Traveling Toula, the Fast-Footed Feline of Lesvos

by Mary Papoutsy

On a recent trip to Lesvos, we became acquainted with a charming kitten whose wanderlust and curiosity seemed insatiable. Her antics had won not only our admiration, but that of an entire village. Within a few short minutes, she had commandeered the attention of locals at Antissa, in the northwestern sector of the island, and had proceeded to confound the best mechanical minds among them. Even the police had jumped into the fray.

We were driving up into the breezy mountains beyond Kalloni to conduct some business in Antissa. It was a fine, sunny day, the perfect weather for a drive up out of the valley. The sun warmed our faces as we drove along the sinuous roads, taking in the breathtaking scenery. Flocks of sheep dotted the distant landscapes, sprinkling the dry hills with flecks of white and black, in contrast to the silvery-green olive trees lining the ancient terraces. Clear, cool air blew through our open car windows, bringing with it only the occasional sounds of chirping insects and the tinkling bells of nearby livestock.

The idyllic setting was interrupted only a few times when our car passed quickly through the small villages of Dafia, Filia, and Skalohori. Customary noises of human activity reached our ears in these settlements: scooters and motorcycles, people talking to one another, vehicle engines starting, and so on. Once in a while we would hear a dog barking or a cat mewing. Occasionally we would hear the plaintive cry of a mourning dove. But once past the settlements, these sounds would die away quickly, bringing us the restive calm of the countryside again.

Now and again I could hear the sound of a critter which I attributed to some species of bird. "Ee-ah, ee-ah," it seemed to call out. Just as the mourning dove here had a call quite different from its American counterpart, I thought that this call, too, must have another common avian owner.

But as we neared Antissa, we noted that the sound began to occur with increasing frequency and that there were no trees nearby when it occurred. Concluding that the sound could not belong to any bird, we decided that it must be emanating from our own car and that we should stop in the village just ahead to investigate.

"Chris," I said, "do you think that the sound could be a cat?" "Could a cat have gotten into our trunk or car?"

"I don't know," he said. "But I think that we should check as soon as we stop the car."

As we rounded one of the narrow, sharp corners of Antissa in front of a coffee-house, cries echoed loudly against the surrounding stone buildings. "Ee-ah, ee-ah," we heard quite clearly. And so did all of the locals seated at the kafeneion. They jumped up as one and rushed our car, urging us to stop immediately. For they had recognized the sound as belonging to a cat.
Tracing the continuing "ee-ah," "ee-ah," to the engine of our car, eight men opened the hood of our car and began searching the space for a cat. Nothing. Someone produced a flashlight to search all the nooks and crannies. Nothing. Where was the cat? Someone brought cool water and poured it over the engine, thinking to flush out the cat. Nothing happened. The sounds of "ee-ah," "ee-ah" continued. The men began to search through the engine compartment more thoroughly. A toolbox appeared. Screwdrivers came out. People started taking apart our car. No cat.

Just as I was wondering whether we would be able to replace the parts removed, a tiny face was observed by one of the men. We all shouted and crowded around the wheel-well. It was a tiny kitten, black-and white, with a few orange specks. But it wouldn't come when called. Now what to do? We all stood a moment, scratching our heads, when the kitten shot out of a tiny space like a bullet. Streaking across the street it ran for a car parked just ahead. Everyone shouted with relief, congratulating the concerned local helpers and laughing with us over the kitten. It was a miracle! A tiny kitten secreted above the wheel-well of a car! The locals couldn't believe it when we told them that we had driven over the mountains from Kalloni. What a strange cat! They had never heard of a cat doing that before.

The men started to disperse, taking their seats again in the coffee-house. As we prepared to start up the car again—minus the kitten—another shout arose up ahead. The kitten had taken up residence in the other car parked on the street! The entire coffee-house emptied this time. A throng of men moved to the other car, beginning to coax the kitten out from its tiny space. Within a few moments, this nimble kitten jumped out of the car and into another! As the men rushed over to the third car, she slipped out and jumped up into the police car parked in front of police headquarters.

The local policemen, who had been watching this hilarious saga, suddenly lost their smirks. They joined the men crowded around their car and attempted to extract the kitten from its favorite hiding-place above the wheels. No luck. But by now, concern over the kitten was starting to wane as villagers realized that the kitten was in no immediate danger and apparently had done this a number of times before. We, too, sensed that it was time to move on, since the cat had become an unofficial mascot, with so many men watching out for her. And we did, after all, have official business in Antissa which wouldn't wait for the kitten whom I had dubbed "Traveling Toula."

We carried out our business in Antissa and headed back to our car. The locals informed us that the kitten eventually left the police car and scampered off. One person wanted to know if we were going to bring the cat back with us to Kalloni.

"To Kalloni?" I asked.

"Yes, back to Kalloni," he said. "You came from Kalloni, didn't you?

"Why, yes, we did," I quipped, "but we can't take her back with us. She didn't buy a ticket for the ride." And with that, the entire coffee house erupted with laughter. We hopped into our car and drove back through the mountains down to Kalloni.

The exploits of Traveling Toula, however, continue to grow, as friends report her activities to us. She loves cars, but still doesn't want to pay for the ride. . . .One person joked that a coffee-house owner must have trained her to hide in cars so that the vehicle owners would have to sit in the coffee-house while waiting for her to emerge from the car!

(Posting date 24 September 2006

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