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When I was about nine years old we had a neighbour from one of those formerly communist Easter European countries. When faced with a dilemma he would say “A bear is a bear except when it’s an ocelot”. It’s an expression that has stayed with me.

I never learned what he meant by it. Come to think of it, I may even have misheard it; he spoke thickly accented english and he was never actually speaking to me (I was nine, as I’ve said), but he often spoke to my parents, and I overheard.

I have always assumed that it was a proverb from his country of origin. It stayed with me because it is delightfully prosaic and annoyingly enigmatic. I was a serious naturalist (that’s the one where you keep your clothes on) and knew that we didn’t have bears in England, and ocelots were as rare as hen’s teeth, globally speaking.

Still, at various times in my life, I have drawn on the uncomprehended wisdom of this mysterious saying, making meaning for myself in all sorts of situations.

Which just goes to show, you don’t have to understand something to make use of it, particularly where advice is concerned.


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