It all started with a dog. My dog, Toffee. A few of his ancestors many dog generations ago, but within my own lifetime, got smuggled out of Cuba for committing the Communist “sin” of being decadent. The rest got killed. Toffee is not decadent. He is a blessing.
How good that we have a new breed of dog now, the Havanese. My own particular specimen has done a world of good, and he doesn’t even know about it. This reminds me of something Jesus said about your left hand not being supposed to know the good that your right hand does.
But before I get too far into this story, let me begin again, this time starting with a popular German vegetable.
|The king of German vegetables - white asparagus|
This week I discovered the ideal discussion topic for my English class – asparagus. It’s asparagus season right now in Germany, the season you find white asparagus in all the restaurants, and white and green asparagus in all the supermarkets, along with Hollandaise sauce , the traditional accompaniment to white asparagus, already prepared and sold in cartons on a shelf next to the asparagus.
The BBC ran a story on German white asparagus, complete with a podcast, perfect for me to share with my class. The narrator mentioned in his story that Germany has a less sophisticated cuisine than Britain because Britain’s culture is more eclectic. He was referring to all the people from all over the world who have been pouring into Britain from Britain’s former colonies over the past few decades – Indians, Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Irish, Italians, Nigerians, to name a few. It must have escaped him that the same is true for Germany, only the immigrants are not from former colonies. They are economic refugees.
Thanks to Toffee, I have made friends with Katie and Sophia, some immigrant children in my neighborhood, which is full of immigrants, including me. I've written about these girls before, so click here if you want to read more about them. Katie and Sophia ring my doorbell regularly, asking to take Toffee out. For them it is an honor, and for me a break from our normal routine of taking the dog out, three times a day, day in, day out, whatever the weather. A couple weeks ago when they came to the door, I announced to them that Toffee was an uncle – his sister had given birth to four little puppies.
“Can we see them?” they begged.
“I’ll ask,” I promised, and then phoned my friend Denise. One of her dogs is Toffee’s mother, and the other Toffee’s sister. We had to wait a couple of weeks until the puppies’ eyes and ears were opened, but this week they were ready for company. The girls arrived punctually at the appointed time and I phoned Denise to see if it was still OK to come.
“Oh, it’s been so busy,” Denise said. “I haven’t even had lunch yet, and we have more visitors coming later today. Could you come a bit later?”
“We’ll drive slowly,” I said. “And we’ll only stay a few minutes.” To kill time, we all sat on the floor and played with Toffee for a while.
“Toffee is the only dog my mother likes,” said Katie. “If I could have a dog, it would have to be someone like Toffee.”
I told the girls about our mating Toffee with another Havanese dog last week. These girls, age 9 and 10, know about the facts of life, and wanted to know if the dog has gotten pregnant. “It’s too soon to tell,” I said.
We piled into the car and drove off to Denise’s. While waiting at a stop light, Katie said, “My uncle lives over there in that building,” pointing to a brick apartment building. I had thought she and her mother were the only people from Cameroon in Cologne.
“I didn’t know you had an uncle here,” I said.
“I have lots of aunts and uncles here, all in Cologne” she answered.
“I only have an aunt in Germany, far away. Every one else is in the Czech Republic,” said Sophia.
I have no relatives here, nor does Peter, my German husband.
Despite my driving slowly, we arrived way too early, so I decided to take them with me into the supermarket at the corner. I wanted to buy green asparagus for the weekend. Peter prefers green asparagus, even though he’s German and most Germans, especially older ones, eat only the white variety.
“I’ve never eaten asparagus,” said Katie. “Me neither,” said Sophia. But they spotted the asparagus before I did.
Finally, we had killed enough time, and we walked over to Denise’s. “Do you think I could take photos with my cell phone?” asked Sophia.
“I don’t see why not,” I said.
But all thoughts of photos were gone as soon as we saw the puppies. It was the same feeling as when we first saw Toffee. Four tiny little creatures, so perfect, so helpless. They fit into the palm of your hand. All was hushed and reverent as two girls and two women sat on the floor, holding the little puppies in turn. After a few minutes, Bijou, their mother came and nursed them as we sat in awe, watching. This was her first litter, and it was as though she always nursed babies. Less than a week ago I had witnessed her brother Toffee mating for the first time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“It feels so holy in here,” I commented.
“One evening this week I came in here and did nothing for an entire hour except and sit and watch these puppies,” said Denise. She seemed to be in no hurry.
“We have guinea pigs too,” she told the girls.
“I have a guinea pig at home,” said Sophia. “We used to have two, but one died.”
“Would you like to see our guinea pigs? We have hens too.”
So we all went out into the back yard, the girls clutching their handbags in case anyone should break into the house and steal them. I had told them not to leave their bags in the car, lest anyone break in and steal them, so they were not letting go of their bags anywhere.
We visited the guinea pigs and the girls held all four of them.
“This one looks almost like Toby – the one who died,” Sophia said, holding one of the guinea pigs. Denise’s daughter, nine, was outside playing with one of her friends. “Would you like to hold a hen?” she asked. The girls took turns trying to hold the hen, but it kept flying out of their arms. I admired Leah, who carries the animals around with such grace. She’s a real natural. “We have eight hens,” she said. “We get eggs from them every day.”
“I annoyed a chicken in Cameroon,” Katie said.
“Did you hold it?” I asked. Katie nodded.
I’m allergic to most animals and the straw that is around them, so I instinctively turn away. That’s why it’s such a miracle for me to be able to have a hypoallergenic dog!
Sophia and Katie couldn’t get enough. I held their handbags so they could climb into the tree house, unencumbered.
All four girls clambered up and were in a world to themselves as they called, “Tigger!” and a stray local cat came to them, and I stood there with the handbags. I heard them talking about their ages, about school, about hens and guinea pigs.
I got tired of standing there, waiting, and I had told Denise we’d only be staying a few minutes. By now it was over an hour, and Denise had long since gone inside the house. “Come down, girls!” I called. “It’s time to go home.”
They climbed down, and then Leah said, “Would you like to see one of the hens do gymnastics?” I had never heard of a hen doing gymnastics, and was intrigued. We stayed and watched as she went into the hen house, pulled out one of the hens and carried her around the yard as her friend played assistant, holding a handful of grains as a reward for the hen’s tricks. They carefully placed the hen’s claws onto the handles of the seesaw and moved it up and down. The hen stayed put! They put the hen onto the swing, and the hen didn’t budge as they gently pushed the swing back and forth. Leah carried the hen onto the top of the slide and we watched it – whoosh! - slide down and flutter her wings a few times. They put her onto the monkey bars and she balanced there a few seconds. This was quite an amazing hen, and an amazing girl, who could get a hen to do such marvelous things.
By now we had been there nearly two hours. “We must go home,” I said. “Your mothers will wonder where you are.”
“Can we look at the puppies one more time?” Sophia asked.
“OK – just a peek.”
As we walked back into the house, Katie said, “I wish I could live in a house like this. Maybe when I’m grown up. I guess you have to be rich to have all those animals.”
I know that Denise isn’t rich in money. But she and her family are rich in love for animals and other people. They have only one child of their own, but four foster children, a single mother and her daughter living with them, and all these animals in a house and large garden, right in the middle of Cologne.
We walked back into the puppy temple, which was now filled with another family admiring the puppies, and three adult dogs. Denise had finally had enough of us, and we left.
As I walked out of the house, carrying my asparagus, Katie said, “In Cameroon they chew on something that looks a bit like asparagus. It’s called ‘sugar cane’ and it’s very refreshing and delicious.”
“I’ve always wanted to try it,” I said. “They eat it in Egypt, and I wanted to try it when I was there, but I never had a chance.”
“Next time I go to Cameroon, I’ll bring you some,” she promised.
“Noreen, if Toffee gets pregnant, do you think I could have one of the puppies?” Katie asked.
“Toffee can’t get pregnant,” Sophia answered wisely. “He’s a male.”
These girls don’t know how rich they have made my life, and without much forethought, I gave them a memory that will last them a lifetime.
Such a wonderful afternoon, and it all started with a dog.