Upon our arrival in August, fewer finer pleasures awaited us than being greeted by Stevie, Sara Borella’s independent-minded beagle. With his endearing long ears and his purposeful gait, Stevie was a reminder that the Steger Center is a home in the best sense. Kitchen and dining area, fireplace, garden and other cozy amenities were complemented by the presence (and antics) of little Stevie. If he was nothing else, Stevie was entertaining. Sara maybe had an inkling as to how grateful we were that she brought Stevie with her from Bellinzona to work each day. But only an inkling.
I think it was W.C. Fields who once quipped, “Well, the man hates dogs and children – he can’t be all that bad.” We didn’t see many children at the Steger Center, but this was certainly not the prevailing ethos when it came to dogs in Riva. Or cats and rabbits for that matter. We were all badly missing our family pets, abandoned back in the States and available to us only on FaceTime. Mila’s great Leonberger Lyra, Kevin’s dogs Maud and Albert, Caroline’s rescue Olive, my own beloved Henry, and (this is my favorite) Morgan’s rabbit “Sir.” Stevie would need to step in as the surrogate for these and a great many other pets we pined for over the course of the fall semester.
Stevie is very stubborn. And opinionated, especially when it comes to the important things. When he was not detained signing autographs or sleeping in his office, Stevie was on constant lookout for food. In the Steger Center cafeteria, in Riva’s and Lugano’s restaurants and bars, in my apartment (I dog sat for an afternoon), in the students’ apartments and on his daily walks to and from the train station in Capolago, Stevie had just one thing on his mind. And he quickly learned that the opportunities afforded by the Steger Center were limitless.
But that wasn’t the face Stevie put on – he is much too smart to let on that he was six steps ahead of you when it came to strategizing for a handout or a second meal. When I checked in on Sara after her first couple of days as the new Executive Director of the Center, I learned that Stevie had already earned a reputation. He managed to snatch away Michele’s lunch, and this on his first day on the job. Sara quickly ran out to replace Michele’s sandwich, and fortunately Michele – a cat person deep down – is good humored about such things. With forty-some students and staff about the villa on any given day, there were lots of treats to be had in the students’ rooms, in the hallway coming out of the cafeteria, in the sitting rooms (buried in the couch cushions, behind the pillows), and just about anyplace else.
Stevie was usually held in check by Sara and his leash, to be sure, but on occasion he would effect an escape – or Sara would happily cede control to one of us. An especially fond memory I have was when Ally returned with Stevie after a sojourn to the apartments, and looking exasperated exclaimed to Sara, “He just doesn’t listen!”
To say that Stevie is willful – most of all in his pursuit of food – is like saying water is wet. Whether it’s been nature or nurture, Stevie is a dog with agency.
It was the evening at Sara’s home in Bellinzona that convinced me of the full range of Stevie’s abilities. Together with Clive, Amy and Bob for dinner, Sara had prepared a lovely raclette followed by a gorgeous apple-craisin pie. (The crust alone was – as Sarah Van Hook would say – sublime). Shortly before dessert was served, Stevie perked up and got in position, next to my chair. Discussion about concerts we had seen (or wished we had seen) in the 70s and 80s could not have interested Stevie less. In fact, he appeared to realize that the deeper the conversation, the better his chances. I had only managed a bite of that delicious pie before Stevie suddenly jumped, lunging over my lap to seize the generous slice from my plate. And before he ducked under the table (knowing all too well he would need to avoid punishment), he gave me a just a brief sideways glance, as if to say, “You, my friend, are clueless.”
So uncanny was Stevie’s urge to eat that his appetite became a frequent subject of discussion at the villa, especially at lunch (and not a few times in class). We teased Sara, reminding her that she needed to remember to feed Stevie at least once a day. During meals Evan and I would sneak Stevie pieces of bread, and Sara would pretend not to notice. Stevie’s eyes would grow big as he came to understand (we hoped) that Evan and I were friends, and that we actually had his back. Truth be told, we were at a disadvantage, as Stevie much prefers women to men. Many of us witnessed his great excitement when Krystal or Destiny walked into his office, when Jessica escorted him to class, or when Fabiola or Michele or Caroline chased him down in the stairway with yet another prize in his mouth.
While he is usually tethered to Sara, Stevie is a dog who moves in his own inimitable orbit.