T H E R O M A N B O O T Y
The day started sunny, bright and warm, even before I remembered it was March 8, the International Women’s Day. Almost no one knew it here: in
Wichita, Kansas, in America.
In Yugoslavia, years ago, it was a big deal. Every year we would have to listen to the same old story of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Klara
Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg. Not that there is anything wrong with these two fine women. But, the same program year after year? Always the same:
each woman would get a flower, usually a wilted carnation (mine would also have a broken stem), and a kiss with congratulations from the Union of
Workers’ President. That part was especially detestable, since he was fat with oily skin and a wart on his nose. He would usually have to kiss about
forty women in a row. All of those germs, I usually thought, repulsed, impatient to wash my face off.
Then, there was one year that was not the same. I remember that one with a smile. I was teaching English at the university. The administration
decided to give all the women a free day, since the International Woman’s Day was on a Friday. There was a bus tour organized for a three-day
weekend in Rome for all the women in our department. I seized the opportunity and took my 12 year-old daughter, Maja, with me. The majority of
women chose it as a shopping spree. Why not? Italy has been known as a favorite shopping place for all the surrounding countries. I was not
particularly interested in shopping, more in sightseeing, since it was Maja’s first visit to Rome. I thought it would be interesting to see things through
the eyes of a pre-teenager, excited about her first “women only” trip with her Mom.
The weather was as though chosen from a sales catalogue. Having left winter at home, in Rome we were greeted by brilliant sunshine kissing our
faces and bare arms, the air already fragrant with spring. Our hotel, an old, respectable building with marble columns, balustrades and plush
carpets, had tarnished gold on the Louis XIV furniture and huge, comfortable beds. The two of us were ready to have a ball. Maja, privileged and
proud to be the only child in the group, felt an instant camaraderie with the rest: a “we, women,” type of spirit.
In the morning, I get up early, impatient to start the day. Excitement always stays with me when traveling. Maja, on the other hand, enjoys sleeping
late, not having to go to school. The breakfast is a treat for her: A good looking, young waiter with pomaded raven hair addresses her Signorina,
ignoring or not noticing her age. She does not have to eat cereal, but has the same choice like everybody else: rolls with jam and butter, coffee or
tea, omelet, and ham and cheese sandwich, followed by a variety of fruits. Crossing her long, childishly skinny legs (promising to be better in years
to come) Maja slowly drinks her orange juice through a straw, secretly looking at the waiter and practicing tossing her hair as the movie stars do.
“I’m so eager to get out and look at some stores before they get too crowded. If there is time left, we might go to the Flea Market. It is unique and
famous in the world. You have never seen anything like it. There is everything from a needle to a locomotive,” I say nonchalantly, carefully avoiding
my usual mother-to-daughter tone used on regular work-days at home.
Maja instantly forgets the waiter, quickly finishes her breakfast, ready to go.
Adjusting her stride to match mine, she marvels at the stately buildings, store windows, and Italian youth dressed in jeans and T-shirts just like
herself. The streets are already buzzing with people, different languages, and wide open stores striving to please even the most difficult shoppers.
All of a sudden, in the window of an elegant shoe store, I spot a pair of beautiful white mid-calf Western boots, the leather soft like ladies’ gloves.
Mesmerized, I walk in, Maja happily following, always excited about shopping.
“Prego, Signor,” I smile at the salesman, pointing to the white boots. But, the largest size they have is a size smaller than mine. “Grazzie, niente.” I
reply, crestfallen, turning to leave.
Oh, no. That is not going to happen. The curly Romanese, ready to please Signora estrangera, gestures for me to wait, and runs behind the
curtain. Puffing like a coal-engine, he comes out carrying the white boots and another pair of tall burgundy ones. They both seem too small,
especially since I know that the Italian sizes run smaller than other European, or American. Smiling Marcello Mastroianni style, the salesman spills an
arpeggio of fast, pleasant sounding but hard to understand words with sporadic bella...magnifica...and ellengatissima, while he pompously seats me
in an armchair, gallantly taking off my London shoe with a small heel to replace it with one of the white Western boots.
Neither he nor I know, at that point, that the experience is going to be glued in my memory for many years to come.
Immediately, he starts pushing with a surprising power only to be found in a determined salesman on commission, who—I imagine—must have at
home a skinny wife with curlers in her hair and several little bambini in sagging diapers running around crying. I am pushing, too, as only a
determined Serb can do, not needing those darn boots, but showing him the history of persistence that keeps us alive and kicking, not to be shamed
by anyone, least a neighbor just across the Adriatic.
I push and smile, he pushes and smiles. My foot has no way of getting into that little white boot. I have never been a Cinderella type, I realize once
again. Looking down at my feet, the size of which I have always despised, I remember all the years of similar experiences.
As a high school girl I daydreamed how, as soon as I started making my own money, I would go to a good surgeon and ask him to operate on my
feet: just cut the toes off. They are too long, anyway. Without them, my feet would be just right, feminine size. I would be like everybody else, able to
buy shoes of my choice, not the only pair left in the stupid size, looking like a child’s grave, ugly and old-ladyish. If I only were born in China, maybe I
would have had my feet bound at an early age. My mom, a practical Serb, always bought me larger sizes, so the feet would have enough room to
grow naturally, without any constraint and deformation!
Minutes pass. On the salesman’s proud Roman forehead drops of sweat, like the morning dew, start to form. He ignores them and smiles some
more. Push... push... almost like childbirth. Push, Mira, push. I smile, too. But, I am not on commission, I don’t need those boots: it’s too warm,
anyway, and I’m not a cowgirl. Who needs Western boots in the middle of Europe, anyway? I hate them, in fact. Honestly. I never wear boots. Wouldn’
t wear them if he gave them to me free. Even if they were my size.
“Mom, do you think the Flea Market is still there,” Maja asks shyly, not really wanting to interrupt the process. She is a woman in miniature already,
understanding whatever there is to understand. She would just like to know if we still intend to see the Flea Market, especially as none in her class
has ever seen it, she believes. She can wait some more, if need be.
The man turns to her, pouring a cascade of allegro ma non moderate Italian words. Smiling, naturalmente, so Maja smiles back her sweetest
prepubescent smile, showing her charming, still uneven teeth and her dimples added to the bargain. Not knowing yet what working on commission
means, she can sense that there is something desperate going on. Happy to be in Rome with her mom, while all of her friends are at school doing
math or science or geography, she is willing to stay patient a little longer.
The salesman brings a bottle of baby powder and lavishly pours the content into the boot, as well as all over my feet, my stockings, the deep navy-
blue carpet, and my open bag sitting next to the chair. A new hope grows in all of us, like a high tide. But, all of a sudden, I feel nauseated.
Probably from the breakfast. My girdle may be just a little bit too small for me. I am probably tired. After all, on a trip, one is always tired. I am
thirsty. It is too warm in here. I need to go to the bathroom. Do they even have one here, for the customers?
“Scusi Signor,” I start... but he is gesturing that he understands, no need for words, it will take just a second. Oh, how do I just tell him in plain Italian,
“Forget it. Just forget it. I don’t want those boots even if you give them to me free.”
“Mom, I need to go to the bathroom,” Maja whines in her most urgent style. “I didn’t want to interrupt you before, but...”
I know the look. She really needs to go now. Why did I bring a child with me in the first place? This is a “woman’s” day and a “woman’s” trip, after all.
“Not now,” I glare at her, my patience with the salesman running out and catching Maja on the way. In the last, desperate attempt, the Romanese
kneels in front of me as if proposing, and pushes with renewed force, with all his masculinity... pushes himself on me, with almost hateful violence. I
look at him, shocked. What does he think? Has he gone crazy from exertion?
“Mom, may I have some water, ple-e—e-ase.” At least she is not asking to go to some dirty public bathroom. I am relieved. Also, she is using her
best manners for the occasion. And that must be acknowledged.
Stifling a raging tornado, I satisfy my urge by only kicking the boot, the salesman, the whole world, unable to change the unfairness in life, inhibiting
women out of buying a pair of boots on their holiday, painstakingly earned through the centuries of slavery to men... and children! But, oh miracle,
my foot, the kicking one, has actually found its way into the darn boot! Finally, in the white Western boot!
The salesman, sitting on the floor, having lost the balance, smiles happily like the mother who has just delivered a big, healthy baby boy. Now he can
wipe his sweaty Roman face and rest for a second.
Oh, no. He charges again with a flood of Italian sentences. I don’t listen, quite sure I know what he is saying, what he could possibly be saying. But,
then, all of a sudden, fear stabs me. A legitimate concern. How do I tell him that if he doesn’t start immediately taking the boot off, they will have to
amputate my foot, maybe the whole leg. He doesn’t know me, of course, but I know myself. This is not my size and I will never be able to take the
boot off, not to mention put it on again and ever wear it. Tired, I am not going to argue with him. Poor thing, Maja deserves a big Coke and a gift
from the Flea Market.
Anything she wants, my dear loyal daughter. I don’t care if we have to slash the boot to take it off, I am leaving. In the Babel Tower of enthusiastic
pandemonium, all three of us “talking in tongues” at the same time, the salesman successfully takes off the boot. A-a-a-h. I put both boxes with
boots together, smile tiredly, and without a question pay the amount written on the boxes.
The air of relief takes over the sweaty Romanese. His eyes shine from genuine satisfaction. I imagine his Italian wife taking her rollers off, the kids
stopping crying, all of them going out for an ice cream or pizza. Papa’s treat. He will tell his skinny wife how he had a woman customer, una
estrangera con piccola bambina, and how he quickly and professionally sold two pairs of boots first thing in the morning. He will not mention the
problem with the size, because his wife tends to be jealous of tall women.
Outside, the sun is still gently caressing the exposed skin, the day still young and promising. This is Rome, the Eternal City, for goodness sake, let’s
The rest of the day stays exuberant. At the Flea Market a young man approaches, smiling and talking fast. He has a coil of copper wire in his
hands and, while talking, quickly and skillfully he makes little pins with any name you want. With a mixture of English and Italian we communicated
that I don’t need a pin, grazzie, (I had already assured for myself two pairs of too small boots), but my daughter is actually dying to have a pin with
her name on it. Her name is Maja. We pronounce that very slowly and loudly. He smiles and nods.
While I am still struggling, using my hands almost as much as the Italians do, smiling profusely (it usually helps), Maja’s pin is done. It is misspelled,
though. The Italian youth makes a sad face accompanied by dramatic gestures worthy of Marcel Marceau, and voila: Maja has a pin with her name
correctly spelled this time. With a deep bow, the Italian youth announces that Maja may have the other, misspelled one free, no charge for the bella
signorina. Maja is so charmed, she flashed one of her shyest, cutest smiles. Wait till we go back and show it to the class on Monday!
Next, we buy some sweaters in bright, spring colors that will be “in” the coming season, the woman ensures us. We don’t really need any, but it is a
lovely day and the woman is persistent. It can always make a good gift later. They are on sale! Then, tired and hot, we sit down at a sweet little
bistro with umbrellas in vivid colors and eat a huge ice cream. They say that Roman gelato is the best in the world (I’ve been told the same in
Stockholm, Moscow, and Amsterdam).
Exhausted from the excitement and the shopping bags, we return to the hotel, rest a little and go to eat. Pizza, of course. It tastes much better than
in our home city. The bus is already waiting to take us to Villa Borghese. The walk through the beautifully furnished rooms and especially the lovely
garden with the classical statues and the cool, splashing fountains lingers in our memory long after the day is over.
Returning home, on the bus, with loud Italian music on the radio, rehearsing still fresh memories of our Roman weekend, neither Maja nor I know that
twenty years later, the most memorable part of it would be the episode with the white Western boots and the chubby salesman. The cowboy boots
would find the way to Kansas, with us, never worn, and would be given away to an American friend who would be happy to know that they are from
Italy, and handmade!
Strange to think that out of 36 years of Woman’s Day celebrations this is the only one I can remember!
by Mira Mataric
page created 7/15/09
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