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Professional Housesitting with Susanne Hillmer
Episode 3125th May 2022 • AudaciousNess • AudaciousNess
00:00:00 00:49:50

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Susanne Hillmer grew up in Germany and since 2014 has been living a nomadic lifestyle, having travelled and worked in Australia, Europe and India. She started by offering her services as a professional house- and pet-sitter and now combines housesitting with living out of a campervan, financing her lifestyle with online training. In this interview, Susanne shares with us:

  • what professional housesitting is and what type of person it’s suited to 
  • how she pivoted her career to enable her to work from any location
  • why she chooses a life which constantly pushes her out of her comfort zone
  • how she explains her lifestyle to people who question her choices
  • how she never feels loneliness despite being alone

Susanne’s website is www.50 plus-travel-live.com, where you can find out more about what she does and even contact her if you feel inspired to join Susanne on her travels! 

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Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcripts

Helen:

Hello, Susanne, and thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us for our podcast AudaciousNess. Now when I met you, which was just a few months ago in winter time in the northern hemisphere here, you were living in a campervan in Spain, which I thought was really quite cool and actually quite audacious, an audacious thing to do in this modern society, I think. And then as I got to know you a little bit more, I learned that you actually live quite a nomadic lifestyle anyway, that you have lived in other locations and travelled around. So I wonder if you could say something about, give us a little rundown, a brief history of your life, and in particular, about the places that you've lived and some of the audacious things that you've done there.

Susanne:

Thank you, Helen. Nice to meet you here. Well, I think I have this nomadic gene in my blood, even though I'm German. I decided very early that I want to be a travel agent. So my first job was actually being a travel agent. And then in the 90s, I was working for an airline and I could travel for free. At these times we were able to travel everywhere we wanted to. We had free tickets. Anyway, this was in a way my lifestyle getting into some years behind that. So I got self-employed in 2003 and then I had some years no money, I couldn't travel really very much. I had to stay at home. I was living at the time in Munich. And then in 2015 my business changed. I developed my business into a digital business like online trainings, and people were looking at me and saying, ‘How can you do online training? Normally you stand in front of people.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, I want to change it. I want to travel again.’ And then I still didn't have all the money that you need for long-haul travel, going abroad for a long time. So I met a friend of mine and she was going on a world trip for a year. And she told me that she did housesitting and I said, ‘What’s that? I’ve never heard about that, especially not in Germany.’ And she said, ‘Well, I look after other people’s houses and animals when they're on holiday.’ I said, ‘Oh, that's cool. I'd love that. I love animals.’ So I'm pretty brave, so why not? So I asked her, ‘How can I do that?’ And she said, ‘Well, you have to do some research.’ At that time it was really difficult. It was 2014 or 15. And then I found some pages and I started to build up a profile. I was professional anyway in online networking, so it was not difficult for me to find my marketing strategy for having a profile as a housesitter. So that was quite okay. And I started to apply and I said, ‘Well, first thing I want to do I want to go far, far away, as far as I can.’ So I went to Australia. I had my first housesit in 2015 in Australia, on the east coast. And as a housesitter you make a lot of experience and the first thing I found out is working at night it's not my thing, because my customers in Germany, they were definitely not at this time schedule like in Australia. So I said, ‘Oh, maybe you have to move from the East Coast to the West Coast.’ So the next winter I started housesitting in Perth. And then, it was always difficult because without a car in Australia you’re lost. So I said, ‘How can I get a car?’ So I had to apply for housesits with big dogs, because then they gave me a car to move the dog to the beach or to the park or whatever. So then I was dependent on cars, not a good idea, and then three years later somebody just gave me his car for free. He said, ‘Yes, you can keep it. I don't need it anymore. Here you are. You have a car.’ So I had a car in Australia. So I started professionally doing housesitting then in wintertime. I built up my network, applied to a lot of housesits, I had many many housesits in Australia. A lot of catastrophes I had to deal with, not only nice dogs, not only nice houses, not only nice experiences, a lot of bullshit you have to deal with actually. And then in 2019 I came back to Germany saying, ‘Ah, okay, maybe I have enough from my apartment. I’ll just sell it.’ And after 20 years, I sold my apartment. I don't know, it's just a feeling thing. It was never a plan. It was never in my itinerary saying I sell my property. But I just couldn't stand it anymore. It was after Australia, the winters there, it was so narrow, so small, so no, I couldn't do this anymore. I sold it. And then in 2019 I said, ‘Okay, before I go to Australia, back to my car and my housesits, I go to India, do a little bit nice treatments over there, ayurvedic treatments. And then I went to Australia and had some wonderful housesits there and then COVID hit me. Not me personally, but I was hit in Australia and that was not the best thing to be at that time. People got crazy. They locked their doors. All hotels were closed. Everything was closed. No campgrounds, nothing. I didn't know where to go. I was pushed out of the houses from one minute to the other. I wasn't able to leave the country. The airport was closed. Well, that's a new challenge. But happily I had some German friends over there. After four winters in a row you meet people and you make friends and they helped me out and then I found an apartment to rent and then I was thinking, ‘Oh well, probably I'm not able to go back to Australia for a short period of time. So maybe a longer period I might have to buy a campervan.’ And it was overnight, I can tell you, I just went on the internet and the next day I bought a campervan. The money was there, it was on my bank account waiting to do something with that. I bought a campervan. Never been camping before, never ever my life, only short trips in Australia. I came back to Germany, got my camper van from the seller and then I thought, okay, maybe a new experience, but I still need some spot where I can live so I bought an apartment in North Germany from one day to the other. Everything I tell here is just the decision of minutes. It's never planned. It was never strategically planned or so. It was just a stomach decision, you can say. Okay, I bought an apartment, I got the campervan, I moved everything I have left up here. At the moment I'm in the north here. And then we were locked up, everybody for a couple of months. We couldn't move anywhere. So I felt like being in prison. I wanted to be in Australia. I couldn't be anywhere. I felt like they're killing me. I can't do this. I need to get out of here. I can't stay in my apartment. And I felt something in myself exploding, saying, ‘No, never, not with me, I’m not going to obey!’ I took my campervan in March and drove through the whole country through Austria. They were fighting. They were on the borders with guns and tanks and everything, they didn't want to let me and I said, ‘I'm transit, you have to let me in.’ So I was the only one possibly crossing the country at that time. And the military was stopping me all the time. I think four times I was stopped in about six hours. And I went down to Croatia because I couldn't stand it anymore in the north part of Germany. So I went down to Croatia and it was like coming to heaven. They were all saying, ‘Hey, welcome! A tourist’s coming!’ At least I stayed a couple of months on a campground, on different campgrounds and tried to work online which was not a problem because the internet connection is very good and in Croatia. I had my LTE antenna on my rooftop. And then summer when everybody was able to go travelling, I moved back home because they were coming down like millions of people going down south and I went up the other way. And then I said, ‘Oh well okay, summer here is nice, but I have to go again. I have to leave. I can't stay here.’ I don't know, something in myself says keep on moving. I don't know why but I have to keep on moving. So I started in September, just knowing I can go wherever I want to go and not knowing where to stay or what to do and so on. And meanwhile some people were already looking for housesitters again in Europe. Very few people, very brave people because most of the people were stuck at home and not travelling. I said, ‘Okay, if I can apply for a housesit I might try that in between being in a campervan. So I applied to some housesits in France and some in Spain and I got some, really nice people, really nice housesits, very remote. And so I combine, I live online, I work online, I have my daily routine. I travel with my camper, or I go to a housesit. So it's a mixture between doing both. And so on the road I was seven months. It was longer than I expected but it was the coldest winter in my life. I never had such a cold winter like that one. I didn't expect South Europe to be that cold in winter. I mean, of course you can heat the camper but at night it gets really really cold, even if you put up the heater you have to fill the gas every week and stuff like that. It's really tough. It's a cold wind and the sun is not high enough to fill up the solar panels. So it's a lot of things you have to work through at that moment I never experienced before. And because I basically go off grid, I don't follow the tourism paths where the people go and all the retired people are not there. I thought, ‘Well what can I do? Where can I stay? Where can I be, not being with the other normal tourists?’ Because I don't figure myself as a normal person even though I'm 56. So I started looking at Facebook and I found groups saying, ‘If you help for one or two hours a day on our farm you can stay here for free.’ So I started cutting olive trees, I started helping in farms, I started even creating an online shop for somebody. So I did funny things and met a lot of interesting people by staying at the places in my campervan and helping them with projects.

Helen:

Thank you. Thank you very much for that Susanne. Wow, what a brave person you are! And you are doing this all on your own?

Susanne:

Yeah. No animals with me. Some people prefer to have animals with them but I don’t have them..

Helen:

There's a lot of questions coming up for me in terms of how you made those decisions. You said they were very quick, but I just want to go back to the whole topic of housesitting because you're a professional housesitter. This, I guess, is a job now. I wonder if you could explain it to anybody who doesn't know what a professional housesitter does? What is it about? You mentioned a little bit about helping on a farm, but what else is involved in that?

Susanne:

Well, housesitting is nothing that you’re paid for. Worldwide there are organisations on web pages. You never get paid for it. You pay for your fee from the web page, but you never get any payment from the house owners. The thing that you get is free accommodation, that’s all. You have to pay for your travel expenses, you have to pay for your food, you don't get anything else. So what are the expectations? Basically it’s looking after the animals, the garden, the pool, the post, the security, so actually you're full time responsible like in your own house. And if you're not mature enough and you don't speak the language and you're not able to deal with circumstances, you are the wrong person. And if you're not brave, you are the wrong person. If you are not adventurous, you are the wrong person. Because you find a lot of circumstances you never think about before. Housesitting is really only for people that are very mature and able to deal with circumstances, like I had no electricity, the pool flooding, fire in places, animals being sick. Maybe you have to kill an animal, if you are somewhere in the outback, which I had. I had to look after two horses and two dogs and she gave me her gun. The first thing she said, ‘Look, this is a gun. You do some shots just in case one of the animals gets bitten by a snake please kill the animal. Don't call for the doctor.’ So these are things you have to be able to do and you don't have to be scared to jump into circumstances that you never have met before.

Helen:

And so is there an international network of people sharing, people who have houses to offer and people who want to housesit?

Susanne:

It's not a network, it's actually companies that already took over. In the beginning it was a network, now it's companies taking over and providing professional pages. So you have pages especially for North America, for South America, for Australia, for Europe, you have international pages but we had a really big problem with housesitting. I mean, when I was talking about housesitting like I did before COVID I could apply for a housesit and I had maybe a 50/50 chance to get it because maybe four or five people were applying. But now when you apply for a housesit you have about a 10% chance to get it because there are not many people travelling, or even if they travel, they are very scared. And they don't take sitters that have to come by plane or so because they never know would they ever reach them or not. So it's very difficult to get a housesit if you're not flexible in transport. And if for example you have to look after 4, 5, 6 dogs or whatever you cannot do it alone. I would never apply for a housesit like that because you have only two hands, you have only this capacity to do that and I have to work online as well. So you can't look for a big bunch of big family. You have to be a couple. So some people prefer couples, and some people prefer singles. But basically, female singles, and there's quite a lot out there, not everybody's capable to look after, for example, like I do for horses. Most of them can't do that because they have no experience in horse care and horse riding or whatever. So you have to have a life experience with animals and with houses of course. It's a very big tough job and it's not holiday. People say, ‘Oh I make holiday. Look, I do housesitting.’ No, it's not holiday. It's a big responsibility.

Maribel:

So what does it give you? What is the mission behind that kind of travelling?

Susanne:

That's a good question. I very often get this question, ‘Why do you do that? Why don't you just sit at home? Just enjoy your life.’ For me a life is vibrant if I can feel my life, if I'm into situations that are not daily routine. I love to challenge myself and I love to step out of the comfort zone because I know when I manage that, nothing can happen that will follow that I cannot manage. And I had really weird situations but I managed them and I know in panic situations where most people get panic, I cool down. I get very very cool and it's like, ‘Okay, count to 10 then panic. It’s not the right moment to panic, just find the situation out here.’ And I know talking to myself, talking to my inner voice, I find a solution out of that. And why do I do that? Because I like to feel myself being alive. That's the reason why I do it. That's the only reason. Not only visiting different countries, seeing other areas, it's more like, I like to feel myself being alive.

Maribel:

And from all these experiences, so you've been travelling for the past 8-10 years, what are the most important things that you've learned that you could share with us?

Susanne:

The most important thing, I think, is to go over the moment of fear, because you have moments where you are in fear. I had the situations quite a few times in the campervan because I'm off grid, I don't stay in comfortable zones like camping areas or so and you have noises at night. You have things that happen at night. You don't see what's actually happened and I had situations where I said, ‘Shit! What's that?’ Fire next to me, big explosions, shit, what's happening?! You don't see anything. It's mist all around. So jump in front of the wheel in your nightshirt, not even shoes on and just go, just move. So the moments that you can't really say what's happening the next day. You don't know what's happening the next moment, you just have to trust yourself. And being very connected with myself because I'm not stuck in any conversation with people sitting next to me. Like when you travel as a couple you talk about this and that. I don't do that. I'm very, very concentrated on exploring what's happening outside of me and inside of me. And this is basically what I can give everybody, if you want to listen to yourself, you have to listen to your surroundings and then you feel exactly what your feeling is. And to overcome those feelings, it's a technique, it's only a technique because I know I create the feeling. And if I know I create the feeling I can discreate that. Because it comes out of me. Nobody else did it. It's mine. And this is the main process I go through when I'm in situations which I didn't see before and I’ve had those situations, of course.

Helen:

And do you think then, Susanne, that this connection with yourself has allowed you to make those instant decisions that you talked about at the beginning when you said you just bought this campervan, you sold one apartment and bought another one without hardly even thinking about it. Is that something that you wouldn't have done previously? It would have been a long process to think about it and has this changed you?

Susanne:

I think the older I got, the more adventurous I got. When you're younger you do things not thinking about it, you just do it because you don't have any bad experience in life. So you just do it. But big decisions that have to do with money or with changing the area where you choose to live. Or not to live. The older you get, the more inside your comfort zone you are. You usually don't do that because you have to ask your friends, your family, blah blah blah. I don't have all of this so I just can ask myself and question myself. And it doesn't make it better if I think about it. If I make a list — positive, negative blah, blah, blah — takes me too much time. And deciding from one moment to the other was basically listening to my inner voice. And I trust my inner voice. It always knows the best thing, even though I don't see the result now. I maybe know it in two years or three years why I did that step. And being in the camper last winter in Spain and having this mixture between not very much comfort down there because the houses were cold, the camper was cold but I could open the door and I was out and I was in sunny regions. I could at least have the sun for a couple of hours. I could go for a walk. I was free. Nobody was asking me where to go, what to do. And this made it worth doing. So I knew a half year later why I did it. I bought the campervan to have this moment of free liberty living, which I definitely wouldn't have had if I would have stayed where I am in my apartment and just lived my ordinary life. Nothing of that would have happened.

Maribel:

You say you are in constant conversation with your inner voice and you listen to yourself and to your gut feeling and that's how you make decisions. So is loneliness a foreign concept to you?

Susanne:

Well, loneliness and being alone is something totally different. Loneliness is a feeling of, ‘I feel lonely, there's nobody else.’ I never have this feeling. And being alone is a decision in the moment of travelling. Of course, I would love to have somebody to travel with, with his own camper and share experiences. Yeah, why not? But as long as this person is not in my life, I travel alone, but I never feel lonely. Because there's so much around me. You just have to go out and open your ears and you hear the insects, you hear the birds, you hear maybe the wind through the trees or whatever. You are not alone. You are surrounded by so many things. You have just to feel them again, not being observed by different things like television or whatever you spend your time with all the time. Of course I have to do my work and of course I'm online and of course I need my computer and I work with that. But in the meantime, I try to connect with nature. I don't feel lonely in that moment because I feel blessed to be in nature and have so many possibilities to explore these areas. And if I do housesit, the animals push me out. This is another reason why I do housesitting because if I have dogs, they want to go out twice a day. And they don't accept anyone saying, ‘Oh today's raining. I don't want to.’ I need to go out. Let’s go out here. The animals push me away from the computer. This is the reason why I love housesitting because they give me the reason to move my ass out of the room and go out. Even the horses, go out and work with horses or go horseriding or whatever. The cats would come and cuddle at night. That's nice. So I'm not really alone. And like you always know it's only in our brain. We are always surrounded by so many things in life, even with other people. If I want to communicate I walk to the neighbour and talk to them. If I don't want to, I don't need to.

Helen:

Talking about other people, Susanne, what do other people think of your lifestyle? And does that have any influence on how you live your life?

Susanne:

Well, I was always a little bit different. I think from my childhood on my mother always said, ‘Where’s our daughter? She's not there where she should be.’ I was somewhere else talking to other people. My lifestyle is different, but in the moment, because I decided to make it more public to my community as well, they participate in that and they're asking me questions, and they're really interested in how I do it, why I do it. And in the beginning, I didn't dare to talk too much about it. So I did hide a little bit saying, I'm just travelling but don't tell you what I do. But now it's normal to talk about it. And even my customers who are in really big, big companies are interested and the first thing when they see me again, they ask me, ‘Where are you? Can you open your camera? Tell us something about where you are.’ So it's getting more and more normal in a way that the more normal I treat it, the more normal that people can take it. And I found out that if I hide too much, it's not a good thing. Of course not my personal things, but hiding means like being in a campervan or doing a housesit or whatever. So the more normal it is for me, the more normal it is for them. And then it's like being a role model. I had some of my trainees asking me, ‘Really? You're working from a camper? This is my big dream! We have to talk one to one. I want to know more.’ Me, as a senior female traveller, which is really like being a role model, like grandmothers telling you how to do this.

Helen:

I love that! The more normal you view it yourself and the more normal you talk about it, the more normal it appears for other people. That's a nice way of dealing with it. So you mentioned you've got clients there, so I guess this is how you're financing your lifestyle, you do online work?

Susanne:

Yeah, I do this since many years and it's working quite well. I mean, it has its ups and downs like normal business has, but I'm professional in one way. This is working for me very well. I do my online trainings. I have every day trainees coming in and people scheduling me and this works very well. But this works only because it's an online community. So it's online community business, online working. And this was the step I was deciding to take in 2009. I decided to do that. And I was the first in Germany doing it and then I continued developing it and putting it more digital. And then I started to do housesitting. So this was the process bringing my business into digital business.

Helen:

And how do you see your life developing, if that's not too big a question? I mean, your decisions are very last minute, like whatever comes up next I’ll deal with it. But do you have some kind of plan?

Susanne:

At the moment my big plan is to get back to Australia in winter. I was looking at a post three days ago, somebody telling me I can get into Australia going via Queensland. They're not asking for any vaccination passport so I can go, which is good for me, a good sign that things are going to develop in Australia because my car's waiting for me, my little old car. And I want to see my friends again. And the bigger plan is I would love to find a travel partner, somebody being with his own campervan and just having a lifestyle like me because it's nice to travel with two people. I experienced this with a friend of mine. She has a van like me and we were having some good times together in spring last year. And it was nice, she was working in her camper, I was working in my camper and for lunchtime we said okay, today I do something or she does something or we sit outside the campers and had lunch together. We had a coffee together, we chat a little bit and then everybody went back the camper working. And at night, ‘Okay, let's go out for a drink or let's go for a walk or we do some yoga in the morning.’ So it's nice to have somebody being close but not that close in my camper. I wouldn't like that, it’s not too big! But at least a travel partner who has the same lifestyle, works online, loves to travel. That would be something I would really love to have, but I can't order him at the universe. I mean I tried yesterday but…

Helen:

So if this perfect person, Susanne, is listening to this podcast and would like to get in touch with you, how would he or she do that?

Susanne:

Oh, that’s not so easy!

Helen:

You’re on LinkedIn, I guess?

Susanne:

Yes, but I would prefer my private housesitter page, which is my private life so I wouldn't do this on the professional way because that’s business and this just private stuff. I can send you my link to my web page www.50plus-travel-live.com, which is my housesitter page.

Helen:

Okay, we'll put that in the show notes, Susanne, and maybe someone will get in touch with you.

Susanne:

They can find me on LinkedIn as well, but business is different than this life.

Helen:

Okay, we've got one more question to ask you, Susanne, and that's to do with the name of our podcast, which is AudaciousNess. And the audacious part relates to you having the audacity to do the thing that you do in the first place. And the word ‘ness’ actually has an archaic meaning which refers to a spit of land which juts out into the sea and remains strong and standing, no matter what the elements and the weather is throwing at it. So our final question to you is, what is it that keeps you strong and standing, gives you the solid grounding to continue, despite everything that life throws at you?

Susanne:

That's a really good question. I was thinking of the lighthouse that I use as my banner picture because the lighthouse has to stand there as well, being there and sending signals. What does it do? Well, I can't really tell you, it's a trust in myself. It's a trust that I know I find everything I can deal with. So there's a lot that I had to go through in my life. Of course we have all our stories, and the more difficult the experience was and the deeper and more painful the experience was, the more it made me stand up. And well, I don't need this experience anymore, they were enough in the former time, but I think only living in a surrounding that's nice and easy and comfortable and blah blah blah doesn't really strengthen you. It's like with the muscles. If you don't train the muscles you don't have muscles. So I feel quite trained in surviving and having a lifestyle that's maybe unusual, and this centers me. So I trust myself. I know I can do this. And if I don't know exactly how to do that, I know whom I can ask.

Helen:

That’s a lovely response. Thank you so much, Susanne. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed speaking to you in this conversation. Thank you.

Susanne:

Thank you very much.

Maribel:

Thank you.

Helen:

And good luck with the next stage of your life.

Susanne:

Thank you very much. You too, same to you.

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