My God, it was a quiet, lazy week. I spent most of it eating homemade ravioli and drinking robust red wines from Italy. It was very pleasant, I must say.
But let me go back to Monday and tell you what happened. Didn’t I grab a figary and wander into Conlemany, an organic Italian hairdresser in Dún Laoghaire for an indulgent treat. My blond stubble is so full of salt from swimming that it almost stands on its own.
I discovered a cozy little room at the back of the shop with huge apothecary jars filled with unusual ground herbs and powders with names like Reetha and Meliloto.
An Italian named Julia examined my hair forensically, as Italians do, and decided what I needed. Well, she massaged my entire scalp with spirulina, banana powder, and lavender. Now it has rid me of all those insignificant little stresses of life that tormented me. I was well zoned at the end.
Full of well-being, I entered the People’s Park and sat down by the fountain, minding my business. Hard for me to do in Ireland, I can tell you. A few feet away from me was a tiny, stocky, “very” old man. I’d say he was well over 90, looking awfully dapper in a brown pinstripe suit.
What did he do when he saw me? He took off his cap. Such a gentleman. People forget that sometimes you can win hearts with the simplest courtesy. Very few of them take their caps off and it’s such an adorable and old-fashioned gesture. It simply acknowledges your presence. Pleasant.
I tried to assess where it might have come from. I thought I could hear a bit of an American aul twang but then the truth dawned on me – he was from Russia no less. Yes, another. Why do I keep meeting Russians in Dún Laoghaire?
I couldn’t stop staring at his shoes. It was dark brown leather, braided, with delicate laces. Still so elegant. The kind of shoes you would inventory, the kind of shoes you would notice. I was impressed. And of course we talked.
I like your shoes, I say. He acknowledged my admiration with undisguised happiness. A lively enough man, he had the most perfect English.
“Oh shoes are very important to me,” he said, stroking the leather side of his right foot. “You have no idea how important.”
Why? I say, intrigued.
“These shoes are handmade by Artioli in Milan,” he says. “I am not a rich man but I have a passion for handmade shoes, good shoes are like a sculpture for the feet. When I wake up in the morning I feel good because I know I I have another day with my shoes. When I die, I told my son that I want to go to the eternal czarism of God in them. Wearing them brings joy, uplifts my soul.
“As a child, my family lived in Solntsevo, a bad neighborhood outside Moscow with bad roads. We were very poor. I walked to school like everyone else.
“On my first day of school, my father, who had a kiosk in Moscow where he repaired watches, gave me an old pair of leather shoes that belonged to my older brother. They were two sizes too big for me, so I stuffed them with a wool sock.
“My father was a good man. Every morning before work, he would give me an apple and a piece of kolbasa wrapped in newspaper to eat during school holidays.
What is Kolbasa? I said.
“Kolbasa is a very inexpensive Russian processed sausage meat. You wouldn’t like it,” he said. “The school was like a prison. It took me an hour and a half to walk there. I was beaten almost every day because of my short stature. I hated school.
“One day, while walking home in the snow, the leather split in the middle of my right shoe. Every morning that I walked through mud, rain and slush, my feet were soaked, frozen.
“I was afraid the bullies would hit me if they saw the cracked leather, so at night I would sew my shoes together and polish them so hard with so many coats you couldn’t see the tear.
“I polished and cleaned, polished and cleaned. All these years in school, I wore the same pair of shoes. No one at school ever noticed the damage, but I was so aware of it that I had so much anxiety related to this shoe.
“I was obsessed with the crack and its concealment. It tormented me. I promised myself that one day I would never have wet feet again.
“It’s strange,” he said. “I was a sports master in Moscow. In the army I would have bullets whizzing over my head and yet to this day I’m more afraid of that feeling of wet feet. So when I finally went to work in New York, I saved my money. I wanted to open a luxury shoe store for men.
“But it was bad timing. Leather was scarce during the war. Eventually, in 1960, I opened a men’s leather Italian shoe store in the Bronx. I loved it. Now, every day, I change my shoes twice, I have six pairs of Artioli handmade shoes.
What do you think of Putin, I say, being nosy.
“To be honest, I admired him, but not anymore. For me, Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. He kills his own people. I know people who are fighting in Ukraine now and they are very scared. But Putin and I have one thing in common,” he said, patting his shoes.
You can’t be serious, I say.
“Yes, he also wears Artioli shoes. Those with an elevation to make it look taller.
Jesus, that would put me off the mark, I said.
“You hope the shoes will soften it, a lot of dictators and oligarchs wear luxury Italian shoes.”
With that, this adorable man got up to leave. Guess how old he was? Ninety-eight – and no worries for him. Well, when that asshole Putin comes forward to deny the war crimes charges, he won’t fool anyone with his sartorial victories. Of course, the devil himself doesn’t wear Prada, I thought.
On the way back to the cabin I spotted a manky looking biker I once met who is also “big into aul leather”. Well, that’s what he told me anyway.
I was introduced to him at the Kings Inn near closing time many moons ago when it was full of pints. He was drunk and my stomach almost heaved listening to his spiel about “love of underground clubs in Berlin”.
If only you could see the cut of him now. I can attest that it’s still bet in the same old black leather pants that haven’t seen the light of day in a very long time. He’s the kind of person you want to take a bath with after a date.
I can tell you one thing: the leather he liked was not handmade by Artioli. The leather of this suede was more likely to be made into harness than footwear.
To each his own and all that.