August 12, 2013
11:24 am
Mon August 19, 2013

Thanks for the Memories

History tells us that first souvenirs were collected by the Crusaders of the eleventh century. They liked to bring back relics from the Holy Land, or a Saracen's head, just for the memories. By 1291, the modern souvenir industry had started up in Venice, making exquisite glass objects to sell to visitors. Seven hundred years later, Venice is literally sinking into the ocean under the accumulated weight of little glass objects, and the tourists who come to buy them.

"Souvenir" is a French verb, meaning "to remember." A plastic model of the Eiffel Tower, for example, will remind you that you visited Paris, or at least passed through the airport. Most of us would prefer to bring home something more sophisticated and original, but this is a hope doomed to disappointment, because all souvenir shops from Bridgehampton to Bombay, from Newport to Naples, are stocked with the same awful stuff.

This is because all the souvenirs in the world come from one central source, a gigantic warehouse somewhere in China, stuffed with billions of mugs and T shirts with dumb messages like "Whatever," and ancient jokes about age and sex. Some of these jokes do make me laugh, but they are never the ones I can repeat on the radio. The remaining global stock of souvenirs consists of stuffed animals, enough china fairies and shepherdesses to populate a baroque opera, trillions of bad paintings, a lot of very peculiar "shell creations," ultra-cute little birdhouses that no self-respecting bird would ever inhabit, wind chimes, and so many candles that anyone would think Thomas Edison forgot to invent the light bulb in 1879. Local crafts are also available, at a premium price of course. The phrase "Local crafts" indicates that the shopkeeper has taken the trouble to scrape the "Made in China" label off the bottom.

The stock of souvenir shops has scarcely changed or improved since my childhood, when we always returned from vacation with obnoxious teapots shaped like thatched cottages, glass tubes full of colored sand, and painted ashtrays of incredible ugliness, in the days when there were ashtrays. These useless objects multiplied incredibly fast, because all the aunts and uncles, cousins and in laws and friends felt compelled to bring back souvenirs from THEIR vacations, which they would then give as gifts to our family. It was a ritual, and also I suspect a silent contest over who could demonstrate the worst taste. My mother was always in despair about where to put all this rubbish, which couldn't be hidden for family reasons, but was too awful to look at.

The whole souvenir industry obviously needs to be rationalized and brought up to date. Instead of wasting good vacation time sweating in and out of tiny shops smelling of potpourri and candle wax, we should be able to order our souvenirs ahead of time, on the Internet. Simply enter the vacation destination and the word "souvenirs" in the search box, and order a selection of authentic mass-produced local craft products, guaranteed to impress our friends and depress everybody else, apparently purchased by the intrepid traveler in fashionable vacation spots like Cannes, Key West or Kabul. As a bonus, we wouldn't even have to go there.

Copyright: David Bouchier

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