Queensland couple Neil McLean and Gai Reid journeyed to Europe to enjoy some authentic travel, ‘living like locals’. The result? They spent 300 days pet- and house-sitting their way across four countries, spending less than it would cost them to live at home. Plus they started a new business, Village to Villa – and even made a TV series about it!
The day finally arrived.
There is so much to see, so much to absorb and so much to admire in Paris, and we could have stayed there for weeks, exploring and getting to know the city more intimately.
But it was time to head further south, to our first house- and pet-sit.
The exact location was Coussac-Bonneval, near the famous city of Limoges in southwest-central France. Were we nervous? Slightly – I would rate it at ‘quite nervous’. Not about travelling to a rustic French farmhouse – more about negotiating the French freeways and, of course, driving on the 'other' side of the road!
A taxi to Orly Airport on the southern side of Paris was a snack. Airports the world over are similar in layout. The hire-car section and other services are usually well away from the main terminal/s.
The people at the hire-car place were friendly and spoke English well. The deal had been arranged from Australia with Peugeot – six months' hire at a reduced rate for tourists only. With the relatively simple paperwork signed off, it was the big moment to get behind the wheel.
With 40 years-plus experience driving, I initially went to the ‘wrong' side of the car. Everything seemed backwards – only the pedals were familiar!
I thought I’d be okay, but you seriously need to re-train your brain. My left hand kept hitting the driver’s door each time I wanted to change gears. “Oh no,” (plus a few desperate expletives) was what I uttered when I suddenly realised we were on the wrong side of the road!
Then, to add insult to injury, while trying to find our way out of the labyrinth of roads at the airport, we inadvertently went through a boom gate for ten euros and discovered we were in a freight terminal carpark. After scuffing a few gutters, we eventually found our way out on to the correct freeway.
The speed limit on French freeways is generally 130km/hour. A prolific stream of trucks travels in the right-hand lane at max 90km/hr. The best advice is to stay in the middle lane.
A French GPS works on co-ordinates, as opposed to British ones which use postcodes. Because the location of our house-sit was in a subdivided estate with dirt tracks off a minor road, it didn’t show up on the GPS. A set of directions – laden with physical landmarks – from the English owners was the only way we found it.
Meeting our host family was a real joy. Motoring up their driveway we were greeted by a delightful 300-year-old renovated stone cottage. It was semi-dream-like for us. Our first French sit! Handshakes and warm welcomes were punctuated by two energetic spaniels demanding attention. Rosie and Alfie were obviously dogs that enjoyed meeting new people.
Our owners showed us around their cute cottage and beautiful property with views across the valley to the large chateau in the nearby village. Wow. It was pinch ourselves time.
We had a couple of hours' orientation, learning about the dogs and the chickens. The two key routines for the delightful working spaniels were eating and walking. The chickens were simple to care for and interesting to interact with. Alfie was one of those dogs that hoovered his food at lightning speed and then looked for more, while Rosie preferred a more leisurely pace. then, the owners were off on their two-week holiday, leaving us in charge.
Our first outing later that day was to a nearby town called St Yrieix, to stock up at the supermarket. With the dogs secured in their large heated indoor space, the 25km round trip took about two hours. By then end it was getting dark and we were anxious to return home.
But then, we couldn’t find it.
Because we had come from another direction, we couldn’t find the farmhouse – or even the turnoff that lead to it! Gulp. What to do? The dogs were locked inside, we had groceries including frozen stuff and we didn’t even have a copy of the address.
Panic started to creep in as we realised that there was no one to ask for help – and even if we could find someone to ask, our French was très bad. Without an address we were facing the real possibility of sleeping in the car. A clear head was needed.
Then we remembered how we found the cottage in the first place – via a landmark-laden mud map from the owners. We didn't have it with us, but the memory of using it only that morning was still fresh in our minds. So we decided to retrace our steps,enter the village the way we had when we first arrived, and then follow the original clues.
Voilà. Despite the sun going down quickly, we recognised a small monument which was the correct turn off. Yahoo! We were – literally – on the right track, and breathed a huge sigh of relief as we spotted the driveway to the cottage, our lovely new home.