By Jane Wynyard September 26 2013
I was so saddened in 2013 to read about the Romanian courts agreeing to cull thousands of stray dogs after one of them fatally mauled a four year old child. The horrific death of any child is hard to comprehend, but the senseless extermination of thousands of homeless dogs in retribution is even harder.
It was the State, after all, that forced Romanians to dump their beloved pets on the street during the communist era - the awful legacy of a brutal and oppressive political regime - and now it was the State that wanted to kill them. The whole tale is tragic and wrong.
Most of all though, I’m upset about one dog in particular.
Nearly nine years ago, while visiting Bucharest one snowy Xmas, my friend and I met the most extra-ordinary stray dog. We called him ‘Xmas Dog’ and although we only spent eight hours with him, we've never forgotten him.
Xmas Dog was a pale yellow mongrel with one ear that stood straight up in a perfect triangular shape and one that occasionally drooped as if his ears had two different personalities - happy and sad. He had beautiful dark diamond shaped eyes, a well defined square jaw, a stocky body and a tail that whirled around in excitement like a helicopter propellor.
Xmas Dog was unlike any other dog - he hated Shmackos and bake rolls and spent most of his day sleeping in a billowy nest of leaves like a giant yellow stocky bird.
My friend and I were staying in a four star hotel – the Marriot - with its grand staircases, gold trimmings and opulent entrances that felt at odds with the stark and concrete surroundings of the city outside. The hotel overlooked the abomination that was the ‘People’s Palace’ – and on our first morning, which happened to be Xmas Day, we decided to walk for miles through the city exploring the history of Bucharest.
It was a crisp cold and bright sunny day as we stepped out of the hotel. Standing in the circular driveway we were gobsmacked by the vast expansive wasteland before us - all white concrete, brown dirt and piles of dirty snow - and the enormity of the People's Palace - a huge modern white monstrosity that stretched for miles, block after block.
While studying our map of the city we were suddenly joined by a very happy, wriggling dog on stocky legs who was panting and ‘smiling’ from ear to ear - his lips pulled back in an odd grimace. Despite many attempts by the hotel concierge to chase him away our new four-legged friend stuck to us like glue.
My friend and I were both dog lovers and decided we couldn't leave him at the hotel (besides he would leave us!) and so off we all went ... down Calea 13 Septembre, across the broken and crazy roads filled with pot holes, past the stalls selling wooden coffins, candles and flowers and towards the civil and military cemetery where the graves of the late communist dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu and his wife Elena lie – the very two people responsible for Xmas Dog’s homeless situation.
Xmas Dog trotted along beside us, letting us scratch his head, pose for photos with him – the whole time staring at us with those adoring diamond eyes and wagging his tail to the point where we thought he might take off, his whole body shaking with excitement.
While we wandered around the cemetery looking for the separated graves of Nicolai and Elena, who were buried apart in death because they behaved so badly in life, Xmas Dog found a nest of leaves near the stone wall and waited for us. I took a photo of him sitting in his nest, all small and lost against the big stone cemetery wall, staring out into the cold colourless world that had abandoned him.
Even today looking at that photo breaks my heart and I often wondered what he was thinking. Did he just view us as another couple of tourists he'd latched onto in the hope of food who would abandon him again? I'd hoped not but it was hard not to feel sorry for the plucky little guy.
If my grandmother had been with us then, she would have said ‘that dog has been here before’. He had something ‘other-worldly’ about him, as though he belonged with us. It made me feel so awful knowing that we would probably have to leave him at the end of our trip.
We left the cemetery about an hour later, scooping up Xmas Dog and stopped off at a mini-market on the way to buy him a Xmas lunch. He had already turned his nose up at Bake Rolls and Shmackos (which made me wonder if he was being fed elsewhere) so we tried dog food which he wolfed down before chasing another stray dog across the forecourt and disappearing. We waited and called but when he didn't show we decided he'd left us and carried on walking down Calea 13 Septembre. However five minutes later Xmas Dog was back beside us – panting, smiling and trotting along, his nails clicking on the concrete footpath with every step.
We walked for miles, past the Palace, up to the Piata Unirii which is one of the second largest squares in Europe – the whole time Xmas Dog trotting along at our side. He lay down every opportunity he got, (usually in a nest of leaves) but never left our side. We met so many other stray dogs in Bucharest – every alley and street corner had a stray dog on it and Xmas Dog was ambushed a couple of times. But he always fought back, usually chasing the stray in the opposite direction, and would then race as fast as his stocky legs could carry him to catch up with us, that hilarious 'grin' on his face.
We wanted to learn more about Xmas Dog and spoke to a couple of people in the square about all the strays. They said the dogs were thought to be a legacy of Ceausescu's decision to bulldoze pre-World War Two houses in Bucharest's historic center in the 1980s to make way for the People's Palace ( parliament building). In the period between the two World Wars, the city's elegant architecture earned Bucharest the nickname of 'Little Paris' but Ceauscescu soon put an end to that. Under his systematization of Romania, he ordered hundreds of villages, monasteries, churches, hospitals, synagogues, theatres and eight square kilometres of the historic centre of Bucharest destroyed.
One man managed to wipe out an entire nation's architectural history in less than a decade.
In the process thousands of guard dogs were abandoned by residents who were forcibly relocated into small apartments. We assumed Xmas Dog was one of those very dogs and wondered how, despite being abandoned by Humans, he could still be so willing to love and trust us.
We crossed the square, with Xmas Dog leading the way, and walked through the Historic Quarter past some of what was left of the old architecture and to the Piata Revolutei – the scene of the 1989 bloody revolution on December 21 where 1000 Romanian people were tragically killed by Ceaucescu’s guards.
The place was eerie, haunted, quiet; a huge black cross marked the site of the first man killed and the buildings were pock-marked with bullet holes. I felt safe with furry Xmas Dog at my side who, like us, had stopped panting and smiling and seemed to be quietly taking everything in around him as though he too sensed the horror of what had happened here.
And then, we reached the huge statue of Iuliu Maniu and everything changed. The statue is dedicated to a politician who served as Romania's Prime Minister on three occasions and was sentence to life imprisonment by the Communist regime in 1947. He died in prison six years later and was buried without ceremony in a common grave in the prison courtyard. The statue is broken in four places to represent Iuliu's unbreakable spirit.
For some bizarre reason, Xmas Dog exploded and began barking wildly at Iuliu Maniu. He growled and barked at the huge seated statue for about half an hour, sometimes mock rushing at it and then jumping backwards. We tried to drag him away and even hid around a corner hoping he would come looking for us, but he stood firm and continued his tirade at the statue. Perhaps the broken man represented someone or something from Xmas Dog's past. We will never know.
After about twenty minutes of barking and mock attacks, Xmas Dog finally calmed down and joined us on the steps of the burnt-out shell of the Securitat building which had been destroyed by protesters in 1989. As we were sitting there taking in our surroundings, we heard the rumble of cars and motorbikes and around the corner came a cavalcade of police cars and motorbikes – obviously escorting someone important through the piata as there were voices shouting on loudspeakers. And behind them, came a cloud of eight stray dogs snapping and snarling over a poor thin bitch who looked absolutely terrified. The dogs saw us on the steps and came towards us but Xmas Dog ran straight over to them, hair raised and bared his teeth, growling. The dogs stopped and then carried on chasing the poor female dog. Xmas Dog then trotted straight back to our side, loyal and loving and eye-balled any stray dog that came near us.
I was completely gob-smacked at his bravery and dedication and began to plot ways of smuggling Xmas Dog into the Marriot. Could we take him skiing with us to Transylvania (our next stop after Bucharest) and how could I get him back to London? Would my flatmate mind me bringing in a stray dog from Romania? Where would we keep him without a back yard? We talked about ways of adopting Xmas Dog for hours but both knew it would be almost impossible. We had no means of taking care of him in London and getting him out of Romania would have been near impossible.
We had to leave Xmas Dog at the front of the hotel that night as the concierge wouldn't let us take him in and there was no way of smuggling a heavy, wriggling yellow dog through the front door. I spent most of the evening fretting over him and worrying that he would freeze to death. It was Xmas night - surely the concierge would let us bring him in on this one occasion - but no amount of pleading or begging would change their minds.
The next morning our taxi driver arrived in a limousine (!) to take us to Poiana Brasov but Xmas Dog was no-where to be seen. It was as though he’d done his duty – protected us on our one Xmas day tour of Bucharest and shown us the destruction of his city, the damage communism can do and the reason he was forced to live on the streets. Sadly, we couldn't wait any longer in Romania and had to leave. It nearly broke my heart that we hadn't been able to say goodbye.
We told our taxi driver, Nicoleu about this remarkable dog and he told us about Ceaucescu and the legacy of forgotten dogs and children in the city. He knew of the pack of dogs at the Piata Revolutei and said that even then, nine years ago, the Mayor had wanted to order the cull of stray dogs. “They are out of control. You are lucky you met a nice one.”
He also told us that one of his clients was Brigette Bardot and that she came to Romania the year before to set up a dog fund to save the strays. On the way to meet the Mayor one afternoon, Brigette asked Nicoleu to stop the car so she could feed the dogs and was very upset when he refused. “She wanted me to put some of the dogs into my car but they would have torn my car to pieces.”
We never saw Xmas Dog ever again and although it’s been nearly ten years since I was in Bucharest, I still think about my yellow nesting friend and hope that he either found a good home or joined a pack of dogs as leader and continued to be as happy, loving and faithful as when we found him.
However the reality sadly is that by now he’s somewhere in Doggie Heaven. I hope he's found a wonderful owner in the Afterlife who will love him, feed him dog roll not Shmackos, rake up lots of leaves for him to nest in and treat him much better than we did down here on Earth.
Which is why it's so sad to read about the culling of the Romanian dogs. It reminds me of the beautiful loving nature of Xmas Dog and the fantastic day we had with him in Bucharest; how man’s best friend was put in that situation because of Man, well one bad man in particular, and not all dogs are killers.
Most importantly, if anyone in Bucharest comes across an adoring diamond-eyed, incredibly excited, stocky loyal yellow dog sitting in a nest of leaves, near the Marriot, please let me know. He might just be my Xmas Dog.
Labels: Bucharest, Ceaucescu, Europe, Romania, stray dogs, Xmas Dog