostel you’ll typically be rooming with at least 7 other people. You’ll wake up and wrestle your backpack from it’s cage underneath the bed, wait for a shower to be open, and then join a gaggle of fellow youngsters for corn flakes and toast in the common room where you’ll inevitably make plans to day drink together before the walking tour starts. 10 AM is like 5 PM when you account for the time difference. Don’t think about it, let’s just accept it and move on.
When you’re house sitting, though, you might leisurely get out of bed, take the dog for a walk, make some coffee and do some morning yoga or mindlessly scroll Facebook for entirely too long. Ah, just like home. You’ll get the chance to befriend neighbors, practice a new language, explore an offbeat town or city, and appreciate a slower pace of life.
My house sit was situated in a tiny town on the border of Germany and The Netherlands called Niederkrüchten. The house itself was originally part of a vacation settlement that began in the 60’s on the shores of the Venekotensee – a huge man made lake in the forest. Swimming is verboten, but everyone seems to ignore that. How un-German of them. The whole area was designed as an escape for city dwellers, with it’s manicured hiking and biking trails, equestrian facility, and playgrounds. Original homeowners paid to be part of the exclusive community, like one would for a country club. I’m picturing it a lot like Mrs. Maisel’s summer in the Catskills. It wasn’t long before the weekend getaway became a more permanent arrangement. People traded in their city apartments for cozy cottages in the “countryside” – not the term I’d used to describe a place that used to have a gatekeeper and a clubhouse restaurant, but to each his own.
The neighborhood was made up of small cottages, each with its own plot of land, tidily fenced off from neighbors in systematic rows. Little white houses peered at each other across brick sidewalks just wide enough to walk side by side with your neatly groomed (and preferably purebred) dog. On the street, totems carved with wooden animals and house numbers marked each row. It was a neighborhood like nothing I’d ever seen, think Florida retirement village in the Cotswolds. In the garden that encircled my temporary home the owners grew vegetables and fruits, and raised chickens in the world’s most adorable hen house. I spent three weeks enjoying fresh veggies and eggs, and exploring the trails with my new furry friend, Jaap. Jaap is an exuberant golden retriever with a fondness for being held like an overgrown baby and a long standing feud with Max, the German Shepherd down the street.
I also watched over two free roaming cats – Tonny and Grietje – and, of course, the aforementioned chickens. They all had names, but I have to admit I did not learn them. They pecked angrily at my legs when I brought them food, and one of them foiled every attempt I made to prevent her jailbreaks. I became very skilled at herding chickens with a push broom, I expect this to be exceedingly useful at some point in the future.
I was very lucky that I not only had a beautiful place to stay, but plenty of friendly people to show me around the area. Thanks to a Facebook group for women who share a passion for travel, I met another amazing travel friend who generously offered to spend time with me during my stay. Thanks to her willingness to cart me around, I saw way more of North Rhine-Westphalia and some of the Rhine Palatinate than I expected, considering the only mode of transportation I had was a bicycle that I was too short to ride without falling over. Apparently, being so close to the Dutch border, biking is very important in this area. My hosts took me on a mandatory test ride before they left and were not impressed with my biking skills at all. I promised I’d get better with practice while they were gone … I didn’t practice.
Most house sitters will not have the luxury of their own personal tour guide, so take into account that you may need to rent a car if the owners do not offer use of their own during your stay. Otherwise, you can choose to apply to locations with good public transport or walkability.
My lovely house sitting hosts also introduced me to the neighbors, who often asked me over for coffee or offered to accompany me and Jaap on our walks, and to their daughter who also lived in the area with her young son. Thanks to her, I had the chance to visit Dusseldorf and participate in the Rhine cleanup while representing her friend’s eco-friendly athleisure brand. By far the most valuable aspect of house sitting is the connections you will make within the community, the conversations you’ll have, and the lasting friendships you’ll build. And yes, you’ll make friends in a hostel too! But maybe not the kind that take you out to a farewell dinner, buy you French nougat, and see you safely on the bus to your next destination. My hosts were like my temporary parents – we even had a WhatsApp group that included my mother, so I could be checked in on from multiple time zones. This might have been an extreme, but expect your hosts to want regular updates from you during your stay, including plenty of dog (or appropriate pet) photos.
Many house sits won’t be as long as mine, but 3 weeks gave me enough time to walk to the neighboring towns, do a little writing for this blog, and even work online – which helped me pay for the last leg of my eurotour. I especially loved being able to walk the few miles to nearby Elmpt or Brüggen to explore the grocery stores, eiscafés, and bakeries. The great thing about Germany is that everything is so dog friendly, Jaap was welcome to join me almost anywhere!
When we weren’t strolling around town, I’d pack us some food and spend the day out on the trails before coming home to cook dinner, Skype home, and enjoy free reign over the Apple TV.
Compared to the hustle of my trip up to that moment, it felt like the perfect opportunity to set down my backpack and recover. As a housesitter, it’s not all play and no work – you’re expected to treat this home as your own, which means that in addition to pet care, you’ll be responsible for regular cleaning, laundry, dishes, and yard or garden maintenance depending on the season. All in all, though, it’s a fair trade.
The key to finding a house sit that works for you is to take a note from the Greeks and know thyself. If you’re an independent, solitary creature, choose a sit where no one will pop around for tea without notice or call your hosts because they’re pretty sure they heard the dog barking inside, alone for hours (yes, this happened to me, and yes, I was out walking with said dog the entire time). Overly nosy neighbors and tattle tellers, according to my new friend, are a hallmark of German society. But if you tend to get lonely, don’t apply to be the winter caretaker of an isolated resort hotel in the Rockies – no matter how much writing you think you’ll get done.
Housesitting does come with it’s own set of challenges, of course. You’re the understudy for someone else’s life, and the lead literally just went on vacation. You have to step up and do all the things those people would have done as closely as you can. There will be a lot of questions and concerns: What day did you say the trash goes out? Which button starts the washing machine? ARE THE CHICKENS ALLOWED TO EAT ALL THE SPINACH IN THE GARDEN BECAUSE THEY’VE ESCAPED AND ALREADY IT’S TOO LATE, WHY DO THEY LIKE SPINACH SO MUCH. You know, the usual stuff. If your hosts live in a tight knit community or have family in the area, expect them to be curious about you and want to get to know the stranger that has been trusted with such an important role. Sometimes you’ll be given a completely unexpected task, and you just have to roll with it. Mine was being placed in charge of selling eggs to whichever neighbor or friendly tourist happened to be strolling by. Let’s just say the fact that I had minimal German language skills made this somewhat difficult and confusing for both parties. But I also met some wonderfully friendly people, said yes to completely unexpected things, saw a little corner of the planet I never would have otherwise, and learned to live a little differently for a while. It was worth every moment.