Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Sombor's Unwritten Shoe Law (Or, Why I've Got the Flu)

I've been sick with the flu for several days now, and apparently it's all my own fault because I flagrantly and frequently broke the unwritten but extremely important BARE FEET LAW in Sombor, Serbia.

Everyone here (and I mean everyone) wears shoes outdoors *all the time* even in their own backyards. These can be the flimsiest of sandles, but nevertheless the sole of your foot is covered. However, the split second your foot enters a house, it must be unshod. You're supposed to whip those shoes off and walk around barefoot (or in socks or house slippers) inside your home as well as other people's homes.

"What if you're all dressed up for a formal affair?" I asked a Serb girlfriend who recently moved back to live with her family in Sombor after a dozen years in New Jersey. "Sure you wouldn't take off your dressy shoes and walk around in bare feet in someone's house with a fancy outfit on?" "Oh, there's a procedure for that," she replied. She lept up from my kitchen table and ran out the front door, so she could enter again. This time, just as she stepped over the door into the house she raised one foot and placed her hand on it, as if to slip off her strappy sandle. Then she paused and looked coyly over her shoulder cocking an eyebrow at me. "This is how you show your hostess you're willing to take off your shoes." "And then she says 'It's ok to leave them on, right?" I asked. "Sometime yes, sometimes no."

Apparently this Shoe Law is not a Serbia-wide affair. People in Belgrade routinely wear shoes in the house. It's also not a Serb-ethnic thing, Serbs living in Croatia and other countries do not fret about shoe-wearing rules much. It's a Sombor thing. My husband thinks it arose 200+ years ago when the streets were often extremely muddy in this farm-market town.

No matter that the streets have been paved since the 1850s, I saw for myself at the outdoor fish Paprikas party last week, how this shoe law still holds sway. As we adults relaxed around an outdoor dining table, the young children frequently ran in and out of the propped-open back door of the house. No matter how much we'd drunk, or how engrossed we were in conversation, or how late it was, all the Sombor-born adults were on a continual state of what I can only call 'Shoe Alert. ' Each time a child approached that back door, someone in the group would break off conversation, and call out 'Take your shoes off" or "Put your shoes on!" whichever the situation called for. Then they would fix the child with a beady eye until the action in question was taken care of.

I can only imagine what my hostess thought of my dreadful American manners that same night when I forgot to take off my shoes when entering the house to go to the bathroom. She was gracious however, and made not a sign of her dismay.

Our next door neighbor couldn't help herself in a similar situation though. When she witnessed me walking about in our little grassy courtyard IN MY BARE FEET, she gasped loudly and cried out to my husband. I asked him why she was so concerned. "She thinks you'll get the flu if you walk outside in bare feet," he explained. "In 95 degree heat in August?" I asked. He replied, "Well, she's wrong of course, but she's older. It's old fashioned thinking."

However here I am now with a full blown case of the flu, so our neighbor's concerns are completely vindicated. As she knew they would be.


Feisty Kitten said...

I hate taking my shoes off like that and I don't, but if you check out diy website, the how-to-keep-your-carpet-clean section, you'll see what horrible stuff lives on the soles of your shoes. And it can't be the Sombor thing because I know for a fact they do it in Valjevo too. And some other Serbian towns. So the problem of origin remains :)

Anonymous said...

We hold these truths to be self-evident. :)

1. Most of the population of any Serbian town moved there from a nearby village (and quite often, a faraway one, for that matter) in the last 50 years.

2. Most of the Serbian villages didn't have their streets paved until recently. A lot of them still aren't. And that doesn't account for much if you work in the field all day anyway.

3. Most of the general Serbian population is not (financially or otherwise) able to start their own home, and this has always been that way. Instead they live with at least 3 generations of their family tree, therefore most often being forced to conform to or even obtain the customs of the eldest generation.

Combined, these three give you the Unwritten Shoe LawTM. It is by no means limited, or even related to, Sombor.

The habit is quite annoying. A host requiring my shoes to be taken off teeters precariously on the edge of inhospitable and offensive behavior (at least in my book). Ironically, when I insist that visitors to my flat keep their footwear on -- it is often classified as my doubt to their personal foot hygiene.

Kind personal regards,

Nikola Gedelovski

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

Removing shoes in homes is an excellent custom. I dedicated a whole blog to this subject.

Thanks for sharing how it is in Serbia.

Peregrine said...

It's a Hungarian thing though. I've yet to enter a Hungarian house in Vojvodina, Hungary or Romania where I'm not expected to take off the shoes.

Holly said...

I think this is the custom all over that region. My in-laws and extended family and friends in Zagreb and nearby towns in Croatia are the same way!
When I visited them the first time, i was lucky enough to have brought some shoes i could use as slippers. The second time, I forgot, and on my first morning my MIL had measured my shoes and gone to market to bring me back some (wonderful) local slippers! Because, God forbid I not have slippers to wear in the house.
When she came to visit us here in America, she brought slippers for the children! haha! That lesson has not stuck on them however.

On visiting friends in the countryside of Croatia, we noted -and wore slippers from- the basket of various sizes of slippers conveniently located in the entryway. Not a subtle hint, but there it was for you.
I love this kind of cultural observance. It's very interesting. This one at does make some sense.

sanja said...

it's custom all over former yugoslavia, germany aswell as japan. i am sure there are more places, but i havent been to those households yet.
its a hygiene thing. i really wish people here would have a better sense for it. but instead we get to take showers in chlorine laden tapwater...hmm....

Vakuoli said...

Thank yoy for posting about this. I found myself in a situation where I needed to know about the shoe law in Serbia and this post and the many comments were a big help.

Here's my side to this: To me it's a matter of course to take shoes off when entering a house. I'm from Finland and here (as well as certainly in Sweden and Norway, propably in Denmark too) shoes are always taken off in the hall right after entering the house. People who suffer from cold feet or have houses with cold floors wear house shoes, slippers or knit wool socks. I'm so much the child of my own culture that I can't understand how in some countries shoes can be worn inside the house, dragging mud and sand all over the floors as well as dog poo, glass shards and everything else one steps on on the streets. In our culture the soles of shoes are considered dirty and the floors of living spaces must be clean.

Then again, walking outside barefoot is not a cultural no no either in Scandinavia, as long as one washes one's feet soon after coming back inside.

Just for curiosity, in the countries where outside shoes are worn inside the house, do you clean the floors daily or is it of no big matter if there's sand or dirt on the floor as no-one walks on them in their stocking feet anyway?