Some early feedback I received on an early draft of my novel was that there were far too many references to shoes and footwear.  It provoked quite a lot of debate, but I’ve more or less stuck to my guns on the topic, largely because when I first arrived in Moscow I was very conscious of my footwear and the ever present risk of falling over, as, inevitably, I always seemed to have on the wrong shoes.

In my more pretentious moments I think it is the perfect metaphor for how unprepared I was for my stint there.

Utterly unsuitable

When I went for my ‘look see’ visit in December 1994, I took a pair of thick soled boots with me, but packed in my luggage.  Because, in my mind, I would be spending most of my day at the airport and on the flight, and then I was told I would be met at the airport and taken straight to my hotel, I wore a normal pair of ‘office’ court shoes for my journey.

When I finally found the driver at Sheremetyevo airport he looked me  up and down, and pausing at my feet, said ‘are those only shoes?’  Everything in me curled up.  I scurried after him ‘I do have boots in my bag.’

He told me to wait for him just outside the door and I stood hopping from one foot to the other, not wanting to have both feet on the freezing ground at the same time.  When I got into the car, the foot well was already filled with a pool of melting snow, which my shoes gradually absorbed, as I sat scrunched up, my bags on my knee, holding onto the handle above the door.

Arriving at the hotel, I had to navigate the marble entranceway, slick and slippery as a polished ice rink, without falling.  I made my first faltering attempts at the Russian way of sliding ones feet along the ground without quite lifting them and without pushing too much on the trailing foot.  Young Russian women can do it in high heeled boots at high speed, a skill I never mastered.

Not those kind of boots

Later, confident that I had worked out that boots were mandatory, I met my hosts who were taking me to an opera at the Bolshoi.  They both looked at my feet and said ‘you do have indoor shoes with you, don’t you?’  So I had to go back up to my room, get my inadequate pumps and carry them in with me in a plastic carrier bag.  At the Bolshoi I then tottered around on one foot changing my shoes before handing the boots with my coat in at the cloakroom.

When I was living in the city I worked out my own routine.  I wore boots outside and had a collection of ‘office’ shoes which lived underneath my desk, as I hated carrying shoes around in a plastic bag.  The routine for getting dressed and undressed to go out became rote.  Thick socks, boots tied and ready before even contemplating hats, scarves, coats and gloves; any other order and I was so bundled up it was impossible to bend over to tie my boots.  And, yes, I did wear them in the Bolshoi on subsequent visits, as changing was a step too far for me.

Ugly but serviceable

One habit learned there did stick with me.  That is to take my shoes off as soon as I went into someone’s house.  When to not do so creates mess from dirty snow melting, one would never think of doing otherwise; most hosts then offer you a pair of slippers kept specially visitors.

Even in our more temperate climate, it still seems to me to be the polite way, although I know there are those who disagree.

I read recently of a murder in Russia.  When asked why he had killed a visitor to his home, the killer said  he had done it because the victim had failed to take their shoes off on entering his apartment.

Makes perfect sense.

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