The Political Symbol We Need


On January 21, 2017, hundreds of post-Inauguration Day protests, rallies, and marches took place across the US and around the world. Largely organized by women and around “women’s issues” (which are not really only pertinent to women), the Women’s March on Washington and its related events served a smorgasbord of issues that were probably not all, entirely, to the taste of every participant–which did not keep them from coming out by the millions. Such is the nature of progressive politics in its sweeping gestures toward inclusion and diversity. Even so, the various marches were alike in several factors, including their overwhelming numbers, their overwhelmingly peaceful character, and their overwhelming pinkness. The latter was in part due to many artifacts in the crowds utilizing that color so long associated with all things feminine, but one item rose above the rest: the headwear that many of the participants wore. Simple in shape, the flat, boxy hat, when slipped over the head, reveals pointy “ears” that gives rise to its name: the pussyhat.

Given the success of the marches and ubiquity of the hats within them, the pussyhat may become one of the great examples of political headwear in the history of this sub-sub-sub-set of material culture history, which is a long one. Hats have enjoyed a rather rich association with politics through time, as their meanings might be casually hewn or (as in this case) intentionally sewn. Ancient Greeks recognized different tribes by their chapeaux, especially those who donned a pointy cone later called Phrygian caps, which were later embraced to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty during various eighteenth-century revolutions: Americans called it them Liberty Caps. In the early twentieth century, hats were intentionally wielded within the strive toward Turkey’s westernization during the establishment of the Republic when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk required men to wear European-style hats in replace of the fez that had been traditional for about a century, thinking that modern hats would modernize their wearers. Meanwhile, Americans popularized straw boaters, usually festooned with bunting and buttons, as the canonical rally and convention hat. Again in the 1960s, activists and revolutionaries countered the decorum of broad-brimmed hats by donning berets to conjure a militarist attitude, famously captured in the Guerrillero Heroico.

Hats have only gained prominence at political rallies–especially televised ones–in the most recent decades, as a way for individuals to draw media attention to themselves (and, of course, their party), and for organizers to indicate solidarity among a crowd. Such was certainly the case during the 2016 presidential election, when the platform of the candidate who ultimately won the Electoral College became closely identified with a red trucker hat bearing an ostensibly, but backwards-looking and nostalgic, patriotic slogan. Reaching a certain portion of the electorate that was clearly feeling left out of global change, its form identifies with traditional masculinity and blue-collar labor, while its color is associated with the American flag but, perhaps more to the point, is also the shade favored by bullfighter to enrage their prey and thus may likely pump up (if not help to flat-out enrage) rally attendees. The factory-made hat (sometimes labeled “made in the USA,” but not necessarily so and not entirely so) was a tremendously successful element of the campaign, yet as ill-fitting and foreign in its candidate’s wearing–one might argue–as are the values it symbolizes within his actual life experience.

How different, then, is the hat we saw amidst the crowds flowing through the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Boston and beyond on January 21: not a device shrewdly chosen and mass-produced to elicit common response among a crowd of followers, but the result of a totally grassroots campaign, like the rallies themselves. While the innocent (or out-of-touch) might see their shape as having some vaguely feline-feminine quality appropriate to a Women’s March, no one was calling these kittyhats; they of course were a direct response to one of the most degrading and disparaging comments to come out of the red-capped candidate’s mouth. In no way is the pussyhat’s hue a washed-out, weaker version of the candidate’s hats; in this context, pink is potentially more biologically referential than generically pretty–although it’s that, too (and, depending on the wearer, ironically so–or not).

hatsAlso unlike the uniformity of the manufactured red hats, the pussyhats reveal a variety of shades and patterns of pink, as diverse in their slightly different shapes, fabrics, and methods of fabrication (some real works of art by skilled knitters and others clearly a person’s first go at a sewing machines). This too is significant, for the making of these hats is as important as their wearing. The real gist is for them to be handmade–so much so, that knittters took pity on their non-needlework-able sisters and passed them around both through small social circles as well as through a well-organized online campaign (no doubt the need also drove some robust Etsy traffic).

The mass creation of hundreds of thousands of pussyhats in a relatively short time frame is a testament to both contemporary social media and age-old needlework technology. The two merge in what may be the biggest global act of Craftivism in history: a pointed use of handicraft for the cause of activism, oftentimes (maybe usually) from a feminist point of view and making use of crafts that have been traditionally associated with the feminine sphere. In the best Craftivist practice, the pussyhats accomplish both goals by merging the advocacy of voice and hand, while also bridging the divide between the personal and the global.

So the pink hat is at once an individual, unique artifact in the making and a communal event in the wearing, much as the marches themselves joined vast swaths of people from broad demographic representations. As a specifically feminist strategy they reclaim and repurpose a word that had been used to belittle and degrade while claiming and proclaiming a color that is a powerful, clashing counterpoint to last summer’s red hat and its regressive attitude. With varying levels of craft expertise, fiber, fabric, pattern and color, they announced diversity within overall unity, perfectly symbolizing the recognition of plurality’s strength within any movement–or society–that hopes to march forward.



cats & modernism

suddenly, Mr. Whiskers realized that not even Frank Lloyd Wright could design an adequate scratching post

suddenly, Mr. Whiskers realized that not even Frank Lloyd Wright could design a scratching post that would meet his expectations

A notice came across our desk today that identifies October 29 as National Cat Day (not to be confused with International Cat Day on August 8, which is a semi-legit event sponsored by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who seem like very decent folks), which is founded by someone who calls herself a “pet and family lifestyle expert, animal behaviorist, designer and author” but who somehow does not even have her own wiki.  Unlike most “national” holidays, Cat Day has a sponsor: a kitty litter company.

This is silly, and not only if present company raises an eyebrow to the idea that cats deserve any kind of celebration (dogs, on the other hand . . . ).  Rather, our concern is for the sake of the felines themselves.  Did anyone ask them if they wanted or needed the honor?  We assume their response would have been a collective are you kidding dahhhrling, every day is cat day, before (or while) they sauntered away to poop in the fern.

Still, the pictures of cats in architecture got us wondering.  Of course the picture-story from Architizer features only Modernist buildings, but this time the bias seems only too perfect.  Slinky, sexy and alluring, yet cold, aloof, high-maintenance and unaccommodating: cats & modernism are a match made . . . somewhere.

truth be told, we dig this one

truth be told, we dig this one

how to go to Rome

your holiday starts here: Piazza della Rotonda

The truth of the ancient aphorism ars longa, vita brevis is made more obvious in Rome than in any other European capital.  All those great cities bear witness to rich and lengthy histories through miles of venerable structures and museums heaving with centuries’ worth of art, but Rome is different: there you will really feel how long art is and how short your time to soak it in.  In such capitals as Paris and London monuments articulate a clear sense of historical change; Rome spreads out with multiple histories as vast and rambling as the city itself.  Those other cities may simply feel more comprehensible because they are easier to traverse from end to end via long boulevards and snappy subways; while all roads may lead to Rome, finding the right one to get back to your hotel, or the correct bus or subway to get you from point to point to point is another story altogether.  It is the un-embraceable bigness and depth of Rome—not so much a repository of art but a work of art itself—that is its glory, and the problem to the traveler who expects to “do” this city in four days, two weeks, whatever.  There’s simply too much, and your time is too little.

The best you can do is to arrive with certain, select places that are of greatest interest to you, and then let the city do the rest. Navigating the city can be a challenge; negotiating it as a linear progress can be futile; expecting Italians to abide by posted opening hours is a fool’s errand.  More importantly however, this is one of these places that will open up in unexpected ways if you have the time and willingness to walk around with less agenda and more free time.  This is counter-intuitive if you travel with a checklist mentality, but ultimately, is the most rewarding; instead of seeing everybody’s Rome, you’ll discover your Rome.

What to see?

After you have followed our general advice on organizing your days (plus: read this blog), you need to determine which of the many, many famous things that have been drawing countless travelers to the banks of the Tiber.  Be selective about what you choose and be willing to let some things go.  But, if you need someone else to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:



I. The Pantheon

The great temple dedicated to all the Roman gods is stunning in photography and jaw-dropping in person.  The effect of its spherical interior (the height of the interior from the floor to the top of the dome and the diameter of its circular plan are the same measurement) defies accurate description through words, drawings or photographs.  That simplest of design concepts is made surprisingly complex by the veneers of colorful marble (brought from all ends of the Empire) in geometric patterns lining the walls and floor, and most notably by its ever-changing light source.  The only window (so to speak) is the open oculus at the apex of the dome; depending on time of day and the quality of the weather (including rainy days, when it will rain inside the building), the light effects changes the interior.  Visit the Pantheon as many times as possible to take in this shifting atmosphere.  (Also, do not neglect to pay your respects at Raphael’s tomb.) The Pantheon makes us wonder if its (possible) designer Hadrian hadn’t been so distracted by all that emperor stuff, just what more would Roman Imperial architecture have become?

In the neighborhood: Lots of souvenir shopping in interesting galleries, paper makers, etc.  Pricier than other neighborhoods, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially if your tchotchke reminds you that you were at the Pantheon. Lots of churchy shopping—tons of shops for elaborate vestments and altar ware.  You don’t have to be a man of the cloth to enjoy window shopping for glittery, shiny crucifixes and incense burning devices and other sacramental gizmos. Church of the Gesù: home church of the Jesuits, built in the mid-sixteenth century.  Fine church with powerful late Renaissance architecture, but the real reason you go is for the mind-blowing ceiling fresco painted by Baciccio in the 1660s-70s.  Largo Argentina: This collection of ruined temples will only attract the attention of serious scholars of antiquities for the temples themselves.  The rest of us, however, will be impressed by two other aspects of this interesting site.  First, it appears significantly sunken which is, of course, the result of the ground around it rising across the centuries.  In many places in Rome you will see the result of this phenomenon (the Pantheon itself used to be approached by a tall flight of steps; now you walk in virtually on grade), but no where quite as dramatically.  Second, the site is a stray cat refuge, so you can observe dozens of i gatti di Roma lolling about ancient relics.  Giolitti, one of the best gelato joints in town, favored by Michelle Obama and John Paul II.  If it’s good enough for the FLOTUS and the Pope, it’s certainly good enough for you.  We recommend the puro chocolate (approximately 137% cocoa), if you dare.  (Like a lot of non-antiquities in Rome, this is not super-easy to find, so you are advised to print a map before you go.  Here are MapQuest’s hilarious directions (you can obviously walk the pedestrian ways north of the Pantheon, through the piazza and beyond, and get there much more directly).

St. Peter's Basilica


II. The Vatican

The Vatican comprises four things, each of them requiring a certain effort, stamina and planning.  The Basilica is the church dedicated to St. Peter, designed and built for a century and a half starting in the first years of the sixteenth century.  When it gets enormously crowded it loses its sense of being an active church, which is a shame.  Be there at the very start of the day or the very end, when the crowds are smaller and you can experience the church in relative quiet, if not quite silence.  If you are the first one in the door, head straight for Michelangelo ‘s Pietà, which is on the right as you enter, so you just have Plexiglas between you and the sculpture.  Michelangelo’s Dome, which, likewise, you should see early in the day (again, shorter lines) or toward closing time (lines may have lengthened, but the sun will be behind you as you look into the center of town).  It is not much more expensive to buy the ticket that allows an elevator ride to the base of the dome (make sure to get out and walk along the woopy nave roof), from which you must hike—but it’s a very cool hike through slanty, skinny corridors sliced through the dome.  It’s tiring but, dude, you’re walking through a dome! And the view from above is not to be missed.  The Museums, which are super crowded, all the time, and unfortunately everyone is herded through like cattle (except for the lengthy galleries full of art that Rick Steves hasn’t told his devoted followers to study).  There’s not much choice but to join the line for the famous things, including the octagonal courtyard with the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoön, Raphael’s frescoed rooms and of course the Sistine Chapel.  Just go in knowing it will be crowded and deal with it; after you exit you can find plenty of space to relax in The Piazza.

the Forum


III. The Forum

Center of the world for centuries, during which the impossible complexity of this archaeological site grew in innumerable layers in a chaotic, picturesque, melancholy and inspiring tableau.  Try to find a quiet (relative term here) corner to plant yourself and imagine your way back through well over two millennia of its history. Enter from the Campidoglio side, which will give you a splendid view across the whole site before you enter. Total nerds should carry a copy of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” with them to review throughout the day, alternating site visits with swooning fits as needed.

Nearby: The Colosseum. Helpful to have the RomaPass for this and other sites throughout and around the city.  It will help you save a few euro along the way, and what is most valuable, save time by ducking around the longest lines for popular sites like this.  Also close: the Campidoglio and Capitoline Museums; the former a brilliant urban and architectural design by Michelangelo; the latter a collection of art and antiquities with fine views across Rome and the Forum.

The sites above do not reflect any stunning discoveries, but they are super-famous for a good reason.  They’re totally awesome; that is historic fact (we have graduate degrees in these subjects; trust us).  But there are other ways to organize your time in Rome, reflecting the many historical layers of this great city.  This is a different way to travel, one that privileges themes and chronologies rather than geographic proximity, but also demands that the traveler ignore great famous things to emphasize other things, arranged by theme.  Behold:

the Baths of Caracalla


I. Imperial Rome: The Ancient Concrete Jungle

Go to the Forum and the Colosseum, where concrete is used but not nearly to the sweeping effect you’ll see later.  After the messy (Republican-era) Forum, admire what’s left of the order of the Imperial Fora; tour Trajan’s Markets and start to be excited about concrete—the market hall was the first big concrete vault built in a public building in Rome. At some point try to get tickets into Nero’s Domus Aurea, unless more of it has caved in so it’s all shut down again, in which case you will have to content yourself with the pictures on postcards.  For his many, many faults, Nero was a great supporter of art and architecture, as his concrete house shows.  Go to the Pantheon and admire the spatial and technical feat of that dome: concrete simulating the vault of Heaven.  Not too far away you can catch the bus down to the Baths of Caracalla, a concrete structure as big as they come.

St. Ivo della Sapienza


II. Baroque Rome

The Catholic Counter-Reformation prompted a bombastic building boom in Rome.  During the sixteenth century, the city was blessed by the joint efforts of extraordinary artists and papal patrons who knew how to utilize their talents—and had access to the deep deep papal purse to support them.  Catch a bus or taxi out to Michelangelo’s wild and wonderful Porta Pia, at the end of the Via 20 Settembre by the Corso d’Italia, and walk into the city along this busy long straight street—an anomaly in the otherwise irregular city plan, and indicative of the new urban planning undertaken in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  Visit Santa Susanna and the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice (the latter fronts a piazza which is one of the densest scooter parking lots in the city).  Take your time in Santa Maria delle Vittoria, which is pretty overpowering and heavy for its scale.  But you, like most people, will be focused on the scene to the left of the altar: Bernini’s stunning chapel for the Cornaro family featuring the Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In textbooks that only have room for one photo per artistic movement, that’s THE one for Baroque sculpture.  Study the treatment of the skin, the clothes, the cloud, and remember: that’s a big freaking rock that he made look like skin, fabric and a floating cloud! Farther down the road are the pair of Baroque churches that every architecture major must learn by heart: Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale.  They’re both just barely on this side of sublime, and while much, much, muchmuchmuchmuch smaller than St. Peter’s, require a certain amount of time to absorb.  Borromini will wow you with crazy melted architecture; Bernini will draw you through an evocative narrative portraying St. Andrew’s crucifixion, apotheosis and final reward in the Holy Spirit in the dome.  When you plan this day, be aware that on Saturdays these small churches are very popular with weddings, so you may need to wait to dart in between ceremonies.  Also, San Carlo has strange hours, so build your day around the times it is open.  Once done with this leg of the journey through Baroque Rome, rest and eat, then continue on: the slightly later Trevi Fountain is nearby; hang on to your purse but make sure to throw a coin in the fountain (this assures your return to Rome one day).  More in keeping with the theme of the day: head up to the Villa Borghese, which is in the midst of extensive public gardens. They are nice, and we like the umbrella pines, but you need to go to the Galleria Borghese, housed in the villa proper.  It’s a weird villa building, but its patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, had divinely good taste and commissioned or snatched up a ton of Bernini’s best work.  That’s where you’ll find his David and Apollo and Daphne; if you can view the latter without breaking into tears, you need to have your pulse checked.  Make sure to reserve tickets in advance; they are limited every day and you don’t want to be left out.  Lastly, wind your way down to the wonderful sixteenth-seventeenth-century Piazza del Popolo, which is treacherous for pedestrians but very cool to look at from a safe distance.  Your destination is the less architecturally-remarkable Santa Maria del Popolo; head in there, marvel at some wacky ornament, and jostle your way with all the other people on the left side of the altar there to see two great paintings by Caravaggio; impressive on their own but especially when compared with the contemporaneous but yawn-inducing work by Annibale Carracci in between them. If you have not yet floated off to Baroque nirvana wander through the Piazza Navona.  Play hide and seek with Borromini, whose Sant’Ivo della Sapienza is not too far away, but somewhat difficult to find, since the church is hidden behind a boring dirty orange wall on a street that looks like nothing important happens there. Like San Carlo, Sant’Ivo has weird hours, but it is part of the university and is sometime open for university events.  If you are not dressed too terribly like a tourist, you can waltz right in there, take a seat and achieve Borrominirvana.  If anyone talks to you in Italian, just strike a pose like a bored academic and they’ll leave you alone.



III. Trastevere

Tired of the famous things and the crowds they draw?  Head across the Tiber to this part of Rome that preserves a medieval character more than most of the city.  Trastevere has several sites of note that for most people are just not worth the walk across the Tiber: Santa Cecelia is a beautiful martyr’s shrine exhibiting every major architectural era in Rome (make sure to get way up front to see the haunting sculpture of Cecelia under the altar).  Santa Maria in Trastevere likewise blends Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque motifs in a church that absorbed Roman antiquities (spolia) in its original design.  Don’t miss the wacky recycled Roman columns by being overwhelmed by the apse mosaics.  But the real joy of Trastevere is just wandering around and being partially lost, discovering great restaurants and cool small shops.  Ditch the map; maybe watch the sun or a compass (if you travel with one of those) to have a certain sense of which way the river is so you can get back to your hotel eventually; but in general you will be well rewarded by discovering a private part of Rome that you will swear no other person has seen as you have.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin


IV. Early Christian Rome

The Early Christian church found its architectural expression under Constantine in Rome, and there’s a fair amount left to see, although much has been altered or unfortunately frosted with Baroque lusciousness.  It takes a little effort to find the bus to get there, but it’s worth it to visit one of the catacombs (we liked the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, where you can have a tour in one of a dozen languages), which show what little artistic expression the Christians were allowed prior to the faith being tolerated in 313 AD.  Go to the cathedral in town, St. John Lateran, which still has its Early Christian plan and wonderful courtyard, although much of its architecture is altered.  Especially important here is the Baptistery; make that THE Baptistery, the earliest one ever.  EVER.  One church that retains more of its Early Christian qualities is Santa Maria in Cosmedin (where you can also have your Roman Holiday moment with the Bocca della Verità, if you must).  If you can manage the tram, a trip out to Santa Costanza, the mausoleum Constantine built for his daughter, is well worth it: it’s a round building with lots and lots of mosaics.  Lastly, if you are really serious about getting in touch with early church history, make like a fourth-century penitent and get around to all seven of the official pilgrimage churches.  The challenge of doing this today with subways, busses, and Aerosoles will really make you appreciate those dedicated pilgrims of earlier centuries and feel guilty about how much you’ve pathetically complained about your sore feet and stiff hotel pillow.  Try sleeping with pigs and going barefoot, pilgrim!

Capitoline Museum


V. Happy Museums

Rome is a great art city but the big museums can really be a trial (MoT firmly believes that museum-going is not a contact sport).  Rome has several great museums, chock-full of work that would be treasured by any other city that wasn’t lousy with Michelangelo and Raphael, thus not overrun by tourists.  Here are our favorites: The National Etruscan Museum/Villa Giulia is full of really old art and housed and in a unique Renaissance villa that is a series of pavilions, kiosks, gardens and water elements extended along a long axis.  It’s good for ancient art and also breathing air under the super-blue Roman sky and seeing healthy plants, which are not to be had in abundance in Rome (this is kind of the point of building a villa).  The Galleria Borghese is busy, but manageable due to their carefully timed entries; it comes with the benefit of being surrounded by a huge public garden.  The Capitoline Museums are full of wonderful antiquities (inducing Constantine’s 8-foot-high head) and largely overlooked by tourists rushing on to the Forum.  We love, love, love The Villa Farnesina, a small palazzo structure slathered with glorious frescoes by Raphael and his friends.  Plan to spend quality time with Galatea; she will cure you of your jostled-traveler blues.  A few hours in any one of these less-frequented museums can renew your spirit and energy to face down the hoards elsewhere in the city.  If only the Romans had access to these institutions when Odoacer was bearing down on the city, who knows how things might have gone differently for the Goths?

. . . and it ends here.

dogs of the world

Diligence, doggified: the resident hound at Munstead Wood, Surrey

The identification of dogs as “man’s best friend” is not just a homespun adage.  It’s fact, argued before the Missouri Supreme Court and acknowledged by all the best blogs in the universe.  But like the Missouri case in which the phrase was apparently coined, this notion could be construed as being peculiarly American and of recent date.  Ce n’est pas alors, mon ami! The special connection between dogs and people goes way back to humankind’s earliest days (National Geographic says so).  Indeed, it may have been the presence of the dog that assisted the nurturing of early man’s generosity, kindliness and faithfulness that now are some of the most admirable traits among humankind.

The Wonders of the Ancient World, built just for Signore Whiskers' nap. Largo di Torre Argentina, Rome

貓 at the 夏天的宮殿, outside of 北京

It sure wasn’t the other animal welcomed into a primitive hut eons ago by some confused homo sapien (probably some subject under the ancient Egyptian Empire) (and you can see how well domesticating cats worked out for them).  Cats exist for their own satisfaction, at the expense of the comfort of others, the hygiene of kitchen counters, the cleanliness of the sofa, and the longevity of pashmina shawls.  Sure, they sit around looking somewhat pretty, but that’s it.  They sit around.  All around the world.  They camp out in ancient ruins and wear down the plantings in Beijing parks, turning Roman temples and Qing Dynasty palaces into giant, glorious litter boxes.  No less filthy and bothersome than pigeons, cats do not even have the decency of their feathered friends to allow themselves to be shooed away.  Once they’re planted, they are part of the scenery, and they are not moving for you, homo stupidus.  No way.  Not tasty.

translation: "whoopee, there are dogs here!"

On the other hand, dogs are globally revered for their contributions to society.  Dogs’ ability to make connections with others and always look out for the good of the group is a cornerstone of civilization and at the heart of taste. Americans know this but can find ample evidence of the supremacy of dogs as the quadruped world’s greatest expositors of taste by looking abroad. Many tasty nations have a great dog culture, and like their ability to brew coffee, design cars, and provide adequate child care for working parents, many of those far exceed America’s example.

In contrast to their feline fellows, Roman dogs do not loll about the antiquities like so many tiny, furry self-entitled Neros deserving of the choicest pleasures and luxuries of a long-lost empire.  (Those Roman kitties don’t purr so much as whine, “Slave, peel me a mouse.”)  Roman dogs are an active part of the city’s culture, be it window shopping on the Via Condotti, sipping cappuccino at cafés or strolling through piazzas searching out the best gelato–so they can share it with their people.  Deeply invested in the city’s heritage, they enjoy dedicated off-leash parks strewn along the length of aqueducts.  Whereas cats see such a structure as a thermal mass provided for their own sleepy-time comfort, the dogs of Rome understand they are part of but one generation to enjoy the Eternal City, and enjoy it they do–as long as their two-legged friends come along to play, also.

Claudian Aqueduct (ca. 50 AD) and parco di cani

translation: "whoopee, there are dogs here!"

Not only in Italia do i cani di gusto reside.  To the north, Viennese citizens waltz their dogs through the streets of their capital with Straussian grace.  Lest anyone forget, polite reminders are placed here and there to keep order in this most well-ordered of societies.  Yes, please keep your dog on a leash, but he’s welcome to stroll through über-chic galleries with you.  Perhaps if American dogs had such elegant environments at their disposal (as compared with, say, dryvit-clad big-box retailers like Petsmart), they would also form string quartets like these debonaire doggies of the Danube.  Or at least be less likely to pee on the floor.

Jawohl, dogs shop here! The Freyung Passage, Vienna

¡El mercado! ¿Un Triperia? ¡Olé, Barcelona!

Merrier with the terrier: tapas bar in Granada

Perhaps the greatest dog culture in Europe exists in Spain, where dogs are the pimentón in the paella of public life.  They’re ubiquitous yet so subtle you might not notice them until they are missing.  They are well-mannered, patient, and as seen in the near left image, always dress to match their señora’s espadrilles.

Spanish dogs’ ability to ignore the indulgence of personal gratification is stunningly impressive.  Just look at the little perro to the far left, on the threshold of a huge food market, with no leash.  Just hanging out, waiting for his señora to return, maybe with a nice Jamón serrano biscuit (hueso de leche in the local tongue).  But until she does return, he will . . . not . . . move.

Everywhere else, dogs are just walking around with people–on the streets, outside of churches, in the piazzas, wandering through the Alhambra for crying out loud–completely unphased by the abundant food that is constantly spilling out of markets and restaurants.  How many American dogs can manage to stay put in a kitchen when dinner’s being prepared, let alone just chill in the midst of a huge market gorged with open-air restaurants whose counters are laden with bite-sized (two bites for people, one bite for poochie) tapas?

Man’s best friend?  Yes, but also: man’s tastiest friend.

Señor Perrito toma una siesta en La Boqueria en Barcelona y sueños de una tortilla.

whooza tasty boy? you are! you are!

Treo and his handler (BBC World Service; see link below)

The Matters addressed by this blog embrace the general idea that taste is one aspect of engagement in a social contract.  Before this post, the idea of “contract” has been limited to humankind.  Although they may not possess the aesthetic judgment required to claim that they have taste (although, as the best blogs will tell you, they can indeed be in good taste), it has to be said: animals may or may not exhibit the traits which are inherent in a tasteful behavior.  One may argue this is exhibited by those animals that have been awarded the Dickin Medal.  Instituted in 1943 by a UK veterinary charity to honor gallantry and devotion to duty in military or civil emergency service, the Dickin Medal has been awarded dozens of times starting in World War II and most recently to a black Lab who served in the 104 Military Working Dog Support Unit in Afghanistan.  Eight-year-old Treo received his medal in a February 24, 2010 ceremony at the Imperial War Museum in London for twice locating bombs in the Helmand province.  Well done, Treo!

No doubt that dog-people met this news with emotions spanning a spectrum from nodding, satisfied acknowledgement to giddy, hand-clapping glee.  Not so much from other sectors, among which are those who believe a dog has no business being awarded anything.  Even the now-retired Treo’s handler, Sgt. David Heyhoe, told the BBC that Treo may not have “merited” an award in the way that a person does, while he acknowledges the important and useful role played by service dogs in military and rescue efforts.

However, the more interesting, and telling, response to Treo’s medal came from anther source in the same BBC interview.  Clinical psychologist, author and general media maven Oliver James denounced the entire proceedings as a “fairly blatant publicity stunt” staged by the Ministry of Defense to deflect attention from the unpopular war effort by giving it an undeniably adorable and furry face.  He went on to say that Treo was probably more interested in a steak than a medal.

Although it’s not difficult to persuade the Matters of Taste editorial staff that the military would engage in bamboozlement, Mr. James himself is running a bit o’ bunco here as well.  His suggestion that Treo’s alleged preference for a slice of beef rather than a chunk of bronze would be a no-brainer for an animal “who has no higher mental capacities” (per Mr. James) is not the point.  As a particularly well-trained and highly-disciplined member of the dog world, Treo would wait for the cue from his person as to which is the right choice if there was one, which there was not, which makes the comparison irrelevant.  What is relevant is  Treo’s gung-ho participation in the medal ceremony (no different than his enthusiasm for sniffing out those Taliban bombs), pleased as a pooch could be to be with his person. And here is where dogs exhibit such tasteful behavior: the dog recognizes that he is not in the world for his own pleasure, but he is here to interact with others and to do what he can to make their lives a little happier.  If Treo was a person, he would be the neighbor who shovels your walk as well as his own after the snowfall.  Treo is the guy who lets you cut in front of him in line at the grocery store when you only have a gallon of milk and he has a whole cartload of stuff.  Treo is the colleague who brings donuts to the meeting—and lets someone else have the last raspberry-filled one.

The reason for Mr. James’ misunderstanding of the dog is given away completely in the latter part of the BBC interview, in which, after dashing the doggie, he unsuccessfully attempts to contextualize himself as an animal-loving Everyman who understands wee creatures.  He explained that, in general, “humans are tremendously drawn toward small furry mammals;” furthermore, in his own family “we feel passionately about our cat, and our two rabbits.”


Wait, stop.  Penalty on the field!  Blow the whistle, throw the yellow flag, hoist up the red card.

There is no reasonable comparison being drawn here.  Ignoring the rabbits (which are just barely more sentient than the lettuce they chomp), cats are highly cognizant creatures, but they exist in a different emotional universe than that which is inhabited by the dog.  Only a rare kitty, like Simon (at left) exhibits the kind of behaviors under discussion here.  Simon  was noted for raising morale while killing off a rat infestation during the Yangtze Incident in 1949, and was awarded the Dickin Medal.  So, good for you, Simon—but still, gorging on rat buffet is not quite the same thing as sniffing out bombs and saving soldiers’ lives.  And it is worth noting that Simon is the one cat to received this honor in the Dickin Medal’s sixty-seven years.  That’s one.

Princess Gingerpuss

A more common representative of cat-world is Princess Gingerpuss shown here, who is nothing like a dog; her whole life is all about herself, which is inherently tasteless behavior.  Ginger is the neighbor who uses a 400 hp leaf-blower (at 7 AM on a Saturday) to scatter refuse from her lawn to yours.  Ginger is the woman who will yak on her cell phone all the way through the grocery line without stopping to do more than snap the receipt out of the clerk’s hand.  Ginger comes to the staff meeting with a tuna-and-camembert sandwich with a side of extra-garlic potato salad.  Mr. James may have degrees from Eton and Cambridge, but his “passionate” devotion to a cat calls deeply into question his credentials in understanding the psyche—human or otherwise.

The regularity with which the Dickin Medal has been awarded to dogs confirms what logic, history and experience reveal: dogs are the best.  (Even the very best blogs say so.)  But to be fair, it is worth a note that, although dogs have been the only animal honored by the Dickin Medal in recent history (since 2000 the award has been given out eight times: always to dogs), and although they were a favorite in its earlier history as well, it is a different animal that was celebrated as the most “gallant” animal during the War.  Almost sixty percent of the awards prior to 1949 went to one kind of creature (many of them with excellent names like Winkie, Commando, Paddy, William of Orange, GI Joe, Flying Dutchman and Duke of Normandy): homing pigeons.

This may make us take pause, but does not persuade us to give up the paws.  Huzzah, Treo!

Treo in Afghanistan (picture:, 06 February 2010)

For the BBC interview with Sgt. Heyhoe and Mr. James, click here for the BBC World Service article