We went as a family to the Bata Shoe Museum yesterday, each of us in our standard black rainboots, small, medium, and large. I was struck by an image of The Arnolfini Portrait, painted by Jan van Eyck back in the 1400s. The picture of the picture is at the shoe museum because of the pair of sandals lying at the bottom left, hard wooden slip-ons that have been unsurprisingly slipped off. I’ve seen the actual painting, too, several years ago at the National Gallery in London, England, which was especially moving for me not only because I thought it was a lovely painting, but because I was pregnant at the time, and I assumed she was too. (She wasn’t, apparently — she was just holding her voluminous dress in such a way as to look big-bellied.)
But back to the shoe museum. The collection spans centuries and crosses cultures. There are red pope’s shoes and shoes made of emu feathers and, yes, even barbie shoes (which put me in mind of my last post and reminded me of how I was always irritated by the fact that Barbie was perpetually on tiptoe and so less real to me). There was also a pair of wooden shoes much like my opa wore for work as a gardener — the museum ones, though, had been worn by smugglers in WW2, and dashed across the border between Belgium and Holland stuffed with rationed goods rather than the straw Opa used to keep his feet warm.
When we went to Holland to research The Occupied Garden, we were told an amazing story about one of Opa’s neighbours. He’d been tending his garden one day toward the end of the war, when a plane flew over and bombed the tracks nearby. He dove for cover and waited until the chaos had ended. And only when he was walking home in his klompen did he realize his foot was hurting. He wiggled out of his shoe and found his foot bloodied. A bomb shard had pierced through the wood.
Not so long ago I visited with a book club who’d read The Occupied Garden, and one of the members asked me, “Can you tell me if the book has changed you? I mean — I know it’s changed me,” he said, “but has it changed you?” I was flattered and a bit taken aback — but that man’s question comes to me again and again at the most unexpected times. Looking at shoes; choosing fruit and vegetables; watching the leaves of my tulips push out of the tough spring soil.
Below is one of my favourite pictures of Opa — who, by the way, probably never even knew who Barbie was.