Souvenirs

Souvenir, French for memory. A recreated, remembered retrospective that relives only in your mind.

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Remember that time we went to New York City, just the four of us, the first time we’d been just us in so long, and remember how we saw old friends, and danced all night at that bar mitzvah, and saw Something Rotten twice, and walked the High Line park, and drank all that wine at the French wine bar, and Moothor hugged that actor at the other wine bar?

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A recent discussion on Facebook made me think about the souvenirs we buy during our trips, the trinkets from vacation, the gifts for other people. Why buy anything at all from these places? The cheap tourist stuff is probably made in China, and what good does a magnet from Puerto Rico do anyone? What’s the point of a souvenir?

One could argue that anything you’d be tempted to buy in another city or country, you could probably find online – often for cheaper – and not deal with the hassle of getting it back home. But buying a t-shirt that says “Aloha” on Amazon is not the same as buying a t-shirt that says “Aloha” from a shop in Oahu. It doesn’t have the context associated with the item, and context is what turns any thing into a souvenir, any moment into a memory.

Context turns a bad pop song into our song, a day in September into an anniversary, a hike through the woods into an adventure. Context gives events and places and people meaning. People don’t buy souvenirs to have things; people buy souvenirs to remember.

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Remember that time the five of us went to New Orleans, and I got really sick in the morning before everyone else ate phô for lunch, and we walked to Cafe du Monde and had the beignets and then we walked around the main square with all the art until we could pick something small to take home, and then we met that real Mardi Gras indian?

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The majority of my souvenirs become Christmas gifts – scarves from Paris, earrings from San Francisco, books from New Orleans. The things I keep for myself are usually the photos we take on a trip. I have a compulsion to create photo books, to document our experiences so we don’t forget them. I write down all the details, where and what we ate, what we did that day, the street we stayed on. Things that might seem mundane but that I won’t be able to recall in thirty or forty years. I take pictures of everything; the bakery across the street, our AirBNBs, the graffiti and street art.

I want to remember the details, the little things that make up a place, the bits that tend to fall through the cracks of memory. We remember the big stuff, the Statue of Liberty, the Tower of London, the Golden Gate Bridge. But we forget the things that made a trip unique, that made one restaurant better than the other, that kept you up laughing until 3 am.

Photos are usually more than sufficient to capture the moment, to provide enough context to jog my memory. Oh yeah, that night in Whistler…. or That was right before you spilled that whole bag of granola and the Norwegian ski team started singing on the bus! But sometimes, it’s nice to have a physical token from the past, something that engages different senses and triggers the memories.

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Remember that time we lost Adam in Venice, and we ran in and out of Italian shops asking in frantic English, “Have you seen a little boy in a green hat?”, wishing we spoke any Italian at all, and Moothor and I were both crying, and Farger tried keeping us all calm, and when we finally did find my brother, he was sitting on the other side of the little bridge that he said he was going to play on?

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The best souvenirs are like Pensieves; they’re tangible memory keepers. The same way a certain song can conjure a mood, or a smell can transport you to the past, physical souvenirs can pull you right back to the city it came from, and all you had to do was touch it, smell it, close your eyes.

Now, I don’t have a ton of physical souvenirs from my trips. I did make a cool shadowbox from our honeymoon, there are stacks of signed playbills from trips to New York on my bookshelves, and I usually buy Justin a shot glass from every city I visit. When I started thinking about all the trips, I was surprised by how few souvenirs I have brought back but realized that all the ones I do have hold very special significance to me (and mostly come from France, ha!)

Five of my Favorite Souvenirs

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The painting. Purchased for €50 on the bank of the Seine from a sidewalk artist, I bought this painting at the end of my year abroad. I waited until my last week before buying it. I remember walking up and down the river, stopping at several artists’ stalls, trying to decide what I wanted to take home with me. What would represent the last ten months of my life? I settled on a bright, messy abstract piece. I’ve carried it around with me for 10 years, rolled up, waiting for a frame. When I finally hung it on the wall after all these years, I couldn’t help but be reminded of so many other things from that city and that year away from home.

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The shirt. We got third row seats for the final night of the original cast of Avenue Q. I have no idea how much my mom spent for us to get those tickets but I am eternally grateful that she splurged for us to see that show. It was amazing! I wore a t-shirt a friend had made me with a quote from the show on the front. It was January and freezing, but we stood outside, forever, waiting for the cast to come out and sign our playbills. And I stood with the back of the shirt exposed, my winter coat on backwards, while John Tartaglia, Rick Lyon,  Stephanie D’Abbruzzo, and writer Jeff Marx signed the back of my shirt. It was a magical night on Broadway, and I’ll never forget the cold, or my mom hugging John Tartaglia, or the actors’ laughter as they saw my shirt.

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The rocks. Our first trip to Europe. 1996. The same trip of the infamous calamari night, was my first time to Paris, a city that would later imprint itself in mon coeur. My brother was 6, I was 12 and had never been cool, but I was in Paris, a place my dad always spoke of with reverence. It was a place I hadn’t yet fallen in love with but that knew I would, a place full of history and beauty and culture I didn’t quite understand but I wanted to. I took the rocks from underneath the Eiffel tower, where there is now just pavement and lines of tourists. I took the rocks without clear intentions, dumping handfuls of them into my mother’s purse. I would figure out what to do with them later, the same way I would come back and figure out this city and my place in it.

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The skirt. When my dad and I drove around France, we spontaneously decided to go to Monaco and subsequently to the Monte Carlo casino. We hadn’t packed appropriately, so we had to make a stop in a suburban department store to find nicer clothes. I had trouble finding anything that wasn’t too tight, too short, too low-cut, and eventually settled on what my dad has since called my peasant skirt. It was not half as fancy as the other ladies at Monte Carlo, but it got me in the door. I haven’t worn it in years – and am not really sure if it even still fits! – but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it because it’s a reminder of an epic week-long road-trip around France with my dad.

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The hat. I no longer have the hat but the hat has two memories associated with it, a book-ended souvenir. Dutch Dave gave me the hat after a night out dancing and drinking until early in the morning. It was the summer before I left for France, when my family spent six weeks living in Whistler, CA. He was eight years older, could flare like Tom Cruise, and was a great kisser. He put the hat on my head, and told me to keep it. It was so unlike me at the time, not my style, I didn’t wear hats. I took the hat with me to Paris, feeling sexy whenever I wore it. On one of my last nights in the city, my girlfriends and I had a Farewell, Paris night, where we got dressed up and went around to all the major tourist spots to take photos – Notre Dâme, le tour Eiffel, l’arc de Triomphe. We all took turns wearing the hat, hamming it up for our photos. On the way back to my apartment, our group got separated and a few of the girls (including one who was wearing my hat) got cornered by a couple creepy dudes who pushed them up against a wall. They got away, thankfully, with the boys taking nothing but the hat.

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Remember our first trip together, to Chattanooga, how we touched the stingrays at the aquarium and drank at the Hair of the Dog pub after getting Japanese for dinner, and how the next day, we made fun of the little gnomes and it was so rainy and foggy that when we got to the top of Look Out Mountain, all we could see was a wall of white?

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20160705_210253.jpgAs much as I love all the tokens from my trips, the physical reminders of good times, my favorite souvenirs are exactly that: les souvenirs, memories.

The storage of long-term memories relies on reinforcement, repeatedly recalling an image or event to ensure it lodges itself permanently in your brain. We forget the things we don’t remember – meaning if we do not access certain memories from time to time, they become much harder to access as we grow older and will likely fade. (If you don’t use it, you lose it.) Which is why, one of my favorite relaxing activities is to sit with my stack of photo books, or dig through an old hard drive of photos, and pull those souvenirs to the forefront of my mind.

My first Broadway show. Drinking fresh glacier water in the Alps. Ordering in a French restaurant and being understood. The first time I saw Diagon Alley. Surviving San Juan’s rush hour. Seeing 19 sea turtles on our honeymoon. These are the things I remember, and cherish, the most.

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Oui, je me souviens.

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What are some of your favorite souvenirs? Favorite knick knacks from trips? Favorite memories of new places? Is there a childhood trip that stands in the forefront of your mind? A physical token from a vacation that you hold dear to your heart?