TORONTO, Ont. -- I saved a story on one of my most memorable encounters in France for last. His name is Sidney, and he's a black Lab of some notoriety back in Brossac. For one thing, he's 15, having outlived others of his breed by about 2 1/2 years. For another, he's welcomed about 400 visitors from around the world to La Giraudière (where I worked as an editorial liaison during July) since it opened its doors to volunteers in 2007.
That means his French is better than mine. Which isn't saying much.
At over 100 in human years, Sidney's got his health concerns, like arthritis and an enlarged heart. He also doesn't hear that well anymore, content to rely on eye contact and his familiarity with people to get about. Everybody loves the stuffing out of Sid, and he's only one of the legion of animals that intoxicate French culture the same way they do ours.
Apparently, if you don't own a dog in France, you're not really French or something. Dogs come and go here pretty much anywhere their humans take 'em -- to churches, eateries, parks, bars, open-air markets, graduations and even restrooms. I can't count how many times I said "Tres mignon!" ("Very cute!") while stepping over a poodle or a Chihuahua (small breeds rule in France), only to be met with the owner's pointed expression of gratitude. The city of Paris reportedly clears away 20 tons of dog-dirties a day, yet dogs still reign there as man's best friend. If the French dog is not a member of the family as France knows it, then the family as France knows it doesn't exist.
Somehow, crazy ol' Sidney gets that, and he acts accordingly. He's the guy that lies there and breaks the ice at La Giraudière, the lightning rod that fuels conversations between people whose languages aren't mutually understood.
"We had a Russian guy here about five years ago," explained Paul Rice, La Giraudière manager and Sidney's owner, "who couldn't speak English or French. His sister did all the booking for him, and she neglected to tell us he only spoke Russian. He kind of became mates with Sidney, because Sidney's the only one who could speak Russian. He's an amazing dog, really. He's spoken Japanese, Chinese, all kinds of languages. He knows when you're sad, confused or happy. He knows just about everything."
Well, not everything. For instance, he doesn't know I'm in Toronto on my way home, or that I was the one who left him a secret treat that ran afoul of his special diet. He does, however, sense that I have a special affection for him amid his infirmities and that La Giraudière simply won't be the same without him. Ever.
Such is life as the post-vacation grind looms. Thanks to my La Giraudière experience, I'll face it in a new body and mind, determined to learn the language of Molière (Molière's term for "French") in recognition of my deepest affection for the people of France. It was there that I found out I know more French than I thought and, more important, why and how this great and indispensable nation speaks to my particular soul.
Merci mille pour tous, ma cherie la France. Avec vous, le monde est un meilleur endroit.