Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Madame Puppies

The vet put us in touch with a woman who boards dogs in her home. We've gone away a few times since we've been living here, and left the dogs at a Centre Canin. At this Centre Canin, they breed bergers allemand--German Shepherds--and teach courses in elevage, dog training. The dogs who board stay in kennels, and while the kennels are clean in a doggy sort of way, after I saw them I decided that we would have to find another option.

I asked the English ladies about someone to help with the dogs, and Lizzie down the lane said, oh yes, there's Sheila, she's lovely, ring her, my dear. I rang lovely Sheila and she did not ring back. I rang again, enough times that I hoped she did not suspect me of stalking her, and, finally, she answered. Yes, she sometimes looked after people's dogs. What kind did I have? Hmmm. Where did I live? Oh. Who had given her my name? Who? Oh. Yes. Well, she might be in my neighborhood in the next couple of days and she would ring me.

She may have been, but she didn't. So much for the English options.

C. and E. asked the vet for recommendations when they saw her for the dogs' annual visite de controle. There was a lady, she said, who lived up the mountain a bit in Bar-sur-Loup, who sometimes kept dogs for people when they went away, and we could call her. Her name was Madame Chiotti.

I called. She answered the phone on the second ring. What type of dogs did we have? And they were male or female? Two sisters? Quelle mignonne! Yes, she could keep them on those dates, but of course I should come to see her first. Monday afternoon? Mais bien sur! She would look forward to it. The directions were a little difficult, un peu complique, but she would be there waiting for me. A bientot!

Monday afternoon I cajoled and prodded Alice and Wendy into the car and we drove up the hill to Bar-sur-Loup, and then, once we got there, down again a long ways, and then up some more and around a few blind corners--what would an outing be without blind corners--until we reached the faded blue wrought-iron gates of Madame Chiotti's villa. I left the dogs in the car and looked around for a bell to push. It was, when I found it, the same faded periwinkle blue as the gates, and it rang inside the house.

Madame bustled out almost immediately. She stopped just short of kissing me, managing to shake my hand in such a way as to imply kisses. With her were two small terrier mixes, who jumped up on my legs and barked and then ran in circles around us. These dogs were staying with her now, said Madame, un frere et une soeur, et ils sont si mignons! they are so cute!

I followed her through the front garden into the house. In front of the door a blue and tan chenille rideaux de porte--a long curtain that acts as a screen in the summer, keeping flies out of the house--was knotted. We ducked around it and into the sitting room.

Two armchairs and a sofa flanked a coffee table in the front corner. Stairs, blocked at the bottom by a gate, led up to another floor. A large aquarium divided the room in half; behind it, I could see a table and a large secretary. There were occasional tables, end tables, a bookcase, and on every surface, dolls. Not fancy dolls, not with hand-painted porcelain heads and velvet dresses, just dolls that looked like they had been played with for a long time before being carted off to the vide grenier, the rummage sale. The chairs and sofa were draped in blankets, to protect them from dog hair, I supposed. The ceiling was supported by exposed beams, and on every beam a line of plates had been marshalled. Some beams had all green bordered plates, some, different varieties of flowers. A few plates had spilled over onto the walls, where they shared space with old prints of oil paintings with subjects like: Changing Horses at the Inn, or, Bringing Home the Flock, each portraying some notion of a rural life that was long gone before the painting was ever produced, much less reproduced in prints.

We sat down in the armchairs facing each other. Madame was small and sturdy, and of a certain age. She wore her hair in frizzy purplish henna curls, a dye lot I have seen before at the weekly market in the village. For our meeting she was wearing a sweater with a yellow dalmatian print--dalmations gamboled happily up and down her arms and across her poitrine--and had paired that with some pale mauve velour sweatpants; slippers completed the ensemble. The dogs immediately jumped into our laps, and offered up kisses all around, then jumped down, ran a couple of circles around the coffee table, and jumped up again. More kisses, more circles, occasional barking, and always jumping in or out of laps.

I realized that the purpose of this meeting was for Madame to size me up, so I started talking. I talked about bringing Wendy and Alice over here on Air France, and why we chose Air France instead of another airline, and how transporting our dogs had been the most difficult part of the move, and she nodded sagely and said, mais, bien sur, you must have been so worried. I talked about how we adopted the dogs, and how their mother had been hit by a car and then saved by a lady who rescued dogs. Ah! quelle bonne chance pour la pauvre! She shook her head at the tragedy that Alice and Wendy had so narrowly escaped. And then I talked about how we named the dogs, and where they slept at our house, and how Wendy liked to eat olives.

Half an hour later, my French was starting to wear a little thin when Madame took the dog out of her lap and went to get her calendar. What were the dates we needed? Ah yes, of course. That will be fine. She told me what to bring with the dogs--their French carnets de sante, their food, and their favorite toys and blankets--and, after assuring me that I could bring them at any time on the appointed day, or even the day before, it was all fine with her, she would be happy to see me whenever I arrived, she knew that things could happen, plans could change, not to worry! I judged that I could safely suggest that it was time for me to go.

Madame gave me her card and took me back outside. This time I looked around the garden as I walked behind her. It was filled with more turtle cache-pots and statuettes than I would have guessed existed anywhere, and with gnomes. Sitting, standing, leaning, chatting gnomes. And a few leftover Christmas decorations for good measure. When we got to the gate, she let me out and then peaked over it to see the dogs. Ah, mais elles sont si belles! And look at how they wag their tales at you! They are so lovely and I can tell they are such good dogs. I shook her hand over the gate and thanked her, and said how much I looked forward to seeing her again in a few weeks. Ah, but no, the pleasure is all mine. I drove away on a cloud of graciousness.

While we were getting out of the car at home, Olivier came down the terrace. I've been to see the lady who's going to watch the dogs, I told him. She has a collection of dolls, and a collection of plates, and, outside in the garden, a collection of gnomes, des nains.

Les nains sont les pires, Gnomes are the worst, Olivier said. Je deteste les nains. Olivier is a little cross, as the English ladies would say, because Jules is coming down from Paris this week. But then he smiled and chuckled. You had better take the dogs yourself, because if C. sees the nains, he might not leave the dogs with this lady.

I am agnostic on the gnomes, myself, and I'm trying to think of how I can arrange to make Madame Chiotti's house a stop for all our future guests. If I walked into her house in America, I might see nothing but shabby collections. But the gift of foreignness is that for me this house is just another place to try to understand. I don't bring anything to it, except what I've read about such places in the novels of Dickens, and those are not in the right language. And the gift of foreignness, too, is that I have to work so hard at speaking, at making small talk, that what is important to me in this lady with the eponymous name--un chiot is a puppy; she is, literally, Madame Puppies--is not her purple hair and her dalmation sweater but how kind she is to me, and to the little dogs racing around her. She never corrects my French, never finishes my sentences, never lets on that she has had more stimulating, and more correct, conversations with some of the dogs she looks after. Madame Chiotti is warm and gracious and kind, and I feel embraced and welcomed. I am certain that Alice and Wendy will, too.

And if I see any gnomes, I may bring her one.

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