French dogs have always been something of a contradiction to me. On the one hand, they are taken absolutely everywhere, and are welcomed in places where, to my limited Anglo-Saxon imagination, they have no place: the local library, or beneath the table in a swanky resto, for example. This to me suggests an attachment between owner and hound so profound that no degree of separation can be brooked. On the other hand, many French people contemplate with horror the notion that their pet dog would actually live in their house – hence the many family dogs shut outside without compunction, come rain or shine, night or day.
Two weeks ago we took an alarmingly muscular approach to solving this conundrum when we acquired our own dog, a beagle puppy. As a consequence I am currently navigating the predictable perils of puppy-dom (3am trips for a poo in the garden, chewed slippers and unwanted typing assistance) in conjunction with the less obvious perils of French canine mores.
Our first lesson in French dog-rearing came when we first visited the beagle breeder and were informed that our puppy’s name would have to begin with the letter “M”. For it transpires that the French attitude to dog names resembles nothing so much as the British attitude to cars: each year has one of 20 letters of the alphabet attributed to it (K, Q, W, X, Y and Z are exempted), and all dogs registered with the Société Canine Centrale must have names that begin with that letter. 2016 is the year of the letter “M”. Thus our puppy has been given a name virtually unpronounceable to most Anglo-Saxons: Myrtille.
Our second lesson was in the delicate matter of excrement. Before the arrival of Myrtille, I had been out and purchased a truckload of (biodegradable) poo-bags. My husband is currently in the process of digging a sort of canine latrine in the garden, into which future turds will be deposited, but in the meantime, we follow our hound around and swoop in with the poo-bags every time she does her business on the lawn.
Myrtille has already been fortunate enough to be visited by a number of our French friends, and to a man, woman and child, every one of them has regarded my neurotic poo-collecting antics with amusement. Pourquoi tu ne les pas mets pas dans tes plantes ? they ask. I don’t know: because I’m incurably squeamish? because it smells?
Perhaps this attitude should not have surprised me. We did, after all, previously share a courtyard with a family consisting of a woman, her two daughters, and a large, elderly setter. This setter encapsulated the conundrum I identified at the beginning of this post: it was both the subject of loudly-pronounced affection and left alone outdoors in a small courtyard for up to twelve hours every single day. It was also the author of a number of large brown deposits which appeared daily on the gravel and which were less often gathered up and put in a bin.
This dog poo, which tended to build up directly in front of our garage, bothered me a great deal: I lost count of the number of times that one of us put a foot in a large turd when it was too dark, or too wet, to spot it in advance. But above all, it stank, which caused me no small degree of embarrassment each time anyone came to our front door. Did this bother the dog’s owners, though? Apparently not. The courtyard being their only outside space, they were to be seen sunbathing there in the summer, just a metre or so away from a number of pungent brown mounds, apparently untroubled by the stench that must have been swirling around their bronzed nostrils.
Indeed it is not just in their private outdoor spaces that people seem content to bask in their dog’s excrement. There are some chemins that I avoid entirely on foot, because I know that they are lavishly adorned with poo and consequently swarming with flies. There is a short walk from a car park in the centre of Lyon to my daughter’s violin lesson that we do each week, and my younger daughter (who is, admittedly, prone to histrionics) invariably walks along pinching her nose for fear of the smell that will assault her senses if she does not, whilst my elder daughter steps obliviously into the very midst of the worst deposits.
My third lesson came about during the course of an encounter with Madame Lipstick. You may remember that this is the woman who had previously attempted to run my children over and had shown not a shred of remorse, despite the evident cuteness and appeal of my offspring in a pair of wellies.
Last week I had the puppy on a lead outside the school (all part of the intensive socialisation programme prescribed by the vet). I was chatting happily to someone’s mum, when in my peripheral vision, I caught sight of an excessively coiffed head and a slash of red mouth bearing down towards me. Uh-oh, I thought: what have I done now? To my great surprise, instead of shouting at me or my girls, Madame Lipstick curled her lips into something that was probably intended to be a smile, despite its close resemblance to a snarl. Oh-la-la, qu’il est beau (this is France: all dogs are male unless proved otherwise), she pronounced, before emitting a noise that could have been a French translation of couchy-couchy-coo. She then proceeded to remain by my side for about five minutes, exclaiming and patting with very little restraint or self-consciousness.
There we are, you see: it is perplexing. Dogs can be left shivering in the rain, and children can be heartlessly mown down, but my beagle puppy seems to be capable of melting even the icy heart of Madame Lipstick.