I was forewarned about walking on cobblestones, although most of what is here in Maastricht is flat block, not really adhering to the 14th century definition of cobylstone. The blog at MonarchStone has this to say about them, “Cob was a rounded lump, and the word “Cobble” appeared in the 15th century adding the suffix “le” to “cob”, meaning a small stone rounded by the flow of water. It was these smooth “cobbles”, gathered from streambeds, that paved the first “cobblestone” streets. In many instances they would be worked by hand in order to fit into a pattern or lay correctly on the road…hence the meaning of being ‘cobbled’. Today cobble is a generic geological term for any stone with dimension between 2-1/2 to 10 inches.”
My own memories of walking on rounded humps of stone (now I can’t get the picture of Igor, the hunchback assistant from the movie “Young Frankenstein” out of my mind) have to do with wandering in colonial Philadelphia, field trips to the Liberty Bell or the Ritz Theater in Old City. But my favorite encounter with them was in 1969 in Marzi, my father’s hometown in Italy. I was wearing some mod strappy sandals, but I nearly twisted an ankle walking on the cobbled streets leading to the central square. Eventually I learned how to shimmy the shoe and the ball of the foot in just the right way to avoid getting the pointy heel in the crack which had half of me moving forward while the rest of me was left behind. If that’s not a metaphor for travel, I don’t what is.
In Maastricht, I regularly pass by a shoe repair store, and it brought me back to my row house neighborhood in Northeast Phillie, where Bud, the cobbler (no not the pie) had a shop around the corner from my childhood home. Walking down into his nearly pitch dark basement, I could smell the sweat and odors of the shoes on the back shelves, and it seemed that my nose was absorbing all the ethnicities and religions of the people on our street…German, Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. Bud always had a half finished cigarette either in his mouth or on the side of the counter. Like the shoes it always looked abandoned, forgotten, as if its owners were in a hurry, and couldn’t wait for it to finish, so they left it there to be this very long unbroken line of ash. Bud’s hands were grubby with shoe polish, and his bulging eyes pivoted. He had several teeth missing. I was a little scared and disgusted handing over my shoes wondering if they would be there when I returned, or would he hand over someone else’s shoes? Or maybe it would be so long between dropoff and repair, that my feet would’ve grown, and they wouldn’t fit anymore. Or maybe I just stopped going, caught up in the new world of wear and throw away.
Despite this ambivalent introduction, I do miss having a good shoe therapist, I mean reparist, in my life. Sometimes the tops and insides of my shoes are still in good shape, and only the sole or a heel needs to be replaced. You know that kind of worn in comfort that we take for granted in a shoe, plus all that walking and running around does gather up a lot of experience that maybe I don’t want to throw away easily, despite the sweaty stench I’ve collected over the years.
My dad saved my tiny red sneakers, my infant shoes, and my first scuffed black patent leathers. At the time, I thought it was overly sentimental, a way to hold on to the past or a simpler time. Over the years those shoes have become a kind of symbol to remind me that every time I do something new, I’m still taking those baby steps, and still need a helping hand to get from one place to another.
And the shoes that I’ve worn or this ground I’ve tread…. they’ve now become the cobblestones in my own life, markers of where I stumbled and when I got up, where I settled, or circled around; how I’ll repair what’s been trampled on or put aside what I’ve carried for so long.