International Fraidy Cats: How to make Amigos with your Host Family’s Pets

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Josephina Martinez, at 24-cat years-old, the oldest cat I’ve ever known.

At three-o’clock in the morning a small child scratched out a cry, almost piercing the silence. I had just fallen past the twilight phase of sleeping and entered the blissful rest that my term paper had been robbing from me for the past four hours.  One eyelid peeled apart from the other as I waited, as for a second round of dog barking. Sure enough, another strained whimper rose slowly from my right. After the third sounding, both eyes shot to attention as I realized that the small child I had been hearing was no child at all. It was Josephina.

Josephina was a twenty-four year old cat that had spent the same number of years living in my host mother’s house.

That’s 24 in cat years, people. This cat was ancient!

She’d been plagued by blindness, missing teeth and loose stool. Apparently some other ailment had awoken her in the night. Her moans had climbed the three-quarter-length wall that separated my host mother’s room from mine and blazed my sleeping ears.

“Oye, gato, cállate” or “Hey cat, shut up!” I yelled. This had become a habit of hers I was too tired and too annoyed to oblige.

Silence was the response.

Assured the drill was over, I slipped into sleep until my furry alarm clock awoke me for class at eight a.m.

After four months in Santiago, I had learned that cats are not my most favorite form of pets, especially old cats. However, the communication skills and companionship I gained from spending four months with Josephina applies to many different areas of life.

Here are a few tips for dealing with adored and abhorred international pets.

1. Be Open: Just because you haven’t had pets before (my mother near-strictly enforces a zero pet tolerance policy in our household) doesn’t mean you won’t like or cannot enjoy other people’s pets. As long as you don’t have allergies or legitimate fears of animals, swallow your pride and show ‘em some love! (note: If you do have allergies or animal phobias DO NOT neglect to mention them to your program coordinator.)

2. Be Honest: Communication is key with host families. Always tell the truth in respect, but tell them the truth! For example, I was uncomfortable with Josephina’s cat food being left in the shared bathroom of our apartment, but my host mother hadn’t thought of it as any problem before. I simply asked her if I could move Josephina’s food and water outside near her litter box. Though the water stayed in the bathroom, my host mom compromised and moved the food outside. Everything is a matter of give and take. Show effort by offering to change the animal’s food or take him or her out for a walk. If you show effort, your host family will usually reciprocate.

3. Be Realistic: The bottom line is that you want to enjoy your time abroad. Decide for yourself if the situation is really something worth being irritated, or can you learn to deal with it.

4. Be Positive: Though I was often unnerved by Josephina’s old meows, they were sometimes a source of comfort. I knew that if my host mother left from the house to visit a friend or if I were alone in the apartment that Josephina was there as another being to keep me company. It eased the loneliness and away-from-home jitters.

Apart from all those things, my host mother adored Josephina. According to her, Josephina was her most loyal companion. Those twenty-four years were possible because of their friendship, she thought. Knowing that Josephina was so valuable to my host mother helped me cope with minor annoyances that four months later, make some of the best stories.

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