Ode to a Grecian Dog

Photos by M. Siegal

When I travel, it’s the dog writer within that compels me to search for animal life as a matter of pleasure, curiosity, and for something to use in a book or a column. On my last trip to Europe, however, my mind and my heart were elsewhere. My pulse thumped like a newborn puppy as our 747 landed in Athens last May. I was soon to transform a boy’s daydream into a man’s reality. It was the trip of a lifetime. I have had only two fervent dreams as a young man, which was to experience Hemingway’s Paris and the Athens of Alexander the Great. Several years ago, I did sit outdoors in Paris at the cafe Aux Deux Magots on St. Germain Boulevard, in the same space as Jean Paul Sartre and Hemingway so many years ago. In Greece, I got to experience the same broken stones on which Alexander the Great walked atop the Acropolis. I could feel those same three thousand-year-old rocks beneath my toes as they gave me connection with another time. What does it say about me that I quiver with excitement over ancient ruins more than the new glass pyramid in front of the Louvre?

We hit the ground running in Athens. On the first evening, my hosts took my traveling companion and me to a rooftop restaurant in the center of the city for a very late dinner. We got there after a long, tiring hike up many steep streets. We were then seated around a large table on the roof, and saw it for the first time. Emerging through the Athenian night like an unbelievable postcard was the Acropolis, with the colonnades of the Parthenon bathed in white light and guarding the city at its highest point. You can see the Parthenon from wherever you are in Athens. It stands today as the greatest achievement of ancient Greek architecture and served as a backdrop for our mousaka, ouzo and bouzoukis plucking away the themes from Zorba the Greek. It was a breathtaking event even for worn-out travelers. Who could eat? I found myself staring upwards at the magnificent plateau on which rested those ancient Doric columns. It was late and something was making me heady, either the view or the licorice-tasting ouzo. To be honest, I never once thought about dogs even though they were all around us, being walked and adored by their owners like everywhere else in Europe with one or two under the tables of the restaurant.

In the ensuing days, we made the climb up the imposing hill to the Acropolis, walked around the huge plateau, bigger than several football fields, and then became wide-eyed when we actually touched the Parthenon. We then visited the Acropolis museum, which is behind the overpowering temple. Inside were nine galleries housing stone antiquities that have survived three thousand years of war, occupation, looting, ancient animosities and the abrasion of time. Of particular interest to me was the ancient Greek connection to horses and dogs.

Photos by M. Siegal

In Gallery IV of the museum a prominent pedestal is displayed on which rests a mighty stone dog under a protective glass covering. It is well over five feet long and as tall as any dog that I have ever seen. It is to my eye a dog of non-specific lineage, in other words, an ancient Greek non-breed. The museum card says it is a hunting dog in marble, late sixth century BC. It looks like something has caught its gaze, six hundred years before the birth of Christ. No matter how many of the other galleries I visited, I kept returning to the dog under glass with its poised body and intense straight stare at something that must have gotten out of its way in a hurry. I photographed it, placed my open palms against the glass, and practically mashed my nose against it. There was some connection that I felt with this dog, frozen in marble for all time. Then it hit me. I flashed into my childhood. It was like Tarzan, my very first dog, when I was eleven, which was also a not-so-fancy dog. He was the love of my life.

When I was eleven my father brought home a big red dog with a sweet face that betrayed the devilish look in his large, brown eyes. It seemed that he immediately jumped from the dog pound onto my chest, knocking me down, standing over me as he slurped my face. He made me giggle and laugh out loud for the first time in my life, as I was a very quiet, loner of a child. It was the single most important act of kindness and generosity I had ever gotten from anyone up to that moment in my life. The young dog became the focus of my life. He was my only friend at the time and was my dog. No one else care for him.

Tarzan left a deep impression on the family. At first, no one liked him but me, but then that changed. My Russian-born grandmother lived with us. She was a tough old lady who didn’t see why I had to have a dog at all. To her it was a foolish indulgence and a waste of money and food. Once I understood her feelings I was forever suspicious and fearful that she might convince my parents to get rid of the dog who slept with me, helped me with my homework, and went everywhere I went. We were inseparable.

One fateful morning, the old lady came down to the kitchen, went into the pantry, grabbed a box of breakfast cereal and poured it into a bowl. She drenched it in milk and sugar and crunched away. We all watched with horror waiting for an explosion since she had mistaken the dog’s box of “Grow-Pup” for her corn flakes. My eyes got wide and I stared at my mother who put her finger to her mouth and shook her head to shush me. My mother had been completely dominated by this woman, my father’s mother and used to snap out orders like a tyrant. Well, it seems that the tyrant crunched away at the puppy chow and said, “Good. This is very good. A new brand.” She loved it and looked at us with confusion as we laughed out loud. Suddenly their roles reversed once we explained through our chortling that she was eating dog food. She insisted that it tasted very good, but was adamant that no one else find out about her mistake. From then on my mother got a corner hold on some power in the house and things got better. Tarzan had brought something to my mother that she needed, being the first lady in her own house. After that, there was nothing too good for that most wonderful of all dogs. Snacks, treats, back rubs, adoring glances and just about anything he wanted, including a spot on the couch.

All of this came flooding back in a tide of emotional recall. Tarzan, my mom, and my grand mom, overwhelmed me in a reverie as I looked at the sculpted dog of ancient Greece. It made me wonder if he was a rescued dog as mine was or something wild that came in close to a campfire. There they were, two dogs, three thousand years apart, with me as a common bond. The common dog is not so common after all. They are all so special.

So when you hear or read about adopting a shelter pet from programs like the North Shore Animal League America’s Tour for Life across the country consider the message and go take a look-see because its goal is to find loving homes for orphaned pets and to raise public awareness concerning the plight of all shelter pets. Paramount Television’s Judge Judy is this year’s spokesperson for the Tour for Life, which you will certainly hear about soon in your community. When you do, bear in mind that the pet you adopt has much in common with

the animals of antiquity. It’s an amazing thought, isn’t it? Toujours le tour.

Mordecai Siegal’s latest book is, “The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA,” published by HarperCollins. This feline reference book is comparable to the AKC’s Complete Dog Book. His most recent dog book is “The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt),” “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown),” the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster),” “The Cornell Book of Cats (Villard),” “The Davis Book of Dogs (HarperCollins),” “The Davis Book of Horses.” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association.


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