Six years ago, my wife and I visited Ireland for our 25th wedding anniversary. I remember the locals having this uncanny ability to figure out we were Americans, even before we uttered a word. They’d start with, “So where ya from in the States, the both of ya?”, or “What’s the weather like in America now?”, or “Traveled across the pond, did’ja?” It wasn’t until several years later I realized our feet had given us away. Our footwear – bright sneakers with white laces – effectively shouted, “Hello world! We’re from America!” We might have been the only rubber-soled couple in all of Dublin.
Funny people, those Europeans. They wear gym shoes when they’re going to the gym; running shoes when they’re going for a run. That’s about it. We Americans on the other hand (er, other foot), have a decades-long love affair with our “tennis shoes”. We have entire stores dedicated to the soft-soled shoe – Foot Locker, for example – though you’re more likely to find synthetics instead of rubber these days. Walk into a Foot Locker and say, “I need a good walking shoe”, and the salesperson will direct you to every single pair in the store. Americans and their gym shoes: where fashion trumps function.
“Gym shoes” is an awkward, dated description of America’s casual footwear, but we’ve yet to come up with a better name. Once upon a time we called them “tennis shoes”, but today that ask gets you a specialty shoe (for tennis, of course). As kids we wore “Keds”, “Converse” and “Vans”, because they were practical and cheap. 95% of my childhood plodded along in pairs of Keds (with the other 5% in bare feet, or the single pair of dress shoes my parents insisted for church). Today, Keds, Converse, and Vans have made a furious comeback, albeit as a pricey fashion statement.
More recently, Americans claim to be wearing “running shoes”, but how many of us run, really? Maybe we should side with the Brits and wear “trainers” instead. At least we could fib about being “in training”.
The Euros may be quick to judge footwear but trust me; that’s not all they’re looking at. American tourists give themselves away with a host of other fashion statements. If you’re partial to baseball caps, flip-flop sandals, or “athletic shorts” (another item demanding a name change), you’re an American. Speaking of shorts, any shorts in Europe labels you an American. Shorts are “children’s clothing” over there. Care to repack that suitcase? While you’re doing so, white “athletic socks” are a no-no. Euros match their socks to their pants (meaning skip the white pants too). Finally, leave the untucked, oversized, logo’d t-shirts in the drawer. Euro’s aren’t interested in poorly-fitting walking advertisements.
I may be guilty of several items on the “American Tourister” list, but I simply can’t give up my gym shoes. They’re too comfortable and practical, and they’ve become a lot more stylish than the Keds of old. That’s not to say I don’t feel self-conscious wearing them. A good friend – the author of the entertaining blog Brilliant Viewpoint – always insisted her husband wear “nice” shoes, no matter the occasion. Considering her Italian background (and his German), it makes a lot more sense now.
For the record, the American airport is a great place to catalogue footwear. On a recent visit, the traveler shoe pie was split into equal slices (whether males or females): gym shoes, sandals, and dark-soled. heeled, business-casuals. The irony of this airport visit – my wife and I were picking up two teenage visitors from Germany; students staying with us for awhile. As they walked out of the Customs area, my eyes dropped to their feet. What were they wearing? Gym shoes – both of them. Apparently there’s more to America’s global influence than fast food.