Who knows who was the first one to pick up something unusable but remarkable from a long journey to exotic sites and give it a name – souvenir. Maybe it started as an excuse for stealing a little vase from a room in an ancient caravane-serail. But we all agree that a souvenir is unique material evidence of our travel´s adventures. And exactly this is over in today’s global world.
The market for souvenirs became totally chaotic already in the 1960s. When my father was in Iraq buying gifts for relatives back home in Slovakia, he had no idea how much it will surprise them and him as well. Even though we used to say that it is not wise to check the teeth of a gift horse, our relatives examined exotic gifts from faraway Arabia really carefully. And discovered that on the back side of a nice little carpet with images of mosque and minaret was a little label saying “Made in Poland”. Soon other relatives realized that the “hand-made” copper plate with portrait of the famous queen Scheherazade from Baghdad was in fact manufactured in Hungary. And every piece of jewelry bought in the Middle East not made from gold came from a big factory of ”bijouterie” from the Czech city Jablonec nad Nisou.
These days we can find in every good-sized city in the world specialized shops with African, Indian or even Malaysian souvenirs. Thanks to them you may have your apartment full of remembrances from exotic countries without taking a step outside your city. This is how I bought a nice original jacket from Guatemala in Washington and in Prague a pair of painted wooden ducks from Indonesia. Both jacket and ducks cost almost nothing in comparison with travel expenses to these countries and all the effort to carry them back in luggage full of these “unique items”.
It is thus very logical that the really experienced traveller is nowadays looking for anything that will help him remember a particular journey, but the best souvenirs can’t be bought. The traveller needs fantasy and good luck! Thanks to it I have at home an old used horseshoe from a short trip by horse-carriage in the Egyptian city Edfu. I also have a three-sided hock-nail from the fortress at Helsinki island called Suomenlinna found on the ground and a paper cap for tourists visiting the West Wall in Jerusalem. I have also a little spoon from a hotel in the Indian city of Varanasí as the compensation from my own big spoon that I lost there. I also have quite an ordinary little spoon from a hotel in Brussels as the compensation for their inhospitality I unfortunately had experienced at their hands. In my work room at home you may also find two special caps – one is from a bodyguard of that-time president of Georgia, Mr. Shevernadze. I found it on the floor of discothèque close to the President´s villa in the abandoned spa Likani. The second one was left after midnight by a doorman at the main entrance of a hotel in Tel Aviv.
And, of course, I have a collection of stones from the Lipari Islands, close to Sicily, from the continental divide in New Mexico, from the Fuji hill in Japan, and from a Moslem cemetery in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. All these souvenirs (and especially all those stones) have one weak point – only the owner knows where they come from. Without a personal story they have not a great value, only that story will give them meaning. But I have one original souvenir that is a story itself.
Entering my hotel room in Toronto I was attracted by a little plastic board with the following announcement:
„Dear Guest. Due to the popularity of our guest room amenities, our Housekeeping Department now offers these items for sale:
Bath Towel = 14.00 USD
Hand Towel = 8.00 USD
Pillow = 23.00 USD
Sheets (per set) = 30.00 USD
Wine Bucket = 35 USD
PRICES DO NOT INCLUDE TAX
Should you decide to take these articles from your room instead of obtaining them from the Executive Housekeeper, we will assume you approve a corresponding charge to your account. Thank you.”
I was holding that little plastic board in my hands and checking items in the room. I found this announcement also as the best balanced message ever to the guests and for the first sight it seemed that all items are on the list. However, they forgot one little thing. The board had no price.
So I took it – as a nice souvenir…
From a book (see in E-book form here) by Gustáv Murín: Svet je malý/The World is Small – collection of travel stories in bilingual Slovak–English edition, SPN Publ., 2012.