March 27, 2009

Sankt Gallen: Sliding through the library

In a magazine that solicits "readers' tips for simplifying your life," I just read this pearl of domestic wisdom from reader Kristen:

"Asking adults and children to wear covers over their shoes in the house will prevent dirtying your floors and rugs -- and less cleaning sure simplifies your life. Purchase clear shower caps at a drug or discount store. Make them skid-resistant by sticking on a few strips of ordinary masking tape. Place a few at your front door. It's a snap to pull them on over shoes or boots, and the expandable size should fit all."

Wow. I see Kristen's family -- maybe even the dog -- padding around her antiseptic house with shower caps on their feet and watching reality TV from plastic-covered couches. I'm glad I don't know Kristen because there's no risk of my ever being invited to a dinner party at her house. Hand Kristen your hostess gift, and she hands you a pair of disposable booties that you are required to wear as you make small talk and sip chablis. Very hard to look hip, elegant or anything other than goofy when you've got what are basically Baggies wrapped around your ankles.

Kristen's paragraph peeved me a bit because it got magazine space (albeit unpaid, being a "reader's tip"), and no one knows better than a freelance writer how tough it is to get some of that.

But I do have to thank Kristen, because her shoes-in-shower-caps nonsense reminded me of a travel story.

We were in Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, in the city's historic center (photo) . We'd come to see the Stiftsbibliothek, or Abbey Library, one of the country's finest baroque buildings. With the Convent of St. Gall, to which it belongs, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its importance to the cultural history of mankind. The library, with magnificent wooden bookshelves, exquisite balconied gallery, ceiling frescoes, and plaster and gilt ornamentation galore, houses a priceless collection of religious literature amassed by monks beginning in the 8th century. Besides the thousands of volumes that line the walls, there are cases of handwritten and illuminated bibles, medieval music and hymn books, and a stunning jewel-and ivory-encrusted bible case.

But there's more wonder underfoot. The library floor is a vast masterpiece of inlaid wood, and you're given a map of the floor's design elements so you know what you're walking over. Or, rather, sliding over.

Along with your map, you get a pair of giant felt slippers that you're required to wear over your shoes. It was amusing -- though not, I venture, as amusing as the plastic scene at Kristen's house -- to see scholars and travelers thoughtfully ponder the literary treasures while standing in oversized elf shoes. For Dana and Adam, among the library's youngest guests at the time of our visit, the foot-long felt slippers were the Stiftsbibliothek's main event. They ignored the treasures and jewels and the riot of baroque excess in favor of skating around and across the polished floor. They were aware enough of the import of the setting to refrain from actually racing each other, and, knowing you're supposed to be quiet in a library, they swallowed most of their giggles.