First there was the stray tom cat who made his home in the park we’d walk through to get to the train for a day in Rome. Then there was the sweet friendly cross-eyed cat–barely a stray—who would roll over on the sidewalk outside the pet shop in Albano to show us his belly and purred as we pet him. Then there was the legion of strays lazing about in the ancient ruins of the Roman empire, showing us that the real rulers of the world have 9 lives. Then there was the kitten who captured our hearts in Sicily as she mewed from a tree branch on the beautiful little farm we stayed at.
These are only a few of the encounters I have had with the stray cats on the streets of Italy. I have crouched on the ground, clicked my tongue, offered out my open hand, and generally made myself look like a fool for any feline friend I have caught a glimpse of. Some are friendly; they approach me and enjoy the attention. Some just stare from a careful distance away and make it known that they don’t want to be approached. I try to respect the wishes of the cats of Italy.
Italy is a country that is as diverse and varied as its stray cats. The rich cultural history means that cities only a train ride apart can feel like completely different countries with distinct personalities. Florence was artsy and fashionable, Rome was ageless and powerful, Palermo was rustic and lively. I have experienced the cobbled streets of these cities with wide open eyes and a desire to soak it all in. I try to respect the streets of each city like I respect the stray cats that roam them.
Sometimes my experiences have been closer to what it’s like when I meet a shy street cat. Maybe the language barrier or my nervousness or the newness of the culture makes the experience awkward. But sometimes I am rewarded for making my brave step forward into Italian life. Maybe it’s the local market stand owner greeting me with a smile, or when my practiced Italian pronunciation is easily understood by the waiter. That feeling of satisfaction is just as rewarding as a hesitant stray finally letting me pet it.