Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Wrong Shoes, or Karma Afoot


Apartamentos Stella Maris in Fuengirola, Spain. Nice place to stay.

Apartamentos Stella Maris in Fuengirola, Spain. Nice place to stay.

I know better – I really do. One does not buy new walking shoes right before leaving for vacation. But they felt so right, like a summer romance – springy, breezy, and ready to take me to exciting new places. They let me spread out and be myself, instead of squishing my little duck feet into some sadistic shoe designer’s idea of pointy-toed perfection. Were these to be my new sole mates? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) And so my new Geox walking sandals came with me on my spring break trip to Spain. Alas.

I’m a slightly plump, middle-aged American living in Europe. I have fashion role-models all around me – inspiration for what a ripe, luscious, stylish femme d’un certain âge can be, and I do try to follow their example when I can. During our stay in the beach town of Furengirola, near Malaga, I saw many elegant women from many elegant lands, each handling the sun, stiff sea breezes and cool evenings with sartorial aplomb. Elegant Spanish Doñas strolled on the seaside promenade in Furengirola wearing slim slacks or skirts, crisp blouses and silky cardigans, and trailing a faint wisp of cologne. Tall, bronzed Nordic women chatted in guttural, phlegmy languages as their neat blond bobs blew in the breeze. An adorable French family scooted by on their way to the beach, Maman looking très chic in her embroidered beach caftan and jeweled flip-flops.

And then there were our British neighbors. Oh, I’m sure that some of the women whose elegance I admired were British and just happened to be silent as they passed, so I didn’t notice their nationality. But so many of these dear ladies looked like pink potatoes stuffed into strapless tops and stretchy shorts. Have these people never heard of sunblock? So many painfully-burned plump backs, and fronts, hanging out of far too little clothing – ay ay ay!

And then there’s me, limited by Ryanair’s strict baggage policy to a few items of clothing. And my vanity is talking all kinds of trash – why do I listen to that b****? You see, we were travelling with friends, one of whom is the pedometer queen. Freshly turned 60, Diana kicks my butt in number of steps taken each day. While I’m not usually a competitive person, her boasting (OK, gloating) about her number of steps kept me moving – thank you, Diana – and Fuengirola’s miles of flat ocean-view promenade gave us plenty of opportunity to walk.

Dressing for a full day of walking, I contemplated my footwear choices. The flip-flops were too flimsy – strictly for the beach. The heels – well, I never even wore those, since it was a two-kilometer walk from our hotel to the center of town where the restaurants were located. The big, practical running shoes – with ugly ankle socks – those would have been the wisest choice. But my vanity gave me a sharp pinch; I looked over our balcony at the plump British women my age wearing ugly tennies or sandals with socks – and I Did. Not. Want. To look like that. So I slid my feet, sockless, into my new Geoxx walking sandals. And up the coast we went, in search of beautiful views, tapas and cerveza – which we found. In abundance.

Dios Mio! After about 18,000 steps, I knew I was in trouble. Just a few hot spots, I thought. I’ll put on some socks when we get back to the hotel. Isn’t it funny how physical discomfort can turn your mood from sunny to cranky-pants in a short time? New shoes, no socks, long walk – what was I thinking? By the time I limped and grumbled my way back to our hotel room and peeled off those f***ing sandals, I had worn some very impressive blisters onto the balls of each foot.

And, since there was nothing to do in Fuengirola but walk, from tapas bar to restaurant to chiringuito to the beach and back, I continued to walk for the next five days, with my little duck feet encased in – you guessed it, ugly tennies, and socks. “Dumpy, dork feet!” my vanity protested, but what are you gonna do when reality pinches?

And here’s where the karma comes in. Every woman has her own secret (or perhaps loudly trumpeted) point of vanity. This one has long, elegant fingers; that one has glorious, glossy hair; the next one has a magnificent bosom. My secret vanity has been my cute little feet, size 6 ½, which look pretty in sandals. I’ve even been known to make derisive remarks about “big peasant feet” seen in artwork and – alas – on actual people. Not to their faces, or feet, mind you, but I’ve smugly complimented myself on a feature that I had no part in creating. Well, on this trip, some big peasant feet would probably have held up better under my not-so-tiny weight. Serves me right. Ouch.


Bitburg, Goa, Malaga

Today is April 5th, and the thermometer on my car’s dashboard reads 1.5 degrees Celsius – that’s 34.7 decrees Fahrenheit. Damn! The sky is the color of old sweat socks; the daylight is feeble and dim; the trees and shrubs are clenched tightly – nothing has budded out except the snowbell flowers. The crows flap and scudder across the brown lawn outside my classroom window, grumbling and complaining. Today I feel like a scruffy old crow, my feathers puffed out against the never-ending cold.

How are we to keep our spirits up during a prolonged cold spell like this? I wonder how people in Finland do it – or Alaska, or Saskatchewan. The cold and dark sap my will to do anything but veg on the couch with a good book, or perhaps with some bad TV. I’m gaining weight – who wants to go out walking in this crappy weather? And our base gym isn’t heated. I know, I know – there are plenty of things I could do to raise my spirits and my energy level. I could put on some salsa music and shake my ass like Shakira. I could throw away the lesson plan and put my students into groups to write horror stories. I could put on every bit of bright-colored clothing I have, all at once. I could cook up a spicy Thai curry.

But I digress – I’m actually sitting at my desk listening to Suburbs of Goa Radio – funky, soul-warming South Asian music. It tamps down the frayed edges of my pre-flight nerves. In a few hours I’ll head to the airport and fly to the Costa del Sol for spring break. Malaga, here I come. All week long I’ve been annoying my students by humming “Que Viva España” – badly, I’m sure. The prospect of this vacation has kept my spirits up all through the frantic last week before report cards.

But for now, I’m huddled at my desk, wrapped up in a big turquoise shawl that I bought last spring break in Rhodes. It’s the color of shutters on whitewashed Greek village houses. It takes me back to a happier place and time, and the possibility of sun, warmth, relaxation and fun. I think that if we didn’t have spring break, the students would just put their heads down on their desks and weep – surrendering to the cold-weather blues, the interminable march of school day after school day, and the snarky commentary of the crows. I know that I would.

Happy spring break, everyone!

Call Me Ma’am

“Thank you, Ma’am. You have a good one.” The 20-something gate guard hands me my ID card and I drive on through. At the military installation where I work, everyone must show a military ID card in order to enter the base. The gate guard may be military or civilian, but the greeting always contains a “Ma’am” – and that’s just fine with me. Ma’am, after all, is the polite term of address for a grown-up female human whose name one does not know. And at 50, I’m certainly a grown-up female human.
I’m aware that some of my fellow grown-up female humans object to this term of address, saying “It makes me feel old,” or some such silly twaddle. What would you prefer: Honey, Miss, or perhaps Young Lady? Please, my sisters, get a grip.
A few years back, I was dining with my parents, my daughter, and my ex in one of those obnoxious chain restaurants – let’s call it “Blue Sparrow.” Our waiter was forty if he was a day, and when he approached our table, electronic order pad in hand, he purred greasily, “Now what can I get you young ladies?” I looked over at my daughter, the only young lady present at our table. No, he wasn’t addressing her. He was talking to my mother and me.
“Excuse me?” I inquired, my left eyebrow – the snarky one – reaching for my hairline.
“What would you lovely young ladies like to drink?” he oozed at Mom and me.
Now, this is not the first time that I’ve encountered this disrespectful, slimy, angling-for-a-bigger tip tactic, but for some reason I was especially offended this time. Even as I fought for control, I felt my eyes squinch, my lip curl and my hackles rise.
“This grown woman will have an ice tea,” I snarled at him. He was clearly taken aback – the poor schmuck seemed to have no clue what he’d done wrong, but he could see his fat tip melting away.
“Mom!” my gorgeous daughter poked me after he left. “That was mean!” My mother just laughed. She and Dad told me about the patronizing language and tone they so often encountered: “You young folks, you dears, you sweeties, you kids…” Salesmen, clerks, cashiers and waiters felt justified in treating my dignified, educated, grown-up parents, both in their early 70s, as if they were children. Unbelievable!
Alas, I’ve seldom been blessed with a quick retort when insulted, but here’s what I should have said to the waiter, in front of his manager, back then:
I find your patronizing tone offensive. I am obviously not a ‘young lady,’ and neither is my mother. We don’t buy your phony flattery, which is clearly intended to get a bigger tip from us – but you won’t get a tip by insulting your customers. Let’s look at the assumption behind your comment, shall we? You think that young is better than old, and that we’ll be flattered if you refer to us as ‘young.’ As it turns out, we’re both perfectly content to be the age we are – 48 and 70 are both lovely ages to be. Young is not better than old, nor is old better than young. Any age that a person happens to be is a perfectly fine age to be. And the proper way to address an adult female customer is Ma’am. Now please send us a different server – you’ve spoiled my appetite.”

I live in Germany now, and one thing I enjoy about this culture is the polite formality of business transactions here. My doctor’s receptionist does not call me by my first name; she calls me “Frau S-.” So do clerks, salespeople – anyone who is conducting any kind of business with me. I appreciate the sense of respect that comes with this old-fashioned politeness. We’re not pals, after all – I’m your client, your patient, your customer. And if you treat me politely, I’ll be your repeat customer. Thanks for calling me Ma’am.