I T seems silly, really, to love a pair of boots this much.
After graduating from college, I packed up and moved to Paris to live The Dream, the tiny-apartment-in-the-Latin-Quarter-dream, The Dream that has lured Americans to Paris forever. In The Dream, I would wander museums with my sketch pad, bite the ends of baguettes and follow them with hunks of brie and good wine, and develop a sense of almost overwhelming superiority to the swarms of tourists who were “just there for a visit.” I would read poetry on rooftops, walk through snowy tree rows in the Luxembourg gardens, and attend as many ballets as was humanly possible. I would cultivate that certain je ne sais quoi of Parisian womanhood, that grace, fashion, and poise that they carry off so effortlessly.
All of these things did in fact happen.
But before they could happen, there was the period of Reality, the one where the French Education Nationale lost all of my paper work twice and didn’t pay me for teaching for three months. I remember standing in the grocery store rolling the 20 Euro bill in my hands, knowing that it was the last one for an indefinite period of time. Obviously, I was far from destitute, as I had any number of friends and family who would have helped out if I had asked, but I was trying desperately to exert my independence. I wasn’t the first penniless dreamer to wander the streets of Paris, and I certainly won’t be the last.
And so, in lieu of the many Parisian attractions that require money, I walked. For hours on end I would wander the streets of that elegantly aged city, letting myself get lost, and finding things that only the lost have the luck to find. I wore through two pairs of shoes in those first months, American shoes not meant for the endless hours of walking I did on uneven French streets.
I knew what I needed: boots. I was the lone sneaker-souled ballet flat in a sea of leather boots. From November till April, the Parisian women wear them like a uniform, taking on the cold weather and long days with fashionable practicality. They were in every store window, an ever-present reminder of my momentary poverty. Sometimes I would make a list in my mind of what I would buy if I ever got paid: the name brand Nutella, the mustard colored pants, and boots, THE boots, if ever I could find them. I would go into every store I passed and examine their selection, trying on the rare pair that was available in my size (most French women aren’t 5’11” with big feet), and running my hands over the supple leather. Someday soon, I would whisper, I’ll be back.
Finally, I was paid, and I was off to buy some boots. I agonized over this decision, buying several pairs only to return them a couple days later. But one day, as I was trudging home from work, I saw them. They were in the window of a little boutique in Saint-Michel, a store so unnoticeable that I can’t even remember the name. The same for the boots themselves in fact, just a perfect pair of no-name leather boots that fit like a glove. The boot search was over.
Sometimes fashion means the putting on of something, the donning of various articles of clothing. But other times fashion defines a period of our lives, or a place. We become what we wear, or what we wear becomes us. That is what happened to me and my boots. I wore them all the time, allowing them to define my wardrobe and establish my own Parisian style. They became that winter for me. In those boots I explored that city on foot, making Paris a city that was no longer foreign. Those boots took me on pilgrimages across the entire city, down hidden rambling streets, and across every graceful bridge. Several times a day they climbed the eight flights of steps up to my tiny studio overlooking the city. They gave me a sense of belonging in the stylish throngs of the metro.
It didn’t stop in Paris. The boots carried me across other parts of France, from Nice to Bordeaux, to little villages in the country. They boots were there as I wandered in England and in Italy. In those boots, I found belonging in wandering.
Since returning from France, the boots have taken me to work in Kentucky, then explored the streets of my newest home in Washington, DC. They are my go-to for a perfect outfit, my fashion necessity. But a lot has changed in the past six months. I got married. I decided to apply for a doctorat. I put my passport in the back corner of my desk. And the other day, I looked down while I was studying in Starbucks and say that the leather has been completely worn through on the side of my foot.
Would you judge me if I admit that I cried a little? These were my vagabond boots and their time is over.
In French, there are two words that describe wandering. The verb flâner means to stroll about, to amble along, to idle. This is a pointless sort of wandering. But the verb vagabonder is different. It means to wander, to roam, without a specific destination, but still with purpose. The last three years have been my vagabond years, my years of wandering, my years spent changing addresses, changing countries, changing states, and finally changing names. A lot has been uncertain over the past three years, but one thing was very clear: there is a sweet joy in the wandering life.
Still, you can’t do it forever. Eventually, the boots wear out. You stop wandering, look around, and realize that you’re home, you’re there, a there that you wouldn’t have found if it wasn’t for the wandering. And you’re happy to be there, so glad, but you can’t help but shed a little tear that those deliciously uncertain years of wandering are over because they were so full.
I’ll buy new boots of course, eventually. They will most likely be objectively better than that last pair, and they will certainly last longer, as my daily mileage is substantially lower these days. But they won’t hold within their leather the streets of Paris, the beaches of Nice, the fields of Chartres. They won’t have been there the night I thought I was getting engaged only to be disappointed and trudge home in the cold. They won’t be the boots that helped me challenge the dress code at my first real adult job, or feel at home in front of a room of disinterested college students. They won’t be the boots that helped me wander my way to where I am now, a place so much better than I could have ever imagined. They will never be my vagabond boots.
It seems silly, really, to love a pair of boots this much. But I do.
(Read more of Hannah's parisian adventures here)