When people think of pets in France, they think dogs. Tiny, fluffy poodles poking their heads out of fashionable pocketbooks.
As for my wife and me, when we think back on the two years we lived on rue St. Didier in Paris, we think of a very different sort of pet. We think of Chuck. Our Rhode Island-bred, orange-and-white, tiger-striped, sometimes biting cat, Chuck.
Not long before moving to our cramped sixth-floor Parisian apartment, we were introduced to Chuck at the Providence Animal Rescue League. Unlike the kittens there who eagerly poked their paws through the bars of their cages, Chuck just sat in the back of his pen and looked up at us with a wounded expression. "I know you're not going to choose me since I'm a full-grown cat," he seemed to be saying, "so I'm not going to try and sell myself."
But when my wife gently lifted him out, Chuck allowed himself to purr very softly and we adopted him on the spot. A few months later, when it became clear that we would have to move overseas because of her job, most French people we talked to urged us to bring our new pal along.
During those first few months in Paris, when we could understand little that was said to us and felt like strangers right down to the soles of our shoes, Chuck's new European-style habits gave us much-needed laughter and encouragement. He was delighted with French food – rabbit-flavored Friskies – and he cheerfully rode the bus in a cat carrier that allowed curious passengers a full view of his impressive mane.
"Il est superb!" exclaimed one delighted French matron in a high-necked Chanel suit. A construction worker gravely examined and lightly prodded him, then declared that "he must be Spanish." Chuck even developed a nodding friendship with a nightingale that sang its song each evening from on top of a nearby hotel. And he made us realize, seeing his round, fluffy shape up on one of our many windowsills, that we were not, in fact, alone.
We soon found out, however, that the French windows Chuck loved so much could swing wide during a windy night, as could the French doors that led to our minuscule balcony. When my wife awoke for work one morning and saw those doors banging in the wind, she instinctively began to search the apartment. Chuck wasn't in any of his usual hiding places, and since the drop from our balcony was probably a fatal one, we feared the worst.
The sidewalk below held no clues, nor did the neighbors we questioned in nervous, flailing bursts of English and French. We taped cardboard signs with a crayon drawing of Chuck and our phone number up and down rue St. Didier, but as the day passed by, we felt more and more hopeless. An indoor cat who had had his claws taken out by a previous owner, Chuck wouldn't have known what to do or where to turn if he had found himself without a roof over his head. And now it was nighttime. "Bon courage," said our concierge, clasping her tortoiseshell cat, Violette, in strong arms.
The hours dragged on that night before my wife and I came to terms with the simple fact that we had lost our best friend. "It's my fault," I said again and again. "I should have put in locks or something so he couldn't get out." "No, it's both our faults," said my wife. "We should have let Chuck stay in Rhode Island where he would have been safe."
The apartment seemed to hold nothing but useless Friskies boxes, sweaters with orange-and-white hair on them, and cat toys that jingled as we accidentally brushed past them. My wife tried taking a bath, but it wasn't a real bath without Chuck there to jump up on the bidet and watch the water foam and gurgle as it swirled down the drain. I tried flipping through Paris Match, but what was the point without the fat, furry body that always inserted itself if you spread open a magazine or book.
It was early the next morning when the telephone jangled us out of sleep. "I theenk I have your cat," said the voice, and proceeded to give an address at the far end of our block. Though I didn't believe it could possibly be Chuck, I grabbed his basket and ran.
I can't remember now what the building looked like or the elevator that took me to the seventh floor. All I can recall is the image of our chubby, longhaired pet lounging casually in the corner of this stranger's bedroom and looking pompous.
When visitors came to our small apartment in the weeks and months after that, they never failed to comment on the green garden fencing that was sloppily nailed over each of our lovely French windows. Most also noticed the rickety wooden gate I had hammered into place to block the door to our balcony. "Why are you obscuring these beautiful views?" they would ask.
When my wife and I heard this we would simply smile at each other and explain nothing. But as a certain orange-and-white friend purred safely down in the crack between two pillows, we would think, "Chuck has had his Paris adventure. It's time for him to hold the fort, so we can have ours."