Warm winds, incredible sunsets, gently lapping waves—CUT! Please no, not another travel article about barefoot idylls on island paradises. Instead, let’s consider how you (that being me) can have the cheeriest expectations of a balmy Caribbean house-sitting gig met with the miserable crush of the human ego, so that you (that still being me, but more embarrassed now) behave like a caged animal.
Let’s start before the howls: my girlfriend, who in no obvious way resembles Satan, hooked into a publication that lists house-sitting opportunities all over the globe. Two months tending a peat bog in County Cork, or three days caring for an aging boa constrictor in a Palm Beach apartment? The sitting opportunities are vast, and the requirements could range from having an advanced science degree to tune the home’s gyroscopes to the owner wistfully suggesting that you not set their belongings on fire during your stay.
Having lived on a little Micronesian island for a year, we knew the allure of tropical beaches and warm winds, but we were also no strangers to giant insects nubbing about our collars or the price of a jar of mustard being equal to a stateside car tuning. So we knew that a house-sitting ad with the subject line, “LIVE FREE IN THE CARIBBEAN” had, besides its all-caps clamor, a little marketing spin attached. The ad’s writer did have the grace to say, “This is paradise, but it is the islands and food is expensive; things work most of the time.” That “most of the time” came to haunt me.
Our free living would be on a few acres that held a large house, surrounded by many outbuildings that used to host a summertime wilderness school, shut down by the owner years back. Let’s get this out of the way now: the beach was stunning, with waters painted such beguiling blues that you immediately wanted to mix them with rum. The sand was fluffy sugar, the changing clouds a dream tapestry…. I will stop, because I said I wouldn’t go there, but the beauty of the beach was one of the small solaces I had during dark nights of the soul.
An immediate out-of-tune note: After we’d dropped off our bags in our caretaker’s cottage, the owner showed us around the big kitchen. He pointed to the paper towels and grimaced. “The last sitters used up paper towels like they were free. I’d come in and all the paper towels would be gone.” Oh, OK, better go light on the paper towels. He motioned to the dish sponge. “Same with the dish scrubber. They’d throw them away before they were barely used.” The dish scrubber in question had apparently be used to clean the underside of a 19th-century shipwreck, but I could see from his disapproval of the last house-sitters’ use of it that it should be carefully tended to until the end of our new century.
Ahh, so our owner is a little eccentric. Quirky is good, right? Quirky is one of the character traits of the self-made man, and our owner—let’s call him Fred, because that’s not his name—was the epitome of self-made. My goodness, he’d self-made practically everything on his property, which included the main house, several cottages, dorm rooms, workshop and more, all capably knocked together by his hand, including most of the furniture. And I’m not talking about crabbed, utilitarian stuff: I’m talking custom cabinetry and clever tables, all with eccentric flourishes, things that fully expressed an artistic bent, a showman’s touch. All around was wood that told tales, as well as bore up under working weight.
I got him, at some level. On the Micronesian island, a number of the ex-pats seemed a bit touchy at times, like they’d been pushed by circumstance and temperament to a narrow corner of the sphere, and by god they were going to defend their territory, adopted though it was. Our man Fred had been 20 years on this island, and he’d built his territory one big piece of driftwood at a time.
That’s probably why he told us, literally, not to move ANYTHING, ANYWHERE in the big house, because he had carefully decided the placement of every fascinating curio, book, paper, and dead mouse that had accumulated over time. (Actually, it turned out that he didn’t mind that I removed the dead mice, which continued to accumulate in malodorous numbers during our stay.) But the pointed way he expressed this admonition made me fear pushing the spine of an errant book back into its shelf. I wondered if cameras would be recording my mischief.
But surreptitious spying would be the only way that Fred would gain any knowledge of us—over the course of our two-month stay, he asked nothing about our background, our interests, our opinions. There simply wasn’t enough room on the property for more opinions, because his opinions crowded every area; things like, “As soon as I pick up a book and see it’s by a woman writer, I put it down.”
OK, OK, you are probably starting to tire of my carping. After all, he was going to leave, right? We were going to be house-sitting on this beautiful property, and after Fred departed, we could gleefully move—wantonly!—a book all the way to another room. The house, grounds and beach will be ours, all ours!
Because, Fred felt it incumbent to return to his redoubt perhaps 15 times in our two-month stay, often calling us with the request, “Arriving at the airport in a hour; can you get me?” Thus, over the course of a two-month house-sit, we were alone for a bit less than a month.
It became clear that Fred needed to control everything: he told me more than once that the angle I had hung the little rope over a nail that held a door shut was wrong. A higher level of wrong was my own inability to control my reaction to my lack of control: I became uselessly and embarrassingly livid over his gypsy unpredictability, and as we had dependent house-sitters of our own, we couldn’t confront him and return home.
When Fred did disclose a bare tidbit of when he might return yet again from a sojourn, for the days preceding that return I’d feel a stomach-clenching anxiety. So I wasted beautiful beachside days anticipating sourness to come. After a while, I became so acutely agitated that my girlfriend thought I was literally losing my mind. Travel, which so often can open your mind and senses, was somehow shutting mine down.
I have a hundred instances of where we butted up against his personality (including his voicing that people who relied on computer technology to work—umm, that would be us—were idiots), but I won’t list them here. Instead of just laughing it off, I amazed myself with how roaringly ANGRY I became there in the beautiful Caribbean. I allowed this character to mangle my moods; I won’t cooperate like that again. Paradise truly is a state of mind, and I’ll mind my mind better next time.
But next time I’m going for a pubtender’s job in Ireland.
Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) says
Thanks for introducing a dose of reality into my housesitting fantasies. Perhaps you can now write a soul baring expose of driving around the US living in an RV. My husband would be most appreciative.
Tom Bentley says
Suzanne, we have had some good house-sitting experiences (and am looking for another now)m but you do never know what you’re getting.
As for the road trip, do I sense a certain reluctance in your “eager” anticipation? I’ve never taken one in an RV, but I write for Airstream Life magazine and profile lots of couples who do it without any homicides. At least none that were reported.
Tom Bentley says
And as for the typos and dubious grammar of my comment, it’s because the cat was doing my typing for me.
John Soares says
Great essay Tom!
My partner Stephanie and I have done quite a bit of house-sitting in the San Francisco Bay Area (see my link), but so far have not had an experience anywhere near as bad as yours. In fact, most have been very pleasant.
We’ve created a list of important items that we discuss with a prospect over the phone. One of those is when they’re leaving and when they’re returning, including flight numbers.
Tom Bentley says
John, thank you! If we had discussed those issues over the phone first, we would have been much better off, because we would have then known much more of the personality of the homeowner. As it was, we had two phone interviews with his wife, and only the briefest one with him after those first two, so we didn’t have an inkling of just what we were getting into.
But as I said, I should have learned to roll with it earlier, because I wouldn’t have become obsessed with his comings and goings and his hardcore point of view on many issues. Good practice for my Zen monk role that I will adopt in later life…
John Soares says
Things don’t always go as planned with house-sits. We’ve skyped a couple of times. This allows everyone involved to actually see each other, plus we can get a virtual tour of the place.