Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

What’s in Your Suitcase?

by Joyce McGreevy on October 9, 2017

A souvenir store in Budapest, Hungary leads a writer to seek the locus of travel inspiration and other aha moments. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Souvenir stores straddle the border between “this place” and “any place.”
© Joyce McGreevy

Collected Travel Inspiration,
With & Without Souvenirs

Souvenirs—talismans of travel inspiration, mere trinkets, or  trash?  Can they inspire aha moments or only memorialize them?

The very word is a souvenir of 18th century French—from souvenir “to remember.” But I like the ancient Latin even better. Subvenire, “to come up from below,” tips its hat to the subconscious. It makes me think of opening old boxes in a basement and finding forgotten treasure, some silly, small item of no value.  And yet  . . .

Lost Souvenirs

My first souvenir? Petite plastic dolls from a Paris flea market. In the 1960s, my sister Carolyn and I splurged all our pocket money on them, one franc each. Ah, but that included “tous les meubles!”—all the furniture. Our dollhouse was a cupboard in our hotel, itself a souvenir of La Belle Époque.

A dollhouse in a store window in Sofia, Bulgaria leads a writer to ponder the travel inspiration we find in souvenirs. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A dollhouse in a store window in Sofia, Bulgaria.
© Joyce

They’re long gone now—dolls, furniture, the hotel, too. But my flea-market mind maintains a little shrine for them.

The first recorded use of souvenir as a token of remembrance occurred in 1782. One dictionary after another presents this tidbit but omits the actual example. It’s like finding a silver lid minus the vessel.  Souvenirs are like that—parts that can only hint at the whole.

Today, few people admit to souvenir-collecting. Marketing reports attest that travelers spend more on sightseeing than on shopping, souvenirs, and nightlife combined. Yet souvenir shops do booming business around the globe.

It’s Only Natural?

Early souvenir hunters “preserved” the past by breaking off bits of it. In the 1800s, visitors to Plymouth Rock were even provided with hammers.

An 1850 souvenir of Plymouth Rock leads a writer to ponder the downside of souvenirs and the true locus of travel inspiration. (Public domain image, National Museum of American History)

A chip off the old block? Some souvenirs proved too popular.
Plymouth Rock Fragment by National Museum of American History,  CC BY 4.0

Can the quest for remembrances make us forgetful? Recently, a mother and daughter from Virginia mailed back “souvenirs” to Iceland—a stone and a bag of sand they’d collected from the black volcanic beaches of Reynisfjara.

Back home, they learned that Icelandic law strictly forbids such souvenir collecting. The tourism board accepted their apology and promised to return the items to their natural setting.

Practical Souvenirs

A friend of mine collects “shoe-venirs” when she travels. Every walk she takes begins in lands she has loved.

A chef I know collects  household objects—a moka pot from Milan, spices from Moroccan souks. They link his American kitchen to kitchens around the world.

I like how these souvenirs, modern cousins to ancient vessels and vestments, are connected to daily rituals.

Ancient gold jewelry in the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece inspires an aha moment about their connection to ordinary souvenirs. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Charms of another age, at the Benaki Museum, Athens.
© Joyce McGreevy

Post-travel Souvenirs

One January, after returning from verdant Maui to snowbound Chicago, I saw melancholy sidle up to me. An aha moment intervened. I collected post-travel souvenirs: thrift store décor; Hawaiian-themed groceries; traditional island music. I adore Chicago, but Chicago-infused-with-Maui did wonders for my psyche that winter.

Garden objects in Maui lead a writer to ponder the reasons we find travel inspiration in souvenirs. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Objects catch our eye, but it’s the context that we crave.
© Joyce McGreevy

Ephemeral Souvenirs

Even minimalists-to-the-max collect souvenir ephemera. It’s scientific fact. Just as magnets attract iron filings, humans attract paper: playbills from Piccadilly, coasters from Costa Rica, a café napkin from Nantes.

One day, you rediscover it—the train ticket turned bookmark. Suddenly, you’re traveling again, backtracking along the past, or pressing your nose against a window onto the future.

A collage made of travel ephemera on an office wall in Chicago leads a writer to ponder ways people find travel inspiration in souvenirs. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Travel ephemera on an office wall in Evanston, Illinois.
© Joyce McGreevy

Whimsical Souvenirs

Now comes the parade of fringed pillows, ceramic caricatures, and other tchotchkes. Brazenly they shout out where you’ve been: Niagara Falls 1978! I heart Twickenham! Gibraltar ROCKS My World!

All hail souvenirs that sport the name Souvenir. If that Souvenir of Venice tea-towel were a person, it would stand arms akimbo and declare, “Yeah, pal, that’s right, I’m a Souvenir. What’s it to ya?”

Mass-produced pillows in California lead a writer to ponder why people find travel inspiration in souvenirs. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Southwestern “souvenirs” for sale—in a California suburb.
© Joyce McGreevy

“Elsewhere” Souvenirs

But what of provenance? During my youth in Ireland, the more stereotypical the souvenir, the likelier it was to be stamped An tSeapain tir adheanta—“Made in Japan.” Who made the faux French dolls my sister and I played with? Where did they live? What were their lives like? Souvenirs keep secrets.

Twilight in Baltimore, Co. Cork, Ireland leads a writer to compare the travel inspiration of souvenirs vs. experiences. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A moment made in Ireland.
© Joyce McGreevy

Elusive Souvenirs

The day I left Budapest, I passed between souvenir stores. Innumerable wares glinted in the sunlight like autumn leaves. As a single-suitcase traveler, I pretend I’m “immune to the stuff.” But the ache of departure made me gluttonous with desire, as if travel inspiration were something to consume: I wanted the “all” of Budapest.

Oh, I see moment: Maybe that’s what travel souvenirs represent—a longing to live multiple lives in myriad places, in times that never have to end.

Empty-handed, heart full, I boarded the train and said goodbye to Budapest.

Now then, what’s in your suitcase?

See souvenirs so quirky they seem satirical, here

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