book reviews, dogs, Virginia

Reviewing My Journey with Ernie: Lessons from a Turkey Dog, by Heidi H. Speece

A few weeks ago, I ran across an entertaining article in the Daily Press, a newspaper I read when I was growing up in Gloucester, Virginia. I had to use a VPN to read the article, thanks to the strict privacy laws in Europe that have made reading the news from home more complicated. I am glad I had the VPN, though. Otherwise, I might not have ever had the opportunity to read about Ernie, an adorable golden retriever “Turkey Dog” who is now happily living in York County, just across the river from where I spent my youth.

In that Daily Press article, I was introduced to Heidi H. Speece, a high school English teacher who decided she needed a change in her life. Change was most certainly in the cards for Heidi– in the form of a rescue dog from the streets of Istanbul. After I read the newspaper story, I was interested in reading Speece’s book. It turns out we have a lot in common, and not only because I grew up just over the river from where she now lives. We’re close in age, and I was once an English teacher, albeit only for a couple of years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Like me, Heidi Speece is a dog lover. Her former golden retriever, Buddy, had died about a year before Speece heard of a very special dog rescue called Kyra’s Rescue, which is based in Washington, DC. Kyra’s Rescue aims to find homes for stray dogs, primarily from Turkey. Turkey has a big problem with homeless dogs, many of which are golden retrievers or mixes thereof.

After Buddy died, Speece was missing canine company. She had visited Turkey on a cruise in the late 90s and had loved the country. So she contacted Kyra’s Rescue and started the process of adopting Ernie, a golden retriever who was found abandoned outside a Turkish auto body shop in March 2017. Now about ten years old, Ernie has brought Speece laughter, adventure, and much joy. But it could have turned out very differently for Ernie if not for a few guardian angels, both in Turkey and the United States.

When he was found, Ernie was malnourished, mangy, and had a bad hip injury, most likely caused by being hit by a car. He had managed to survive, thanks to kindhearted mechanics who worked at the auto body shop. They gave him scraps of food and let him sleep in the shop when the weather got too inclement. Later, a woman took Ernie to a pet boarding facility, where he was eventually connected with Kyra’s Rescue. Ernie arrived in the United States on July 4, 2017; Heidi picked him up in the parking lot of an IKEA the next day, and gave him the middle name “Bert”. You can probably guess why she added the name “Bert”, if you are familiar with the children’s TV show, “Sesame Street”. I used to live in northern Virginia, so I know exactly where the IKEA is where Heidi and Ernie came together!

I am familiar with the homeless dog issue myself, having spent two years in neighboring Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I still vividly remember the packs of street dogs there. I’ve also visited Turkey, so I’m not surprised that there are stray dogs there. However, I was surprised to read that the homeless dogs in Turkey are often golden retrievers. Golden retrievers are originally from Scotland. Also, I’d always known them as great family dogs, lovable, sweet, and friendly. But then, although I’ve adopted several rescue dogs, I have little personal experience with golden retrievers.

As I read Speece’s hilarious story about Ernie and his non-stop antics, I sort of understood better why they might be cast out of their human families– not at all that I condone abandoning a pet. It turns out that golden retrievers are sweet, but very mischievous! People who are inexperienced with golden retrievers sometimes adopt them, forgetting that the cute little puppy will eventually grow into a large dog who can raise all kinds of ruckus. Very soon, Heidi Speece got the excitement she needed, as her new companion collected balls, ran amok at football games, and attacked model skeletons in veterinary offices. Ernie quickly bonded with Heidi’s mom, who lives in Williamsburg. She dubbed herself Ernie’s “grandmummy” and also eventually adopted a “Turkey Dog” from Kyra’s Rescue, another golden retriever named Limerick.

I really appreciated the thoughtful touches that are included in My Journey With Ernie. I mentioned that Heidi Speece teaches English, so her book includes some resources that other authors might not have considered. At the end of her story, she admits to knowing that high school students often use tools such as “Cliff’s Notes” to familiarize themselves with works of literature. In that vein, Speece offers a “watered down” version of her story, including a cast of characters, which makes it easy for me to remind myself of details I might have missed while reading the book. I thought it was an ingenious touch!

My Journey With Ernie was just published last month, so the information in it is very current. Speece even writes about a recent rule from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that is wreaking havoc with Americans who have pets and live overseas. In July 2021, the CDC imposed a temporary ban on importing dogs to the United States from countries at “high risk” of rabies transmission. Turkey is on that list or high risk countries, so at the moment, it’s much harder for Americans to adopt dogs from Turkey.

I’m in a Facebook group for servicemembers who are moving to or from the United States with pets. Germany is NOT on the CDC’s banned list of import countries. However, because of the hassle and potential liability issues from the ban, Lufthansa, Germany’s national airline, which happens to be among the best for transporting dogs, has also reportedly been declining to transport animals to the United States from Germany. It’s caused a huge problem for people who are trying to rotate back to the States from Germany with their dogs.

I’ve read many panicked messages from Americans trying to move back to the States with dogs and running into roadblocks. And the new rule also doesn’t help that negative impression some Germans have of American dog owners. Speece rightfully points out that, although the rule came about because someone imported a rabies positive dog from Azerbaijan, the odds of other dogs coming to the States with rabies is tiny. The new rule really does make things difficult for a lot of people and their pets. I speak from personal experience that international travel with dogs has never been easy or cheap, even before the pandemic struck and this new rule was enacted. Hopefully, some successful lobbying will get the rule dropped or restructured so that it doesn’t cause such a hardship for Americans who live abroad.

As my regular readers might know, Bill and I adopted a street dog ourselves last year. On August 31, 2019, our beloved beagle, Zane, died of lymphoma. Ordinarily, we would have contacted a beagle rescue and adopted another beagle to keep our surviving dog, Arran, company. But beagles aren’t as popular in Germany as they are in the United States, so they aren’t as easy to adopt here.

Americans also suffer from a lingering bad reputation among animal shelters in Germany, thanks to some members of the military abandoning their pets before leaving Germany to go back to the States or elsewhere. A lot of Americans in Germany who want a dog end up buying them from breeders. We didn’t want to buy a dog from a breeder. Bill and I did try to adopt a beagle from a German pet rescue, just as the pandemic began. But thanks to a series of disasters and an ultimate tragedy, that adoption didn’t work out. You can search my blog for the story on that incident.

But happily, we do have another dog now, which makes me have something else in common with Heidi Speece– as our latest dog is also from a country that has issues with strays. A fellow dog loving friend and dog rescuer introduced me to an American woman named Meg who lives in Germany and rescues dogs in Kosovo. That’s how we ended up with Noyzi, our Kosovar street dog. Noyzi was found by a young man from Pristina. He was a four week old puppy, all alone and screaming in the street. The young man named Noyzi after an Albanian rapper and gave him to Meg, who kept him for about two years, until Noyzi finally found his way to Germany through Bill and me.

Next month, we will have had Noyzi for a year. It’s been such a pleasure and honor to watch Noyzi go from being a terrified and confused dog, to a loving companion and family member who surprises us every day. No, Noyzi isn’t a beagle, and he’s not like any of our other dogs. He’s very special and much loved. So, on that level, I could relate to Heidi Speece’s story about adopting her “Turkey Dog”. By all rights, Ernie, like Noyzi, should not have survived puppyhood. But look at both of these dogs now! They are living their best lives. In a way, it’s a reminder that the American Dream can be a very real thing– even to species other than human!

I suppose if I had to offer a criticism of My Journey With Ernie, it’s that I’m sure some people will point out that there are plenty of homeless dogs in the United States. But personally, I am not going to offer that criticism, since I have a dog from Kosovo, and he’s changed and improved my life. I can tell that Ernie has given Heidi Speece the change she needed in her life. And Ernie has no doubt made a lot of people smile, which is the job that dogs do best.

If you love dog stories, I would definitely recommend Heidi Speece’s book, My Journey with Ernie: Lessons from a Turkey Dog. I’m glad I read it, especially since I have so much in common with the author. I think it will appeal to anyone who has ever loved dogs and adventure. It’s a quick, easy read, entertaining, and often hilarious. And it really does touch my heart to know that Ernie and Limerick have found new lives in America. Dogs are wonderful for bringing people together and helping them form friendships. I feel like I have a friend in Heidi Speece, even if we’ve never met!

Well, Noyzi the Kosovar street dog is now pestering me for a walk. I’m sure Arran will join him soon. I guess this ends today’s fresh content. I hope you’ll read Heidi Speece’s book and let me know what you think!

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history, lessons learned, musings, politics

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it…” George Santayana

Last night, as Bill and I were enjoying the cool evening sundown in our backyard, I suddenly remembered what I had wanted to write about yesterday. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of connections between people, events, and other things I’ve run into, like books, videos, and music. A few days ago, we had a memorial for a guy I knew in the Peace Corps. My former colleague and I served in Armenia, which has been in the news in recent years as the people there try to get the Armenian Genocide recognized by the international community. I am now living in Germany, where people have been trying to make amends for the Holocaust, which took place during World War II.

The other day, I was watching YouTube videos and happened to see one about The Holocaust. It was very well done and informative. I’ve read a lot of books about people who survived The Holocaust, and I’ve watched many videos about the experiences of people during that time. But, for some reason, this particular video made me think more about what happened than the others had. Or maybe this idea popped up because I have been talking to people I knew in Armenia, and Armenia is more on my mind than usual. It occurred to me that I’ve lived in Armenia, where people are descended from victims of genocide. And now I live in Germany, where I am surrounded by people whose ancestors had a part in committing genocide. It definitely offers a unique perspective. Or, at least I think it does.

Before I lived in Armenia, I had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. In fact, I barely knew anything about Armenia. The only reason I’d even heard of it was because my fourth grade teacher was of Armenian descent and told us a little bit about his heritage. At that time, Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, so as a nine year old, I never thought I would ever get to visit there, let alone live there. My teacher did not speak about the Genocide. He told us about how Armenians were Christians and that most people’s last names end in “ian”. He said Armenians were very proud of being Christians, hence the “ian” at the end of their names. Now I know that’s factually incorrect, but it sounded good to me when I was nine.

I also remember my Armenian fourth grade teacher played Jesus Christ: Superstar for us. I didn’t hear that music again until I moved to Armenia in 1995, where it was everywhere. People in Armenia LOVED Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical. I even bought a bootleg cassette of the album and quickly became familiar with it. Andrew Lloyd Webber was very popular in the 80s and 90s, anyway, so I don’t know if Armenians always loved that show or it just became popular during their sudden independence in the 90s. Bill and I finally saw a production of it in Washington, DC in 2004.

I remember resisting this music when I was nine, but I ended up loving it when I was in Armenia.

The Armenian Genocide, which occurred from 1915-1917, resulted in the mass murder of over one million ethnic Armenians by Ottoman Turks. The murders were achieved through death marches into the Syrian desert and mass executions. Many Armenian women and children were forced to convert to Islam. When I was in Armenia, I worked in a school in Yerevan that was named after a famous Genocide victim and poet, Ruben Sevak. I see that it’s now an elementary school, but when I was teaching there, there were students of all ages, and I taught kids who ranged in age from 7 to 16 years old. During my first months at that school, Ruben Sevak’s daughter, Shamiram, who was then in her 80s and lived in France, came to Yerevan. She attended a party thrown for her at my school. I tried to keep up with all the toasts and got very, very drunk. That was probably the drunkest I’ve ever been in my life!

While searching for Ruben Sevak’s daughter’s name, I found this fascinating blog post about Sevak and his family. I learned that Ruben Sevak (Sevak translates to “black eyes”) was actually a pseudonym. His real name was Roupen Chilingirian, and he was born in a city called Silivri, located about 37 miles from the city now known as Istanbul, but then called Constantinople. His family was wealthy, and Ruben was well educated. He became a physician, having studied in exclusive schools, including medical school at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He met his wife in Switzerland, Helene (Jannie) Apell. Big surprise– she was from a German military family! Their respective families objected to their romantic affair, but Ruben and “Jannie” finally got married in Lausanne, and later had a religious ceremony at the Armenian Church of Paris. The young couple had a son named Levon in 1912, and then their daughter, Shamiram, was born in 1914.

Ruben Sevak became politically active, joining the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. He was a prolific writer, and his works were published in literary journals and newspapers. He wrote a book of poetry in 1909. It was titled The Red Book, and the works within it recalled the Adana massacre— an event in which Armenian Christians were killed by Ottoman Muslims. He planned to write more poetry and political works in more books. He would never get the chance to fulfill that dream. Clearly, Sevak’s writings were threatening to the Ottoman Turks. He was one of the million people killed during the Armenian Genocide, having been conscripted in 1914 and serving as a military doctor in Turkey. In June 1915, Sevak was arrested, and though his wife and her parents tried valiantly to save his life, even involving the German government, their efforts would be in vain. Ruben Sevak was murdered on August 26, 1915.

If you’d like to know more about Ruben Sevak, I highly recommend following this link to the blog post I mentioned earlier. I wish I had known this story when I worked in the school named for Ruben Sevak. It actually blows my mind that I was once in the same room with one of Ruben Sevak’s direct descendants. I’m sure she’s gone now, but how amazing is it that she visited the school where I worked in 1995? What are the odds that I, an American from a small town in Virginia, would one day work in a country that was once part of a larger country that was pretty much off limits to Americans until 1991? And then I would attend a party held in honor of the daughter of a famous poet and doctor who was murdered in the Armenian Genocide? Fate is an incredible thing.

Playing For Time… a movie about the Holocaust that I saw on TV in the 80s.

I had heard of the Holocaust when I was growing up, but to be honest, I think it was because I had seen a made for television movie calling Playing For Time. That film aired in 1980, and my parents let me watch it, even though I was 8 years old. I remember the movie starred Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander. It was about young Jewish women in a death camp who were musicians tasked with playing music for arriving prisoners and entertaining Nazi bigwigs. I’m not sure I totally understood the film as I watched it. I do remember thinking it was interesting and I never forgot it, but the horror of what it was about didn’t dawn on me until years later. And I honestly don’t remember learning about what actually went on during World War II when I was in school. Of course, that was many years ago. Maybe I’m mistaken. But it seems like there was so much that had to be covered during those years that we didn’t spend a long time talking about one specific incident in history. U.S. schools, at least in the 80s, covered world history in ninth or tenth grade, U.S. history in eleventh grade, and Government in twelfth grade. Prior to that, we had civics in eighth grade and social studies in seventh grade and below. I’m not even sure if learning about the Holocaust was considered age appropriate in those days.

Fascinating video, if you can take the subject matter.

So there I was a few days ago, watching the above video about the Holocaust, which had popped up randomly in my YouTube queue. I listened as the narrators described the conditions the Holocaust victims encountered as they arrived at Auschwitz. I tried to imagine the terror and extreme horror of it on some level. I thought to myself that I probably wouldn’t have survived, if I had been among the unfortunate people who went to Auschwitz or the other death camps. Hearing about it and seeing the footage is one thing, but actually living through that– watching friends and loved ones being marched off to be executed, freezing in filthy, inadequate clothes and shoes, starving while being worked to death, getting deathly ill or badly hurt and being forced to keep working… being treated as worse than the lowest form of life. It’s just so hard to reconcile that reality with what I’ve seen in Germany, having now spent about nine years of my life in this country. It amazes me that such decent people can be reduced to treating other human beings the way Holocaust victims were treated. I can’t imagine sinking so low… and yet so many ordinary people did.

It suddenly dawned on me that I have now lived in a country whose citizens were systematically exterminated by Ottoman Turks. And I have also lived in a country whose citizens systematically exterminated Jewish people, as well as political prisoners, Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anyone else Hitler didn’t like. I read that Adolf Hitler was actually inspired by the Armenian Genocide when he came up with his “Final Solution”.

This is a screenshot of the text on the last link… Hitler’s justification of the Holocaust, inspired by the murder of Armenians in the Genocide.

Then I thought of our present day situation. I read that Donald Trump is being encouraged to run for president again. He “handily won” a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. I have mentioned before that I see some similarities between Trump and Hitler. No, he’s not yet having people rounded up and sent to concentration camps to be murdered, although some people have compared the situation at the southern border of the United States to the Holocaust. I’m not sure I would go that far, as many of the people in that situation weren’t necessarily rounded up from their homes and forced to march to detention centers. And I don’t think there’s really anything that quite compares to the absolute sickness and sheer awfulness of the Holocaust. At least not yet.

Hmmm…
Worth a view.

The similarities I do see between Trump and Hitler have to do with the way both men worked a crowd, as well as some of the historical events in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise to power, and the actual things that both men say– which are things that most narcissistic types say. The narrator in the above video describes how Germans were caught up in fear, poverty, and bigotry. The public were frustrated and looking for scapegoats on which to blame Germany’s depressed economy. Hitler exploited people’s fears, humiliation, anger, and ignorance to get common citizens to accept him as the only person who could make Germany great again. Elections were suppressed, and soon Hitler became a tyrant who murdered millions of innocent people. If you listen to Trump’s speeches and compare them to Hitler’s speeches, you hear a lot of the same kind of stuff. No, they aren’t exactly alike, and they never will be. But I do see similarities that disturb me, and I am not the only one.

Another quotable idea.

I have watched from afar as people in my country have become more and more radicalized and unreasonable. I have seen a lot violence and heard a lot of disturbing rhetoric. I believe a lot of Americans think of Trump as their savior. They ignore the many disturbing signs of his extreme narcissism, as well as the obvious efforts of Republicans to suppress votes from people who won’t vote for them. People are very polarized and some have forgotten their basic sense of decency and compassion. I actually worry less that Trump will be re-elected than someone younger, smarter, more charismatic, healthier, and crueler might be waiting in the wings, ready to take over when Trump inevitably meets his end. I have noticed a lot of vocal Republicans who are rallying disenfranchised and ignorant people to support them in their quest to reclaim power.

“You don’t know me, but I’m your brother…”

Maybe I shouldn’t be writing blog posts like this one. Maybe I will end up being rounded up and killed. I’m sure the people who perished in the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust had no clue that one day, they would face the horrors they faced. But I can’t help but think of Spaniard George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” So I hope and pray that enough of my fellow Americans open their eyes and demand decency and compassion in our leadership.

If you’re supporting a politician who is beloved by the KKK or Neo-Nazi groups, you may want to re-evaluate your choices. Do you really want to be lumped in a group of people who are driven to hate and kill others? Isn’t it better if we come together in peace and moderation? Is money and power really worth more than other people’s lives? Think about it… and all of the exceptional people who have died because of extremism and the desire for power, money, racism, and religion.

Look familiar?
Trump refused to condemn the KKK. He claims to know nothing about white supremacists, and yet they all love and endorse him.
Holy shit. This man was a protestor. Trump is all about silencing the critics.
And yet, they still love Trump, despite his “condemnation” of their groups! Why is that?

So ends today’s blog sermon… Gotta take Arran and Noyzi for a walk before the rain starts again.

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