Conversations about Stray Dogs

Greek dogs, especially village dogs, are essentially neglected and often tied up by chain to a tree or spike in the ground. They grind the sand into a fine dust in concentric rings around the origin of the chain. They are fed scraps whenever the owners remember and are not thought of if the owners go away for a day or two or even weeks. Fresh water never exists; perhaps an old bucket might hold dirt specked algae ridden liquid for them.

There are also many stray dogs in the village. They are as thin and mangy as the chained up dogs, as hungry, yet they have their freedom. They are abused, kicked at, shot at even; so they are wary of humans. The skulk along the roads, moving into vacant land and bush where ever possible, a mixed pack sometimes. They seem to never fight with each other, having defined territories and aware that the need to survive is more important than ego.

When you walk from Kakouri to Levidi past Agios Nectarios there are few no houses and it is a wild valley compared to the main valley of Tripolis which is cultivated and has wine farms and dilapidated farm out buildings and many more churches. The villagers think you are crazy to walk, when you can drive, and then warn you about the dogs., There is always a story about someone being attacked by dogs and a child almost dying, the parents losing their job because of the stress and medical costs and then getting divorced, or some such catastrophe. The details change but the catastrophe remains. I have seen foxes and rabbits walking back in the late afternoon from Levidi, as darkness rolls off the tall shadows cast by the mountains. No great catastrophe.

When we first went to the village as children, accompanied by my grandmother, dogs were anathema. We were not allowed to feed them, touch them or play with them. She chased them away with her South African “voertsek” and a kick or waved fist. As the years passed, and so did she, my mother started feeding some strays scraps on the corner opposite our house. She had to be careful, because the divorced couple still faced with medical bills and the injured child and their family, or a similar type, would frown on my mother’s actions and spread rumours in the village of four hundred people that my mother wanted the child dead so that’s why she feeds the dogs. The logic amongst those philosophers astounds me sometimes.

As the years went by my mother started buying dog cubes at the supermarket in Tripolis. There were not always supermarkets there, it is a recent phenomenon. And dog cubes arrived even later. About that time my father built the garage with a separate gate to a small vegetable garden, and my mother started feeding her dogs regularly in that space. She was like a Mother Theresa for the dogs.

Even when my father used to go alone to the village, he would emulate her and buy the cubes at the supermarket and feed the dogs in the garden.

My mother feeding her strays

Conversations about Donkeys

The narrow tar road from Mantinea to Kakouri

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will:
Starve, scourge, deride me–I am dumb–
I keep my secret still.
Fools! for I also had my hour,
One far, fierce hour and sweet
There was a shout about my ears
And palms before my feet.

A Poem by G.K. Chesterton

I remember this poem from school, when in the sprawling suburbia of Johannesburg I was one of the few children to have ridden a donkey. In those days, the seventies, donkeys outnumbered cars in Kakouri. The drive into the village in the late afternoon invariably paralleled a donkey’s trip back from the fields. Often, in the cool shadows of the avenue of plane trees one would pass a beast of burden carrying an old man and some thick woollen bags of fruit or vegetables, perhaps a bottle of wine. The old man would be tired; having toiled in the summer heat, using a hoe to channel water to the various trees and fields so that the plants could grow, his body ached. Most times the donkey rider would lift his hand in a slow wave, and if he recognised us would smile widely, eyes suddenly alight and alive.

The next morning, even before the sheep were led out of the village, a chorus of donkey braying would wake you, like a stuck water pump squawking into life. It took me a few days as a child, novice to these beasts, to realise that they did in fact make this noise and not “eeh haw” as in the nursery rhymes I learnt in suburbia.

As children we were all treated to a ride on a donkey. The most awkward thing was not the animal itself, soft silky ears and beautiful brown olive eyes gazing into the ancient distance. The most awkward thing was the ancient style wooden saddle. My idea of a saddle was a John Wayne leather beauty complete with lasso rope, not something that looked like an upside down disused rowing boat that belonged to a midget. The wooden frame made the saddle so wide that the extra girth almost dislocated your hips, which is why most people rode their beast’s side saddle, even the men.

Before the motorbikes arrived as cheap and easy transport to the fields for the farmers, we would sometimes ride the donkeys part of the way to the fields. On the way back the beasts would usually carry produce, and we would walk alongside or lead. I remember leading once eating fresh pistachios, popping them into my mouth from the branch, and feeding a few to my friend the donkey.

I can still see the old men riding the donkey back onto the village when we drove down that narrow tar road from Mantinea to Kakouri. What always intrigued me was the old lady that was leading the donkey, while the old man rode on top. Chauvinism is definitely alive in Greece. Or was the woman hoping to crucify her man later?