Saturday, October 6, 2012

Socken mit Sandalen


Felt Pantoffeln = warm feet.
I remember quite clearly the first time I crossed the threshold into a real German house as a strapping young 16-year-old. Before the tour of the three-level, three-generation household began – even before I had finished untying my laces to stand up to survey my surroundings – I was offered a pair of little grey felt slippers, well-worn but not worn out and fraying a little bit at the edges. It was one of the first staples of German culture – and definitely the first of many aspects of German footwear culture – that I was introduced to. My first impression in this case was curiosity, but this initial reaction was promptly replaced with a feeling of being welcomed warmly. How thoughtful of them to consider the welfare of my sensitive suburban soles. I later learned that this practice of offering loan-footwear to guests was such a basic form of social etiquette that one can buy these furry little foot-friends at nearly any store ranging from the patrician KaDeWe to the local Aldi, Pennymarkt or even Flohmarkt. It is perhaps the only product in Germany that you can buy at such a wide range of establishments with virtually no difference in product quality or appearance. Now, much older and wiser, I realize that the practice of offering indoor footwear to guests is actually widespread across many world cultures. A long-time Berliner and German professor recently informed me that this practice within Germany is much more common in the former East, and that if one travels further eastward across Europe, Russia, and eventually all the way to Japan, one will  in all likelihood rarely have cold feet as a guest. So it seems that – more or less – the iron curtain in this case seems to have marked a sort of Pantoffel (Eng. 'slipper') boundary. All of this aside, well over a decade later and now a seasoned resident in Deutschland, I still rest easy knowing that if I arrive at a friend's or acquaintance's house (especially if it's in the former East), I will have warm, comfortable feet despite the chill of the tiles and the squeaky, light brown parquet floor.

Sock-sandal combo spotting on the U2 in Berlin.
But I digress.  While the idea of Pantoffeln for all is one of the more solidly positive symbols of German Gastfreundschaft in general, the point of this post is really a vexing and much less practical manifestation of German footwear culture: namely, the practice of wearing Teva-esque, but usually generic strapped sandals with dress socks, the latter usually being dark grey or black in color. In this case, we have an otherwise relatively hip 60-something U-Bahn patron (I've chosen in this case to respect his anonymity), confidently donning his black cotton socks with a robust and high-quality pair of strapped leather sandals. Admittedly, it was a tad cool outside to be wearing sandals sans socks that evening, but in this case I would expect the typically sensible German mentality to opt for standard full-toed footwear. I would further argue that the marginal advantage gained in foot breathability is far out-shined by the obvious fashion and weather-proofing drawbacks. The cake is iced for me by the fact that I have repeatedly been stared at and questioned directly by German folk about my insensible choice of flip-flops or Birkenstocks sans socks in warm summer weather, being informed that I was actually wearing Hausschuhe out of doors – "that one does not do that." I think I speak for many when I say the same for the pictured footwear choice.

Though my observations suggest that this curious institution may be marginally more common in the older generation(s), I have observed many proponents of the sandal/sock combo well under the age of 30, suggesting that the tradition is – for better or worse – being imparted upon the impressionable younger generations. Indeed, Socken mit Sandalen appear to be set to survive well into the new millennium. Keep your eyes well-peeled, and you too may spot some in the wild.