Mum’s story… Bella’s tail.

My mum, Debbie and her dog, Bella.

On the Greek island of Rhodes, we had discovered our place in the sun; a beautiful place made extra special by its obvious community spirit and a real sense of having gone back in time. After several holidays there and several more visits whilst our daughter worked there for a Greek family who treated her as if part of theirs. We watched every possible episode of ‘A place in the sun’ and anything that resembled it with eager interest; those that failed, the pitfalls and the success stories and we made the decision to go for it, to do our best to realise our dream.

            With the help of Greek locals, we managed to find a very desirable property, the deciding factor being that it was a stone’s throw from the sea. Not the first we had viewed but we knew instantly from the view all around the house that this was the one. We went about all of the steps in the process to purchase and secure the property; initially, it was merely a shell, no doors, windows or floors but through the help of our friendly locals we had the good fortune to find that not even in Greece were all builders in fact from hell and in a surprisingly short period we fulfilled our dream; we were now the proud owners of our very own ‘place in the sun.’

            In our second summer we completed and complimented the outside area with a pool including its own bar and landscaped garden; credit cards, loans and mortgage back home all maxed out! But we had done it! Ours was a story of success, the envy of our friends (who were to holiday there with us) we were living our dream, living the life, for the best part of it in our new-found paradise.

            For the summer of 2003, the whole of the summer holidays was spent in Rhodes. My son, nephew and I were visited throughout by other friends and family; it was an idyllic time, not spoilt by pollution, the sea as clear as it was blue and the nights just as clear. The stars shone just as brightly in the night as the sun in the day. Mountain walks, snorkelling, boat trips and such activities filled our days.

            Unfamiliar species of insects and animals appeared daily and keen to drum up as much interest from my boys as possible I named this ‘Critter of the day’, my interest and enthusiasm far greater than the kids! Most of the critters that inhabited this far warmer climate were new and very unusual to us from the beginning. Animals had taken up residence in our home since it was an empty shell, sheep and goats had taken shelter; on one visit, the sight of us had sent them fleeing in all directions. So keen one particular sheep had been to flee, that he ran upstairs and leapt out from the first -floor balcony!

            Lizards of all varieties invaded our home and garden, a salmon coloured species, almost transparent in appearance was often spotted either in the shed or inside the house. I remember telling a friend back home how handy it was that they were colour coordinated with the house, to which she replied, ‘what blue and white?!’

            Cockroaches: common to Greece, luckily were rare at the house. A choir of crickets would sing to us at night and I learned that the volume would increase depending on temperature as they would cool themselves by clicking their wings. Whilst cool one night I caught one under a glass as my ‘critter of the day’ to show the boys, I had never seen one so big and the boys were suitably impressed.

Centipedes and Dragonflies had been rescued from the pool on many occasions. Honey bees from the nearby mountains started to use our pool as a water supply, we were advised by a beekeeping association back home what best to do to rid ourselves and we became experts from learning so much of their habits in the process.

            I discovered a much more worrying surprise one morning as I came down to the kitchen and found something curled up in the corner. When it revealed itself, I was shocked to discover it was a scorpion! With no one with me to share this find, I sent a text home asking for advice; the reply read ‘Don’t piss it off!’  He was promptly taken by means of a long-handled dustpan at long arms-length to the end of the garden wall and given his first flying lesson with one swift flick! I was not aware that scorpions inhabited Greece and when I said this to a Greek friend he simply shrugged in a typically Greek manner and said, ‘you never asked!’ However, he did inform me that the scorpion would almost definitely return and although it would not inflict deadly poison, you would need a visit to the local hospital. From then onwards, shoes would be hung at a safe height to avoid unwelcome surprises!

            The more time spent, and trips made, the more we became accepted and treated like locals and I made the decision to learn the language. I began with basic Greek and beginner’s courses; I bought endless cassettes, dictionaries and attended evening classes and slowly became more confident. My kitchen cupboards became plastered with post-it notes with new words and phrases that I was keen to master, and on each trip, I looked forward to putting into practice what was no longer ‘all Greek to me’. I was now able to converse with the locals, the constant praise and encouragement was my incentive; it was still fairly unusual for an English woman to speak Greek and they were often amazed but no more than me at how I was picking up the language! I enjoyed every chance to speak and learn more.

            The Greek word for goat is Katsiki and it can also be used to insult someone, as there are none more devious and often destructive in their pursuit of food. Although, if I were a goat, with the typical dry, prickly diet available on a mountain, I too would go to great lengths to find something more appetizing! We have witnessed some amazing feats at their somewhat resourceful methods to find food; one example I remember seeing in the nearby historical town of Lindos, where two young goats had climbed onto the bonnet of a Mercedes Benz, with plants hanging above it; the handy step up enabled them a welcome feast!

            For this reason, like the shoe hanging, as our garden grew, we had to become more vigilant of closing our gates after many times it had been left open and seen as an invite to goats to wander in and explore.

            Whilst at our second home; more so now than a holiday home, our daughter, still working at a local bar, would usually sleep until lunchtime. We returned home one day, around this time, to awaken our sleeping beauty and were greeted by the sight of an evil-eyed, very indignant looking goat, very bravely standing his ground, or rather in fact, standing on our al Fresco dining table, by our front door and also blocking our way in! As we shooed and booed him in every attempt to make him exit, it was rather comical how every one of his stares sent us running in the opposite direction in fear of his lethal-looking horns. He seemed to be quite brave (more so than us) and fully aware that this mountain had been his home long before it had been ours! After running to and much faster fro, he butted the window a few times as a final protest and exited.

            Somewhere out there was an animal of friendlier temperament, desperately searching and seeking much-needed refuge. An endlessly tiresome, relentless long search was nearing an end, however not to our knowledge; our story was about to take a twist in its tail!

            On the surrounding land to our property, there is a great deal of unguarded building material waiting to be cleared. On this particular visit, my husband busied himself by clearing it and over the wall, a short distance away was preparing to burn a fire. The sun had just dipped behind the mountain; a typical warm night, even for us this had become fairly typical. The boys were upstairs on their game consoles after their teatime swim, I was busy tidying their dirty towels and pool toys and just as I was about to hang out the washing, my husband called for my attention.

            Bounding around him with excitement and with an obvious friendly manner, was a black and white dog, floppy ears, wagging tail and looking relieved to have found a friendly human. I called back that I would summon the boys down and surprise them with the sight of the oversized four-legged ‘critter of the day.’

            Over the years we have had a handful of dogs as pets but not for several years, so my son ‘Fin’ had little memory of this and he had requested many times with heartfelt plea’s that we may ‘get another’. Not for a second did I see this as anything more than somebody’s dog that had got loose and wandered too far but I did know that it would receive more than the normal level of enthusiasm the boys usually mustered for our ‘critter of the day.’

            Her emancipated state of neglect was obvious and although very tatty and worn, she sported a green collar, which led us to believe that she had been lost for a long time and possibly was further away from home than we had anticipated. Her breed (part Pointer, part Greyhound) were normally used by the Greeks as hunting dogs so we assumed that she may have hunted too far afield and had been unable to find her way home. As soon as we were able, we agreed to make enquiries to find her rightful owner. But for now, on this particular night; both boys were self- appointed doggy sitters and were more than happy to be responsible for this very friendly, very affectionate canine.

            We were adamant with the boys that the dogs’ owner would be found, and she would be returned and that their role could only be temporary. She was fed and watered but seemed more dog exhausted than dog tired; she was more than happy to rest and sleep.

            As we left the house, the boys and the sleeping dog, little did we know that this was the beginning to a barking mad adventure! The dog paws well underway to being under our table and just as quickly finding their way into our hearts.

            We returned that night and it became very clear that even in those few hours, the boys had become attached. Both my husband and I were still convinced that someone somewhere was missing this dog. My husband made the decision to set her outside; now rested we were more confident that she would be able to find her way home.

            Her desire to do so however, was most unapparent and the sight of her not even willing to stand let alone walk was quite pitiful. So, she had to be pushed and slid all the way down the drive by way of a broomstick and forcibly ejected! As sad as this sight was, we were positive that we had done all we could to ensure the pooch found its way home to its rightful owner.

            My husband was affectionately known within our family as ‘the gadget man’ due to an abundance of electronic gadgets, most of which he rarely mastered and ended up redundant in the bottom of a cupboard. On this trip he had acquired his latest toy; a powerful night sight and he had brought it along as he was keen to make use of it to view the many hares we had caught glimpses of as we drove back to the house in the dark.

            His guilt at having evicted the unfortunate forlorn animal was evident and for several hours he returned in and out of our bedroom balcony to check if she had gone on her way. Time after time he crept back in to update me on the situation; she was still waiting by the gate outside. Just as we were starting to think that there she would stay (by this time it was early hours in the morning) my husband returned with great relief to inform me that she had now gone.

            The next day (as I recall it was sometime in July or August and hence the temperatures were soaring) I was carrying out my daily chore of watering the plants in the front garden, as I glanced over toward the wall, the saddest sight caught my eye; a wet nose resting (just the right height to do so) on the wall and a pair of very sorry for themselves eyes, staring longingly toward me. Oh dear, she most definitely had not gone! Not only had she not gone but she had waited patiently outside all night and into the day in this blistering heat (more so with a fur coat!) waiting for one of us to notice her!

            I didn’t hesitate or even think to consider as I opened the gate and beckoned her inside, amazingly however she did pause for a second and needed once more to be called in. But the second time she darted towards the gate with such speed she almost took off!

            My most loyal friend had arrived; if I were in any doubt at all, she most certainly was not. She looked at home, she felt safe as I think she realized that her long search was over, she had reached the end of her journey, ours only just beginning, even if we didn’t yet know. But if I had known the length of the journey and all that was to come when I opened that gate, would I do the same again? In a heartbeat! Yet again I did not know all that this animal was to give to me.

            The Greeks have a very different approach to animals; very few domesticate them or understand our pet culture. In truth, they are not generally brutal or cruel, it’s just that their animals serve a purpose or earn a living. The most commonly seen breed of dog were those like this one. A form of hunting dog, sometime later a vet would confirm that she was mixed race- part Pointer, part Greyhound.

            The summer months in Rhodes are hectic and very busy; planes full of tourists bringing in the main source of income to the island. In complete contrast, winter is a time to be just Greek for a few months, a time for themselves; time to spend with their families and friends and to enjoy their hobbies and pastimes. One of the hobbies that are popular among the Greeks is hunting and more than one of our friends asked if they could come and look at the dog, as if she were local, they would know who she belonged to. After being viewed and admired by many she remained unrecognized and unclaimed.

            The dog had quickly settled in and we eventually decided to keep her and so established ownership. The house was seemingly remote at times, more so when my husband wasn’t there and so this gave another reason to keep her. Many of our Greek friends agreed that it would be a good idea for it to be known that we kept a dog there, though I don’t think we had thought that far into the future to a time where we wouldn’t be. For the time being, we enjoyed her company from day to day and grew fonder of her with each passing one. She flourished and in a short space of time had overcome many of the physical signs of neglect. The emotional ones that would stay with her ran much deeper but only served to make her more affectionate and loyal to us. She was indeed a real beauty by nature and so we named her to reflect this. Bella. The newest member of the family was here to stay.

            The summer holidays flew by and soon it would be time for us to do the same; my husband looked for return flights and in doing so found there was somewhat of a shortage; the boys were hardly mortified to learn that they would have an extra week in the sun!

            I had heard a couple of years before about the pet passport scheme and the nearer the time came to leave, the more I began to dread leaving Bella behind. I called my husband and sounded him out; he agreed and said I should find out more about the process. He showed nothing but compassion, understanding and patience, he never complained of cost to us in any way but supported and helped in every step toward bringing Bella home. We waited until we knew for sure that this was possible before letting our son know our intentions; he also was ecstatic at the thought of flying Bella home with us.

            It was clear from the beginning that Bella had not been an indoor dog; at first, she barely dared to put her paw over the threshold. The first time my husband left me at the house with her, we agreed that I would feel safer with her inside. However, quite comically, this dog who was supposed to make me feel protected simply slid around on the marble floor and looked more like a scene from Bambi than a guard dog! In the end, I had to carry her up to my bedroom on the top floor; it seems the roles had been reversed! I had made a very comfortable bed on the floor for her, by my side and as she caught a glimpse of the reflection in the window, it became clear that this was not a sight she was used to as she growled and barked at the image, not realizing she was barking at herself.

            Though not at a devastating scale, the occasional earthquake has been known to occur in Rhodes, however, I must have looked very foolish; waking, startled thinking this was the reason for the bed shaking when in fact it was Bella climbing up onto it! I enforced my authority and insisted she went back onto the floor but by the time I woke the next morning she was firmly snuggled next to me back on the bed and to this day it is her favourite place.

            I had limited time left before my return to England and so I enquired and researched all that would be necessary to acquire Bella’s passport and get her back home; the limited time being a pressuring factor. I discovered that although she would not have to be quarantined, we would still have to wait six months after her jabs to be given the all-clear for any diseases. The vet explained that Greece wasn’t quite the rabies-free country unlike England but there hadn’t been any reported cases for over fifty years, and she promised to be as helpful as she could; she too had been very taken with Bella.

            The first step was to insert an electronic chip making it possible to identify her; on this day she now officially belonged to us. This was to be the first of many vet visits for Bella and the vet carried out a thorough examination. It was discovered that her paws had been so badly split that they would most definitely scar; the vet hinted that she should be allowed to lay on the sofa with us; little did she know that Bella had made her bed and was most definitely lying comfortably on it! The vet also commented that she had almost no whites in her eyes; instead, they were completely bloodshot, which in the vets’ observation must only, unfortunately, have been caused by a fist! Her hip, at some point, most probably at a young age, had been smashed. The vet assured us that these scars, along with her then very frail state would heal. Finally, as we told her of how she had come to find us, she smiled sadly saying that she had often heard of how hunting dogs that were no longer wanted or performing well enough were left tied to a tree for a slow death. The vet estimated that Bella was a mere year to a year and a half old. She said she couldn’t be certain of all that had happened in her short life, but she was certain that she would now have a far better one.

            In the next couple of weeks my brother and his family joined me for a holiday; Bella now true to her form worked her magic and before long they had fallen in love with her too. I was pretty sure that she had never swum before, however one afternoon, I had drifted out to sea quite a distance on my lilo, and to my surprise I felt a tap on the shoulder, only to turn over and see that Bella had swum out to see if I was okay! My brother managed to film her clumsy maiden swim and she even climbed (very unsteadily) onto the lilo with me! This was all much to the delight of the German tourists on the beach who applauded her triumph from the shore! Bella and I had now evidently become inseparable and I was dreading the day of my departure even more.

            The situation was now becoming quite desperate and it was looking like we would have to in fact, leave Bella behind; the best we could arrange for now would be daily visits to feed and walk her by an English couple we had befriended a couple of years before. My husband and I set about making the pool area a run for her and we turned our shed into a luxury kennel by removing some of the bricks. Short of hanging chandeliers, I tried to make it as comfortable as I could for her and although I still hated the thought of leaving her, I don’t think there was anything more I could have done. I was assured by everyone that whatever she may have suffered; her life was most certainly better now, despite being left alone.  This did little to ease my guilt and I still felt as though I was deserting her. Any time we ever left the house she would wait by the gates for us to come back; I dreaded the day we would be leaving for the airport and wondered if she would wait all that time in the same spot for our return?

            Back home in England, I stayed in constant contact with Bella’s sitters; it was only 4 days in before the first drama; Bella’s great escape, or as I believe, her mission to search for me, unable to wait by the gates any longer. In hindsight maybe it would have been more fitting for us to have named her lucky; as in the next few months, there were many occasions where our kind-hearted neighbours would return her.

A very close friend of mine; Gert, a Belgian woman, volunteered to look after Bella in the winter months at her house; Gert had her own ‘Bella’, a golden Labrador, along with three cats. I visited regularly and each time I returned Bella would greet me with bags of enthusiasm. I started to get excited at the thought of bringing her home for good.

The six months were nearing an end, it was approaching October and most of the arrangements were in place; including Bella’s flight, which was rather expensive at £500 one way with not even an inflight meal I might add! My birthday was also coming up and I had been making big hints to my daughter that I would like a new bracelet; knowing that she would in, turn, let my husband know what to get me. However, I was understandably intrigued when my husband arrived with a box that could hold a small television! This great birthday surprise turned out to be a Sea Pod; a brilliant aid for snorkelling, which was a pastime that I loved. Fully charged it would enable me to explore for about an hour; it was a James Bond type of gadget, with a motor and handles that would pull you along at a leisurely pace.  My daughter found it highly amusing that this present was far from the bracelet that I had been hinting for. She was even more amused when I told her I would have to find a deserted beach to try out my new gadget so as not to embarrass myself and end up looking like a complete plonker going round in circles!

Once again, Bella showed her determination to get to me; my husband (not a small or weak man by any stretch of the imagination) tried and failed to hold her back at the shore. She swam all the way out to me, tapping me on the shoulder; I almost drowned with hysterics in the deep water! As I calmed myself down, she swam around me kind of like an elegant horse and back toward the shore; happily assuring herself that I was okay and more importantly that I wasn’t swimming to Turkey without her!

We had Bella measured to comply with rules and regulations so that we could get a box to fit her requirements. It was equipped with wheels and water bottle and her comforts and we were ready for her first flight! A part of the process which most definitely was not in the rules and regulations was sedating Bella; however, the vet had previously advised (even though I had pointed out that this was illegal) that it would be in her best interest as she had her well-being in mind. The vet had suggested that the trauma of being in the hold of the aircraft, with the noises and the unfamiliar surroundings could very easily cause Bella to have a heart attack. So, I left her office with the official papers, sedatives and precise instructions of what to do and when to administer them.

Luckily for me, I had another companion who was keen to help and to keep me upbeat and find humour in Bella’s trip. My daughters friend, Sophie, who had worked in the bar next door to her and who also in the past couple of years had become a good friend of mine was to accompany; Sophie and Bella had tickets for the same flight, mine would be following six hours behind.       

However, the first of many spanners were ready to upset the works; just a day before the big trip we were advised that a fault on our jeep was much more serious than we had first thought; the gearbox was, as the mechanic politely put it, ‘dead.’ Having been also advised that the tapeworm tablets the vet had given us were not on the European accepted list; we borrowed a Scottish friends’ car and sped to Rhodes town to get a signature from the vet. To this day I still don’t know if Barry the Scotsman was arrested for the unpaid speeding- fine we were issued with on the way!

Next, we needed to find a lift to the airport; I decided to call in a favour from a Greek friend, in return for all the presents he had received from England over the years! After convincing him that ‘No, Bella will not pee in your car George!’ and ‘No, Bella will not poop in your car either!’ he finally agreed. However, Sophie and I kept it between ourselves for the time being, how full his car would be! True to his word he arrived, on time; very unlike the Greeks and we were on our way.

Once at the airport, my heart sank as the many the items were unloaded from Georges’ car and I realised that I had left the door for the dog box back at the house! One of our very few strokes of luck was that Bella’s flight was delayed by an hour and I prayed that I had left the door in the garden as Sophie’s’ sister went to collect it and sped to meet us at the airport in a taxi.

I had given Bella two out of the three sedatives that the vet had prescribed and hey had certainly started to kick in! Several tourists that were disembarking coaches looked on, puzzled, probably unsure if I were dragging along a stuffed dog, as her legs slid out beneath her in an almost unconscious state!

Worryingly though, once inside the airport and in her box, every movement seemed to startle her, and she appeared to be fairly alert, so we agreed to give her the last of the three tablets. Imagine the hustle and bustle, the heat and all the organised chaos of this Greek airport, not to mention the heat as Sophie and I attempted to join one of these many queues, whilst dragging rather than wheeling Bella along. As we struggled to drag this weight along, a Greek cleaner shouting at us something that we couldn’t understand and many tourists who all seemed to be staring at us, we finally realised what they were staring at; we managed to fit the wheels to the front of the box instead of the back! By this point, we had managed to gouge a trail out of the airport floor! Now in fits of giggles (thank god for Sophie!) we knew we would have to turn the box upside down, this was a laugh or cry moment as we took Bella out (so out of it by this point she looked as high as she would soon be!) and tied her to a chair. I glanced toward the chair and in complete giggles could just about manage to get the words out to let Sophie know the dog had disappeared; even now I can’t imagine experiencing this fiasco without such a good-humoured companion! While we waited in fear for the sound of an irate Greek making an announcement over the tannoy that a dog was on the loose, thankfully we realised that Bella was so sedated she had in fact, slid out of her collar and under the chair!

Once finally at the front of our check-in queue, we were bizarrely informed by the security that Bella’s box (not the dog herself!) would have to go through the x-ray machine and that the one we would have to use was not nearby but in fact at the other end of the airport! By this point I was thinking that if they existed, the doggy gods were having a real laugh at our expense, testing our resilience. Taking in equal good humour and taking it in our stride, we did our best to convince the Greek security of Bella’s fatigue, luckily, he paid little concern.

Drugs had by Bella and several grateful hugs had by Sophie, I felt huge relief and achievement, as my taxi and I received a text from Sophie to say that she could see Bella coming up the luggage belt into the plane. With a great deal of help from friends and family, Bella made her way home and she now shares our lives. Though this is Bella’s story it is as much mine.

In the days of our return I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma; my feet had barely touched the ground. As I sat waiting in the surgery for an operation to remove the tumour from my leg, I spotted a sign saying: Dogs and their owners needed. Dogs to give love and hugs, owners to receive tea and biscuits. It is now known that benefits this gives far outweighs any negatives of inviting an animal into a sterile environment.

To date, both Bella and I have proved to be survivors! Safe and well, we now have a new home on a new island, almost as close to the sea. She has grown in many ways. Along with her confidence. Now five years on she is secure enough to allow me to go as far as the next room!  

            Many times, I wonder; was it simply by chance that she stopped by that day, refusing to go on her way or did fate lend a hand?

            Did I in fact, rescue Bella or was it her who rescued me? This dog turned out to be truly a woman’s best friend and as it happens a dog’s life, in this case, isn’t too bad after all!


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