Souvenirs Gone South
The Things I Had to Have (Part 1)
I admit, one of the best – and lasting – parts of travel is bringing back a representative piece of art or furnishings from whatever country we’ve visited, and displaying it for all to see. Some might even say I become obsessed with locating just the right objet to bring home (“tasteful, decorous, a lovely addition to any home’s décor”).
But as you might imagine, not all my purchases have been hits with Yao Yao or the better half, even though I thought at the time I couldn’t live without them. In fact, Jim – who bears the brunt of transporting these treasures back home – says that I have certain unwritten criteria for any purchase: It must be heavy, bulky, cumbersome, fragile, or borderline illegal (or some combination thereof).
In addition, if there’s a crazy deadline for purchasing the object – especially if it has to be custom made by the time we depart – well, so much the better.
Here is a representative sampling of some of my purchases gone awry:
Red Peppers (Spain)
I think it started with the red peppers. We were in a market in southern Spain many, many years ago, and I saw a huge bunch of red peppers, and I thought how beautiful they would be in my kitchen in back home in California. They would be the envy of my friends and family and they were authentic – real Spanish peppers. The plan was to dry them and bring them home, thus avoiding the no-produce customs law. (Why I thought that dried peppers were no longer produce is lost in time.)
We hung the peppers in our rental car and drove the length and breadth of the country – from Seville to Santiago de Campostela – winding up beachside before heading home.
All the while the peppers were drying nicely in the car. I checked them every day, turning them to ensure they dried evenly.
Now, how to transport them home? I bought bubble wrap and lovingly secured them, slid them gently into a basket I procured solely to ensure the peppers’ safe passage on the plane. (Did I mention I have a bit of a basket fetish as well? Talk to Jim about it. . . )
At customs, I was asked to unwrap my purchase. With a somewhat smug tone, I announced, “They’re dried peppers – not fresh!” The customs officer obviously didn’t share my love of peppers (or come to think of it, maybe he did!) and quickly confiscated them. We were held in line while they X-rayed them to ensure I wasn’t smuggling diamonds or minute quantities of drugs, then told to move along – sans peppers. I like to think they are hanging artfully in his kitchen, but my fear is they went into the trash along with unwrapped meats and salt cod.
Custom “Riding” Boots (Argentina)
When we were in Argentina, I quickly became a big fan of the gaucho style of dressing. And yes, there really is a gaucho style, and it’s everything I love: a rich, leathery, horsey, timeless look – exactly the style Ralph Lauren strives for.
I started slowly, buying a few accessories that I had to have, like a set of bolas (for taking down a steer while on horseback), and a brace of silver-and-bone yerba mate cups (for enjoying the yerba mate I was sure I was going to brew for myself at home). I then graduated to carpincho-leather loafers and a pair of jodhpur-style riding pants, but I couldn’t stop there. I wanted . . . no, ladies, I needed a pair of handmade Argentine riding boots.
These boots were gorgeous – supple black leather boots with gorgeous silver fittings and brown leather trim to just below the knee. They were simply the most luscious footwear I’d ever seen, much less owned. I imagined myself wearing them while galloping through open fields on horseback, only stopping to survey my vineyards and vast holdings.
I was measured for them and paid for them, and was told to return in a week’s time and they’d be ready. (Are you sensing that this is a situation where the time element comes into play? Hmmm?)
Anyway, we spent the rest of the trip in Mendoza, only returning to Buenos Aires to swing by and pick up the boots, then fly out. We pulled up to the store and I jumped out, leaving the taxi running. I tried them on – jeez, they seem a little tight and stiff! – but I was assured they’d stretch out. They wrapped them in linen, laid them carefully into their own drawstring bag, and thanked me graciously for my purchase.
When we got home, I couldn’t wait to go to lunch in an oversized cashmere sweater, tight black paints, and my new boots. I was going to look amazing. About a week later, I put them on and discovered that I couldn’t walk in them – the damn things wouldn’t bend. I was walking like the bride of Frankenstein. I couldn’t figure it, out so I took them to our local equestrian shop. The salespeople oohed and awed over the boots and ask what the problem was. When I explained that I couldn’t walk in them, they looked at me like I was from a different planet: “Honey,” one of the equestrians said, “These are jumping boots – not riding boots. They’re not made to be walked in. They’re never going to be soft.”
So, I had bought an $800 pair of doorstops. Every now and then I bring them out of the drawstring bag and gaze at them, and pet them a little bit, thinking how amazing I might have looked, if only . . .
Hand-Etched Giant Gourd (Kenya)
Our first trip to Kenya was in 1994 with our best friends and their son. I’d always wanted to go on safari, and the reality was even more amazing than I’d imagined. We saw the wildebeest migration, a lion kill, and every manner of creature you can think of. I hadn’t planned on buying anything, but in one of the villages we visited I feasted my eyes on a beautiful gourd with rustic scenes hand-etched on its side. It was about the size of a medicine ball, but light and thin, and quite fragile.
I had to have it.
Problem was, I bought it at the beginning of the trip, so the whole rest of the time I was worried about it, babying it, and looking out for its welfare, so by the time we left for home, everybody was sick to death of my gourd.
As always, bubble wrap is my friend.
Problem was, the security guards at the airport tried to shove it through the X-ray machine – there was an audible crack! but it stayed more or less in one piece. Luckily we were in Business Class, because the flight attendants “allowed” me to hold the thing in my lap for 20 hours because it didn’t fit in the bins and I was afraid to put it with the hand-checked luggage. Then when we got it home, one night Jim was wandering around in the dark and inadvertently kicked it across the room. (Or so he says.) A few minor repairs, and it’s still with us.
Suede Jacket (Italy)
On my first trip to Europe with Jim, I was on a student budget and could just barely afford food, much less the real Italian suede jacket I coveted. And not just any jacket, I had an Audrey Hepburn style jacket in mind – you know, the kind you wear with skinny black cigarette pants and riding boots. (I know – here come the riding boots again!) I finally found the jacket of my dreams – camel colored, and the softest suede I’d ever touched – and it was mine. I didn’t wear it at first because I was so worried it might get dirty or smudged. I finally did wear it, though, to meet someone we had met on the trip who was visiting California. He leaned in for the European-style kiss on the cheek, his bag slipped off his shoulder, and my caffe latte landed on my still-luscious but no-longer-pristine suede jacket. Between the stain and the spoiled-milk smell, it was never the same.
Balinese Wedding Procession (Spain, Actually)
Fourteen 12-inch-high hand-carved dolls that represent a traditional Balinese wedding procession, complete with movable parasols and traditional garb. Each doll is nestled in a niche hollowed out of the seven-foot-long, decoratively carved wooden base.
And again, I had to have it.
It’s Balinese, but we actually found it in an antique store on Majorca. The proprietor took each doll off the base, wrapping seven each in two bubble-wrap bundles, complete with their little movable and fragile parts. Each bundle barely fit in the overhead bins (“Grrrrrrrrrrrrr” – Jim). Jim’s responsibility was to get them to fit in the bins and ensure that no one even looked at them once ensconced.
The long wooden base was another thing. Even wrapped, it looked dangerous, but I was not going to let the airline put it in the luggage compartment. Nobody got the urgency of my desire to get this precious cargo home in one piece. I begged, tried to bribe, pulled out all the stops, but it was going in Oversized Luggage, along with the surfboards and skis. So we bought another package of bubble wrap and hoped for the best. It came out in one piece, but getting it home was another story. (It stuck out the sunroof, and we just prayed for sufficient clearance.) And once we got it home? There wasn’t a wall big enough to hang it on. It sat in storage for years, only to find pride of place in our current dining room.
Shells and Starfish (Yao Yao, Harbour Island, Bahamas)
Yao Yao collects shells, although in the “take home only memories, leave only footprints” tradition, she usually relinquishes them back to sea at day’s end. On this particular trip to Harbour Island in the Bahamas, she brought back oodles of little teeny, tiny shells and large old starfish and piled back to our hotel and stored them in sand buckets outside our room. We made her wash them and dry them in the sun, as the smell was a bit overwhelming at first. After a week of airing out, they were wrapped gently and ferried home without incident, and shoved in a closet and forgotten. For a while, anyway.
About three weeks later the stench in her bedroom was so alarming that I began scrubbing every surface and item I could find. The stench remained. Finally, we figured it out. They weren’t dried starfish. They were just dead starfish.
They’re long gone, but sometimes when the wind blows just right through my daughter’s bedroom window, I swear I smell those damn starfish.
Rock and Doily Collection (Yao Yao, Argentina)
Yao Yao is a chip off the old block, souvenir-wise, and she went on this strange rock-and-doily collection kick while we were in Argentina. It became something of an obsession. She had her own bedroom at the hotel, and every surface was covered by doilies – and at the center of each was a perfectly placed stone. Weird.
Anyway, she decided she wanted to bring her collection home, and we were both okay with the idea. So we dumped all the stones in her suitcase and placed all the doilies between book covers so they wouldn’t get crinkled. When we weighed our suitcase at the airport, they asked, “Whatcha got in there, a bunch of stones?” “Well . . . yeah, actually.”
Her little collection cost us a pretty penny in extra baggage weight. Where are the rocks now? Probably in the garden somewhere. But we still run across the stray doily now and again.
We’re heading to Sweden next. Perhaps a Dala horse…