EYE ON EUROPE
CAN WE TALK?"
"I don't care if you're French,
Italian or what. I'm Kitty Johnson
and I want us all to be friends!"
Ice-breakers may come from a surprising source
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Even in hard cultures such as New York and London, strangers out walking their
dogs have ben known to speak civilly to each other. But I never expected pets to serve as ice-beakers in France, especially with an American holding the leash.
To be sure, the French are different. Dog lovers tend to keep their distance. It's the cats that lower inhibitions, including the intercultural barriers.
The French are famously discreet about their personal details but carry a cat and the barriers fall away. Friendly relationships that might take days or weeks to develop can happen in a single encounter, cats being the catalyst.
I have been spendingn the summer at a seaside hotel near Bordeaux and have made
it a practice to walk my snow-white cat around the neighborhood every morning. I
immediately noticed that the French are drawn to her and thus to me, setting aisde their combative ways and hiding any views on Iraq, Iran or George W. Bush they might harbor. Cooing and purring take over in seconds.
By now the cat owns the hotel grounds, surveying the property from atop a spiral staircase and discouraging dogs and other cats from entering her territory. So far, no one has accused her of being a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy although she does believe she has a right--no, a duty--to impose her way of life on others.
Thanks to the cat, encounters with French vacationers have never waned. They range from lively discussions of catology to taciturn non-talk with rural folk. One farmer from Ardeche stood beside the cat and me for five minutes before breaking the silence. "The climate is different here," he said. "No snow."
More often, we move into career histories, wine and most popular of all, what we
like most about France.
Some other animals enable human contact almost as effectively. Passing in front
of a flowered lawn one morning I was surprised to hear a woman call out, "Ca va, mon coco?" Roughly translated: "How you doing, honey?" It was only a parrot, but its French was excellent. Soon I was surrounded by half a dozen vacationers joining in with the parrot and chatting with me. The parrot kept repeating, "Ca va, mon coco?"
No one has ever accused the French of being one-dimensional. Their love of pets is well-documented. While not Europe's leaders as pet owners, the French do keep some 20 million fish, dogs, guinea pigs, cats and birds in the home. A woman who runs a pet "toilettage" clinic near my hotel says, "I have no fear of unemployment."
But this love of pets coexists with a streak of cruelty, probably due to France's agrarian past.
Indeed, some treatment of their unwanted pets would attract the enforcers of the Cat Protection Society in Britain.
Several French friends have assured me the following story is not out of the ordinary. An urbane middle-aged couple approached me one morning to exchange details about pets and ourselves. They also keep a cat in Paris but the poor animal had the bad luck to get herself pregnant. A litter of eight caused consternation in the household.
"We gave two away and we have two left," madame said.
My math is not brilliant but I knew this story didn't add up.
"What about the other four?" I asked.
The lady covered her mouth modestly and let out a strange giggle. "I put them in a sack and beat them to death with a hammer," she said.
And without a further word, she and her husband hopped into their BMW and drove off.
©2005 by Michael Johnson. The photo is not really of Michael Johnson's cat, but it's a fine example of the Turkish van breed, just like the official Johnson cat. This column first posted Sept. 12, 2005.
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