Monday, December 31, 2018

Winter Resolutions

Winter is not my favorite season.  There are a lot of reasons:

  1. It is cold!  Of course, in Israel I really shouldn’t have complained about the cold, very clear to me when I see the photos of friends all over the world sinking into two meters of snow.  Here in Italy, it is a bit colder, but far from being extreme.  There is more precipitation than in an Israeli winter, but where we are there is almost no snow, though we see plenty on the mountain tops. 
But it doesn’t change the fact that I do not like the cold (yes, I know, in the heat of summer I often wish for winter to come….rationality doesn’t always come into play…), and because all forms of heating are very expensive, I try to use as little as possible. So I use a lot of sweaters and blankets.  I tried using special heating socks – you put them in the micro to warm them and then they are supposed to keep your feet warm.  Well, don’t waste your money – they work for a few minutes only.  Double socks and furry house shoes are the way to go…
Don't think I have gained weight when you see me in winter. What I have gained is layers of clothing.  Three or four layers is average for a normal winter day, and when the temperature goes down to zero or below…well, the Michelin Man has nothing on how I look.  Of course it is sometimes very difficult to move, as I tend to bounce off of things.  But it does the job of keeping me reasonably warm. 
And in the spring, everything thinks I look great after losing all that weight!
  1. It is dark!  I am a morning person, whose morning most of the year starts at about 5 in the morning.  But when I wake up and it is pitch black outside, there is certainly no reason to get up.  The dogs fortunately are not enthusiastic either about getting up and out in the dark, since I just can’t make myself get up to face the cold before there is at least a glimmer of dawn.  And then at 5 in the afternoon, it is already dark again!  Where has the day gone????  I really don’t know how people in the far north survive the winter with months of no daylight at all…
  2. I have a birthday in the middle of the winter.  Not only am I depressed about winter itself, but added to it all, I am officially another year older!  I don’t want to think of myself as older, I would like to freeze time – but I guess I missed out on that, because I would have done it about 25 years ago…I try to ignore my birthday, and fortunately in our house there is only one small mirror.  But in these days of Facebook, it is impossible – there are always thousands of greetings to remind me that I am getting old, including those from people who I have never met and really don’t know who they are…
  3. There is a New Year!  I have never been one to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  I don't think there are any huge and expensive celebrations around here, people here mostly celebrate holidays as a chance to spend time and have a meal with family – a very good idea, I think! Once, many, many years ago, I was in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  It was quite an experience, and I have never had the slightest urge to repeat it or anything like it.  January 1 is a work day, like every other day of the year, the dogs couldn’t care less….
  4. My dogs, like me, are not enthusiastic about winter.  The podengos, if they had the chance, would spend the winter curled under the blankets without sticking their noses out.  Hibernation would certainly be a positive choice for them.
The collies seem to have forgotten that they are Scottish in origin.  No way, they say, we are Israeli collies, and living in Italy is not always to their taste.  The fact is that it is not the cold that bothers them, it is the wet.  On bright clear and very cold days, they love running around and playing.  But when there is rain, when the ground is wet and muddy, their attitude is very different.  How can I expect them to put their dainty and delicate feet down on that cold wet ground???? They tiptoe around the yard, looking for spots that are less wet to step on, which gives them a very strange looking gait.  Except for the necessities of nature, they stay on the concrete path by the door, looking at me pitifully and making it clear that they are ready to come in.  It is quite a sight watching them when they have to pee – they walk around and around and back and forth, tiptoeing and looking for a spot where it is less cold when they lower themselves to the ground to do their business.  They of course are not touching the ground, but they act as if their delicate organs will be frozen if they are not very careful about choosing a spot.
The worst of them is Jenny.  If you remember the story of the princess and the pea, that is her.  The slightest bit of mud on the ground, and she is reluctant to move at all, picking her feet up carefully and trying as much as possible not to touch the ground.  Winter is a hard time for Jenny…
The Canaans do not really care. They go out and run and play, whatever the weather.  Nina, if she was a horse, would be known as a mudder – she is completely indifferent to the mud puddles around, splashing through them and ending up with feet and chest covered with mud, which she happily carries into the house.  She really seems to enjoy it. Only Habibi agrees with me that winter, cold and damp are not fun.  He is reluctant to go out when it is raining, although otherwise the wet ground and puddles don't bother him much.

However, all of these depressing facts of winter do make me think.  There are so many crossroads through all these years where I could have chosen to go another way, and that would have changed my life completely.  Who knows where it would have led, what I would be doing now, with whom and where and why….

My life has never been easy, and certainly is not now.  The last year has been very difficult.  But it has never been boring, and certainly is not now!  I have never had regrets about the road I have chosen, even though another road may have brought me an entirely different life.  There is no going back, and there is never any reason to regret things that can’t be changed.  The only way to go is forward – there are still many choices to make, each one leading in another direction…

But in the spirit of the New Year, I decided to make a few resolutions:

  1. Don’t expect people to be smart; appreciate the ones that are.

  1. Learn to remember people’s names, not just the names of their dogs.

  1. Try not to log on to FB more than five times a day.

  1. Continue to believe what I see in my mind and not what I see in the mirror.

  1. Take as much care about what I am eating as I do with what I feed my dogs.

  1. Let my mind continue to run free and keep my mouth shut.

  1. Keep learning – and especially Italian!
                8.  Help others to learn.

                9.  Try and stay smarter than my smart phone, and keep it functioning as                        a telephone, not as the manager of my life.

              10. Appreciate the good things in my life and how good my life really is, in comparison to the things that could be.  There are so many that have a much more difficult life than me!

        11. Be grateful for friends, real ones, who are rare and a pearl without price.  Try and let them know how much they mean to me.  Also virtual ones, who sometimes are the best.

        12.  Always be surrounded by dogs!

        13.  Keep your eyes open and always appreciate the beauty around you.

        14.  Keep surviving.  Never give up.

Happy New Year everyone!  May the new year bring you all you wish for!

Really????Are you serious????

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Talking To Dogs

My dear friend Isabella is not a dog trainer.  She will be the first one to tell you that.  She is not a whisperer, a behaviorist, or a graduate of any of the endless courses that claim to teach one to understand and communicate with dogs if you follow their rules.

Isabella talks to her dogs (and sometimes dogs of others.)  But not only does she talk, she also listens.  And the results are quite amazing.  Her dogs are totally focused on her when she is talking to them and often at other times as well.  They watch her face and every movement, and you can see their minds working as they try to understand every word, and then try to do whatever they can think of to please her.  And they do understand and learn a huge variety of behaviors without any formal instruction, only with the reinforcement of praise and sometimes a biscuit when they do something correct or clever.  Should they make a mistake and do something wrong, the displeasure on her face is enough for them to understand and feel contrite.

Her Bracco Italiano, Sulpicia, has learned to roll a ball to her with her nose, to lie flat without moving, to catch a ball, and many other things, just from being talked to and encouraged.  She can sit for hours gazing into Isabella's eyes, or barking an answer when Isabella talks to her, with a focus that is not typical for this breed.  Her young Canaan Merino has learned many tricks and behaviors in the same way and his focus on her is something extraordinary for this breed.  She has often said to me that Merino is a genius, and could learn so much with a "good trainer".  I don't think so – the connection between the two is something so positive and unique that no "modern training methods" could take its place.

She has total trust and confidence in her dogs, and therefore they also have total trust in her. She can go to unfamiliar places with them, let them off leash, and because of her total connection with them and confidence in them, they respond by behaving as you would expect of a well trained dog.  They respond to strangers as she responds, and since she is an outgoing and friendly person, so are her dogs.

In our modern world, there is so much information available, so much discussion, so many methods of doing everything.  We are hard put to decide what to do and how to do it, what will be the most effective or most successful.  There are countless well educated dog trainers who have learned all the modern theories and work "by the book", following all the rules, and consulting with colleagues over every abnormality.  They are successful; they achieve results, even outstanding ones.

But for me, there is nothing that can take the place of the deep instinct, empathy, understanding, and communication of Isabella.  It is the difference between a paint-by-numbers picture and a masterpiece of art.  It is not something that can be learned, it is something that a few rare people have and the rest of us can envy.

I have been living and working with dogs for more than 50 years, but I can still learn about dog-human relationships and how wonderful they can be from Isabella and her dogs.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Halloween House

The continuing adventures of the Shaar Hagai gypsies…

Moving is always a difficult and exasperating procedure, but when it involves moving  
dogs with all their equipment, it takes it all to another level!

Since we had no money for hiring a moving company, we were left with the option of doing it all ourselves.  We hired a van, and of course the first priority was to transport the dogs.  It would take two trips to move all the dogs, with each trip being about two hours of driving each way.  We had to do it at night, since it was now summer and the weather was very hot during the day.  So, since we could not afford to have the van for an extended period, it was a night of driving back and forth, one of us travelling with the dogs and getting them settled, and the other staying with the other dogs until they could be loaded and transported. The driver was a good friend, I don't know what we would have done without him!

Once all the dogs were moved, it was time to move all of our belongings.  A lot of my things were still in their packing from their trip from Israel, there had been no place in the little gingerbread house to unpack them.  Everything else we had to pack in cartons, or things like clothes in large black plastic garbage bags (these bags, in large and small size, are a major part of our life in Italy), and we had to load them all in the van.  I never pictured myself as a porter, but to my surprise, I did manage to do the job!

Once we got the things to the house in Amola, we had to unpack everything and carry it to the house – the streets in this tiny village were too narrow for the van to get all the way to the house.  So first dog crates, and then all the rest of our possessions, were carried to the house.  Things that were not immediately needed went into the cellar, down a steep and scary flight of stairs, some things went upstairs, another flight of stairs, and some things were on the main floor.

Finally, in a state of exhaustion, we were finished.  The van was returned and we were ready to collapse…

Hah!  The dogs had to be taken out and walked!  And my dogs were upstairs in my bedroom, so many more times up and down the stairs…

So here we were, in a different part of Italy, Tuscany, a very beautiful area, and in completely different conditions.   The house here was quite old and quite small, two bedrooms, a living/dining room and a tiny kitchen.  There was a cellar also, which was accessed by a quite scary looking staircase.  There was a small yard.  That was it.  We were also inside the village, with other houses very close by.  Most of them were empty, some in ruins, some for sale but not sold, and some whose tenants had died.  But there were plenty of other houses a few hundred meters away, that were inhabited by families.

So the dogs all lived in the house, divided between the several rooms, and went out to run in the yard several times a day, in different groups.  Most of our day was spent caring for dogs – feeding, cleaning, grooming, letting them in and out, taking them out to walk…  Since I had to go up and down the stairs dozens of times a day, my legs became quite muscular.  Stairs are a recommended form of exercise for losing weight and gaining condition – I didn't have to buy one of those steppers, I had the real thing!

It was very hot.  The heat here was different from that at Shaar Hagai, it was much more humid and heavy, even though in degrees it was hotter in Israel.  The dogs really only enjoyed running around in the early morning or late evening.  But the heat was not something that we couldn't cope with.

The thing that I found extremely difficult and frustrating was – the dust!!!  There had been plenty of dust at Shaar Hagai, although over the years, as I managed to get the yard in front of the house paved, and a lawn grown in the lower yard, the dust problem became much less.

But the dust here was like nothing I had ever experienced before.  I don't know if it was unique to this part of Italy or common to other areas also, but it was certainly something very different.  Invasive, pervasive, evasive, the dust was everywhere. Covering things did not help, it penetrated everything.  It was impossible to clean effectively; this dust was very heavy and with a texture that is indescribable, but if you tried to brush it away, it just fell and scattered into clumps and piles. If you tried to wipe it away, even with a wet cloth, it stuck and left streaks.  As soon as the wet place dried, you could see a persistent layer of dust still stuck there.  If you managed to clean a surface, after ten minutes the dust was back as if it had never been gone.  Sometimes I had the feeling that this wasn't just dust, it was a creature from outer space that was multiplying at a terrifying rate and filling the world…
Since the effective storage space here was limited, the constant fight against the dust meant that many of our clothes and belongings were kept in black plastic bags.  This way, the dust collected on the outside, but at least on the inside things were relatively dust free.  But it was important to be careful to keep the bags closed hermetically; otherwise the dust crept in…

Well, no choice but to cope with it…

But then the seasons changed.

Seasons change very abruptly here, it seems.  One day it was summer, and it was hot and dry, with blazing sun most days.  And then suddenly, as if it was controlled by the calendar, it was autumn!  The sun was often covered by clouds or fog, it was no longer uncomfortably hot, and there was a prospect of rain.  Rain would be welcome, I thought – then maybe there would not be dust!

That was a false hope.  The rain started, and what it produced was mud.  My dogs were not at all happy about the muddy ground, not something they had needed to cope with in the hills of Shaar Hagai.  I kept telling the collies that their heritage was from a cold and wet country with plenty of rain and mud – but they claimed to be more civilized now and did not desire to get their pretty white feet dirty…Well, they had no choice!  The Canaans and podengoes had no problems, though, they were ready to cope with everything.

One thing I found hard to understand was how there could be mud and dust at the same time!  If the ground was wet, there shouldn't be dust, right?  Hah!

This winter was very wet, with much more rain than usual, and it was quite cold.  As the winter progressed, we discovered more things about the house.  The insulation was very poor, it had obviously not been well kept up by the owner.  The walls seemed to be absorbing the rain and damp, and started to turn black with the mold growing on them.  The same thing happened to the ceilings which were also apparently soaking up the damp.  The ceilings were very high in places, and in the highest points, cobwebs developed and hung down, covered also with dust.  The house looked like something you would see in horror movies, or as a setting for Halloween.

Everything in the house was damp, clothes in the wardrobes, any bedding that was not covered, food in the kitchen cupboards…the winter was spent trying to dry things out on the few sunny days, and to find enough dry clothes and other necessities. We tried various methods of trying to get rid of the mold, but nothing was really effective.  All we could do was wait for spring and the sun and warm weather to dry things out.  The local dry cleaner also got a lot of business from us to clean clothes of mold – of course the mold grew on good clothes, wool, leather, and so on, not on the cheap synthetics…The mold on the walls and ceilings did dry up, and we were able to brush it off with a broom now, although traces of the black still remained.

Spring was rather late this year, but finally we were back to warm and sunny days, and were able to open all windows and air everything out, and get everything dry.   Our hopes were to be able to live a fairly normal life while we looked for a more suitable house to rent. 

But of course, since my life seems to be a soap opera, this was not to be.  We were informed that we had to leave this house, within a month, as it was needed for a girl friend of the owner. 

Finding a suitable rental property, as we had discovered, was very difficult.  We needed a place that was not near other houses, so that the dogs would not disturb anyone, enough garden or land around for them to exercise properly, and at an affordable price.  We had been looking but had not found anything suitable.  There were plenty of houses for sale, but we did not have any resources for buying. 

So in a few days, a new chapter in the adventures of Shaar Hagai will begin.  We will move to a tent in the field of a friend while we continue to look for a house to rent.

It is fitting that someone who has for years been breeding Bedouin dogs learns to live like a Bedouin, no?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Identity Crises

Most of our dogs can be considered fairly "normal".  That is, their behavior is in the range of what we expect of dogs of their breed.  Canaans behave like Canaans, collies behave like collies, small podengos (sometimes unfortunately) behave like podengos…

But there are a few that seem to be having a problem deciding on their identity.

The first is Sulpicia, a bracco Italiano.  She is the only bracco that we have, so maybe that is one of the factors that has an influence on her.  She has grown up surrounded by Canaans, and the result seems to be that she thinks she is one.

Braccos are hunting dogs, pointers by profession, and they have to hunt silently, using their excellent noses to pinpoint the game, and then creeping up as close as they can, stealthily, and freezing into a point.  After the hunter has taken down the game, the bracco can be expected to run out and locate it, and to bring it back, carrying it gently in his big soft mouth and not leaving a mark on it.  When they are not hunting, they are friendly and amiable and not interested in much except relaxing and saving energy for the next hunt, when they are immediately ready for plenty of action and have plenty of energy, spirit and endurance.

Sulpicia has plenty of energy, there is no question of that, and plenty of endurance as well.  She also can go to sleep and be oblivious to the world for hours if nothing interesting is happening.  But she has decided that it is also her job to be a guard dog and to bark more than the Canaans, at everything and everyone, and her bark is loud and resounding.  Sometimes she is even the first to bark at something that is happening, and sometimes I think that she starts barking when there is not really anything to bark at, because she enjoys the reaction of all the Canaans, who believe her and immediately start barking as well.

Since she is not employed as a hunting dog, she has decided that her favorite prey are balls.  She is crazy about balls.  She can walk around for hours with her favorite ball in her mouth, and sometimes even sleeps with it.  She loves to chase balls and to retrieve, and she has learned to push the ball with her nose to any people who might be around to get them to throw it again. She is also an expert at stealing balls from the other dogs.  Just set .down on the ground for an instant and she has it

But she also seems to have forgotten that braccos have a big soft mouth.  She holds on to the things that are precious to her with a death grip.  It is almost impossible to open her mouth, only when she is ready to give up her treasure will she relax those steely jaws.  I really don't think that she would do a great job of retrieving a bird…

Our second identity conflict is Merino, our beautiful, young, black Canaan dog.  He looks like a Canaan – a very nice one – and for the most part acts like one, being very alert and guarding well, not being fond of strange dogs in his territory, and with a preference for looking new people over from a few steps away while he decides if they can be allowed to pet him or not. 

Canaans are usually very serious dogs.  They are not interested in silly games, and once they have learned something, showed that they know it, and performed it properly, one or two times is enough. "Been there, done that" can be considered a Canaan slogan.

But Merino seems to think that he is a border collie.  He can spend hours playing with toys – a rope toy, balls, or whatever – and if there is no one who will play with him, he will play with himself. He throws the toys in the air and catches them, drops balls at the top of a slope so that they will roll and he can chase them, and gallops around finding more imaginative ways to play.  If there is someone to play with, he is thrilled, and he will play "fetch" for hours if he has the chance.  Canaans in general are not particularly fond of retrieving, they are much more likely to go off with their prize, but Merino is an excellent retriever.

He is also keen on learning all sorts of silly tricks, like giving paws, ringing a bell with his paw, learning to "sing" for a treat…the other Canaans really don't understand this behavior.  They are usually quite calm dogs, but Merino is always bursting with energy (border collie!).  Whatever identity he may assume for himself, Merino is always very happy and certainly enjoying himself.

Then there is Calimero. Also big, black and beautiful, a very impressive boy who is a very serious guard dog.  Well, he is as long as people are outside the house or the yard.  The minute they step into his territory, he becomes a Labrador.  "Pet me, pet me, pet me!" is what he wants, jumping on everyone as if they are his long time best friends, licking, rubbing against them, and in general doing everything he can to show how much he loves people.  It is rather embarrassing, really, when you have just finished explaining the temperament of the Canaans to visitors, their cautiousness and discrimination, and then Cali comes 
bounding in with a huge welcoming grin.

Shauna is an elegant Canaan girl, daughter of a dog that was brought in from the desert, and very much Canaan in all her behaviors.  For various reasons, she had her first litter only this year, at the age of five.  Canaans are known to be good and devoted mothers, but Shauna has crossed the line.  The two pups from her litter that have remained here are now eight months old and bigger than she is, but she insists that they are puppies, runs after them licking their mouths, cleaning them when they eliminate, and in general treating them like the tiny pups that she so much enjoyed having after so many years of waiting…identity crisis super mom?

Ziva David, on the other hand, is a big, strong and tough girl, queen of the pack of Canaans, and loves being in control of everything.  But she seems to have decided that she is a cheetah.  She goes out in the yard and starts running at top speed all around the available space, not stopping for long minutes at a time, and just to spice things up a bit, taking a few flying leaps to look over the top of the two meter fence, and then back to running again.  Even though she has gotten rather chunky in the last few months, this has no influence on her running, though maybe her speed is slightly less…

Finally there is Habibi.  Habibi has always been a very serious dog, feeling very responsible for protecting me and our property.  He never took food from strangers, and even from people that he knew, he would take the offered treat, walk away with it, put it down and examine it very thoroughly, and also check with me if it was something that could be eaten.

Here in Italy, he has become food crazy (I guess Italian food can do that).  He loves all treats offered, including a plain piece of bread, and is really crazy about the vanilla flavored dog biscuits we have discovered here.  He will act like a silly puppy just to get a bit of biscuit.  It is hilarious to see Habibi, a big, strong, tough boy, rolling around on his back just to get a biscuit.

The other dogs seem to be secure in their normal identities…for now…

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Chinese Balls

It is difficult to find good dog toys.  There is a huge variety available on the market, but they are either boring for the dog after five minutes, can be destroyed, demolished, and swallowed either whole or in pieces in ten minutes, or are ridiculously expensive.  And even the very expensive "behavioral" toys, games, puzzles, and so on either lose their interest for the intelligent and active dog after a while, or they find a way to destroy them or lose the pieces.  Toys that work on food motivation often motivate a clever dog to find an imaginative way to penetrate them to get to the food, without all the play that was intended.

So imagine my joy when we found in a small pet supply shop in a village here in Italy a ball 
that seemed to be unique in its ability to fascinate the dogs.  It is a spiky ball of some fairly hard and resistant plastic or rubber, but still soft enough for the dog to chomp on to create a fascinating squeak, and activate   flashing lights in blue and red. 

My collies love to run after things and retrieve, but tend to get bored quickly.  But they became totally obsessed with this ball.  They were ready to run after it for hours, catching it, squeaking it, and begging for me to throw it again. They would stand looking at me with begging eyes, chewing the ball to make it squeak – "Please throw it again! Again! Again!" The Canaans, in general not very interested in this sort of game, were not very interested in this ball, but my housemate's braccho italiano was even more obsessed than the collies.

And even better, this ball seemed to be almost indestructible.  Hours of play and chewing left it minus a few of the spikes, but still whole, undestroyed, still squeaking, and still flashing.  Weeks went by, and the ball was still alive and well, and the dogs remained obsessed.

Since it was such a great success, we decided we should buy more of these balls for future use.  There were two more at the pet shop, which we quickly bought, and the shop owner said they were due to get more in a few weeks.

One of the balls bounced over the fence and disappeared down the hill into limbo.  A second ball went with one of my collie girls when she travelled to a few shows with a handler, to help her feel happy and at home – she was one of the most obsessed.  But she returned without the ball, it was forgotten at the handler's place, and there has still not been an opportunity to get it back yet.  One ball is left. The flashing lights have stopped – they did last for a long time – but the ball, despite being minus a number of spikes, still squeaks and bounces very well, and the dogs are still obsessed with it, refusing to play with other toys and waiting for me to bring it out and start the game.

I was getting very worried – what would happen if something happened to this ball, or if it finally got chewed up?  We did not know the name of the company that produced it, and the shop where we got them was hours of travel away, and meanwhile had not gotten a new supply.

So what do you do in this sort of situation?  You search for things on the internet.  We searched for "dog toy ball, flashing light and squeaker".  And we got results!

The results were on one of the Chinese websites that is rather like a Chinese Amazon – it sells everything under the sun representing manufacturers, retailers, and anyone wanting to sell.  And there they were – balls!  They looked just like our ball in the photos, and they were really cheap!  True, it would take two months for them to arrive, but we expected the ball we had to last for at least another two months.  We immediately ordered 20 Chinese balls – that should be enough for a while.

Two months passed, and a package arrived.  Well, not really a package.  It was a large airmail envelope.  We opened it, and there were the 20 balls.  But!!!!  These were smaller – not the size we ordered, softer, and because they were soft, about 15 of the 20 were squished from the transport and no longer in the shape of balls.  They rather looked like a peach that has been stepped on…

When we tried playing with the dogs, we discovered that the dogs did like them, but after ten minutes of rough play and chewing, the balls were demolished and the squeaker and the thingy that produced the flashing lights fell out – things that were just the size to be easily swallowed by dogs. 

What a disappointment!!!! Of course, we complained to the supplier, who agreed to refund the purchase price, and begged us not to ruin his reputation!!!!   But now we had no balls!!!!

The moral of this story is, don't trust Chinese Balls!

And if anyone knows where to find the originals, please let me know!!!

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Gingerbread House

Once upon a time, there was a house on the top of a high hill in Italy.  The surroundings 
were spectacular, so beautiful that they cast a sort of enchantment on the place, and on the ability to view it realistically.  It created an almost insurmountable desire to just stay there and look at the constantly changing light and shadow on the wonderful landscape.

The house was actually two houses, one the family home of the owners, and the second a building that had been converted into two apartments, upstairs and downstairs.  The buildings looked quite charming, and all around, of course, was the incredible landscape and the quiet of an isolated location surrounded by nature.

Ahhhh, things are not always what they seem…

The houses belonged to an old acquaintance of my partner, or actually, to her husband.  They had not really been in touch over the years except for a few casual meetings, but when Lucretia (as we will call her) heard that we were looking for a house to rent, she got in touch.

She is a very attractive woman for her age (50), and was very charming, smiling all the time, and expressing great interest in our needs. We could rent one apartment, ground floor, and use some of the outbuildings or sheds for the dogs.  There was a great deal of land around, we could make yards, kennels, no problem.  There was a lot of junk around, her husband was one of those people who believed that everything could possibly be of use at some time, and so collected all the discards of everyone and piled it up around the property.  There were stacks of all sorts of old building materials, broken furniture, lumber, window frames, old doors – you name it, and probably you could find it.  But we could see that with some clean up, the place had great potential.

Her husband, Giovanni, was dying, she told us.  He had a cancer of the brain, which was incurable, although various treatments had been tried.  She needed help caring for the animals and the place, so was interested in renting the apartment.  The upstairs apartment was being reserved for the person who would have to take care of Giovanni when he was not able to function anymore.

Once he was dead, the junk could be taken care of…

She promised us plenty of space for the dogs, and her help in finding some work with the dogs with children's groups, something I had done in the past and was very interested in continuing to do.

We should have been more careful, we should have asked more questions, we should have inspected everything more thoroughly….but like little Hansel and Gretel, we were tempted and seduced by the smiles, the wonderful scenery, and the idea that the little apartment would later be expanded, the junk gotten rid of, and there would be plenty of room for the dogs.  

So we moved in.  It worked out that we moved at the worst possible time of the year, November, when everything was cold, gray, damp, and uncomfortable.  There was incredible fog, like I had never seen before – when you looked out over the landscape, the fog looked like a sea, with the tops of the hills sticking out like islands.  It was often wet and rainy, enough to turn the strange local ground into thick and sticky mud, that clung to everything and turned to heavy dust when it dried.  We were very cramped in the tiny house, as all the dogs were inside with us.  Although we had been promised use of outbuildings to make kennels for the dogs, and the possibility of putting up prefab kennels next to the house, the area that actually we were allowed to use was much less than we had been expecting, and the fence around the yard was not yet finished either.  So the house was in fact more of a kennel, and there was a constant battle against the mud and dust – which we usually lost…The house was heated with a wood burning furnace that was connected to both houses, and there was also plenty of hot water.  But there were few other amenities.
Living in the house gave us a different viewpoint than we had when we first came to see it.  The ceilings were very low, the insulation was very poor, the living room had no windows at all, and it was very cold if the furnace was not on.  There was no connection for the television, the phone reception was not reliable, and the wifi was really our only connection to the world.

The house actually was very strange.  It was almost completely paneled in wood, but obviously the work had not been done by professional experts.  The construction seemed to have been done in a strange way, without proper insulation, so there was constantly a drizzle of dust and other unidentified materials falling through the cracks in the ceiling and accumulating everywhere.  The doors didn't really fit properly, so according to the weather, sometimes they closed and sometimes they didn't, swinging open of their own accord.  The pipes for the radiators were not in the walls but rather haphazardly crisscrossing the rooms.  I don't think the apartment would have passed any safety and up to code examinations…

We had only casually met the homeowner, Giovanni, all of our dealing had been with his wife.  But now, wife and children spent almost all their time in an apartment in town, and we were alone on the property with him.  Lucretia had expected him to be dead by now of the brain cancer.  However, it had been operated on, and he had gone through the usual treatments, and it seemed to be in remission.  Lucretia's plans were not going as she had expected…

Giovanni was a very kind, interesting and helpful person.  He loved animals, had three dogs of his own, as well as other animals, and deeply loved nature and a life devoted to it.  After many years of being a town dweller and working in a bank, he finally had fulfilled his dream of having a house in the country where he could have some animals, grow some of his own food, and enjoy the great beauty of his surroundings.  He loved going for walks with his dogs in the surrounding woods and fields. 

Giovanni was interested in our dogs, and did a great deal to help us build a kennel room and a yard for the dogs to run in.  He was very clever at finding solutions for many things, and had a huge variety of tools and also of building materials, almost all of it recycled.  Things that were junk for others made his eyes light with pleasure and he would bring home all sorts of things that might be of use in the future.

I was familiar with this point of view, the Bedouin also believed that everything might possibly be of use some time in the future.  There were usually big piles of what we might call junk in the vicinity of their dwellings, but for them these were future treasures.

I found myself living as if I was back at the beginning of Shaar Hagai, cleaning, building, constructing, making use of everything to save money.  Giovanni did not consider at all that I was a not so young woman, there was work to be done.  And to my surprise and pleasure, I found myself capable of doing things I had not done for years.

My Italian vocabulary added some new and interesting words – cariola (wheelbarrow), viti (screws), rete (wire), caldaia (stove), and so on.

But sadly, as in all fairy tales, the good king was fading…Giovanni started to feel unwell, and examination showed that the cancer was back.  He went through another operation, but although he refused to give up on his life and activities, the prognosis was not good, not good at all…

Here the story becomes dark.  Giovanni's wife and three children, who we had hardly seen until now, started spending more time on the property.  Lucretia worked part time as a teacher and was a writer of children's books, quite successfully.  When we first met Lucretia and discussed the possibility of renting a place from them, she was very enthusiastic, she told us she loved animals and nature and would be happy to have us with the dogs, and that she would be able to help us find work, in projects for educating children about animals and science that she was involved in.  This sounded great!

But the facts turned out to be different.  There was no more discussion of mutual projects.  To the contrary, the dogs bothered her, she didn't want us to keep them in the house, but the areas promised us for the dogs outside of the house, had been cut in half. The dogs barked and disturbed her, the dogs smelled, the dogs, the dogs, the dogs….In fact, most of the barking of the dogs was caused by her children and dogs running around and agitating our dogs with screaming, waving of sticks, riding by on bicycles, and doing whatever they could invent to make the dogs crazy…

The situation deteriorated.  Giovanni was becoming weaker in front of our eyes, although he was trying very hard to continue to live the life he loved.  But we found out that Lucretia had managed to have him declared incompetent (after all, he was a "man with half a brain"), so that she was now the owner of all the property.  It was quite obvious what her intentions were, her time schedule had just been spoiled by Giovanni's persistence in staying alive.  It was obviously also disappointing for the "cucciolino" ( "puppy dog") that followed after her everywhere and was obviously waiting to take over from Giovanni….

Lucretia had an older daughter from an earlier marriage.  She was an attractive girl like her mother, with ambitions to be a model, something that was very unlikely to happen – at 21, she was too old to start a modeling career.  She now came to live in the apartment above us, which was supposed to be for caretakers of Giovanni.  There was little caretaking going on.  However, she had no compunctions about caretaking for herself – starting with complaints about the dogs, she continued with complaints about us watching movies on the computer later than 10 in the evening. Her usual way of complaining was to bang on the floor of her rooms with a broom (our ceiling), violently and insistently.  If that wasn't enough, she would come down and pound on our door, screaming, "I can't sleep!!!! Look at my face!!! Look at what I look like when I can't sleep!!!!"

Of course, the dogs did not find this at all amusing, and barked in our defense, causing more banging and screaming.

The evil queens punished us in many ways.  There was no longer any heat provided, and it was very cold, the middle of the winter, with temperature around freezing.  There was no hot water.  And the final straw was when they shut off the wifi connection, our only connection to the outside world….

We were given one month to pack up and leave.  There was no question that we wanted to leave, we were extremely stressed and so were the dogs, we were very worried about them as well.  We felt very sorry about Giovanni, who was a shadow of his former self, and although feeling very unhappy, was not in a condition to get involved. (Subsequently, the old king was committed to a hospital, where the evil queen refused to let his friends even visit him without her permission…)

Finding a place to go to in one month, with all the dogs – more or less mission impossible…
But we were determined to get out.  The enchantment had ended, we could now see the reality, and it was not a fairytale, not a gingerbread house, but a dark and depressing soap 

Next time – Moving again

Update:  A few months after we left the Gingerbread House, the benevolent king Giovanni died.  His last days were spent in hospice conditions, and no one who was not approved by Lucretia was allowed to visit.  So this good man died without his friends around him...