Barefoot in the park – and elsewhere

When my friend Bruce told me that he and his chums go for a barefoot walk in Melville Koppies every Sunday and I should try it, I looked like a hen stupefied by a chalk line.

Why? Why would I want to walk barefoot anywhere except from my bed to the bathroom?

Living in America makes one pathologically afraid of outside. There are extremely unpleasant things. Snakes, mosquitos the size of Chinook helicopters, plagues of cicadas, poisonous bumblebees called Red Jackets, praying mantises and sloths.Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 1.53.21 PM

Why would I want to risk stepping on or indeed being in the vicinity of these creatures?

The only Barefoot in the Park I used to be familiar with was the 1967 American comedy film starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Based on Neil Simon’s play it focuses on newlyweds and their adventures living in a sixth floor walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village.

Paul is a hard-working young attorney. His spontaneous bride Corie is desperate to create a romantic environment in one room with no heat, a hole in the skylight and bizarre neighbours.

In response to his wife’s nagging about his sober and cautious mien, Paul becomes drunk, throws caution to the wind and runs barefoot in Washington Square Park – hence the title of the play.

Barefoot parks have been popping up all over Europe in the last 20 years or so. There are more than 100 and they are especially popular in Germany and Austria.

They are equipped with giant shoe racks at the start of the trail and foot fountains at the end.

“Ze idea of ze parks is to be a kid again,’ says Heidi (not her real name.) “Children luff to run around barefoot and feel ze different textures under air feet. Its one way zat adults can recapture zis feeling of being a kid again.”

Hm. Up to a point.

According to podiatrists, even at an advanced age, going barefoot strengthens dozens of muscles, tendons and joints and restores part of the natural beauty and mobility of healthy feet. Going barefoot has the potential to protect the intervertebral discs from deformation and slipping. Going barefoot restores the natural gait and develops well-shaped legs, prevents varicose veins and the common cold. (Moderate exposure to chill stimulates the production of body warmth and the power of resistance. Sometimes fifteen barefoot minutes on a pleasantly cool and moist lawn or even a one minute joyful “snow dance” are sufficient to have warm feet during the whole night.)

By going barefoot you avoid blisters and are spared the inflammation and unsightliness of ingrown nails. Why, dorsal pain costs billions of dollars a year whereas bare feet are free!

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None of the above, I will wager, are the reasons for the growing trend of people going barefoot in the city.

Take the group I saw in Kloof Street recently. South Africa has always been densely populated with good-looking young men and women. Capetonians are traditionally more beautiful than the sun.

I just knew that the blond man with the pre-Raphaelite tresses was wearing clothes from Henry, a shop whose purported purpose is ‘garment archaeology’ – a purveyor of one-offs and hard-to-finds. His companion was a mind-wateringly beautiful girl with a curtain of red ombre hair. While she was wearing Tieks by Gavriel (Oprah’s fave ballet slippers), he was barefoot.

Their friend (man bun) was wearing a Paul Smith suit with the trousers rolled up. He was also barefoot.

They had names like Thatcher and Miles. The girl was called Summer. Central Casting would have them in a Benetton ad in a New York minute.

They were obviously educated at SACS or Saints (St Stithians). Thatcher – or was it Miles – and had recently come back from overseas.

The conversation had references to a crazy dude at the hostel that could get some dope dope for a buck an ounce, about how seeing the Taj Mahal was so intense and spiritual and how they thought everyone should be forced to travel to learn about the world.

There was a lot of other predictable stuff; how they loved having black friends, trans friends, veganism, the Toyota Prius, cleanses, recycling, threatening to move to Australia unless the ANC ‘gets its act together.’

So why were they barefoot? Would someone please explain? Is it a way of acknowledging that they are sons of Africa? Is it a fashion statement – like wearing penny loafers without socks? Is it recherché or risqué?

How do we feel about mettere in piazza – putting in the open what is traditionally covered? Bunions? Corns? Calluses?

A chic male friend who had a shop in a Mall recently left Cape Town because he couldn’t abide ‘the hobbit-feeted’ from coming in to his boutique.

“My dear the filth in the street! And then they want to come into my white-tiled bow-tique. I can’t even. Uh uh!”

Personally I subscribe to the view of those who say the only bare feet that should be displayed in public are those of a baby. Preferably one that has not had to use their feet yet.

This column was originally published in the June 2016 edition of Big Issue South Africa