Sunday, July 5, 2009

Meeting Matisse

Every once in a while, when I'm traveling, I meet someone who simply can't be classified.

That was the case with a German man I ran into in Colmar, France, a week before Christmas in 2008. Colmar's Christmas market was in full swing, and part of that market was a display of various farm animals.

When I saw a man walking a donkey on a leash down the street, I made the assumption that he had been involved with the display.

I was completely wrong.

The donkey was being ornery, as they often are, and the man stopped to pet his muzzle and calm him down. We stopped a few feet away and asked if he spoke English.

His German accent wasn't a surprise, as Colmar is in Alsace and is very close to the German border, but what he told us was surprising.

The donkey was named Matisse - after the French painter - and he wasn't in Colmar as part of the Christmas market.

"I take him to the city because he likes to see the lights," the German said. "He really likes to go on walks."

I kind of thought he was kidding, but he was quite serious.

I've seen men walking elephants through the streets of Jaipur in India, but I had expected that. I never would have guessed that men would just hook a rope up to a donkey's bridle and lead him on a leisurely stroll through a French city.

This particular German - I wish I'd gotten his name - said Matisse was 14. Donkeys live into their 40s, he said, adding that they and their owners develop relationships every bit as meaningful as those between dogs and their owners.

We petted Matisse while the German kept beaming and sharing his experiences, and when Matisse looked at the lights, the German nodded in his direction, as if to say, "See, he loves them."

After my mom and sister posed with Matisse for the photo, the German led him off down the street, and not a single person even gave the odd pair a second glance.

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