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Leave your shoes at the door

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We spent several hours last weekend scouring shopping malls for slippers that my daughter could wear to školka. One the first day, I’d sent Anna Lee in a pair of Crocs, but her teacher rejected them on the premise that many children had those type shoes for outdoor play. The following day I sent her with a pair of almost-new ballet flats with an elastic strap and rubber soles. These, too, were rejected on the grounds that they weren’t brand new, though I’d scrubbed them up to look so. So at the end of the week we went shopping.

Knowing that Anna would have to wear slippers everyday during school hours, I was determined to find a pair that suited the teacher’s requirements, were comfortable and fit Anna’s aesthetic ideals. But one-week into the school year, slippers for a size 26 girl were all but sold out. We did find a pair of red mouse-patterned slippers in Bata, but they didn’t feel comfortable on Anna’s foot, plus they were identical to ones Radek had worn 30 years ago and he rejected them on that principle. It was a strangely pervasive problem: Either there was no slipper in her size or the shoe wasn’t comfortable.

If I hadn’t been determined not to be a foreigner causing problems with Czech tradition, I would have done as Radek suggested and told Anna just to keep wearing the almost-new ballet flats, particularly when I saw how sad and frustrated our unsuccessful search was making her (not to mention me). But I didn’t want to create tension at the beginning of the year, so we persevered. After living here for several years, I know the importance of the Czech slipper tradition and I wanted our search to be successful.

When I first arrived in Prague, my American roommate and I were told that Czechs take off their shoes before entering someone’s house. Although we weren’t required to remove our shoes during our TEFL training course, we noted that our teachers and support staff often did, wearing “indoor shoes” or slippers instead. The first clue of how this tradition would affect me came one morning when our downstairs neighbor pounded angrily on our front door. She stormed inside and stomped around in her street shoes, presumably mimicking what we did, and then pantomimed putting on slippers and scuffled noisily in her stocking feet. Chagrined, we vowed to remember to take our shoes off, at least to prevent bad neighborly relations, if not to conform to a culture we were still trying to understand.

Wearing slippers or taking off one’s shoes when entering a home is a norm for cultural, sanitary and religious reasons in many regions of the world, including most of Europe and many parts of Asia. Growing up in America, I was accustomed to removing muddy shoes in the garage before entering the kitchen. However, we never took off our regular shoes, and I can’t remember a visitor ever removing his shoes, even if they were wet or muddy.

Although I accepted slippers the first few times I was offered them at my in-laws, I quickly adjusted to going in socks or barefoot like I did in our apartment. It was more comfortable since the one-size-fits-all slippers were hard to keep on my feet. Going barefoot was as objectionable as wearing shoes indoors, according to my mother-in-law who fretted that my kidneys and ovaries would freeze if I walked sockless. For the winter months, I bought a pair of indoor clogs to wear in our apartment since our laminate floors got chilly.

When I began teaching English classes for parents at my neighborhood family center, I saw how ingrained the tradition of slipper-wearing was among Czechs. The center entrance had a large cloakroom with benches for sitting to remove shoes and cubbies for storing slippers. There were extra slippers on hand if you forgot to bring your own, although most Czech parents pulled slippers out of their backpacks for themselves and their children. I always tried to remember to wear thick socks, but it still felt weird teaching without shoes, even though my students were in the same situation.

In the Czech Republic, many businesses have an indoor-shoe policy, and some Czechs wear slippers or indoor shoes at work just because wearing an outdoor shoe inside is unthinkable. A common sight at a doctor’s office or a school is a bin beside the entrance door filled with cloth or plastic elastic shoe booties. There is no reminder to put these booties on, but the consequences for forgetting (I’ve learned the hard way) are embarrassing. No one likes to be chased down the hall by a bootie-waving school secretary. Now that I’m used to the tradition of putting the booties on, I often forget and nearly wear them out the front door.

Even though many of my friends here come from cultures where wearing slippers isn’t common, this Czech tradition seems, grumbling aside, generally respected. I remember an invitation to an Australian friend’s daughter’s birthday held at a local elementary school had a footnote: Please bring slippers. My friend could have let everyone go sock-footed or barefoot, but not being Czech herself, she prepared us to respect the school’s rule.

Custom aside, sanitary reasons make taking off your shoes a sensible practice in my eyes. As the stay-at-home parent doing the bulk of the housework, I’m pleased that my kids have learned to take their shoes off when they come in from playing. They love running barefoot in the grass, so I often have to wash their feet before letting them inside. It’s not to say that they remember to wear slippers inside; instead we all go barefoot in the warm months and wear gripper socks in the winter. After a visit to babička, Anna insists on wearing slippers for a few days, owing, I guess, to the strength of babička’s remonstrations about frozen kidneys.

Despite being a cultural norm in the Czech Republic, taking your shoes off before entering a home to me signifies a level of intimacy that I’m not used to. When workmen delivered a table to our house, I was surprised to see them wriggle out of their boots (while still holding the heavy table) before they stepped into the house. Paying a sock-footed man for delivering furniture seemed almost comical to me, although I know that I was the only one who thought anything out of the ordinary. I think Czechs believe that taking your shoes off is just common sense, much like showering or bathing at night before slipping into clean sheets, or wearing “home” clothes around the house and saving good clothes for going out. I’m always surprised to arrive at a Czech friend’s house and find her in something akin to a slip or housedress while I have on regular clothes.

But I’ve come so far in my Czech-thinking, that at a recent visit to my parents’ I was shocked initially to see everyone wearing shoes indoors. My parents’ keep a clean, tidy house, and there was no evidence of dirt from shoes on the floors or the carpets, but I still automatically wanted to take off my shoes and make everyone else follow suit.

On the second day of our shoe search, Anna and I finally settled on a pair of indoor shoes that looked like Converse ballet flats. She’d tried the same shoes on the day before and had said that they flopped when she walked. But faced with the prospect of no slippers, or floppy slippers, we grabbed them up, paid and headed home. I convinced her that they’d fit better once her feet grew a little and we picked out some thick socks from her drawer to help in the meantime. For a girl who didn’t find her ideal slipper, I thought Anna handled the whole adventure pretty maturely. Once she arrived at school that Monday morning, she slipped into the new slippers without a complaint from the teacher and she’s been wearing them ever since.

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