When the Shoe Fits
by Olga Barmina
My mom was a single parent for most of my life and she worked hard to keep pace with big city standards. She managed to send me to good schools and we lived in a nice apartment in the newly developed part of Saint-Petersburg.
Russians are very concerned about their appearance but stylish, fashionable clothes are extremely expensive. It was not easy to stay in fashion having a limited budget, and being a teenager whose body and attitude grew faster than expected. I was always slightly bigger than the average girl of my age and the idea of going shopping for clothes and footwear was always dreadful to me back then. I would prefer to get gently used clothes from my relatives but it did not happen often enough to save me from facing the brutal experience of shopping for clothes.
We used to go to Apraksin Dvor—the biggest and cheapest clothes market in St. Petersburg, where customer service and politeness were hard to find but where stylish clothes were affordable. The market was owned by people from The Caucasus. Some of the owners would sell their products themselves, and with their limited Russian were not very helpful. But the salespeople I disliked the most were underpaid university professors, lab technicians or retired doctors or engineers who were trying to make some extra money by working in the market. They behaved as though they were too good for the place. And they tended to make unkind comments regarding the appearance of the shoppers, or their preferences.
For example, if I dared to ask for my size of dress or top I liked, they would say “You are too big for this brand, try the stretchy one.” My sensitive teenage soul could only take a few comments like this before I would shut down emotionally and begin to hate my body not being smaller.
As bad as clothes shopping was, shoe hunting was even worse. The market literally did not carry my size in a style I wanted to wear. Even the biggest size they had, which I did not always dare to ask for, was smaller than I needed.
Fashion rules in Russia. Women and teen girls have to look gorgeous in spite of the weather, their mental condition or time of the day. Therefore, I decided to force my feet into trendy shoes that were one or even two sizes too small and get used to the pain.
At the age of 25 I decided that I had had enough. I had to find shoes that fit. I had to leave my country. I took a waitressing job on a cruise line without the slightest idea of what life was like on this side of the Atlantic. The job took me far from home, from family and familiar life and opened the door to what I considered the New World.
Somewhere along the way, I lost my last pair of wrong-sized shoes. I never regretted it. I wish I could have seen my face when I first stepped into an air-conditioned shoe store, maybe as affordable as PayLess with rows of shoes of all sizes. For the first time in my life I picked up high heels I liked, and not only did they fit comfortably but they were not the largest ones in the store. It was my moment of glory, my paradise, and the deal breaker for returning home. After trying on this life I knew I would never fit back in Russia. I had to continue looking for my path.
My dearest mother had moved from her small village to one of the most beautiful cities in the world pursuing the best life for us. I had to cross the ocean to make it even better.
This free country of “Please,” “Thank you” and “Excuse me” became my home and my child’s country of birth. I look forward to our future and keep praying for my son’s journey to be easier and happier than mine. I am hoping that his shoes will always be a perfect fit and his voice will be loud and heard.