From Briars to Bistros–Chance in France

Lessons From My Dogs

From Briars to Bistros–Chance in France

“She wants to go where you go,” Rebecca, aunt of a friend of mine and animal communicator, told me over the phone. “She” was Chance, a tiny beagle mix, probably beagle and Chihuahua, who I’d picked up from the SPCA, and “where I was to go” was Paris, France.

Dogs, ubiquitous sights in cafés and restaurants or trotting beside smart, well- heeled owners, are for the most part loved in France. And Chance was small, thus not raising problems of transport. But Chance was also a little hunting beagle, meaning she was scrappy, preferring the sharp green briars of rabbit-laden thickets to my feather- mattressed bed. Meaning a favourite and daily pastime, particularly when I wasn’t looking, was eating or rolling in different exotic poop. Not the picture one conjures up when imaging Parisian pooches—elegant, well-coifed poodles or silken Yorkies touted in Louis Vuitton bags. Flash, on the other hand, a smooth-haired, miniature dachshund, had been to Paris several times. Furthermore, the dachshund is an accepted and commonly seen breed along the tree-lined streets of Paris, and as such did not pose the embarrassment of a badly-behaved, straining-at-the-leash, backwoods huntin’ beagle. And yet. Chance was urging me not to forget her. Where I went, she wanted to go.

Traveling with a dog (much less two) post 9/11 is not so easy. There are only a few airlines who now allow dogs in the cabin on international flights, and there is a limit per cabin. With both Flash and Chance tucked into travel bags, taking up all the leg room under the seats before my companion and me, we assumed the limit.

Chance slept, easily and hard. In the airport she had skidded and slid all over the linoleum, and this together with the stress of airport commotion left her enervated and overwhelmed. But it was in Paris that she was to blossom into her true gutter-dog self.

On our first walk Flash trotted beside me like the veteran he was, and Chance, no longer afraid as she had been sliding over the slick floor in Dulles airport, ran to the end of her long leash then pulled me along, stopping to sniff each lamppost or tree. How wrong I had been to think she would not enjoy the city streets compared to the smells of the woods back home. Here, foraging in the dirty streets and gutters, she was in her element. Every few feet she found other dogs’ markings, not to mention the occasional human offering, together with baguette pieces, fruit from the markets, French pastries, French fries from MacDonald’s and, Chance’s favourite, chicken bones. On that first day I pulled from her mouth, two chicken bones and a lollypop stick.

She had never before had a nickname, but on that trip we began calling her Chickenbone Chance as well as Guttersnipe. When fear temporarily overcame her tough side (fear came in the form of loud noise from constant city construction or gusts of air from store front vents) she leapt off the curb with tail tucked tight between legs and Margie would say, “That’s the Chihuahua in her coming out.” Later we formed the verb, Chihuahuafied to describe a less than courageous Chance, though I suppose there are a few humans who might live up to the description of “chihuahuafied” as well.

Walking my dogs through the medieval cobble-stoned streets of the Latin Quarter or under the plane trees in the fashionable and understated seventh arrondissement I had instant access to Parisian status. Old and young, men and women, children and adults would come over and do something common in the U.S., but in France shocking. They would walk right up to me and begin to talk. And each time, whether rich or poor, whether French or English, German or Dutch, the language was the same. They would talk to me in that glorious, universal, uniting language known around the world: Dog.

One day I went to stand in line for gauffres (waffles). I waited a long time behind a family with children while Margie walked Flash and Chance and it was strange seeing Chance from a distance happily trotting by the flowers where once I used to walk to and from work, sometimes in anguished states due most often to the vicissitudes of romance and the resulting predictable human emotion. Flash’s red coat matched the red geraniums. I watched other people with dogs walk up to them. When you have a dog, you don’t need language. Then I watched as Flash looked up to Margie and she gently bent to scoop him up. Having the shortest legs of anyone, he tires easily and doesn’t see why he can’t always be carried. The vantage point must have pleased him too—imagine rising from six inches off the ground to sixty. Since we never took the elevator and our apartment was on the fourth floor, we always carried little Flash up while Chance was told to walk. Margie figured by end of trip Chance would have walked 5,000 steps and Flash none.

Chance’s first café was the café Delmas on the Place de la Contrescarpe across from my old apartment. As I sat holding Flash on my lap, I placed Chance up on her own chair, prepared to block her entry onto the table, or onto the table of nearby Parisians sitting unaware of the imminent danger. The moment was bittersweet for not only did I gaze across to the three windows I used to call mine, but I also remembered my first dog who had spent many hours beside me in restaurants and cafés. Strange as it was to be ten years older in the place that I loved and had once called home, with now two other dogs, the moment held joy and what I can only describe, in that uncertain land of time and memory, as a moment of contented maturity—moments of peace born of knowing one can survive tragedy and loss. For here was life—Flash, Chance and me—as it should be. And the best part, Chance did not launch her body onto the table but sat upright in her own chair at the little round marble-topped table with all the elegance, poise and grace (not to mention self-restraint) of, hmmm, Catherine Deneuve?

It’s a wonderful feeling walking the streets, breathing in the city air like peace, and in each hand the joy found in holding the end of a leash.

And that should be the end of this Parisian tale, but it is not. For Chance almost did not come back from France. Along with many American tourists who fall in love not only with France but with the French cuisine, Chance was no exception and she too picked up a few pounds. Therefore, at the ticket counter on the day of departure, when I placed Chance on the scale for the five kilo (approx. seven pound) weight limit, she was twice the weight.

“She’s over the limit,” said the suave French ticket taker, and he wasn’t budging. I was irritated, but not yet worried.

“What do you want me to do?” I sassed. “Put her on a diet?” “No. She will go in the cargo.” He waved a hand that indicated “below.” My blood went cold. Never would I put a dog underneath. We would have to stay in Paris. Then I had an idea and explained that the extra weight was the travel bag, as it had heavy castor wheels. His raised his eyebrows at me skeptically and said, “Then take her out of the bag.” Now I was really sweating. Oh well, there were worse things than being forced to stay in Paris. But Paris on a diet? No, no, it wouldn’t do. Luckily Chance had on a harness and, as I slipped her from the bag and placed her on the luggage belt, I imperceptively lifted the harness, raising her up just a bit, easing the numbers on the scale. The attendant stared, scratched his head, then gave a Gallic shrug and waved me by. I think Flash breathed a sigh of relief and I know Margie did. Chance? Well, she would’ve been game to go back to Paris and hunt for chicken bones in the gutters.

Kay Pfaltz is the author of LAUREN’S STORY: AN AMERICAN DOG IN PARIS.