In French, there is a term “chacun sa peau,” which is the French equivalent of the US American English term, “to each their own.” The French term translates literally to “to each their own skin,” which I rather enjoy. We each inhabit an entire microbiome that is unique to us and no one else. I know that there are many universals in the human experience, but I also know that each person is made up of thousands of individual stories, experiences, and moments that culminate into who any one of us “is” in any given moment of our lives.
I would say the same is true for the four-legged creatures with whom I share my daily life the only difference being that I don’t know all of the myriad stories that, when woven together, create the tapestry of their individual existences. I don’t know because I don’t speak husky or feline, no matter how great an effort I make, there still tends to be something lost in anthropomorphism.
For instance, I don’t know if I will ever fully understand why one of my cats, Fin—short for Fingolfin one of the high elves of Valinor from The Silmarillion; my ex was a major Tolkien fan—seems to take great pleasure in licking anything with a glossy surface. It could be a Tyvek postal envelope (the kind with bubble wrap lining the interior or a paperback book. We are constantly hissing (and my husband throwing something at him) to make him stop. As soon as he has run away and we have decide we have achieved at least momentary success, he returns to the current glossy surface of his affection and resumes licking.
I know many of the stories of my two rescue cats because I adopted them when they were quite young and much smaller than they are now. Fin, for example, is what we have referred to as a McChat or Supersize because he is far larger than many of the dogs (and all of the cats) in our neighborhood at the southeastern corner of Brussels. Just as we joke that anything small is that way because it is in metric, so, too, do we joke that Fin is large because he comes from a country where metric has only taken hold in the medical community.
One of the mysteries of animal existence lives in the mind of the big white husky we adopted nearly two years ago. He came to us from a distance by airplane in what was likely his first time traveling by air and in a kennel. It took us nearly a year to convince him that going into his crate and staying there for long periods at a time could be enjoyable. We did this by feeding him meals in his crate, which I had read online was a way to make spending time in a crate a positive experience. Now, anytime he is hungry he goes and lies in his crate, even if it is hours before dinnertime. He will walk in and lie down with gusto to ensure we hear him. Sometimes, he will turn his bowl over and sigh for added effect.
We started out by putting him in his crate and standing outside of the house for five minutes, at which point he would typically begin to cry and howl. With time, he has learned to go into his crate when he notices that I am following a familiar pattern of getting ready to leave, a pattern which includes stuffing several treats slathered in peanut butter into a hollow bone that we place in his crate to keep him busy when we leave the house for any period of time.
Just as our husky is highly sensitive when it comes to spending time alone, he is even more so where stuffed animals are concerned. We learned this early on in our time with Atticus. In our neighborhood at the southern edge of Brussels, there is a tradition of putting out anything you don’t want as a free give away. People often post a little note on their window or windowsill that reads “A donner” (to give). There is often added text like “Servez-vous” (serve yourself) and a little smiley face. There is a general understanding that random items placed on a windowsill or on the sidewalk in front of a house are fair game. People also post photos of the give away items in the Facebook group for our neighborhood as a way to spread the word. They give away furniture, clothing, beautiful things. I think either people are super generous or have a lot of money to spare (so they don’t need to sell their used items to balance out the cost of new purchases) or a combination of the two, couple with a desire for an easy, inexpensive way to get rid of often heavy items. If it’s free, people (like me) are quite likely to come and take it away). If I can carry it and it speaks to me (figuratively…maybe also literally?), I will probably be one of those people.
I share this description of our neighborhood because often people put stuffed animals out as “A donner.” This was how we discovered Atticus’ propensity for stuffed animals or “doudous” (doo-doo) as they are called in French. One of the very first (if not the actual first) doudou we found was a gorilla puppet, which I found on the windowsill of a neighbor a few doors down from us. I walked by with Atticus several times before finally deciding to take said Gorilla home. I put it through the washing machine and gave it to Atticus, who promptly took it from me with gusto.
Later in the evening when my husband came home, he tried to take the toy from Atticus to play and it did not go well. As a result, he reprimanded Atticus and took the toy and put it away. I think this must have had an enormous impact on our sensitive husky’s psyche because the next time we passed a give away doudou and I let him have it, he went through quite an intense period at the start of the “adoption.” He kept the doudou firmly grasped in his mouth on the walk and avoided any kind of eye contact with me. If I bent to untangle his leash, he would turn his head away. Once home, he attempted to bury the toy under his bed and then decided it was too risky and kept it near him for the rest of the day.
This behavior continued with each new doudou, new or repurposed. Since I have absolutely no willpower when it comes to things that are free and my husky, you can imagine that our collection has grown. We graduated from the small wooden box ages ago to a larger one I found for one euro at a brocante (neighborhood flea market) this summer.
If I take a doudou and put it through the washing machine, Atticus demonstrates his unease and irritation by walking around looking for said douduo and then lying down in front of the washing machine. It has gotten to the point where he will go and look in the washing machine after I finish a wash (even if I did not put any of his doudous in the mix) just to make sure I didn’t steal one on the sly without him noticing.
The next best thing than being able to go “A donner” shopping around my neighborhood are the local brocantes that we have become slightly obsessed with visiting. These are annual events that take place at a different date for each general region or street in our corner of Brussels. There are many throughout the city, but we like the local ones because they are mellower and you can chat with the people about the items they are selling. They also tend to be more cost effective because people are often trying to empty their house and will therefore sell things for a pittance as opposed to larger brocantes where people bring their wares to sell for a profit.
The second doudou adoption took place at a neighborhood brocante in the summer 2018. We walked by a spot with items for young children: clothing, toys, and stuffed animals. I noticed a husky stuffed animal and picked it up.
Would you like this? I asked Atticus.
He responded by taking it from me.
I paid the one euro, and we went on our way. Atticus carried the doudou for the rest of the time we spent at the brocante. He provided great entertainment for most of the people we passed and was featured in several photographs. We joke that we should start charging people at least 5 euros per photograph because literally everywhere we go people want to take photos of him or pose with him. We consider that we are providing a service to the world each time we bring Atticus with one on an excursion. It seems only fair to request compensation, but so far this idea has not gone beyond the joking phase into actual production.
One time we were at Manneken Pis when we had family in town and an entire Indian family asked to take a family photo with the dog. As we walked, I heard tourists speaking in different languages and would then hear the word “Husky” in the mix. Walking across Grand Place a few minutes later, a group of Indian kids walked by and one boy called out, That’s a wolf, bro!
Let’s just say now that we have a sense of our sensitive husky and his propensity for doudou. Because we are mature adults, we often joke, Atticus loves doudou in a play on the English word for poop, doo doo. At this point, my husband has put a cabosh on the adoption of doudou. When we are out walking in our neighborhood or at a brocante, I am not allowed to buy any more doudous.
This is in part because we have so many. It is also because our poor dog seems to become fairly neurotic when we do give him one. His neck and head tense up dramatically, and he holds the stuffed toy tightly in his mouth, turning his head away from anyone who comes near him in case they might try to take it away.
I have managed to sneak in a couple more doudous despite my husband’s reasonable “no more doudou” rule. I found a stuffed ratatouille at a brocante this past spring, which took place along the street in front of the building where my husband is studying for his doctorate at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). This stuffed toy in particular seemed like a good idea because there were no plastic eyes.
Atticus has a tendency to remove the plastic eyes from nearly every doudou we have brought home. We joke that this is in order to save them from viewing the suffering of the world. It is the only real harm they will experience unless his bff comes over, in which case we have learned to hide the more fragile doudous. On one occasion, several were placed in the ER waiting room space above the microwave to await “surgery” repair.
Beyond the removal of eyes, Atticus is otherwise relatively gentle with his toys. He still has rawhide chew bones from when we first adopted him nearly two years ago. I don’t know if he is hoarding in preparation for a post-apocalyptic world where it might be harder to find rawhide bones and stuffed toys. As I wrote earlier, I do not really speak cat or husky. I also have a tendency to anthropomorphize, which, while fun, is likely not all that accurate if I were to ask an actual dog behavior specialist.
Of course, he has no qualms about destroying the stuffed toys at his bff’s house when he goes to play. I find this puzzling and do not yet have a theory by way of explanation.
As an aside, Atticus was not pleased by my taking all the doudous with missing eyes and placing them on the kitchen counter to take a photograph to share with this post. He came into the kitchen, which is off limits to huskies, and looked up at the counter where his toys were lined up in a little semi circle. After I had returned them to the toy box, Atticus returned to the kitchen, lifting his nose to sniff the air in case there were anymore that I had hidden out of reach. He also snuck a peak in the open washing machine.
Note: The white eyes in the photograph below came from Mr. Banana, who was the one “A donner” doudou I allowed Atticus to bring home from an entire windowsill full. How strong were we on that day? Mr. Banana is also pictured below on the far left of the windowsill of doudou from whence he came. I also want to say that there have been several occasions when Atticus and I have walked by “A donner” doudous, and I have asked him if he can leave them for the children. My heart fills when he sniffs them and decides to leave them for the human (and perhaps other doudou obsessed canine) children. As my neighbor and mama of Atticus’ bff D’Jacks would say, #soproud.
As we walked around the brocante by my husband’s university, me with my armful of finds and Atticus with his ratatouille, people stopped and pointed, laughed, and commented. Photos were taken, though I did not charge a cover fee. Several passersby seemed concerned that Atticus has stolen the toy from a stand, asking if I had paid for it.
I should also mention that because the brocante tend to take place during the spring and summer months, the weather is often quite warm. Atticus will hold on tight to his new stuffed friend, refusing water because it means letting go. Every time I stop to look at something, he will lie down to rest, sometimes releasing the toy from its position clamped in his jaw. If I try to take it, he will generally grab it fast.
I will say that I have established some degree of dominance with my dog, though I am a beta at best. My husband is the clear choice for alpha male in our family chain of command. Both my husband and I regularly practice the command “leave it” with Atticus, and he has gotten a lot better at relinquishing a cherished doudou. In the beginning, I used to have to pin him down and either pinch or sometimes bite his ear to get him to let go of a toy or anything that he thought was worthy of putting in his mouth. This proved to be somewhat of a dramatic display, particularly while out in public with an audience.
We bought Atticus a new doudou—a rare event given the frequency of “A donner” doudou and brocante doudou finds—on a day trip to Brugges when a friend from the United States was in town for a visit. I found a Belgian devil doudou without plastic eyes at a little pet supply shop and decided to splurge. Of course, the moment we gave Atticus the doudou he went into extreme doudou protection/neurotic mode, and so we wound up taking it away so as not to burden his poor psyche and to avoid husky overheating.
Our most recent doudou experience was at a local brocante that took place yesterday at the area of Boitsfort known as Trois Tilleuls (The three lime trees). My husband stayed home to work with the request that I keep my eyes peeled for typewriters, which are his “doudou” of choice for brocante and second hand shops. I tend to be drawn to pretty much anything old with a story and especially tiny statues of owls, elephants, buddhas, etc.
Atticus and I walked to Les Trois Tilleuls, and I was strong and did not buy two shirts at the very first stall. We walked past an older couple and I noticed a small stool that looked like it would be perfect for holding one of my husband’s typewriters. I hesitated nad then asked how much they wanted for it. I figured it would be expensive, especially when the woman said her husband made it by hand.
1 euro, the woman replied.
1 euro?! I asked in surprise.
Yes, she said. Just one. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, Why not? It’s just stuff.
Her husband picked it up and told me something that I think referred to the type of wood, but I was not entirely sure.
Knowing that like my husky, I have a strong propensity to grow very attached to inanimate objects and that I would likely want to bring the small stool back to the United States (in addition to all of the other inanimate and animate objects that I had already been growing attached to over the past three years in Belgium), I handed the woman a euro and picked up the stool. Her husband showed me an easier way to carry it by holding the narrow bar below the top seat that offered extra support for holding the legs together. I readjusted my grasp, and off we went in search of our continued brocante destiny.
I texted my husband to share my strength in not buying clothing, careful not to tell him that I had succumbed to buying a small piece of furniture.
As we walked, people ooh’d and aaah’d over Atticus.
Quels beaux yeux, they exclaimed after a quick intake of breath.
Qu’il est beau.
We stopped at a table with older odds and ends. I picked up an old bellows in somewhat rough shape, admired it, and put it back down. My inner critic applauded (a rare occurrence) my willpower. The woman behind the table said, “Hello neighbor” (in French).
Oh wow, I said (all of this in French). You are long way from home.
We chatted and I asked her about some of the items on the table, namely a small candleholder and a little plaque about warding off the devil. She told me all about the little village of Crupet, where her father and her uncle had worked at the church. The pieces came from there. She told me she was very attached to the history and also shared photos from her mobile phone of a recent visit to the village with her granddaughters.
I purchased the little candleholder. When I asked about the little sign warding off the devil, she offered it to me “A donner!”
While this was going on people were passing by and petting Atticus. Several referred to him as a nounours (teddy bear), and I responded that we often called him a polar bear. At one point he had wrapped his leash around my legs a couple of times so I barely escaped what could have been some serious damage when a couple passed by with a dog who lunged at Atticus. Once crisis had been averted (albeit narrowly), I resumed chatting with my neighbor. When the clothing cart when rolling into the street after Atticus had wrapped his leash around it, I decided it was time to go.
I joked that Atticus wanted to buy all of the clothing for me before heading off.
We didn’t make it very far before I found several tiny statues (a major weakness of mine). I asked about their origin and the price. The tiny owls and cat were an unknown. The little pig cart came from a butchery. When I joked that I probably shouldn’t gift it to my vegan father, my husband suggested that perhaps I had rescued it from the slaughterhouse. I liked this idea.
My husband and I have decided that in addition to becoming what feels like an animal rescue with our cats on the first (or second if you are in the United States) and dog on ground (or first) floor since only one cat has been willing to venture downstairs to the dog domain since we rescued the husky. I have found that it is also inanimate objects that I am drawn to rescue as well. I have found some pretty sad stuffed toys and other odds and ends on my wanderings. It brings me a lot of joy to wash them, repair them, and give them a new lease on life. Some of them (ok, most of them) I hold onto, while others I am able to send on their way in my own “A donner” on the windowsill offering. There have also been times when both Atticus and I have picked out an “A donner” doudou to bring home. As they say, “The apple does not fall far from the tree.”
In addition to the pig cart rescue, I also rescued an Ibis statue that I later discovered was made from soapstone and brass and modeled after the Egyptian God Thoth, who is often pictured as an Ibis, one of his favorite animals. The poor Ibis was in rough shape and was being sold for one euro, so I took it “under my wing,” feeling wonderful about giving it a new home among our growing circus of lost and found creatures, great and small.
I have become a bit better at not overdoing it at brocante (I can hear my husband laughing as I type this). I passed many a tiny statue that was 10 euros or more and all of the stands with people from outside of the neighborhood selling their wares for profit. Experience has taught me that I will spend a lot for something that doesn’t come with a personal story. This can be ok, but I find that I really love the experience of hearing the story from the person selling the object and I enjoy the memory far more as well every time I look at it wherever I place it in my home.
On a little side street, I paused in front of a box of doudous to see if there were any without plastic eyes. The only ones I had seen previously were quite large. Atticus paused as well and then stuck his head in the box and came up with a small, green and orange frog.
How much? I asked the young man.
I can do that.
I handed him a five since I had already spent the rest of my small change. He didn’t have change and it took a few minutes to find some from a neighbor. Returning the frog was not an option because Atticus had gone into uber protective doudou mode. Change was finally found, and we carried on.
I took a photo of the one typewriter I saw even though it didn’t look like one my husband would be interested in. Thankfully he wasn’t because the stool and the doudou obsessed husky were enough to deal with amidst a crowd of people.
Rather than buying everything I see that I am drawn to, I have started taking photos instead. This way I have the memory without the added weight and burden of having more stuff and the inevitable guilt from spending money unnecessarily.
When I spent 5 euros on a handmade plate with a dancing dog on it, I texted my husband that I was heading home because I was getting out of control.
I think it’s probably time to come home because I’m starting to buy things we don’t don’t need.
I sent a follow-up text, As opposed to the stuff I bought that we do need.
With my arms full of bags with plate, statues, and a fairly crushed bag of lettuce and Atticus pulling hard on the lead even though I had managed to put his frog in a bag, we headed for the bus. The stool turned out to be quite convenient to sit on while waiting for Bus 95 and then 17. Our transit karma was not particularly good, so it took quite a while to get home.
Once home, Atticus and I collapsed in exhaustion. Atticus let go of his frog, and my husband handed it to me to include with the load of laundry I was preparing. Atticus spent several minutes searching the house for his frog and then promptly fell back asleep. Once the load was done, he remained close to his frog for the rest of the day.
I told my husband that I was going to write about our trip the previous day to Leuven to pick up a typewriter (stay tuned for this piece).
I think I will call it, The things we do for love.
My husband responded, The things we doudou for love.
Oh, I should probably use that for a piece about Atticus and his doudous.
And there you have it.
Chacun sa peau. Chacun son doudou.