One thing that instantly bound us to our hosts when we arrived, something that required no language skills whatsoever and has continued to be a point of connection, is our love of animals.
Actually, that bond began even before we arrived. About three weeks before we left the states Fernando emailed to ask me to try to track down a new drug, nitrosylcobalamin, which has showed dramatic results in one instance in the treatment of inoperable cancers in dogs. The Astones had not one but two elderly dogs who both had inoperable cancers simultaneously, and their local vet had told them that this experimental drug was the only hope.
In the event I discovered that the researcher who had tested the drug on four dogs had patented it immediately after the dramatic results came out, had resigned from his position at a cancer research center, found venture capital, and set up his own research facility. American free enterprise at its best, and worst, I suppose. But the drug was only in the initial stages of testing and completely unavailable. Three days later Fernando let me know that Fabio had called to say the dogs had died and was so overcome with emotion he could hardly talk.
As it happened, we had a particular reason for wanting to help. Our beloved little mutt Sugar had died about two months before, from an inoperable cancer. We knew she was having some difficulties but associated it with the hip displasia that is so common in dogs of her age and size, and dogs are so stoic that they never complain. But one morning she tried to get up, stumbled, and had a sort of seizure. We took her to the vet immediately, where we learned that a cancer of the spleen was so advanced that surgery was desperate at best, and we took the rest of the day to make that torturous decision to give our little friend the ultimate gift, a quiet, peaceful death. We’ve been grieving ever since.
So it has been a delight to be back in the world of critters. And, sister, do we have some critters here! Word has been spread in the local animal community that Filomena is a soft touch, and we now have three dogs (more or less) and three cats (more or less), all volunteers and all living la dolce vita.
No need for television here, the animals provide all the distraction you could ever need. In the canine realm there is Cioppo, a little spitzy looking mutt who is the undisputed capo of the whole menagerie but is instantly submissive to any human willing to scratch his stomach. Cioppo herds the other two all over the estate, and as soon as they come up for some attention, he’s there instantly growling and gnawing harmlessly on their necks to put them in their places. Filomena describes him as “sweet, but stupid.” He’s been known to stare at a phantom cat in a tree for hours.
Then there is Ettore, largest of the three, a beautiful long-haired white mutt with the physical traits of an Irish setter, if not the coloring. Ettore is completely laid back, loves to take lots of naps, and comes sauntering up to you (when Cioppo is not looking) like some lovable oaf, grinning and nodding his head.
Little Laki is a terrier, all spunk and attitude, second in command, at least in his own mind. He’s the canine sentinel, first to sound the alarm when the territory is invaded and pass the word to Cioppo, “Okay, dude, I scared the crap out of them, now you go finish them off!”
The three cats are our local moochers, really still feral domesticates, not at all lap cats, but they’re so shameless in their panhandling that they are always good for a laugh. Almost every morning when we open the door from the kitchen to the terrace they show up, sitting at the threshold, staring into the apartment and mewing plaintively. There is Fanta, easily the most endearingly ugly cat I’ve ever seen, Ambra, “Amber’, a fine looking orange tabby, and Tigre, ‘Tiger’ a gray tabby.
Our critters provide almost daily drama as well. From time to time the dogs and cats will mix it up a bit, but it’s all obviously just for fun. But several days ago Fanta was bitten by one of the local feline bullies and Filomena was beside herself. The next day we heard a huge commotion, rushed out onto the terrace just in time to see the local tough be chased up a tree by the whole pack of dogs acting in concert. The other two quickly left, but Cioppo took up position, intently eyeing the villain and challenging him to come down and face the music, while Fanta sat behind him and seemed perfectly smug. We left before the drama ended, and I’m not sure how that cat managed to scoot away, but I suspect he won’t be back soon.
Then night before last there was a terrible rumble outside about three in the mooring that seemed to go on for thirty minutes. The next day Filomena revealed that sweet-natured Ettore had been bitten on the leg. When Laki came over to investigate, Ettore nipped at him, then limped off to nurse his wounds in private. As the hours went by Filomena became more and more worried, and once every hour or so we would hear her walking the grounds and calling for “Ettore!” It was heartbreaking.
But this soap opera has a happy, if surprising ending. About six last night Sandy and I were on the terrace and there was Ettore at the bottom of the driveway, wagging his tail, limping just a bit as he sauntered up to us, but obviously fine. Sandy raced upstairs to announce the good news to Filomena, who was, of course, ecstatic. But behind Ettore appeared a small black mutt, something on the order of a mid-sized Doberman, and Filomena quickly shooed this one away and announced, “Questa non è maschio, è una donna!” It seems that Ettore wanted to nurse his wounds with some, shall we say, female ministrations. And I’m not sure but that Filomena wasn’t just a bit jealous.