The Dancing Bear

Russia is a dancing bear, appealing in its way;

but never to be trusted when it wants with you to play.

Keep it leashed and muzzled and you never will regret

its furry paws around you, as an appetizing whet. 

Whether with Assad or with some other grasping fool,

the bear gets all the honey while all we do is drool. 

Want Free Room & Board in a Gorgeous Mansion? Try House Sitting! by Susan Caba.

Babel

I am living the life of the rich and famous, although I am neither.

I’m following good weather and my whims around the country, moving from one luxury home to another. My accommodations last year have ranged from a mansion in Washington, D.C., around the corner from the home of former Senator John Glenn, to a woodsy retreat in Chapel Hill, N.C., to a sprawling Philadelphia condo with an exclusive Rittenhouse Square address.

At the moment, I’m living in a hillside house in Santa Barbara, Calif. The scarlet bougainvillea, attended by hummingbirds, competes for sunlight with the lavender blooms of jacaranda trees and spiky purple agapanthus in the garden. The Pacific is an indigo wedge on the horizon. I’ll swim a few lengths of the pool — no suit needed — before showering in a spa-like master bath with heated floors. For these two months, I’m driving a vintage white Mercedes nicknamed the Sugar Cube.

My cost for living in this Southern California splendor? Nothing. I tend three cats, feed a tank of fish and mist the Boston ferns in return for lodging. I’m a house sitter, part of a thriving network of full- or part-time vagabonds.

House-sitting is one more example of the upending of the travel industry by the combination of social networking and the sharing economy. The difference between house-sitting and companies like Couchsurfing — in which the person who owns the home is paid — is that no cash is exchanged. Neither I nor the homeowners I sit for spend any money.

I started house-sitting inadvertently, when an acquaintance in Santa Barbara wanted someone to mind her cats for two weeks. She had tapped out her family connections. I was already spending four to six weeks of every winter and summer — when the weather in St. Louis is either lethally cold or horrifically hot — in California, so I jumped at the chance. We’ve repeated the arrangement every year since, with the length of her vacations, and mine, gradually growing. That got me wondering about other house-sitting opportunities.

I listed my availability on Craigslist; no response. I considered contacting universities, looking for professors going on sabbatical, but that seemed like a lot of trouble. Eventually I Googled “house-sitting” and found several websites that registered ­homeowners and house sitters. They cost between $10 and $100 a year for membership, which gives you access to the listings.

Homeowners post descriptions of their homes and pets, as well as the dates they need a sitter, anywhere from a weekend to several months. Potential sitters provide a brief profile, any house-sitting experience, contact information and references. Reading the listings is like being addicted to gumdrops: Do I want three weeks in a house with a horse in Brittany, or a month in Costa ­Rica on an estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean?

After more research, I joined two sites: TrustedHouseSitters.com, a three-year-old organization based in Britain, and HouseCarers.com, based in Australia and in business since 2000. Both list house-sitting opportunities in the United States, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Continental Europe and, to a lesser extent, other places around the world.

Why, you may ask, would anyone entrust their home and possessions to strangers?

Some homeowners, especially those who will be gone a significant amount of time, just want their houses occupied as a security measure (statistically, an occupied house is safer than one left empty). That was the case for my stay in Washington. I arrived just after the last snowstorm, in April, and left before the onslaught of summer.

But pets are the reason for 80 percent of house-sitting arrangements, said Andy Peck, the founder of TrustedHouse­Sitters.com, who started out house-sitting on a multimillion-dollar estate in Spain.

“People want their pets to be comfortable, in their own environment,” he said. “From the sitter’s point of view, there are a lot of people who genuinely love looking after pets, especially while having a ‘staycation’ and enjoying luxury, sometimes decadent luxury, while living like a local in a fantastic place. It’s a win-win for both sides.”

So far, I’ve cared for cats, some fish and one dog. I get a lot of laughs reading the descriptions of required pet care, from clipping the nails of 13 indoor cats to nursing a diaper-wearing, diabetic dog through his final days while his owners jet off to Costa Rica. One homeowner sought care for “4 horses, 2 dogs, 8 cats and a pet pig who lives in the house, in addition to chickens and ducks and 2 very friendly goats.”

As for the trust issues, the websites don’t make any matches or vouch for the accuracy of the listings. It’s up to sitters and owners to find one another through the listings, then vet one another by exchanging emails, talking by Skype or telephone and, in some cases, meeting in person. The sites strongly encourage sitters to post references and even undergo police background checks. They provide sample agreements spelling out the responsibilities of both parties.

Retiring baby boomers and workers in the freelance economy who, like me, can do business anywhere with a laptop and a smartphone make up the primary supply of house sitters. Families looking to take interesting vacations during school holidays are another source. (Homeowners specify whether their property is suitable for children, and many encourage families.) The same groups are often looking for house sitters themselves.

There are risks on both sides of the arrangement. Besides theft or damage, there’s the possibility that sitters will cancel at the last minute, ruining expensive travel plans. Sitters, too, may face the unexpected. A friend of mine agreed to move into a Victorian house in Colorado for a month, only to find that one of the two dogs she’d be watching was a snarling hound of the Baskervilles.

My only mishap was being caught skinny-dipping — twice — in Santa Barbara. The Guatemalan pool guy unexpectedly changed his schedule so he could watch the World Cup. At least I was in the deep end.

Last year, I sold my house and unmoored myself from any one location, to indulge my wanderlust for a year. I’m already booked through February. I’ve had to pass on that house with the Pacific Ocean view in Costa Rica, a month in Boston’s Beacon Hill and a cottage in the Cotswolds. I’m beginning to think that a year might not be long enough.

Russia Invades Ukraine; Sen. Kelly Ayotte Demands U.S. Respond Quickly.

When disturbed, he always shoots first and asks questions later.
When disturbed, he always shoots first and asks questions later.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), a Senate Armed Services Committee member, released the following statement regarding U.S. policy toward Russia in the wake of Russia’s invasion of the Crimea:

“From Syria, to Snowden, to the Crimea, the administration’s “reset” with Russia is a failure. It’s urgent that we reset the reset policy. The administration’s weakness and accommodation toward Russia has only invited disdain and aggression from Putin. Putin’s actions in Crimea demonstrate a brazen disregard for international law, Russia’s prior commitments, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, as well as the statements and warnings of this administration. The time for administration statements and red lines is over.

“The U.S. should move without delay to inflict concrete consequences on Putin for his invasion and occupation of sovereign Ukrainian territory. At a minimum, the U.S. and our European allies should implement strong financial and diplomatic sanctions against the Putin regime, including asset freezes and visa bans. The administration should also make clear that the G-8 will not occur in Russia as long as Russian troops are occupying Ukrainian or Georgian territory. Instead, the administration should work to hold a G-7 summit in Europe or the United States.

“The U.S. should also make clear that it will stand with the people of Ukraine by working with our European allies to deliver a quick and reasonable IMF economic aid package to Kyiv, exploring the possibility of exporting significant quantities of U.S. natural gas to Ukraine, and providing increased assistance to the Ukrainian military.

“The administration should also revisit plans to further strengthen missile defenses in Europe.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte.