Through the fog of my jet lag, it almost seemed a dream. Before my eyes, in the bustling cobblestone streets of Aix-en-Provence, France, stood a woman calling to a tiny Pomeranian 10 feet away from her.
“Ici, ici!” she kept repeating. “Here, here.” The dog, without a leash but utterly concentrated on its mission, again and again scampered toward the woman as she called to it, oblivious to the passersby strolling past. I stopped walking to observe their training session, gobsmacked at its very existence. After all, I can’t think of the last time I saw a dog off-leash in the United States. But here, I managed to spot one within the first 24 hours of arriving.
To my delight, I encountered the same woman and dog while out and about the next day. The two were performing this routine repeatedly on the streets without a hitch. It was a magical introduction to the rhythms of life here in France but one I’ve since realized isn’t so magical as much as it is ordinary.
Dogs are confined to certain spaces in the U.S.: recreational areas, dog parks, homes and apartments. However, they’re ubiquitous in France.
Here, a dog isn’t just an accessory for certain parts of a person’s life. They accompany their owners everywhere, whether it’s an evening walk, the outdoor markets, the Apple store, the grocery or clothing stores. And, they’re perfectly well-behaved while doing it.
At home, my dog Finn yanks at her leash at every possible chance to interact with a person. Here, dogs barely flinch while walking through a crowd of people. This initially charmed and impressed me but now saddens me because there’s nothing I’d love more than petting a cute dog on the street.
Speaking of being enchanted, there is nothing that continues to captivate me without fail like the hordes of pigeons inhabiting all city spaces. It’s almost certainly the Midwesterner in me that finds them endearing instead of repulsive as most city dwellers do. I love the way they participate in the ecosystem that is Aix-en-Provence, fluttering around the city, a hive mind either scattering from an ostensible threat or homing in on the opportunity of a forgotten bread crust on the ground.
Of course, I can understand where the distaste for them and their other bird relatives comes from. Many times, I’ve passed by the open-air cafés and spotted a pigeon or two rustling through the remains of someone’s lunch. And when some of my friends in my program and I took a day trip to Monaco, an enterprising seagull swooped down and ripped a sandwich from my friend’s hands.
This is all to say that aversion to these animals is perhaps justified, especially if you’ve been surrounded by them for your entire life or have had a particularly negative experience with one of them.
But I spent my mornings and afternoons in middle and high school driving through corn fields and suburbs on my commute to school, not meandering through a city and encountering living creatures at every turn. Instead, my landscape was one of semitrucks and the occasional piece of indistinguishable roadkill.
So, for me, bearing witness to the always-shifting composition of a place filled with cars, buses, people, birds and dogs is thoroughly fascinating.