Sunday, August 28, 2016

Beyond Myth: The Poet Sandal-Maker of Athens

The Poet Sandal-Maker and I: Athens, Greece 2006
(Thank you, Molly, for getting this photo!)
A very hairy man smiled and pointed down another, greasy Athenian street. I had my doubts, but he had great shoes. We must be close.

Molly thanked the man and led the way. Our friendship had spanned Archie comics to eBooks, and we travelled well together—tag teaming who led and who lagged behind…questioning where the other was leading.

It was my turn for the latter: “You sure he understood what you asked?”

Not long later, Molly pointed. There it was: the shop sign I’d been seeking. To a tall poet who has spent years trying to find size-12 shoes I like, the Poet Sandal- Maker of Athens was as intriguing as any myth I had read in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

I had brought just one pair of walking sandals with me on our ten-day trip to Greece. The weather websites had forecasted sunny delightfulness, and I had decided to bring only a single, carry-on daypack. That spring, I needed to keep my life simple.

Despite spending the winter in a Swiss chalet with a fairy-tale view across the valley to Italy, it had been The Winter of my Discontent: a messy breakup, Gruyère weight gain, and the looming Indeterminate Future after returning to the US.

When Molly had asked if I wanted to join her in Greece before I returned home, my answer had been a rather desperate, “yes!”

It may be more grownup to be able to deal with one’s issues without leaving them behind, but it’s a lot more pleasant to have the change of scenery—especially when the scenery will include Athens and the Peloponnese islands.

The problem was, Athens is not the islands. It is a polluted, gray, treeless city, bearable mostly because of its headline ruins. When I climbed up the Acropolis, I wondered if it were even more magnificent when contrasted with the modern cement buildings in varying hues of sidewalk that sprawled below it into a haze of smog.

We did enjoy the antiquity. We enjoyed having the Parthenon to ourselves at dawn for the briefest of moments before the tour buses crested the hill. We enjoyed playing caryatid, taking pictures of ourselves as if we were holding up the porch of the Erechtheion.

Back in the Archie-comics era of eighth grade, Molly and I had volunteered to illustrate our classroom’s Greek myth binders. We drew Hera with gladiator sandals on ill-proportioned feet, Apollo with a lumpy bow and arrow, and Poseidon with a trident that poked past the three-hole punches. We knew our Greek mythology and our accessories.

But let’s face it: as tourists, we weren’t going to get a glimpse of Poseidon on the docks of Piraeus, and even if we did, he was notoriously aggressive. Who wants to risk encountering a stormy god with a trident and all of the Aegean Sea at his disposal?

The Poet Sandal-Maker, on the other hand....Now here was a legend we could experience.

Molly had already been inside the shop for a few minutes while I continued to stand in silly reverence on the street. She leaned out the doorway and waved at me, “Coming in?”

I stepped in to a parfumerie of leather. A long-haired artisan sat bent over a stack of soles. He smiled when we entered and kept working. The only other person in the shop was a mannequin wearing a sheer red dress in front of a wall of sandals, boxes of sandals, and chairs stacked with sandals. 

The man introduced himself as the son of Stavros Melissinos, the poet of the shop’s name. My disappointment at not meeting the legend himself disappeared as soon as the son pointed us toward the wall of shoe design options. Choices spanned leather hues, band widths, strap lengths, and ties. Deciding to stick to my plan of keeping it simple, I opted for a single pair: an elegant variation on the flip-flop called the Minoan. 

After measuring my feet, the third-generation sandal maker began to craft my sandals at a worktable invisible beneath strata of soles, Marlboro boxes, knives, and pliers.

Within minutes, I had custom-made sandals. They were smooth as the yogurt and honey we’d had for breakfast and just as sweet. Kneeling before me, the sandal maker adjusted the leather while I asked him questions about poetry. When he was finished, he looked up to see what I thought. I smiled—a genuine, eye-crinkling smile I hadn’t felt across my face in a long time.

Molly was laughing. “I hope my sandals make me look half that happy.”

I pulled off one of my new shoes to examine it. The sandal soles were imprinted with the poet’s trademark: the gestural profile of a face. The image could have been carved on a column at the Acropolis. Or it could have been an illustration from the Odyssey translation I’d read a few years before.

“The leather will stretch. It will get very soft,” the sandal maker said as I slipped the shoe back on and began to walk around the shop.

He was standing now, watching me wiggle my toes. The thongs were tight, but I trusted his advice.

And he was right. They did stretch. They are now so soft they shine. I walked in them later that week on the Peloponnese island of Hydra, later that month through the wine country of the Languedoc, years later to a wedding in Montana, and recently into a serendipitous Market Street encounter on a sunny, San Francisco afternoon.

They are my go-to summer sandals for nicer occasions: flat, lightweight, and easy to pack. When I pull them out of my bag and see the imprint of the Poet Sandal- Maker logo, I am always reminded that there is joy down the most unpromising of streets.

Maybe it was shallow of me to be equally thrilled by leather sandals cut to fit my feet in Zeus’s homeland as by the Parthenon at dawn. Or maybe the things that make the journey possible and pleasant can be just as important as the destinations they bring us to.