When I arrived at school that first day, streams of children flowed into school while a young man, head of cleaning operations on the ground floor of the school, detained me. I gave him such an important sounding title because he took his job very seriously. And he was not letting me into the school until I put on blue plastic bags over my shoes, called galoş in Turkish. At my interview, I was told it was preferable for me to wear a skirt to work. Most of the teachers at my school followed this dress code, which thankfully has changed since then. But, wearing a skirt required wearing dressy shoes or heels. That first day I struggled with the other teachers into my blue plastic shoes coverings. Then, we all tripped and slipped up the carpeted ramp to the classrooms and offices upstairs.
I really tried to follow the rules my first week as a teacher. But, I ditched the galoş by the third day of school. I had slid on the carpet more times than I could count, and had fallen practically on my face a few times, too. I was done with it. The 500+ students were not required to wear the shoe covers, and I didn’t feel my heels were any more or less dirty than their shoes. So, I stopped wearing them. Every single morning for the five years I worked at that school I had a fight at the front door with the head janitor. My school mornings would start with him stopping me at the door, handing me a pair of blue plastic bags to put over my shoes. I would politely refuse as my Turkish improved. My reasons stayed the same. They were dangerous, impeded my job performance, were not necessary since 500 other occupants of the building did not wear them and I felt my shoes were cleaner than theirs. He didn’t get it. Or, just took serious pleasure in confronting my rebellion every morning. The tyrant of a headmistress even tried to bully me back in line, but I remained firm. Other teachers followed suit, by bringing new shoes to change into when arriving at school. That was pretty smart, as they were not bringing their dirt into the school but didn’t have to wear the shoe covers either.
In Turkey most newcomers to the country quickly catch on that wearing shoes inside the house is a big no-no. You take off your shoes at the door and are given house slippers to wear. I personally prefer to go barefoot, but that has been another battle in itself. At work, most people cannot and should not take off their shoes when entering the workplace. Certain professions require sterile environments, and those who work in them usually have to change into a separate uniform and shoes at the workplace. Back in the US, my home country, most hospital personnel that worked in the operating room or in the intensive care unit would fall into this category. My father worked in a dairy factory and they were required to wear hairnets in addition to plastic booties over their work shoes. Outside of these two specific examples, I did not see bins of plastic bags to put over shoes outside the door of any business or educational establishment.
Since coming to Turkey, I have seen these bins everywhere. Not just at schools but certain business offices now have them, too. Even the yoga studio by my house requires you to put them on to walk the two steps to the changing area where you have to remove your shoes before entering the large room with the yoga mats. Covering my shoes with plastic for two steps? Seriously? For me the last straw with the galoş came a few weeks ago at my son’s recent check-up.
Both Eren and I have gone through several different doctors over the past two years. Most of them have offices outside of the hospital in regular-looking apartment blocks. Almost all require you to wear plastic bags over your shoes before entering. My son is 2 and walks pretty well, but I refuse to put the covers over his shoes and have had several battles with the secretary in his pediatrician’s office over this.
Eren runs constantly and trips and slides when he wears the coverings. I would prefer for him to just take his shoes off, but that is just as or more horrifying to the secretary. We have had some major words regarding this, and I told Eren’s doctor that I was very unhappy with the policy. Why should my toddler have to wear the blue plastic things in the waiting room? Maybe she should require everyone entering to also wear surgical masks so that they wouldn’t spread their airborne dirt as well, in my opinion more dangerous than anything that could be dragged in by shoes, especially at a doctor’s office. And why stop at masks? Add gloves and gowns to the mix, too.
This obsession with covering shoes both irritates and fascinates me. The environmentalist in me is horrified at the thought of all of these unnecessary plastic bags being thrown away into the environment. Such unnecessary waste! In particular I have lectured my yoga studio about this. Instead, I asked why we couldn’t just ask people to remove their shoes at the door? We are going to do yoga barefoot anyways, why not just take three or four steps to the mats without plastic? The studio also provides slippers to wear. Why not just move them closer to the door so people can remove their shoes, put on the slippers, and then carry their street shoes to the lockers? That’s what I do. Enough of this galoş nonsense.
I am so happy to see most of the supermarkets near us carrying reusable cloth bags for people to buy and use in place of plastic bags when grocery shopping. Most places now have recycle bins set up, and a lot of municipalities have organized recycling pick-ups. As we continue to try and limit plastic bag usage in İstanbul, shouldn’t we also get rid of other unnecessary plastic bag usage, in the form of the galoş? I think that plastic booties have their place in certain workplaces, but am saddened to see their over-usage here in İstanbul. Years ago I never thought I would see Turkey start recycling initiatives. I was thankfully proven wrong.
My battle against the galoş is a small one, but has been a battle I have been fighting for almost 10 years now. I probably won’t win it, but that won’t stop me from trying. This isn’t a battle I only fight in Turkey. When I go back to the US, I also lament the amount of unnecessary waste that goes on daily there. In both places we try our best to cut back and make a difference in whatever way we can, however small. Even as small as refusing to put plastic bags over shoes.
Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at email@example.com for comments or questions.