I’ve been to Italy once before. Spring break of junior year, my high school sponsored a trip for Italian students (there were only a hand-full of us so they could afford to do this). It was a very big deal; all of the students going and their parents were required to attend multiple meetings where they would discuss our itinerary for the trip, where we were staying, and who would call who in case someone got run over by a Fiat or something.
The most important thing we talked about in those meetings was what to pack. You should only pack comfortable clothing, my Italian teacher said. So we all packed our khaki Bermuda shorts, t-shirts, and of course, sneakers. We would be doing a lot of walking and it would only make sense to wear a pair of sneakers. I took this advice to heart. I even went out to buy a brand new pair of sneakers especially for the trip. I felt so cool at the register; I wasn’t just buying these because I enjoyed athletic footwear. I was going on a tour of southern Italy and I needed those sneakers for the journey.
When our plane landed in Rome I had a rude awakening. Nobody in Italy wore sneakers. Italians, I quickly learned, were too chic for that. I went up and down Rome, Sorrento, and Abruzzi and every person I encountered had the most stylish shoes I had ever seen. Men in soft leather loafers, women in elegant, pointed stilettos, children in mary-janes, and ballet flats – even elderly people (who you would expect to see in some kind of support sneaker) wore fashionable patent leather slip-on shoes.
(if Victoria Beckham can wear these Versace sandals down the street, you can certainly suffer through a sequined flat)
My new sneakers stuck out like a chimpanzee in church. No matter how I tried to speak with the casual Italian I had been practicing on the flight, one look below my ankles and you could be sure I was a tourist. I hated it. I wanted to blend in; I wanted to be a chic Italian! I became obsessed with everyone’s footwear. When we had a free time to walk around looking at ancient architecture and eating gelato, I went straight to the shops to see the latest shoe trends. I compared the craftsmanship in designer heels and sought out the going-rate for ankle boots. In a most desperate yearning to conform, I began secretly photographing shoes that I thought were especially beautiful, interesting, or Italian in their essence. My classmates thought I was crazy, but I was getting an education on Italian culture.
Italians take it easy. They don’t need sneakers because they don’t rush anything. If their feet hurt, they sit down at a café and make small talk with the waiter. They know how to enjoy life and their footwear. This is a lesson I took to heart and, when I return to Italy this summer, I’ll at least know how to look like a local.
I don’t care how much they hurt,