An extract from Gayle Smith Padgett’s book Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie.
Chapter four –Raining Chats et Chiens
Aix-en-Provence — Summer 2011
Handy with a chainsaw? Trained on a tractor? Good with goats?
If you are a house-sitter wannabe and these nifty skill sets highlight your curriculum vitae, an abundance of free house-sitting opportunities awaits. Simply sign up for a membership on a house-sitting website, specify where you want to go, and what you will do—feed dogs/cats/chickens/llamas/grandpa, etc.—and presto, you’ll soon receive countless notifications of inviting offers from sophisticated citizens of the world with well-equipped, finely functioning designer homes in inviting areas where the weather is always primo, plants thrive, and pets cooperate. And hiccups are prohibited.
The house-sitting concept held particular appeal during our first summer in Aix in 2011. Our apartment lacked climatisation (air-conditioning) to combat the fierce heat, and the only outdoor space consisted of a tiny balcony that barely fit two folding chairs and an undersized bistro table, much less an infinity pool. We were still coping with the US economic downturn, and we weren’t yet certain whether Aix was the place for us or whether there was a more suitable home for our hammock—the one I’d bought as an anniversary gift years before at Saint-Rémy’s market. Though it had crossed the ocean a few times, it remained a virgin hammock and was not getting any younger. So while needing to be prudent with our assets, yet anxious to explore, we welcomed excuses to vacate our overheated homestead. House-sitting clearly seemed a win-win.
Even though we didn’t operate heavy equipment, babysit, or have a flair for farming, the odds were good we’d get some reasonable offers, as many homeowners simply wanted their home occupied, plants watered, or a small pet fed. I felt confident we could manage if we put our minds to it. I mean, how hard could it be? Ralph had grown up with a cat and I a dog. Plus, I boasted an impressive pet-sitting résumé.
While living in Heidelberg, Germany, during our working years, I had successfully cat-sat (technically, cat-fed) multiple times for my spunky Canadian neighbor, Lucille, who fiercely indulged her demanding kitty. Her outdoor cat, appropriately named Cleopatra, assumed she was the Queen of Cats and rightfully deserved the multicourse meals Lucille provided. Common cats would be a cinch, I reasoned, after having been put through my paces by Cleopatra.
During the Cleo-care period, a neighbor took the morning cat-feeding shift, and the night gig was assigned to me. On the first evening, I opened Lucille’s back door around six and called out into the yard for Cleo. Taking her own sweet time, the kitty pranced into the premises. I presented the first of three courses—the dry food. Bowl filled, I stood back. The cat sauntered to the dish and simply stood there; her head didn’t lower. I double-checked the detailed cat-feeding notes Lucille had prepared. Yep, first the dry food.
“Go ahead and eat,” I told Cleo. She didn’t. I stood there, leaning against the kitchen counter, waiting. Nothing. The cat stared at the food. “Please eat,” I begged. “I can’t wait here all night. I have my own dinner to prepare.” The cat slowly swiveled her head and glared at me. “What?” I said. “What do you want?” She remained motionless. “Ah, now I get it. My presence is an invasion of your privacy, is it?”
Kitty, clearly annoyed, shot me a “Like, duh?” look.
“Okay, okay, prima donna, I’ll leave you in peace,” I said, retreating to the dining room. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her chomping the hard kibble. When the crackling stopped, I withdrew the dry food bowl and replaced it with the wet food and obediently left the room. Then the big treat—the cream. In an attempt to bribe Her Highness into being more punctual, I gave her a generous portion. When she’d licked the saucer clean, she moseyed around her domain—undoubtedly checking to see if the help had fingered anything. When she was satisfied all was in order, she stopped in front of the door, head held high as if supporting the crown she so richly deserved. That was my cue. I opened the door and stepped respectfully back. Kitty glided by. I was dismissed. Purrrfect.
Figuring I had earned my cat management stripes, I didn’t hesitate when another friend in Heidelberg asked if I’d be part of her feline feeding team while she was on vacation. I was to do week one and a neighbor’s son would take care of week two. The cat had freedom of movement through the pet-flap installed in the back door. All I had to do was to refresh the food and water bowls once a day. My amazingly trusting girlfriend always left her kitchen door unlocked, so I wouldn’t even need to fuss with a key.
What a snap. I’d drive up to the kitchen door, fill up the water bowl, pour some dry food in the other bowl, and buzz back out. No waiting for the cat to grace me with its presence. No waiting for the cat to eat three courses. No waiting for the cat to lap the living room. The first few days went fine. Then, on the last day, I was about to blast out of the house, home free, when something out in the dining room caught my eye. I spotted a dark blob in the walkway alongside the large area rug—most likely an expensive one. Good grief, what could it be? I edged a bit closer to the threshold of the dining room to investigate. Whatever the clump was, it most certainly looked repulsive; it made me gag just to see it, even at a distance. No way could squeamish me do anything with it—yuck! I did manage to get close enough—while averting my eyes—to drop a sheet of paper towel over it so the follow-on feline feeding team wouldn’t step in it accidentally. I left a note explaining my acute aversion to animal deposits. Surely it wouldn’t be any big deal for the strapping young teenager to take care of it.
When my friend returned from vacation, she told me the kid hadn’t wanted to mess with the mystery goo either and had passed it off to his mom. Raised on a farm, the lady was used to dealing with such muck, but apparently it had taken some doing. As did the partial resurfacing of the hardwood floor. Big oops. Many apologies flowed and my friend was infinitely gracious. She’d been considering spiffing up the dining room anyway—or so she said. The blob was later identified as regurgitated rodent.
Although that experience certainly didn’t up my standing in the cat-sitting community, I did learn a valuable lesson that would serve me well down the road: all animal gigs henceforth would require a guck removal subcontractor on board, i.e., hubby Ralph, to deal with messy stuff when the need arose. Of course, the enticement would have to be compelling.
While sweltering away in Aix-en-Provence, I recalled that golden nugget cat-sitting lesson as I considered a new request for house-sitter services—a nearby friend needed a house-sitter for a week. The email stated that kitty care was required. Drat, no free déjeuner. And that meant a potential requirement for guck removal services, which meant persuading Ralph. I read on. The cat was of the outdoor variety, eating a bowl of dry food twice a day. It meowed to be let in and stood by the door when it wanted out. With no freedom of movement—closed-door policy was enforced and no kitty flap installed—there was a greatly reduced risk of “presents,” I reasoned. But would a spacious home close to downtown be enough to convince my guck removal contractor? I wondered. Hold on, what’s this? There was an expansive grassy area and—wait for it—a pool! I was already doing laps. Ralph agreed, and in short order, I made the deal. Ralph and I played our roles to the letter and so did kitty. Unfortunately, it rained most of the week, so there was little pool time, but sitting in the lush garden under an umbrella was utterly delightful.
Our next gig was again for friends, but this time in a Luberon house with a sweeping view of the countryside just on the outskirts of a picturesque hilltop village, two skips and a hop from enticing Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Two independent cats reigned supreme. They enjoyed carte blanche mobility—through a kitty flap. Red flag alert—Gunk Patrol switched to Ready-for-Duty mode. But gunk was the least of our problems. Our friends warned us that one of the two cats—from time to time, extremely rarely, highly unlikely, hardly ever happens—would deposit inside the house a small “gift” in the form of a mouse, which had been “toyed with” and undoubtedly would be in critter heaven at the time of discovery.
I bucked up and Ralph geared up, but I silently prayed that no “gifts” appeared. To be on the safe side, I held a kitty pow-wow on the first day to clarify the game plan of the Temporary House Management Company. On a regular basis, Supervisory Team Padgett would provide all kitties with sustenance and beverages (plus the occasional special treat!), and all kitties would provide us caretakers with absolutely nada, rien, zilch. No objections were noted, the meeting was adjourned, and off we scampered in our respective directions.
Not to be out-felined, we had a backup plan to be activated immediately on the off chance a kitty went rogue. Each morning, my husband would recon the hallway to ensure it was clear, and in the unlikely event that a “gift” was lurking there, he would sweep it onto a dustpan and take it outside to the field across the street; meanwhile, I would stay safely off to one side, out of the flight path. First morning, A-okay. Second morning, fine and dandy. Morning number three—oh là là, bad kitty. As planned, Ralph got the dustpan and swept the little carcass onto it. As he made his way into the living room, the little guy in the pan got a second wind and started squirming. Alarmed that he’d jump overboard, and wanting to avoid chasing a mangled mouse through the house with me squealing in the background, Ralph held the pan at arm’s length, tilting it this way and that to counter the mouse’s movements. Like a flare, Ralph shot through the dining room and kitchen to the outdoors. Whew, that was a close one.
But the day was not over. Later that afternoon, Ralph was changing clothes in the bedroom. From the corner of his eye, he saw a blurry, dark something swoosh by. Then he saw the real deal. Not an inanimate gift but a swift gift. He called out to me at the other end of the house, and I came running. As I got to one end of the hall, I saw Ralph rush out of the bedroom and slam the door to the toilet room, typically called the WC (water closet). “There’s one in there,” he said matter-of-factly, not wanting to distress me.
“One what?” I asked.
“Think mini Ratatouille—very, very mini, in fact.”
“Ratatouille, as in the movie Ratatouille, where a long-tailed creature is a gourmet chef and wears a tall white toque on his furry head?” I asked, shaking my head in disbelief.
“Sorry to say … but yep. On the bright side, it’s only the tiny field version, so no worries.” Omigod. Action plan. I turned to one of the cats and pleaded for assistance. He purred. I took that as a yes. I held him with one hand and, in one swift movement, opened the door to the WC with the other and launched the kitty in. Silence. Instantly I felt a sharp pang of guilt followed by an icy slap of self-loathing. What was I thinking? It was one thing to be theoretically aware of the food chain but quite another to set the stage, and so blatantly. I cracked open the door to take a peek. The cat scampered out without any tell-tale tail dangling from its chops. Still, I wondered if possibly this mouse mission was a fait accompli? Quickly scanning the WC, my eyes fell upon the wee mouse, shivering in a shadowed corner.
Much relieved, I allowed my guilt to subside. But something had to be done. For house-sitters, this was one of those “other duties as assigned” scenarios. We moved on to Plan B. The lady of the house, an ardent animal lover, wasn’t a fan of typical mousetraps but did allow the humane variety. We put some peanut butter in one of the mini-cage “mouse motels” and set it in the WC on the rug in front of the toilet. Hours later we cracked open the door. The peanut butter was gone, but the mouse was still on the mat, hoping for seconds. When our patience had run out, a lightbulb flashed on.Quick like bunnies, we removed the mouse cage, turned the small trash can over the mouse, and then, holding the rug tightly to the can, flipped over the rug-can combination. Ralph ran through the living room, keeping the bathroom rug clamped down tightly on the can, through the kitchen and out to the terrace, down the stairs, past the pool, and across the street to the field, where he freed the little guy to the wild. By the time he climbed back up to the terrace, a cold beer greeted him.
After those disagreeable critter skirmishes, I feared my usually accommodating hubby would be reluctant to make another foray into the world of cat-sitting. Surprisingly, he agreed to my next “opportunity”—the first from a stranger—discovered on a house-sitting website. It was located in Lagarde, a village north of Toulouse, not far from the Les Landes region where Ralph was likely to catch a glimpse of some unusual migrating birds. And there was just one independent yet obedient cat that was never allowed “play dates” inside the house—the owner promised we could bank on it. And the photos of the house on the internet looked lovely. We signed up.
En route to the house, we made some rewarding discoveries, including lively Pezenas crammed with antique stores and vibrant Narbonne with the Canal du Midi running right through it. Upon arrival at the house, we met the British owner, who had kindly prepared us dinner. Beforehand, she gave us the requisite house tour. All standard spaces, we thought, as we marched from one room to the next, except for a multistory worm complex tucked into a corner of the terrace, clearly a source of great pride for the owner. We were invited (but not required) to feed the grubs. When my stifled gag was misinterpreted as interest, she offered a lecture on its use and attributes. Produces fantastic fertilizer, apparently.
The owner departed early the next morning, at which point we took a closer look at our surroundings. There was no TV, microwave, or coffeemaker. Oops—a bit of an oversight on my part. Thank goodness, the internet worked well and the pretty garden had several sitting areas, though one was off-limits—the harsh serenade of some buzzing hornets signaled that message loud and clear.
We managed without the gadgets for four whole days. Except for a little hubbub when a bird went berserk after flying into the potbellied stove (Ralph set it free sans drama), all went without a hitch. The kitty followed her own agenda and, as promised, didn’t make any “deposits” in the house. We biked all over the lush countryside and enjoyed some peaceful walks. I bought a beautiful aubergine-hued mohair throw at the expansive weekly market in Fleurance, had fun exploring Condom (best known for Armagnac and selfies in front of the city sign), savored simple meals at a cute café under the arcade in La Romieu, and spent tranquil evenings on the terrace at the little house, rosé in hand, following the sun as it melted into the verdant hillside.
It was early October, but the days were sunny with temperatures near 25°C (77°F). A balmy breeze drifted through the open windows. We were leaving the next day, so we organized the place and prepared our stuff to pack into the car. Early on the day of departure, I popped out of bed, eager to wrap up our current responsibilities and move on. Bleary-eyed, I shuffled down the hall to the attractive bathroom, in which an oval baignoire was set on the diagonal. I made a note to have one of those in our own home someday. As I was drying my hands on a towel hanging by the sink, a painful sensation ripped down the top my left hand as though it had been slit with a shard of glass. “Geez, that hurts,” I said, wincing. I could see no broken glass on the counter. There was no blood, but the pain was increasing, so I ran some cool water over my hand, rubbing it gently and feeling for something sharp. Nothing. The pain deepened. Just then, a hornet flew out the window. Shrieking ensued.
Ralph was now at my side, trying to calm me as my hand turned red and swelled rapidly. I was breathing fast. Slow down, Gayle—you do not want to black out, I told myself. Ralph placed ice in a washcloth and pressed it to my hand. He then opened the laptop and typed, “How to treat hornet stings.”
I wasn’t showing signs of anaphylactic shock, so I could do nothing but ice it and down some aspirin. But what if I had a delayed allergic reaction? How long would I have if I needed emergency care? Ralph had a friend who’d discovered he was allergic to shrimp after consuming more than a few of the crustaceans at a fundraiser in Washington, DC. On the way home, he’d felt increasingly ill and made the prudent decision of going directly to the emergency room. Good thing. He got there in time, but just.
I wondered if they even had a doctor in that wee village tucked away in the French countryside? And what was the French equivalent of 911, anyway?
I paced and shook my hand and paced some more. Thankfully, the throbbing began to subside. Since it seemed as if I was going to survive without a hospital visit, we started packing the car. Good thing I’d done most of the cleaning the day before; it might have been a bit tricky with one hand. We left a fresh baguette for the owner next to a little note. I reported that the kitty and house were in fine form, but I’d had an unfortunate encounter with a hornet. The next day she emailed that she felt my pain—she also had been a hornet victim. I thanked her for her concern but resisted suggesting that along with a few other modern creature comforts, she might also want to consider acquiring a defibrillator. At least we hadn’t been expected to cultivate the grub farm.
After that exciting adventure, I became much more selective about my house-sitting choices. When one popped up in gorgeous Annecy—with a sumptuous view of the lake—I couldn’t resist. The owner had not one but two pooches, and their photos were utterly adorable. It was a terrific opportunity to experience authentic life on a lake. Plus, some friends in Puligny-Montrachet, near Beaune, would be visiting their daughter in nearby Geneva and would come down for an afternoon. After I repeatedly waved the lake-view photo in front of Ralph, he finally gave in, and we were on.
The little doggies were, in fact, the cuddliest little fluffballs imaginable. So cuddly that they cuddled with the owner all night, which we did not discover until we arrived. The owner asked if we minded if the doggies slept with us. I was horrified. Yikes, canines in our bed—no way! I didn’t even want to think about where those paws had been. “At least, can they sleep in the same room with you?” the owner pleaded.
“Okay,” we eventually conceded. We weren’t thrilled but agreed to put the doggie beds in our room. The “kids” needed to be let out a lot, but they would always tell us, the owner said. They could run on their own in the garden, but outside the gate they needed the leash. And they didn’t like to be left alone for more than a couple of hours. Oh, uh, okay.
We said goodbye to the owner the next morning. Then we played with our new charges. We let them out into the garden. We gave them treats. We let them frolic on the deck. We let them out into the garden again. We went on a long walk by the lake. Then the garden again. We watched a magnificent sunset together. They sat on our laps while we watched TV. We scratched behind their ears. Everybody was content.
Or so we thought. On day two of our four-day stay, I rose before seven to let the doggies out. There on the living room floor was not a regurgitated rodent, not a mouse, not a bird. Just one expansive puddle of pee—on the hardwood floor. And just inches from a large and possibly valuable woven basket, which I scooped up immediately as I made a mad dash to the kitchen for paper towels to mop up the mess. The two cute fluffballs were waiting expectantly by the door, tails wagging.
“Which one of you is responsible, and more importantly, why on earth did you do this? We’re supposed to be buds!” I was exasperated, not to mention dismayed at having to kick off my day, not on the lakeside deck quietly sipping my cappuccino, but on all fours, enveloped in fierce cleaning-product fumes. Very much not buds, as it turned out. The next morning our charges expanded their repertoire—awaiting me in the wee hours of the morn was a puddle of pee plus a pile of poop—on a carpet, no less. That cleanup job took more than a little elbow grease. Thank goodness, the owner was returning the following afternoon—I was wearing a hole in her rubber gloves and running low on disinfectant. When I told her about the poop, she was adamant it was only barf—they always did their business outside, she insisted. Well, that was something, I thought. At least I was somewhat less disgusted, retroactively.
The Annecy trip made us seriously consider sitting out house-sitting altogether. As much as we loved exploring new regions, the attractive cost factor, the spacious interiors and gardens, our low tolerance for unexpected pet deposits had been tested and proven, again and again.
It was time we accepted the fact that many pets follow the same behavioral guidelines with sitters that schoolkids do with substitute teachers—raise hell while you can! So unless we wanted to invest heavily in hazmat gear, we should part ways with pet-sitting. At least that was one point of view.
On the other hand, perhaps we’d simply had a bit of bad luck. Would the next sit be the cat’s meow? The odds of that happening would be, admittedly, slim to none. Regardless, I kept checking the house-sitting site, wishfully thinking that maybe, since we’d paid our dues (a couple of times over, in fact), our house-sitting ship might come in. And it did.
Surprisingly, our lucky number turned up not through the house-sitting site but from the international group we belonged to in Aix. Some members were seeking a dog-sitter while they were away in the Cotswolds. They lived in Lourmarin, a town we knew well, just forty minutes north. It was a precious town with an imposing château and renowned Friday market. I sensed a stellar house-sitting experience coming on.
Long ago, in Lourmarin, Ralph had seen a bee-eater, a gorgeous multicolored bird splashed with royal blue, sunflower yellow, and burnt chestnut. In fact, he’d seen an entire group of them, so I hoped he would consider repeating that rewarding experience. And he agreed, albeit reluctantly. I rang the British couple, and we were invited for lunch. As we drove up the driveway, my heart flipped. The place was magnificent—right out of Côté Sud home décor magazine—the stereotypical renovated-to-perfection Provençal farmhouse with a creamy stone façade, terra-cotta tile roof, and blue-gray shutters.
Our blind date, Marco, an ebony spaniel, bounded down the stone steps to the parking area, running around and hopping up and down and yapping away. Immediate bonding. The couple was gracious, the designer décor inspired, and the view over the château stunning. All indicators pointed to a joyful experience.
Marco slept in his own bed, thank you very much, just off the living room in view of the TV, thanks to the glass-door enclosure. When we left the house, Marco remained ensconced in his assigned space, contentedly watching his favorite reality shows. When we were there, we’d read on the comfy sofa by the picture window with Marco nearby on the windowsill soaking up the rays. During long walks, we’d let him off his leash and he’d run freely, chasing rabbits over hill and dale. And he always returned after a short while, just as the owners said he would. It was such a positive experience that a few months later we leapt at the chance to again watch over sweet, playful, obedient, and—best of all—considerate Marco, who returned his sitters’ affection with no gifts at all.
After the Lourmarin sit, we went on hiatus from sitting—both house and pet. Ralph needed a break, and I took the time to reflect. Although during the house-sits, some traumas and mishaps rested squarely in the character-building column, regrets were few, and there were some stellar bonuses. It was gratifying to help out friends, and the sits expanded our travel horizons. One bonus gift in particular has kept on giving.
During a Luberon house-sit, over a country inn déjeuner, quite by chance we met a British couple. Finding our intended bistro closed, we’d followed signs to another. At the adjacent table, we’d overheard English. And roars of laughter. Before the cheese course, arrived, we’d discovered the pair had spent years abroad as educators in Bahrain, Peru, South Korea, and Mustique. Masters of reinvention, they now were managers of a huge estate, harvesting lavender and welcoming guests. Since then we’ve become fast friends, and not surprisingly. In addition to professional lives spent abroad, we shared some striking weaknesses—the south of France, pale rosé, and strolling in the hills, not to mention delectable déjeuners in the Provençal countryside. Even though our friends have since moved back to England, we keep in regular touch and get together as often as possible, visits that nourish the soul and, not regrettably, deepen the laugh lines. Mille mercis, serendipity.
Count on kismet to surprise
When Lady Luck appears, be ready to greet her.
You can buy Gayle’s book from Amazon, or Lebookshop in Montpellier is stocking it. Watch this space about how to win a signed copy of the book. Gayle’s website is www.gaylesmithpadgett.com.