The night of my birthday I awake to what sounds like a train crashing in the courtyard. A fierce wind is banging the shutters, and an icy rain pelts the French doors. The electricity is out, and there is no heat. I can't find the fuse box, and the phone is dead. I hastily light a wood fire at the massive hearth, pull a day bed close to the flames, and plunge under the duvet with Lulu for a medieval sleep.
It is hailing in the morning when Jean-Pierre Kerambrun appears at the back door. When she could not reach me by phone, Sophie dispatched Monsieur Kerambrun, who will assume housesitting duties when I leave. A former gendarme who is caretaking another of Sophie's properties, Monsieur Kerambrun investigates. He discovers the fuse box recessed in a stone wall in a bath-room. Confidently, he flips a switch and—voilà!—lights! The kitchen, though, remains dark, and the radiators are quiet. Daniel Dumont, Sophie's father, suddenly arrives from his home in neighboring Cremps. Sophie, it seems, has summoned the troops to my aid. Monsieur Dumont surveys the kitchen. He frowns, sighs, then gives a Gallic shrug. I'm envisioning another freezing night when Sophie's carpenter, the dashing Laurent Moles, sweeps into the house. Laurent winks at me through a mop of blond hair and announces, "Allez!" ("Let's go!") We are filing back to the fuse box when, miraculously, the phone rings. It is Sophie calling from London. In rapid French she instructs Laurent on the vagaries of the fuse box and, within minutes, the house is ablaze with lights. We applaud our success.
My caretaking stint winds down in mid-April, but it is difficult to leave. On my last morning I toss the hens extra grain and cook a cod fillet for my feline friends. I still pose a vehicular hazard to Escamps residents, but I have also made new friends. Their world, so different from mine, is inspiring in its richness of community and shared history.
I hand Monsieur Kerambrun Piepalat's key and make my way back across the centuries to my home and a $250 pet sitting bill. Within days I am planning another housesitting adventure, this one in England. I log on to a few websites and post my own ad: "House sitter needed for four happy southern hounds…" Any takers?
My caretaking sojourn in France was idyllic, and caretaking enthusiasts I spoke with afterward were not surprised I was smitten. "Once people discover caretaking, they often make it a part of their lives," says Gary Dunn, publisher of The Caretaker Gazette, a Texas-based bimonthly publication, many of whose 10,000 subscribers are over 50. Indeed, boomers and retirees in particular appear to have taken to housesitting in a big way, attracted by rent-free living in some of the world's most beautiful and exciting locales. Ian White, founder of Australia-based HouseCarers.com, reports that retirees have become his biggest market in recent years. "Retirees are at a prime time in their lives to follow their dreams and move to a location that would be considered an impossibility in years past," White says.
When I placed ads in The Caretaker Gazette and on HouseCarers.com, asking how other house sitters had fared, the response was also nearly uniformly positive.
Wisconsin retirees Shelly and David Hamel were in their late 50s when they fell in love with life-off-the-grid during their first assignment on the Aleutian Islands. Now in their 60s, they are caretaking at an inn in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. "Caretaking is a great way to see the world on the cheap for retirees, if you happen to be fit," Shelly enthuses.