How a father taught his daughter to love Birkenstocks
During the summers when my mother went away teaching Austrian businessmen English in Ireland, my father’s chief problem became my hair and my feet. Being partial to long cycles, swims, and surviving on bananas and muesli alone when left to his own devices, my father found the prospect of taking care of his 7 year-old daughter somewhat daunting. Living by the lake and having summer camp of one sort or another, made this manageable, but nevertheless I remember hot summer nights sitting eating salad with him while I tried to think of topics of conversation. One of my favourite openers at this time was “What’s your favourite…”, and to this day I have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of my father’s preferences thanks to those summer nights spent pestering him. Colour – blue (he’s colour blind, can’t see greens and browns, so it makes sense). Sport – football. Country – doesn’t have one. Song – Long Black Veil as sung by Johnny Cash. Food – grilled fish. Favourite author – John Dos Passos. I could go on. Over dinner one night as my father tried to fend off my volley of questions, he lost his patience, so that upon being asked “What was your nickname in school?”, he answered with a word so rude and bad, that the rest of the dinner was lost to the hysterics into which I descended at my father cracking under the strain. I’m still not sure, but I highly doubt his nickname was “old **** face”. There was an air of anarchy when my mother wasn’t around that I enjoyed, and that my father no doubt resented deeply…
My mother would be gone for two months at the height of the summer in Rome, and in my father’s opinion I seemed to grow at an unnaturally fast pace during this time. This would result in him being forced to bring me to the hairdressers and the shoe shop in one of the neighbouring villages. The former was simple enough. Having no interest in clothes or hair, I always wanted to get my hair cut extra short, and if the trimmer came out with its slightly scary buzzing sound, so much the better. This problem solved, we would then make our way to the shoe shop in that hot haze of boredom generally reserved for chores of the lowest kind. For some reason or another the shoe shop was (and still is) enormously well-stocked and to this day has one of the largest selections of Birkenstocks I’ve ever come across. Much to my father’s relief. Having little to no interest in fashion, the one thing he has always been particular about is shoes. Preferring the sturdy, practical sort, he would commend you for your shoe selection as though what you’d actually been after was a car or a mule. Birkenstocks ranked particularly high in his estimate as ‘sensible’ – German, orthopaedic in some way, and associated with outdoor activity in heat. Upon finding himself in a shoe shop he would take the opportunity to “kill two birds with one stone” and engage in that rare performance for him that is shopping. Since we were there, we would both have Birkenstocks, and often of the exact same kind.
Upon returning from her summer with the Austrians, my mother would be welcomed by an odd sight in the airport. With my hair cut several inches shorter than she would like, my skin a few shades darker than was allowed, and with shoes that matched dad’s in a way that must have looked somewhat ridiculous to any onlooker, the only thing keeping her from being horrified was possibly her delight at seeing us. And yet, in spite of all my father’s accidental swearing and well meaning negligence, those summers taught me something huge – the great value of a good pair of sandals. How Birkenstocks are champions in the realm of the ‘sensible’ shoe, no matter how fashionable they may become. I have owned a pair every year since I can remember. And for that I will be forever grateful to my father and those long hot summers.
Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna