Italian dictionaries translate “pet” as “animale domestico,” a soulless term that fails miserably at depicting the furry, feathered or finned creatures that brighten the lives of millions of “umani domestici” around the world.
My pet cat Bambola (doll) is not, in fact, an animale domestico but a stray who lives on a hillside on the Western coast of Tuscany. Although she seems ill-equiped to survive the perils of cold, rain and hunger, she appears every summer at the house we’ve been renting for seven years. Skittish at first, a bit miffed by our long neglect, she invariably sports new scars and patches of mangy fur.
“La chiami Bambola, ma questa gattina non lo è affatto,” an Italian friend commented on first meeting. (“You call her ‘Doll,’ but this little cat isn’t.”) Challenged in many aspects of feline intelligence, Bambola also doesn’t see as sharply (vederci come un gatto) or move as elegantly as many cats (muoversi come un gatto). “Non ti preoccupare,” (“Don’t worry”) I, a lifelong gattara (feeder of stray cats), whisper into Bambola’s ragged ear. “Sei la mia bella micina.” (“You’re my pretty kitty.”)
In the morning she cries outside the kitchen door, as eager for me to pet her neck as for a bit of prosciutto for breakfast. As I ascend to the little casetta (cottage) where I write, she winds between my legs, and I croon to her in Italian: “Bambolina, piccola micetta mia. Quanto sei carina! Come ti voglio bene!” (“Little doll, my little kitty-cat. How cute you are! How I love you so!”)
Bambola fa le fusa (purrs) and miagola (meows) in what I assume is cat Italian and then curls up near my writing table to lick herself languorously, roll over on her back and sleep so soundly that she snores. (She also is prone to sneezing fits.) As the time for the next meal approaches, she nudges me away from the computer toward the kitchen.
Disdainful of tuna from a tin, Bambola prefers carpaccio (who wouldn’t?), tears into chicken bones with gusto, daintily licks the sauce from a meatball and, like any true Italian, devours a strand of spaghetti in a single slurp. After a meal she leans over the edge of the pool to cleanse her palate with a sip of water. If we were to set out bowls of vino, I am sure she would opt for bianco with her pasta and rosso with the secondo, or second, course.
Years ago my Italian tutor taught me the rhythm of Italian with the first verse from “La Gatta,” a song many Italians remember their parents singing to them as children:
“C’era una volta una gatta
che aveva una macchia nera sul muso
e una vecchia soffitta vicino al mare
con una finestra a un passo dal cielo blu”
It translates as:
“Once upon a time there was a cat / who had a
black spot on the snout / and an old garret close to the sea / with a window just a step from the blue sky”
Sayings and Expressions
un gatto in amore – a cat in heat
gattonare – to crawl (used for children)
essere come cane e gatto — be like dogs and cats (fight constantly)
mamma gatta – a female cat with a litter of kittens
una brutta gatta da pelare – a tough cat to peel (hard or tough nut to crack)
“Quando il gatto non c’è, i topi ballano” – While the cat’s away, the mice dance (play)
Click here to listen to “La gatta,” by Gino Paoli: