Today feels like a good day to tell a story.
This is Zampa.
Zampa belongs to our friends, the Watersons (names changed). We met the Watersons back at the Mayflower. (Are you new here? Read the Mayflower backstory here!)
Joe Waterson, speaker of six languages, was Mayflower’s head waiter and idea man. He was Piero’s second, his right-hand man, his American-Charmer. The two of them together had revitalized the menu and were killin’ it! Joe schmoozed with the crowd and performed small acts of magic, like a hibachi chef. He was always grinning and joking. He was like a roving Roberto Benigni. (He even kinda looks like him.) The restaurant was hoppin’ each night. Life was grand. Ana, Joe’s wife, also worked there. She’s much more reserved so I didn’t get to know her back then. She was tiny and unassuming, but even from a distance, she exuded a calm fierceness. Joe and Ana were always a highlight of any Mayflower visit. We love the Watersons. When Piero died, we vowed to keep in touch after the funeral.
(I suppose I should take a moment to address that last part. If you’ve been around for awhile (or if you just read it a minute ago), you might remember me beginning the story of Piero Fusari, owner of our neighborhood restaurant, Mayflower. It was one of our favorite places to be and he was our first real ambassador here in Italy. He was definitely our first friend. I’ve had a lot of trouble telling the end of the story so I will say this: Mayflower was really hitting its stride. It was incredibly successful. Nightly parties. Live music. Fun and friends. Piero was working himself to exhaustion. He was tired. One night he was there. We celebrated with him. He was happy and all over his girlfriend. It was great.
Two days later he was gone. I’ve heard several theories about what happened. Some involve money problems, others involve health problems. Whatever it was, he couldn’t hang on. Piero died last March. We were all devastated. We attended our first Italian funeral. (It wasn’t what we expected at all. I still may write about it sometime.) When Piero died, the heart left the neighborhood. The building has not opened since he died. His car still waits there. The sign on the door still says Chiuso Per Lutto- Closed for mourning. It sucks. It took us all awhile to recover. You can see why I’ve been fighting writer’s block… It’s still tender. Anyway, on to other topics.)
6 months pass and we run into Ana. It was her first day working at a restaurant around the corner. Not only that, this is the restaurant where the VFW guys meet. We’re there all the time! The next week, Joe was there too. A reunion! It was glorious! We were able to relive the old days. Toasts were made, noms were nibbled, and cigarettes were smoked, you know, like ya’ do. (To clarify, dear grandmothers of ours, some of us smoked. We, ourselves, aren’t smokers, but Joe smoked enough for all three of us. Twice.) As we sat, and we drank, Joe told us his sad tale.
After Mayflower closed, they bounced from restaurant to restaurant, hoping for a job contract. (In Italy, job contracts are everything. If you don’t have one, employers have the ability to screw you. They can hire you on for a trial period with no pay, like a crappy internship. At the end they can fire you and bring on someone else in exactly the same way. Or they can just say, “we can’t pay you.” And they don’t. It’s dirty, but it’s reality here, and 100% legal, from what I’ve been told.) Joe had been offered a pre-contract position at his best friend’s restaurant. He’d scheduled himself ten entire days between the end of one job and the start of the next, but instead of being able to relax and enjoy those days with his family, he was facing a conundrum. His landlord had decided to sell the apartment they were renting, right out from under them. I don’t remember the exact details and timelines, but since employers can legally not pay people for work, I’m guessing landlords can also suddenly boot tenants. I’m not sure if they had a written lease (leases are apparently optional here). Either way, the Watersons had four days in which to find a new home. Joe was stressed.
My husband and I often channel Mother Teresa, which is exactly what we did that day.
We have a pretty cool basement in our house. It’s technically on ground level but since our house is sortof on a hill, it both is and isn’t a basement. Schrödinger’s basement! I’ll call it the taverna, since that is the official name. A taverna is the party room in an Italian house.
Our taverna came with a table big enough to host the last supper, a wine closet, and a bar. There’s also a stove, oven, and fireplace, so you have no excuse to not cook for all of your family members for Sunday dinner. Our taverna also came pre-decorated with mementos our landlord has picked up on his travels. The room is separated by the rest of the house and could easily be its own studio apartment. It’s a nice spot, and perfect for visitors because it’s spacious and interesting. It’s essentially a small, private apartment. It’s a wonderful place to visit, but it’s not a good place to live long term, especially if you’re more than one person (or two compact Europeans). We offered Joe our lovely taverna, for a bit, if he and Ana needed. He said it wouldn’t be long. Just a few days. We offered a few weeks, if necessary. He mentioned that they had two kids. We immediately painted a much more realistic picture of the taverna. It’s a smallishly-large room. A short term stay with kids would be uncomfortable, but possible. Long-term would be awful. We didn’t want it to seem like we were promising an apartment and delivering a closet. Joe said he’d come by and look the next day.
We honestly figured that they would see our space and refuse. It’s small. It’s tight. We were happy to offer it, but it didn’t seem like a good solution for four people. We looked at the space with pessimism. They saw optimism.
When they moved in, a few days later, I was out of town. I’d traveled down to Orvieto, Italy to take a weeklong stained glass course with a friend. I made this.
In the car ride home from the train station, my sweet was telling me all about the move-in. They’d put extra padding on the futon for extra comfort and broken out our super air mattress for the kiddos. It was cramped but they were happy and all was well. Then he gestured off toward the park and said, “There’s the daughter walking the dog.”
Hold on. Dog?? Nobody had mentioned a dog. Turns out that the dog hadn’t come up prior to moving day. He was little and cute, albeit a little odd-looking. He seemed ok, I guess… We hadn’t agreed to take on a dog too, but I love dogs, and Italian dogs are well-behaved, so, yeah, great! A small dog! I liked this idea! Until he spotted me.
I know, I know, it was damned nervy of me to enter my own house unannounced. He came up the stairs with his people, looked at me, and lost it. I believe a similar behavior in a small child would fall under the umbrella of hysterics, or a tantrum. In his case, it was just loud. He continued to bark every time he saw me, for several days. And not just me. Everything.
Fast forward two months. During that time, Zampa decided he liked me. I decided I loathed him, although, being an occasional Mother Teresa, I tried, daily, to relike him. I mean I really tried. Some days were great and Zampa and I were close pals. Other days, I wanted to toss him off my highest balcony, but, as he was incredibly light on his feet and had long, springy legs, I knew he would just bounce. I’d cuddle him when he was cold, yet I’d also yell at him, fruitlessly searching for something light enough to throw at him, when he’d been barking for hours on end. Eventually we all started joking about making Zampa soup or Zampa underwear. Sometimes I’d alternate between sweet-talking him and calling him uncharitable names. Luckily he didn’t understand English, or body language.
Let me tell you a few good things about Zampa. First, his name, in Italian, means Paw. If that’s not positively darling, I don’t know what is. Seriously. Zampa weighed about 10 pounds and moved like a gazelle. He was graceful, and bloody fast. He never moved in a direct line. He would leap forward, his front legs pointing in one direction, and his back legs kicking off toward another. He bounded over tall grass like an undersized, delicate antelope. It was really something to see.
Zampa is what I now know is called a “liver” dog. Liver is a descriptive term like merle or brindle. Liver dogs have a modification of the B gene which causes any would-have-been black areas to turn brown. They also have amber eyes and brown or pink noses. Zampa fit that description perfectly and had an Eddie Munster widow’s peak. He normally did not give my family much attention unless he was cold or tired of being outside. Then he would come to our door and beg, wiggling his butt in excitement when we’d appear.
We attempted to break Zampa’s tendency toward excessive barking and marking. Because our areas of the house were not his, he felt the need to claim them each time he visited. (He had five favorite spots.) He learned to open the door to the basement, like a velociraptor, so we kept a weight and a potted plant against the door and banned him from our areas. Although tile floors are great, I got really tired of cleaning up 2-4 puddles or piles every time he squeezed past our notice.)
Zampa’s favorite trick was escaping. The first time he escaped, it was our fault. The guys were fixing the neighbor’s fence so the front gate was cracked a tiny bit to keep it from locking. Since Zampa was equally tiny, he squeezed out and hurtled toward freedom… in the road. He managed to avoid an untimely death, thanks to the concerned adults who were flagging down cars and trying to catch the dog who wouldn’t be caught. He took them on a wild goose chase around the neighborhood, and even visited the prison down the road. Spoiler alert: nobody was shot by the incompetent guard, although it wasn’t for lack of interest on the guard’s part. Zampa was finally apprehended, bullet-free, by me. After making the guys chase him for 45 minutes, he jumped right into my arms when he saw me, the butthead.
We tried our hardest not to let him out again, but once he’d sampled the sweet taste of freedom, there was no stopping him. He slipped the gate; he squeezed under the fence; he pushed out the mesh, climbed the wall… It also didn’t matter whether it was us or his people manning the ports. If he saw an opening, he took it. We would chase after him, terrified for him, but if we’d get close, he’d run farther away. It was a game. When we’d inevitably give up, he’d return to the house within minutes. We finally quit bothering to chase him. We addressed each problem as it arose and eventually Zampa was contained.
Unfortunately, this was not the answer Zampa was hoping for. Boredom hit the little guy hard, and he began snapping at his people, digging tiny holes in the yard, and barking more than ever.
Three months have passed. Three Zampa-laden months. If I’m being perfectly honest, the experience has been pretty incredible. Our Italian has improved, our friends have been able to save money and relax while house hunting, our kids get along well, and really, they’ve been fantastic guests. They’re very polite and respectful. The kids are lots of fun. It could have become a nightmare situation, but apart from the woefully-misbehaved dog and the much-longer-than-expected duration, this has been a dream. The Watersons have found a wonderful house in our neighborhood, where they work and go to school. It’s walking-distance to everything, which is great since they don’t drive. They’re moving into the house next week. We’re all delighted.
Here’s the snag. The house is on a very busy street. Although it’s shielded from the noise and hubbub, the line between front gate and road is direct. This is exactly the wrong thing for tiny Houdini dogs. When we visited the house, we started worrying. Zampa would not do well in that house. A, it has no yard, and B, continuous traffic. The kids are old enough and smart enough to stay out of the street, but when chasing after the beloved family dog? Who knows. We talked to Joe and Ana, and had tried to stress the importance of intensive training for Zampa, but they weren’t concerned and didn’t have time. They believed Zampa would be happier and better behaved in the new house because they wouldn’t all be squished together. While that is certainly true, a dog needs a yard, a playmate, and walks, and he wasn’t getting any of those things. When we next discovered that the house is a duplex, we worried more. Zampa is very, very, very noisy.
As Zampa continued to dart past people bringing in groceries, and as we watched cars swerving to miss him, we knew it was only a matter of time, and we worried more. We did our best for Zampa. We really did.
Saturday night. It was well after midnight and Zampa had been barking all night. It went like this: He would bark at the door; his people would let him out into the yard; he would bark more; we would go outside, chase him down, bring him in and send him down to the taverna, where they would let him out again. This had been a nightly ritual since we’d banished him to the basement, but normally it ended around midnight. So Saturday night, we’d played the ring-around-the-house game with Zampa several times. It was after midnight so we thought we’d done for the night. I’d gone up to bed but my fella was still taking care of some things, so he stayed downstairs (middle floor). Needing something in his car, he left through the gate, leaving it cracked behind him. But of course- Zampa was not inside.
My husband came upstairs a few minutes later and described it like this: Zampa, being the untrained intelligence that he was, spotted the weakness in the gate and decided to exploit it. The velociraptor similarities continue.
As my husband said, Zampa sprinted to his destiny. I didn’t see it but I can imagine- eye-rolling, tongue-flapping, limb-flailing happiness. He took off triumphantly, like a rocket, from the gate. On a normal night, our street after midnight is deserted, not a car to be seen. Unfortunately, timing just wasn’t on Zampa’s side. Zampa, luckily, did not see the car, did not register the collision, and did not suffer for an instant. Zampa peaked at one of the happiest moments of his life and was no more beyond.
It’s really a shock. He was a baby still. Barely a year old. He was a sweetie, but he was also a nuisance. With training, he could have been a wonderful pet, a credit to the family. He ignored commands. There was no malice, but there was also no concept of danger or the importance of listening to his people. None. That’s a scary thing in a dog who likes to escape.
I’m very sad that Zampa is gone. His family adored him. We did our best to welcome and then tolerate him. I made him my compassion project. I learned a lot from Zampa: patience for someone who drives me absolutely crazy, especially when they don’t realize they’re doing it. Also the importance of proper dog training.
Oh, we have a new policy now- no guests with pets.