We were walking into the Parc de Belleville when I saw them: more cats than I could count: black-and-white, calico, ginger, but mostly a tribe of gray tigers, streaking from under bushes and benches, darting from behind trees to coil around the ankles of two older women who were bundled against the chill of the first Saturday in February.
That morning, we’d woken to the percussive sound of rain pelting the courtyard of our apartment building, and almost abandoned our plan to walk to Belleville. Every Saturday, the three of us go for a long and purposeless walk--flaneur-style. We start in the late morning and don't get home until dinnertime, without much of an appetite, since we stop for food whenever we pass something that looks good, which is altogether too often. For the past three weeks, we’d ended up taking more or less the same route: past the Pompidou, across the bridge covered in locks behind Notre Dame, down to the cobblestoned bank of the Seine where Max can't really ride his scooter, following it until it turns into the smoother bike lane leading to the Berge, where Max always insists on a long break in his favorite inflatable tent, and finally to the base of the Eiffel Tower, where there's a free craft class every Saturday afternoon at the American library, during which parents can do their own thing for an hour.
Max loves a ritual. So do I. But it's easy for a ritual to turn into a rut. The whole point of being a flaneur is to wander off chart, to make observations and discoveries that are more likely if you deviate from routine and get a little lost. I was beginning to see Matt’s point: it's a shame to hide in a tent from which you can't even see the Seine flowing by outside. So when the rain finally cleared around noon on Saturday, we set out in the opposite direction from usual, up the hill to Belleville, a "transitioning" neighborhood known as “the other Chinatown,” although apparently this is not a PC term here, where foreigners are supposed to assimilate (if only it were that easy to "become" French).
We lured Max out into the cold, up the steep incline toward Belleville, by telling him that we were on our way to a playground ranked #2 in the world, according to some website that we’ve subsequently failed to find again. This website had showed pictures of a playground designed by a famous architect, with slides carved right into the hillside. The longer we had to climb, the steeper these slides became, as we described them to a whining Max. So it was a big blow when we finally reached this mythic playground and found the gate to the slides locked, apparently due to the bad weather--according to one bystander--even though the sun had finally come out. Max was on the verge of a meltdown when the cats started streaming in all directions, toward the two women carrying tote bags.
“Look!” I said. Max and I both ran forward and the cats scattered.
“Ils sont timides,” one woman informed me. They’re timid.
I apologized, explaining that Max misses his cat, Bowie, who we had to leave in America.
“You just left him?” she asked reproachfully, lifting an eyebrow.
“With his grandmother,” I hastened to add. “Just for this year, while we’re here.”
“Ah.” Her tone softened and as she started taking tins of catfood out of her bag, popping one open to dump it into a blue bowl. One by one, the cats returned, each receiving its own special dish, which the two women placed at intervals along the path.
Just the day before, Max and I had been talking about how we hadn’t seen a single cat since arriving in France. Dogs are a different story. According to a woman who moved here with her Lab, French landlords aren’t allowed to discriminate against renters with dogs. Apparently owning one is a human right, while cleaning up after one is optional. The streets are an obstacle course of shivery little dogs and their startlingly large turds. Maybe the dogs keep the cats away.
Max is a cat person to the core. Ever since he was a baby, he has recoiled from the jerky movements and slobbery tongues of dogs, touched their fur with great hesitancy, only when coaxed. This can be embarrassing, especially when the dogs that cause him to cower are teacup poodles. I remember when he was still a toddler and we were staying at the home of friends with a dog, trying to explain that dogs are traditionally considered “Man’s best friend.”
“They're not mine,” he said, shrieking with fear as the Labradoodle tried to give him a "kiss," and announcing that he had a mouth like a wolf.
Maybe it's hereditary. Matt and I are both cat people too. Matt’s first cat, which he got when he was in kindergarten, lived to be 25 years old—still kicking (or creeping arthritically, by all accounts) when Matt turned thirty. Max loves to hear stories of the legendary, ill-tempered Sylvester, who bit the neighbor’s cat in the butt, leaving a tooth behind. I also got my first cat when I was five. Our landlord forbade pets, but for some reason my parents finally gave in to my begging, with the bizarre condition that I had to give my kitten a French name. We’d had Pierre August Renoir for just a week when he was sunning on the windowsill of our third floor flat, he rolled over and tipped out. I remember bolting downstairs, my stomach cramped with the certainty that I was going to find him flat on the sidewalk. But when I opened the front door, he was standing as calm as can be, all four paws intact, looking up at me like: what’s the big deal, lady?
You can chalk it up to biology--apparently cats can dislocate their joints in midair--but I'm convinced that cats are at least a little bit magical. The Ancient Egyptians agreed. At the Louvre recently, Max and I were checking out the Egyptian gallery when we came upon a glass case of carved stone animals labeled, “Spirit Familiars.” Not a dog in signt, Max pointed out, adding that dogs wouldn’t be able to sit still long enough to assist in spell work. (Nor could he, but that's beside the point).
As a cat person, it’s easy to recognize others from the tribe. I felt an instant sense of kinship with the cat ladies of Belleville, watching as they pulled innumerable tins of cat food from their seemingly bottomless tote bags, calling each cat by name.
One of the women was tall and thin, wearing a long tweed coat and a beret (which Max calls "a hobo hat"). She had a look of smeared elegance, as if she’d walked straight out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. This could have had something to do with her bruised eye. She’d made the other one up with purple eye shadow to match.
“I fell down yesterday and hurt myself,” she said. “I feel that I must explain, lest you think…” She laughed with obvious embarrassment, and I wondered if she was telling the truth. "Viens Vanille," she called out to a jet black cat. "Come and get your lunch!"
“Are these cats yours?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she said. “Ils sont sauvages.” They're wild. "We just feed them."
“Every day?” I asked, and she nodded.
“Antoinette and I have been feeding them every day for twenty years,” she said, gesturing at her friend, who had remained silent. “There’s another woman, Josephine, who comes too.” She looked around, as if searching for her. “She’s very old, and she can’t manage the stairs as easily as she used to, but she never misses a day. Not even Christmas.”
“Lucky cats,” I said.
“Not so lucky," she said. “These poor cats have nowhere to get out of the rain. For the ones born here in the park, it’s not so bad. They’re like tigers in the jungle—they know nothing else. But the ones whose owners went on vacation and dumped them?” Her expression darkened.
“Look, Helene,” the other woman spoke up at last. “There’s something wrong with Vanille’s paw!” The two of them eyed the black cat with concern as he limped away. “Perhaps we’d better call the vet,” they agreed.
"I thought they were wild," I said, amazed to learn that there is something like socialized veterinary care here. Every year, a municipal employee comes to trap all of the kittens born in the park, taking them to a vet to have them spayed before releasing them again. The same vet will come if a cat seems badly hurt.
“Here comes our favorite,” Antoinette said, pointing to a bushy gray cat now eating swiftly from a yellow bowl. “Look how she loves the seafood I brought her! What a gourmand!”
The cat was preoccupied enough by this meal to let Max crouch beside her and pet her, which amazed the women.
“Il est mignon, l’enfant,” the elegant woman—Helene—said to her friend, Antoinette, who eyed Max appraisingly before finally nodding curtly. "Oui," she said at last. "He's pretty cute." I got the sense that she felt about children the way Max feels about dogs, but might make this one grudging exception, since he was being gentle with her favorite cat.
“Our son misses our cat,” I said again. "They've always slept together, since he was a baby."
“Do you have a picture?” Antoinette asked. It felt like a test, and I was relieved to remember that my mom had just emailed a shot of Bowie, curled up on her lap. It was easily retrieved from the inbox on my ipad, and as I showed it off, the cat ladies gushed over him.
“He looks very well fed!” they agreed. “What a handsome boy!”
The metaphorical ice was broken. I'd proven that I was one of them--or so it felt. For a good fifteen minutes, we sat in the unexpected sunshine, chatting while Max and Matt explored the park. Antoinette noticed that I was carrying a pastry box from a Belleville bakery called 140. “Le meilleur baguette de Paris!” she said, a claim to fame also printed on the bag. “The pastries there cost maybe one euro more than elsewhere, but they are at least three times better!” She gave me directions to an Algerian restaurant in the neighborhood, where apparently they make their own couscous daily, and where a whole lunch, “not at all greasy!” costs only seven euros.
“You should come back,” Helene said, when we finally got ready to go. “It’s the most beautiful park in Paris, always in flower except two or three weeks of the winter. Unfortunately, that happens to be right now. Come in spring!”
“Maybe we’ll see you again,” I said.
“We’re here every day,” she reminded me. “After all, without us, these cats would starve!”
That would take a while, I thought, surveying the decidedly plump cats, each licking the bottom of its own special bowl.
We were all a little sorry to leave, not knowing when we'd return, or if we'd ever see these cats--and cat ladies--again. But on our way home, we had the good luck to stumble upon a lion, performing a ritual dance outside a new Chinese restaurant for the new year.