Thursday, October 06, 2005

Dogs and Cats

NOT A DOG PERSON, no no no no, not in this country. We had a dog, of course, when I was a kid, sixty years ago and more; just about everyone did. A toy shepherd named Butch. But none since. I tend to agree with Emma, who doesn’t like dogs because, she says, they pee and they slobber.

Cats, yes; we like cats just fine, and for twenty years or so we had at least one and usually two. The last two, Joe and Blanche, lived to be nearly twenty, and I miss them still.

And so when I walk into a hotel to check in and see a cat in the lobby I immediately feel things are breaking my way. The old Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles; the Sylvia in Vancouver.

And when you duck into a bar or a café and find a cat sleeping in the window, or under a chair: you feel immediately there’s tranquility here, and after all that’s what you’re looking for.

Dogs are another matter, but not in Europe. Every time we go to Europe we begin again the list of disadvantageous differences, disadvantageous to our own country I mean — the never-to-be-written-or-published book Why Can’t We... — and one of the chapters will surely center on Man’s Best Friend.

Kees and Irma, for example, have a wonderful border collie called "Yella," spelled Jelle I think, a Frisian name having nothing to do with his colors which are the regimental black and white of his breed. Perhaps that’s "her" breed: sex never seemed to be an issue with this fine animal.

One night sleeping I developed a Charley horse, that excruciating sudden pain in the calf of your leg. I couldn’t cry out, as I generally do, because I’d have awakened everyone in the house. Instead I whimpered, and immediately there came Jelle full of sympathy and concern, nosing me to be sure I’d recover. There was something immensely reassuring about this and I’ve had to revisit my attitude toward Albert Payson Terhune.

We had breakfast a couple or three weeks ago in Groningen, that fine regional capital in the north of The Netherlands. Curiously every chain café in the town center was out of milk at seven in the morning — they only serve fresh milk, it seems, in their cappuccinos — and we ended up at an upscale Cafe´-Conditerei serving pastries and coffees to comfortable-looking people at small tables, nearly each with a newspaper, most of them conservative.

There were no fewer than three dogs in our part of the room, a smaller raised central room with perhaps eight tables. They were small fat shaggy dogs with short legs and tiny feet, and they moved rather sluggishly I thought if they moved at all. One did, ultimately, giving up its post under another table to come stand patiently at the feet of my own chair, foolishly thinking I was about to give up a piece of croissant.

(Or perhaps, given its shape, hoping for a sugar cube. I think this was one of the few places that hasn’t given up sugar cubes in favor of those ridiculous little paper tubes of sugar, no doubt forced on the restaurant industry by the Dutch Society of Friends of the Horse in an almost completely successful effort to interfere with my passing out sugar cubes to horses on our perambulations through the Dutch countryside.)

These dogs were no harm to anyone, not even the waiters who brought things here and there through a space whose navigation was made difficult by its forest of tables and chairs and seated readers of newspapers. (I wonder how the room looks to those dogs, who see it from a vantage much closer the floor.)

They were really small slow sculptures, clean as a whistle (this is the Netherlands, after all), quiet, friendly and patient, never demanding. They were, in short, almost cats.

We had lunch last week in a café in Amsterdam — a bar-restaurant, really — at about four in the afternoon, an hour when I never really expect to find anything. Only one other table was occupied, by two English girls looking over a fashion magazine and not really eating much of anything.

We ordered off the lunch menu: a salad of some kind for L., a merguez sandwich for me. That turned out to be a sort of hamburger bun, toasted, with four grilled lamb sausages (very good, by the way), sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and some onion. Delicious; and afterward I asked the waitress, now tending bar, the name of the fine sleeping cat perched on the ledge-overlook near the English girls.

Caspar, she said, and that’s Gaston in the window, pointing to Caspar’s match.

I know, I know, the health authorities in this country would shudder at the thought. I don’t know why they don’t in the Netherlands, whose health laws are sometimes even more insane than our own. But I retort that important studies have revealed that children who grow up with household pets are sixtyseven percent less likely to develop asthma. Don’t ask for the source of this information: I can’t provide it. But I know it’s true. It stands to reason.

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