A Woman, a Dog and Umbria: Excerpt from the Book “Marcus of Umbria”

This article appeared  in the June 2010 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018. 

The book Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love (Rodale, $23.99) traces Justine van der Leun’s funny and illuminating time spent in Collelungo, a 200-person farming village in central Umbria. Justine, a Brooklyn resident, met Emanuele, a local gardener, on vacation and impulsively moved in with him. But things didn’t go exactly as planned and her decision launched her on an eye-opening series of misadventures in which village life and romance turned out to be radically different from what she had imagined.

After a year, Justine left Collelungo, having gained a newfound knowledge of language and family from Emanuele’s parents Fabio and Serenella, a deep-rooted passion for animals and nature and a small, spotted dog that she’d adopted named Marcus. (Marcus is female, but you have to read the whole book to find out how that happened!)

At first, I kept Marcus in the pen on the Cruciani farm. She was not allowed in the house, so as soon as I woke, I drove to the bar, where Cinzia, the owner, gave me my International Herald Tribune, my strong cappuccino, and my flaky apple pastry, warmed up and served on a napkin on which it left a greasy mark in the shape of a triangle. When I’d finished my breakfast, standing at the bar as townspeople ran in and out — the women stopping longer for cappuccinos and the men downing sugary, bitter espressos in half a minute — I headed for Marcus, scurrying down to her pen as though she were my long-lost lover.

Without fail, there she stood, tense and ready, her head cocked as she heard footsteps, never sure whose they were, but hoping with all her heart that they were mine. Whenever she saw me, her face registered a brief look of utter shock, as though she’d hoped I would round the corner, but had never really thought it might be so.

When she knew she would be released from her little prison, she broke into a dance of joy. Each morning was just as exciting as the last, and she jumped upon me exuberantly, stretching out her long, gangly puppy legs. Then she bolted out onto the path, turned to check that I was bringing up the rear, and headed out to the meadow, where she ran up to the neighbor’s olive grove, down into the forest, and around the perimeter of the property, always returning to me.

I sat on the ground by a lone olive tree if the grass was not too wet, and tried to read the paper, despite the fact that her paws landed on the news every few minutes. Marcus liked to check in. She liked to rest her front paws on my thighs and take in the air, or she liked to lean in to me, resting her head on my shoulder. If I pressed her close, she let out a heavy, satisfied sigh.

Over the next few weeks, Emanuele and Ettore, in a display of indulgence, helped me to expand her cage. We picked out yards of green fencing at the hardware store and drove it back to Collelungo in the miniature car. The fencing, at ten feet high, was longer than the car, so I sat in the open back in the suddenly frigid early winter air, grabbing the roll of wire as Emanuele navigated the curved roads.

“You are very country, my love,” he yelled out happily. On the radio, the international pop-rock star Zucchero sang of a scattered, desperate, delicate heart. Questo cuore disperato e delicato. My fingers went numb from the cold.

Ettore and Emanuele spent five hours putting up the fence to make a nice cage for Marcus, a dog they didn’t care about. But I did care, and I did believe in her, so they worked. It was a classic example of the Collelungese principle of selflessness, which almost couldn’t be considered a principle in that the citizens didn’t even seem to notice that they were doing someone a favor. It was as if, when it came to helping others, people were indistinguishable as individuals.

When Ettore helped Emanuele and me build Marcus’s new pen, he seemed unaware that he was spending his Friday evening doing hard labor for another person. Instead, he approached the work as though it were for his own benefit. Because Emanuele and I were a couple, I was the equivalent of Emanuele, who in turn was a part of Ettore. So if I needed something, Ettore would do it without question or complaint or any expectation of thanks.

Marta, who operated as an extension of Ettore (and vice versa), came along, too, and devoted three hours to lugging all the old, useless objects on the property — moldy wooden planks, cracked plastic buckets, paintbrushes, a ripped mattress, empty bags of feed — to a pile. Then, we topped off the junk mountain with Marcus’s old wooden box, soaked it with lighter fluid, and lit a bonfire, which was for me symbolic (Marcus’s old life of sadness and detachment would be destroyed) but was for Ettore and Emanuele just a lot of fun. Then Serenella called us in for dinner. The garbage, engulfed in flames, burned on the dewy hillside into the early morning.

As a replacement, I found an unfinished doghouse that Emanuele had made for another dog years earlier. It was also a wooden box, but this one had a slanted metal roof, an insulated side, and feet to keep it off the dirt. I painted it cream and blue, and fixed up a sign that said “Marcus’s Casa,” with two black paw prints flanking the text. Ettore remarked that I was ridiculous. Serenella, witnessing the care I lavished on an animal, voiced her disapproval.

“Sei matta per quell’cane,” she said, shaking her head. But she saved her leftovers for Marcus and handed me a plate of pasta, which Marcus would eat daintily later, always glancing to each side to make sure that she was safe. It was true: I was crazy for the dog. I sewed a pillow for Marcus’s bed and stuffed it inside the casa.

Marcus chewed up the pillow, leaving her plot of earth covered in puffs of synthetic filling, but otherwise accepted her change in fortune with patience and goodwill. For some time, however, she was skeptical of the new house, and slept on the roof.

At the beginning of my relationship with the dog, I drove to il Dottor Andrea Massarelli, a slight young blond man six towns over, who operated a two-room veterinary practice in a space off a warehouse. He inspected Marcus, who trembled upon the steel table but did not resist, her skinny haunches causing reverberations throughout the room, her tail curved up sharply between her legs. He gently pushed on her eyes, round with fear, stared into her floppy black ears with a flashlight, felt her empty belly, and declared her fundamentally healthy but for the eye infection, the ear infection, and the raging case of worms.

“Good thing they didn’t shoot you in the brush,” I muttered to her as we made our way back to Collelungo. Marcus lay tightly curled on the passenger side floor, with her entire head shoved beneath the seat. She didn’t think road trips were fun.

Three times a day, I ventured down to her cage, where I pried open her eyes, pressing against the black upper lashes to smear ointment around them, and flipped over her ears to squirt medicine into them, staring into the intricate interior, all crevices and valleys that led inside, creating that exquisitely effective organ that could sense a whistle miles away. For all this, Marcus stood stock still, enduring what was incomprehensible to her. I hid the pill in a piece of prosciutto and gave it to her; she took it lightly, her mouth so soft — they were bred that way, so they didn’t damage the hunter’s kill — that it took her several tries to bite down adequately. I purchased a shiny red collar to wrap around her neck. I had a tag engraved for her in Todi: Marcus, Collelungo, my Italian cell phone number. This dog belonged to someone, the collar advertised; this dog was not up for grabs.

Even apart from her acute hunting obsessions, Marcus was not your average dog, galumphing, licking, full of good cheer. She was frankly terrified of human beings — probably because her earliest owner considered cats game and had blasted away her starving sister in the woods. When she was free, running, hunting, or snoozing in the garden, she was relaxed and happy. But at the bar, when we sat outside at night with the locals, she clung to my lap, front paws heavy like iron across my thighs, chest pressed into me, eyes wary. I walked down the street with her, and she pulled the leash taut, trying to get away from any person in the vicinity. She walked in a crouch, ready to bolt at any second, and kept her tail tucked beneath her in public. Once, I tied her to a bench outside the grocery shop and ran in for some bread. An old man rushed behind, motioning to me.

“Il cane!” he bellowed. “Il cane!” The dog, you American lunatic! The dog! The dog!

Outside, Marcus had dragged the metal bench down the road by her neck. She stood several yards from the store, attached to the object, her entire body convulsing. She stared at me in shock and horror; how could I have put her in such a terrible predicament? I ran through the square with my loaf of bread, toward my traumatized ward.

“I’m so sorry,” I said as I unclipped her leash. She stood to the side, head cocked, as I dragged the bench back to its rightful spot outside the grocer’s door. The old men who spent their days watching the cars go by enjoyed the show. I considered bowing, so entranced were they by the spectacle.

Later, I laid her on the ground and gave her a makeshift canine massage, pulling out her back legs, rubbing her ears. She melted, letting out soft moans, and laid her head on my lap. I had been so insensitive. I had so dumbly put her in such a terrifying situation, tied up and vulnerable next to a group of loud old guys. I scratched beneath her chin, where a few stray whiskers grew. Serenella watched from the window, shaking her head.

The villagers thought I was out of my mind. That dog, that girl and that dog. Dogs, in their opinions, were to be chained up or caged. They were creatures, like sheep and cows, that served a purpose for human beings: hunting partner, guard, truffle finder. They were not cuddly friends or substitutes for children; you were not to pour your savings into their comfort or purchase trinkets for them. They were beasts. Delle bestie.

I felt people’s skepticism, but I was beyond concern. There was the ritual of my devotion, the hillside walk, the little creature behind the door, wild with excitement at the prospect of her release. We were immediately bound by our loneliness and our need — she, a neglected animal who depended on me for sustenance, and I, an isolated expat with no one else upon whom to satisfactorily project my affections. More than that, I think what bound us was something mysterious and less scientific.

“She’s a good dog,” Fabio said one day as we stood on the drive. “Un cane buono. She is a true innocent.”

“The barbarian could hurt a baby,” Serenella said. “You should chain her.”

I shook my head — unthinkable. Serenella didn’t trust Marcus. Francesco, now toddling with the help of an adult holding his hands, hoped to embrace Marcus and ran after her screaming, “Macks! Macks!” Serenella held him back, convinced that my shrinking animal would turn at any moment and eat her grandchild.

“But you don’t even put him in a car seat,” I argued. Whenever people drove short distances with babies, they balanced the babies freely on their laps and steered; yet, upon seeing Marcus approach timidly to sniff them, they yelled, “Via!” Away! Collelungo was not the place to have a dog. In fact, Italy, like most countries, had some regional issues with humane treatment of animals; down in some southern provinces, the local animal rescues had begun a campaign to convince citizens to stop abandoning their dogs to the street when the people went on vacation, as it had become custom to let the pet fend for itself while the owner was out of town.

“Vai pazza per quell’cane,” everyone said. You’ve gone nuts for that dog. Shouldn’t I be making friends with the local girls? Learning how to cook or drive a stick shift? Really, shouldn’t I be devoting myself to anything else? Anything at all?

But Fabio shrugged and lit another cigar.

“Si ama chi si ama,” he said. One loves whom one loves.

Marcus cemented my reputation as a weirdo. What’s more unusual than a young American woman landing in a two-hundred-person Umbrian farming village? Only a young American woman prancing around the village with the whacked-out little hunting dog she found around back.

They fixed me in their collective gaze. They stared with the entitlement of a paying audience–their brows furrowed, following every movement. “Ma chi e quella?” they murmured. “Chi e?” But who is that? “E il cane?” And now, what’s with the dog?

I vecchi, the old guys, as they were called, gathered outside the grocery store, Spesso Buia, to smoke and look across the street at the centro storico. When I passed by, they followed me with their eyes but kept quiet. It was a relatively diverse group: Among the rotation of forty seniors, there was an energetic marathon runner with dark curls and a small mustache tucked neatly beneath his long nose; a debonair grandfather with a bright white mass of hair and an elegant patterned shirt; a few fellows of the bald, squat, agrarian variety; and one madman who dressed in a succession of neon sweat suits, his coarse gray hair standing on end. Once, wearing a purple velour number, he tried to enter my car and had to be dragged away by the other vecchi.

“Scusa, signorina! Scusa,” they cried, grappling with the cheery madman, as I maintained a tight smile from the driver’s seat.

The women gathered in little grottos, wearing their slacks and heavy pumps or coordinated jogging suits. They sat in compact groups, four or five on a small bench, with others on nearby plastic lawn chairs or perched on the sidewalk. They didn’t have anything in their hands — no mugs of coffee or knitting needles. Instead, they focused on gossip. Like kitsch and stress, gossip was a word that the Italians had made their own. C’e sempre gossip.

They were gossip machines, the women, and they knew every single detail about every single person in town: who had been institutionalized for a nervous disorder, whose wife was schtupping the plumber, who had gained weight, who was plunging further into debt. That guy eyeing me at the bar? He repeatedly stole a teenage girl’s underwear from a clothesline; he’d never been right in the head. That woman peering over the hill? She had a nervous disorder, probably due to her husband’s addiction to prostitutes. But there was little judgment inherent in Collelungo’s gossip; the women neither pitied nor vilified their subjects, but merely noted, sometimes with a touch of scorn or delight, their relative troubles. They were mainly observers, not empathizers. And they loved to blabber.

Later, of course, I’d come to realize that blabbering and staring was pretty much a divine right in a small town. After nine months, I found myself sitting outside the bar, and when a new car passed or a stranger entered, I strained my neck and looked them up and down — no shame, no hidden glances, a straight-up stare — and turned to the barista and said, “Who is that?”

One day early on, as I stumbled toward my apartment, my arms full of books, Marcus scampering ahead, two old ladies passed behind me, arms hooked together, one leaning on a cane.

“Ma chi e?” asked one loudly, repeating the popular refrain.

“L’americana,” the other said. “Non capisce niente.” The American; she doesn’t understand a thing.

I whipped around. For the first time ever, I found the words: “I’m learning!” I said in shaky Italian.

The women gasped, whispered apologies, and scurried away.

— Justine van der Leun

For more about Marcus of Umbria and Justine van der Leun, visit www.justinevdl.com.

Editor’s Note: As Justine van der Leun details in her book, homeless animals in Italy often face a very rough time. If you would like to help, I’d like to introduce you to two grassroots efforts — basically kindhearted ex-pats who have taken on the mission of helping the helpless – where your assistance is sorely needed! Pets in Italy and Puglia Pooches are helping to save animals by doing both hands-on rescuing and spreading the word in hopes of finding adoptive families for these poor animals. Many family pets are abandoned during summer vacations so now is the time to do what you can!