Follow the adventure from the beginning

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Flat Mates

Geneva, Switzerland

I hate dogs. Okay, sorry, that was mean. I don’t hate dogs. I just don’t like them. And you know what’s worse? That I actually feel bad about not liking them – not so much because I’m worried about hurting the dog’s feelings, but more because I’m worried about hurting yours. See, every time I confess my sentiments, old ladies drop their grocery bags mid-stride, babies cry, like “Mommy, don’t let her hold me,” and animal lovers everywhere shift their shoulders to think that maybe I’m the evil witch who abandoned the puppy they had the heart to adopt last month.

But it’s not like this. I swear. More than anything, my feelings toward the canine species are just indifferent. I mean, it’s not like I’m afraid of them. I also know that some cute little puppies are more endearing than others, and that none of them should ever be mistreated. But in general, dogs just don’t make me feel much of anything. Give me a good book, and I’ll swoon. Pass me a baby, and I’ll usually say aw. But ask me to play with your puppy, and I’ll pick my nose. I’d like to think that it’s a simple question of taste – one that couldn’t make me any worse of a person than your preference for stir-fry and my partiality for couscous.

Having said this, it should make no sense to you at all when I tell you that I am now dog sitting in Switzerland. Don’t laugh. This is serious business. For the next eight days, I have one friend in all of Geneva. And his name is McLovin. McLovin the Cairn Terrier. McLovin the recent addition to Arturo and Katia’s family (friends from Mexico who moved to Switzerland to work for the World Economic Forum). McLovin the toasted marshmallow fur ball. McLovin the ultimate lap beast.

Oh heavens, if only my employers could hear me now. I insist – Katia and Arturo – it’s not what you think. I know I told you that I like dogs during our interview, but what I really meant was that I was going to try and turn over a new leaf. Before McLovin’s caring parents leave me with the keys to their apartment, Katia says:

“We’ll be gone for a few weeks, and you’re welcome to stay in our place for as long as you like – just promise you’ll remember to pay a little attention to McLovin.”

“Yeah,” Arturo adds. “Promise to love him, and cherish him, and be faithful forever. Amen.” He smiles, and if it weren’t for the absence of the Catholic wedding lasso and the holy water, I’d feel as though he'd just spoken my marriage vows.

“Of course,” I say. “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll make sure that McLovin is cared for in the most professional manner,” ‘cause Lord forbid that anybody ask me to get personal here.

After all, a job is a job. You have to draw the line somewhere. It’s just not healthy to bring work into the home (except when your work lives in the home with you – then it’s a whole other situation). But when Arturo and Katia offer to become a part of my journey by lending me their posh two-bedroom apartment right next to the lake Geneva shares with France in exchange for my services as caregiver with McLovin, what sweeter opportunity could have come my way? This is financial crisis travel at it’s finest! See the world, one dog-sitting gig at a time. How hard can it be anyway, right? One cup of food in the morning, and another at night. Four poops a day. Fresh water every couple of hours and a long mid-morning walk. Simple.


Katia leaves me a note with detailed instructions.

Take McLovin out for his morning pee-pee 9-9:30am

It’s 9:15am and I feel something wet on my scalp. And something hot in my ears. McLovin has discovered the most perfect place to rub and scratch his rag ears – my morning mop hair (a step beyond bed head). His short quick snuffs tickle my neck and for day number one I’m thinking – this isn’t so bad. It actually feels kind of nice to have some early company (McLovin, let’s forget about the “sit” and “play dead” basics I know you’ve already mastered – “Go make me some coffee!”).

And that’s when I start to feel something kind of wet and slimy wiggling back and forth on my bare bicep too. Hold on a minute. I’m confused. It’s early, I know. But Mr. McLovin, if your snout is up by my hair and ears, then what’s… Oh no. Oh no no no. You aren’t rubbing that on me. Please. And then it clicks. Just like the one-two hump of McLovin’s hindquarters. Right there on my bicep, next my shoulder, and then I say, “Bad! McLovin! Down! Sit!”

I grab his leash, while slipping on a pair of sandals. “I guess it’s time to take you for your pee-pee.”


Call McLovin’s friend Diegito the Fox Terrier (022 71319 63). Schedule a play date 10:30-11:30am.

Is this for real? McLovin has friends? How is this possible? I’m in a city, completely alone, and this dog is busy fulfilling social engagements. I feel absurd. But ok. I promised to execute my responsibilities professionally, so here goes.

A Mexican woman picks up on the other end of my phone call: “Bueno?”

“Diego’s mom?” I say, my lips pressed into a smile against the phone receiver. Diego’s mom’s name is also Kathia (only spelled with an “h” because her last name is O’Farrill Duque – descendants of Irish immigrants to Cuba, though Kathia’s family later moved farther west to Mexico City).

“Hey, Cristina! Glad you’re calling. Diego’s ready to get over to the dog park. Do you feel like coming with Macarroni?” McLovin’s name is versatile. It turns into Max, Mr. Mac, Mac-Truck, and Macarroni – depending on your mood. The greatest part is that McLovin loves all his names. Just say them happily and he responds.

I recognize Kathia at the park because she’s the only one talking to her dog in Spanish. We start chatting like many mothers do. You know, saying things like, “Well, McLovin’s poop was a little runny today. Do you think that’s ok?”

But when I start to notice that Kathia’s Chilanga sense of humor is a breath of fresh air, I feel a very fast connection. We begin enjoying the afternoon without having to rely on the dogs. We jibber-jabber for hours in that quick and slow southern Mexico Spanish that slides over me like icing on a cake. And we all know that one jibber-jabber leads to another, which leads to a six pack of beers, and then dinner over at her place with her French-Mexican husband after he gets home from work.

Kathia came to Europe for love, and got married just a few months ago. She tells me about what it was like to leave home and accept the “you’re a crazy woman” blessings from her mother and from her grandmother prior to the wedding. She listens to stories about my journey and invites me over for chocolate cake and coffee in the afternoons (if you've ever wondered what two unemployed people are doing on any given afternoon in Geneva, we are most likely eating chocolate cake).

She takes me to a rugby match with her husband and a group of his friends in France over the weekend, and introduces me as her Mexican friend (and to my surprise, no one questions this claim). She patiently accepts a phone call from me at 1am one morning when I swear that I’m hearing noises in the night and tells me to go back to bed and that everything’s ok and that she’ll be over first thing tomorrow.  Kathia helps me with my French for hours at a time and her jokes – her Chilanga style – wash me with a new wave of energy and motivate me to keep pushing until the end of my trip.

Dear little McLovin; thank you very much for introducing me to my new friend, Kathia.


Feed McLovin dinner between 6:30 and 7:00pm

One of the best parts about dog sitting is having access to a kitchen. With real pots and pans. And spices. And oils. I make a quick trip to the market everyday in Geneva to buy fresh produce for my evening meals. And McLovin watches me cook.

Sautéed spinach with olive oil and lemon juice, sprinkled with raisons and pine nuts. Whole-wheat pasta with garlic vegetable sauce. Uff. And local wine. Don’t forget the wine. And McLovin continues watching.

I turn on the evening news, and keep my dictionary handy to read the subtitles in French. I pour McLovin his evening cup of food and slowly savor mine while he inhales his in one quick breath. Then he sits next to me and watches TV. He puts his head in my lap and keeps me company while I eat my meal. It’s the first time in months that I’m able to enjoy my own cooking with the quiet yet comforting presence of a friend (no, I did not just call this dog my friend – sorry, I meant canine).

And so the days pass. I become less and less embarrassed about picking up McLovin’s poop on the sidewalk (watch out for the monstrous fines they’ll give you if you don’t take care of this thankless civic duty in Switzerland – they even have posts with “doggy bags” tied to them at every street corner). Everyone has a dog in Geneva because the Swiss, like the French, love their little companions.  And I’m not going to say that the whole experience doesn’t touch me in some way, because it does.

Actually, I can’t believe that when it’s time to leave, I’m even a little sad to say goodbye to this dusty, dirty little pure bred (was I supposed to bathe him?). I’m sad enough to give him a big hug and wish him all the best. But don’t worry – not quite sad enough to make McLovin a play date with a mutt of my own.



Footnote K: When instinct overcomes indifference…

I feel guilty now. You must think I’m an awful dog-hating monster. And to prove to you that I’m not as heartless as you think, I want to introduce you to Chipinque the cabbit (cat + rabbit) – the rabbigato that followed me from the U.S. all the way to Mexico.

One day, as I'm leaving work in Monterrey for my mid-afternoon siesta, I find him in the CEMEX parking lot. He’s small. So tiny and looking for warmth, snuggled up against the back left tire of Mustang Sally. I pick him up (never mind the bugs) and he pushes into my chest, claws dig deep, and he won’t let go. I pull my hands away but he stays on my shirt like Velcro.

I take him to a friend’s house and she says “ewwww!” In fact, her live-in maids find the cat running through the living room and are so disgusted by his bald spots that they throw him back out onto the street when I'm not looking. And it devastates me because all I can think about is the poor little baby, lost and alone again.

Eight hours later my friend calls. She says, “Your creature is back. And he’s hiding in a box in the backyard. We can’t get him to come out. You better get over here and pick him up.”

And so I rescue Chipinque again. This time, I take him to the vet and the doctor stares at the kitty with big, wide eyes. “You do know what this is right?”

“Yeah, a cat,” I say. “I found him at work.”

“No, no,” he says. “It’s a rabbigato. A cat-rabbit mix found only in the U.S. This cat is from your country. I don’t know how he found you, but he sure has come a long way.”

Don’t ask me why I’m so wrapped up in the doctor’s story, but I’m totally into it. It’s ok that the term “cabbit” is actually an impossible, mythological mix of species and that it really just refers to the Manx line of felines (tailless cats with longer hind legs than fore legs – hence their tendency to walk with a sort of hop – and a special affinity for swimming).

This cat is so ridiculous that I can’t not love it. He forces me to employ my instinct to nurture, and we become best buddies (what other cat do you know that showers with his master?).

Until one day when he gets attacked by a black bear, or a mountain lion – we never fully discover which. My elderly neighbor who’s always opening the knife drawer and threatening to kill her cheating husband is convinced that the gay man from the fifth floor of the apartment is actually the one who attacked Chipinque – with an axe. In any case, the cat is alive but nearly torn in two. Four weeks of surgery and US$300 later, Chipinque is walking again (though with a huge bald spot across his entire right side).

When I move away from Mexico, I leave the cat with my apartment neighbors in Monterrey’s state park, Chipinque – the mountain my manx is named after. To this day, I imagine him making his rounds with all of the neighbors – a communal pet coming and going as he pleases through open doors on every floor. Teaching everyone a little something about the possibilities and the unexpected joys of letting instinct – just this once – dominate indifference.


  1. Again, thanks for letting me take a vacation through your words. Bedtime story for me tonight. All the best - looking forward to future posts... you keep me young at heart (not that I'm that old).

  2. I'm with you about dogs, Waller. But how did you get from the Arctic Circle to Switzerland. Did I miss one?