A Fox Terrier’s Adventures in Italy

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 issue of Dream of Italy. Please also see the free access article, Tips To Take Your Dog to Italy

On Halloween of 2010, a spunky, sweet wire fox terrier who had been given the name “Freeway” by American Wire Fox Terrier Rescue flew into my arms and indelibly into my heart. Coming to me after the one-two punch of some losses in my life including the passing of my beloved rescue fox terrier Cooper Leonardo, I suspected Finney would be my saving grace. Little did I know.

I quickly renamed him Phineas Orazio McCabe.  I just loved the name Phineas and it matched the “F” sound of his name at the shelter. Why Orazio? I had recently had lunch with chef Salvatore Denaro in Umbria and met his cat named Orazio, the Italian for Horace. Finney’s full story won’t fit in these pages but part of that last chapter, entitled “Italy,” will and we should all be so lucky to have a swan song like his.

For a little background, Finney had been a travel adventurer since I adopted him when he was around two. My parents put him on a pets-only, in-cabin Pet Airways (now sadly defunct) flight out to Rocky Mountain National Airport in Colorado where I lived.  He loved it and had no fear, thinking the whole thing was a party thrown for him.

When my travel schedule got hectic, I brought him to my parents house on the East Coast thinking he would just stay for a few months. My parents and their fox terrier Spencer just adored him and when Spencer died, I  knew I couldn’t take Finney from my parents. Shortly thereafter though we would all be together in one place as my mother got sick and eventually passed away. Finney was my father’s absolute best friend in the 20 months before my father died. But warning: this is not a sad story. This is not a story of death but life.

In the days and weeks as my father’s health declined, Finney was glued to both of us. He would sleep on my father’s bed at hospice and I would sleep crouched up in a chair next constantly waking up to check if my father was breathing. It was like we went through the war together. Then came our move back to Denver and within days the start of the pandemic. Can we again say “saving grace”?

In the summer of 2022, I hadn’t been back to Italy in nearly three years even though the country was open because Finney had developed Diabetes and Cushing’s Disease and was mostly blind, but as loving and feisty as ever, even wrestling with his friend.

I refused to leave him but didn’t know if he could make such a long trip. I needed to back to Italy, especially for the possibility to film a special episode about the Black Madonna in southern Italy with actress Marisa Tomei. One day I was on Zoom with my grief therapist told her about my predicament, including the fact that filming this episode would commit me to a whole new season and raising the funding. She suggested I look at a photo of the Black Madonna and talk to her. I laughed but agreed.

No sooner had I closed Zoom and opened my email to see one at the very top from someone named “Madonna Finney.” I think I stopped breathing for a moment. Oh my God. I looked at her signature. She was a real person, an adoption attorney who responded to an email newsletter I sent out.

I wrote back to her “you’re going to think I’m crazy…” You may know from the TV show the strong relationship I have with the Madonna from my ancestral hometown of Castelvetere sul Calore. I sensed above all this was a sign from her saying, “bring Finney to me, to all of us.” I believe our souls have missions and this was part of Finney’s and part of mine. Though I worried deeply he would leave me in Italy once his task was accomplished. “But if he does, he will leave you with memories of your time together in Italy,” a friend wisely noted.

I became a woman focused on only one thing – getting Finney and me to Italy: Booking a flight from Denver to NJ on United, then from NJ to Milan on La Compagnie (a fantastic business class only airline known for its pet friendly in-cabin policies including taking dogs up to 33 pounds). Ordering extra insulin and a TSA-approved carrier to keep it cold. Starting the paperwork he would need to fly including a USDA-endorsed EU health certificate. (When he went for his fit-to-fly vet check, the staff had a sign saying, “Buon viaggio Finney.”) Packing extra dry dog food, just in case though he mostly ate organic chicken from Whole Foods. (I know!) Asking my dog walker whom I adored but didn’t even know that well Shannon if she would come for two weeks while we filmed if I bought her a ticket. Reaching out to TuscanHound in Florence and arranging for one of the co-owners Maryanne Day to come for the last week of filming to babysit. These now soul sisters of mine and so many people in both countries became part of Team Finney.

The flights were uneventful thanks to some Trazadone and a diaper that he didn’t even use. He barked when the plane landed and I would have kissed the ground if I could.

Like so many of us, Finney felt right at home in Italy from the first moment. My dog hopped in the passenger seat of the rental car for our long drive to Tuscany like our usual routine at home. Except to my absolute relief (especially in the summer heat of August), I could take Finney with me into the rest stops and Autogrills.

Italy makes traveling with a dog easy because you can bring them almost everywhere: many hotels, most restaurants, stores, public transportation, stores, pharmacies, churches (I also asked first), even supermarkets. I couldn’t believe that last one and neither could Finney. There are even shopping special carts are Conad that you can put your dog in. I did have to move fast before all the glorious smells had him barking.

Now that first week, you would have been forgiven just thinking I was simply, in a play on the words of President John F Kennedy, simply “I am the girl who accompanied Phineas McCabe to Tuscany.” Not only did he join me for an outdoor party with Sting and Trudie Styler at Il Palagio (they are huge dog people), my dear friends Ed and Frances Mayes invited him (oh yeah and me too) for dinner at Bramasole. Of course, he took quite a dramatic poop right in front of Frances and liked her cooking so much he barked a few times during dinner, but we all laughed it off with good cheer.

I wanted to start off the trip getting Finney acclimated to Italian life, that included aperitvo in the piazza and getting pampered by mammas and nonnas. We spent nine days at Corte dei Papi in Cortona where the owner David’s mother made it her personal mission to feed Finney chicken every night. The waiter in the morning couldn’t quite believe he was hand cutting chicken for a dog but by the end of our stay seemed to relish in feeding my boy. We invited our Instagram friend Bob the fox terrier and his mom Faye over to meet.

In the foreword for my book Dream of Italy: Travel, Transform and Thrive, Frances Mayes wrote, “How does she meet so many locals? She’s never met a stranger, true, but she often talks to dog, she then meets the dog’s owners. What a simple lesson.” Well, I met even more people, with Finney by my side. You want to immerse yourself in real Italian community life. Bring a dog. I often say Italy is our common ground. Well dogs are! So many people of all walks of life, Italians and other travelers, wanted to pet him, know his name or just smiled at me.  Finney opened a door…

My dog walker and now dear friend Shannon arrived and as we made our way down to Campania to film the Black Madonna episode, we had some driving adventures right out of buddy comedy with a canine sidekick. Starting out, for the only time in my life, I mistakenly put the GPS on “walk” for directions instead of “drive” and we ended up on twisted little drives until I finally realized when it wanted me to drive down some stairs. Then there was the night we thought we thought some twinkling lights meant it was the place to pull into our B&B and only when I almost drove through the gate, did we realize it was a cemetery.

Finney provided lots of laughs but the funniest may have been a few days later in Campania when Marisa Tomei arrived and met our crew. When she saw Shannon holding Finney, she introduced herself and asked if Shannon was my assistant. She responded, “no I work for Finney.” He became the crew mascot.

Shannon helped me bring him to all the Madonnas as we were filming. The absolutely most emotional one was my own Madonna delle Grazie in Castelvetere who has been beloved by generations of my family. Finney was quite sick on and off in 2020 and 2021. That he survived to be in her presence….I cried and the entire crew was emotional.  To my shock, around the same time, I saw on Facebook that my new friend Madonna Finney was in Italy at the same time. We ended up all meeting in Florence later on.

Finney’s pampering was never-ending. In Abruzzo, when Maryanne took over dog sitting during the day she rented a bike with a little trailer usually intended for kids so Finney could feel the salt air breeze.

I posted Finney’s adventures as much as I could on social media. One day as I was getting my hair cut by my favorite Alessandro Fratini in Cortona, and Finney was sitting by the door, a couple hesitantly walked in who said, “Are you Kathy? We recognized your dog.” They were longtime fans of the TV show and ended up taking Finney and me to the delicious Osteria del Teatro for lunch! We are now friends.

We spent 53 days driving more than 3,000 miles around Italy. To my utter amazement, Finney didn’t leave this Earth. He was having too much fun and soon another trip was booked for February 2023. Friends at home said he seemed younger with more spring in his step after his Italy sojourn. Doesn’t that happen to all and back of us?

As we were flying to Milan (yes again on La Compagnie, where one flight attendant recognized Finney from his last trip) again, I could not believe our luck: another trip to Italy. As you read in the Marriott article, I splurged at the Westin Palace and the staff acted as if the Red Sea had parted every time he walked into the lobby. Finney appreciated city life and we walked in stores and churches no problem but the big Starbucks flagship (I wanted to see what the coffee tasted like) was a no go (they said no dogs because it is also a factory) after we had waited in line for 25 minutes. After we were “bounced” by an actual bouncer another patron bought my coffee and brought it out, “because I like your dog,” he said.

We were on the road again, my favorite co-pilot in the passenger seat, this time to Modena to shoot our episodes with 3-Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore. Okay, I know what you are thinking, did I try to get Finney into Osteria Francescana for a tasting menu? Ah, I didn’t push my luck but one of Massimo’s colleagues heard Finney was coming and had gourmet dog food ready for him. These two legends had a chance to meet and there’s a photo of the three of us, who surely all have a key terrier trait – tenacity.

For a relaxing end to our winter trip, I cashed  in nearly all of my American Express Membership Rewards points to stay at the luxurious Lefay Resort on Lake Garda. (I wrote about in the February/March 2023 issue). Thank God I did, because I didn’t know what was to come. Lefay sits on a stunning mountain perch overlooking the lake. The days we were there it was mostly fogged in and I thought more than once, ah, this is what heaven must look like. I was under the weather and spent most of the time cuddled on the sofa with Finney.

Just two weeks later on March 13, 2023, with his return trip to Italy booked for April when I would interview world-renowned dog lover and tenor Andrea Bocelli – a week of increasingly debilitating seizures culminating in an awful night meant I had to let Finney go. It was the worst moment of my life because it was truly the last of my little family. It was like stabbing myself in the heart. As an only child, I had to sign the DNRs for each of my parents and was also the one to tell them in the most gentle way possible that death would come soon.

Though I didn’t believe it myself, I told Finney I would be okay because I knew he had held on for years for me and I had to help him let go. I told him to look for the Madonna and my parents when all I wanted to do was to hang on to him for dear life. I didn’t know how I would survive but my God, did I know this beautiful soul, one who had done so much for me and my family, was going out on top. Through his Italy travels alone he lived more in just these past months than many humans do in year and years.

For those of us who think life is over at a certain age or because of some health limitations, I beg you to take a lesson from Finney’s adventures in Italy. Your attitude and willingness to get in the middle of life sometimes propels you ahead. I have been to Italy, I don’t know 65 times, but the two trips with Finney were totally unique, I saw this beloved country and life itself with a different perspective, through a dog’s eyes. If you can take your dog, do it.

You will see some of Finney’s miraculous Italian adventures in Season 3 of Dream of Italy premiering this December.

I learned so much about traveling to Italy with a dog and compiled some tips.  You can find them at www.dreamofitaly.com/takeyourdogtoitaly.

Kathy McCabe