Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The puppy who chose freedom

Saturday evening we had some American friends at the house, and we all walked down to the doner shop together for dinner.  As we settled down at the cafe tables to eat, a puppy was making the rounds begging for handouts.  She was thin but not emaciated, mostly brown with white socks on her front paws and black and white stripes on her muzzle.

The kids have been wanting a pet for quite a while.  We had some turtles for a while in Kosova, but they died.  We've never had the conditions to keep a cat or dog.  Since Luke was born, we've shared a yard with the landlord (minus the two years during that time that we were on Stateside assignment).  Another factor is that we've tried to keep our house welcoming to our Muslim neighbors, many of whom are disgusted by indoor pets.  Then there's the issue of our lives straddling two continents.  We stay in Europe for four years then go back to the States for a year, then back to Europe again.  What do you do with a dog when it's time to move back and forth across the Atlantic?

I offered the kids compromises.  What about a hamster?  A guinea pig?  A nice rabbit?  But they weren't interested.  We have some colleagues here in Macedonia who work with the same organization we do, and they keep a dog.  It turns that taking a pet between countries does require some extra work but nothing insurmountable.  I know that my kids are growing up, and deep down I guess I feel that their childhood would have been deficient if they never had a dog or cat.  So I promised them that when we looked for a house, we would try to find one that had a yard where we could keep a dog.

One of the first things I noticed about our present house the first time I saw it was that tucked among the weeds and trash was a crudely made doghouse.  This was clearly a yard where it was possible to keep a dog.  (It turns out that the former owner kept, not one, but four dogs.  I'm starting to gather that a lot of neighbors were grateful to see him go!)  

So there we were at the doner shop with the kids pulling that, "Please, dad, can we keep her?" thing, and I said ok.  The black and white stripes on her muzzle suggested a badger, so I proposed the name Bella after a badger character in the book I've been reading to the kids at bedtime.  

Lydia carried Bella in her arms for the five minute walk home.   I could see that it was a bit of  a struggle for her.  While the dog was far from fully grown, she wasn't tiny either.  Halfway there I offered to relieve Lydia of her burden, but she insisted on going the distance herself.  

When we got within sight of home, I realized that we had a problem.  The house is surrounded by an iron fence with big gaps everywhere.  Only a fairly large dog would be unable to crawl out.  I don't know how the former owner kept them in unless he bought them when they were big.  Or maybe he kept them chained up.  I just hoped that once Bella tasted the affection (not to mention the puppy chow) that we had to offer, she would choose to stay.

The kids (our two and six guests) and Bella romped and played for hours that evening.  Lydia went to the grocery store on the corner and bought dog food, and we were amazed at how quickly the puppy wolfed it down.  It soon became evident that we were going to have to teach Bella some manners.  She nipped at the heels of the little ones and made them cry.  But overall we all found her very charming. 

During the course of the evening she darted in and out of the fence a few times but always came back. When our guests left and Lydia and Luke had to go inside for the night, Bella cried and whimpered at the door for a while as if to say, "Please come out and play with me some more!  Please don't leave me by myself!"

I awoke the next morning with apprehension.  Would she still be there?  She was waiting in the yard, and she wagged her tail enthusiastically when I walked out the door.  We had crossed the first big hurdle.  We fed her again and left for church hoping against hope that she would still be there when we got back.  She was.

After lunch I announced that Bella was going to get a bath. We decided that I would hold her down while Lydia would hose and shampoo her.  She firmly disliked the water and detested the shampoo even more.  It was all I could do to hold on to her while she wiggled and whimpered.  When it was done she shot through the fence and ran a little ways down the road where she rolled and rubbed on the asphalt trying to rid herself of the stench of Johnson's Baby Shampoo. That was the last we saw of her.

The kids didn't cry or anything.  The good thing is that they had had less than 24 hours to get attached to her.  On Monday afternoon Lydia was moping around the house, and she suddenly said, "Dad, is it ok if I go take a walk?"  

"Where are you thinking you want to go?" I asked.

"Oh, you know... down by the doner place."

I understood.  "Of course it's ok," I said.  

She was back in a very short time.  I knew before I even asked that Bella wasn't there.

We'll get anothe puppy eventually.  I still don't know how I'm going to do it.  We can't afford to put up a new fence even if our landlord would allow it.  I know that in the US you can string wires underneath the permiter of your yard and outfit your dog with a special collar, but I doubt that that is available here.  After having read Shiloh out loud to the kids last year, none of us wants to be the kind of person who keeps his dog chained up.  Maybe we'll build a puppy pen inside the yard -- just until our he or she gets too big to fit through the fence.  We'll figure something out.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What's so great about sliced bread?

Life in the Balkans certainly has its deficits, but going out in the morning to the corner bakery to pick up a loaf of bread still warm from the wood-fired oven is not one of them.  Having to slice it myself is a small price to pay.

In our early days in Albania there were sometimes bread shortages and consequently long lines at the bakery.   Let me rephrase that; there were never really lines in the strictest sense of the word.  More like a rugby scrum.   Then there was the time I chipped a tooth on a rock in a loaf of bread.  Someone later explained to me that the rocks get in there when they sweep the flour off the floor.  But none of these traumatic experiences -- having to fight for my food and having to go to the dentist -- were enough to put me off Balkan bread.

I got to talking about bread the other day with a friend from this part of the world who spent a little time in the States.  Overall I think that he was pretty overwhelmed with a lot of his  experiences, but our American bread made a lasting impression on him.  "I put in the fridge and forgot about it," he said.  "A month later, it was exactly the same!  It hadn't changed even the tiniest bit -- for good or for bad!"

I realize that the old saying, "the greatest thing since sliced bread" is probably a weak target since most people use it with a certain amount of irony.  Speaking of old sayings, remember the line from the Lord's prayer:  "Give us this day our daily bread"?  Here in this part of the world, that still makes sense.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sworn Virgins (not to be confused with American teens who take a chastity pledge)

Here's a fasinating article about Albania's "sworn virgins" -- a unique and little known cultural phenomenon. 

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Redneckism as a global phenomenon

So I’m hanging out with my friend Gary from Michigan, right? And he keeps referring to certain of his co-workers as “rednecks” – which leads me to assume that they must be transplants from the Deep South, but no, it turns out that they’re native Michiganders.* Well I’m wondering whether someone shouldn’t sue somebody -- like Greece sued Denmark to keep them from selling white cheese and calling it “feta”. Don’t we have proprietary use of the word “redneck” south of the Mason-Dixon Line?

Fast forward a year. We’re here in the Republic of Macedonia, and we’ve found the house where we hope to live for the next four years. The current owner is a surgeon and the ex minister of health**. He bought the house about a year ago, but he has never lived in it. He claims that he bought it just because he liked the location and that he didn’t even bother to look inside. I’m sure he’s exaggerating, but I can certainly see why he wouldn’t want us to assume that this house reflects his taste. As we get to know the place, I feel like I’m getting to know the ex owner, and I’m starting to believe that redneckism really is a global phenomenon.  

You know Jeff Foxworthy’s, “You might be a redneck” routine? Well there’s one that goes something like, “If the last time you mowed your yard you found two cars you didn’t know you had, you might be a redneck.” When we first rented this house, the yard was a jungle. Let’s see, how can I describe how bad it was… I mean I was like expecting a rhino to come charging out at me or something. Let me interject here that it’s going to be a really nice yard. It has grape vines, apricot and plum trees, and rose bushes. But you would never have known that before we started hacking, sawing, and chopping. Actually I didn’t find any cars, but I did find a rusty truck bumper, a rotting basketball backboard, a toilet tank and numerous other assorted objects in various states of decomposition. 

“So what?” you say. “Just having junk in an overgrown yard doesn’t make you a redneck.” Well hang on, I’m not finished yet. This guy’s idea of interior decorating was to glue parquet flooring to the walls in the entry hallway and dining room. I thought it was pretty innovative of him (though I do wish that he hadn’t left the edges so raggedy and crooked). But it really makes Mary want to climb the walls. (Get it? Climb the walls…) And did I tell you about the garage? He had some kind of pit rigged up in the floor – apparently for changing the oil.

Still not convinced? Just wait. When we were touring the house with the realtor, we noticed that the kitchen was smaller than some closets we’ve seen. We also noticed a strange floor to ceiling depression in the dining room wall about a foot wide and a foot deep and covered with a locking wrought iron door. Have you guessed it yet? Yep, a built in gun cabinet! So I would like to propose the following addition to Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck routine. “If your gun cabinet is bigger than your wife’s kitchen, you might be a redneck.”***

I have to say, I’m starting to feel truly at home!

*That’s really what you call them. I asked someone from Michigan and that’s what he told me. Which raises the question in my mind whether the female of the species should be referred to as a “Michigoose.”

** Kind of like their surgeon general. Except that the Republic of Macedonia only has two million people. So maybe it would be like the surgeon general of New Mexico. Does anybody know if New Mexico has a surgeon general?

***For those of you too redneck to recognize hyperbole, no, the gun cabinet is not literally larger than the kitchen.