Shoe Story 13: Democratic Shoes

By Irena Rodziewicz

Irena is a Polish woman who witnessed major political upheaval in her homeland- from the collapse of the communist system to the birth of democracy. She remembers the longs line-ups for everything that Canadians might take for granted. In the 1980ís she was a teenage girl who wished owning delicate ballerina shoes. During those years she had to walk in sturdy but ugly footwear, dreaming that one day her shoes and her country would change for the better. It took over twenty years for her dreams to become true.

I was born in difficult times - during the communist regime - where any signs of individuality in thinking or dressing were not very welcomed by the government. We walked along our streets with our sad faces wearing dull clothes and sturdy shoes that were typical representatives of the proletariat. Long line-ups were omnipresent. We waited in those for hours on end for food, clothes, cosmetics... everything.

The worst came in 1981, when martial law was imposed. As food and clothing and other goods became scarce, rationing coupons were introduced. Two pairs of shoes per year- nobody worried about the design or colour. Take it or leave it. Sometimes size eight was sold out and to have any shoes at all, I had to buy smaller ones. If necessity is the mother of invention, then she had a lot of children in Poland. We used our creativity to dress as elegantly as possible. We coloured and decorated our shoes, we knitted and we were dressmakers.

I was always a dreamer. On my way to school I had to pass the tank in the centre of Katowice and then a series of policemen in pairs with rifles pointed at everyone who passed. Although life seemed to be unbearable I hoped that someday we would be free and there would be an abundance of merchandise in our stores.

Once, my friendís aunt told us that there are two things that make a woman truly elegant: a good purse and a pair of good quality shoes. Bearing in mind that piece of advice, I dreamt of a pair of beautiful shoes and a purse. During my political science classes, I secretly flipped through the German fashion catalogues my classmate brought to school. She was lucky; her grandparents lived outside the iron curtain. While our teacher tried to brainwash us, I was envisaging myself wearing the fabulous footwear I saw in the catalogues.

I walked in my proletariat shoes to our first democratic election in 1991. We chose the first president of Democratic Republic of Poland. All of sudden we were free and our stores filled up with colour TVs and Gucci clothes. I went to the newly opened shoe store and bought my first pair of democratic shoes.

Size eight, and a very feminine pair of stylish ballerina flats. At least they were stylish in the Ď90ís.

The shoes were sleek and narrow and more frivolous that anything I had before. Only the toes and heels were covered and instep was exposed. There was a narrow, elegant ankle strap attached to a round and delicate metal clasp that prevented my feet from slipping and my ankle from twisting. The leather uppers of the shoe were smooth when touched. The heels were tiny, about 3 centimetres tall, shaped like the stem of a wine glass.

My ballerinas were very light; someone who wears them has to step with grace, like a cat. Later, I got scratches and nicks in the heels because I was not accustomed to wearing such delicate shoes. I had to learn how to walk in my new shoes just as the Polish people had to learn how to live in a new democratic country. It was not as easy as I thought.

I still have those shoes; they are the only pair I brought with me from Poland. The combination of shades of brown and beige reminds me of the colour of coffee latte I have had every morning for the last five years, since coming to Canada. When I was a teenager, coffee latte was a luxury that I never even knew existed.

When new, the shoes were very quiet, almost soundless. Now the heels are worn out so they make a slight clicking sound. They still have a faint smell of leather and the cream I apply to clean them. I have become so attached to my beloved shoes that I never want them to smell of shoe polish.

I look at my shoes now and realize that I have lived through a revolution, albeit a quiet one: witnessing first hand, the political upheaval from the collapse of communism to the birth of a new democracy. Freedom from standing in lineups meant a freedom to walk, eventually to a new homeland.

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