The pain passes, but the beauty remains.— Pierre-Auguste Renoir
‘Check out the woman in the red shirt three sizes too small and the guy in purple plaid shorts,” said David. “Eastern European?” I guessed.
“Yup,” he answered. “I’d bet the digital back to my Hasselblad on it. Even without her gut hanging out from under that shirt and over those jeans, the orange lipstick would have been a dead giveaway.” We sat side by side on an outside patio, enjoying our game of “Guess the Nation of Origin.” As if offering themselves for a more thorough inspection, many people paused to read the menu on the pedestal before us. From one touristy town to another , I thought. If it hadn’t been for Michelangelo’s statue of David staged against the enormous piazza in this unscripted production, I might as well have been sitting outside of Asti Ristorante in the Gaslamp.
“American,” I said, gesturing toward the next couple that stopped in front of us. The American uniform included varying combinations of ball caps, khaki shorts, blue jeans, white socks, sneakers, fanny packs, and T-shirts in innocuous yet irritating pastels. Earlier, I’d told David I felt we were being unpatriotic by choosing to wear all black. But now I’d broken from our dress code, and David looked at my feet with embarrassment. I tore my gaze away from the man reading the menu (whose vibrant-colored shirt depicted a bald eagle’s head rampant on an American flag), glanced down at my feet forlornly, and proclaimed myself guilty of a crime against fashion. Pain was no defense. Then again, I reassured myself, one cannot be expected to think clearly when under extreme duress. My shoes may be ugly, I thought, but at least I can walk in them.
I thought I was so clever, trimming a pound or so off my luggage by bringing just one pair of shoes. Prior to leaving San Diego, I had gone to great lengths to break in my recently acquired “one pair” — a closed, narrow-toed, black suede wedge for all occasions. A walk down University Avenue here, a day of shopping at Fashion Valley there, all of it adding up to what I thought was a sufficient amount of “break-in” time. But six hours of hoofing it in Florence proved me wrong, and now my perfect shoes were in a bag, and on my feet were…well, let me back up a bit and explain myself.
On our first morning in the City of Lilies, the sun had been bright and the sky cloudless, but the air was still cool between the towering ancient stone structures in the shaded narrow streets. The rich, enveloping aroma of simmering garlic and tomatoes wafted down from the windows above, making the air taste good as David and I strolled to the Ponte Vecchio, the Old Florence Bridge, lined with jewelry and leather shops spanning the Arno River. As we made our way to the Piazza della Signoria — the main square containing an impressive stockpile of giant, 15th-century buildings and statues outside the Uffizi Palace — women in high heels and men in suits rode bicycles over cobblestone roads, some steering with only one hand while using the other to chat on a mobile phone; mopeds and miniature cars on three wheels vroomed in and out of the crowd at breakneck speed; and tourists like us walked and gawked at everything we passed.
A few hours later, as the sun rose higher and the air grew hot and humid, my toes began to sweat and swell in my perfect shoes. David empathized; his new shoes, his “one pair” — dressy black sneakers by Prada that he’d ordered online — had begun to chafe his feet. Nevertheless, we continued our trek, though at a hobbled pace. David was the first to surrender, his eyes glittering with the promise of deliverance when he spotted a Prada store. It was a mistake for me to sit down in the store. While walking, I had grown accustomed to a certain level of discomfort; now, returning to my feet after the brief intermission, a shock of pain coursed through my body, so surprising and intense I thought I might pass out.
David, distracted by the comfortable new boots on his feet and the other new pair in the bag with the shoes he’d worn into the store, didn’t notice my agony for another few blocks. “Are you limping?” he asked.
“Yes, my darling shoe whore,” I answered. Acknowledging my torment seemed to increase it, so I stopped and leaned against the nearest wall. “I have a pair of platform sandals in my suitcase back at the hotel,” I said. I had planned to bring only one pair, but I’d given in to friends who had insisted I pack back-up shoes, including my father — a frequent traveler and the most efficient packer I know — who balked at my “brilliant” idea and told me one pair “just wouldn’t cut it.”
“There’s no way I can make it another block, let alone all the way back to our hotel,” I croaked. “And it’s not like I can change into my new shoes.” I lifted the giant purple bag in my hands, which contained my purchase of the day — button-down, knee-high, soft black leather stiletto heeled boots by Lesilla.
“Can you make it to there?” David pointed to a neon green plus sign, marking the pharmacy three doors down. In the window display were Dr. Scholl’s sandals, Crocs, and other geriatric comfort shoes. Never before had they looked so beautiful.
Two men and a woman in white coats eyed me knowingly when I limped through the entrance. “Do you have any of those in red or black?” I asked, pointing to the display. One of the white coats, a tall Indian man who spoke the Queen’s English, disappeared into a back room and returned with an armful of boxes, each of which contained a pair of Crocs in bright Crayon colors, and informed me that they didn’t carry red or black. I reached for a sky blue shoe, and David shook his head vehemently. “Try the orange pair,” he said.
I’ve never liked the way Crocs look, on anyone. I prefer the sexiness of long, narrow, pointy-toed shoes to those wide, clownish rubber clogs. But when I peeled off my imperfect shoes, along with a frightening sample of my skin, and slipped my feet into the spacious, spongy slip-ons, I sighed with relief, pleasure, and a feeling not far from love.
“Those are horrible,” David said, squinting disapprovingly. “I mean, you can’t…you look like Donald Duck.” Despite wearing his own pair of sky-blue Crocs, our clerk couldn’t suppress his laughter. A young blonde at the counter turned around, looked me up and down, and said, “You know, Puma is right around the corner.” But I had already been to Puma, and to several other stores that sell shoes. None of them had a simple, affordable sandal that would let my blisters breathe. Despite the heat, every store in Florence except the pharmacy was stocked only for the fall/winter season.
“Try the pink thongs,” said David. They were actually pink and white, with a Hawaiian floral pattern. To the chagrin of the blonde standing at the counter, shaking her head in sympathetic despondence, I bought the pink Dr. Scholl’s thongs and flip-flopped my way out of the store. I could tell by his chuckles and fervent glances at those around us that David was a bit ashamed to be seen with me. Defensively, I said, “Look, Mr. Prada, when I met you, you were ordering your black T-shirts from Fruit of the Loom and your 505 Levi’s rigid unwashed. Have a heart, okay? I’m handicapped here.”
“It’s just,” David paused to laugh. “You’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. First you’re buying the hottest fine Italian leather boots I’ve ever seen, and now you’re wearing pink thongs .”
“I want a divorce,” I joked, repeating my favorite thing to say since the moment we collected our marriage certificate.
“I’m just saying, those aren’t coming to Venice with us. Or anywhere else. They’ll serve their purpose to get you back to the hotel, which is where we’re going to leave them. Come on, you know you agree with me.”
“Fine,” I said, in mock offense. “They stay behind. Now let’s go grab something to eat and make fun of all the people who are dressed like me.”