Three beloved Miniature Schnauzers – Jax: a white male, Sheba: a black female, and Manny: a silver-gray male – moved with their family from a cold climate in the upper Midwest of the United States to a new home in a small village of central Portugal.
When they finally arrived at their destination after three long airplane flights and almost a full day traveling, all three dogs were insecure. “Where are we?” they wondered. “What happened to the rooms and smells – the world – we loved and lived in for so long?”
Now, they had pet passports that allowed them to travel from country to country throughout the European Union, and licenses which recognized them in their own Portuguese village.
Their human daddies did everything they could to comfort and reassure them. In addition to packing their favorite keepsakes to bring along, the dogs had new beds and bedding, plenty of good food to eat, squeaky toys to play with, and the attention of their two devoted dads.
One day not long after the dogs arrived, their dads fastened leashes onto the dogs’ collars and took them for a long walk around the village. Suddenly, they came across three other dogs in the street.
“Bow-Wow-Wow!” greeted Gonçalo the Galgo.
“Woof, Woof, Woof!” welcomed Pedro the Podengo.
“Bark, Bark, Bark!” began María, mistress of the streets.
But Manny, Sheba, and Jax could not understand a word they were saying, because the other dogs were speaking Portuguese … and the three American dogs had not yet learned that language.
So, they just wagged their tails with excitement.
Later that same day, the American dogs were out on their afternoon walk when the Portuguese dogs came running over to them.
All of the dogs were happy to meet again and discovered that, by listening carefully, they were able to understand the words and the motions shared by each other. It was a common language!
The Portuguese dogs introduced themselves first.
“Boa tarde,” said Gonçalo. “I am a galgo, a dog used for racing and hunting—for only one season … but then I was discarded.” Tears filled Gonçalo’s eyes, as he continued his sad story: “I was starved before hunting, to make me more hungry for the prey.”
Jax, Manny, and Sheba couldn’t imagine a life like that.
Pedro spoke next: “Podengos are even more persecuted than galgos. Curious and clownish, we are very aware of our surroundings and very sensitive to humans. We are wonderful family members! But, like Gonçalo, I came from a breeder who chained me and sold me for sport. I was abused, treated badly, and abandoned because I wouldn’t kill.”
The three American dogs felt very sad for their new friends. Though shaggy and unkempt – their teeth needed cleaning and they all could benefit by baths – the Portuguese dogs were welcoming and outgoing.
“When I was young and just a pretty little puppy, I was a Christmas gift to two little children,” María explained.” She had fond memories of their times together, until she grew bigger and they were older. A few years later, the family moved, leaving María behind–without even a hug good-bye or words of farewell. Closing the door to the house where they lived one last time, they left María on the street. Over the years, she had given birth to many litters of puppies … but no longer could remember what had happened to them or where they went.
Licking their new friends with their tongues to make them feel better, the American dogs said, “Até breve,” because their daddies were ready to return home and the dogs wanted to see the dogs again soon.
Eating dinner in the warmth of their kitchen, the three American dogs talked about their new friends.
“Where do they live?” asked Jax. “Who takes care of them and feeds them?” wondered Sheba. “What do they do during the days and nights, while we’re taking our naps?” Manny inquired.
Eager to learn more about their lives, the American dogs decided to bring bits of their food as treats for their Portuguese amigos.
Early the next morning, right after their breakfast, leashes and collars were put on Jax, Sheba, and Manny. Their dads opened the front door, as the dogs scampered along, tugging at their leashes.
Where were María, Pedro, and Gonçalo?
Turning the corner and walking past the garbage bins (where Manny and Jax lifted their legs), they could hear the voices of their friends coming from farther down the street. But there were other voices, too.
“Olá, amigos,” said Pedro upon seeing his English-speaking friends from America. “I want you to meet Francisco, Ana, Rodrigo, Miguel, Patricia, and Tomás. They live in this village, too!”
“You do? Where?” Sheba and Manny responded immediately. “Why haven’t we seen you before? It’s great to have so many friends!”
Gonçalo explained that the other dogs lived with families in houses and were put outside a few times each day.
“But, but …” the American dogs didn’t know what to ask first.
“Your families don’t walk you with leashes?” Manny wanted to know. “Aren’t you afraid to walk by yourselves with all these cars and trucks on the streets? How do you pick up after yourselves?”
“We don’t!” exclaimed Rodrigo. “Sometimes the rain washes it away. Other times, it just stays here, until it dries up. Often, cars drive over it, pushing it down between the cobble stones. You dogs from America have servants who clean and pick up after you, no?”
Sheba was anxious and wanted her question to be answered: “All those vehicles are going in both directions so fast! Aren’t you afraid?”
“Oh, you get used to it,” Ana and Patricia nodded. “Usually, they’ll slow down if they see you … but sometimes you need to run to a spot in a doorway, against the wall, or between cars, and wait for them to pass.”
Patricia and Ana lived together with the same family. They heard the mother calling their names, so they scampered off. “Adeus,” they said, wishing the newcomers well. Rodrigo, Miguel, Tomás, amd Francisco followed the girls, leaving the Americans with their three first friends.
“Where do you live?” Jax asked María, Pedro, and Gonçalo.
“Right here,” Pedro responded. “We live on the streets.”
“But who takes care of you? Who feeds you? Where do you sleep? What do you drink?” concerned Jax, the eldest dog of his family.
“We can take care of ourselves,” grinned Gonçalo with pride. “The water from the village fountain is always plentiful and quite good.”
“People throw table scraps onto the street for us … pieces of fish, chicken, and even meat,” piped in Pedro. “Cats rip open the plastic trash bags, but we chase them away and find food there, too. Some people are really nice: They buy food for us at the grocery store and put it outside, on the street, for us to eat. That’s really convenient, eating food on the street—right next to where we sleep.”
“Food from the street? Food on the street? That’s where you eat?” asked Manny, trying to imagine eating like that.
The American dogs were on low-fat diets. Yet, compared to their new Portuguese friends, they were very well fed. Their dads mixed together special dry food from bags with moist dog food from cans. Then, tiny pieces of boiled chicken breasts with rice – along with fresh pumpkin or squash – were cooked, pureed, and placed in plastic containers in the freezer or refrigerator … until they were needed. Everything would be mixed together: some of this with some of that. Why, it took almost twenty minutes just for the food to be mixed in their stainless steel bowls, which were picked up and washed as soon as the dogs finished eating their meals.
“You sleep on the street?” Sheba cried, her motherly instincts kicking in. “Aren’t you cold? Or hot in the summers? What about all the bugs, flies, and mosquitoes? Don’t they bite? Won’t you get sick?”
“Não,” answered Pedro, muzzling María. “We watch out for each other. Often, we curl up together to sleep. That’s nice and warm. When it’s not raining, we find a welcome mat to lie on …. if it rains, we will sleep under the parked cars.”
Usually shy, María began to speak:
“You Americans have many questions. We tried, our best, to answer them. Now it’s our turn. Can we ask you some questions?”
“Of course,” echoed Manny, Sheba, and Jax … all at once.
“What are those colorful tags, decorating your necklaces?” she asked. “Do you always wear jewelry like that?”
“Oh, they’re not necklaces,” laughed Sheba, “but collars attached to our leashes. And the tags on them show that we have been vaccinated by the veterinarian against diseases that flies and worms and mosquitoes can spread. Haven’t you had shots to keep you safe, too?”
The Portuguese dogs shook their heads, explaining that they were from the same land and were not bothered by their bites. As foreigners and newcomers to their environment, however, the American dogs would need to be protected from such pests and diseases.
“And we all must be careful to avoid the processionary caterpillars,” warned Gonçalo. “They are dangerous to us all!”
“Hey, don’t those collars and leashes bother you?” María doubted. “How can you run and roam if you’re always attached to them?”
Jax scratched his head before responding, “We can’t. Why would we want to race around town, anyway? We’re perfectly happy walking with our dads. They’re looking for a piece of land now near our house, so that we can run around safely. Before moving here, we always had a yard where we could go outside to play and do … stuff,” he said.
“You mean that you never travel or go anywhere without people?” Pedro wondered. “Like there …” He lifted his leg and pointed his paw toward the snow-capped tops of the distant Serra mountains.
“We’ve traveled a lot with our family,” sniffed Sheba. “But we always go by plane or car, in the back with seat belts. We’ve been on vacation to Porto, we go to the groomer in the big city, and we have a holiday home in Spain, where we know lots of dogs who speak Spanish … a language not unlike Portuguese. Their lives are similar to yours, although more of them walk with leashes held by people now. And snow? We’ve seen lots of it. In fact, we played in the snow quite often. One of the places we lived before moving here was Wisconsin, where there’s so much snow that, sometimes, it’s higher than us!”
“But you can only go where your family takes you,” remarked the Portuguese dogs. “Even in our village, there are so many delightful places to visit, sights to see, and smells to enjoy!”
Like a shadow, a thoughtful silence fell over the dogs for a moment.
“Yes,” Jax admitted. “That is true. But we’d rather be with our family than out and about without them. They take such good care of us. So, seeing and smelling what’s here isn’t that important. We’re happy!”
“Well … since you mention it,” reacted María, “it appears your family does take very good care of you. Maybe too good? Are they feeding you too much? Is that good for your health? And, look at your nails!”
“Our nails?” all three American dogs gasped.
While the Portuguese dogs sorely needed baths and haircuts, their nails were neat and trim. How was that?
“Because of the cobble stone streets in the village,” Pedro explained.
The American dogs had walked only on soft grass, so their nails had to be trimmed by a groomer. They didn’t like that at all! And their wet feet always were wiped off with the towel by the front door.
“What I want to know,” Gonçalo interrupted, “is who will take care of you if your family is gone? When or if your dads aren’t here?”
Suddenly, all of the dogs – Portuguese and American – were sad, as they thought about their lives and the people they loved.
At the end of the week, after several very long conversations where they all learned new languages, the friendly dogs went back again to where they lived. Although the American dogs regretted that they didn’t have the freedom to come and go as the Portuguese dogs did, they truly loved their families and appreciated their comfortable lives.
Waving good-bye to their Portuguese friends until later, the American dogs realized that their lives might be different from how their friends lived, but that they really were not any better than them.
“We are quite fortunate,” they said to each other, as their new friends bounded off down the street after a cat that had come out from under one of the cars.
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.