Villecroze, le vieux village, June 2007
Nominally, the animal for which France is best known is not the coq, the cock or rooster that is the symbol for the country. It is the dog, for which the French have a legendary abiding affection, one that transcends even that most dog-loving of countries, the United States. In the U.S., we lavishly treat our pets with an unrivaled level of fiscal imprudence. We spend money on our dogs like there’s no future. We ostentatiously display our love for our animals for all the world to see and, presumably, envy for its manifestation of our national traits of grandiosity, generosity, and publicity.
I wish to take nothing away from Americans’ love of dogs. Most dog owners are serious and sincere lovers of their animals, and they treat them accordingly to the best of their ability.
However, we have nothing on the French for their sense of inclusion, and their undemonstrative (it is unconscious, the absolute opposite of ostentatious, not to mention vulgar, that is, the depths to which some Americans stoop to provide proof of their affection) willingness to make dogs part of every aspect of their lives. In America we tolerate barriers, especially in public, to the presence of dogs where humans gather, especially for purposes of nourishing themselves, imbibing, gathering socially, bathing or any number of quotidian activities that, within the constipated American sensibility are somehow vaguely private in nature, and, being private, their violation is tantamount to spreading a disease intentionally. Hence, we treat dogs like terrorists and exclude them from the most public of places.
The most familiar example is dining. In Cambridge, dogs are even excluded from sitting with their humans when they are seated outside, at tables and chairs that occupy space that is otherwise used as a public walkway.
In France, famously, the dog is welcome wherever his human is welcome (though there is a sinister and growing countervailing sentiment at work in France and certain establishments are beginning to exclude canine guests). The one disgusting and increasingly uncontrolled consequence of the casual acceptance of dogs in the lives of the French is the universal presence of dog shit wherever you go that has paved byways. It’s a sign of the ubiquity and the otherwise unparalleled acceptance of dogs as equals. You travel the roads in rural France, and hardly out of sight are men stopped at the side of the road, relieving themselves. I suggest the nonplussed (at worst) response to dogs relieving themselves, without constraint or self-consciousness (on the part of their humans, naturally — a dog’s gotta’ do what a dog’s gotta’ do, unless they’ve been trained to do it some other way: dogs are pretty much trained about the same way the men are) is the final proof of the fundamental identity of dog and human in the French sensibility. Dogs are merely a furrier, four-footed kind of human here in La Belle France.
Hence my thesis. The real king of the roost of the animal kingdom, at least here in rural France, is the cat. Cats rule. Every village, every town, every city throughout the great southern plains and the massifs that penetrate them is overrun by felines. Cats are everywhere, untamed and untrammeled. There are two, perhaps three, types of cats in the taxonomy of the domestic feline Français.
The house cat, that most pampered of beasts, who lives with its human, and stays indoors when not allowed gingerly out to lounge for a bit in the confines of the town square, take in a little sun, warm its interior organs is readily identified. It redefines clinical obesity. It is capable of no more than a waddle so fat is this creature with overindulgence. It disports itself in aloof regal splendor, magnified by its own bulk. Its importance is increased by its sheer physical mass, like some U.S. Senators. It disdains contact, and, as the quintessence of all cat behavior displays the greatest amount of sheer ignorance of the human presence. Its human, who supplies that overabundance of provender, is tolerated.
The other two types are almost indistinguishable. If the domestic household fat cat is somebody’s, very much so and exclusively, there is usually a bevy of beasts of somewhat a less definitive status, slightly tame, slightly domesticated, and clearly very much tolerant of the human presence (as they know whereof is the source of their dried bits of baguette, of their smidgens of table scrapings, of their anonymous small piles of kibble, which appear and reappear mysteriously in various spots in every neighborhood). These are, like that poor creature, one of the characters in "West Side Story," and the only female member of the gang of Jets, known as "Anybody’s." It is likely, though I am only speculating, that one of the more favorable of this breed, usually a matter of temperament or a comely appearance, that from time to time, one of these essentially unclaimed beasts becomes a house cat, trades up as it were, exchanging a far ranging freedom for the security of an assured supply of excessive grub at all hours of the day and night, only having to tolerate immoderate displays of affection from their adoptive human, who no doubt will actually expect to make frequent and, hard as it is to say, affectionate physical contact.
I used to be cat-tolerant, at worst ambivalent, allowing myself the delusion that these "pets" were actually capable of interacting in a way that engaged at some primal level the sharing of sympathetic feeling and attraction, if not an actual mammalian emotional interdependency. I am over that now. I do not delude myself that cats are capable of anything more than looking at me, sometimes with a gaze one can be persuaded by oneself is a gaze of gentle tolerance, if not the mildest of affection, but is actually the look of a predator pondering the ease or difficulty of converting a particularly large specimen of prey into meat.
The cats that are "anybody’s" are sustained by the community. The community consists of a certain number of permanent residents who see a superfluity of small, seemingly harmless creatures, covered with fur and so with the potentiality of being the recipients of loving caresses and hence being the willing receptacles for excess amounts of expressions of human kindness (dogs are not sufficient in this regard, especially as they are, as I say, essentially a four-legged form of human that actually seeks our company, no different than another companion, of the hominid two-legged variety, and we all know how fickle and unsatisfying and unpredictable those relationships can be). So deluded these members of the community make regular, if not frequent, and continual contributions to the kitty larder, that is, the paving stones and asphalt streets, the steps and walls and alleyways of the village. Scraps and crumbs, bits and pieces, manufactured feed and leftovers appear mysteriously, and without end, in the same places.
The cats have it made. Furthermore it would seem that all that is expected of them is that they reproduce. Which they do of course. And their prolificacy is prodigious (if I may use a redundancy to describe the legendary proportions of this animal’s ability to reproduce far beyond the biblical injunction regarding fruitfulness). Just as there is an endless supply of food, from unidentifiable sources, there is an endless supply of cats to consume it. This means that at any time, there is a vast population of adults, adolescents, and kittens that abound. They work in shifts. Some lounge on cars, on terraces, tabletops, chairs, chaise longues, benches, tops of stone walls, on steps, in archways, doorways, and on window sills. There are flower pots, flower boxes, gutters, drains… In short they are everywhere, sunning themselves, scampering, playing and pawing one another. These latter activities are the speciality of the kittens who seem to know they elicit the most heartfelt response to their seeming helplessness and diminutive stature.
But one should never mistake this temporary appearance for anything more than their part in the larger strategy of keeping the food chain open and full.
The cats, from kittens to doddering elders, are of every hue and variety (I refuse, despite the insistence of zoological experts, to differentiate one "breed" from another, purely on the basis of some insignificant superficial characteristics of coloring and abundance or lack thereof of fur, its thickness and length also notwithstanding). There are calicos, and money cats, there are tabbies of every possible variation of hue, there are brindled cats, palominos, pintos, all black, and all white, and all of every color in between. In short there’s a design choice for every possible taste. Again, an unscrupulous, if not brilliant strategy, to ensure that every susceptible human will respond favorably to one of these creatures, and leave out FOOD. Which is always commonly consumed, as it is impossible to single out your favorite for exclusive feeding rights, unless you have become so susceptible as to take the rash step of bringing one of these creatures into your home so you can treat it like a favorite duck or goose whose liver needs fattening to grotesque proportions.
Finally, there are what I suspect are the only real workers, and the only really worthwhile members of the species within this taxonomy. I speak of the essentially semi-feral cats, who are, admirably, so disdainful of humans, and sufficiently honest about it, that they avoid us altogether. They are visible, if at all, at best, as skulking shadows, running in an instant the opposite way if they suspect from your regard or your posture, or your sudden change in direction as you move, that you may show the slightest interest in lessening the distance between yourself and them.
Presumably these latter subsist on the meager leavings of their more duplicitous and narcissistic cousins, and as well by hunting for their natural prey, which, as we are, after all, in the country, is lying out there in abundance. They needn’t worry about the competition from their semi-civilized brethren, and not ever at all in the least from their fully domesticated relatives who, even if the instinct bestirred them, their sheer bulk would prevent them physically from taking the proper steps, never mind a proper pounce, so as to be able to catch the odd field mouse, or chipmunk, or baby rabbit, or whatever other disgusting forms of wild rodentia they feed upon.
So there it is. The Provençal cat. Ubiquitous, unavoidable, and hence the true animal of France.
Bonjour, fine sir. I came across your site while searching for an English translation of “Le chat de la voisine” on-line. I read your treatise with interest. Mind if I pop in from time to time whilst pretending to do actual work?
rich entertainment for this saturday morning. my cat also enjoyed it. he can’t really read, but he does watch the cursor! for this one, he even reached his paw out to nudge the cat in your photo!
cheryl & bodhi
Well done, Howard. Just delightful. I have a cat, naturally and fully in love! Read a scientific essay the other day on cats that states that cats do believe, contrary to dogs, that We, the humans, actually live on THEIR territory. And they are gracious enough to tolerate us!
If reincarnation does happen: I want to be a cat, in France!
Am I the only one of your friends who read your lush and verdant prose and runs the gauntlet of the eye exam to comment?
If so, where’s my 60 th birthday present— I deserve it?