There’s a no shoes policy in Estonia.
I don’t mean that people just wander the streets barefoot, of course, as that would be completely insane in these temperatures. You’re allowed shoes for that. No, the shoeless requirement applies to houses and apartments. It’s a cultural law.
I have never yet seen anyone wearing shoes in the house, over here. If you enter someone’s home, the first thing you’ll see them do is remove their footwear and place them neatly in the row of shoes and boots beside the door. I’m not sure what would happen if you just wandered on in without following suit, because I’ve always just followed their cue, but I suspect that they wouldn’t be too shy about telling you to expose your socks.
Even when we were apartment-hunting, and looking around flats with our hapless estate agent friends, the shoes always came off before we advanced past the hallway. It’s just What You Do. And, I dunno, it always makes me feel kind of self conscious. Mainly because I suddenly realise that my big toe’s sticking out of a hole, or that I’m wearing the socks that got dyed in the wash and are now covered in embarrassing black smudges. But also because it feels like a very comfortable, private thing to do, wander around in your bare feet or sock soles – not something you do when you’re in a stranger’s house for the first time. For me, taking my shoes off in someone’s home always used to imply that I felt at home there. Not only that, but it suggested that I intended to stay around for a while, and wasn’t planning on getting out of their hair at any time in the near future.
So it was OK to kick off my trainers in the McLovely household, for example, and curl up on the sofa to watch TV, because I was there all the time and they were my friends, and it was a case of “our home is your home”. It would not have been the done thing, on the other hand, to carelessly throw off my shoes in the house of someone I hadn’t known for very long, or someone with whom I had a relationship that was more formal than friendly.
I never sat and thought all this through, you understand. I had no handbook on shoe ettiquette. It was just something I knew, like how you’re not supposed to be naked in the street or eat spaghetti using your hands in a fancy restaurant. There was always a point, in any relationship, where I’d say to a friend with whom I was spending an evening: Is it OK if I take my shoes off? Of course, the answer would always be Go ahead! (or at least Are you kidding? I don’t need to be suffering that smell all evening!, which means yes anyway), but I’d always ask anyway, that first time. After that, it was OK. People did the same in my house.
I’m just mentioning all this because I went to Tartu for a few days this week, and stayed in a hostel. It was my first Estonian hostel experience, and having beome quite familiar with how hostels operate elsewhere in Europe, it stood out as an obvious difference when I entered and my barefoot host paused in his introduction speech by the long line of shoes, waiting expectantly for me to add to the collection before he continued with the guided tour. Had I not been familiar with the Shoeless Policy, I would have looked blankly at him and probably disgraced myself by wandering throughout the hostel in my welly boots. Fortunately, it was instinctive as soon as I saw the shoe line. It just wasn’t an action that I associated with something like a hostel. I can’t help but wonder if they’d have the same policy in a swanky hotel.
I suspect not, but the thought of hundreds of guests leaving their shoes in the lobby causes me considerable amusement nonetheless.