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Dispatches

The latest buzz from the bee world; Boston’s Fenway Park hits 100; a London shoe company makes its pointe; art runs amok at an ancient Thai temple; shipping out to sea with Billy Campbell

LONDON

POWER POINTE
Meet the unlikely shoe obsessives keeping dancers on their toes

At the end of a murky hallway in the working-class east London neighborhood of Hackney, 12 men stand at battered workbenches under unflattering fluorescent lights. One wields a nail gun; another bangs away with a hammer. Machines hum. There is something severe and decidedly masculine about the whole scene, but what this factory, Freed of London, churns out is about as dainty as it gets: custom pointe shoes for the world’s prima ballerinas.

The factory is managed by Gary Brooks, who came to Freed straight out of high school. “I was fascinated when I first came here by how much work goes into making a shoe,” he says. “People either leave after six months or, like me, stay for 30 years.” The only things that have changed since Freed was founded in 1929 are the soccer posters on the wall and the songs coming from the radio.

Each craftsman makes 40 pairs a day, all of which start with the same basic materials: satin, cotton, burlap, cardboard and leather. But, as with violin makers and their varnish, rumors abound of top-secret ingredients being added along the way to make one man’s shoes more prized than another’s. Because of this, once a dancer finds a craftsman she likes, she tends to stay with him for her entire career. In turn, the shoe makers take great pride in nabbing the best ballerinas. “I’ve had some top dancers — Tamara Rojo and Belinda Hatley,” says Pat Moran. He’s been at it for 18 years, he says, “and I still remember the times I’ve come to work and made the perfect shoe.”

That’s not to say the craftsmen often see their handiwork in action. In fact, Brooks is unusual among his colleagues in that he’s actually been to the ballet. “I really enjoy watching their feet and what they do. It gives you a whole different view,” he says. “But most of the blokes think it’s a bit girly.” —MARCIA ADAIR

 

CULTURAL VOCABULARY
A guide to curious words and gestures from around the globe

ISRAEL
If someone’s full of hot air, call him on it by pointing at your upturned palm — signaling that grass will grow there before his words come true.
nu: This Yiddish word can mean anything from “How did it go?” to “Hi, what’s up?”

FINLAND
When passing the salt, set it down on the table instead of handing it off directly, which would invite bad luck.
kurkku: Equally important in doctor’s offices and restaurants, this means both “throat” and “cucumber.”

COLOMBIA
Recalculate your tip if you see your waitress tapping the underside of her elbow, which indicates you’ve been a bit stingy.
avión: The Spanish word for airplane is also a colloquial term for a clever person.

POLAND
Flicking a finger against your neck is shorthand for “Want to get a drink?” (usually vodka).
bulka z mastem: In Poland, something easy isn’t described as a “piece of cake” but rather a “roll with butter.”

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