In Serbia, I was chased by dogs about three times a day. Sometimes by a single mutt, sometimes an entire pack. But every time, you can bet it was an exhilarating experience. Seeing stray dogs stream in from out of nowhere, and having to grind down on the gears fast enough to keep their snapping jaws one peddle rotation behind me, was always a surefire way to get the adrenaline flowing.
Romania and Bulgaria weren’t all that different. Except there, I found one key distinction. Dogs took more to the cities. In many neighborhoods, there were certain alleyways where locals just didn’t go. They knew it was the dogs’ domain, and in those sections of town, canines laid down the rules. In Bucharest, I discovered this firsthand when I had my pants ripped by a pair of strays I attempted to walk past. I consider myself lucky their teeth caught only the fabric of my pants, and nothing underneath.
After a while, the encounters became a part of the normal routine. It became an accepted fact that, at some point during the day, I was either going to have to — A. shout at, B. throw rocks at, or C. out-cycle – some stray dog that decided to come after me.
Perhaps this is why I’ve been surprised to see so few throughout Turkey. Especially in Istanbul.
It was among the very first things I noticed about the city. With a population nearing 17 million, I didn’t expect I could go an entire day in Istanbul and only see a handful roaming the streets. Strays are simply hard to come by.
But even so, I did find one of them to be particularly memorable.
The Dogged Dog
I was with Morgan’s family outside the Old Town’s Spice Bazaar when a ruffled, yet friendly-looking stray approached us. It was a mixed-breed — about knee-high, with a graying muzzle and traces of German Sheppard in appearance. Moments before, we had watched the dog be yelled at, and chased away by some Turkish children who also were in the square. That was nothing particularly new. In Turkey, I’ve learned that stay dogs do not receive much sympathy — from children or adults for that matter. Unlike Eastern Europe, there is zero tolerance for dogs that act out of line.
Phillipe, Morgan’s father, motioned the shunned street dog over to us, and reached down to pet the pooch tenderly. Instead of shying away — as Turkish dogs usually do — the dog caressed his muzzle into Phillippe’s hand, and began circling around us with growing excitement. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.
From that moment onward, we couldn’t shake off our canine companion.
For an entire afternoon, the dog followed us around town – crossing the bridge, dodging traffic, and climbing the steep hills of Taksim to stick right on our tail. At first, we figured it was probably just looking for some food. We stopped at a bread stand and ordered a pastry for the dog, at which point Phillipe had taken to calling “Brutus” (an appropriately ironic name given that our companion was about as loyal as dogs get).
With the bread placed before him, Brutus looked down and stared blankly at the pastry for a moment. Then he trotted over to me to lick the back of my hand. Clearly, he wasn’t looking for food. He was just looking for someone to take care of him.
Brutus was endearing. As the afternoon wore on, he grew on me. I could feel the emotional pangs beginning. Because he was the type of dog that, were I not in the middle of a two year long bicycle journey, I might’ve thought about adopting and taking home with me. The feeling was only cemented when, after we stopped inside a hotel to check out their rooftop bar (but instead got stuck in the elevator for 20 minutes), Brutus was still waiting for us outside. As soon as he saw us through the hotel’s glass door, he began shaking his tail with excitement. He hadn’t given up on us.
We picked up where we left off, wandering the streets with our unlikely companion until we stumbled upon the entrance to another rooftop bar. We hurried inside. We were trying to catch the sunset.
At the door, Brutus made an effort to follow us indoors, but it was not the type of establishment for a street dog. We parted with him at the entrance. And on our way up the stairs, I looked back and saw one of the hotel attendants shoo the dog away.
When it finally came time for us to leave, Brutus was no longer there. I looked up and down the street outside the hotel, but noticed he was nowhere in sight.
It came with a mixture of relief and wistfulness.