I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard how “souvenir” is the French word for “memory,” and how memories are the best kinds of keepsakes we can bring home from our travels. On one level, I know that’s true, and I have many precious travel memories of vistas, people, and foods. But let’s face it, it’s nice to bring home something tangible, too.
Of course, one person’s cherished souvenir is another person’s tacky piece of plastic. While I do have one of those mini-Eiffel Towers I bought near the base of the life-sized monument in Paris during a college trip, however, the souvenirs that are nearest and dearest to my heart are things that don’t look much like travel souvenirs at all.
I’ve never been compelled to collect decorative spoons or shot glasses (although the latter are decidedly more useful in certain circumstances), but I do like to add to my kitchen cupboards when I travel. Specifically, I’ve brought home pottery bowls from several places.
I have a wide cream-colored bowl with big dark olives crudely painted in the basin and cracks in the glaze – and distinct memories of buying it from the woman who made it in Nîmes. Her shop was barely big enough for the two of us, my French was bad and my math was worse, and I ended up inadvertently haggling with her on the price of all the items I wanted. I only had so many French francs, and although it was less than the cost of the pieces I was buying, it was close enough and she let me have them.
Another bowl in my mismatched cupboard came from the rust-colored hilltop town of Rousillon. Everything in and around the town is informed by the color of the rocks (and therefore the dust) that surrounds them, and many of the trinkets on sale in the shops lining the narrow streets are equally vibrant. Whether they feel like they have to compete against the rich red hills for your attention, I don’t know – but in one shop, a brightly-painted bowl caught my eye. It’s festooned with stripes of various colors both inside and out, it lacks in anything remotely close to subtlety, it’s the perfect size for ice cream, and each time I use it I recall how tenacious that red dust was when I tried to clean my shoes that night.
One of my very favorite things to bring home from a trip is linen – it has the enormous benefit of not being breakable, so it’s easy to squeeze and squish into any bag (or use as padding for any fragile purchases). As a result, my linen collection is, like my bowl cupboard, a hodge-podge of designs, colors, and memories.
From Provence, I brought home my own set of the ubiquitous bright yellow and blue tablecloths and napkins that were on the table at our B&B every morning. I’d seen them in pretty shops in town, but I waited until I found the outdoor market and bought them for a fraction of the fancy shop’s asking price.
Another Provençal acquisition from another trip was made possible only by the fact that a fabric shop happened to be on one of the main streets in Arles leading away from the magnificent arena. I thought I was walking into a store where I could buy yet another bright tablecloth, but found myself surrounded instead by huge bolts of raw fabric. I ended up buying enough (based on some rough metric-to-imperial measurements math by my husband) to make a duvet cover, which is on my bed every night.
When I first went to the northeast corner of Italy and went up into the Dolomites, I felt like I’d crossed some unseen border into Austria – the little ski town I visited looked utterly non-Italian. The tablecloth I bought there doesn’t look Italian, either – there’s no flourish to it at all. It’s a utilitarian white-and-light-green check with a decorative (but not dainty) white scalloped border. The napkins, on the other hand, are antique-colored in green, red, and yellow and depict the contents of some Italian pantry. Jars of olives and tiny onions, cans of tomatoes and sardines, boxes of candy, and tins of coffee. All the labels on those napkins are in Italian, reminding me I hadn’t left the country to buy them.
I’m lucky to live in a coffee-centric city in the U.S., so I’m not forced to bring home coffee from my travels in order to make a good cup. But one of my favorite souvenirs that I’ve ever brought home is a coffee accessory.
When I housesat for some friends in Milan a few years ago, I had to stop my host mid-sentence as she was giving me the run-through of her kitchen. She’d absently pointed to a cylindrical metal container on the shelf saying, “And there’s the dosacaffè” and I had absolutely no idea what she meant. As it turned out, this clever device not only stores coffee grounds, it also doses them out (via a small hole in its base and a lever that rotates to open and close it) into the metal strainers used in Italian stovetop mokapots (like Bialetti makes).
At that moment, I knew I couldn’t leave Italy without one of my own. I found a tiny shop around the corner from her apartment selling everything from electric tea kettles to screwdrivers (from a space the size of a walk-in closet) and asked if she knew what a dosacaffè was. She did, and she had one – right next to the dosazucchero (sugar doser). I and my sweet tooth took a pass on that, but I use my dosacaffè every single morning at home.
If anyone of the things I’ve talked about here had been given to me as a gift by someone else rather than found by me in a place I visited, I’m sure I wouldn’t care about it quite so much. Yes, I’d like it, and I’d use it – but it would be impossible for me to be swept back to a dusty red hilltop town in southern France just because I decide to use a particular ice cream bowl if I hadn’t been there to buy it.
The things we bring home from our travels are important for the places they take us when we’re back in our own homes surrounded by the everyday, and, for this reason, I believe the best souvenirs are the ones you’ll use over and over again – not the things you protect in glass-fronted display cases that never get held or even noticed.
Souvenirs, it turns out, are quite a bit like memories – they’re forgotten if they’re too long ignored.