Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Little guy

One of the ubiquitous sights on the winding roads of the central Italian hills is of cats - hundreds, even thousands of them, scurrying off into the brush as you approach, crouching in apprehension as you pass, eyes glinting like lights in the night when they can see us and but for their eyes we wouldn't see them. Many of them are wild, living off whatever they can find in the small clutches of forest that separate their other larder, the ploughed fields. Others are domesticated, but not in the sense that I'm familiar - they're working cats, earning their keep by supplementing the meagre diet their owners allow them by hunting rodents, thereby serving a purpose. The locals don't impose any form of birth control - apart from the hassle of getting it done, the €80 cost to neuter/spay a cat most certainly plays a role in an area where incomes are low - and so the population runs unchecked.

It's a tough life, and I feel sorry for them. "Rescuing" our Luna from an existence as a contadino cat, where she would have had to scrap for every morsel she might come across, has been a telling experience. All you have to do is look at her, and the story tells itself - she's big, furry, and purry ... and at least twice the size of her mother, who still lives the contadino life a few km from here.

So when the little guy started sleeping in our unrestored shed, we took pity ... and started feeding him. Of course we knew the rule - feed a cat, you own it - but we took it on knowingly. Like most of the wild cats, he was small and under nourished, but with a beautiful, unusual striped-grey colouring that reminded me of a snow leopard. Timid to the point of being startled when we approached him, we eventually realized why - he was completely deaf. What a challenge for an animal that has to live by its wits. Not only that, but he had breathing problems, with a wheeze to his respiration that seemed something of a struggle. As we got to know him better, his paltry, pathetic meouw - like a strangled parrot at low volume - led me to better understand his precarious condition.

Over time he let me get closer, even allowing a gentle stroke when I gave him his food, and purring with a pleasure I'm sure these cats rarely have the opportunity to enjoy. One afternoon his constricted squeals drew us out of the house to find another, bigger male with his jaws around his throat - had we not arrived to drive the other cat away, it would have been curtains for him. He and Luna became friends of sorts, occasionally cavorting together in the garden, with Luna contracting a cold from interacting with him. He was kept outside to try and create a limit, but we often caught him sneaking in the back door to finish off the uneaten food in Luna's bowl.

Eventually, however, such became his dependence on his meals twice a day that he didn't live any kind of life of his own. When we got up in the morning, he was outside the back door, and he stayed there most of the day, croaking out his mews every time we left the house, hoping for a morsel (even if he'd just eaten). It even got to the point of being a nuisance as he practiced the cat habit of walking right in front of your feet, presenting a wonderful tripping opportunity.

For him, what we offered was a drug, and he became hooked, his life reduced to waiting for the next fix - a bowl of cat food. Perhaps he had a tapeworm and was constantly hungry, I don't know, or perhaps he knew something else. Maybe his constant meowing was a plea for something.

I had been meaning to write this blog entry for some time, and to take a photo of him to post with the article. But two days ago he disappeared, and he hasn't been back. After feeding him now for over six months, and having developed his dependency on our food, he most certainly hasn't made the decision to move on. I've searched garden and its surrounds, but I can't find him, and I suspect like all cats he took himself off to somewhere secluded to die.

A local told me that dying was a better option than living the way he did, with all his problems. I don't agree. For a few months he felt he belonged somewhere, and he had a protector. He even purred a few times. Suddenly, though, he's no longer around, and I'm sad that we couldn't do more for him. Sad that his little spirit had to struggle so through the brief period of his life. I hope I continue to remember him for all these things. If only I had taken that photo ...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This is why we're here - in pictures

The photographic accompaniment to the textual version available here.

This is why we're here - in words

So what does one do on a Sunday out here in the rolling hills of central Italy? If your son plays football - as in our case - you go and watch him. It's a pastime I get tremendous enjoyment from, even if the season lasts from September to May. But when a gap opens in the schedule - as it did this past weekend - we snatch at it and use the time to pursue one of our other passions: the mountains.

Now when I say "snatch", I guess I should qualify - given the six-day school week with 6:15am risings and Sundays with their early football wakeup calls, any day off that offers a bit of a sleep-in to a family that loves its shut-eye and doesn't aspire to "bright and cheery" labels (at least the pre-9 am ones) is "snatched at" with equal enthusiasm to the pull of the mountains. So we compromise ... and take advantage of the very reason we moved here - we sleep in, have an early(-ish) lunch, and take off for an afternoon hike.

This past weekend I chose Monte Rotondo, a 2,102-metre mountain we frequently see, but have never scaled (OK, walked up). This involves a drive up a rocky road of about 6km with some very steep slopes on its up- and down-sides, and that is likely soon to close for the winter. At the end of it - which is joined by another dirt road coming from the other side of the saddle - is a concrete monstrosity of a refugio, which serves meals to rocky road adventurers and offers beds to hikers in the summer (albeit only on the weekend except for August). It's also the trailhead for numerous great hikes up to the airy Sibillini ridges, including a short 40-minute climb to Monte Rotondo.

The day was crisp with a brisk breeze that blew the thick low-hanging mist over the surrounding peaks, creating constantly-changing vistas of white-out alternating with clear skies. Puffs of mist drifted through the air like sailing ships into the blue beyond, and cascaded over cliffs, magically dissolving as they fell down the sheer rock faces. On the way up we found a lone purple wildflower and the decomposing remains of two sheep - "I'm thinking wolf," reflected HRH, engaging his wild side. We also came across a plaque remembering two young Italians who lost their lives here in the winter of 2004, a day apart.

The views from the top were stupendous. Apart from the shifting scenes created by the armadas of mist, the central Apennine peaks stretched southward in a panorama unlike any other we've seen before on our many excursions on these ridges. To the west, the light refracted into a stark and surreal line, as if we were on the surface of the sea - below it, waves of mountains were tainted in a hazy blue, and above it the air was vividly clear. We had it all to ourselves - there wasn't another soul around.

On the way down, Maria picked some mushrooms which the owner-cooks of the refugio were surprisingly and disappointingly unable to identify, not only regarding their species, but whether or not they were edible. We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from what promised to be a sunset of banded colours and shifting red shades in order not to have to drive down the rocky road in the dark. On the way we filled our water bottles and slaked the bitterly cold mountain water rolling down from the peaks, and stopped to look over the sheer drop where a cyclist fell to his death on an April day two years ago when we started up the road on our own bicycles and turned back because of the deep snow.

Back home a hot soup warmed our satisfied souls as we reflected on our good fortune - a day like this one is always there for us, just an hour away whenever we might make a snap decision to head up there. And as we find every time we go up there, it's always different, there's always a surprise waiting to be uncovered for those who choose to look for it. Thankfully all three of us have the eyes to find the surprises, and to drink in the liberating sensations of this alpine world with its cleansing air, infinite views, and the unmistakable message that it always whispers - there is nothing else but the here and now.

(If you're interested, there are photographs of our excursion here.)