A Cacophony of Children?

I love collective nouns. One of my all-time favourites is ‘a murder of crows’. (There is something beastly about that bird, its ingratiating hop, and bloodless caw.) Returning from the walk this morning, a school Christmas bazaar was in full swing, and the yard was vibrating with that universally similar dissonance of young humans together. What collective noun to use? A discombobulation of children? A jabber of children? A cacophony of children? The dissonance is accounted for, and the brawl-like quality of it seem to fit. Aside: I just read a brilliant collective noun in ‘The Corrections’ by Franzen; a herd of leather sofas.

I was grateful to note that the cat that had died last Saturday, just as I was happening by, was dumped sometime between yesterday and today. Its lying there dead for four days had a gross indignity about it, for it was clearly not asleep.There is something riveting about death and how still it seems–when there is nothing still about it. Below the surface of skin and fur, a galaxy of larvae and microbes are at work, rippling and writhing through meat, offal and gristle, reducing them to liquids and gas. It was a young cat, and my bet would be on its having been poisoned, a common and gutless solution by the animal haters of Greece.

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Let It Snow…on the Mountains

Winter arrived last Friday afternoon. It raged for 36 hours, causing temperatures to drop from 19 to 2 degrees, then tailed off, but not before leaving a sizeable dump of snow across our tallest range, lowest foothills, and on our closest mountain (800 metres). On Saturday, everywhere over 200 metres had snow lying, and sporting the stuff on car bonnets was clearly the new très chic, proof of having been “to the snow”.

Saturday, Sunday and Monday were pudding test days; they were cold and miserable, with howling winds and driving rain, but I resolved not to break the dog-walking habit over mere hiccups in the weather. Needless to say, the roads were empty, so walking was less of an obstacle course. Well-thrashed and scattered by the elements, the calling cards of canines were too diluted to catch Blue’s keen nose, so she walked head bent, with purpose. There was nary a bird to be seen; where do they hide when the skies close in? My butterflies were just a colourful memory. On Monday, having spied some breaks in the clouds and then a trained spotlight on a small section of coast, I was sure I’d see a rainbow, but my timing or the climatic conditions were just out. The biggest rainbow I’ve ever seen passed over the whole city, a decade or more ago. Returning from the west of the island, we drove through a small pass and there it was, big fat bands of colour, metres thick, arching the whole run of the coast. Breathtaking.

These last few days have seen a steady run of male suitors accompanying, not Blue, but the likelihood of an encounter with her swollen, screaming vulva. Today, I sprayed her flanks and tail with “female dog pet perfume”, manufactured in Greece. Not a jot of difference did it make; the humbled chaps kept a steady 4 metres distance from Blue’s heels, and a leery eye on my umbrella. I found myself fantasising about doggy tampons till I realised that her hormones would still be radiating from her nether regions, attracting dogs from three miles off (depending, I’m sure, on the direction and intensity of the wind). The last dog to trail us , a tan adolescent, was in such a state of giddy excitement that his teeth chattered.

On the last leg home, I noticed how filthy the communal bins of this city are. They get emptied often enough, but by dint of their being communal, they (and the areas they stand in) are neglected and stinking. Feral cats yowl when bags are inadvertently dumped on them, interrupting their feed. Rats get their dues from the scrap spills, and fallout. The only way to heal this health hazard is to introduce the wheelie bin for every household, and to make individuals responsible for their plots. Greeks are good at that as a rule, sweeping the communal pavements outside their houses, scalding paving stones and concrete. The only thing I can’t figure is the system of collection.

In the UK, residents must wheel their bins to the edge of their property on certain days. I can’t quite make the mental leap over the difficulties that this would create, what with wild-card parking, narrow streets, poor infrastructure, but anything has got to better than the poorly-conceived concept of communal places to pitch a city’s waste. If anything, personal responsibility might wake folk up to the idea of how much “crap” they produce, and the knock-on effect could be, for example, buying products with less packaging, or getting serious about recycling. Plastic bottles are a huge problem in Greece since bottled water is both cheap and necessary. How about money incentives for saving plastic? It could even be in the form of a tax deduction. As I child, I’d return glass bottles to our local ‘Offy’ (Off-Licence), get to keep the pennies for their return. Don’t think I’d have done the chore so willingly if there’d been zero incentive.

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Plugged In

As Blue and I set off this morning, we joined the last wave of high-school kids heading up one of the city’s main veins. Some were in twos, dawdling despite their lateness, others walked alone with more purpose. One thing that stuck out was that the second group was all wired up, plugged in. Now admittedly, the man-made sounds of the city are nobody’s music of choice, but the idea of being locked into an MP3 strikes me as a kind of imprisonment, up there with modern-day foot binding–the 6-inch heel. First, one of the major senses is engaged elsewhere, when negotiating this city needs extra senses (a complementary set of eyes on stalks comes to mind) not fewer. Then there’s the whole other notion of listening out for the small treasures–a caged canary’s aria, the sub-song of a blackbird. Maybe I’m the odd one, but when I’m outside, I want to hear outside noises. Where is the distinction between places if you don’t?

Blue was at her most attractive this morning–to  male canines. She’s approaching estrus, and a black, white-bibbed suitor followed us for half the walk. The expression, led by the nose, occurred. I have to admit, it was an ambitious mutley since it would never have reached, but the prize in the dog world is in the going-for-it, the not over-analyzing, the reaching for the cherry irrespective of whether you fit the brief or not.

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Shopping Days Be Damned

When Blue and I headed out this morning, there was a seasonal nip in the air. The south wind (νοτιάς) which has been keeping temperatures in the high 20s for weeks now, has gone, and the sun is playing its December role.

Even though I’d told myself that these walks would be spontaneous, take us wherever our feet fell, my need for routine has surfaced, and for the last 7 days we’ve tramped the same itinerary. I find I’m drawn to the edge of the city where the expansive views take in a 180 degree sweep of mountains, with sea tucked off to the right. It’s quiet there; the houses are larger, with enclosed gardens,  impenetrable walls. Along the edge of one road, there is a huge bush of Lantana Camara. The floral heads are individual bouquets made up of tiny flute-like flowers, burnt orange, yellow and red. Last week, the bush was twitching with a kaleidoscope of butterflies; it was still this morning.

I’ve realized that dogs in yards and on balconies on our route have set their clocks by us already, barking before we’re visible, in some cases before we round corners. I’d always assumed that a dog gets its information by scent over sight; some of these canines, especially the ones perched on fourth-floor balconies, can see us coming. I wonder what they communicate in that array of grating noise. Where does the nuance of their message lie? In the pause between barks, in their length, pitch, timbre? Would they “say” the same every time we pass, or would they be sharing their latest news? What does a tail-wag mean during vigorous barking? We’ve almost decoded whale song, yet the language of dogs entirely eludes us.

What’s noticeable over the last few days is the addition of Christmas decorations on balconies, in yards. Some are quite tasteful, others not. Blue couldn’t care less; she’s engrossed in life through her nasal passages. Every damp patch on the road needs to be inhaled, every tyre examined. And what is this male need for a vertical surface to pee against? There are more marked wheels than not. While Blue’s head sucks up the riches of other critters’ bladders, I take in the stuff above sight-line, muttering at the cheap look of tinsel wrapped around anything cylindrical, the gaudiness of the red and white likenesses that dangle from balconies. Yesterday, at the insistence of my 16-year old, we went to a local store that I try hard to avoid because of its cheap generic goods, and penchant for not returning small change. Said 16-year old wants to decorate a tree this year–we escaped it last. I’ve only agreed  if we get a real tree in a pot that can be returned to the greenhouse post Christmas. It took an age for me to stop vetoing her suggestions, since almost everything had that “Made in China” lack of appeal. No; clutter. No; too twee. What’s twee? Too nice, precious. How can nice be bad? It is, trust me. On exiting the store, with her hard-bartered silver spangles, I had to reset my face, shake off the grimace. It was all too fake, too commercial, too lost to what seems real, and precious in a grounded way. For example, coming down from the posh area today, I saw a hawk. Its wingspan grabbed my attention first. It perched on a rooftop, unaware of its brilliance. I froze, thought of ‘Kes’. In the film, the working class kid, who played Billy, had to work with the birds, help train them. I can only imagine the feeling of having something as regal as a hawk flying to your outstretched, leathered-up hand. This bird looked bigger than a kestral; maybe a female sparrowhawk. While Blue sniffed two yellow, rotting pumpkins lying in the overgrowth on a patch of derelict land,  the bird flew off, and the buildings blocked me from tracking it any further. Now that’s ‘grounded precious’, I thought; that doesn’t come gift-wrapped in paper with bells on it.

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A Beginning

On a Friday, six years ago, I reluctantly let a 3-month old yellow Labrador into my life. Allow me to clarify the adverb. I live in an undisclosed city in Greece with a population of around 138, 000. The city is a sprawling mess since the term ‘town and city planning’ had not–until recently–featured highly in its local government’s manifesto. I live on the ‘inskirts’ of the outskirts of the old town, in an area which boasts ‘not much’. There are too many cars on too-narrow roads, and most of the housing blocks are four-storey, rudely shutting out any sense of horizon for ground-floor residents. We have a yard, but that consolation is negated by the parking insanity and the sheer claustrophobic closeness of neighbours at every turn.
Back to the Lab: I never wanted her, I’ll say it plain. My children enjoy reminding me of that whenever they intercept the odd endearing comment aimed at her. You never wanted her, they say. I can’t deny it. I never wanted her because I could never picture a medium-large dog in such a dire urban place. She’d have to live in the yard: What about the traffic of three children, the extended family, the students for private lessons? She could never come into the house. We have enough allergies to keep a small pharmaceutical start-up company in the black. Left outside, she’d bark, and mess, and get bored since no-one would have time to walk her, and medium-large dogs need at least an hour a day to keep them sated. No, she couldn’t stay and that was that, I said to my family as they presented her to me like an offering. Choruses of Please, Mummy, please, and then I looked down, and there she was, belly-up in my husband’s arms, at the height of achingly sweet puppy-hood. No, I persisted. It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t been consulted. I was outnumbered. For my husband, I reserved my choicest words: how dare he cast me as the bad guy; how dare he go behind my back. Partnership? Bah! He promised the moon and his spleen in return, but my heart had iced over against all of them and their sneaky scheme. She was not welcome; she had to go. Tears and sulks followed, but I was firm. I didn’t go into the yard to see her for fear of entrapment, for I’m an unabashed dog-lover; cats go rot. That was my argument, my premise in response to their sniffles and black looks. I love dogs more than you all, I said, since I’m unwilling to keep one in a half-assed way, I added piously.

I fast forward a few notches to Sunday, the day before she was to be returned to the breeder. I was having coffee, attempting to read something when I caught sight of my son, then 13, playing in the yard with the dog. There it was, a preternatural glow on his face as he looked down at her, engrossed, totally unaware of me. And that was it; I was spiked, caught, irreversibly ensnared: Two days worth of intractable clamping down on my pride-bone, undone in a glance.

We named her Blue, monosyllabic, clean, and the kind of illogical that’s right up my alley: A yellow Lab named Blue. I drafted a contract in words of all the things I wouldn’t do, namely everything. I added clauses with lists of the responsibilities that they would carry. It was interminable, but they smiled and agreed to it all. I went out and formally introduced myself to Blue. She cocked her head, and the 5% I was holding back went up in flames.

I held out for six years until two weeks ago when I woke up with a message to myself. I was going to start walking once a day for an hour with Blue. Among the many duties my children happily take on regarding the dog, walking is the shunted one, the one that, as I’d predicted, wouldn’t happen as regularly as it needed to. Don’t ask me what called me to break my own contract so splendidly, but I did, and now we’re walking partners, striding out at 8 am every day to explore the city.

For anyone who walks or swims, you’ll know what I mean about the fundamentals of rhythm, and the urgent mind turns and ideas that come along with them, ideas that won’t lie down. These posts will be my attempts to give shape to these knocking ideas. If I don’t do it, I may never sleep soundly again.

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