ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Settling into the Italian countryside means coping with a multitude of new experiences. Much will depend on the condition of your new environment, let alone the state of the roof over your head. If the building is waterproof you may rest contented, with the wilderness called a garden having to wait until the plumbing works and the lamps stop flickering when you turn the toaster on.
Of course, you will soon realize you are not alone, overrun by Gecko’s indoors, with lizards, scorpions and a motley crew of rodents outdoors. Most of these will be disposed of in time, but the Gecko’s will remain hidden in the attic or post box, a silent warning to the less than vigilant that nature is lapping at your door like the waves in the sea.
Having seen off your larger neighbours, boars who weed the olive grove for truffles or deer who seem perpetually lost hopping over garden fences, with the erection of a stout wall and substantial Oleander hedge you will not, however, have deterred that most insistent of neighbours – the peremptory, assertive and devious of feline creature who comes absolutely free of charge. If you’ve never owned a cat, or even wanted one, tough! Tuscany has more cats than the Mediterranean has fish, whereby you’re going to be an associate in one way or another, of one cat, if not more, of these obsequious, Machiavellian, ‘tabby’ hooligans. As they are of the ‘free range’ variety some will have an inherited a gene of true personality, which naturally touches the heart strings of credulous Brit’s for the poor little orphan. As such, they represent a moggie in with the chance of ‘the good life’.
I speak from experience. My household has seen a steady stream of these furry characters that have appeared and disappeared with regularity from the garden gate or from under the bed. I kid you not. Insistent they definitely are, an ever-present wave of attention seekers.
The first character we came across in this panorama of deviants, thankfully, considered us as ‘occasional’ rather than ‘full time’ associates. In reality he turned out to be the village cat, belonging to a personable and wonderful old lady at the very end of this stretched out hamlet. I say this as we lived at opposite ends and Pallesi, a substantial ginger tom of dubious temper, was in control of this important throughway that took him to the abandoned abbey. More anon. Apparently, he had the habit of stopping en route at any open door or gate if the notion occurred to him. Like all of his species he was inherently nosy, so the lack of a gate - an opening then under restoration – brought us to his attention. Having found us not unreceptive we became a port of call, not always of the social kind, but with a recognition ‘ciao’ (miaow) as he hurried on his way past to a more important appointment. I sadly refer to the aforementioned abbey, which at that time was the dumping ground for unwanted kittens. For those in the know, not quite so callous as it might seem, though most certainly a discreditable action. Luckily, a benevolent gentleman kept them fed and watered until they were wily enough to make their way to one of the many farms with a need for a gatekeeper on a barn. However, not long after we became aware of this arrangement, and to Pallesi’s obvious chagrin, the local council correctly cleared the area of furry travellers. How they managed to stop this moggie tipping I have never quite worked out. A short while before this happened a friend desiring a good mouser asked us to capture one of these waifs and strays that frequently passed through our garden. Not so easy as it seems, as they were, not surprisingly, leery of two legged animals. To facilitate this venture, we created a trap from a cardboard box with a hinged lid and a bowl of food inside. It worked perfectly, except we caught - Pallesi! Being a civilised fellow, aware of how incompetent humans could be in such things, he took a hand by way laying a small ginger tom, very probably one of his offspring, and physically bundled him with his nose into the cardboard box. Done and dusted as they do say. We suspected that he was really taking the opportunity of getting rid of potential opposition.
Our first, very own cat, appeared in the garden sometime in 1997 and made itself at home. Named Attinia, she was not destined to be with us for long, being transferred to a Dutch friend when we had to return to the United Kingdom unexpectedly.
After this there was a lengthy hiatus broken by a sequence so quick that the perpetrator of the event didn’t stay long enough to have a name bestowed upon her. She was a pitch-black nymphomaniac, if there is such a thing in the feline world. Seemingly placid enough she was taken in to be fed and watered. Enter Liana, another elderly neighbour, whose reputation for providing a sanctuary for these lost souls had persuaded the local council to grant her a licence enabling females of the breed to be sterilized by the local vet. Taking advantage of her offer to include our new arrival this was duly carried out. All well and good, Well, not so good! Within a short period of weeks, she seemed to be developing a lump. Fearing a tumour, we took her to a private vet. You’ve probably guessed. She was pregnant – definitely two we were advised. My wife became a midwife and eased her delivery of the supposed twins, before the young lady lost interest in biting through umbilical cords leaving a third still attached. At this point I left the scene so the ‘involuntary midwife’, could handle the hard stuff. Returning I found we had blue eyed Siamese look-alikes, and a striped kitten of a type nearly always called Tigre in this area. Thus, not yet having determined their sex, we meanwhile, erroneously nicknamed ‘stripy’ Kipling, who later developed a strange habit of walking sideways in little hops. How the mother developed such a mixed breed I hate to think. Anyway, having bestowed these presents upon us she promptly vanished, desperate no doubt to replicate this practice run elsewhere. The door bore her passionate escapist scratches for months.
So, there we were, left with three orphans that unlike their mother, turned out to be a lot of fun, though little Kipling was only with us for a number of weeks. An elderly retired gentleman in the hamlet without company, hearing of these new arrivals from his distant relation Liana, put in his verbal bid, and away Kipling went. He was all fingers and thumbs never having had a pet of his own, and at the earliest occasion asked my wife, how he should feed his new company? “Oh, she’ll probably eat the same as you,” the lady blithely replied. We subsequently heard that in his weekly shopping he’d bought them both T bone steaks!
We later discovered Kipling had been re-named ‘Tigre’ – surprise, surprise. However, an even bigger surprise came when we learned Kipling-Tigre, was a female, only proven when she gave birth to a family in the owner’s wardrobe! One of this new cast being another with Siamese genes!
Having established their sex, Acuto and Musetta, the two Siamese look-alikes took to humans at once, which was just as well, for without a parent they had no one to show them the ropes. In fact, they took this learning curve a little too seriously. Taking our afternoon siesta, lying supinely fast asleep with the bedroom door open, the inquisitive pair ventured forth to find us, whereupon awakening, we found, stretched out on their backs, side by side between us, two kittens imitating our position perfectly. Acuto, despite his fearsome name which means sharp in Italian and born by a famous English mercenary, was rather timid being seen off by a furiously noisy Praying Mantis in the garden. To be fair, I think he was probably mystified by the cacophony set up by something so small. Musetta on the other hand was always urging him on to some misdeed and nowhere to be seen when he was brought to book. We miss them still, for like Kipling they were destined for other things. On hearing that certain neighbours were in the habit of lacing bits of food with mouse poison a friend came to our rescue offering them a home on Sardinia with her aunt. After this we promised ourselves that we’d have nothing more to do with cats.
But then, we hadn’t reckoned with Cesare.Given the recherché names for such beasts that came to reside in our home, you may have guessed that Cesare was not ours. We were most definitely his, but Cesare’s rightful owner lived across the lane. Being employed in the local prison his hours were hardly convenient for a domestic cat who waited faithfully outside at all hours and in all weathers for his return. It came about that the owner had to attend a vocational course necessitating his absence for a week, so to our door, along with a huge box of cat food, came Cesare. He took to the arrangement at once, being a model guest despite having the alarming habit of diving out on you unexpectedly. But he was clean, tidy, and wiped his feet when coming indoors. He had a bed next to the wood burning stufa but finding that too hot for comfort parked himself on a sofa at the opposite end of the room which took a little persuading for him to vacate. Despite this you were quite likely to find him fast asleep like a roll mop herring in the oddest of places, not all of them looking very comfortable.
We hadn’t learnt our lesson about open bedroom doors though, whereupon Cesare took to hiding under the bed and springing out on you after lights out. He was an excellent mouser but developed a bad habit of generously leaving body parts at the front door – a sign apparently, that he was determined to show his gratitude! Cesare was inordinately fond of my wife, and quite willing to assist with the gardening despite eyeing up the job from some odd places.
Like all animals he was not fond of thunder being associated with water which cats hate, so at the first roll hurtled into the waste paper basket under my desk. All in all, he was quite contented oscillating between his owner and adopted owners. In the end he packed his suitcase and departed with his real owner to a new home. I recommend baby-sitting a neighbour’s cat which has something in common with leasing a motor vehicle in that most of the running costs are paid for!
Of course, some will grow old with you. If you’ve taken one in, they will almost certainly have all the benefits not necessarily received by other itinerant moggies. A friend has a beautiful grey Tigre named Guido who migrated into his life eighteen years ago and is still there in good fettle. A courteous and amiable character, he can show a turn of speed out-sprinting his bête noir seen in the background of the photograph. Given in pet terms, at 126 years of age, I think he amply illustrates my point.
Photograph, with kind permission of the owner.
Conversely, you don’t see too many stray cats wandering about the towns whose councils probably have stringent controls over the number of the little beasts, but you do come across them. Volterra has one such character who can be seen roaming round the Piazza, or even on the counter of the post office. In the same way as their young children, Italians give such foibles a lot of leeway. For example, the character with boss eyes, a very verbose engaging personality, resided in Lucca, though his condition suggests he was far from abandoned.
So, be warned. If anyone is considering a new furry friend, I know where there are trillions of them waiting for you to turn up. Just parking your car and leaving the door open will probably be enough to encourage one to join you, absolutely free of charge.
As Dr. Johnson said of his cat Hodge: “But he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.” Just like a great number of those in Tuscany.