Cross-cultural adventures: Two Americans call a cat in Britain

Fast Eddie went over the fence for the first time this week. We knew the day was coming, but we’d hoped it wouldn’t come quite so soon. He’s still a very small cat in a very large world. He’s built for climbing, though, and climb he did.

The first we knew about it was when we heard a bird doing what Wild Thing calls checking and our neighbor calls alarming.

Fast Eddie, the fiercest kitten for 10 yards in any direction

Fast Eddie, the fiercest kitten for 10 yards in any direction

Americans and Brits agree on what the noun alarm means, but use it any other way and we get into that odd stuff that happens when we think we share a language. In the U.S., if you’re alarmed, you’re moving in the direction of panic. It’s a feeling. Once you cross the Atlantic, though, being alarmed is more likely to involve wiring, as is demonstrated by the signs that say, “This door is alarmed.”

And there I was thinking the door was an inanimate object. So now I’m alarmed myself. The announcement seriously destabilized my world view.

Alarm can also involve actions—for example, the bird we heard was alarming, as in making an alarm call, not as in scaring the hell out of us.

So, with today’s language lesson out of the way, let’s go back to the bird. We heard it making a checking / alarming sound, and Wild Thing asked if I knew where Eddie was.

Insert a moment of, ahem, alarm here, because he was nowhere in the house. We went outside and called. He still wasn’t in the habit of coming when we called (we’re working on it), but we did it anyway because, what the hell, humans are a very strange species and it was something we knew how to do.

I need to interrupt myself for a minute here to talk about cross-cultural cat calling. I can’t swear that this is universal, but the Brits I’ve noticed calling cats tend to bend over, rub their fingers together, and say something quiet, like “puss, puss, puss.”

How do Wild Thing and I call our cats? With a two-note call that’s approaches a yodel: “kitt-TEEEE. KITT-teeee” You can hear us most of the way to Devon. Even in Minnesota, it marked us as not being local.

Okay, it wasn’t the only thing that let people know that, but I do remember standing on our open front porch one night when the air was so cold I thought my lungs would shatter and calling our cat by yodeling, “FUZZbucket, KITT-teeee.” (Go ahead, laugh at the name. Everyone else did. A friend used to call him Fuzzbuster and Fuzzduster, with the occasional Fussbudget thrown in for luck. I still think it was a great name.) From the far end of the dark street, a man’s voice echoed, word for word and note for note, “FUZZbucket, KITT-teeee.” I’d call, he’d call, I’d call, he’d call. He had the notes and the tone down perfectly, and I figured if Fuzz had any intention of coming in the echo wouldn’t hurt.

He didn’t, of course. He was a cat. And an old lady down the street used to feed him canned shrimp and keep him with her during the coldest weather. I’m sure he told her he had nowhere else to go.

But that’s a different story and a different place. In this place, I was worried that Eddie might have gone over a fence and discovered that the other side didn’t offer him a way to climb back, and there he’d be, a very small kitten on the wrong side of a tall wall.

So Wild Thing went to our over-the-tallest-fence neighbors. They don’t live on our street and to get to them you more or less have to run up to London, then Hamburg, and then come back to Cornwall to our village to a different street and go through their front gate, which sometimes sticks so badly that you need a chisel and a hammer to get through, and all of that is necessary because, unlike Minneapolis, the neighborhoods here don’t have alleys and the yards here don’t have back gates. In fact, they’re not yards at all, they’re called gardens, and if they’re close together they have barricade-like fences or hedges meant to screen you and your thoughts from any awareness that you have neighbors. It gives back yards (sorry—they’ll always be yards to me) a sense of privacy and quiet, but it could strike someone used to American yards as unfriendly. (I’m not one of them. I like that sense of quiet.)

So Wild Thing was gone for a while, hiking to London and Hamburg and Cornwall and then through the neighbors’ gate, which didn’t happen to stick that day, and I couldn’t think of anything useful to do with myself so I worked on the bread I was making, which was ready to shape into loaves. And at some point something almost weightless brushed against my ankles and I looked down and found Eddie, who hadn’t a clue in the world that he’d just caused an uproar and wouldn’t have minded much if he had known.

So I did what any dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker would do: I went out back and bellowed for Wild Thing. When I was a kid, that’s how the mothers in our neighborhood called us—they leaned out the windows and bellowed our names. (What the ones whose apartments didn’t have windows on the street did I never stopped to wonder. Chose not to reproduce? Lost their kids forever? Waited till they got hungry enough to wander home? I just don’t know.) That was also how we called our mothers: We stood on the sidewalk, tipped our heads back, and bellowed up. To this day, my voice–well, no one who hears me is left with the impression that I’m shy. If you want to bring down the walls of Jericho, leave the trumpets at home and convince me that they need to come down.

Back in New York, every mother somehow knew her own kids’ voices well enough that they didn’t all pop their heads out in unison when one of us bellowed, even though we all yelled the same word, “Mom.”

Oh, damn, I’m getting teary. Thanks for being able to pick my voice out of the maelstrom, Mom. I miss you.

Minnesotans never seemed to bellow for their kids. I don’t know how they got them home. Compared to New Yorkers, Minnesotans are indirect. Or repressed, if you prefer. Or well behaved. It’s all in how you see it. Maybe the intensity of their frustration sends out a vibe that the kids pick up.

But however long I’ve been away from Manhattan, I’m still a New Yorker, so I bellowed. And Wild Thing, who’d just gotten into the neighbors’ yard, answered in true New York fashion (she lived there for ten years and picked up the important skills).

She started the long trek home, and our neighbor, G., who’d somehow managed to hear all this (damn, that man has good ears) popped up on his side of a different fence (we have three immediate neighbors), which is about shoulder height, even on me, and said he’d heard the bird alarming, then seen Eddie running along the top of the fences. The fences make a fine highway if you’re a cat.

Then, G. said, he heard us calling Eddie.

And no doubt laughed his ass off at the volume and sheer uselessness of it all, but he was far too kind–or maybe that’s well behaved–to say so.

66 thoughts on “Cross-cultural adventures: Two Americans call a cat in Britain

  1. yes…I summon my cats in similar way…although I tend to call “kittens” or “menaces” rather than “puss”

    I always laugh at door signs that say “this door is alarmed” I always wonder what happened to frighten it!
    I would much prefer it if the sign said “this door has an alarm attached to it” it would be more accurate but I suspect people would get bored reading it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ok, I have two indoor cats, both of whom know their names and will come (or at least look up) when called, on the off chance that shout of “Noodles!” (or “Bella!”) might be paired with a tasty cat treat.

    When we first adopted the younger cat, Bella, she was unfamiliar with the house rules, and would make a mad dash through any unguarded, open doorway. The escape would mobilize the entire family in a sort of Keystone Kops foray into the neighborhood where kids would be instructed to get on their hands and knees to crawl under (usually) parked automobiles, my husband and I would crash into each other as we anticipated different (and wrong) next moves by the cat, and all of us would trample the neighbor’s greenery. We would tire of this game shortly before the cat did, and once we would collapse (in tears) in the driveway, Bella would wander back over to us and act like nothing had happened.

    Yeah. Cats are fun.

    Don’t your outdoorsy cats kill a lot of birds? I think this is kind of an issue over there, isn’t it? I’m not a fan of birds (or any non-mammalians, tbh), and there’s a blue jay who’s been squawking outside my bedroom window at dawn for a couple of months now so I don’t need an alarm Monday-Friday, but I’d like to give Bella five minutes alone in a room with that bird every Saturday and Sunday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that tale, and the images it called up. I’ll treasure them. I’m sure your neighbors loved it all. (“Harry? Get over here quick! They’re all out there again.”)

      Smudge–the cat who was hit by a car not long ago–was a hunter, and it got pretty grim around here sometimes. Our nineteen-year-old cat has never been much of a hunter, and we’re hoping Eddie won’t be either. Smudge came from a farm, where he grew up hunting mice in the barn, which I’m sure was appreciated. The other two don’t have that background, so we can hope Eddie won’t be as lethal.


  3. I bellow when calling in my kids. My husband is always reminding me we live in a quiet suburb and they can hear me even if I drop a few decibels. That might be true but small humans are like cats in that they might hear but they don’t listen.

    Anyway, I’m glad Fast Eddie proved he could return of his own accord as well as wander independently. I remember the first time my last cat disappeared and being panic stricken the whole time that he would never make it back. Cats just like to keep us on our toes to remind us who’s boss.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was such a fun read. Now I know why our girls are inside cats. We had a male who used to escape, so I’ve been on the chase. I used the loud whisper (Oreo) but never the yodel method. I’m glad Fast Eddie is home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An outdoor cat’s a constant worry, but they’re so much happier. For a while in Minneapolis we had to keep ours in (someone in the neighborhood was killing cats), and I do think that being able, finally, to let them out made their lives better. But I understand keeping them in, and I could make an argument in favor of it.


  5. The (rural) Michigan cat yodel is more of a three note process: (Very high pitch) HERE (very low pitch, repeated as long as you have air) kittykittykittykittykitt (ending with an extreme high pitch short) EE!
    Calling kids was pretty similar. There was a lady farmer with two sons who always seemed to be on the other side of the field when she wanted them, or anyway Randy was. I can still here her calling RAN-DALLLL from half a mile away!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I never lived in Michigan, but I do sometimes do the HERE kittykittykitty call.

      A kid whose mother called him Binky used to live on our block in New York, and my mother never really got over the way she’d stick her head out the window and yell, “BinKEEEEE. BINkeee.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s been a long time since I had to holler for a cat, but I did call out Here KittyKitty! KittyKittyCasey! Which had much longer EEEEEEEEs. I don’t holler for my kids, tho, I blow a whistle. The dog is also whistle trained, so she always expects a treat when the whistle is blown, and she always gets one ;)
    Another great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m caretaker for five cats. Four inside and a stray. The indoor cats are easy call a different cat. .. If you use the right name, the one you want will come. The stray comes because it means food..I use a loud “Stripe”.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This post was so funny, I would have set my ALARM early to read it. (Oh, that was bad! Sorry!) Calling your cat was not as bad as I used to call my kids home… with a cowbell! And, yes, ALL the kids in the neighborhood knew what it meant when the bell rang. I’d ring it once, then hear a chorus of, “Stefani, Jeremy, your mom wants you!” LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This was so fun to read! I learned something new about the British language, and we Minnesotans got a shout-out. I would say our Minnesota nice keeps us from bellowing. And the fact that most of our neighborhoods are smaller, thus less need for high volume. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Minnesota Nice accounts for almost everything. I should’ve thought to say that and thanks for reminding me.

      One reason the New York mothers bellowed was the height of the buildings (fifth floor apartment, kid on the sidewalk? you need to be loud) and another was the noise of the city that they had to rise above. And a third, of course, was that it was just how things were done. My sense is that the Minneapolis neighborhoods I lived in were more spread out than my street in New York, so an inventive mind could have come up with good reasons for bellowing, but it’s just not the Minnesota way. Isn’t it funny how powerful that is?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow, that’s a lot of comments! Just to add mine – loved it, Ellen so funny and alarming … As a Brit born and bred I thought that awful notice ‘This door is alarmed’ was an Americanism – and very funny. True Brits never use it that way – we use it your way: the notice means an inanimate object is experiencing emotion, and that’s just ridiculous. See how we are just the same really? Not!

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. What a delightful and very descriptive post! I enjoyed the differences between the word “alarm” and also the comparison to calling cats and kids! Indeed, I know exactly what you’re talking about in NY having to call up to your mom or having her call down to you…No one got things mistaken and everyone knew whose voice was beckoning…And hmmm, you make a good point about those whose windows didn’t face the street? Perhaps they had those whose windows did face the street fill in as a surrogate screamer?
    Hope all is well with you! We are gearing up for the Fourth of July weekend!
    All my very best,

    Liked by 1 person

    • If we don’t hear from anyone who grew up in an apartment with no windows facing the street, maybe we’ll have to conclude that those kids didn’t survive–their parents could call them so they missed their meals and failed to grow up. Very sad, but extensive research suggests…

      I’d actually forgotten the July 4 is coming up. When no one around you celebrates a holiday, it takes an effort to remember that it is a holiday. We’re social creatures. (I was going to say herd animals, but social creatures sounded more polite.)


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  15. I’ve just finished wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes. I love your powers of observation and your writing style. I’m now thoroughly looking forward to going through the rest of your blog. Thanks for the giggle :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susiewoo, and welcome. And by way of an update: Fast Eddie is now closing in on six months old and is exploring a growing but still small part of the neighborhood. But last week he didn’t come in at bedtime and we were both worried. Wild Thing stayed up waiting for him and watching bad movies. I went to bed and slept badly. Finally Wild Thing gave up and came to bed. And at some point in he came–his still almost weightless feet marching unceremoniously across us. And did he offer an explanation the next morning? He did not.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. In (this corner of) Virginia everyone says “Kittykittykittykitty” (beginning with “Heeere…” is optional). The shriller the pitch and faster the tongue movement can go, the better.

    Each of my resident cats has had an individual name and call, the call sometimes qualifying as a short song. Usually the junior cats also come when the senior cat is called. Most do seem to know their names, though not all learn other words.

    But they all seem to be born responding to “Kittykittykitty.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never called our cats any other way than calling than heeeeere kitty, kitty, kitty. In a high and ridiculous voice. And they come if they feel like it. They know, at least, what I mean. I use their names when I’m talking to them, but you know how closely cats listen to us.


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