CATMAN MEETS BATMAN IN ISLAND GREECE
Anyone who has been to major towns on the Greek mainland or on large Greek islands, will be familiar with the numerous stray dogs. Lavrio, Athens and Kos Town, for example, are home to countless canine strays, many of them outsize, lop-eared, comical, and occasionally vicious looking. This last item is an interesting paradox. Without exception the biggest, ugliest and meanest-looking of Greek strays, are all as meek and gentle as so many cooing doves. You see massive mongrels the size of donkeys in Lavrio and bustling central Athens, all as gentle and humble as some kind of exemplary hermit or monk. They have good reason to be so meek. They need the human citizens to offer them scraps of food to stay alive, in winter especially so. There is absolutely nil evolutionary point in being surly or aggressive, so they sit there snoozing to fend off rumbling hunger pangs, looking very obliquely and politely at the plate of mezzes the Athenian or Lavriot ouzo drinker is busy knocking back. If they are lucky, they get a mouthful of loukaniko sausage or a bit of octopus or a bit of bread, and they chew it ever so studiedly and sedately, and with far more restrained table manners than I for one could ever aspire to.
Greeks on the whole are kind to stray dogs, and will amiably let the ugly, massive creatures snooze at their feet in the city cafes. Likewise in Kos Town in warm weather the dogs lie flat out, like so many swatted outsize flies, littering almost every pavement in the historic town centre. All the gawping tourists, as they wander round the venerable Ottoman mosques, are touched and amused at the sight. Some of these indolent strays lie flat on their backs with paws luxuriously outstretched, as if life could not be more blissful. It is in fact very tempting when in Kos Hora to treat these dogs as highly idiosyncratic gurus or life coaches; to cheerfully get down there on the pavement beside them and stick your own legs in the air, and say aloud in either fervent English or Greek,
Bugger it, life is bloody good after all ( or mono mia zoi ekhoume as the legendary song goes)!
Stray cats are much less evident on the mainland. Just once, in April 2009, I saw an odd old bag lady at dead of night in a rather scary Athens backstreet, surrounded by about thirty cats. She had brought them a lavish and mushy looking feast, in a massive and dirty bin liner, and was busy doling it out as they clucked and mewed beside her ill-shod feet. No one apart from me and my warmly applauding family gave her a second glance. On the islands however, stray cats are ubiquitous, and especially in the ports where the restaurant pickings can be so rich. In summer a great many day trippers never get beyond the port of entry, so it is a good place to take up one’s poste restante, if one is a wise and far-seeing cat.
Greek islanders on the whole are much less tolerant of stray cats than of canine strays. In fact on a tiny island like Cycladean Kythnos, I doubt there is even a single stray dog. Any dogs who do businesslike parade the considerable length of the port, a bit like the watch-checking White Rabbit or in at least one case The Mad Hatter, usually have a collar on them and usually have an identifiable owner. Not so the legion of stray cats that litter the cafes and restaurants, or further afield the heaving communal rubbish skips. The indifference and occasional hostility the cats then encounter, is probably because they are seen as dirty and unhygienic, as their desperate skip foraging leaves some of them with scabied noses and poignantly weeping eyes.
Generally the worst they face is being pursued by small boys, stamping their feet at them as a gleeful and non-retaliatory sport. More often than not, this will happen in or near an outside cafe. If I see them doing it, I shout at the kids, and if the child is very young they often look back uncomprehending. The reason for this is very simple. If their Mum or especially their Dad is sat nearby they simply don’t seem to notice the tormenting, or if they do they absently chuckle. If the same outrage happened in the UK, the incensed parent would instantly clatter the kid and the watching world would cheeringly applaud. However I don’t have sufficient hubris nor enough rapid- fire Greek to challenge the smirking parent about their feckless puerility. It takes another tender animal lover like Australian-Greek Maria to race over and upbraid both child and parent in angry Greek. She is Greek enough and old enough at 50, to do it at the top of her bellicose voice, and not to give a damn about their bemusement. She will then pick up the abused kitten or cat and kiss its furry head and call it Fili mou and pedi mou to the hushed derision of some of the regulars in the Glaros or the adjacent cafes.
But this is small beer compared with other islands. In strange and isolated North Karpathos, where the feline strays are legion, one or two no-nonsense locals sometimes lay poison for them and succeed in killing innocent pet dogs as well as feral cats. We were told this by a Spanish restaurant owner, a fearless and beautiful Valencian of 55 who served Greek and Spanish cuisine to day-trippers disembarking from excursion boats. By way of revenge the Spanish cat lover positively encouraged her animal friends, the ugliest one-eyed and one-eared strays in the world, and outraged many locals by giving them lobster, king prawns and gourmet chorizo, just to let them know what she thought of cowardly cat assassins! Her other provocative habits were to put on passionate and heartbreaking Italian opera at eardrum-splitting volume when the villagers were having their siestas…and to conduct a flagrant and unabashed affair with a local married man, a heedless and masochistic defiance which predictably enough did not encourage the adulterous local to leave his wife and children.
There are many long established strays here in the Kythnos port. There are also those who are either stumbling, crying kittens, or sudden enigmatic arrivals, who disappear without notice and are never seen again. They are probably either run over by cars or tormented to lethal excess, most likely by disturbed or antisocial adults. The outside possibility is that someone has decided to adopt one and take it into their home. So far I have never observed or heard of poisonings, and no one on Kythnos ever chases them away from the rubbish skips
Since I arrived here in September 2013, I have been adopted by two strays outside the Glaros Cafe. The first was a tiny grey kitten, a mere baby called Anthoula (Little Flower) who liked to bask on my belly in the sunshine and would look for scraps from whatever I was eating. I became very fond of Little Flower, but then after a month or so she vanished and I never learnt what happened to her. For a few days I felt pained and sad as I vainly waited for her to return. Meanwhile a charismatic adult white cat, about 6 years old, had taken a cautious interest in me and begun to sit on my knee. She was extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, thin, statuesque, confident and spasmodically aggressive. She had two names which marked her out as one of the truly elect, given that most Greek cats whether stray or domestic are given no names whatever. She was called Asproula which means Little Whitey, and also Riri which means nothing at all, but which is uttered to her very tenderly by any local cat lovers.
Asproula was summarily abandoned by its owner about 6 years ago when it was very tiny. Since then she has bravely fended for herself, and made the area outside the Glaros her favoured patch and market place. No one owns her, so she hasn’t been sterilised, and as a result she has been pregnant twice since I arrived here. The first litter of spring 2014, it was rumoured, was drowned by the moody caretaker who lives in the house up the hill above the Glaros. Hence, when a second litter was born six months later, Asproula immediately rejected both the little grey and white kittens. I had never before seen kittens totally spurned by their mother, and it was harrowing to behold. They spent their time pursuing and whining after her, mewing pathetically, vainly trying to feed from her nipples when she sat on my knee or wandered down below. It was obvious to me her heartlessness was just a function of her previous litter being drowned without notice or ceremony. She had been traumatised and hence was very needy, which was why clinging to my knee and being stroked and talked to, was a far more urgent affair for her than looking after her new babies. She had never been nurtured herself, and thereafter someone executed her first children, so she brushed away these new dependent babies and hit at them brutally with her claws. To help all three of them, I regularly fed the kittens with cheese and milk when I could do it reasonably discreetly. Marianna inside the Glaros Cafe is understandably not keen on having a squabbling animal orphanage just outside the busy main door.
Soon one of Riri’s new kittens was bloodily killed by a revving stationary car as it sheltered there from the teeming autumn rain. I didn’t see it, but Chrisoula who owns the Glaros did, and she came in sobbing at the sight. Later, when it fared up, I sat outside the cafe with Riri and her one remaining child, and she seemed pleased if anything about the missing kitten, and had even less patience for its crying, nagging sibling. I sighed and fed the surviving baby with cheese and some of my lunchtime omelette, while the lion’s share of course went to its outraged mother. A few days passed and then there was a November storm of great ferocity, torrential rain and gusting howling gale. As I passed the Glaros late that night and heading home, I saw the lone grey kitten shivering under a rain-soaked chair, and with nil sign of its charismatic and beautiful white mother. Though even if she had been there, she would have roundly ignored him, so that like some hideous paradigm out of Beckett or Franz Kafka the light at the end of the tunnel was a mirage and a contemptible one at that.
I hesitated five seconds and then picked him up and took him home. You wouldn’t leave a dog out in this downpour, I was tempted to say to him. He looked at me and mewed, and I stroked him and put him under my coat. I felt uneasy and considerably depressed, because animal lover that I am, I really did not want a new pet. I wished to be always free and to get up and with nil notice leave my house for say a break on the Isle of Syros or in Lavrio on the mainland. I wished to be a free and always liberated agent. I did not want to battle with cat piss and cat shit yet again, or ever again. I didn’t tell my little Greek charge this of course, and when I got him home the shops were long closed, so I opened a tin of tuna for my tiny guest. Tuna in Kythnos costs twice what it does in the UK, and I actually did tell him that, not at all admonishingly, but as an interesting piece of general knowledge. He squinted at me curiously and obviously couldn’t believe his luck.
After he had wolfed down the tuna, I took a summary look at his private parts and decided he was a male. Good. I wanted a male, I wanted a little tom, I definitely didn’t want a fertile fecund female or a queen as they bizarrely call female cats! Bizarre, because if they are to be dubbed queens then the toms should be called kings, a ludicrous notion if ever there was.
But what to call him?
And it came in an instant.
Here is the accelerated not to say feverish thought process apropos the taxing business of animal nomenclature, bearing in mind that both of us, Greek kitten and new British owner, were still soaked to the bone and still shivering.
Coen Brothers, fantastic directors, genius by the gallon, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jeff Bridges, John Turturro, John Goodman, Tommy Lee Jones.
George? Brad? Jeff? John? Tommy Lee?
The last one very close. Tommy Lee, Tommy Lee, Tommy Lee, Tommy Lee! Tee hee, tee hee, tee hee, Tommy Lee!
It’s so obvious. Who, as well as being a fine and versatile film star and Coen Brothers regular, is also a musician in a touring US folk band? And the same gentleman who had nearly all his Canadian gigs cancelled after an interview in the host country, where he was reckless enough to say: ‘You know, you Canadians are a bit like mashed potatoes but without the gravy!’
And who, also, get this, little Greek kitten, is panickingly phobic of antique furniture! To my mind equivalent to being phobic of semi-colons or paper clips or Christmas trees or eggshells or liquorice allsorts?
Billy Bob Thornton!
Oriste! Ella, Billy Bob, pedhi mou!
Soon after I started an original English ditty for this bewhiskered little grey and white Greek infant called Billy Bob
Billy Bob, Billy Bob, Billy Bob, get a job, Billy Bob!