Anyone will talk about their pet or the animals they care about. If someone has a pet, I really believe that it is innately built into them to want to talk about it, getting that sparkle in their eye and becoming more animated as they think about their pup or kitty waiting them back at home. I learned during some recent trips abroad that this is also a great way to start to talk to local residents. What better way to bond than over a safe, happy subject. It’s more interesting than the war in Iraq and less threatening than "hey, how-are-ya?"
It was in Montepulciano that I first tried to break the ice with a resident by bringing her dog into the conversation. An elderly lady was sitting on a bench in the square with her cane in one hand and the end of a leash in the other. At the other end of that leash was a medium-sized (read: not threatening) mottled black and white mutt, of no specific breeding and with a set of teeth he was raring to use. As I approached her, I asked her in Italian "what is his name?" and she responded. As I reached down to pet him, the mutt snapped at me and the lady tugged hard on the leash in reprimand. And then came forth a lengthy story in Italian about said mutt, although I’m unsure of the details of the story because, while my Italian is good, I wasn’t quite prepared for more than his name itself. But she smiled, patted the pup on the head and I wished her a good day. And we went on our separate ways.
On a subsequent trip to Italy, I was really missing my cat and it was only the second day of the trip. I can cure most symptoms of homesickness, but not missing my boy. I can’t call him, email him or hear his voice to make me miss him any less. So stopping by the cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina in Rome was probably not the smartest move I could have made. The cats there are obviously well-tended to. While they don’t have the firm, round, bulging belly of any of the well-fed cats in my family, they looked clean, well-kept and safe. Some were missing bits of tail or paws from past troubling encounters, but the nearby shelter was doing its darn best to keep them alive and well. And it appeared to be a success judging by the way these cats lolled about the ruins of the Senate where Julius Caesar was assassinated. My lingering at the cat sanctuary ended up being more significant than seeing Caesar's final destination in this life and appreciating the fact that these amazing ruins st ill stood amidst a modern city block. Upon entering the shelter, the tell-tale smell of "shelter" hit me and the tears started to well in my eyes. Inside here, under the sidewalk of Rome, more cats waiting to be adopted and loved wandered about with the run of the place. One, a tiger a bit too thin for my liking but with a striking resemblance to my boy, started to follow me around, a reminder of who I'd left behind at home. A volunteer at the shelter came up to me and when she smiled at me, I began to cry in earnest...
"You do such good work," I said.
"Thank you. Do you miss your cat?" she replied, to which I could only nod in the affirmative.
"Ah....," she said, "when did he die?"
"He didn't die, I left him at home yesterday," I said, feeling a bit foolish for being so emotional only 36 hours after leaving home. But she put her arm around me and said,"many people come here when they are missing their cats at home. It is good that you love him so much." And with that, she introduced me to some of her favorite feline residents. I ended up buying a potholder and wooden statue of a cat and told the volunteer to keep the change from my 50 euro bill. Those cats were going to eat on my dime (or euro) that night. It was all I could do to make myself feel as if the visit at the shelter wasn't wholly selfish.
On that same trip, I came across a cute little grey and white guy who was mewing and mewing his way around a street in Trastevere. An elderly woman was talking to him as I approached. I asked her in Italian if it was her cat and she replied "Non, non ha casa" (No, he doesn't have a home). And then she said what absolutely broke my heart..."Ha fame" (He's hungry). So I asked her what he eats, as I'd just passed a shop about 2 blocks back.
She replied, "Mortadella". Well, I want to feed this cat, but no way is a homeless cat eating mortadella (although I suspect it's cheaper in Italy proper than it is at home!) So I told the old lady to wait with him and off I went, returning to the shop. I grabbed a foil pack of cat food off the shelf and paid at the counter, refusing a sack since it was for the cat just outside. I hurried back and peeled back the foil, dumping the food on the ground for the cat. The old lady smiled and wandered off. The cat devoured about half and then a second larger cat appeared. Another neighbor appeared and fed the second cat "the cheap stuff" and admonished me for buying the good, expensive stuff. Agreeing that it was rather expensive, I smiled and picked up the empty packet and turned to throw it out in a barrel a few doors behind me. When I walked back that way, my little grey and white friend was across the street working an American couple strolling up the other side, mewing and mewing and breaking their hearts. Apparently, he's an accomplished performer.
Perhaps this is an inherited trait of mine. My very own mother spent our day in Pompeii walking around the ancient ruins and turning on the faucets for the homeless dogs. It started with one and then word apparently spread that the lady from America was turning on the water. And the dogs, they began to come from miles around. At one point, she looked like the Pied Piper of Pompeii, with a circus of dogs following her from tap to tap. I'm fairly certain they liked the attention more than the actual watering itself, and I think my mother did as well. Pompeii's water bill may have suffered a bit that month for her efforts though. And on her first trip abroad, my sister and I made a point of photographing all of the cats we saw in Holland, each of which seemed to be living a life more like our cats at home than those cats in the sanctuary in Rome. We saw one sitting all tall and proud behind a lace curtain in a lofty suburb of Amsterdam and another on a table in a closed empty resta urant, and neither would nod his head or shift his eyes at us in acknowledgment. Ah yes, cats are the same everywhere, with their lofty pretenses and affinity for posing for photos.
I'm convinced that the cats I encounter really do enjoy being doted on like I do. In Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, there was a tortie cat walking around the ramparts on his own, and he came right toward me when I said "How's the big boy doing?" Maybe he doesn't understand English per se, but the tone of voice and affection it implies is enough to get him change his course and come to me for a pat. And it does me good as well, because if I'm 3000 miles from my own four footed friend, I can get the same unquestioning purr from a furry friend abroad and it almost makes me miss my boy just a little bit less. Almost.