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On a recent trip to Italy, I saw a pair of very chic feet stroll by the piazza. I was bending over to pick up euros I had dropped in an ill attempt to give exact change I couldn’t count, and there they were, right in front of me.
I looked at the sleek leather sandals with jealousy. I’d been searching for a supple brown leather pair just like this for weeks, with thin ankle straps and hearty soles to handle New York streets in the summer, and coming up empty, so I could hardly believe when another pair of feet strolled on next to these in the same sandals. What kind of impossibly, effortlessly stylish Italian women were these? I lifted my head to get a good look, only to come face-to-face with two nuns in full habit.
From Zara to Brother Vellies to Jeffrey Campbell, every single shoe I want for this summer looks like something my nonna took off her foot to wave at me when I was a bratty child. It was a familiar summer scene in my neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn: Wild children running amok down 18th Avenue, nonnas in tow, waving shoes and yelling for Gina or Anthony to get home for supper. And yet here those flat slippers are, appearing not in the hand of a curly-haired grandmother, but on the feet of the most gorgeous of fashionable New York ladies. And the stylish sisters of Assisi, Italy. And if we’re keeping score, St. Francis gets originality points for this one.
The 13th-century saint was known for his humble lifestyle, choosing to spend more time with animals than at parties (who can blame him, really?) and embracing poverty as a learning experience. His unassertive leather sandals, mere straps fastened to a flat sole, were taken up by his followers as a symbol of humility and dedication to his work. And so, between the butchers and olive oil shops of medieval Assisi, you’ll find souvenir stores hawking handmade versions of these shoes for just a few euros. They’re nearly identical to the high-end versions on runways and stylish sidewalks.
After weeks of creeping similar pairs online, I finally bought my perfect summer sandals at a closet-sized leather goods store down an unassuming European cobblestone alley, and they look exactly like both the expensive versions I’d placed in many digital shopping carts and the cheap version my nonna picked up at Brooklyn shoe stores. They all have the same thin-but-sturdy flat sole, thick straps criss-crossing around the toes, and a total feel of simplicity, a counter to the sky-high indoor heels and thick boots I wore all winter. These go with jeans, linen wide-leg pants, my favorite sundress, just about everything. Though St. Francis may have given them staying power, to me, they will always be the item of my mischief, the symbol that I had crossed the line, that it was time to come inside after a long day playing kick the can, that I had run my smart little mouth just a bit too much, that I was giving my family a hard time.
On my nonna, of course, they looked totally different. They were a house slipper, fitting in comfortably with the other simple wears she adorned herself with around the house and on quick walks within Bensonhurst. They were for picking up bread at the bakery, plucking tomatoes from the vine in our backyard, sitting on the patio.
I envision myself taking my own pair far and wide: through long days at the office, coffee dates, walks down the boardwalk, and international summer vacations. A far cry from the simplistic necessity they held for my nonna and the nuns of Assisi. And today’s versions are ready for the office and the city; with decorative raffia, furry ankle straps, and decorative rhinestones, they are less humble housewear and more effortless cool. But they still hold one lesson in mind for me, as I mentally compare the $100+ versions from boutiques to the bodega-issued shoes that walked along my family floors as a child: They are easy. And after a long winter, who isn’t happy to pull on the most comfortable things you own, taking a hint from nonna’s playbook, and live la dolce vita?