The cats of Paranhos

by Mary Elizabeth Rauktis (United States of America)

Making a local connection USA


It was no secret that I was moping around Pittsburgh, comparing everything in Pittsburgh unfavorably to Porto. They have prettier bridges! They have beautiful vineyards along the river valley and we have …..waterparks and abandoned steel mills. Where can you buy decent Olive Oil in this town? In hindsight, my post-Fulbright behavior was pretty obnoxious, and I think that there was a collective sigh of relief among my family and friends when I was asked to a conference in Porto: “maybe now she will shut-up about it” I am sure was their response to plans to return. I must admit that Portugal took on a sheen of perfection when I returned home. In my recollections I forgot about how lonely I was, particularly in the early weeks, and how Alan Carr and Australian Master Chef became my therapeutic interventions to treat homesickness. Memory is rarely accurate or emotionally faithful. But in my homesickness for a place that was not really my home, the cats of Paranhos played a major role. I had been walking to the University, thinking about the lonely day ahead and then I heard“ MERROW” . Where was that sound coming from? Porto, like any major city has a sizable population of feral cats living on the streets. The Portuguese treat these cats humanely, co-sharing space with them although both Portuguese and the cats were losing space weekly due to the building boom in Porto. “MERROW . I looked above me and on the top of the wall, a black cat with olive green eyes was staring down at me as if waiting for something. “So, are you the spokes cat” I asked although I’m not sure if he understood English. But he did understand tuna and cat food which I carried in my backpack. He was joined by a petite tortoiseshell cat, a female, shortly after the tuna was offered. “Spokesy” and “tortie” became part of my daily routine. After breakfast, I would visit the parking lot next to the abandoned house which is where they seemed to live. Spoksey was always waiting for me (and tuna), usually joined by his sister. Knowing that they were waiting for me gave me a routine, a purpose outside of the academy, and a little friend circle, albeit a furry one. Shortly after meeting them, I discovered their caretaker, an elderly gentleman with a dog. I named him Senhor Cao because I never could understand his accent well enough to discover his real name. But like clockwork, he could be seen walking down the street, bags of cat food one hand, an umbrella in the other, trailed by his elderly dog. We would converse, but I never fully understood him. He called me Professora Americana and he knew that I loved his cats. That was our common language. When I returned to Porto, the first thing that I did after landing was to go to the location of Spokesy and tortie. As I emerged from the metro, my heart sunk. In the place of the abandoned lot was a building under construction, with a tremendous amount of noise. In a city like Porto, with a booming tourism industry, and in a University area, every bit of space is needed for housing, parking and space for classrooms. But this was the cats place --their HOME. How could they have survived this? I tried to maneuver around the building site but it was impossible, and then to my utter joy, I saw Senhor Cao! I never fully understood the phrase “time stood still” until the moment of seeing him, with umbrella and cat food in hand, walking towards me, the dog limping next to him. Clearly time had passed-- there was a new building where a parking lot and an abandoned house once stood—but seeing them felt miraculous at that moment. “Where are the cats Senhor? Are they still alive”? “Yes, Sra Americana, follow me” There inside the building site (which he navigated with ease), he showed me that there was still a place for the cats and their feeding station. Like clockwork, Spoksey arrived at the scene. “MERROW” . Thankfully, I had tuna in my carry-on.