Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The souvenir thing

I've been studying up on what holds blog readers' attention. I finally found something I can handle: "Share your weaknesses or addictions," I read. Thanks. I'm now set for the next 52 weeks.

Here's the first one: my souvenir addiction.

I admire those who embark on journeys to enrich their lives, to expand their horizons by touring ancient ruins, museums, and cathedrals.

I travel so I can buy souvenirs.

I can't help myself. Even if I hate a place, I buy something to remind me of it. Last year I attended a conference in a shabby southwestern town I'd never willingly visit again, but I brought home a dishtowel with imprints of eight varieties of cactus. Fortunately, the towel is made of cheap fabric and the poorly applied paint-like design is already chipping away.

There's some logic to my addictive buying. A hierarchy, if you will. Colleges and universities are at the top of the list. If there's an academic institution near where I happen to be on travel, I must have a pennant, a binder, pens and pencils, at the minimum. In my sock drawer are representative novelty crew tops from no fewer than nine institutions of higher learning, from Villanova and MIT in the east, to CAL Berkeley and Chico State in the west.

The more I like a place, the bigger the item—so I have a 60-inch square throw and large posters from Revere Beach, Massachusetts (where I grew up) but only a key chain from a town that shall go nameless. But even when I have unpleasant experiences, I take something home. One day in the fall I had a very unsatisfactory visit lecturing on a college campus. The students were apathetic, the faculty full of self-importance and in-jokes. Still, I climbed a long hill to the bookstore and came home with note cards, a sports bottle, and a license plate holder with the school logo.

"I thought you had a bad time there," my husband said when I handed him his 85th cap and T-shirt with the school name in furry red letters.

I shrugged, but secretly I worry. Do I have some sick need to remember bad times?

Even the containers souvenirs come in are souvenirs to me. I keep plastic "insert your laundry here" bags with hotel logos, and, though I have never actually stolen anything, it's possible that a wash cloth or two has gotten entangled with my nightie and ended up in my own linen closet.

I'm not a collector in general. I have friends who collect Hummels or Lladro porcelain; their kids collect Pokemon cards and butterflies. Not me. To avoid being stressed out over having every item in a series, I don't bother to try. So I'm not collecting souvenirs, per se, I'm strewing them all over my house, distributing them to friends, storing some in my gift closet. (And here's another tricky situation: how long after a trip can you give a souvenir from that place as a birthday present? Will the person think you're recycling?)

Do I have a need to prove I'm a traveler? To prove I've "been there?" My mother never traveled, and when she died, the funeral procession passed every house she ever lived in. Maybe I'm carrying out her wishes that I would have a better, broader life — by traveling often and marking the journey with junk.

I realize have souvenir issues, and it's going to take professional help to deal with them. Maybe there's a souvenir-avoidance patch (in a little pouch with souvenir de Paris embroidered on it?), or a twelve-step program I haven't heard of.

I'm thinking of throwing away all my souvenirs and finally putting together a grown-up house, with high quality objects of art and classy potholders. A streamlined, well thought-out, matching home, not one with cups from Minneapolis and saucers from Washington, DC.

But I just found an amazing website where you can get souvenirs from all over the world. Are they really souvenirs if they're not carried home in my luggage?


Monica Ferris said...

I buy souvenirs, too. Sometimes I buy just something small, a t-shirt or mug. But sometimes I go crazy - I did that in Thailand, buying panels of hand-woven silk, most of which lives folded up in a plastic (horrors!) bag. Gorgeous stuff, but I don't know where to put it, or how to use it. Of course the experience gave me a wonderful idea for a mystery. Look for Thai Die late this year, probably. Buying souvenirs is very old; medieval pilgrims used to buy metal badges to pin to their hats. The most famous is the shell-shaped one that they bought after visiting the Shrine of St. James in Compostella, Spain. I'm not sure this counts as "Souvenir," but archaelogists (paleontologists?) digging out prehistoric graves in the interior of France have found little seashells pierced for a necklace obviously not produced locally. A habit that old is not easily quit!

Sheila Connolly said...

No, that's cheating--you have to acquire the object at its point of origin (okay, it was made in China, but still) and haul it around in your suitcase for days or weeks and then try to explain to the guys at the airport what it is and why you have it. Those are the rules.

I go one step further and collect "found" objects. Shells make sense, but I have an awful lot of odd pebbles and rocks and such. My rule is, once I can no longer remember where I got it, I can get rid of it. Doesn't work too often.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


One of my favorite souvenir's is a Chairman Mao wristwatch I bought in China. He waves at you...but not for long!

Sheila, I've brought back so many sea shells I could start my own beach. I think it's a pathetic effort to hold on to a place I love.

Camille--have you considered taking photos of your treasures, making a scrapbook, and donating some of them to schools?

Linda O. Johnston said...

I love souvenirs! For a while, my husband and I brought coffee mugs home from every place we visited but they started to take over our kitchen so we stopped. I'll sometimes buy T-shirts if they're unique enough. But my all-time favorite that I never return without? Bookmarks!

Camille Minichino said...

Monica, I'm so glad I'm continuing a long tradition, from before there were carryons.

Joanna ... tell me more! What would a school do with such a scrapbook?

And Sheila I have now resolved, no more easy way out with *stuff* ...

Camille Minichino said...

Linda, do you find "city" bookmarks easily? I'm not sure I've seen them, except of course from museums.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Camille, bookmarks are generally easy to find, in souvenir shops in cities all over the world. Of course their quality varies. I get the best one available, which might just be colorful paper, sometimes with a tassel attached.

Ann Parker said...

I will admit to being part of the "coffee-mug" and "t-shirt" souvenir fraternity (or... maybe that should be "sorority." Do men go crazy over souvenirs? I only see women confessing here.).
Anyhow, the cup shelf in the kitchen is overflowing with mugs from faraway places. I now have a rule with the mugs: If I get a new one, an old one has to go.
T-shirts, luckily, compress easily and many can be squashed onto a closet shelf.

Anonymous said...

I've finally reached the point of carrying the memories in my mind and heart, instead of buying minutia. It only took almost 77 years. A big "however", sometimes there's an object on the sidewalk that just might fit into a doll house, but that's not a souvenir. Another "however", I LOVE socks...xoxoxoxox

Terri Thayer said...

Oh Camille, I'm so far behind in my reading, but of course the answer is-wait for it-FABRIC!

I bring home fabric from places I've been. And the weird part is that it does serve as a souvenir. That geometric print from Sedona has the same colors as the terrain. The half-yard from the little quilt shop in Harvard Square takes me back to the brick buildings every time. The little orange piece reminds me of Martha's Vineyard.

Fabric is easy to transport, doesn't raise any eyebrows at security, and can be put into a quilt later on. Of course, that's going a little too far. Souvenirs are to be cherished, not used, right?