Nothing signifies a well-spent holiday more than a suitcase full of souvenirs. Whether they're bought in Cairo or on Cape Cod, in New Delhi or Dingle, Ireland, nothing says "I've been away!" more than those varied keepsakes – large and small, tacky or tasteful – that you simply must have to round off your annual getaway. The only problem is, they then take up space in a forgotten corner of your home once your traveling is done.
How do I know this? Because I've been there and bought the T-shirt – as well as a few other trinkets along the way. I've surrendered to those same impulses, only to wonder months (or even years) later what I ever saw in that diminutive statue of a gondolier I picked up in Venice, Italy, back in 1982.
During a second Italian foray a few years later, I was in Rome on my way to visit my father's family in Sicily. As one does when in the Eternal City, I wandered over to St. Peter's Square, hoping to boost my spiritual stock, only to discover that the place was ringed with souvenir stands selling everything from papal dish towels to Vatican ashtrays.
On this particular occasion, I showed commendable restraint, restricting myself to some heavenly stationery, namely, a pen and notepad embossed with the beaming visage of a resplendent John Paul II.
Anyway, my reputation as a shameless hoarder of unmarketable collectibles was confirmed recently when I came across a cache of knickknacks and keepsakes from my modest travels in decades past. The treasure in question was unearthed during a spell of merciless house decluttering.
The first item out of the box was a paper place mat from a Burger King in Madrid advertising the magnificent "El Whopper." Apparently, I was so impressed by the linguistic versatility of the fast-food industry that I also took away a place mat from a McDonald's in Geneva. Mind you, I never realized how cutting-edge these collectibles would become. Only a decade later, Quentin Tarantino would feed John Travolta his classic "Pulp Fiction," lines which, coincidentally, reveal an intimate understanding of French fast-food menus.
Of course, I didn't just eat my way – rather poorly – across Europe in those days. I also widely partook of culture – if the various theater programs I accumulated are to be believed. According to the documentary evidence still on file in my closet, I saw a group called Harvey and the Wallbangers perform a musical revue titled "Park the Tiger." This was in 1986 at the Grand Opera House in Belfast – I think. The program is unclear about the venue, which isn't surprising given the volatile political climate in Northern Ireland at the time.
I also saw works by Beckett and Behan in Dublin and a performance of "Glengarry Glen Ross" in the Mermaid Theatre in London. To offset the intensity of the David Mamet play, I then took in lighter fare – "Lend Me A Tenor" – at the Globe.
It might sound as though I'm flaunting my cultural credentials here, but back then that was the furthest thing from my mind. Going to see a play or hear some live music was as much about killing time before I set off for the next city on my whistle-stop European backpacking tour as it was about soaking up culture.
What else could explain the fact that in an Avignon movie house in southern France, I sat through a late showing of "Les Aventuriers de L'Arche Perdue" ("Raiders of the Lost Ark") while waiting for a 2 a.m. train to Italy? Or that, in similar circumstances, I slipped into a cinema in Rome to see "Rocky IV." (Given the lack of subtitles, the only line I was able to make out was "Bonna fortuna, Rocky.")
Without doubt, though, I picked up my two most meaningful keepsakes in a small town called Augusta on the east coast of Sicily, where my grandparents were born. From my father's Uncle Francesco I received a meticulously hand-drawn copy of our family tree (the Italian side, that is), which he entrusted to me with great care.
Then, later in my visit, I found an oversize black-and-white postcard of the local church where my grandparents were married before they sailed for Boston. When I got home a couple months later, I had the postcard mounted and framed, as a gift to my father.
As you can see, then, I'm the last person to utter an unkind word about souvenirs. Even the smallest keepsakes can evoke cherished memories from travels past.
But you have to be selective. Even I can't justify the 3-foot-high inflatable Irish leprechaun I saw in a Dublin shop window the other day.