The following has been excerpted from American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance by Rick Bailey (July 2017).
Flip-Flops and the Leaning Tower of Pisa
. . .
Clogs and I were not made for each other. I kept falling off of them.
“I can’t walk on these things,” I said to my wife. We were in Nuovo Fiore, an ice cream shop in Riccione. “It’s like they roll or something.”
“You don’t know how to walk,” she said.
I had just picked myself up off the sidewalk outside. I was a danger to myself. Now I watched fashionable people clogging up and down the streets. What did they know that I didn’t?
“You’ll catch on,” she said.
I kept trying. But I didn’t.
The previous summer, another cousin, Vincenzo, had visited us in the United States. I had taken him fishing one day on the Saginaw Bay, where we caught half a dozen perch. It was more leisure fishing than sport fishing. He was determined to return the favor. He knew a little English; I knew a little Italian. With my wife’s help, he explained he wanted to take me to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My wife rolled her eyes. (No Italian I’ve met since was remotely interested in the Leaning Tower of Pisa.) I said sure, I’d go.
The next day he picked me up in a red Fiat convertible.
There are stretches of autostrada between Bologna and Florence that call to mind the Pennsylvania Turnpike, lots of hills, lots of curves. Only these were European drivers. Vincenzo drove like a madman, determined, I think, to wow me with his car. While he drove, we tried to talk.
He said, “I like a good Coca- Cola.”
“What’s the speed limit?”
He said, “My Aunt Tita is ninety years old.”
“It would be all right to slow down.”
He said, “Today we will ask for our spaghetti molto al dente.”
“Are we almost there?”
He said, “Later I will take you to a town where only ugly people live.”
At that time, it was still possible to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower. Vincenzo said he would pass on the climb. To me, it seemed like a good idea. From the ground I counted seven levels. A narrow spiral staircase corkscrewed around the perimeter inside the tower, all the way to the top. As you ascended, you leaned with the tower, into the interior wall, then against the outer wall. Back and forth, lean in, lean out. At each level, you could step outside onto a loggia. By the third level, I was feeling dizzy. I poked my head out in the direction of the loggia, then kept going. Lean in, lean out. By the fifth level, I was stricken with vertigo. And I was teetering on my clogs. I skipped the fifth and sixth loggias. Finally I gained the top level. Terrifi ed I would fall, I pulled off my clogs and walked in bare feet to a bench and sat down. Vertigo, I now knew, made you sick to your stomach.
What hadn’t occurred to me was the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a bell tower. As soon as I sat down the bells began to ring. Seven deafening bells. There were vertigo- free children everywhere, darting from the high side of the tower to the low side, and there were traumatized parents calling to them. “Maura,” one father kept saying, “be careful. Please, Maura.” Good heavens, I thought, the little shit is wearing clogs. I knew my Galileo. If Maura and I fell from the tower at the same time, we would hit the ground below at the same time. I also sensed, given my track record over the last week, I was fully capable of falling from the middle of the tower, whereas Maura was going to be just fine.
I’d had enough. I picked up my clogs and slowly took the stairway down in bare feet, hoping I would corkscrew myself back to equilibrium. Later that night, when Vincenzo deposited me safely at home, I flung the clogs in the back of a closet, retrieved my flip-flops, and never looked back.
Dana Stevens, writing for Slate this summer, lodges this complaint against flip-flops: “[Their] use seems to transport people across some sort of etiquette Rubicon where the distinction between public and private, inside and outside, shod and barefoot, breaks down entirely.” Dana Stevens is right. And I think that’s my wife’s beef. Dude, get some decent shoes (a very Italian point of view). I get it, totally. And yet, to jailbreak your feet, to give them good, clean air to breathe, and to slow down to flip-flop pace, the fwap fwap fwap of your footfall saying take your time, that’s living. That’s summertime. How many weeks of summer left? How many summers? However many there are, I’ll take mine in flip-flops.