Sunday, August 23, 2009

Siamese cats and red squirrels in Provence.

Here in the country between Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Isle-sur-Sorgue everyone has a cat or a dog, or several of each. Often supplemented by hens, kids, geese, goats and a sad-eyed donkey.
A couple of neighbours resolutely refuse to castrate their cats – vets' bills being moderately expensive – so we have a never-ending supply of new kittens which vary on ginger and siamese themes. The cat which lives at my place left his previous home as a kitten and wondered up the hill to my house over a period of several months, arriving on a very hot July day in 2007, emaciated, with dull fur, and crying for food and water. He probably left home because the little hameau where he lived with a neighbour was too full of other siamese and ginger cats and kittens and he didn’t like scrapping for territory. He’s a peaceful soul and once he'd eaten some tuna and drunk some water he realised he’d found a haven of tranquillity, cat-free apart from himself, and promptly settled down on the terrace for a couple of days, then moved into a cupboard in the front room, built into the bibliotheque.
Most animals like their routines. The first one established by Coco (previously Canicule, which means Heatwave) was that starting early each morning he chased the lizards whose routine in turn was to slip onto the terrace at daybreak and catch ants. As long as the ants and lizards played their part, there was no deviation from routine. Every morning the cat waited with bated breath. Every morning the ants arrived. Every morning the lizards pitched up.
Before long, in true Darwinian style, the lizards had all left or been eaten and I had a house full of ants.
So Coco’s attention turned to the squirrels.
Their routine is to descend from a sloping pine each morning at sunrise to drink from the water bowl kept full for them and periodically shared with passing dogs during the day and sangliers at night. There are four squirrels, a deep rusty red-brown, two rather slight and two more sturdy. They had a habit of thundering across the tiles every day to get to the water but started to find the cat lying in wait on the roof. (There's a good joke about a cat on a roof chasing squirrels - if you don't know it Google it.) So now they arrive safely through the trees, making the final ascent with jerky, noisy movements as their claws grip the bark. Coco watches them from a couple of yards away, mashing his jaws silently in his desire to bite into their squirrelly thighs. They used to stay high in the tree and make rapid, cross little scolding noises if I was outside, coming down only when I obediently went inside for a moment. But now they’re used to me and don’t bother. It’s been too hot to sleep in the house recently so I’ve slept on a mattress in the garden and each morning they wake me as they arrive, keeping one foot on the tree, and one eye on me or the cat as they drink from the bowl.
Creatures of habit, they do the same thing every morning, and every evening at sundown.
And twice a year they have a mad half hour much as some cats do daily. At the beginning of spring and the start of autumn they all get together in the trees nearest the house and dash crazily up and down and round and round, chasing each other in a frenetic display that lasts about an hour. After that they calm down for six months and don’t seem to deviate from their routines for a single day.
They stick strictly to their feeding habits too. Day after day they sit on the high branches eating pine kernels, stripping the cones and chucking little bits of discarded cone into the garden. The first winter I was here I offered them some hazelnuts which they resolutely and completely ignored. Provencal squirrels eat pine nuts and that's that.

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