Okay, I took some liberties with Karen Blixen’s opening sentence of her famous book, “Out of Africa.” My apologies, but like the young Ms. Blixen who moved from Denmark to Kenya, I, a beagle just barely past my first birthday, made a major move from the United States to France. Like Ms. Blixen, I left a piece of my heart in another country and, like Ms. Blixen, my view of life was forever altered. For different reasons, of course.
I am confident the indelible impressions that would eventually re-shape Ms Blixen’s views of life did not take form under the table in fancy restaurants. For me, the silver service I routinely received under the privacy of a canopy of white linen—and occasionally above the table on my own chair–set expectations for a lifestyle that would never again be met, once I returned home.
I am also certain that, of the five senses, it was not Ms. Blixen’s sense of smell that was most affected by her sojourn in that African country. For me, a beagle, a hound breed notoriously tethered to their sensitive noses, my olfactory sense was endowed with gastronomic expectations in France that also, sadly, would never again be fulfilled on this side of the Atlantic.
And, finally, while we both observed the importance of freedom, our views emerged from much different experiences. For me, it was the occasional opportunity to be unshackled from the accoutrements of being a proper dog—the leash, the heavy collar, and all those noisy tags that dangle as I run. In France, I didn’t always have the burden of that stuff cramping my style, all of which I know keeps me safe but sometimes it is nice just to run down the lane, unfettered and free.
I’ll acknowledge that Ms Blixen’s experiences were more significant on a world scale than mine but, on a canine scale, my days in Provence were pretty weighty. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about that time in my life. Maybe it was my recent surgery—under the knife for nearly two hours—or maybe it was my mistress graduating from college last month—I’ve known her since she was just a few days past ten, when she picked me out from a litter of six. I don’t know what the impetus is for this trip down memory lane and this minor bout of melancholy, but I am going along with it. Because, really, who doesn’t like to reminisce about living the good life in Provence?
About a year after I arrived in my family home, we had an opportunity to take a sojourn in France. It’s a long story how it all happened, but there we were, one evening after dinner, Provence map spread out on the dining room table, planning our trip to the picturesque village of Lourmarin (at the foot of the Luberon Mountains, as you might have guessed). The family had been there many times.
Set among vineyards, olive groves, almond trees, and fields of wild herbs and watched over by a lovely Renaissance Château, the village is filled with narrow winding streets lined with galleries, shops, cafés, tea salons, and gastronomic restaurants. In the winter months, nearby forests are filled with truffles and, in the summer months, neighboring fields are covered with brilliantly colored rows of lavender. And, there are lots of dogs, my owners said (as if I cared about other dogs… I am really a people dog).
My ears perked up when they mentioned the very cute mailman who rode around town on a scooter to deliver mail. I hate scooters but love a man—or a woman—in a uniform because they usually give treats to cute dogs, commemoi. (This, I later learned, is a peculiar American custom that hadn’t crossed the pond yet–a French mail carrier would never stoop to stowing dog biscuits in his pocket. Anyway, this one was too busy flirting with the local girls to tend to my needs unless, of course, those girls were cooing over me, which would prompt Monsieur La Poste to fawn all over me to the point of mortification. If only he had understood that a pocket full of treats for me would have captured l’amour of any of those girls. Oh well, ca ne fait rien because, in Provence, I wasn’t dependent on dog treats any more. But, I digress.)
In 2002, there were 8.8 million pet dogs in France, more pet dogs than any other Western European country. I would move that number one-dog closer to nine million that year. The journey would require a succession of shots, my first very own photo identification card, and reams of paperwork from my vet (none of which a single person—other than family—ever even glanced at).
When the day of my departure finally came, my owner (who had returned home from France just to fetch me) walked me for such a long time that I thought my pads would wear off. He then whisked me into the car for the hour’s drive to Logan airport. I saw the carrier in the back; attached to it was my photo ID and a large (humiliating) sign that read “LIVE ANIMAL.” (Was I going to be mistaken for a dead animal?) At the airport, after my owner’s long good-bye—so long it instilled a certain amount of anxiety in me–I was handed off to a very friendly Air France employee who thought I was very cute. Elle est si mignonne. This seemed to please my owner.
Soon, I found myself in the cargo section of a huge airplane. I was alone and, being a pack animal, experienced acute stress. I crossed my paws that it was the same plane my owner boarded. Although dark and noisy, the belly of the plane—at least this plane—was temperature-controlled. The crate, per airline regulations, was large enough to permit me to stand up and turn around and it was lined with a thin blanket that smelled like my mistress. My bowl of water was frozen–sheesh! Aside from the scent of my mistress, I was, by no means, comfortable. Somewhere over Nova Scotia, I began to have second thoughts about this so-called sojourn. But, before I could fully develop those thoughts, I felt the plane begin to descend and soon I was walking around Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. Wahoo!
From Paris, we hopped on a high-speed train—otherwise known as a TGV—and headed south to Provence. I discovered that I prefer trains over any other mode of transportation. (Well, French trains, at least; I wouldn’t know about American trains since dogs are not allowed on our trains.) I was not required to ride in the crate; I got to stretch out on the train’s floor for the whole three-hour ride; several French people stopped to adore me; and the train seemed to glide along the rails, humming and gently vibrating the floor. I fell into a deep sleep, probably emitting those vulgar moans and grunts that dogs do when they are dreaming, as I am certain that vivid images were dancing through my head about having the pack together again soon.
I woke up in Aix-en-Provence where I finally found some grass and a fitting place to relieve myself. Whew! (At Charles de Gaulle, I was forced to piddle on the marble floor although no one seemed to mind except for my owner and me.)
The drive to Lourmarin, through lovely countryside and charming villages (though none as charming as Lourmarin), took less than an hour. It was love at first sniff. In fact, the new and novel smells were rushing in at such a fast and furious pace that I was nearly delirious. There was the scent of pizza from Pan Garni, bread and croissants from Boulangerie Riquier on rue Henri Savornin, steak-frites from Café Gaby, pastis from L’Ormeau, flowers, cats, dogs, and, wow,the pungent aroma of stinky cheese from the shelves of Super Taf II took my breath away.
I saw dogs resting, sleeping, waiting, playing, shopping, and seemingly conversing in cafés. Some were attached to leashes and others were completely leash-less. I was going to like this village.
I happened to look up–a beagle typically keeps her nose to the ground–and I saw more dogs. They were everywhere. Suddenly, I felt a pang of anxiety. How do French dogs greet one another? I knew that people kissed the cheeks of one another but my family always worried about which side to start with and how many kisses for this person and that person. Which end would I start on? I had better just keep my nose to the ground. Sigh.
I could hardly wait to see my mistress, who attended the local school until 4:00 p.m. In the meantime, I had my first experience with a French café. It was amazing to be able to sit right next to my family. The restaurant even served me a bowl of water under the table and my family shared a few morsels of food. Later, I quenched my heretofore insatiable thirst by drinking from every fountain I saw–a dog could never go thirsty in a village in Provence.
When the time rolled around to meet my mistress, we all walked over to the school (just like we used to do at home until the big “no dogs allowed” sign showed up on the direct pathway to school). My mistress was thrilled to find me waiting for her and I was immediately surrounded by a gaggle of children wishing to meet me, hug me, squeeze me, pat me on the head, stroke my soft fur (and my ego) and generally adore an American beagle.
I wondered if they knew that the word “beagle” may have its origin in the French language. It may stem from the French words, “bayer,” meaning “open mouth,” and “gueule,” meaning “mouth of an animal,” or from the word “beugler,” meaning “to bellow.” (Of course, all of these words refer to the beagle’s propensity to bay loudly and incessantly which I must make clear that I do not do…except in the case of scooters, skateboarders, and convertible tops going up or down.)
After the hug fest, we went to soccer practice and then to our new home-away-from home. I slept soundly that night, knowing that we were all together. (Okay, Bilbo, who was too old to travel in the belly of an airplane, wasn’t with us, but he was very happy with Wendy and Mb on the farm in central New Hampshire.)
And that’s the way most days unfolded in the beguiling village of Lourmarin. I walked my mistress to and from school, and, in between, the parents and I went to markets, tourist sites, and on long walks. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, we went to soccer practice.
On weekends (when there was no soccer) and on holidays, we took excursions other parts of France.
A highlight for me was the village mushroom hunt. Organized by the local pharmacist who was certified to distinguish poisonous from non-poisonous mushrooms, we spent the morning romping through the forest, filling shopping bags with mushrooms. Ah, the titillating smells of that morning are most memorable. My family actually ended up with a pretty pathetic collection of scraggly mushrooms but everyone was happy and our risotto aux (très peu) champignons was excellent (and no one was rushed to the hospital).
After that outdoor adventure, my family got the bright idea that I could be a good truffle hunter. In case you didn’t know, dogs have now surpassed pigs as the preferred species in this lucrative business. I thought this shift was due the dog’s superior nose but apparently it relates to the pig being, well, “piggy.” Once they’ve honed in on a cache of Tuber melanosporum, they can’t seem to muster up the self-control necessary to simply stand sentinel over the truffles; instead they gobble up the high-priced delicacy. Besides these issues of a pig’s inferior constitution, dogs are easier to transport, I am told. My family, huge fans of black truffles, read up on the subject and talked to several truffle hunters whilst I endeavored to appear more aristocratic than usual. Would they really want these patrician paws digging four inches into the earth surrounding an oak tree? Apparently not, because they dropped the idea. (Mercifully, they never broached the subject of hunting sanglier, the notorious wild boar of Provence–they scare me when they aren’t in the shape of a sausage.)
We were always together. When we were in Lourmarin, we just had dial-up internet service and no smart phones or television; there seemed to be a lot of time to play Monopoly, Scrabble, and Mille Bornes and to simply hang out, something the French do particularly well around tables and food. The family whiled away many an afternoon and evening around the table. Food was abundant and wine flowed, encouraging lively conversation and contagious laughter. The pack was very content.
I later learned that life was not so rosy for all dogs in France. (There was a reason that the statistic I cited above referred to “pet dogs.”) It was shocking to learn that not all beagles sleep in a family member’s bedroom, something I discovered when we visited friends who live in the countryside. There, I saw beagles in a pen that bore a remarkable resemblance to what I thought pigs lived in. Eiwwwww!! How uncivilized. And it was such a lovely family (although I never looked at them quite the same again.) Those poor canines were hunting dogs, we were told. In Provence, beagles, especially, were seen as an integral part of a hunter’s arsenal. A good beagle was worth his weight in gold, something so widely known that we were told by strangers on more than one occasion that my family should guard me at all times. I could be stolen, they said. They often praised my family for “rescuing” me (assuming I had been extracted from a cruel existence in a pig’s pen). Clearly not all dogs dined at Chez Gibert in Cassis.
On the other hand, it was evident most French folks do dote on their dogs. This woman and her pampered pooch were frequent shoppers at the Cucuron market for many years.
My sojourn in Provence was nearly twelve years ago. The time has flown by since those unhurried days in the village house in Lourmarin, at the foot of the Luberon Mountains. Aside from dear Bilbo’s death, its passage has been marked primarily by the important events in my mistress’s life: soccer play-offs, squash tournaments and crew races; piano recitals; a broken wrist; a broken arm; two appearances on Don Imus’ MSNBC show; every birthday party; graduation from middle school; graduation from high school; graduation from University; and, most recently, moving into her own apartment to start her career. I wonder how I will mark my time now. I wonder how I shall define myself.
As I look back on that time in Provence, after all these years, I can see more clearly that the most important experience–the one most deeply carved into my psyche–was not the silver service in the fancy restaurants or the gastronomic scents or even the freedom that came from running sans collar and tags. It was the unencumbered time I spent with my pack, especially my mistress. While I, being a beagle, have always prided myself on living fully and in the moment, I did not understand how precious those days were nor how fleeting it would all be. I think that Ms. Blixen’s recollection of her experiences on her farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills was similar.
I will find new ways to structure my days and mark the passage of time. I walk every day. My birthday is next month and I am going to stay all night with my mistress the following month. As for defining myself, after all my years as my mistress’s pet, I am confident I will still play that role but it won’t be my dominant role. I am also a pal to many people and the only canine companion to one very stubborn Glen of Imaal Terrier. I am a fast runner, a skillful performer of several impressive tricks. I am brilliant and adorable. I am content. I am an American Beagle who lived in Provence.