Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from The Ball Warrior)
It wasn’t long into Ben’s life with us that we began our search for a Polish vet – one who could speak English. It had been a long day of teaching for me and for Ben a longer day of not getting any attention. With my arrival, Ben had an audience to pull out all his toys, one by one, while barking for attention. Even at that, for Ben, almost anything in the apartment was a potential toy and fair game as far as he was concerned. And if it looked or behaved like a ball, all the better. He even grabbed an onion out of my shopping bag one day and after he launched into a combined game of keep-away and don’t-take-my-food, I let him keep it. He ate and/or spit out half the onion before he gave up and returned to begging for dinner in the kitchen – there would be no kisses this night.
One of his favourite toys in his first few years were the plastic one-litre water bottles leftover from buying water with gas – a standard part of most citizens’ purpose since the water in Warsaw was not potable. And please don’t judge Ben’s love of water bottles – contrary to the onion story above, I did buy Ben actual dog toys … I did. But like the child who rips the sports car out of the box and proceeds to play longer with the box than the toy itself, Ben loved plastic bottles. The sport was to jump on the bottle, ride it around the apartment like some crazy torpedo-shaped boogey board, try and wrestle it into stillness, and then proceed to use his new teeth to gnaw off the cap. It was hilarious to watch him growl and fly around the room like some balloon with the air flying out the end trying to apprehend the bottle that skidded off the hardwood and carpet like a greased up piglet. Between being mesmerized and killing myself laughing, I’d keep on eye on him and the cap and take it away from him when he succeeded and then either twist on the cap tightly again … or get him a new bottle. A round trip for Ben would take 5-10 minutes which was enough time for the neighbours below to wish the Russians would invade Poland again and throw the damn foreigners out.
When Ben wasn’t playing with his toys or improvised entertainment, when he bored of playing with whatever he had in his mouth, he was generally begging for attention. This was usually at inopportune times like when I was writing out lecture notes or marking papers; in Ben’s opinion, my sitting at my desk simply equated to the perfect time to jump up on a knee and demand “notice me.”
Sometimes his attention seeking included a cross between rubbing or body-checking my leg or wrestling with my foot. I’m not sure what sumo-figure he saw in my sheepskin slippers from Zakopane, but on a whim he would transfer the energy he had for the plastic bottles and direct it at my feet instead. You might think me foolish for playing biting games with this dog that had bit me so early in our relationship, but there was a fascinating bit of bonding that occurred between us as we did this. He’d be growling like some rabid dog, snarling and sneezing as he always did when he wrestled, and dancing from side to side while chewing and biting at my feet. Sometimes he’d win which meant he’d manage to pull the slipper from a foot – and sometimes he’d come flying back and attack the my sock-covered foot. But what was truly amazing is that even in this fiendish mood, he knew the difference between a slippered foot and stocking foot – and he adjusted his attack accordingly. Not only did he never hurt my stocking foot, but he’d usually have me laughing and giggling begging him to stop: he was so gentle that his teeth actually tickled me.
It was one day that we were playing like this that I looked down at him and saw his right eye was swollen and red. At first I thought he’d hurt it wrestling with my foot, but it looked to red for an injury so recent. Perhaps he’d poked it on stick or branch in some marine like assault outside. I wasn’t sure, but the more I looked at it, the more it worried me. When Andrea got home I asked what she thought – and she immediately offered “Pink Eye?”
Hmm, I thought – she should know. I still held it against her for giving me pinkeye in China.
“Can you call Magda and ask her about a vet?” I asked. “I’ll clean it up a bit while you do that,” noticing that it was a bit pussy around the edges too.
After a night’s sleep, the next day saw no improvement in Ben’s eye so we agreed that we’d both return home after lunch and take him to a vet that Magda said was in walking distance of our apartment. This was going to be interesting because we didn’t know if they spoke English and while our Polish had gotten tolerable in our two years, mine was generally limited the purchase, preparation, and identification of food. And since I could rattle off words like goździki (clove) or ziele angielskie (allspice) with ease, people never really knew how much Polish I did in fact speak. However, unless the vet asked me to make mulled wine, I was going to be little help if they could not also speak English.
We arrived at the clinic with our barking little child and Andrea fumbled through the introductions to the aide while I picked up Ben, put him on the counter, and then joined in the conversation by contributing the international language of pointing. The aide then brought out a vet out to examine Ben and when I asked him if he spoke English, he responded with “Mały,” a little.
I’ll skip the charades, the well-intended Pinglish, and the awful Polish. Suffice to say that after examination and 20 złotys, we left with some antibiotics and the knowledge that dogs have three eyelids.
“Say, what?” I said when I learned this, convinced that I had misheard trzy, which is hard to do because with no real vowels, it sort of stands out in an English ear – or that I had misread the three fingers the vet kept holding up. Yup, I would later learn – dogs, and number of other animals, do indeed have a three eye lids, the third being a kind of protective membrane that emerges from the corner of the eye when they close their eyes and acts a bit like a squeegee to remove debris from the cornea. In dogs, this conjunctiva has a small tear duct and, in Ben’s case, this had grown infected when it became clogged. So, in effect, Ben did have a form of conjunctivitis … not exactly pink eye but damn near close enough. In fact, some people actually call it “cherry eye” in dogs.
Within a few days of treatment, the swelling of Ben’s eyelid had reduced and he was back to good spirits. Magda came over for tea to check in on her godson and there I was wrestling on the floor with Ben, him lying on top of my chest, licking me fiendishly and me laughing. Paying no mind to the visitor staring at us, I said in a tone of voice that only a mother would use with her child or a loving pet owner with his companion: “How’s my little guy feeling today?” and I kissed him on his forehead.
Magda smiled and looked at us both, but stood looking approvingly at me with a bit of wonder in her own eyes: “You really love him.”
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – The Bonds that Chain