What’s in a souvenir? Nothing as sweet as a rose, but it is a reminder of a person, place or event important to the collector. Souvenir is the title of an entertaining, hundred-page book by Rolf Potts.
I admit it. I can’t travel without purchasing at least a small souvenir, something reminiscent of the country I’m visiting. I had never thought of souvenir collecting as worthy of its own written history but Potts’ book changed my mind.
Potts begins his story by describing a gift shop in Paris where tourists can take home all things Eiffel: “Eiffel Tower t-shirts and Eiffel Tower snow-globes; Eiffel Tower whiskey flasks and Eiffel Tower oven mitts…” I’ll spare you the rest of the list of Eiffel towers that goes on for two long paragraphs.
Souvenir hunting is not a modern phenomenon. It started with the Crusades followed later by people making pilgrimages. It appeals to the famous as well as the faceless — the rest of us. While in Britain, U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, took “turns with a pocket knife and each carved chunks from an antique chair alleged to have belonged to Shakespeare.”
Over the centuries, not all souvenirs, such as contraband, were as innocent as Eiffel towers, and some — human scalps and ears — were downright horrific .
Sometimes the experience of acquiring the souvenir is as rewarding as the object. As when I bought scarves from the multilingual Alibaba in the Casbah of Tangier who offered a special price of five euros each or three for twenty. Or when my husband and I visited the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico hoping to see examples of the black pottery for which it is famous. We drove around and around residential neighborhoods empty of shops and other businesses, eventually saw a small sign indicating “pottery for sale,” and parked. Victory was ours. Minutes later, we walked into the kitchen of a private home just as the family gathered around the dinner table. Oops. Wrong door. The family was gracious in pointing out where we should have gone and now we have a small pot to remind us of our persistence and our red faces.
Souvenirs don’t always turn out as expected and those too can provide memories. I once bought a gorgeous vase in Tlaquepaque, Mexico, got it home safely despite the hours it spent in the nose of a small plane. and christened it with fresh-cut sunflowers. As the day passed the water seeped through the porous pottery and ruined the table my new vase sat on. We still have both the table and the vase, the latter in better condition than the former.
Though I mostly collect quality mementos when I travel, I admit to taking occasional pride in the tacky. The puffin pen will always bring Iceland to mind. I haven’t yet worn the flamenco dancer apron from Seville. It’s going to take just the right occasion and menu.
If you’re a traveler and collect souvenirs as I do from the places you visit, the book, Souvenir, does a great job of giving a larger historical context and will make you consider taking a photo of the Eiffel Tower as your souvenir in place of the Eiffel Tower ashtray or poker chips.