July 07, 2011

For once, old hat is just perfect.

In a box in a closet is an umbrella stand from Portugal. Also, there is a Barcelona bullfight poster, carefully furled, two Chianti bottles, and a papier-mache mask from Carnevale in Venice with the nose broken, a silver bracelet from Greece, and a cuckoo clock without a cuckoo. Assorted dolls in national dress have sustained near-fatal injuries in the box as it has been shifted from one address to another over the years-in one case, a Swiss peasant dolly, like Anne Boleyn, clutches her head-and there's a Beatles wig from Carnaby Street which something unmentionable has made its nest.

More carefully curated, wrapped in tissue paper, it is a beautiful straw hat. It was given to me more than fifty years ago in Copenhagen by a mysterious woman who said she was a spy.

For most of the week in Denmark, grandpa dutifully visited Tivoli Gardens, again and again. It was my first theme park, and the best, a child's paradise, a set of brilliant pop-up illustrations, with rides and cafes, music and dancing, all lighted by skeins of fairy lights. One night, however, we were having a grown-up dinner on the roof of some hotel with a panoramic view of the Danish capital. Grandpa began conversing with a gaunt woman in dark glasses at the next table who spoke perfect German.

The next day, a letter arrived: We were invited to visit the Danish woman, whose name I can't remember or perhaps never knew. Her flat was small and dark and creepy; it had Turkish carpets and large velvet lampshades with heavy fringes. She offered me my choice of mementos-did I remind her of someone? But the hat was clearly the one I was meant to choose, and so I did, and then she opened her scrapbooks, where her past was laid out in sepia on crackling yellow news-print. She had been an agent, subverted the Nazis. The Allied’s woman in Copenhagen, and who knew what else? Heady stuff for a young girl with an active imagination like rising yeast.

After the coffee and the pastries and the schnapps we left. Halfway back to the hotel, the lights went out all over town-a power cut, we learned later, but we were spooked anyhow and found a bar that was packed with sailors all dressed in costumes left over from Anna Christie. Wary at first of these odd foreigners clutching an old hat, the sailors rallied and called for a taxi. For a minute in the blacked-out city it seemed to be wartime, and our friend, the glamorous European spy, plotting against the enemy, would put on a slinky evening dress and beard some German in his lair.

The hat and the story - securely part of family legend that glows in the distance - are now suspended inside the glistening emulsion of memory, like the objects inside those little plastic domes filled with fake snowflake the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of Pisa, the Statue of Liberty - that are universal souvenirs. It is no wonder the great lasting cinematic image for memory is one of these plastic gewgaws with snow inside and a child's sled named "Rosebud."

Old travel was best in the anticipation, or the remembering; the reality had more to do with losing your luggage. You spent whole evenings at home with a lapful of books, brochures, street guides, clippings, atlases, conjuring up the perfect trip in which nothing could go wrong, every bottle well chilled, every sunset dazzling. Coming home, you could not wait to show off: snapshots, slides, videos, brass rubbings from Bray, wine labels from Bordeaux, linen and lace from Belgium and Brittany, and a model of Cologne Cathedral made from matchsticks. Everyone else would doze off while you remained enchanted, shaking up the memories one more time.

The best souvenirs had a slightly illicit origin, the tang of vice, the freedom of abroad-ashtrays and menus swiped from restaurants, a bracelet offered by a bespectacled Lebanese gent on an outing into the French countryside, an antique inkwell that might be worth the pound I paid, or maybe a couple of hundred because I got it one wet dawn at Bermondsey Market, courtesy of a friendly dealer who had it hidden underneath his dirty raincoat. Souvenirs enshrined, encapsulated, carried home, elicit memories of a journey, good, bad, indifferent, with which to scare the godkids - Americans on the grand tour of Europe purchased entire palazzi, nineteenth-century travelers to exotic parts doted on shrunken heads.

And, like a scientist working over the Shroud of Turin or an archaeologist in a mummy's tomb, I can date various events on various trips by the charms on my charm bracelet-the strings on the Spanish guitar are gone-or the condition of the items in the box in the closet. The ashtrays, for example, are variously scarred with nicotine or in pristine condition, depending on whether I acquired them when friends were still smoking; the period the Beatles wig belongs to is self-evident.

Ashtrays were marvelous publicity of a trip; they did not necessarily brag, but, casually deposited on a shelf next to the telephone or in the bathroom, they let on you'd been to…

My best heist was at a pub in Denham. During lunch I spotted a great square cream-colored ashtray-from a cheese manufacturer, I think.

Soon after, I found myself in the local church, accosted by a vicar who was eager to describe the architecture and, perhaps, snare a contribution for the restoration of the roof, and all the time the stolen good burned in my bag.

My career ended in Florence, however, at the Excelsior Hotel, where I was defeated by an elephantine green marble ashtray that must have weighed thirty pounds; in any case, what with the taking of credit card imprints on arrival, there's been a decline in the art of stealing ashtrays. The management discreetly puts the goods on your bill.

I have paid overweight for Venetian glass from Venice, delft from Delft, Peter Rabbit baby plates from Harrods, have carried worn espadrilles from France and unworn clogs from Holland, stuffed my suitcase with stuffed bears from Berlin, not to mention cans of Berlinluft, the local air said to be beneficial to your health, all because, somehow, souvenirs are more particular than snapshots, mine at least, where there always seems to be a crowd of strangers in the background, extras from someone else's movie, who've wandered onto my set.

Still, regular shopping, as distinct from barter or theft, is a lot less interesting now that the world has shrunk to the size of a packet of in-flight peanuts, and you can get Armani everywhere and Burberry at Bloomingdale's.

It used to be different. Until the day before yesterday, the world was exotic; we used to hit the ground running-duty-frees alone offered up unspeakably glamorous goodies-pursuing its splendors like some Henry James heroine, finding treasure in an antique stall, shopping Bond Street, Jermyn Street, the Ponte Vecchio, the Via Condotti, or the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore, which was always my mother's street because there she had discovered Hermes.

My mother, like the good French bourgeois who, God knows, my mother in no other way resembled, she understood the culture of the one great handbag and was befriended by an august salesperson at Hermes who saved choice items for her. These days, when Hermes boutiques are common as McDonald's and the bags expensive as nuclear weapons, my mother's bags are not the least diminished; they sit on my top shelf and remind me of her.

When I began traveling in the late 1950s I had an idea of the world that, over the years, resulted in: crates of sticky liqueurs, including one we insisted on calling Cherry Herring; a rose colored silk frock handmade for me at La Grande Maison de Blanc; my father's posh car. It had a curvaceous body, pale gray leather and a burled walnut dashboard. It felt, smelled, drove, and looked like old times for him, but unfortunately this capitalist driving tool appeared during my hippie period (this was, after all, the '60s).

Not that he cared. He proudly arrived in it to visit me at college where he and another father, not the least bit interested in pandering to their daughters' casual politics, raced it across campus. In the box in the closet, I still have the key ring.

Reading this over, I see that most everything here is connected with my childhood, maybe because the evocation of the past is the very nature of souvenirs, or maybe because I travel too much now, or am surfeited with shopping, jaded by objects, defeated by luggage carousels.

O my, and the trips in the ‘70s to the former Soviet Union. Here are the "pregnant" dollies made of painted wood, nesting inside each other, fur hats, and vodka from Tbilisi. With so little to buy then, every purchase gained status as a souvenir: a tube of toothpaste with Cyrillic writing, and the brooms my friend Larissa insisted on hauling home from the Moscow Central Market; cheap buttons stamped out of tin with Lenin's face on them and the "Baby Lenins" -with the face of little Vladimir Ilich.

In a Moscow deprived of the goodies of a consumer society, the hip, the trendy, the angry, the seditious had re-dedicated the commonplace as kitsch; rockers wore chestfuls of Lenin badges in parody of the military; students carried Soviet army officers' brief-cases; and I hankered after a red plastic telephone I had seen at a dacha in the country.

I had to barter for my little treasures. Beatles cassettes changed hands. But before I could move on to the bar at the hotel, we had to leave town. Just as well, Larissa said, conjecturing that if I had stayed any longer, the bartender would have found his bar stripped bare, found himself, like some character from a Beckett play, sans everything, but up to his neck in a pile of Beatles cassettes.

Well, I have my hat, so I am ready for my little weekend trip. Later…

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