Holiday in suburbia

A million and one places you will surely visit (before the inevitable)           

Words & images © Paul Ransom

NB: When I posted the original version of this piece I did not know that a house sitting disaster was about to unfold. See my lost pet epilogue below for the updated details and an example what can go wrong when house sitting.

Usually, when we think holiday, we conjure faraway and enticing destinations. But what if holiday is a state of mind, or a way of framing place and experience? This would enable us to enjoy relatively inexpensive vacations in the most ordinary locations. For instance, we might choose to stay – albeit temporarily – in one of millions of look-alike homes in one of the countless homogenised suburbs that cling to the apron strings of any modern city. (And I’m not talking Airbnb.)  

This, dear reader, is the trick of the career house sitter. Because the truth is, other people’s crash pads are really just free, private hotels in disguise. What’s more, the usual occupants pay you a fee. Meanwhile, you eat their best pantry goods, sample their dry gin collections, watch their enormous televisions and enjoy siestas with their cats. And if they have spas, espresso machines, or 18th storey balconies with spectacular cityscape vistas, all the better.

Yet, even if the client’s place is modest and unadorned with upscale tech and fancy showerheads, it is still a getaway. Somewhere other, however familiar.

  • Indeed, as I write, I am domicile in an unassuming two bedroom, two feline unit in a postcode of aesthetically challenged houses from the 70s and 80s. The local area is a classically bland, dormitory/commuter suburb replete with numerous opportunities for buying booze, visiting family healthcare providers, and loitering in oversized carparks. There is a surplus of beige and brown and oceans of tarmac. If my client did not live here I would not even know it existed, let alone visit it voluntarily. But it still feels like a holiday; and I will use my fortnight here to wander new pathways, try out different cafes and befriend the resident cats.

Working in the gig economy, primarily from a laptop, I am lucky to have the latitude to hop from house to house. Being single and childless also helps, as does not being too attached to home comforts.

Likewise, living in share accommodation at 57 helps to amplify the house sit holiday feeling, for just as I may want a break from my fellow renters, they will surely enjoy a couple of weeks without me – not least because I talk to myself (a lot) and am notoriously slow in the bathroom. Minding someone else’s place is a solitary pursuit and, as such, the holiday may well be said to be from other people.

Curmudgeonly misanthropes are encouraged to apply!

However, much as solitude is a break from the friction of others, house sitting is also an opportunity to get some time away from your normal self. Or rather, from the routines and rhythms of home. The differences may ultimately be slight, but they are tangible; and subtle shifts are often enough to dislodge and disrupt.

Across many house sits I have noticed that daily habits change. Sometimes this is dictated by the demands of hungry pets and the need to tend various plants, at others by the peculiarities of the location or by the fact that the client has the kind of kitchen that encourages serious cooking. And beneath this, there is the architecture of domesticity. How people arrange their stuff. What order or otherwise they prefer. These details, so often overlooked, emerge from the opacity of unconscious routine as your body adopts different lines of movement. For a short while you find yourself living a different life, and being aware of it, not so much in the big picture but in the granules. Motion, meter, and sometimes even mood.

This is where the holiday is. In nuance. In the notched up volume of noticing. Suburban house sitting is like a stripped back acoustic mix of the heavy novelty kick we get from foreign cities and coral reefs. Cheaper, less obvious and with fewer photo opps, but still stimulating. Still a kind of ‘what if’ existence. A slow and detailed rehearsal for another way of being.       

The house I am occupying now, and the faceless suburb it inhabits, won’t make anyone’s list of ‘places to visit before you die’ but that won’t stop me relishing the glitch. The built environment maybe an eyesore, and the natural one reduced to lawn and token green corridors, but I still get to choose my attitude. It might not be two weeks on a cruise liner, but it remains an experience of travel. A holiday in suburbia.

Cat sitting in kitchen sink

Aside from being an opportunity to ‘live’ in a variety of locations – from glitzy inner urban towers to semi-rural spreads complete with meandering cows – my house sitting career has been an adventure in animal friending. As someone whose interest in other people is increasingly anthropological and artistic, swapping human co-habitants for their feline, canine and bovine alternatives is, at the very least, a relief. In fact, it often turns out to be nothing less than a chance to give love without the usual human drama. Even the haughtiest of cats seem more open to shared affection than most people I know. It may only be cupboard love – a transaction based on food, territorial security and the ready availability of soft furnishings – but it is a holiday from the standard issue diplomatic niceness of flatmates and other disinterested parties. Truth is, the company of strange quadrupeds is frequently warmer and more rewarding than the upright familiarity of apex predators.

The key take-out here is that pet sitting is an escape from the complex politics of human relations. We are not self-conscious in front of the dog. There are no romantic signals to misinterpret. No duplicitous games. If the on-site fur babies do try their hand at manipulation it is simply their way of squeezing extra food out of you; or perhaps to insist that, yes, they are both allowed in bed at night.

Cute, sad looking dog on balcony

This may reveal more about me than I care to confess – but that’s okay, the cats won’t use it against me. Neither will any of the people I encounter across the next fortnight. I will pass through this place unrecollected. Even the cute barista who memorises my order will forget me, just as I will her. In this temporary suburban theme park there are no strings. I could pretend to be anyone. I won’t, but I know that if I did I would get away with it. In the local supermarket I could swap my everyday identify for this week’s special. I could take a break from myself. That’ll be $4.95 thanks.

In the end, a holiday maybe little more than change you can enjoy, however slight. Or rather, a chance to pretend. Forget.

Sometimes all it takes is a couple of miles. The view does not have to be spectacular, nor the nightlife thrilling. Indeed, the household cats can even be a little stand-offish and the aircon largely ineffective, because the suburban getaway is not about luxury or exoticism, it’s about the story you tell yourself – and I am in the habit of telling myself that house sitting gigs are bona fide travel experiences.

Cows in paddock
The ladies.

As I look up from a borrowed desk in the corner of an on-loan room, and my senses take in the sound of passing buses and squawking crows, I know that when I find myself on my death bed I will be able to tick this otherwise unremarkable destination off my bucket list of places I did not have to visit; but chose to anyway. And maybe, if I can get past the saturating ugliness of the area, I might just have the photos to prove it.       

Adorable cat posing for photo

Epilogue: What happens if an indoor cat gets out?

A week ago, when I posted the above to As If You Were Listening, I had no idea that one of the two strictly ‘indoor’ cats I was minding was about to launch a daring escape bid. (In fact, he may already have made good his bid for the outdoor life as I hit the publish button. All I know is that roughly 36 hours after the original post went live I discovered the shredded fly screen in the laundry. From there, my holiday in suburbia started to resemble a 24/7 on-call feline emergency. Let this be a lesson to you, house sitting fans.)

Fortunately, the clients are also friends – and their home comes equipped with a security camera set-up that allows them to monitor the property from their working holiday in South Korea. This is how we know that Billie is thus far: a) still alive, and b) nearby. Video of him returning to the property at night has been reassuring for all of us, but the traps we hired to snare our freedom seeking friend have served only to catch two unlucky neighbourhood randoms; both of whom got a free feed and a considerable fright.

As I write we have endured six nights of interrupted sleep, hyper-vigilance, and nocturnal forays to check on traps and uselessly call out Billie’s name. For although he has ventured onto the property – sitting on the front doorstep at one point, and very nearly entering the treat ladened trap – he remains committed to his newfound liberty. 

Zooming out from my house sitter’s nightmare, I realise that I am (at worst) minimally culpable. Perhaps Billie so disliked the new human that he opted instead for the wild frontier of outer suburban Melbourne. Or was he just jealous that I seemed to prefer his more affectionate sister?

Oh Billie, if only you hadn’t spent the first few days of our allotted fortnight cowering in the closet I would have loved you more and none of this would have happened.

For a house sitter, presiding over the loss of someone else’s pet is about as bad as it gets. After all, I am not here to make sure the bricks don’t get lonely. If it were my cat it would bother me less – but kissing off a friend’s beloved fur baby is another thing altogether. It is hard not to think if only I had…

And so, while a part of me cannot help but cheer Free Billie and admire his tenacity, another part is beset with worry and no small measure of guilt. I can only hope that sometime in the next day or so Billie decides that his best option is to return to the bosom of indoor comforts in time to welcome home his preferred humans.

Sometime down the track this will make for amusing dinner party chat, but right now I just want the cat back.

What are the benefits of house sitting? See above. What are the risks of pet minding? That they have minds of their own…and may prefer freedom over soft furnishings.


Epi-epilogue: Fast forward 24 hours and Billie is back, just in time for me to hand him and house over to the returning residents. My relief is profound, not least for the formerly roaming cat, who is now re-ensconced in his favourite closet awaiting his humans’ arrival – which, by my clock, is a mere four hours away.

Will I contemplate further house sitting gigs? The next one is already booked; this time with three cats. Some people never learn.   

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