Irena witnessed major political upheaval in her homeland–from the collapse of the communist system to the birth of democracy. She remembers the longs line-ups for everything that Canadians might take for granted. In the 1980s, she was a teenage girl who wished to own delicate ballerina shoes. During those years, she had to walk in sturdy but ugly footwear, dreaming that one-day her shoes and her country would change for the better. It took over twenty years for her dreams to come true.
I was born in difficult times–during the communist regime–where the government did not welcome any signs of individuality in thinking or dressing. We walked along our streets with our sad faces wearing dull clothes and sturdy shoes that were typical representatives of the proletariat. Long line-ups were omnipresent. We waited in those lines for hours on end for food, clothes, cosmetics… everything.
The worst came in 1981 when martial law was imposed. As food and clothing, and other goods became scarce, rationing coupons were introduced. Two pairs of shoes per year–nobody worried about the design or colour. Take it or leave it.
I was always a dreamer. On my way to school, I had to pass the tank in the centre of Katowice, where a series of paired-up police officers pointed rifles at everyone who passed. Although life seemed unbearable, I hoped that someday we would be free and there would be an abundance of merchandise in our stores.
Once, my friend’s aunt told us that two things make a woman truly elegant: a good purse and a pair of good quality shoes. Bearing in mind that piece of advice, I dreamt of a pair of beautiful shoes and a purse. During my political science classes, I secretly flipped through the German fashion catalogues my classmate brought to school. She was lucky: her grandparents lived outside the iron curtain. While our teacher tried to brainwash us, I envisaged myself wearing the fabulous footwear I saw in the catalogues.
I walked in my proletariat shoes to our first democratic election in 1991. We chose the first president of the Democratic Republic of Poland. All of sudden we were free and our stores filled up with colour TVs and Gucci clothes. I went to the newly opened shoe store and bought my first pair of democratic shoes. Size eight, and a very feminine pair of stylish ballerina flats. At least they were stylish in the 90s.
The shoes were sleek and narrow and more frivolous than anything I had before. Only the toes and heels were covered, and the instep was exposed. A narrow, elegant ankle strap was attached to a round and delicate metal clasp that prevented my feet from slipping and my ankle from twisting. The leather uppers of the shoe were smooth when touched. The heels were tiny, about 3 centimetres tall, shaped like the stem of a wine glass.
My ballerinas were very light; someone who wears them has to step with grace, like a cat. Later, I got scratches and nicks in the heels because I was not accustomed to wearing such delicate shoes. I had to learn how to walk in my new shoes just as the Polish people had to learn how to live in a new democratic country. It was not as easy as I thought.
I still have those shoes; they are the only pair I brought with me from Poland. The combination of brown and beige shades reminds me of the colour of the coffee latte I have had every morning for the last five years, since coming to Canada. When I was a teenager, lattes were a luxury that I never even knew existed.
When new, the shoes were very quiet, almost soundless. Now the heels are worn, so they make a slight clicking sound. They still have a faint smell of leather and the cream I apply to clean them. I have become so attached to my beloved shoes; I never want them to smell of shoe polish.
I look at my shoes now and realize that I have lived through a revolution, albeit a quiet one, witnessing first-hand the political upheaval from the collapse of communism to the birth of a new democracy. Freedom from standing in lineups meant a freedom to walk, eventually to a new homeland.
IRENA RODZIEWICZ was born in Poland. As a certified teacher and librarian, Irena worked for 15 years in a school library. In 2010, she moved to Toronto and became a permanent resident of Canada. She enjoys improving her language skills and exploring Toronto’s physical and cultural landscape.