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Shoemania

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I was about 5 or 6 when I accompanied my mother to bid buon viaggio to the beautiful Amerigo Vespucci, the tall ship of the Italian fleet. My mother shed a few tears as she hugged her handsome husband -- then a young Navy lieutenant -- about to sail to the Americas. Used to months-long separations and already anticipating the joy of softer discipline at home, I shifted my attention to the Admiral's wife. She stood erect, smiling at the crowds of waving kids and sobbing spouses, but it was her white dress -- a perfect inverse-trapezium, with two patch pockets and a round neckline -- that took my breath away. I pulled my mother's sleeve. "Pierre Cardin," she whispered. That name forever registered in my brain, I nodded and scanned her figure, down to her Ferragamo platform sandals. She was the epitome of elegance. On that dock, at that tender age, I had instantly turned into a fashion addict.

Eight p.m. was my mandatory bedtime, but also time for hugs and whispered secrets with beautiful Vera, my favorite aunt who wore something new and spectacular every night.

Seated on the edge of my bed, she told me fascinating stories as I lay down, enveloped by her perfume, a delicious tuberose essence that filled the space with its magic. Her scent alerted me -- even before I saw her -- that she was in my room. One particular evening she stood at the door, checking to see whether I was still awake. Like an ethereal bubble, the multi-layered skirt of her gossamer tulle dress took flight from her tiny waist, and the corridor's light created a halo that encircled her with theatrical effect. She knelt to embrace me. And that's when I saw them: the most beautiful pair of sandals ever. Even at that young age I understood that the gorgeous crisscrossing of thin, silver leather strips and insubstantial stiletto heels were a work of art.

A couple of years later, leafing through one of my mother's magazines, I saw a picture of a beautiful model languorously draped on top of a row of theatre chairs. The velvety red upholstery was a perfect background for her silk dress; ankles crossed, she arched and pointed her pretty feet, nonchalantly looking at the camera. She was magnificent. Of course I knew why she seemed so happy: she wore exquisite black patent leather ballerinas. How could this lucky creature be anything but ecstatic? I was mesmerized. I must've stared at that page for hours, day after day. That girl was me, me in a hopefully not so far future. Stuck in my unfashionable present, I looked down in disdain at my utilitarian brown sandals con gli occhiali, oval holes that resembled spectacles.

Then in one of life's curious twists, shoes became instrument of torture. I was now a model, scandalizing everyone in my family but finally getting closer to the elegance I had aspired for years. Oddly, the high fashion designers seemed to provide only size 8 shoes for their shows and my poor, big feet -- size 10 -- had to be squeezed into crippling high-heels sandals. The torment began: hours of standing, walking, smiling and pivoting. My toes screamed in agony.

At the presentation of Marina Lante della Rovere's pretty hideous collection I discovered, to my total consternation, that I had to climb into seven-inch platform shoes and walk back and forth Palazzo Pitti's impossibly long catwalk. No protests allowed, the models were forced to totter on stage on those ridiculous things. Ankles gave way, many girls fell, casualties ensued and we all felt like the most ridiculous women on earth.

Now, 40 years later and fully immersed in the obsessive tango-cult, I've developed an insatiable appetite for those marvelous Comme il Faut strappy sandals that allow us tangueras to perform spell-binding moves on the dance floor.

I love to sit in Buenos Aires' stores and rummage through pyramids of boxes that, once opened, will deliver their treasures of lace and colors, heels and ribbons, leather and trims. (I won't reveal the number of pairs I've amassed through the seasons.)

Should I ever feel guilty about my superficial passion, I remind myself that through history shoes have been given important roles even in fairy tales meant to teach children about life; footwear as prominent as the real characters. Think Cinderella, the Red Shoes, Puss in the Boots and, of course, the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Shoes as resourceful weapons? Clara in The Nutcracker throws her shoe at the Mouse King, killing him. Helpful tools for success? In The Elves and the Shoemaker they're magically assembled at night by elves, their perfection such that the clients keep coming and the shoemaker and his wife become wealthy.

And if I were an old woman who lived in a shoe, who had so many children, she didn't know what to do? what kind of shoe would I live in?