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Stories II

Sitting pretty

by Vicki Williams

By a stroke of luck, Australian girl Vicki Williams beat 900 other applicants to a plum house sitting job: a month spent minding an old stone farmhouse in Italy’s Le Marche, the ‘undiscovered Tuscany’. Reflecting on her time house sitting for Giovanni and his two Scottish terriers, Alfredo and Luigi, Vicki couldn’t think of a single reason why she shouldn’t have done it (apart from the scorpians).

13 September 2003

You’re watching the sun sinking behind the mountains after another perfect summer’s day in the Italian countryside. As you water the fruit trees the droplets catch the sun and explode in gold fragments on the leaves. Your favourite music is on the sound system and as you take another sip of the local wine you contemplate whether to eat under the stars or inside the old stone farmhouse. And the best thing about this setting? It’s all free.

I had been planning my first trip to Italy for some time. I was on a limited budget but wanted to stay as long as possible (naturally), which seemed an impossible combination. Then someone mentioned house-sitting.

Soon I was doing a web search for international house-sitting sites. I found two, Worldwide Housesitting and House Carers, and registered at both, which simply involved posting an ad about myself. Glancing at the other ads already on the sites, I realised mine would have to stand out. So along with listing the attributes that would be needed (great with pets and gardens, references available, etc) I added that I would be the best choice for their peace of mind.

While searching the sites I’d also seen a wanted ad for a house-sitter. A family in Italy needed someone to mind their place for the first two weeks of July. Despite being exactly what I was looking for and despite having a ticket to Italy (via Hong Kong, London and Paris) booked for the European summer, I couldn’t think how I could do it logistically and didn’t apply.

Then fate intervened. While in Hong Kong, I received an email from the house owner, Giovanni, who had seen my ad and was emailing to explain that he still needed a house-sitter, but now for the whole of July. More than 900 people had replied to his original ad, but the person he had chosen had been forced to cancel at the last moment. Was I interested?

I grabbed my Italy guidebook and looked up the district, Le Marche ‘the undiscovered Tuscany, rolling hills and fields, intact medieval villages and castles’. By return email, I sent Giovanni an excited ‘Yes’.

More details emerged as we continued our correspondence. Giovanni’s home was a 200-year-old farmhouse on two hectares. It was three kilometres from Esanatoglia, the nearest village, and slightly less to the nearest neighbour. Fortunately, I would have access to a pushbike. The nearest towns of any size were Metalica (six kilometres east) and Fabriano (15 kilometres north); both were accessible by bus from Esanatoglia. Because Giovanni was trying to sell the house, I was able to see photos on the net. They literally made me laugh with joy, as this was where I would be living for a month. My only responsibilities would be to look after two Scottish terriers and water the flowers and fruit trees.

Giovanni gave me the website of a discount flight airline and was at Ancona airport to meet me when my plane arrived from London.

As I am a single female, several friends were a little concerned about my house-sitting plans. What did I know about this man? How did I know I could trust him? At the same time he knew nothing about me, yet he was willing to leave me with the keys to his house for a month. Trust? Intuition?

Fortunately, Giovanni, a father of two, in his mid-thirties and quietly spoken, reminded me of a good friend from Sydney, which helped put me at ease. On the dark drive back to his house, I sensed everything would be fine. We arrived quite late and were greeted by his two dogs, Alfredo and Luigi, both very friendly.

Inside the farmhouse were original stone floors, and windows set in from the facade. Only the new window frames seemed of this century. Exposed ceiling beams, brightly painted walls and open fireplaces completed the interior. It had an authentic rustic feel, yet there were also ample mod cons – a stereo, DVD player, karaoke machine, satellite TV (with 600 channels) and dishwasher.

Early the next morning, as the sun streamed in the window, I looked out and saw a patchwork quilt of green fields, interspersed with the yellow of sunflowers. I could see several smaller farmhouses in the distance and a large house with its own chapel high on a hill. Mesmerised, I stood there for ages soaking it in.

In the terracotta shower I encountered my first (small) scorpion. Familiar with the Australian version, I didn’t want to be showering with one, regardless of its size. I managed to remove it. They continued to appear during my stay and, as my fear decreased, their size increased. I later learned they are common in Italy and France during summer and only give you a nasty sting.

The house was on three levels, built of stone and thin bricks, then plastered and painted in two tones of earthy pink. The stonework was clearly visible in the nearby barn, and the cow and goat sheds that formed part of the house structure. It is common in Italy for farmers to house the livestock inside, below the main living areas.

Cherry, olive, fig and plum trees, grapevines, climbing jasmine and terracotta pots of flowers in bright red, intense magenta and white surrounded the house. There were plenty of grassy areas with old rail sleepers for seating and two outdoor entertaining areas. Everything was set against the background of clear blue skies, gentle breezes and a hot summer sun that shone every day.

The only ‘drama’ of my stay occurred on the first morning I was there alone. I came outside to check on the dogs, which were still a little sleepy and slow. Alfredo seemed a little strange, so I picked him up to see if he could stand and discovered a 20cm hedgehog spine sticking out of his neck. That was when the ‘responsibilities’ of house-sitting hit. I pulled the spine out and walked to the nearest English-speaking neighbour for help. Emma, originally from England, and her partner, Carlo, rushed me back to the house but, in their experienced opinion, dogs with hedgehog spines in their bodies were a common occurrence and Alfredo would be fine. He was. Next morning he was back to his happy self.

Every day managed to be different. Of course, a highlight was the food. Delicious olives, melt-in-the-mouth parmesan cheese, homegrown sundried tomatoes and regional salami featured heavily at first. But it was the fresh produce that won me over and set me on a new eating path.

Weekly markets in each village (different days for each village) meant that access to an extensive selection of fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables was easy. In fact, it was so fresh I found that simple dishes were best. Vine-ripened tomatoes, sliced and topped with Italian parsley or basil, with slivers of red onion, sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with olive oil, was a meal in itself. Panfried porcini mushrooms and garlic, with the almost-cooked pasta added to the pan for the final minutes, is heavenly. Pasta tossed with fresh rocket and cherry tomatoes … I could go on forever.

I spoke no Italian when I arrived, and had been told there were unlikely to be any English speakers in the village, so I had learnt some simple phrases via language CDs. The only language impasse occurred when a neighbouring farmer knocked on my door early one morning. He started to speak to me in Italian, I proudly told him in Italian that I was a friend of Giovanni’s but that I didn’t understand or speak Italian. He smiled at me, paused and continued to speak rapidly in Italian, with numerous hand gestures and pointing. I decided there was either a large snake in the next paddock or he wanted access to his land through Giovanni’s place. I nodded knowingly, he thanked me and we said goodbye. (Luckily it turned out to be the latter.)

At the end of the month, I was sad to leave. At the beginning of my adventure, I was sure I’d come away with as many cons as pros about my house-sitting adventure. But, scorpions aside, I can’t think of any reasons not to do it. House-sitting provided me with an experience of Italy I could never have known as a tourist.

Copyright © 2003 John Fairfax Holdings

Vicki Williams

About the author: Vicki Williams

Vicki Williams is a young Australian woman who likes to immerse herself in the cultures she visits. House sitting worldwide allows her to do this - with style!