I've never been a big fan of cats. I thought they were lazy and manipulative and deceitful. I have been surrounded by them all the time - spending the summers in the countryside meant there were cats around - in the attic, running from one neighbor to another, walking in our courtyard like they own the place. Although I've never been mean to a cat, I wasn't delighted to meet one. I remember seeing my grandma once feeding one-day old kittens and I didn't understand why she's taking care of someone else's pet. She already had chickens, cows, goats and pigs to feed and clean after, a cat with seven kittens was the last thing that she had time for, in her already busy schedule. "You know, Ioana, kittens learn by watching their mothers hunt, eat, groom, and so on, and then they will repeat the behavior themselves until they get it right. Here, try to feed them; you might like it." I ran away, saying I don't like cats and I don't want to play with these ugly things. The kittens couldn't stand, their eyes were closed, and their ears were folded, and I had better things to do. I was around five years old when that happened, and in the years to come, if I had to feed a cat, I would do it without enjoying it - most likely it was a task my grandparents ask me to do.
When I started school, we had a classroom outside the main building, in a house that shared an inner yard with five other houses. We had a walnut tree in the courtyard, so every autumn, as school began, we found treats on the ground - "but kids, remember: you will stain your hands if you pick up walnuts barehanded ." We didn't care about getting dirty; we were quite proud of our yellow hands and fingers. And in the same court, cats were playing around. For four years, I never touched with any of them, although their owners were nice old people, who always welcomed us with a smile. Walnuts - yes, cats - nope.
My feeling for cats - or one cat, in particular, didn't change even when I had to spend one-two hours in the same room with her. A neighbor of ours - tanti Lena - had a cat (all of a sudden) and she was ecstatic to have a companion. Her husband died a few years earlier, in one January afternoon and she was still mourning. "Lena" - short for "Elena" - was a woman in the Autumn of her life and lived on the second floor in our standardized apartment block. We lived one floor above her, and she was like a grandma to us. There were days when I got home earlier from school, and my parents were still working, so I spent time in her living room. I remember taking off my shoes and my jacket in the hallway and then taking my place at the table, in the opposite direction of the balcony. Near the window was a TV which was most of the time on, and on my left, was a couch were tanti Lena usually sat and crocheted and once in a while, talked to the "new pet." She had a British shorthair cat who was not terribly active and hated being carried, and I was pretty sure she disliked me. Which was fine, I wasn't the president of the cat fan club - I couldn't be bothered to learn her name, and I only pet her once or twice, to let the cat know I wasn't ignoring her, but her existence was pointless to me. I loved tanti Lena, and doing my homework while waiting for my mom to pick me up became part of a routine. There was only one incident that kept happening.
"Ioana behaved well; sometimes I even forget she's here. She's sitting at the table and doing her homework - but...but she ate toothpaste again." In my defense, I really - but really - liked the smell and the taste of the toothpaste, and there was a new commercial on TV for a new imported brand, called "Aquafresh." (Aquafresh in trei culori, protejeaza de trei ori - was the end of the add and it was very catchy!) I used to keep my mouth closed, hoping that my mom will not smell my fresh breath, but to no prevail. For two weeks tanti Lena had to hide her toothpaste and invent all these horror stories about kids and toothpaste. "You will grow frogs in your stomach" - was her last attempt. Having frogs in my stomach was better than having a cat as a pet, I thought.
When I moved to Berlin - for some unknown reason - I mentioned very early in a conversation that I am a dog person. It didn't matter if I was on a date, or at a party, or outside in a park. It was on my top 5 list of things one should know about me. I made a friend during a picnic, and I had a ten minutes speech about how dogs are more lovable than cats and that I would never consider getting a cat. He listened to my unsuccessful attempt to convince the entire planet that dogs are fantastic and ended our conversation with "So you don't want to live in the same apartment with a cat? That's a shame; I have two. I rescued them from the animal shelter, and they are very playful." We are still friends, and I visited him a couple of times, but I wasn't very friendly with the cats. "You sit there, I am here - let's try not to interrupt each other's life, huh?" was my introduction sentence in Romanian, while my friend thought I am establishing a connection with his adored pets. They are indeed playful and easy to get along with, but once again, I couldn't be bothered to make an effort. Who let the cats out, anyhow?
Last summer I read a book by Jordan Peterson called "12 rules for life" and he has a chapter in which he advises people to "pet a cat once in a while." He also talks about dogs, but I was disappointed. Yes, I was surprised that he would recommend such foolishness. "Play with a cat." Nonsense. I read the chapter until the end, and I kept that thought in my mind, but it was an absurdity. Things changed after eight months, though.
A friend of mine was out of town for a few days and asked me if I can take care of her cat - "it's a five minutes chore, in the evening. You can sleep at my place, and you'll see my cat is like a dog sometimes." It was hard to say no to her, firstly because she lives close to my place - and I had time to spare - and secondly...well, I wanted to try it out. Maybe I can bond with a cat. One Sunday evening, I went over to drink tea and to meet the cat. "It is a cute cat, and I will be able to feed her for a couple of times. Don't worry. We won't be best friends, but I will try to be extra nice", I assured my friend.
So I moved in. Me and a cat. Me and Sheeba. And this is something that I never thought I would say. And the unanticipated thing happened: I had fun cat sitting.
We played and cuddled on the couch, she licked my face, and I fed her and I didn't mind cleaning after her. Sheebs gave me an excuse to cut a date short - "sorry, I have to go home and play with the cat. Most likely I will become the crazy cat lady in a few years, yes." There was no point in prolonging an evening that was undoubtedly becoming boring. I showed him the one million selfies I had taken in the last two days, and after he agreed that Sheebs' eyes compliment mine, I rushed home.
I still am a dog person, but something changed. Maybe playing with Sheebs reminded me of the time spent with tanti Lena, or the memories I made with my grandma. I liked going to bed and see the cat crawling at my feed. I loved the annoyed face she had when I hold her in a specific position so we could take pictures together. After my friend came back to Berlin, I asked her to send me a picture of the cat "because I kinda miss Sheeba."
Some researchers have discovered that there is not much difference between how a cat, a human, or another animal's brain utilizes specific cues to assist in the creation of short and long-term memories. Well, who would have known?