26 January 2007

Of Mice and Old Men

Mice in the roof! I thought I heard them a couple of nights ago and then last night there was no doubt. They were making a hell of a racket. They started off with a cocktail party, which led to a raucous banquet, dining on my roof insulation, no doubt. After that, they got stuck into John Travolta-style disco dancing to a very noisy band and this went on all night. Something has to be done! Actually, they are probably not mice but tree rats who are rather beautiful creatures with soft faces and white fur on their bellies, but sorry, I need my beauty sleep and I don’t need the wiring chewed. What to do is always the problem. Candy, my best buddy, who lives in America, was invaded by mice a while back and she used a humane trap. She’d bait it and then the mouse would simply walk in the door of the trap, which then closed behind it. She also drilled her trap with extra vent holes for air and put cotton wool balls inside so the poor ‘ickle’ mouse would have something soft to snuggle up to whilst it waited overnight for her to find it. That’s my Candy!

Once in the cage, she carried the trap over the hill and way down to the creek bottoms below and released it on the other side of the creek. By the time she got to mouse number 105 she gave up, as she suspected they were simply walking back up the hill to the quarters they shared with Candy and Bob’s two Old English Sheepdogs. Mind you, they’d have had to swim the creek first. Her neighbour said they probably enjoyed the ride and beat her home. She either took 105 mice over the hill or one mouse 105 times. She’ll never know.

If I get mice in a cupboard, I put down spring traps, which at least kill instantly. I could live without disposing of their little bodies though. Poison gives a slow death and is so cruel but what do you do when you’ve got the little buggers in your roof? Well, I’m not going to address the problem this morning. Instead I’ll look out of the window and enjoy the view.

Before me, I see the Mediterranean but when I look at the hillside to my right, there is a sea of green, mostly chênes verts (holm oaks) and pines that grow way down to the ruisseau (stream) called the Calf below. Visitors often love that view more than looking at the sea. Trees are so calming, aren’t they? The Calf, when it’s rained a lot, is a torrent carrying boulders and fallen trees as it rages down the mountain, but in summer, it's barely a trickle. One day, a couple of years ago, Candy found the decomposing head of a sanglier (wild boar) down there. Of course she had to take this back to America in her suitcase so it sat for days in neat bleach (Javel in France) in an attempt to rid it of the morsels of brain attached. She now has it displayed in her living room in Ohio along with hornets’ nests, turtle shells, deer antlers and animal skulls she finds on her walks along the creek bottoms. Candy’s interior decoration is un peu spéciale as the French would say.

Candy retrieving a sanglier skull from the stream

It constantly amazes me that I live in the countryside alongside olive and citrus growers yet the house is only 5 kilometres from the sea and 11 kilometres from the buzz and glamour of Monaco. And it feels even more ‘country’ to me, because my neighbour keeps his pet sheep under the motorway.

We are four neighbours in this little quartier. Way above me on the main road is the doctor, his wife (a nurse) and their family. The other three including me, are down a rough track opposite their house. First down the track is Monsieur Cocular and his family, then, turning in the direction of the sea, you’ll find Pension Milou and below is my neighbour and friend, Agnès and her family.

Monsieur Cocular is the old man who keeps the sheep. 93 years of age, he wanders the lanes for most of the day cutting fronds of olive leaves and other plants for his pet sheep. The sheep are not kept for meat or milk and certainly not for their wool, as their fleeces are none too tidy. They are his pets and he adores them and when one dies, it’s buried on the hillside. I suppose if he didn’t have his sheep to care for, he’d die. They give him a reason to live. He’s a sweet little old man, very thin, who used to push his chariot around the neighbourhood, stuffing it full of cuttings, but now he makes do with an old sack.

The problem is he cuts the plants in our gardens too. Fences are supposed to denote private land, non? Monsieur Cocular leans over my fence and cuts back anything his sheep will eat and ruins my plants at the same time.

This has gone on for years and up till now I’ve thought: – poor old boy, trying to find free forage for his sheep, does it really matter if he cuts your plants, Jilly? And the answer had to be no. Indeed, when my olive trees are trimmed in winter, I lug the branches up to him. He gets all the weeds too, most of which can be fed to sheep. I’ve bought him bales of hay and told him I’m happy to continue buying hay but on condition he doesn’t cut the plants in my garden. Of course it makes no difference.

And always he denies he’s cut anything he shouldn’t. ‘Ne couper pas mes plants, Monsieur Cocular.’ Mai, non,’ he replies. Huh ! I wonder what his wife would say if I walked into her potager and cut her vegetables.

For years I decided, because he ignored my pleas, that he was simply old, probably a little senile and didn’t know what he was doing. Lately though, I’ve noticed, canny old man, he waits until my car has gone and then he’ll walk down the track with his knife – chop, chop, chop at my plants, many of which I’ve raised from seed or bought in the nursery.

Last summer I had a car park area built. A large area of concrete surrounded by retaining walls to hold back the hillside. Ugly it is, but practical and hopefully kinder to car tyres than the rough stones that used to be there. So, I bought half a dozen rosemary plants which will eventually tumble over the wall and soften the look. So what happens? I go out shopping and when I get back I find Monsieur Cocular has clambered up the hill, behind the retaining wall, and chopped all of them back, almost to the roots. Grrrrrrrrrr.

Agnès, my other neighbour, suggests I have a word with Monsieur C’s daughter. I decide not to phone – that makes too much of it. A few days later I happen to be walking up the track to the mailbox when I see Marie-Christine getting out of her car. I ask her if I can have a word, explain the problem and ask if she’ll speak to her father. At that moment, Monsieur Cocular appears and also his wife. He denies ever cutting my plants. ‘Ce n’est pas vrai,’ he says. His daughter says, ‘Oh Papa,’ and shakes her head. His wife wants to know what’s going on. I explain as gently as I can. His wife is angry. ‘My husband doesn’t cut other people’s plants – he goes up to the hills to get the food for the sheep,’ she says. She asks if I’ve seen him cutting my garden. I tell her I have seen him. I tell that the other neighbours have seen him and that Sylvie, who works here on Saturdays, has seen him. She gets angrier and insists it’s not her husband who has committed this heinous crime. She says she has personally seen someone else walk down our valley and cut plants. What nonsense. Of course she hasn’t.

Really we get nowhere fast but hopefully, now it’s been discussed, he’ll stop looking for sheep fodder in my garden. I’m not counting on it though. And now I feel so guilty as I’ve doubtless got this poor old man into trouble. Oh the guilt – will I sleep at night for thinking about it? – well no, because the mice will keep me awake, won’t they? But perhaps the rosemary will grow…

15 January 2007

A decidedly dodgy childhood


Think of Monte Carlo and perhaps you imagine an expensively clad woman sitting on the terrasse of the Café de Paris, sipping a noisette and watching the visitors strut their stuff around the Place du Casino. By her feet, or more likely sitting on her lap, is her sparkling white and beautifully coiffed bichon frisé or perhaps a poodle. There are lots of those in Monte Carlo - cute little pedigree dogs, I mean, but yes, elegant women too – bien sûr.

When Pension Milou first opened, I assumed all my clients would be pedigree dogs – if not little poodles from Monaco, then family dogs: labs, goldens and cockers from around the Alpes-Maritimes. How wrong I was. Quite a few are bâtards (mongrels) rescued from one of the refuges along the coast, although it’s not only cross-breeds who end up in a refuge - that’s for sure. Unwanted, unloved, some have miraculously ended up at the centre of some lucky family's world in Monaco or the south of France.

All of them, though, mutt or pedigree, have one thing in common – a decidedly dodgy childhood – okay, puppy hood then. But unlike many people, and we are each a product of our childhood, be it good or bad, these dogs didn’t look back in anger but forward with optimism and joy and most of all, with love.

Here are the stories of three such dogs.
  • Victoria’s story
In January 2001, a lady was walking her dog through the streets of Monaco and as she passed by the rear of the Annonciade building, a large apartment block, she heard a whimpering sound coming from a poubelle (rubbish bin). There, chucked into the depths and certain death, was a moving paper bag and inside, a tiny and very dirty black puppy. She went immediately to the vet who ascertained this scruffy bundle was about 4 weeks old. The next day, a friend of our gallant rescuer came to visit, fell in love and the rest, as they say, is history. First though, she had to persuade her husband, who was in hospital at the time, that this was a good idea and happily he agreed. The puppy, to be called Victoria, had to be fed with a dropper, as she was too small and weak to feed herself. Her rescuer cared for her for the first week and then she went to her forever-home.

A handbag! (4 weeks)

First she lived in Monaco, then in the medieval village of Roquebrune, in a house just under the church clock. I remember going to great parties in this house where everything stopped when the church bells pealed - they were that loud. Victoria’s favourite pastime was to visit the butcher, where she sat and begged until she was given a scrap of meat or a bone, which she proudly carried home. Her owners have to be careful with what they feed her though, as all her life she’s had a delicate stomach, perhaps because she was never properly weaned.

The family now live in Sospel, a beautiful village high above Menton, but whenever they pay a visit to Roquebrune, little Victoria always remembers the butcher’s shop. She was called Victoria, by the way, because she is the same age as her owner’s grandson, Victor, and she was found on the 100th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s death.

A day after she was found, another female puppy, to be named Blackie was found in the same rubbish bin and she was adopted by one of the waiters at a Monaco restaurant. She’s turned out to be the image of Victoria, even down to the little white patch on the chin, but Blackie is smaller and slimmer, perhaps because she was never spayed.

Games with Pumba, the Labrador

Victoria likes life at Pension Milou, especially if there's a dog to flirt with, but basically she’s obsessively attached to her owners and sometimes I'll catch her staring at the gate, hoping the next people to arrive will be them. When I get a phone call to say they are about to arrive, I often open the gate for her to greet them. I’ve never seen a little dog run as fast as Victoria – she’ll almost fly up the track and then she'll run round and round them in circles, wild with excitement, such is her delight at seeing her family again.
  • Arthur’s story:
There used to be a refuge in Menton called Mopsy – now closed because the neighbours complained of noise from barking dogs. Their houses were built long after the refuge was there – but that’s another story. Menton doesn’t have a refuge at the moment and more’s the pity. All French towns with more than a certain number of residents (I forget the number but Menton well exceeds it) must, by law, provide a refuge for abandoned animals and Menton has managed to break this law for some years now.


Arthur’s story starts one October when a lady and her daughter visited the refuge to get a cat. They’d been inundated with rats and mice ever since their old and much-loved setter, Douchka, had died. After choosing their cat – to be named Simba - they noticed a large Italian Spinone who stood in the background, apart from the other dogs. They asked about him and were told he’d been in the refuge for about 18 months. He appealed to them but it was too soon after Douchka’s passing to have another dog and so they left the refuge. His face, however, stayed in the lady’s mind and on the way home she said to her daughter, ‘You know, that dog looked like an ‘Arthur’ to me.’

Four months later she was reading Nice-Matin and found a whole page devoted to the refuge. It was to be closed down and any dogs and cats not found homes would be put down. In the middle of the page was a photograph of several dogs and standing off to one side was her ‘Arthur.’ Mother and daughter immediately drove to the refuge – of course, they couldn’t let him be put to sleep. He was in a pitiful state, dirty, dejected and with all the signs of a dog who’d been beaten. He was so dirty that on the way home, they took him to a salon de toilettage to be clipped and bathed.

Out walking, Arthur shied away from strangers. If anyone raised a hand, he would cower. He didn’t know how to play and he didn’t know what a toy was. At the time the vet thought he was about 5 or 6 years old but now, 4 years later, she feels she was wrong. She now gives his age as 7 or 8.

And Arthur now? He adores children, his fear of strangers has gone, and he plays with his toys and proudly carries them around. He’s a totally different dog to the one who was rescued and everyone loves him, including me. Arthur comes to stay at Pension Milou every Christmas and sometimes in summer. If all the dogs were like Arthur, I’d have an easy time. He’s such a relaxing dog to be around, like a big old bear and so good to cuddle up to. If you go to my previous posting you can see a photograph of him asleep on the daybed in the study.
  • Loulou’s story:
Loulou’s life started on the streets of Jakarta, which is probably as bad a start as you can get. She was picked up by a German lady, starving and in a dreadful state. The German lady had two dogs already and asked the French husband of another German lady if they’d like the dog. In fact, he gave the puppy to his wife for Christmas. Three months old, terribly thin and in bad condition she immediately attached herself to his wife, who’d never had a dog before and she found this rather disconcerting. After three days, unable to cope with this needy little dog, she sent Loulou back to the lady who’d found her but to her surprise, she found herself really missing the little dog. Two days and one phone call later, Loulou was back forever. That's how a love affair with a dog can start.

Loulou on the kitchen chair

Loulou looks like a fox with the most beautiful red coat and tail - apparently typical of the street dogs of Jakarta. She’s now 13 years old and has had a much-travelled life, from Asia to Africa and eventually, to France where she now lives in Nice.

When the family left Indonesia to go to Gabon in West Africa, all the servants came to the airport, including Harti, the cook and her husband, Kodrad, the driver – they’d looked after Loulou when the family had gone home to France for their holidays. Harti gave Loulou a big kiss amidst her tears of farewell.

However, servants weren’t always kind to Loulou and on one of her owners’ trips back to France, she was left with the servants in Africa. When they returned from France, a femme de ménage (maid) told them that some boys had tried to drown her in the swimming pool. Since then, unsurprisingly, she’s always been nervous of people. Not all the servants were cruel though. In Gabon, they had a driver called Amidou who, when Loulou was barking or being naughty, would say ‘Non, Loulou, ne fais pas ça, tu es mon amie,’ and Loulou would calm down immediately. Amidou was a nice, kind man from Burkina Faso, north of the Ivory Coast. Relations, however, were not so good with Hortense, another maid, as she liked to chase Loulou with the vacuum cleaner.

Sunning herself on the terrace

When Loulou comes to stay at Pension Milou, she likes to sleep in the kitchen, behind the baby gate. The kitchen isn’t shut away as it’s an open plan kitchen – so she can see what's going on but appreciates the protection offered by the baby gate. Loulou is a beautiful, feminine creature who funnily enough – considering her starved state at the beginning of her life – doesn’t grab her food but is a fastidious eater, delicately taking one morsel of meat or one croquette at a time from her bowl. I had to earn her trust but now she come to me for a caress but she’s wary of most of the dogs, always stands back, would never go for another dog but if they approach, she’ll gently warn them away. An exception to this is Pickle, the Jack Russell, with whom she loves to play. She lets me know when she wants to go in the garden and when she wants to come back in but is happiest in her little domain on the comfortable chair there. And, of course, she’s happiest of all when her owner arrives to take her home to Nice.

How lucky are these dogs to have found such wonderful homes? But hey, how lucky are their owners?
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