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Stories I

Adventures in house-sitting

by Leslee

When the ‘new’ part of the house you’re minding was built circa 1825, the pipes are frozen, the water turned off, and the steam-fed oil furnace is on the blink what can a good friend and house sitter do? Call the nice man to fix the furnace of course! (He’s cute but he reeks of oil.) Luckily for Leslee, heat rises and dogs are warm-blooded mammals (good for snuggling).

25 May 2004
Adventures in house-sitting part 1

This week while my friends Amy and Paul are vacationing at a villa in Tuscany I’m home minding the castle at their 225-year-old house in Massachusetts. Nice house, but quirky. Amy left me a full page of notes, instructions, and idiosyncrasies such as ‘if the washing machine moves forward, lift it to replace or the legs will rip off’ and ‘have items in ziploc bags (in kitchen drawers) because there are mice’! (Actually, I’m at my own house today and tomorrow – never mind, it’s complicated.)

I drove up to their place yesterday afternoon, picked up their yellow lab, Sienna, from the kennel and got her situated. Then I ran out to the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner. I’d had a frantic day of packing, finishing up work, and unsuccessfully trying to get AOL installed on my laptop so Id be able to get dialup access when I got to their house. So that evening I figured futzing around in the kitchen making dinner would help me unwind and make me feel at home.

But then there was the problem of finding things in someone else’s kitchen. I had some chicken breast tenders, an onion and some garlic, a bag of baby spinach, a jar of roasted red peppers and some penne. Simple enough. Except the onions burned while I was trying to figure out where in hell they keep their salt and pepper. Also, I haven’t used a gas stove in awhile. Dinner didn’t turn out badly at all, though it wasn’t as relaxing as I thought it would be. I also never figured out where they keep the plastic bags that are so necessary against mice, so a few leftover items went in the fridge as-is.

After dinner, it took me over an hour and a half either on hold or on the phone with AOL and Dell before I could get onto the Internet. My 16-year-old godson (I’m also supposed to be chaperoning) came home around 9:30pm while I was still on the phone. I coulda used him earlier when (a) I was looking for stuff around the house and (b) when I was trying to figure out which AOL access numbers needed to use the local area code and which didn’t – my dialup kept getting the operator no matter what I did.

Sunday 30 January 2005
Continued adventures in house-sitting

The house is 226 years old, the old part of the house anyway. The newer part was added on some 25 years later. When was indoor plumbing installed? Maybe a hundred years ago? The downstairs bathroom is currently torn up, waiting for the workmen to finish replacing the toilet and sink. The joke is that anyone sitting on the last toilet might have been sorely surprised to find themselves suddenly in the basement. Sore indeed. There were signs on the doors to the living room and dining room that read, ‘Please keep this door shut!’ This was Amy’s attempt to keep the workmen’s dirt and plaster confined to the hallway and the kitchen, through which they have to walk to get to the tiny downstairs bathroom.

On this one-night, dog-sitting stay, the water wasn’t running in the kitchen sink, not because of the bathroom renovation project but because the pipes had frozen beneath the back part of the house. They were supposed to have been newly insulated, but that particular project hadn’t been completed either. However, a brand new gas stove had been installed in the kitchen and in the living room a new ceramic heater stove was installed in front of new stone tiles covering the back chimney. In the five years they’ve lived in the house I can’t imagine how much money they’ve put into it, much of it necessary like the new roof and various plumbing and heating renovations. Still, the house is undoubtedly solid, remaining standing for more than two centuries.

Amy had called me yesterday morning to warn me about the water being off. Fortunately the upstairs bathroom in the old part of the house had water running. She suggested I might not want to cook – I was supposed to be there by 6pm to let the dog out – but plates of course could go in the dishwasher. So I packed a couple of frozen burritos to bring down and I reheated them in the oven in some aluminum foil. As always, there was yummy wine in the house since Paul’s into wine. So I finished off the Chianti they left on the counter to wash down my burritos.

And as always, Sienna was a love. We went for a nice half-hour walk this morning as the sunshine and 40ºF temperatures melted the snow on the roads, making for lots of muck and slush to track into Amy’s kitchen!

I’ll be returning for another week’s stay in late February when Amy and Paul go back to Tuscany for vacation.

Thursday 3 March 2005
Old houses

Old houses are freezing. I got here on Saturday evening and by Monday I started wearing long underwear under my jeans, along with double thick socks under my ballet-style slippers, and I wear either a sweatshirt or a fleece over my top. Plus I’m usually wrapped in one of the down-filled throws from the couch in the family room. This is with the heat ON – oil heat in the old part of the house (built in 1779) and gas heat in the ‘new’ part (circa 1825). I know about the heating discrepancy because when I got back from walking the dog today at around 5.30, the heat was out in the front of the house. I called the oil company and they sent a guy out right away. (Very cute, too, although I must say he rather reeked of oil.)

Turns out it’s some kind of steam-fed oil furnace that works ‘just like the ones they have on ships’ the guy said, and the water had run out. Easy to fix; just refill. Last year my friends had me perform some ritualistic ministrations on the ‘beast in the basement’ once during the week I was here, apparently to flush the water and get new water into it, but this year Amy assured me I didn’t have to do anything to it. It may be that it’s been colder than expected, or that I’ve had the heat blasting so much in an attempt to warm my skinny ass that I ran the thing out of water.

Speaking of skinny, I have wanted nothing more to do than eat all week. My body is desperately trying to put on more layers of fat to keep warm. That’s what I figure. I think it’s succeeding. Or maybe it’s just the layer of long underwear that’s making me feel fat? God, I hope so.

There is one room that is warm: the guest bedroom. It’s the only room with wall-to-wall carpet (thank you thank you) and a down comforter. The wide-beam wood floors in the old part of the house are beautiful, but cold. The guest bedroom also has the advantage of being in the middle of the house and all the heat travels there. Which means that at night the heat (or heats) must be turned way down or the bedrooms upstairs will roast.

So this morning I came downstairs and the kitchen – the room I would most like to work in (sunny, lots of table room, cooking possibilities right at hand) was a drafty 52° F. Cold air was streaming in through the space where the outside door was left ajar by my godson. The door only stays shut if the deadbolt is latched with a key (left conveniently hanging from the lock on the inside) and he invariably never bothers to lock it. The kitchen is probably the coldest room in the house, cold windows, cold counter and porcelain sink surfaces, cold floor. So I’ve been working upstairs this week in the office room at the front of the house. It’s sunny and slightly warmer by virtue of being upstairs. Heat does rise. But it is still drafty. Things could, of course, be worse. But I am so looking forward to going home on Saturday. And then to be in sunny, warm Mexico in a couple of weeks.


About the author: Leslee

Leslee is a freelance corporate writer for projects such as interactive training and marketing programs. She works from her home in Central Massachusetts. After several stints house sitting for friends, she is exploring the possibility of house sitting as a way to combine her love of travel with the flexibility afforded by her freelance writing work. She also writes regularly for her weblog, 3rd House Party, as a creative outlet and a means for connecting with online friends around the world. The 3rd house in astrology is associated with writing, conversation, personal thoughts, day-to-day things, siblings and neighbors.