We hadn’t even landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, and my dog had had his first real taste of Paris.
Everyone must see Paris. That included Poncho, my chihuahua-esque mutt, adopted from the animal shelter fourteen years ago. Figuring him to be about ninety-eight years old in human terms, I decided I’d better get him there soon.
My husband, Paul, was certain the trip would kill him.
“You may have to buy him a sweater,” Paul said, veiling his panic in pragmatism. “And please, take cabs.”
Paul thought the whole two-week vacation in Paris would be torture. I knew how the French felt about les chiens. I thought Poncho would adore it.
Yes, the trip began inauspiciously. Just before takeoff, the flight attendant rushed down the aisle with the leash my husband had given her; I’d accidentally left it on my seat at the gate. I spilled orange juice into Poncho’s new carrier during breakfast on the plane, and when we finally got in line for a taxi into Paris from the airport, we were rejected by several Mercedes-Benzes.
But when I saw the dilapidated Renault station wagon in the queue, I knew we had found our ride. Poncho jumped into the backseat, opened his mouth in a big smile-pant, and watched as we went rattling down the highway, the sun rising over the suburban jumble of warehouses and ancient tiled roofs. The cabby’s torrent of about-the-weather French poured over me deliciously as I pressed my lips against Poncho’s warm, dusty ear.
“Nous sommes ici,” I whispered, my heart fluttering with the sight of the French language on the road signs. “We are here.”
If there was ever a sensual city, it is Paris. And I hadn’t even considered one of its most notable sensory aspects—at least for dogs.
Poncho caught on right away. He jumped out of the cab when it pulled up in front of our doorway, on the Rue du Temple in the Marais district, and made a dogline for one of the metal poles lining the sidewalk. Pressing his nose against its pitted paint, Poncho power-sniffed his way down to the pavement. His lips twitched. Obviously, Poncho understood at least a little canine French. Hiking his leg, he added his statement.
Several hours later, fortified with sleep, Evian, and Hill’s Science Diet for Senior Dogs, we were ready to take on Paris.
Well, I was.
Poncho opened one eye from his nest on the convertible sofa, rested his gaze on his leash, and turned over.
Understand that Poncho is not your tongue-lolling, happy-go-lucky, leap-into-the-pond kind of dog. Poncho watches intently, lifts an eyebrow knowingly, licks faces judiciously—much more Godard than Truffaut. His main activity over the last decade has been practicing how to will the refrigerator door to open. But I knew that somewhere in that brave little barrel chest beat the heart of an adventurer.
“Come on, Poncheau,” I said, using his new French name. “This is Paris; you’ll love it.”
Before us whirled an urban maelstrom of blurry legs and car fumes. The narrow sidewalks were clogged with people enjoying the gorgeous weather, Chinese entrepreneurs shuttling boxes on dollies, and buyers flitting among the wholesale jewelry shops along rue du Temple.
Guilt swept over me as I realized that the quaint Marais district might not be optimal dog territory. Furthermore, my slow-gaited beast couldn’t help but impede the flow of pedestrian traffic; I braced myself for nasty comments about the stupid American and her gimpy dog taking up the entire sidewalk.
Instead, pedestrians simply slowed down behind us, waiting patiently behind the leash, which often spanned the whole sidewalk as Poncheau decided he just had to sniff the wheel of a parked scooter way over there.
Some even cooed or made little kissing sounds; one old woman bent down and enthused in lovely French about “le petit mignon,” which, given the French penchant for eating anything that moves, made me just a little nervous.
Having a dog, I realized, was the key to a Parisian’s heart.
Once he knew we were too far away from our door to go back in, the leash went slack and Poncheau fell into the rhythm of the street. Dusk settled as we arrived at the Place des Vosges and joined the crowd listening to a jazz band playing for coins. Poncheau sat down and smile-panted, not at the music, but at a jaunty white terrier beaming at us from the arms of her adoring French master.
We ended the evening with a glass of merlot and a cup of water at an outdoor café. The woman at the next table pulled off a bite of her duck à l’orange and offered it to my bedroom-eyed dining companion.
“Perhaps,” Poncheau thought, flipping the meat to the back of his tongue, “this Paris won’t be so bad after all.”
If he had any doubts, they were wiped away the next day when we stepped into the Monoprix. Nobody stopped us as we unhooked a shopping cart, went through the turnstile, and stood there incredulously—I because the dog was allowed in, and Poncheau because of the universe of food that spread out before him.
I wasn’t sure whether his slight trembling was ecstasy or fear, but his eyes were huge as we passed the litany of French dog foods, Fido and Markies and Hourra aux poissons.
He lost interest as I lingered in the wine aisles but perked up again as we turned into the cookie section, where a little pink-cheeked girl was sitting in a cart of her own.
“Le chien est beau,” she said softly to her mother—perfect French for “The dog is handsome.” “Oui,” the mother agreed, smiling at me over the daughter’s blond curls.
“Et tu es belle aussi,” I told the little girl, who mercifully seemed to understand my accent as I tried to tell her she was lovely, too.
Poncheau was impatient, however, and would not stop whining until I rolled to a halt in front of the vast cheesescape of the dairy aisle. His nose quickly found the smelliest wedge of Roquefort in Paris.
I told him I could only afford bleu cheese, and he’d better get used to living on a budget.
Which was fine with him, really. French bleu was perfectly acceptable, especially when accompanied by the hunks of baguette I cut for him once we were back in the kitchen of our apartment. Poncheau spent the afternoon vacuuming shards of crust off the carpet, washing them down with bottled water from his bowl.
My little mignon was beginning to feel at home. His tail gradually emerged from between his legs, and he assumed the jaunty strut of the local curs. He sniffed expertly at poles and curbs, taking extra note of the messages left on the corners of bistros—a kind of canine Michelin guide.
Below ground, he quickly became used to the Metro system, too. He scooted expertly past the metal door at the turnstile before it slammed shut on his tail. He raised an eyebrow tragically to get someone to move aside for him in the crowded train. He chose the escalator over the stairs anytime we had a choice.
Life was not all gaie for monsieur, naturally. He was unceremoniously shooed out of a Franprix grocery store and was stepped on—stepped on!—during a sale in the Galeries Lafayette perfume department.
One evening, a rather unsavory young man slouched toward us as I was photographing Poncheau near Les Halles. Rolling his Gauloise to one side of his mouth, the man offered, in a slurred accent, to pose with the dog. Before I could answer, a shocked Poncheau was in his arms.
Horrified, I looked through the viewfinder in time to see the young man planting a large kiss on Poncheau’s forehead as the dog squirmed awkwardly.
Poncheau really did have Paris by the jugular. He marched right down the red carpet into Fouquet’s, a fashionable bar and café, and ensconced himself at a window table for a late luncheon. The expensively dressed Japanese women at the next table fell apart with affection, petting him to within an inch of baldness.
In Montmartre, I knew Poncheau the artiste would feel most at home. And the streets were abuzz as he strode through them, jaunty beret slung low over one eye. As he sat through a photo session on the steps of Sacré-Coeur, people abandoned their pigeon feeding to admire his form. The artists were out in force this bright weekend afternoon, men and women with rugged faces carrying large sketchpads tucked under their arms. They approached the tourists fearlessly but kept their distance from Poncheau—perhaps unsure that their talents could rise to the occasion.
We surveyed the area round the Place du Tertre and chose a small café table bathed in amber light. I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich, two plates.
The late-afternoon light was perfect, bathing Poncheau in a golden glow, and so as he lingered over his sandwich, nosing bits of bread toward the begging sparrows, I set him upright, paws on the table, to take his photograph.
“Oh la la,” someone actually said behind me. Intent on the picture, I was only vaguely aware that a crowd was gathering. “Poncheau!” I barked, snapping my fingers to get him to look up. “Poncheau! Poncheau!” the Frenchmen echoed.
Poncheau, losing patience, decided it was time to get down. As he teetered on the shaky chair, a collective “Oh!” rose up, but the dog managed to jump to safety, casting one more withering glance at the spectators—and me—from under the table.
We had saved the Eiffel Tower for last but could only admire it from afar, as the structure is forbidden territory for canines. As Poncheau sat contemplatively among the fallen leaves, sniffing, a pretty young woman came rushing over from across the Champ-de-Mars. After sniffing surreptitiously to check for French snacks, Poncheau immediately lost interest. But the woman would not be denied.
Adjusting his beret over his now-flattened ears, the young woman, who was also wearing a jaunty cap, murmured softly to him. Poncheau looked toward me, film-noir angst in his eyes.
Ah well, monsieur, best enjoy it now, I counseled after the woman had gone. Tomorrow you will be back in New Jersey.
And indeed, the next morning it seemed all Paris was weeping over our imminent departure. Poncheau cut a wistful silhouette against the gray fog rising slowly off the airport tarmac. He padded back to our luggage and lay down with a sigh.
And now he is home, his beret in a drawer and his bowl, full of tap water, in its familiar spot on the floor. It’s back to fire hydrants and azalea bushes rather than centuries-old walls and scooter tire with the aromas of all Paris on them.
I know he is content with his pack—wherever the pack may be. But still, sometimes he just looks bored, ennuyé. It is then that I break down and buy him a sliver of Roquefort. And as he licks up the last of the cheese crumbs, I whisper, “Remember, we will always have Paris.”