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Shoes that have lasted
These traditional shoes (both wearable and souvenir tchotchkes) came from a single QBO estate sale. They were collected by a teacher on a 1980s tour of what was at the time the country of Yugoslavia, on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe. The shoes were common all over the Balkans, including Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania.
This ‘family’ of shoes is most commonly called opanci or some variant thereof, but they may also be called eminii, glamočke, kalevri, hercegovačke, pripletenjaci, tsârvouli, or vruvchanki, depending on the region. The name òpanak has been translated as both “climbing shoes” or “shoes made from stretched hide”.
Opanci are thousands of years old and were originally worn by the paleo-Balkan Illyrians, Dacians, and Thracians. They were later adopted by Slavic people as well. They are analogous to Native American moccasins; there are many variations but all are leather and have flat, supple soles without raised heels. Opanci do not have shoelaces, but are either slipped on, buckled on with an ankle strap, or, in the oldest version, the top of the shoe is gathered together with a cord that is then wrapped around the ankle, as seen on this statue in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Opanci are usually worn over thick white woolen socks or white leg wraps.
Until the 1970s, they were still everyday footwear in rural parts of Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia. Historically they were made of all kinds of leathers; either hunted wild game such as deer, badger, wolf, or bear, or the hides of domestic farm animals such as cows and pigs. Most were made by home-sewers from leather they had tanned themselves, but of course the aristocracy had their shoes professionally made by cobblers.
Today opanci are part of the national folk costume of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia and can be seen at folk dance performances and cultural events. The upturned, pointed toes were particularly common to the region of Yugoslavia that is now Serbia and many were sold as tourist souvenirs, which is how these little shoes got to Oregon. The multicolored ankle boot is actually a pincushion, while the carved wooden ones are toothpick or match holders. But Yugoslavia, the nation that produced these charming souvenirs, is no more.
In 1991 the countries now known as Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina voted for independence in 1992. Ethnic Serbs living in the Bosnian region objected to the planned secession, and armed conflict erupted between different ethnic, religious and political groups. The civil war saw bitter fighting between former friends that included blanket shelling of towns, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and many other war crimes.
The U.S. intervened as a member of NATO, with the Air Force enforcing a no-fly zone; it was the first conflict in which American women piloted combat missions. Yugoslavia split into Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia. Today the war is long over but its destruction continues; in the last 25 years more than 1,750 people have been injured or killed by lost land mines. On-going demining operations hope to clear the region by 2026, 30 years after peace was declared.
Amazingly, whatever facet of history might interest you can be found at Queen B Estate Sales, if you hunt long enough. See you soon!