This morning, as I reached for my lotion bottle to soothe my chapped hands, I found myself once again in Italy. Specifically, the small grocery store on Venice’s Strada Nuova. Instead of the snow-covered streets of Wisconsin, I stood in the aisles of a tiny store, scanning the shelves of lotions and puzzling over a language I didn’t know. I heard the silky chatter of Italian, felt the hot, sticky breeze of Venetian summer, and felt the squishyness of my shoes, soaked by the acqua alta (floods) that threaten Venice’s piazzas during heavy rains. I placed my lotion bottle down on the bathroom sink and emerged back into the Wisconsin winter.
Long after returning from my sojourn in Eastern Europe, I am discovering the joys of unusual souvenirs, often items I can use in everyday life or that bring some of the senses of my travels back into my everyday American life – spices from Hungary, undergarments from the Czech Republic, music CD’s of the local crooner from Croatia. When I sprinkle a dash of sweet paprika into a dish simmering on the stove, I taste again the delightful veal paprika dish I savored in a small restaurant frequented by locals in Budapest. Turning up the spicy ballads of Croatian music legend Oliver, I can lay back on the couch, close my eyes, and remember the bliss of a mid-afternoon siesta on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Even dressing for work reminds me of my travels – socks I purchased in a department store in the Czech Republic remind me of learning the European measurements for clothing with the help of a local Czech woman shopping with her teenage daughter.
I admit I succumbed to the allure of a few typical tourist trinkets. Everywhere you go in the world, postcards, magnets and other cheap souvenirs beckon the tourist to buy items they will probably never use again. I challenge myself and others to look beyond the ubiquitous souvenir racks and instead dive into everyday shops frequented by locals. My favorite shopping experiences were in the markets of Europe, where locals perused the fresh produce, meats and cheeses to assemble that evening’s meal. Here I sampled and bought Hungarian paprika, a hand-embroidered shirt, and a Slovenian beehive panel painted with a traditional motif by a beekeeper selling his honey.
Pharmacies and department stores are also treasure troves of meaningful, fun souvenirs – Polish chocolate, marzipan, lotions, spiced teas for making the Austrian gluhwein. I even browsed local media stores for CD’s unattainable in the United States. In Poland I found the CD of a Polish Christian group that performed at a live concert I experienced in Krakow celebrating the Feast Day of St. Francis. Listening to the rich alto of M’ New Life, I instantly step back into the euphoric crowd of hundreds of Poles crowded in Krakow’s Market Square to witness a concert even the archbishop attended.
Of course, the best souvenirs I brought back were my photos, and as I assemble my photo album, I lose myself once again in Eastern Europe. The wonder I felt at the soaring heights of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague or the horror and grief as I walked the grounds of Auschwitz – some of my most personal emotional moments captured forever in the photos I snapped. A well-chosen souvenir serves as a doorway back in time to those unforgettable moments, just as the chore of moisturizing my hands becomes a transcendent experience as I reach for that bottle from Venice.