You've met our neighbors, the people who have become intricately woven into the pattern of our lives. It is time, now, that I introduce you to the neighbors that create the landscape of Spello. The animals. Cats form the backdrop of village life, and dogs the merry bauble. Cats are valued for their ability to keep the city free of vermin. Many towns have a policy of spaying or neutering most cats, and letting a few have a litter or two. Repeat. So the cat population stays fairly low, but there are always new mousers in the making. You can spot towns without this cat friendly policy as they have mouse and rat traps along with walls. No traps in Spello, rather a bevy of cats that are petted, fed, and adored. I, for one, prefer a steady line-up of feline companions to mouse traps, and our children point to the cat population in Spello as one of their favorite aspects of the town. We know the names of many of our roving animal friends, and those that we don't know, we've promptly titled ourselves. In meeting our animal neighbors, and knowing how they are part of the town, I hope you will have a greater feel for the tenor of Spello.
Monet is a special cat for us. She's Angelo's, and therefore, she spends hours every week sprawled across my papers, until Angelo gets cross with her and shouts that she knows nothing about history, so she needs to leave, before unceremoniously picking her up by the tops of her legs and dropping her to the floor. Lest you think that he doesn't care about Monet, I should add that on rainy days he plays chase with her around the house so she can get the exercise she craves. I love the image of Angelo, hair loosed from his ponytail and poncho flying behind him as waves his arms and runs after Monet. In return, Monet loves Angelo deeply. When he stops by our house, she'll dash in. She listens out for him, follows him, and is always ready to come running when he makes his trademarked whispery sound. Besides Angelo, Monet also loves mortadella. Angelo tells me that once she was jumping out the window and he said, "You don't want any mortadella?" and she jumped back in and went running to the kitchen. She also loves candy. Or at least the crinkly paper. Whenever Angelo gets new candy, she takes a few from the bowl and deposits them beside her food. On a plate. She's refined, that way.
Not his real name. We were told his real name when we met our neighbors during the time of the Great Juno Escape. I kept getting confused about their cat, Mathilda, who looks just like Juno, and who long ago also went missing for some time and turned up in the same area we found Juno. Our neighbors told us about their cats, but though we remembered Mathilda and we remembered Morgana (coming up), we couldn't remember this one, though we do remember his story. A couple from Germany was staying in Spello with their cat. The cat ran away, and they spent their last few weeks searching high and low for him. He reappeared after they left. And was folded into our neighbor's family. Flower-loving Spellani place sticks in their flowerpots to prevent cats like Stumpy Jack from defecating in their pansies. I don't know how well it works for others, but, like Honey Badger, "Stumpy don't care." Leading to our children's favorite saying that "Stumpy did a tricky poop." Six and 10 and 14 (okay, and maybe 40) are not too old for poop jokes, I'm afraid. Stumpy's joys include sleeping on the roof of the shed in the derelict yard across from our kitchen terrazza, and showing up at our window, meowing as if he belongs in our house. Siena has even seen him on the roof at her school, and I've also spotted him in Bar Tullia, making friends.
January 24, 2016 Update: When we went back to Spello this last summer (without our cats), Stumpy took the opportunity of sneaking into our house. We discovered that he's friendly, though he thinks biting is a gesture of love, and that he drools. A lot.
Max is an ancient orange tabby that lives in the alley, and spends his days around Marcello's art shop, or sitting on Marcello's desk. Before we knew his name, we called him "Skinny Puddle Drinker", as he would take every opportunity to lap pooled water, heedless of the degree to which the puddle resembled a protozoan breeding ground. And he is freakishly skinny. He follows one of the alley ladies when she goes marketing at the Conad. Waits outside for her. And then trots at her heels as she returns home. He's got a really croaky meow, and he's not afraid to use it. His hobbies include following us around when we are carrying food. He is very interested in whatever is under that napkin.
She sticks close to home. Her interests include trying to steal your soul. Seriously, whenever I see her, she is staring at my heart with her piercing eyes. It's sort of unsettling.
Micie (pronounced Meeshey)/Veronica
One of these belongs to an alley lady, and one belongs to our neighbor who works at the Conad. I can only tell which is which by where they are sitting. One of them is photographed daily, as she sits very primly framed by the flowers on her porch, and tourists cannot help taking her picture. We thought micie was Italian for the tuxedo markings, because we asked the alley lady the name of her cat and she shrugged and said micie, and then we heard it again in reference to another black and white cat, but turns out it's Italian for kitty. Driving home the point that when you are learning a language, it's easy to confuse figure and ground. Both Micie and Veronica are aloof, so I don't know anything about them, except that Micie doesn't come home promptly for lunch because I hear alley lady calling her daily at lunchtime.
Giorgio's cat—he is so cute and frisky, he reminds me of a baby goat. Particularly since he is skittish to the point of leaping up and backwards when he hears an ontoward noise. He's hard to get close to, but we enjoy watching his stand-offs with Stumpy Jack when Achille decides to hang out in the Stumpy spot. He is promptly and roundly schooled. Got to keep those kittens in line.
Our downstairs neighbor's kitten. The cat that's very existence is straining what little we know about how to deal with etiquette matters in another country. The cat meowed incessantly outside our door, which drove Keith and me bananas, but Nicolas not so much. In fact, if we wondered what was keeping Nicolas after school, we'd invariably find him on the steps between our neighbors door and ours, with Otto climbing on his shoulders and treating our son to a chin bath. We tried to figure out what to do to avoid the all night caterwauling, and then luckily our landlady was in our house and heard it for herself, so she talked to our neighbors. Now they leave him outside the door to the building, but then he darts in when we open the door and we are unsure, do we let him in so he can meow at their door and gain entrance, or do we leave him out? Once he pooped in our stairwell, necessitating Keith learning to leave a note asking our neighbors to clean it up. They did. So now it's just trying to figure out if we are expected to leave the door open for Otto or not. Besides polishing our eldest son's imperfect hygiene skills, Otto enjoys exploring, pissing off Stumpy and Morgana by traipsing blithely through the derelict yard (these young upstarts have some nerve), getting stranded on balconies in his quest for higher, and facing off against Roof Cat. Which brings me to....
We rarely see this cat on terra firma. She likes the high ground. She'll show up at the window, Stumpy style. Even does her business up there. Unfortunately, some of that business has fossilized on Nicolas's bathroom skylight. So despite my son's love of the Spellani cats, he glares at Roof Cat when he sees her, and gives her a cutting remark. She is unrepentent.
Roman Ruins Kittens
A Juno/Freja looking cat had kittens at the base of the old Roman arch at the foot of Spello. We have had more fun watching those kittens play, snuggle, eat, and grow than we have had at any zoo. Think about it—at the zoo, the animals may be exotic, but they are kind of boring. They sit. And snooze. Look! It blinked! Whereas we are consistently charmed by the antics of these little puffs of cuteness. We lean over the rail to watch them, and they ignore us or stare at us, or one will twitch and pounce on another that's studiously watching us. We are always amused and consistently captivated. They chase the rope that hangs from the top of the arch. They tackle each other and crab walk to look bigger. They do somersaults with a fierce grip on their own tail. Every time we go down to the borgo now, we gear ourselves up for them to be gone. They are as big as their mamma now, eventually they'll leave.
Not limited to Bonci, but always in upper Spello, this cat will jump on your lap if you give her half a chance. According to Letizia, this cat has two brothers who are ill mannered and cranky. We've seen them, but they are uninterested in people, and don't come near us. But Bonci Cat is a different story. It's a lovely feeling to sip a cappuccino with this warm ball of affection curled in my lap. She loves Nicolas, too. He's been waylaid by Bonci Cat's need for cuddles, even in the street. I've seen her sitting on Letizia's chair, and we joke that she's trying to manage the bar, but really, we know all she wants is a snuggle.
Freja and Juno
Okay, they live with us. Not technically our neighbors, but how can I write a post about cats and not include our two favorites? Freja is also called "the feline tick." We were worried we wouldn't be able to bring her on the plane because she surpassed weight regulations, and now we know that on our return, we'll have to book on an airline that doesn't have weight limits for pets. Because she's just huge. Her face, petite and pointy, is deceptive. When she lies down, it's sort of obscene how wide her stomach is. Freja is the cat most likely to be seen on Il Bel Centro's facebook page, as she is utterly ridiculous. She sleeps in the bidet, and likes to "help" me hang laundry by walking erratically on the drying rack—toes gripping the plastic strips—when I'm trying to hang clothes. She has been known to idiotically walk to the edge of the rack, so that the whole thing comes crashing down. Her favorite thing to do, more than sleep in the bidet, more than shedding on the drying rack, is to nestle against Nicolas. If he doesn't come when I call him for a meal, it's because he's trapped under something kitty. When I walk by his room, and hear her purring before I even see her smooshed against his side, I know they are both going to look at me with eyes half-lidded in snoozy contentment.
Juno is as attached to my hip as Freja is to Nicolas's. She's my writing companion, and there are few things cozier to me than to have her firmly draped across my side, head buried on my forearm, while I'm writing. So now when you read my posts, you can imagine that Juno is wedged against me. She's here right now. She loves burrowing against me so much that after dinner, when I start walking upstairs, she dashes in front of me to meet me at the bed. I mean dashes with an audible gallop. Juno, like Freja, is no lightweight. If I take too long to come and cuddle, Juno will either lunge the top of her head at my knees with a bird-like chirrup, or stand behind me and claw as high as she can. If I am wearing loose pants, she has been known to pull them down in her quest to get my attention. She is my constant companion, and when we thought she was lost forever, I was devastated.
Moving on to dogs, Bea is Brenda and Graziano's Bernese Mountain Dog. She was initially unsure of what to think of these bouncy humans we call children. She seems to love them now, though. She gets so close to Siena that she sits on Siena's feet. And then looks up at her with the sweetest expression. I've had talks with Bea about the fact that she is actually too big to be a lap dog, but I have a hard time refusing her when she sidles up to me, puts one paw on me, then another, and before I know it I'm buried under Bernese Mountain Dog.
Oh, Calimero. The dog with possibly just one eye. Part of me wants to bring him home and clean him up and keep him. But he is a wanderer, and there is no denying his transient ways. He is the town dog, and he has two states—a driven forward propulsion like he's late for a meeting, and melted into the ground like he'll never move again. We'll drive into Spello, and see him trotting in the borgo, heading towards the arch that marks the entrance to Spello. We'll do a few errands, and then drive up to the top of Spello, where we'll see him flopped in the piazza like he's been there all day. I've seen him in the countryside, he's followed me to my lesson with Angelo, I've spotted him eating out of cat food bowls in various alleys. I've tried many times to get a picture of him, but unless you are petting him, he is always on the move, and so physically restless that he's always blurry. But when you pet him, he collapses. It's hard, though, to pet him. It feels like the grime is alive and will attach itself to your very fingers. His armpits are the only part of him that is relatively clean. I've pet him there, to his groan of surrender. He's more approachable after a storm, but even then, it's hard to bring myself to pet him unless I budget time for a shower afterwards. I'm pretty sure I saw orange peels in his fur last time he passed me in the street.
There are other animals that we stop and talk to—Shiva (Paola's dog) and cats that live in the piazza that my younger two have dubbed names like "Swan" and "Shadow" and "Mist"—but we don't have photographs of those. But I hope that this gives you a taste of our non-human companions in Spello. It wasn't something we sought out, but having these cats show up at our window, and observing the patterns of their lives in which our own are irrelevant, and enjoying the small greetings, is part of what makes our time here feel grounded and beautiful.
And now, let's see if you are prepared for a trip to Spello. Can you name these dogs and cats that would inevitably be part of your visit to our town?