Kalo Taxidi - Greek Cats

Greek Cats

You can't get away from cats in Greece. They are everywhere. Leave the door of your room open, and you will probably have an uninvited feline visitor. Gangs of cats prowl around every taverna. They skulk around the harbour waiting for a fisherman to throw a fish or two their way. Many cats are sleek and look well nourished, sporting the latest in cat fashions around their necks. Photogenic cats grin at you from postcards and calendars. Yes, the Greeks have cottoned on to the money-spinning potential of cats.

It was not always thus. I first went to Greece in 1981. In those days I remember that apart from the few obvious pets, cats were skinny and malnourished. Their noses looked adenoidal. The toms and many of the females showed battle scars: flattened noses and cauliflower ears.

The Greeks have never been particularly good at rubbish disposal. Today rubbish in the islands is collected and dumped on a tip at the edge of town. Invariably the wind gets up and blows the rubbish about. Fifteen years ago the collection system was even less refined. Black bin-liners of rubbish were on most streets. It does not take long for a cat to claw its way into a rubbish bag. Many of these bags were split open. Cats ravaged the contents. [2010 update - I wrote this a few years ago. More recently I have seen modern refuse disposal vehicles in even small islands. But being cynical, the rubbish is now dumped at a central island dumping point, not near each village.]

Even in 1981 some Greeks loved their cats. On my first trip to Amorgos a young Greek lady was taking her cat to the island in a cat basket. She was on the boat the next time I did the trip - with her cat. More and more Greeks are taking care of their cats. On one island I was sitting at the taverna eating my fish supper. Winter had not fully gone and the taverna had not gone into outdoor mode. The insides are not exactly cat free zones, but there are fewer cats inside. A Greek man, one of the regulars, came up to me with a piece of newspaper and said "Miaouw." His English was as fluent as my Greek. I soon cottoned on to the fact that he wanted my fish bones and heads for his cats. I willingly donated them

Sit at an outside table in a taverna, and soon there would be a paw, claws outstretched, scratching at your leg. These cats did not take 'no' for an answer. Some taverna owners tried (and still do) to keep cats out of doors. At one taverna the owner was notorious for not liking cats. Every so often she stamped her broom loudly on the floor. Every cat in the building fled. Even customers eating out of doors have been told off for feeding cats, although I have not seen her threaten a customer with a broom - yet. In Greece, the customer is not always right. The owner bustled out of the taverna door preceded by a flock of fleeing cats. The mere sight of her broom was enough to make the cats realise that they were being swept out.

One year an outdoor taverna even had a cat waitress! I was given an empty plate to put my fish bones on and several times during my meal the waitress emptied it under a nearby tree. The cats knew this routine and were stalking in wait. Greek food is usually good, if you chose the right places to eat. One night the swordfish kebab tasted distinctly off. I threw it outside to the cats. The cats did not touch it. Sensible cats.

Sitting outdoors at breakfast one day recently I felt a thump on my knee. Completely uninvited a ginger cat had landed on my knee. Once arrived, I made her welcome - but never recalled having seen the cat before! One year a café owner had a small white kitten, a delicious bundle of fluff with brilliant blue eyes. The bundle of white fur was passed on from customer to customer as they left so that the kitten always had a lap to sit on. Spoilt rotten that kitten was.

Whenever I see a cat I stroke it. Some cats just run away. On one occasion I knelt down to pat a cat, which promptly put its paws around my neck and almost pulled me over. A very enthusiastic cat, that one. He must have had a good home. On the small island of Schinoussa my landlady had a cat with a beautiful, gentle-natured temperament. The thuggish looking, battered old tom was her pride and joy. He was a really delightful cat and never scratched me once all the time we played together on the terrace.

Admittedly there are still some stray cats in Greece, but far less than there were a few years ago. Many Greeks have realised that cats are not a nuisance but a tourist attraction.