As long as I’ve been travelling, I’ve collected mementoes to remind me of special places or experiences. As I write, I’m surrounded by many of them: a small, treasured oil of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, a mass-produced Eiffel Tower in grey metal, a photo of Monsieur holding a kitten at a pilgrim’s hostel in France, a painted magnetic trishaw from Melaka.
Some souvenirs are more poignant than others. Take, for instance, my $2.00 snow shaker of New York. It was bought in 1999 and yes, the World Trade Centre is depicted in twin towers of glorious black plastic. I paid next to nothing for it, yet was completely unaware of the significance it would come to bear. It has become, through unbelievable events, a very special $2.00 snow shaker.
On a religious note, we have statues of saints from Lourdes and Naples, and a mother-of-pearl- inlaid crucifix from Syria, a gift from my intrepid brother, a man who shares my nomadic DNA. There is a special scarf from the Middle East, a woven bag from the Lebanese/ Israeli border where we were surrounded by camouflage-wearing teens on tanks as we bought it, and a jewellery box from a souk in Luxor, one of my first successes in the fine art of haggling.
In every place we visit, I have to stop and check out the souvenir shops. The amusement value of this is undervalued by many a tourist. For instance, how many gondolier’s hats are sold in Venice each year, bearing tiny “made in China” stickers? It’s amazing how those 3 little words, once found, can automatically remove all trace of romance.
Then there are the perennial money-spinners. In Spain, last year, I was thrilled to see that they are still producing postcards of technicoloured seventies flamenco dancers with sewn-on ruffles of satin providing a 3-D skirt. Wonderful! I bought a couple to add to my collection.
There’s the effect of globalisation, too. Now grown up I find it amusing to see that teenagers still make a beeline for the local Hard Rock Cafe when travelling to a city with their parents, emerging with the requisite Hard Rock tee shirt, a bellyful of burger and a couple of dazed adults moaning about the youth of today.
Sadly for some, there are also those mean relatives who are still foisting tees on unsuspecting tots, forcing them to walk around emblazoned with “My auntie went to Vegas and all she bought me was this lousy tee shirt”. Save your money, PLEASE!
Years ago, when I lived in Venice, I took a train to see the sites of Padova. Having been rendered speechless by St Anthony’s shrivelled mandible in the reliquary, chosen for display because of his oratorial excellence, I felt it time to explore the souvenir shop. It was towards the end of my Italian stay so I was conscious of running out of money, but I did always regret not buying a certain pen. It was one of those brightly-coloured plastic pens with the top half filled with a background scene, some sort of clear liquid and a floating picture. In Venice, they contained a gondola that floated up or down, but here, the pens held tiny Virgin Maries which floated up and down in total serenity. I always find it oddly humourous to see such tacky representations of revered figures, but this one I simply adored and talked about for years until I finally found something similar in Lourdes. This time I bought the pen but I know I’ll never use it. Something about its commercial irreverence just doesn’t seem right. Just as using a mouse on the face of the Pope printed on a mouse mat I saw in Rome seems a bit wrong.
However, we can be a bit irreverent when it comes to naming things. Following a recent business trip, Monsieur returned with a bottle of sangria in the shape of a bull with castanets slung over its back. He’s a dignified beast, even if the sangria was a bit watery and the bottle top is rudely located under his tail. Promptly named Juan Carlos, after the King of Spain, he now has pride of place on the top of a bookcase, a position far preferable to standing in a row of stock on a souvenir shop shelf.
Looking for a suitable New Zealand souvenir to add to the list, how about possum fur nipple-warmers? No, I don’t possess any at this point, but who knows? One day perhaps.
In the meantime I wonder what will find it’s way into the suitcase on my next trip?