My French housesitting experience began when the train to Toulouse labored to a stop at Cahors, a 12th-century town five hours from Paris and 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Escamps. An energetic former Parisian in her late 30s, Sophie Dumont meets me at the station with the customary French three-cheek kiss. In the Renault I follow her SUV along narrow roads bordered by medieval ruins and rocky pastures. Sophie's limestone farmhouse is tastefully renovated. White shutters, which I must latch on these cool March evenings, frame the many tall windows. Inside, the walls are also stone, with beamed ceilings and terra cotta tile. I notice clearly defined cat paw prints and others that look web-footed embossed on those tiles. Sophie explains that farm animals had scurried across the tiles when they were freshly baked in the 17th century. That would make those footprints about 400 years old. I consider my own home, circa 1900, historic—but my perspective is changing quickly.
Sophie is well organized and has a definite standard of care. Her housesitting contract requires a 1,000-euro deposit (about $1,300), payment of utilities, and seasonal groundskeeping. Most important, she emphasizes, is the well-being of her cats. Lulu, Bijoux, Chouchou, and Mia observe me suspiciously as Sophie explains their menus: alternating days for tuna, pâté, fresh steak, and cod. I must defrost the steak and fish the prior night, then sauté the fillets in the morning. "Can I prepare these meals in advance?" I ask, eyeing the microwave. Sophie looks horrified. "Absolument non! They will only eat freshly cooked!" We move on to housecleaning and hen feeding. Sophie graciously introduces me to her artist friends and farming neighbors, and then drives off to London, about ten hours away, with her young son, Zac.
Sophie, the homeowner, also offered some advice: ‘Don’t fall in love with a Frenchman!’
My official housesitting begins with a morning downpour. I prepare cod pas bien cuit ("lightly cooked") for wary cats, pull on rain gear, and head to the hen house. The hens take one look at me and flee to the farthest field. Eventually I earn their trust with the help of ample vegetable remnants. That the Midi-Pyrénées region is the foie gras capital of the world presents a distinct problem for a vegetarian like me. Menus read like a textbook in duck anatomy, from foie de canard ("duck liver pâté") to confit de canard (which turns out to be preserved duck thighs). Perforce, the lively outdoor markets in nearby Lalbenque and Limogne, where vendors offer me generous samples of their cheeses, fruits, and favorite recipes, and locally grown vegetables of every sort abound, quickly become my favorite destinations. Thick, tasty soups, local goat cheese, and bountiful salads are my new mainstays. For their part, the hens enjoy my salad remains, and in turn provide me with fresh eggs for savory soufflés.
During the day I drive to vineyards and red-roofed villages built on the walls of Roman fortresses. I spend hours in Saint-Cirq Lapopie, an ancient cliffside village that has been an artists colony since the early 1900s. At cafés in Cahors I sip vin noir de Cahors, the local dark red wine, and observe town life. I envision myself an expatriate and even enlist a real-estate agent to show me village houses. At dusk I share Piepalat's courtyard bench with Lulu and Chouchou, and listen to the day end in Escamps—its sheep clattering into barns, the shrill cries of peacocks at a neighbor's château, dogs barking. Evenings, I dine with Sophie's friends, Claire and Catharine, or savor a vegetable stew at a family-run restaurant in the hamlet of Bach. I also indulge in one breathtaking five-star dinner.