Then there are the dogs, mentioned by every Western traveler to pass through Istanbul during the nineteenth century, from Lamartine and Gerard de Nerval to Mark Twain; they continue to bring drama to the city’s streets. They all look alike, their coats all the same color for which no one has a name – a color somewhere between gray and charcoal that is no color at all. They are the bane of the city council. When the army stages a coup, it is only a matter of time before a general mentions the dog menace; the state and the school system have launched campaign after campaign to drive dogs from the streets, but still they roam free. Fearsome as they are, united as they have been in their defiance of the state, I can’t help pitying these mad, lost creatures still clinging to their old turf.

Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City, 42-44

For a while now, I’ve felt a connection with stray dogs and mongrels. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, maybe it’s just solidarity with kindred spirits. Perhaps I’m a bit of a stray myself. I’ve always liked a good mongrel, a good mutt. Our first family dog, Sophie, was the spawn of forbidden-backyard-mongrel-love. We picked her from a litter that was born up the street. Part schnauzer, dachshund, some sort of terrier, golden retriever, and a few other things. She was a good dog. She was an excellent squirrel chaser. But she got old, and was lain to rest in the backyard next to the woodpile. A while later, older brother Graham and I decided we should go get another dog. We went to the animal shelter one day (what a most depressing place), and I felt a connection with a little rat terrier who was barking his head off, shaking, sneezing, and shedding. Small, nervous, losing his hair at a rapid pace, and cast out from society: he was definitely one of us. After the shelter chipped and snipped him, we brought him home to the surprise of the parents. (My mother was tutoring a student on the back porch when we brought him in – Oh, a dog! Whose is he? Well, he’s ours now. Oh, how nice!)

Oh, how I love Scooter dog. He has a Napoleon complex and tries to play with the big dogs at the park. He can run circles around them, but they usually end up knocking him down. Nobody plays quite as rough with him as I do, but I consider it training for his sessions at the park. I like to tell people he’s so tough because of his time in the slammer: served time for hardcore loitering. I always feel bad about leaving poor Scooter dog when I go off wandering around. He takes to gnawing himself raw, and I’ve heard he’s taken to sitting outside my bedroom door. Poor Scooter.

I always feel a connection with the strays I meet when I’m traveling, too. I would always get infuriated in Prague and Budapest, where the dogs are mostly domesticated, because this means that people walk their dogs in parks and on the sidewalks, and I step in crap every day. I try to watch where I’m going, but it seemed that I wouldn’t go two days without hitting a pile in those cities. Budapest, as much as I love that city, I will always associate with dog crap on my shoes. From as far back as 1995, I can remember having soiled shoes in Budapest.

Ah, but once I got to the Balkans last fall, I saw that dogs roamed the streets in packs, and they crap where they want to, which is usually not in my footpath. I love watching how the strays interact with each other. I recall a scene in Sarajevo, when one dog was taking a nap in the bushes. His buddies (why he? I don’t know, I just assume) were standing around the bushes, barking at him to get up. Maybe he was holding up the group or something and they wanted to get going. I thought it was hilarious.

That same day in Sarajevo, I recall watching one dog trailing after a well dressed woman, chewing on her purse strap. She was trying to beat the dog away, but he really had his teeth sunk in to her purse. He was having a blast, and wasn’t going anywhere.

I like dog packs, too. Last November, when Matt the Canadian and I took the night train in to Sofia, Bulgaria from Ohrid, Macedonia, we were spit out in bleak Sofia at 3 or 4am with just a Lonely Planet map and my navigation skills to direct us to our hostel. We found out later it was just a straight shot down the main road for twenty minutes. I guess we could have taken a cab as well, but we were poor strays ourselves. We were wandering around for more than three hours, and the sun had come up by the time we found the place. Along the way, on some dirty side street, we heard the distant sound of a pack of dogs going after some intruder on its turf. We soon realized that we were those intruders. Matt debated hopping up on a parked car, and I was glad to be wearing my heavy boots, if it was going to come to blows between the two groups. Thankfully they stopped about ten feet from us, and just stood there barking at us for a while before moving on. We were relieved. Neither of us really wanted to get a rabies shot in Sofia.

Whenever I think of dog packs, I am reminded of a chapter in Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which is narrated by a dog (or an illustration of a dog.):

In the lands of the infidel Franks, the so-called Europeans, every dog has an owner. These poor animals are paraded on the streets with chains around their necks, they’re fettered like the most miserable of slaves and dragged around in isolation. These Franks force the poor beasts into their homes and even into their beds. Dogs aren’t permitted to walk with one another, let alone sniff and frolic together. In that despicable state, in chains, they can do nothing but gaze forlornly at each other from a distance when they pass on the street. Dogs who roam the streets of Istanbul freely in packs and communities, the way we do, dogs who threaten people if necessary, who can curl up in a warm corner or stretch out in the shade and sleep peacefully, and who can shit wherever they want and bite whomever they want, such dogs are beyond the infidels’ conception.

I always think to myself of Gilgamesh and Enkidu when I see two dogs roaming together (and I’m always surprised that more people don’t think the same thing, but most surprising of all is that most people don’t even know about Gilgamesh and Enkidu!) The two buddies who started off as rivals, but after their epic weeklong battle which neither can win, become best friends. They then have great adventures, insulting the gods and even challenging them.

(Sidenote on Gilgamesh, for the unenlightened: Enkidu eventually gets sick and dies, and Gilgamesh, horrified at death and decay – having watched over Enkidu until a worm fell out of his nose – then wanders the earth alone in search for immortality, which results in some excellent Mesopotamian wisdom. From Siduri the bar maid to Gilgamesh, in the Old Babylonian version: “Gilgamesh, whither do thou rove? The life that you pursue you shall not find.” She instead urges Gilgamesh to find happiness in the simple pleasures of life.)

I like to think that the dog packs are like Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Met randomly, had some epic fight before they decided they’d pool their resources, then started terrorizing everything, defying the authorities, and having a riot while doing so. One time I expressed my wish to The Expert that it would be cool to be a stray in a dog pack. Erm… why? he asked. Well, don’t you think it’d be cool to roam around the streets at night with your buddies, having fun and chasing things? You don’t have to be a stray dog to do that, Sven. It’s kind of what we already do.

If I’m a bit of a stray myself, then I think last fall Matt the Canadian and I were like a two dog pack.

Roaming the Balkans, terrorizing the bars and kebab stands at night. Alas, he’s an accountant now, having found a home in the wintry lands of Saskatchewan, keeping his feet warm with my big wooly socks. A stray no longer. I mourn the domestication of Matt. The Road isn’t the same without him.

I manage to find good stray dogs wherever I go. There were a lot of strays in Georgia. Most of them were depressingly thin and mangy. There was a legendary stray puppy in Kutaisi that one of the American English teachers had adopted. He and a few others shared an apartment/house/shack sort of thing, so it was okay to keep a dog around. Said teacher had been feeding the puppy bread for a few days before it started to just hang around the place. Dog was named Karl Barks. He was awesome. I wonder if he’s still around. Then there were my two stray puppy friends I met in Pristina, who somehow had escaped round one of the horrible stray massacres of 2011. I wonder if they’ve lasted this long.

(The Sataplia mongrel, near Kutaisi)

I know one reason I like strays so much is the fact that they’re homeless (I remember in Budapest, we Howard brothers had favorite bums as well), and that strikes a chord with me. They don’t really belong anywhere, so they just roam around. But aside from that, I think part of why I like them is that others find them to be a disgrace! Most people I’ve met don’t really care for stray dogs too much, and think that they’re a nuisance that should be dealt with. But what to do, short of killing them off, Pristina style? Where domesticated dogs aren’t the norm, it makes little sense to bring them to an animal shelter. Nobody will come to their rescue and adopt them; it just isn’t the culture for that sort of thing. I say let them wander around, let them have their fun; they’ll be fine. Istanbul has the right idea. They apparently do round them up, because they all have tags in their ears. I would assume that this is for disease control or something of the sort, tag them and keep tabs on them to be sure they’re up to date on all their shots.

(Mongrel pups in the Sarajevo hills)

I like the strays, the mongrels: my abject brethren. They’re dirty, they’re wanderers, they’re a nuisance. They often look miserable, dejected and sad (as they did in Georgia, especially when it rained every day.) But every once in a while, you see them playing around, roaming around at night having fun. It’s a reminder for me that there is light out there somewhere, despite the darkness. It’s heartening, a reminder that there’s fun to be had in all of this aimless wandering.

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