Dogs in Romania, as I’ve mentioned in another couple of blogs, are much more aggressive than in Ukraine, and they’re bigger too. Back there, I was used to walking through villages and passing from one series of indignant yells to another, each dog primed by the last one that someone unusual was coming. But in Romania the yells were angrier, they came with bared teeth and snarls, dogs looking ugly and dangerous, an unnecessary, unpleasant hostility.
Before the border I knew that if a dog was out on the street it may bark but wouldn’t actually be harmful, but once in Romania I was having to turn around and defend myself from dogs rushing at me. These were just the village dogs. There are dogs everywhere here, it’s normal for each house to have two, sometimes more, spaced on lengths of chain around the property, jumping and choking themselves in their efforts to get at me.
If I walk past factories or industrial spaces I’ll have a series of dogs of different sizes hurling themselves against the wire fences, incandescent with indignation.
People warned me about the shepherd’s dogs and they were right, these huge bruisers were bosses, used to ward off the very real threat of wolves and bears, and they weren’t afraid to show it. If I shouted at them, they shouted back, they’d wait until I turned away and then rush at me. The village dogs too, shouting and ineffectually waving my sticks did nothing, just paused them for a minute before they followed me barking until I was well out of their territory.
Then one day I learned how to deal better with them, instead of feeling defensive and scared, I shouted back, but sooner and more forcefully. It came when I walked out of a forest and past a flock of sheep. One dog came, that was OK, he stayed below me where the track fell to field and barked at me. But the second one came behind me from far away, running at me full pelt in a snarl of crinkled muzzle and teeth. I shouted at him and they returned to prowling and pacing. I walked away, thought that was it, but as I turned the corner and began the descent of the hill, they came again, with the advantage this time, now that I was below them. They both barrelled down towards me, doing the rushing thing again but this time I’d had enough “Pack it in!” I shouted
at them, walking forward a few paces towards them, and they abruptly stopped, moving to the side of the road and staring away from me, doing that thing where they pretend I’m not there and I’m not really the reason they’re barking. “The sheep aren’t even here and I’m not dangerous!” I told them off. They looked abashed. I walked away and this time they didn’t follow me.
So this is how I’ve learnt better to deal with dogs, I show them a bit of attitude, I don’t ask them nicely to calm down. It works, mostly. It certainly shows me that most of what dogs do is just posturing, they’re not actually out to attack me at all costs, they just act like they are and when I get scared and shy away, it gives them leave to act as they wish. So when a dog comes barrelling at me I plant my sticks wide and I give them a few short sharp words. Then, when they back away and I turn around to continue walking, I turn back again within a few steps, usually when they’re just starting to run at me again, and I give them another look. Sometimes just pointing a finger is enough. They carry on barking but they don’t run after me any more. It doesn’t always work but it’s helped me not to be so scared of mean dogs.
They’re not all mean, I’ve learned that too. Sometimes I can see a hint of a softness in their barking. A wagging tail or a pause to gulp and lick the nose if I speak gently to them. I always speak nicely at first, to all the animals I see, I always say hello; it’s only if they run at me that I snap back. Sometimes, if I stand still and wait they’ll come behind me and smell my heels, ruffle up at the hand I leave casually dangling by my side. Then I can go for a good neck scratching, maybe even a bit of ear fondling. A moment of friendliness in a day of walking through quiet villages in a cold countryside.
Sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, I get an opposite problem. Dogs start to follow me. There’s something about my sense of purpose I think, it suits them. I’m a woman with a mission and they key into it, get into my stride and trot along with me. Not right there but nearby, off on their own missions, smelling along the roadside, pausing to investigate, maybe running the gauntlet of other dog territory, but always keeping up, reappearing in my eye line as I stride along.
It feels nice this, to have a dog along with me, companionable. I had a dog for the day in Ukraine, he came along for 10 miles before disappearing in the last village before I climbed into the mountains, good timing on his part. He stayed for so long I started imagining our lives together, wondering how I’d feed him and what I’d need to take him across borders. Fortunately he made his own decision to leave me and I was glad about it. But I realised I should have dismissed him sooner, I’d taken him from his home surroundings and plonked him somewhere new. I realised that if I didn’t stop dogs walking along with me, they’d stay for too long. So I cut them off, hissed at them, ushered them back the way they came. I didn’t like it, ending this relationship when there was no real need, they didn’t understand it, everything was going so well, it was all exciting and new. They’d stop and look unsure, turn away towards home and then glance back at me. If I started walking away again they’d turn and follow. I’d have to do it a few times, wave my sticks at them, tell them no. They’d look wounded at me from under their eyelashes, sad that this new life was over so soon, when it had promised so much. Then they’d turn and head for home and I’d keep walking, wishing they were trotting alongside me but only for as long as it was easy.
That was as far as the blog idea got; telling the stories of alternately standing up to dogs and breaking their hearts.
Then I met the 3 Eric’s. (2)
It starts when a yellow dog starts barking at me. I’m about a kilometre out of a village and I’ve just turned from where the road would cross the river to join the motorway, to follow the old road that meanders through small villages where there’s hardly any traffic.
I do my usual shout at it, stand my ground and circle round it. Then, when I’m standing and staring at this little barky dog, patchy yellow and white, low to the ground, I realise that there’s movement in the grass. A puppy comes bounding out, small and fluffy. I can’t resist the opportunity to play with puppies so I stay still a while longer, see if they’ll allow me closer. They do. There’s one here, a stocky little thing, about 5 weeks old, black with brown and white patches, just old enough to look perfectly cute. Another one comes out from under a gate, almost all black, much smaller, unable to totter very far, as if it’s eyes have not long opened. The yellow dog circles nearby while I play with the pups. In real life I didn’t give them names until the next day but I’m going to move that to now to make it easier to distinguish them. My friends father died this week and to give her a small moment of easing in her tough time, I sent her multiple puppy pictures. They’re so cute, she said. Can you name one of them Eric? After my dad. Well I hadn’t thought about names so I shrugged. I’ll call them all Eric. It turned out the littlest one was a girl so she became Erica. Then there was Fluffy Eric and Blond Eric. Yeah, that’s right, blond Eric had a penis. So he couldn’t be these puppies mum, in fact he didn’t seem to like them at all, snapping and swerving from them whenever they got interested in him and pattered over for a sniff. What were these three dogs of different ages all doing here? Maybe blond Eric had only come across them moments before I did, he was standing out in the road when I arrived, while the other two were behind a fence. I had a fresh salami in my bag and wanted to feed them, they all pawed at the food as I handed it to them, all really hungry. Blond Eric hung back, only coming as close as necessary to snatch food from my hand, the other two crawled all over me. Erica taking scraps of salami and gnawing at them, fluffy Eric managing small slices. The food was over and it was time to leave, I needed to walk on. But these dogs. What could I do? They were too small to be here, blond Eric could fend for himself but the others were way too little, they’d die here. I didn’t know what to do, it made me cry, the idea of leaving the pups here to an uncertain fate, I just didn’t want to leave them. I turned to my phone, messaged a friend. Take them to the next village he suggested, leave them outside the shop. Yes, that was something at least. There maybe someone would see them, take them home.
I put a post on my personal Facebook, just to share my sadness really, let out a wail into the ether. It was 3 miles to the next village, about an hour or so. I crossed the road, fluffy Eric followed me, padding along on small paws, but Erica stayed behind, letting out shrill cries, she really was too small to walk properly. I went over and tucked her into the front of my jacket, zipping it up so her head popped out. But then fluffy Eric had come back too, and when I walked away he stayed behind. I walked further, he cried. I called him and he came tottering and stumbling, that rolling puppy tumble. He couldn’t walk any proper distance either. I’d read somewhere that long distances for dogs are inadvisable at young ages anyway, causes bone deformation. So into the jacket he went, two heads bobbing along with each step, watching the road from a very new angle. Blond Eric came too, of course he would, I’d fed him. This was a mistake. It was sweet, walking along with puppies in your jacket, I liked the warm bodies on my tummy, the wriggles as they shifted around getting comfortable. My phone buzzed, people were commenting, making suggestions. I could take them to a vet, could contact a rescue shelter, all things I hadn’t thought of. Then more people messaged me, they had contacts in Romanian dog rescues, could I make the post public? Respond to group messages? It all got very busy for a while. I looked up the nearest vets, it was 20km away. Could I walk with these puppies for 20km? Why not. It was late afternoon by now, I could camp somewhere overnight and drop them off the next afternoon. As I walked through the village, blond Eric trailing me the whole time, stopping whenever I stopped, pretending he wasn’t following me, looking away when he saw me watching him. He was a little bit of a sad dog, not letting me touch him or seeming interested in any interaction. The village shop was tiny and closed, I couldn’t have left the dogs here anyway, so I walked on to a flat field with an enclosed orchard to put my tent up. Blond Eric curled up under a nearby tree and the puppies flopped around licking the tent as I put it up, investigating the bed as it inflated, and curling up on a jumper and falling straight to sleep. No-one was interested in my supper, it had clearly been a big day. There were patches of snow on the ground and it was going to fall to minus 3 overnight, with more snow on the way. I pulled the jumper onto the ground and got into my sleeping bag but after an hour or so fluffy Eric started whining and I realised they were cold. Into my sleeping bag then, and I tucked them in, one after the other. It wasn’t a restful night, my hands went numb as the puppies were exactly where I needed to place them, plus they kept wriggling. Keep them, people had said on Facebook, alive to the possibility of a fun story, but it wasn’t realistic. Part of me wanted a dog but not one that couldn’t walk 15 miles a day or had to sleep in my sleeping bag. The snow started to rustle against the tent cover and I settled to on off sleep. The puppies would wake up every couple of hours and go for an exploration but it never lasted long and they fell straight asleep as soon as they were back in the bag, just the occasional episode of finger nibbling and nose gnawing. A hot pepper smell came off them and my sleeping bag slowly became full of the grit that had clung to them as they tumbled around in the field.
The next morning they sat on everything as I tried to pack away, the tent was covered in snow that had gently fallen all night. Over by the nearest tree was blond Eric, tucked in on himself with a dark circle of wet grass marking the circumference of his body heat. All I had for them to eat was dry bread, the puppies not so interested but blond Eric hunting around for extra scraps. I shouldn’t be feeding him, a little warning sounded. He’s not part of the puppy rescue, I can’t get near him, let alone hand him over to someone else. Do I want a dog? I don’t want a dog. They’re extra responsibility and it’ll mean I can’t stay in hotels any more. I’d just packed away my entire tent covered in ice, sodden. January is not a time to be limited to camping. But there he was, following along, never far from me.
It was hard work walking with pups in my jacket. The extra weight at my front bent me down a little, put a different sort of strain on my back, limited my speed. The miles were long that day as I trudged along a long flat road, a thin layer of snow causing me to watch my step, ploughed fields stretching either side, far away across the river valley and the ribbons of main road that ran easily in the flat land there were the carpathian mountains. I was walking alongside them for a while until I reached the road that would let me pass all the way over them. I stopped a couple of times to let Erica and fluffy Eric have a stretch and a play around. Blond Eric would curl up nearby, when a tall man stopped to talk to me he disappeared around the corner but when a small girl passed by he ran out and barked at her. He’d also barked at passing horses and other dogs. Did I want this animal around? How could I keep a dog that barked at people and made trouble for me. There was no more food left for anyone. The messages kept coming. An animal rescue shelter in Cluj-napoca would take the puppies and someone had volunteered to drive them there but not until the next day. I couldn’t keep the dogs another night, my tent was soaking wet and I’d had virtually no sleep, it was time for a night indoors. I kept texting. Another rescue charity, more local, in Alba Iulia, said they could foster the dogs for one night. They’d come to collect from Vințu de Jos at 5pm. I reached the town at 3pm and was ready to stop. There was only one hotel in town and it was incredibly expensive but I couldn’t walk further on to the cheaper places as I’d arranged for the puppy pickup to be here. It was the kind of establishment with a driveway and very tailored gardens and I felt very scruffy as I walked into the reception. Ever tried to have a conversation with a hotel receptionist with a bundle of puppies badly concealed in your jacket? I have. My strangeness deepened as she quickly pointed at the zipped jacket and I opened it to reveal a tiny furry head, trying to stress that I didn’t want the dogs to access the room at all and that someone would collect them in two hours. Fortunately the conversation could take place in English otherwise my mime skills would have been severely lacking. The cuteness of the dogs helped too and we found a shed to put them in. Blond Eric hung about. Is that yours too? Yes but I don’t want him, he’s just following me. I went in to see the room, quickly arranging all my wet things to dry around the place and then going back outside to sit with the dogs. Blond Eric was waiting for me on the doorstep and danced around, happy to see me. I ignored him, what could I do about this dog that I didn’t want. A final hour with Erica and fluffy Eric, the receptionist came out to bring me tea and chat, putting the dogs on her lap to take selfies. Blond Eric wouldn’t let her near the shed at first, barking and growling. I wasn’t sure what to do, how could I keep interacting with him if I wasn’t going to make him mine. After she left he came near me for the first time, sat down at my outstretched feet and faced away from me, licking the accumulated snow water from his fur. It felt settled.
Puppy rescue arrived and they didn’t really know what to do about blond Eric either. There are many stray dogs in Romania, the ones that reach adulthood can scratch out their survival on the streets for years. A few dogs flitted around in the background of the car park as we spoke. The charity was struggling, not for money but for homes, too many dogs and not enough takers, the public dog shelters had high kill rates, or the dogs were left to attack and kill each other, they told me. Blond Eric came close enough to sniff one outstretched hand but otherwise avoided us.
Maybe I’ll keep him, I thought, then I started to freak out. I thought about all the things that it would complicate, the border crossings, the vets visits to get innoculations and a dog passport, the cost of it, the weight of the food I’d have to carry, the preventing him from barking at people, the lack of access to hotels and bnbs, the problems back in the UK, where would I live with him, what would he do while I was at work, how could I get him on a lead, make him not be a Romanian street dog who was used to doing exactly what he wanted.
It’s the next morning. I’ve been to the front door and peeked through the glass and Eric is curled up on the front step, where he’s obviously been all night. I eat my breakfast in this vast restaurant, with its nice tablecloths and paintings of grapes and urns, and I think about telling the dog outside to go away, about hissing and shouting at him until he feels unwelcome and it melts me into tears. I discreetly dot my eyes with a napkin and try not to let the nice waitress see that I’m crying into my expensive omelette for utterly no reason.
I start to realise that thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong just because I’m letting Eric follow me for a while is not a realistic response.
It’s obviously bringing up all kind of fears in me that are nothing to do with something as simple as feeding a stray dog, it’s about allowing myself to be responsible for another living being, trusting that I’m good enough to look after it. I’ve got good enough at failure over the last decade to be ok with it, to accept that I’m a flawed human being and not always right. But this is obviously the next step, to apply that to the care of another living thing. If something is upsetting me this much then maybe I should look into it, see what happens, how I feel. Just let him follow you for a bit, suggests my sister, in her gentle way.
I pack and leave, pulling all the clothing and sleeping bag and tent from the various chairs and lampshades and towel rails. I go outside and Eric is hanging around at the door. He’s Eric now, the other Erics have left. I sit down and let him smell me a bit. He still won’t let me touch him and if I look at him for too long he feels a bit wierd and trots away a bit but when I walk away he follows me and after a while I look at him and say something and he does a few little skipping jump steps so I know he’s happy to be setting off again just like I am.
And we walk together for 5 hours, all the way to Sebeș. He’s constantly there, tinkling along nearby, stopping when I stop, nosing around in the verges when I decide to have a wee or stop and test out my new ice spikes. We take a side road over to the town, on packed mud with snowy fields either side, the ploughed earth showing in dark melted lines. I talk to him a little but he never really responds. It’s good, he’s kind of a perfect dog, I don’t need him to do anything, he’s just there, trotting along somewhere, pretending he’s not with me. It’s a bit awkward when we get to a supermarket, I thought he’d just wait outside but he manages to follow me in through two sets of automatic doors that don’t open in reverse and then, when the security guard shouts and nobody wants him there, he kind of panics and won’t do anything except stand near me and look sheepish but avoid any kind of directional management. The security guard holds the door open and gets annoyed at ineffectual ushering until finally I walk out, he walks out and then I nip back in while the guard shouts him away. This isn’t how to have a dog, I think. I can’t just walk wherever I want, I have to think about him. Everything has to change, the way I approach time, the steps I take to achieve anything. I’d have to have him on a lead, I suppose, I’d have to tie him up outside.
I shop for four days worth of food – bananas, cheese, peanuts, salami, bread, chocolate. It’s minimal but I can survive on it. I’ll buy other smaller things from village shops along the way, mandarins or tinned pork and beans. Then I add the smallest bag of dog food there is – it’s 1.5 kilos. I’m really pushing the limits of what I can carry now, I’m at full winter kit and my rucksack is heavy and bursting. But there it is, the dog responsibility starts here.
We sit outside for a while in the sunshine. I eat my lunch and empty a tin of dogfood onto the concrete for him. He eats, sniffs at me and then goes to lie under the nearest tree. I look like a proper tramp now, I think, as I sit on the kerb eating yoghurt and preserved strawberries from the jar given to me in a village two days ago. My legs are spread wide to dry my muddy trousers and I watch the looks given to me by the better dressed customers. I heave on my rucksack and Eric is ready, springing up and following me off down the street towards the city centre.
Suddenly he’s not there. I look down behind me and there’s no flash of yellow. I turn, thinking he’s on my other side and there’s no dog. I’m about 100m from the street corner and I stand and wait for a long while. I think to myself that I won’t walk back and check for him but then I find that I am walking back the way I came, which I never do. At the street corner I look again but he’s not there, the street is clear and empty. One minute he was there and now he’s gone. I haven’t crossed any roads to get here and I only saw him a couple of minutes ago. I stopped to look at a map showing the mountain road ahead, checked off the villages I knew I had to get through, looked down at him standing next to me and said ‘come on, let’s go’. And now he’s not there. I wait at the corner for a while but he doesn’t come.
I don’t look for him any further. If a dog is going to randomly appear in my life then I have to allow it to randomly disappear. I don’t actually own this animal, I have no real ability to control it, I just allowed it to exist near me for a while. What would I say if I went to search for him – come on, keep following me and pretending I don’t exist whenever I look directly at you? He’s a stray dog who had a life before me of god knows what type and will carry on living in I know not what way.
And it’s a relief, in a way, the cowards way out, to allow the dog to disappear rather than face any unpleasant consequences of feeding it while not really wanting it forever.
Part of me think about going back to the supermarket to find him but what for. So that I can spend loads of money to get him across borders. Or have trouble finding places to live back in the UK. Or never be able to get into a hotel room.
He was only a good idea if I just saw what happened, if I let him along with me for a bit and found out if our lives grew into each other. But they didn’t, he turned a different corner.
I feel sad, first this morning I had a memory of the feeling of small puppy noses pushing against my chest, warm bodies wriggling inside my jacket. Now I’m walking along and there’s a presence missing, a small trotting thing that is no longer there at the edge of my eyeline. I’m glad they’re not there, I don’t want animals, it changes things, makes more work for me at a time when I’m pushing myself to my limit. But it showed me a lot, this last three days, how much I’d like companionship and how much I push it away.
I wonder why we’re so passionate about saving stray animals; when there’s so much wrong in the world and we focus on this. I suppose it’s a tiny thing that we can actually achieve. Trump is still in power, racism and xenophobia continues to blight society, brexit limps ahead, Ukraine is at war, we’re approaching climate catastrophe, Romanian politicians are openly corrupt and we’re all fussing over dogs that sleep outside. I may have got the puppies into adoption but the thing is that everything dies in the end and I have limited ability to save or affect all of it, even any of it.
And now I’ve started a lighthearted post about village dogs barking and ended it by highlighting the meaningless of existence. And that’s how my journey goes sometimes.
Eric has gone back to whatever sort of street life he had before me. I walk on, except I keep looking back, hoping he’ll be there.