Critters, chapter three: Buster.

Sometimes things happen in different places, for different reasons, and move  inexorably along an invisible line toward an unexpected conclusion.   We had this experience, with a horse, and a dog, and two open gates, far distant from each other.

Buster was our first Maremma sheepdog, a large, sweet-smelling snowball of an animal,  who was  maturing,  healthily,  towards his retirement.  He was an excellent guard dog, most of the time, but if there were female pheromones in the air he could climb an eight foot fence as if he were Spiderman.   Always attentive to any changes in his surroundings, we counted on him to alert us to arrivals, especially those people, animals,  or automobiles that were not included in his repertoire of acceptable objects.   We were his flock.

My son attended an elementary school far from here, on the opposite side of town.  It was the same building to which my husband had trudged every day as a child.   There is a distinct possibility that  some of the desks  were the same ones he  sat behind on those  days when the classroom windows mocked the children with  their tempting views of grass and sunshine.   At the back of this school building, there was a fenced area on the edge of the valley below.  Even now, the fenced area is used to keep livestock; sheep, goats, the occasional cow.   On this day, a horse.

A moment of distraction, a latch not properly closed, and this horse found it was suddenly free.  But freedom in town has a different countenance than  freedom in the country, and the streets are in constant movement.  Cars, people, bicycles, motorbikes, and above all asphalt and noise conspired to alarm the horse to the point of panic, and it began to run through the streets.  It galloped away from the school, around the road which rings the town, and on towards imaginary pastures, despite the best efforts of some to slow it down.

Two kilometers, four, six, and the horse continued its gallop until it came to the long gravel road leading eventually to our house.   Our yard is fenced, and we have a large gate which normally keeps the dogs in and intruders out.  This day,  because we had been  doing yardwork, it was standing slightly open.  I heard frantic barking, and inside the house I felt a pounding rhythmical vibration.  At the window there was  an incredible sight, a large horse furiously throwing up divots of earth as it raced around and around the house in circles.    Buster was close on its heels and the animal was becoming more agitated, spooked  by his attempts to nip its lower legs as it ran.   It continued to circle madly, ignorant of the open gate by which it entered, and which  would allow it to tear off down the road, away from the dog.

I used to be a horse owner, so I know a little bit about how to behave around them.  But a panicked horse is anything but rational, and it is dangerous.    Not having the means to calm it, I opted for guiding it out the gate by creating a diversion.  I ran to grab a hoe, a towel, anything to wave in the air and cause the horse to change trajectory.  Suddenly I heard a crack, the unmistakable sound of  a bat hitting a baseball hard enough to send it hurtling out of the park.   But this was not going to be a home run for the team.  I turned, dodging as the horse ran straight toward me and the open gate, to see Buster sitting, dazed, pawing energetically at his muzzle.  Blood poured from his mouth.   It was one of those moments when disbelief gives way to knowledge that things have changed, and for the worse.

As the horse pounded out of the gate and back up the road,  I prepared myself for what I would see.  The horse had kicked Buster with such force directly in the teeth that his entire boney upper jaw,  teeth included, had been detached from the front of his mouth. It was still attached by the muscles and some of the gum, but it was no longer a viable part of him.  The vet was called, antibiotics and pain relievers were administered, the injured area was removed, and we waited.  At the time our small town vet, who was occupied primarily with livestock,  made housecalls only.  He did not have any walk-in facilities, so we had to do without major operations on our animals.  Buster had been neutered in our own garage on a picnic table, with the aid of some kitchen utensils and a massive dose of horse tranquilizer.

After a time, poor Buster healed.  He required softer food, and his fighting days were over, but he got along comfortably enough.  I keep one of his enormous canine teeth as a memento of that day.  He has long since passed away and moved on to that other place where good dogs dwell.   We never had any contact from the owner of the horse, assuming that an unhappy accident is no grounds for exacting any payment or apology.   Another horse has never arrived here unexpectedly, thundering down our road with evil intent.  But I often think of Buster when casual circumstances  seem to align, improbably, and give rise to a  momentous event.

“At Pasture”, oil on wooden block,  4 x 6 x 2 inches, 2011

(above)  “Rusty Gate. oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2010

Fostering a tradition

My children, who will shortly have both feet planted firmly in adulthood, always had to make do with my accounts of celebrating various festivities in the United States.  They never had the chance, until recently, to experience an American Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or a Fourth of July  in the United States.   It isn’t easy carrying on a tradition in isolation, but I did my best,  and I am confident that our bittersweet memories of my attempts to instill American memories in absentia will be fondly remembered.

As Halloween neared every year, I would begin seeking out a pumpkin to carve.  Most pumpkins in Italy are the type which are flattish and have loads of thick flesh, and are therefore  difficult to carve.  But at my special request,  the greengrocer would eventually procure me a round one, maybe two, on which  the boys and I could practice our creativity.  Messes were made.  Candy was furtively purchased.

With approaching dusk, we would prepare, letting the boys dress up as they saw fit; a cowboy, or a ninja, or some hybrid version of a soldier.  I used  a small bungalow which served as my studio, about forty yards from the house,  and I would position myself there with a bowl of candy while my husband stayed at the main house with his bowl.  Lights were turned off, and the jack-o-lanterns glowed as the boys rushed breathlessly back and forth in the dark, gradually filling their bags with candy and treats.  The doorbell must be rung each time!  What a surprise to find mom or dad again every time  the door opened, and my boys were nothing if not sporting about the absurdity of this little farce.  After all, there was candy!   Of course this artificial creation of Halloween filled me with a kind of desperate nostalgia, because during these years I simply did not know if they would ever have the genuine experiences which, for me, had been such a memorable and integral part of my childhood.  And they were growing up fast.

There was general consternation among our friends because back in those years, most were not  familiar with Halloween.   In the  early nineties, when the idea was beginning to catch on, the few kids who dared to ring buzzers and ask at condominiums and apartments around town were often met with scowls and outright hostility.  Children would have to be careful that their requests of “dolcetto o scherzetto” weren’t met with a shower of profanity, a swinging broom,  or even pebbles thrown from a balcony!  Kids were often chased away by angry old-timers, scandalized by the encroachment, yet again,  of America on their sound Italian traditions.

This is changing rapidly today, as Halloween is celebrated with great gusto.  The population of the town is divided unevenly between the many who love an excuse to party for any reason, and the few who resent “commercial holidays which exist only to make money” being foisted upon them by stores.  The tremendous rise in Chinese imports may also have played a role in the speed at which Halloween was introduced.  And of course there is America, ever present,  always ready to offer another “americanismo” for no good reason.   St. Valentine’s day has been borrowed, repackaged by American culture, and re proposed complete with cards, heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and petulant girlfriends expecting to score something shiny.   If I could express my point of view simply, I would say that their  resentment is equaled by my own at having  had “my”  traditional holiday  hijacked for these very same, highly commercial,  reasons.  I cannot easily accept the idea that the festivity was somehow forced upon an innocent culture.    Now, the festivities of  Halloween play a bigger role every year in Italy, with themed parties, invitation-only balls,  and children ringing doorbells.   It has been adopted in record time, and yes, sales are good.    Fewer die-hard traditionalists object every year to its observance.  Jack-o-lanterns shine from windows and the balconies of apartment blocks.

It is a strange feeling, as an isolated American, seeing the adoption and growth  of a traditional holiday,  as it morphs into something similar yet different, tailored and modified to fit another culture.  I suppose Thanksgiving is safe from being franchised, as I don’t think the Italians could justify celebrating the survival of Protestants in the New World, although the Cristoforo Colombo connection is always a possibility.   Hundreds of thousands of immigrants to  the United States must have a special feeling in their hearts about it I am sure.    Every year I have prepared my best version of turkey and dressing, pumpkin pie and whipped cream.    It is amusing to me that there are friends in Bernalda  who insist I make them up a plate of this Thanksgiving food every year because they love the unusual flavors.  At Halloween, I have been consulted about pumpkin carving and the best methodology for covering the most territory during the evening.  My sons instructed their friends about how gaining entrance to one large condominium could make or break the night’s haul.

I think my boys have absorbed these traditions seamlessly, and they happily participate now as if they had been living as Americans  all along.     I suppose I can say that having done my best to instill these family traditions in my kids, it will be up to them now to carry on, wherever they may decide to live.   I foresee them bringing the Befana to Christmas, celebrating their saints’ name days, and  observing  April 25, the liberation of Italy from the fascists,  as an important date for both their cultures.  Along with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter’s various manifestations, all are important to a solid understanding of our cultural traditions.  Hopefully strong roots make  for a sturdier tree.

“Out of the Cage”  mixed media on paper, 2000


I tend to praise the behavior of American drivers while I am in Italy, and yet I am amazed at how badly some people drive when I am in the United States.  Greener grass I suppose.

“Mixed Signals”  mixed media on paper, 2000

Driving in Italy is interesting.  I mourn the way it used to be before the European Union began tightening its iron fist of bureaucratic restrictions in all areas, but especially regarding the roads.  Back in the good old days it was every man for himself,  which,  if you were young and agile with excellent reflexes,  was a magical world for drivers.   Old people in small three-wheeled vehicles that require no license were above the rules, and the rest of us were well-aware that the hares needed to avoid the erratic and oblivious turtles.  Lights flashed,  horns blared and fingers were displayed,  two-lane roads magically morphed into six-laners.   If you needed to be somewhere in a hurry, you could press the accelerator to the floor and hurtle along at breathtaking speeds.  At 110 miles an hour  you could be there in half the time!   It was fabulous.

Now, things have changed.  Speeds have been reduced as technology has been developed to monitor behavior.  Since the introduction of scale-able points on  drivers’ licenses,  all the fun is over.   The highways are no longer raceways, and everyone inches along at or below the designated speed of 130 kilometers an hour, about 80 MPH, wary of the “Tutor” system of monitoring all drivers’ speeds between two random points.  You never know where this monitoring starts or where it ends, and amusingly folks who don’t understand how it works will hit the brakes as they pass under the highway-wide  signs announcing that their passage in fact is being spied upon and recorded.  Small towns have discovered the Midas-like potential of speed cameras for producing revenue.  You will never know until months later, when a crisp picture of your car and you shows up in the mail with a hefty fine.  The speed limits on secondary roads are often ludicrously slow:  warning signs will suggest slowing to speeds which will get you killed if you observe them, and drivers learn quickly that they travel at these speeds at their own peril.   Of course the overall effect is that occasionally there is a warning sign which should actually be heeded, and accidents will inevitably occur.  Curves are rarely banked, which is incredibly dangerous, and is in fact my number-one pet peeve.  Just look for the flowers at the side of the road telling you that the curve is deadly.  Other curves,  such as highway access ramps,  often will be  inconsistently-shaped and morph from a large and comfortable cloverleaf  to a hairpin suddenly and without warning.   Most roads are totally flat, so if it rains,  you can count on them being covered with inches of water in no time at all.

The best place to practice your driving in Italy is the supermarket.   Get yourself a cart on a busy day before lunchtime and learn to maneuver the aisles.  People will not make way for you.  They will stop and block everyone else for no reason.  They will leave their cart parked in the center of the aisle and wander off to chat.  They will veer off suddenly at drastic angles  and back up without looking.  They will play a subtle game of chicken,  poker-faced, as carts pass and nick each other’s wheels.   And yet…the ballet of  people and objects is wonderful to behold.   No one gets angry, the flow is constant and everyone ends up in a formation similar to a line at checkout.   This is how we drive here.

I have to thank my long-time friend Ann for her metaphor about driving in Italy; that it is amoeba-like, a constantly changing formation which adapts to itself and flows over the road.  Each driver takes into account all other drivers, everyone is constantly vigilant and prepared for unexpected movement.  Lanes are only suggestions.  I think of American roads, with everyone gripping the wheel and blithely staying within the lines of their lane, confident that if they adhere to the rules all will be well.  Wouldn’t it be better, on the highway for example, that  if someone needed to move out of the first lane into the second, that you should anticipate and move into the third?  I am convinced that an accident, even if caused by “the other guy,”  is everyone’s fault.  If the final goal is to avoid contact with another vehicle, then why wouldn’t this be the case?

I will admit that I am always ready to criticize the fast cars which pass me with two wheels in my lane, and yet I understand not to take this personally.  Almost everyone here will drive on the center white line if there are no other cars near, and often even if there are.  And I do hate it when I come around a curve and find one lane blocked by a clot of stopped cars, a group of daytrippers munching on sandwiches, conferring with each other  and smoking.  And my favorite annoyance, someone out for a drive on a narrow road, scrawny elbow out the window—the glass rolled halfway up to avoid drafts—crawling along at fifteen miles an hour.  It might appear that they have never noticed their rear-view mirror, but I can assure you that they not only know that there is someone behind them, but they are enjoying this small moment of megalomania.  I have known people to hang a white cloth out the window of their car, a universal sign that someone is on their way to the emergency room, in order to bypass slow traffic.

So my theory about driving is as follows:  If everyone is constantly vigilant, there will be fewer problems on the roads, wherever you find yourself driving.  If you know that there may be unexpected occurrences ahead,  you will be better- prepared when they happen.  Yes, that is a goat up ahead.  No, I don’t believe that group of people standing in the road are planning on moving out of the way.   Isn’t that guy in the three-wheeler going the wrong way?  If everyone followed the rules and stayed within their designated lines,  oblivious of the organic nature of traffic flow,  wouldn’t their smug complacency eventually lead to more  rather than fewer accidents?

“Navigate”  oil on canvas, 2008

All dogs, all the time









When we chose to live in the country, close to town but not in it, we dreamed of peace and quiet. In actuality, there has been less of both than we expected.

Tractors can be heard growling and squeaking most days, and even at night. We had a neighbor who apparently dealt with his insomnia by getting his plowing done in the depth of night, and many times we were awakened at two or three in the morning by his activities. Our piece of land was included in a wildlife sanctuary when we bought it. but shortly thereafter it was “opened” to hunters who could partake of the increase in animals in our area. Hunters get up early, and in Italy, there is no such thing as a “Posted No Hunting” area. They are supposed to keep a certain distance from habitations, but we are showered with shot regularly and are often reminded of what it might sound like to live in a war zone. Because of the excellent acoustics, people are always yelling at each other across the gulch. It is a highly overrated attribute. Once we were trying to talk with our neighbor on the cell phone and kept getting an echo, until we realized that we were hearing his actual voice, and more clearly without the help of the phone. I always know when any chicken within a mile radius has laid an egg. And then there are the dogs.

We have dogs, three of them now, two great hairy white maremma sheepdogs and one tiny, hysterical yapper dog, a volpino Italiano. We love them all, and they do their job of keeping us informed of irregularities as they occur. The small dog alerts the big dogs to any intruder, visiting bird, or bushes which are misbehaving. She is the brain behind the terrifying barking of the big dogs, and she will “drive” the big dogs from a position of invulnerability under their bellies by nipping at their tender parts. We have always had dogs here, and they have always barked. However a few years back, our neighbor across the fosso sold his place to some interesting people and things changed. Little did we imagine that we were in for a crash course in canine total immersion.

Two middle-aged sisters and their ancient mother made a trade with the owner, his land and house for their in-town palazzo where their twenty dogs were living up on the terrazza. This trade enabled those who had been living near them to finally get a good night’s sleep, and the sisters to begin accumulating dogs in a serious way. And that is what they did. Along with increasing numbers of dogs came the haphazard construction of facilities for them, a kind of canine favela. Mornings, one of the sisters could be seen trudging to town to gather bits and pieces of meat left over at the markets, and trudging back with her plastic sacks full. On days when there was too much to carry, she could be seen hauling her bags of food in their elegant but very old Mercedes. Apparently the job of seeing after the ever-growing “cowardice of curs” also lead to neglect of personal hygiene matters, and word spread that they could be detected at a distance by their distinctive, and unpleasant, odor.

We learned that rather than trying to fight against our heartbreaking loss of tranquility, it would be better to adapt. It is amazing that when the mind is directed to ignore something, a sound for instance, it can learn as long as the motivation to do so is positive. We learned to ignore the canine choir at feeding time, up to 250 dogs all vocalizing their desperate need to eat and survive another day. Luckily outside of feeding time they rarely all barked at once, but when they did, it was breathtaking. The sisters themselves contributed a continuous stream of x-rated invective, at each other and the dogs, so I was often thankful that my boys were old enough to have heard most of the terminology before. It would have been an incredibly effective method for learning Italian obscenities.

A few years later, a blitz carried out by the authorities has carted the dogs away to typical Italian no-kill facilities, and one can only hope that they are better taken care of, although I doubt it. Most are lager-like at best. While it is not officially illegal to collect dogs, it is illegal to create a situation which endangers the public health. We were always neutral and kept our peace with the sisters, who have again begun to accumulate dogs as the days go by. While most of the community is disdainful of them, and is always ready to criticize and condemn, I can’t help but have a grudging admiration for them. It has to do with the backbone it takes for a woman in a small southern Italian town to live the life she chooses, regardless of the disapproval of society and its sometimes rigid strictures. It must not be easy for them.

As to the dogs, I hope that somewhere along the line more people here will learn that spaying and neutering is the best way to eliminate animal suffering, even if it isn’t the most direct route. Most veterinarians I have talked to over the years have expressed their reluctance to carry out the operation on my dogs, as they felt it was inhumane to deprive the animals of their normal life functions. And yet, I can’t say how many times I have found abandoned puppies, mistreated and tortured dogs, newborn litters deposited in dumpsters. Maybe we need people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and take action, something to alleviate the suffering, even if it means we have to tolerate the noise.

Bark bark!