Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Pittsburgh couple's route to dream lifestyle is global house-sitting


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Some people have dream jobs, some have dream vacations. You would be lucky to have both, but dreams are all about interpretation. Pick one: three weeks in an Irish cottage with fowl responsibility, or a condo in Cancun?

Meet Jolene and James Patrick Dames, a couple who met on a movie set. They work, respectively, as a scene designer and a grip, and the work keeps them busy enough in Pittsburgh, where they live on Mount Washington.

Unlike most people — whose precious vacation weeks evaporate like water droplets in the thirsty desert of work — this couple takes off for weeks and months between work gigs that are sometimes even shorter. Their goal, in fact, is to turn the work/​vacation paradigm on its head.

Three years ago, they learned about an international subculture of people who house-sit and the people who accept them. Jolene Dames scoured online sources and found their first opportunity in Ballycastle, a 5,000-year-old town in County Mayo in western Ireland.

They have since stayed in other people’s homes throughout the United States, in France, Scotland and the Yucatan.

The Dameses have to get their own house-sitter when they leave, but it is a local friend. The house-sitting they do is not a house swap. And it is not the same as Airbnb, a website on which you can find homes for rent anywhere.

This is you doing a favor for a stranger — taking care of his home and pets, maybe watering plants, at no cost. There is no bonding to insure anyone and no way to be sure someone is trustworthy other than a rating system. Sometimes a property owner will interview a prospective house-sitter on Skype. Some negotiate an agreement with one email.

Mr. Dames said there are the usual red flags that have prompted them to turn down more house-sitting opportunities than they have taken. “You just trust your gut. And if it’s a lot of trouble, we don’t do it.”

In Ireland, there were ducks and chickens to take care of, but that was a great experience, they said.

“What is cool is that we have no idea where we’re going,” Ms. Dames said. “We flew into Dublin and got a car and drove four and a half hours to Ballycastle. We stopped in a little restaurant, Mary’s, and they knew we were there to watch the cottage. It was as if we were immediately locals.

“This was a place we never would have known about, but we saw 33 rainbows and lived near a neolithic site that’s the oldest field system in the world.”

Their original intent was to house-sit their way around the world, but work gigs have pulled them back, however briefly.

With the dream intact, they started the website The Globe Squatters, which offers links and advice for anyone to whom this way of vacationing might appeal.

Both natives of Pittsburgh, the Dameses said they feel like ambassadors on a different level, meeting local people who might not see many tourists but know something about Pittsburgh.

“We saw Steelers bars in Ireland,” Ms. Dames said.

“Even in the Yucatan, people asked us how the Steelers are going to do,” Mr. Dames said.

Mr. Dames has worked as a grip on movies for 22 years. His wife started working in film designing and painting sets in 2001. They worked together on local shoots for “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Avengers” and “Jack Reacher.” She worked on the set of “Southpaw,” which is in production now.

Although Mr. Dames works with cameras on movie sets and Ms. Dames is a set artist and designer, she is also a photographer and he is a painter. When they travel, they film their experiences. What seems like a fun lifestyle of travel is fun, they agree, but it is also part of a larger project that advances the work they do.

“When you do film work, you are working on somebody else’s dream,” Mr. Dames said. “We want to work on our own dream.”


Diana Nelson Jones; djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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