To bring our dog to France, we had to employ a high-end professional pet relocation service. I’d never heard of such a thing before. But Desmond Jones is a very sensitive hundred-pound half-lab, half-Great Pyrenees, who stress-sheds a Category 5 blizzard of white fur when his dinner is half an hour late. Clearly, we would need a pro to move him half-way around the world.
After our own relocation to France in May 2019, Desmond stayed behind in Portland. He shacked up with a pal, Rosie, a lab mix who belonged to my step-daughter. We told ourselves it was not unlike when the mom or dad gets transferred for work and the teenager gets to stay behind with his best friend’s family to finish his junior year. That was Desmond hanging out with Rosie, sharing her dog bed and treats.
Four months after we’d settled in Collioure, we’d saved enough to hire the fancy dog wranglers. Prior to travel, Desmond Jones needed to obtain a pet passport. The thought of him ambling through customs with a blue American passport clipped to his harness beside his Tuff Mutt Poop Bag Holder cracked me up. Would he also be required to name fifteen kings of France? Possibly, but in short order he was booked on Lufthansa. His shipping crate had to be large enough for him to be able to comfortably chase his tail. It was only slightly smaller than the Tiny House of a persnickety Portland hipster.
Tracy, from the high-end professional pet relocation service, promised to text us with updates. Desmond Jones was collected in Portland and driven to SeaTac International airport, outside of Seattle, then he was placed in the climate-controlled aircraft cargo hold and checked on from time to time by a flight attendant. We were paying so much money, I convinced myself that this flight attendant was second only to me in love for Desmond Jones.
We were notified when he reached Frankfurt. They sent a picture of him reclining in the pet lounge, enjoying what appeared to be Bratwurst. They texted again when he was loaded onto the plane bound for Lyon, where we would collect him. It was a five-hour drive from Collioure, so we splurged on a rental car for the occasion.
We arrived at the Lyon–Saint Exupéry Airport with hours to spare. I wanted to make sure we didn’t somehow miss him; I irrationally thought someone in shipping might take him home if we were late. This might happen in the States, where Great Pyrenees are viewed as fluffy overly large white Golden Retrievers, but the French are largely terrified of them. Great Pyrenees are viewed as fierce guardians that can put you in the hospital. Patous, as they’re known here, lead solitary mountain lives, guarding livestock and threatening to tear the twee hiking scarf off the neck of any outdoor enthusiast who gets too close. The most famous patou is Belle, the star of the Belle et Sebastian trilogy. Everyone in the tiny Rhone-Alps village where the movie is set thinks she’s a wild beast, except the lonely boy Sebastian, who befriends her. The film is set in 1943, but things haven’t changed much, at least as far as the reputation of patous is concerned. Every spring, our local newspaper here in Collioure runs a long service story about what to do if you meet a patou on the trail (don’t panic, don’t make eye contact, turn and s-l-o-w-l-y walk away—as if you were facing down a grizzly). Desmond, of course, is half-lab, and also American. Aside from making himself available for belly rubs, he’s never worked a day in his life.
The freight window at Lyon–Saint Exupéry was next to Arrivals. There, we were assured by a cheery woman with an enviable blond chignon who was happy to practice her English, Desmond Jones would be coming out along with the rest of the travelers. Seriously? OUI! This was amazing service! Five stars Lufthansa!
We stood outside Arrivals and waited. I imagined Desmond Jones walking through the gate on his hind legs, dragging a roller suitcase, an inflatable sleeping pillow slung around his furry white neck. I couldn’t wait to scratch him behind his ears and make him smile.
But the flight arrived and there was no Desmond Jones.
Thinking back on our conversation with the friendly woman with the enviable blond chignon, I realized that I had not made it clear that Desmond Jones was a dog. She must have heard his first and last name, and assumed he was no different than any regular human traveler who might saunter out of Arrivals sipping a latte.
We returned to the shipping window, but now it was closed. The Enviable Chignon was gone, probably already on to apéro hour.
We scoured the airport and found the Lufthansa information desk.
They sent us to the Lufthansa shipping and receiving warehouse, several miles from the airport. After momentarily getting lost in the parking lot because we forgot what our rental car looked like, we raced out of the airport and onto a country road and into the dark November night. The Lyon airport itself is fifteen miles outside the city, and now we were headed even deeper into the middle of nowhere. There were no other cars on the road. Eventually, we made out a row of low buildings. They were dimly lit warehouses. We parked in the lot, hopped out and tried every door. Some were locked. Some were open, but there was no one inside. Finally, we found a dashing young freight worker sitting at a desk behind a service window, smoking a cigarette. After telling him our saga in our increasingly freaked out French, he replied in perfect English, with a slight smirk, that he had no information about a dog arriving from the United States, via Frankfurt.
But I knew Desmond Jones had made his flight from Frankfurt to Lyon, because I’d received a text from Tracy! It was part of what we were paying for – continuous updates, so we didn’t lose our minds worrying whether Desmond had somehow been left behind in the hold of an aircraft, or accidentally evacuated with the frozen sewage over Dublin. (I’m told it’s a myth that planes dump their latrine waste mid-flight, but from time to time a story crops up about a beloved family man out for an evening walk who gets beaned on the noggin by a chunk of poop fallen from the sky.)
My mind was racing: Maybe Desmond had been unloaded with the regular luggage? Maybe he was standing in his crate going round and round on the baggage carousel, stress-shedding his entire coat? He must be thirsty by now? Hungry? I knew he possessed the bladder of a camel, but surely he needed to pee?
Maybe, probably, it was just paperwork. That’s what Jerrod kept saying, chanting it like a mantra: “It’s just paperwork. It’s always about the paperwork with the French.”
But whatever it was, it was very important that we didn’t blame anyone, especially in our flawed and judgey-sounding American-accented French. By now, in our sojourn, we had learned a secret: French people do not like to be made to feel in the wrong. They cannot be shamed into trying to figure out the solution to a problem, or intimidated by the threat of a bad tweet. Once you’ve insulted them, they shut both the literal and metaphorical window. However, if you’re respectful, and can figure out a way to blame Covid, Brexit, computers, tourists, or just the Germans (that always works) for the fuck-up in question, they will sincerely try to help. They especially enjoy passing the problem along to someone else, even more so if it involves some papers that can be shuffled around.
So, I said to the young freight worker, enunciating every accent aigu and circumflex, “Thank you so very much for the information. We hope to find our dog very soon. He is a big white dog. He is a very nice dog. We love him very much and he is a very big and nice and good dog. Thank you so very much, again.”
Then, we planted ourselves in front of the service window and waited.
We watched as our guy took the last drag off his cigarette, then crushed out the butt with the care and deliberation of a performance artist. He sighed then, and said we must go to the customs hut.
“Just there, at the other end of le parking.”
We hopped back into our rental and sped down the length of the long parking lot to Customs, which was indeed housed in what appeared to be a large hut. There, two women, one in a moss green cardigan with limp hair, and one in a leopard skin print mini-skirt and tottering heels, found the all-important paperwork.
But still they could not find the actual Desmond Jones. They could have had their own sit-com, these two. They were a fabulous team, working in tandem to extend what should have been a fairly straightforward process into an endless Monty Python skit called, “Oh Wait, That Paper is Right Here in the Folder on my Lap and Whoops, It’s Just Gone Over To You!”
Finally, after about an hour, someone called with the news that there was a big white dog in a crate in one of the cargo bays, waiting to be claimed. “Desmond!” I cried! (I mean, I sobbed.) Apparently, he’d been there all along. We all four – yes, the French Frankie and Grace with their papers came, too — dashed out of the customs hut, squeezed into our little rental car, and sped back across the long parking lot to the warehouse where we’d first encountered the dashing young freight worker smoking Gauloises.
I had imagined the reunion with Desmond for many months. Even though he was eight years old, his coat still smelled like a puppy’s. That is to say: Fritos corn chips. The first thing I wanted to do was bury my nose in his fur.
When we got there, his crate was standing in the middle of the empty warehouse. I saw water and food bowls just outside the door. Someone had obviously fed and watered him. Maybe they had taken him out to pee, too. The French may be disorganized and paperwork-obsessed, but they are also dog-lovers, after all.
Desmond looked through the door of his crate, confused, but with a glint of “Hey! I know you!” in his eyes. (In case you’re imagining he was groggy and dumb-founded from doggy Xanax administered before he flew, that was not the case. The high-end pet relocation service does not sedate their “clients.” Desmond is the best boy, but perhaps not the sharpest boy.)
Leopard Mini Skirt unlatched his crate and let him out. She chased him around with the microchip reader, proclaiming that we couldn’t claim him until his microchip was confirmed. The reader was upside down. Jerrod gently took it from her, flipped it over, and read the chip with no problem.
Desmond Jones is happy here. Daily off-leash walks in the foothills. Regular outings to our favorite cafés, where he’s become an expert at pretzeling himself under the table. Lavish attention paid by everyone who isn’t terrified of him. Up in the vineyards, when we see a hiker walking towards us, we always yell “Bonjour! T’inquiète il est très gentil ! Don’t worry, he’s very nice. In January, we also adopted a little brother for him: Hugo is not a half-lab, half-Great Pyrenees, but a type of French hound called a Bleu de Gascogne. He likes to bite Desmond’s scruffy neck, and Desmond is happy to endure it.
Desmond, you may already have guessed, is named for the easy-going protagonist in that catchy Beatles’ song on the White Album. And every day, during his daily brushings on my inexplicable concrete slab, I sing to him, while a snowy fur-nado swirls around me,
Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace
Molly is the singer in a band
Desmond says to Molly, “Girl, I like your face”
And Molly says this as she takes him by the hand
Life goes on, brah
La, la, how life goes on….
Karen Karbo is a frequent contributor to Frenchly. Her 2021 essay, Au Revoir Thanksgiving was the germ for this column, Rue du Soleil. Karen is the author of fourteen award-winning novels and works of non-fiction including the international bestseller, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel. Her essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, O., The New York Times, Tin House, Salon, Slate and elsewhere. To connect with her, buy her books, and learn about her writer’s retreat in Collioure, please visit her website here.
Photo credits, Karen Karbo, top to bottom: “This dog is no stranger to a fetching chapeau;” “‘Guarding’ local produce;” “Resting dog face;” “Deep thoughts on the beach” and “Family Portrait.”