Italian Life is “The Cat’s Meow”

This is the story of Francesca and Oscar, our two cats, and how I imagine they view their lives in Italy. Oscar is an Italian native, Francesca is an American transplant, and they have distinctively different personalities. But, at the end of the day, I think they would both say that Italian life is “the cat’s meow”.

Oscar is almost 3 1/2 years old. Born in the hills of Umbria, to a feral mother, we gave him a decidedly un-Italian name because it fit his unique, mischievous personality. But, he has decidedly Italian traits and preferences.

For starters, he communicates passionately. He just puts it all “out there”, and doesn’t brood. He is very direct and clear about what he wants. I’ve never had a cat who vocalizes with so much emotion. (Read more about cat vocalizations in this online article from Catster).

Oscar also uses his hands to communicate. For Italians, the hands are almost as important as the mouth in fully expressing oneself. Oscars stands on his hind legs and whips his paws up and down the surface of a closet, door, or a window, to let you know he expects your attention (while also expressing his displeasure that you would dare to be otherwise engaged). In the kitchen he artfully employs his little cat hands to snatch his favorite foods. Tops on his list is arugula.

Oscar makes himself at home in a sea of pomodori.

Oscar makes himself at home in a sea of pomodori.

Yes, arugula. His wild, greedy nature comes out whenever he sniffs the presence of arugula. It’s a real head-scratcher. You would think he was eating the treat to end all other treats.

He also loves other salad greens, and he loves to nestle himself in my summer harvest of tomatoes (pomodori).

Life in most Italian households centers around the dining table and the kitchen. Oscar loves to camp out in both places. It is as though he is watching and studying to be the next Italian Master Chef. I’ve given up on banishing him from the kitchen. He is just too intent on being part of the action.

Oscar loves eating, and in the Italian style, he doesn’t rush his meals, preferring to savor his food. Unfortunately, his vacuum cleaner of a sister, seizes opportunity and often eats Oscar’s portion. Not surprisingly, Oscar stays slim and fit, and Francesca is Rubenesque.

Both Oscar and Francesca are indoor cats. We’re afraid of the wild-life threats that lurk just outside our doors – vipers, wild boar, fox, porcupine, bats…and a colony of feral cats, including Oscar’s mother Micha. The outdoor cats are very dear, but we want to make sure Oscar and Francesca aren’t exposed to fleas and disease.

Staying indoors (even though he’s pulled a few Houdini moves when unsuspecting visitors are entering or leaving the house) Oscar spends most of his waking time in windows taking in the spectacular views of the rooftops and the Umbrian mountains. He also is scoping out the lizards on the mosquito screens.

Italy, is arguably the fashion center of the world, and most of the young Italian men I see here are incredibly put together and nicely groomed. Oscar, while he can’t change his clothes, makes certain he is perfectly groomed, showing off his luminous silver-grey and white fur. Almost everyone who meets him (including his lady vet) remarks at what a handsome guy he is.

Like many other Italians, Oscar is incredibly social and affectionate. The key is, in the Italian tradition, he first needs to check you out, and make sure you’re a good person. Then, he pours on his loving, entertaining qualities.

Francesca, too, is quite the lover, even though she is watchful and standoffish most of the time with strangers. There are nights in bed when she is positioned under my arm, while wrapping her cat arms around my bicep. She becomes immovable, and I take comfort feeling her weight and her luxuriant fur coat next to me (especially in winter). Unfortunately, she cheats on me many nights, choosing to go snuggle with Simone instead. I try not to take offense, and my consolation is that Oscar usually seeks me out in the early morning, after he has satiated himself at the automatic feeder, and curls up under my arm, and rests his head across my elbow.

Francesca watches from her reclined position.

Francesca watches from her reclined position.

Now let’s talk about Francesca’s transition from California girl to Italy girl – well, uh, Italy woman, since she now is almost ten (the chart in the vet’s office has her at the human equivalent of 60 years).

In California, Francesca was a terror much of the time. The funny thing was, once the lights were out, she still had a cuddle-buddy personality. But, once the lights were on, she was always on alert. She was a rescue kitty, so I think she may have been abused at one time. I’m certain she developed extrasensory powers to protect herself, so tricking her in any way was next to impossible. Most of my guests were wary of her.

So, when it came time for me to plan the logistics of the move to Italy, the idea of transporting Francesca “that” distance struck my soul with much fear and trembling. I had visions of her shredding my flesh while getting her into her under-the-seat carrier, and getting her through security. Be sure to read about the ins and outs of transporting a pet to Italy in my post A Cat’s Journey to Italy.

Francesca turned out to be an absolute dream of a travel companion. She barely uttered more than one or two tiny meows the whole trip. In fact, my seat mates from JFK to Rome didn’t even know she was under the seat. Brava Francesca.

I pause at this moment to interject that Oscar is a HORRIBLE traveler. His vocalizations are unceasing. When we’ve shuttled both cats between Umbria and Rome, we need sedatives just to endure Oscar’s ire.

Back to Francesca, and food. As mentioned above she is a opportunistic eater. Unlike Italians, she hasn’t become a devotee of the Slow Food Movement. Italians, as a general rule don’t rush their meals, preferring to savor each bite, and intersperse eating with hearty conversation. Francesca eats as if it is going to her last meal, and as if the food will vaporize if she doesn’t eat it fast enough. Maybe this is a bit of her American roots. since many Americans have a reputation for eating hastily, and often on the run.

While Oscar definitely wins the contest for sociability, Francesca keeps her distance. Unlike Oscar, who has to be in the middle of everything, Francesca prefers to watch from afar. Maybe it’s her more advanced years, but she’s content to lie around like the Queen of Sheba. I’ve rarely seen her jump to the window to look out and dream about the world outside. She also has no interest in making a break for the door. “No way, no how.” I’m sure she thinks to herself. I also think she considers the feral cats the riff raff.

Italy HAS mellowed Ms. Francesca somewhat, I’m proud to say. I’d like to think it’s the more relaxed energy of the Italian countryside, and easier pace of life (piano piano, as we say “slowly, slowly”). But, I think Simone deserves most of the credit, showering her with constant affection, and helping to break through her defenses. In California I only tried once to kiss her on the head because the warning sounds she issued made me fear for my life. Now she loves it. You can smother her with kisses.

In closing, Oscar and Francesca are not only wonderful companions, they are excellent teachers. I watch them and am reminded, over and over again to “be here now”. They’re masters of being in the moment. I don’t think they get caught up in mental neurotic gyrations looking over their shoulders at the past, or worrying about the future. This is probably my most important lesson to learn. I am in Italy, one of the most beautiful, enchanting places on earth. Why be anywhere else except in the “right here, right now”?