the hard bits …
It’s supposed to be snowing, but I think that forecast was just a cruel joke played on those of us trying to get spring earth readied for garden plantings now that it is no longer a soupy mess … and on those of us gaining our land legs back after a sea of wild winter, gazing through a wash of sun and the new-life-green of freshly bursting oak leaves to the horizon of summer … certainly a cruel joke to those who live a bit further up the mountain, who have had to dig snow caves into their homes through drifts that reach up to second story windows. No – the sun is shining today! Moggie is asleep at my feet, sprawled on his furry back in the warm light that pours through the window, four white-splashed paws to the heavens. Djuna Cupcake – Mr. Lab by night, Dr. Border Collie by day – is at my side, boring into me with those human eyes … “let’s go come on come on come on, let’s go, it’s time to get going with the chores, already – Madame Slacker Person.” Once the sun is up and/or he is out of bed (he has been known to keep us from making the bed until 10 AM.) … and Mr. Lab has been banished for the day … my darling, crazy boy is ready to get on with it, but this morning before we move out to the horses and the old lady goats I need to write a bit about Margarita.
All The Little Graces is based to some degree in truth. It’s most essential element, in addition to the usual balmy air … hot sun … calm, azure waters and earth, steeped in mystery and bedecked with Olive and Antiquity, all found in perfect abundance in Greece, is an ugly, very loud, small stray dog named Margarita. She, and the rest of the tribe of the streets are the ‘in truth’ part.
Margarita found us in the autumn of 1990. Paul and I were traveling in Greece with our daughter Breelyn, then 13, and friends Mikail and Yvonne and were just at the beginnings of a six week long lush Aegean island adventure. I swear the needy creatures smell Bree and I coming. That dog barked her way around and through our peaceful island neighborhood evenings and eventually into all of our hearts. But of course, this wee agitator – who we came to find was simply protecting her litter of three pups – fit perfectly into my island bliss, and Bree, with a magic only the children possess, went to work immediately, whispering love and trust until the crazy little dog’s defenses melted away. She was a scrappy hellion, a wily, ugly street-smart bitch, and a veteran survivor even at the tender age of 4 or 5 … we didn’t ever really know how old she was … but she had a heart that was bigger than Big. Though we never would know how many of her other litters had survived, those three babes she was furiously protecting then were soon swept off to loving homes with two young travelers from the Netherlands. By the time Margarita had wormed her way into our beds (Oh, poor Matoula, our beloved landlady …) she was a big part of our daily lives; at the very least she knew where to find a warm bed and a cup of kindness at the end of each day. We could see that she knew her way around the town, had friends – and enemies – here and there and it wasn’t long before it became quite obvious to us that she had loved and lost ‘someone’ before we came into her life … obvious, because she had a name … She knew what humans’ beds were for (They were for her, of course!) … She loved to be tickled … And once she loved us, she wouldn’t let us out of her sight.
On our initial trip to the same island, in 1986, we had only seen what we wanted to see; the magnificent ruins and ancient art, pristine beaches, plentiful OUZO, feta and kalamata and the fat and glossy cats on a whitewashed wall overlooking the sparkling sea … even carefully tended ponies that were used to transport cases of wine from the ferry to the tavernas. We fell deeply in love, then, with the culture and the people and ‘our’ island’s lush, whitewashed beauty –– but in 1990, with Margarita at our sides, we began to see through another lens … we saw another Greece, one darkly populated by thin, wary animals slinking through the streets who suffered at the ignorant hand of Humans.
How in the world had we missed that before?
Perhaps it was as simple as … that Greece is one of the most beautiful, magical and incredibly hospitable places on earth … a country and her archipelago steeped in an infinite history and blessed with people of great heart, people of the earth and sea with a depth and wisdom unlike any other people I’ve met. Beautiful Greece had cast her spell on us.
In earning the trust of the little dog we were immediately set upon a winding, cobbled maze of adventures that took our breath away … some were more lovely than lovely, some seemed conjured from the materials of our darkest nightmares. There, in that crazy beautiful place of Peace, Margarita opened our eyes to her tribe – the countless hungry dogs and cats that lived in bushes and begged at taverna tables and ran the island’s roads and beaches, bickered over scraps at the garbage bins and hunkered under discarded vehicles, fiercely defending their young.Many were sickly, and all of the females over six months of age were pregnant. Sterilization surgery was not something at all easy to come by there at the time. And forget about vaccinations, for there wasn’t ever a vet even to be found on the island! We came to see how people treated the animals. In our ramblings through the country we found thin, angry dogs chained short with nothing to eat but a crust of bread swimming in curdled goat milk. And mules … tethered in fields, wearing halters of braided metal (what??) with flat nosepieces that upon closer inspection were found to have dug so far into flesh that it was growing over the metal. Worst of all was the seasonal poisonings of the strays – in 1990 and beyond, sanctioned by the island municipality, poisoning was the way to cleanse the island of what was thought to be something touristswouldn’t want to see. Skinny hungry little dogs and cats.
Whole neighborhoods of strays would go missing at a time.
This ‘seeing’ was not for the faint of heart. I wept a lot.
–– I do have to stop here and take a moment to defend this place and it’s people and loudly declare that there were many who loved the animals, kind people who looked after a street posse and had taken in a stray or two … evidenced by the occasional glossy, happy cat or well fed dog we would see perched on a neighborhood stoop or skipping along at the end of a leash … and there was always a clan of contented felines holding court morning and evening at the island’s fish market in the harbor. This is not just a horror story! The sad realities simply overshadowed the happy ones. ––
As all the little graces go, there was also much goodness that tumbled around our knowing and loving Margarita. To this day we enjoy deep connection with people we consider to be family, people of incredible kindness and generosity … and we are the beneficiaries of an ongoing education that offers us better knowledge of Greece’s long and deep history, an education that has encouraged an understanding of ‘why’ people may have acted the way they did towards the animals. The ‘why’ does nothing at all to excuse the behavior – to me, there is never, never anything that can excuse bad behavior towards the voiceless ones, be them animal or human, or to our Great Mother earth for that matter – but it offers the ability to see people’s actions with a bit more compassion, and helps me to act with less demand. I can perhaps hope to ‘show’ a way to a better caring for the animals.I have loved that little island and it’s people madly for over 25 years, and over the course of that time I’ve seen a general intolerance for the animals shift for the better, and soften a great deal … the situation is not perfect and it may never be, but change for the good is change for the good! In the mid 90’s came the birth of a home for the unwanted dogs – a place of immeasurable love, run by foreign women/angels. It has seen its ups and downs, but it still stands and is able to home an amazing number of animals to other EU countries, and the UK, yearly. But even today the shelter gets overwhelmed at times by the sheer numbers of lost and abandoned ones… the heartbreak of the stray animals of Greece still exists. Just as it does here. Just as it does anywhere in the world.
I will be returning to my island again in May, and the first thing I will do –– after a tsipouro and mezedes overlooking the still harbor while plying the begging cats at my feet with tasty tidbits –– is buy a few parcels of cat kibble and a bag filled with canned food and go off to look for the hungry ones hiding in the nooks and crannies.
Margarita’s story, and all of that adventure through the dark and into the light, begged to be told. Hopefully, with the aid of the beauty and peace of its Aegean heart, it can come to be of help to needy creatures, somewhere.