Posts Tagged With: American Abroad

Dear England, That’s Not Bacon

Upon moving to England, I discovered a nation that seemed as in love with bacon as I was. Every sandwich at Pret, every burger, ever salad came with bacon. I thought I had discovered my national identity soulmate, until I started buying some of this bacon-laden food, and discovered:

It’s not bacon.

That’s not bacon:

IMG_0991

And neither is that:

This one came with butter...it's like a little heart attack in a bun.

This one came with butter…it’s like a little heart attack in a bun.

Nope, that isn’t bacon either:

This is cheese and bacon on a bagel. Yes, that cheese is shredded and unmelted. Trust me when I say this is not what you would get in New York.

This is cheese and bacon on a bagel. Yes, that cheese is shredded and unmelted. Trust me when I say this is not what you would get in New York.

Oh sure, maybe it’s Canadian bacon, but we all know that’s just a fancy word for ham. Nobody likes Canadian bacon. Nobody.

Bacon is meant to be narrow and strippy, burnt and crispy. It should be dark red/brown, with charcoal black bits. It is supposed to melt in salty ecstasy in your mouth.

It is not supposed to be chewy. It is not supposed to have gobs of fat that taste like, well, fat, and stick in your teeth. It should not be pink like a pig because I don’t want to think about what animal bacon comes from while I eat it.

So England, it’s time to shape up. I love your ravenous, bottomless appetite for fried food, but the point of frying is to create a yummy crunchy texture…why are you constantly soggify-ing your chips with vinegar (more disturbingly, why have I taken up this habit)? Why is your bacon flat and limp and as sad as a cut out tongue?

Let’s solve this crisis, England. This is my only qualm about our long-term relationship, and it’s as heavy and demoralizing as a wet blanket…which is what your bacon tastes like. I know we can do better. And just as soon as I move out of my vegetarian house, I will show you how.

You are almost there, England. Keep on trying.

This was almost bacon, it just needed a little more time to crisp. I ate this with fried pickles, and THEY were crunchy.

This was almost bacon, it just needed a little more time to crisp. I ate this with fried pickles, and THEY were crunchy.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

34×34 #27, The Pub Quiz: A Half P(o)int From Glory

A few months ago I sent a link to my blog to a friend who had expressed mild interest in reading it (don’t tell a writer you want to read their work. They will suck on like a superstrong vacuum hose (that’s Hoover to my many British fans) and refuse to let go). My friend followed through and actually skimmed around my blog, discovering my 34×34. Game and supportive, he suggested we try a pub quiz, item #27 on the list.

Nearly every pub in London has a quiz night, but I had never done one, and had no idea what to expect. Would it be mired in British history? Pregnant with current events? Soaked in obscure and arcane factoids that no one could possibly know? I didn’t do any sort of research to compare the quality or difficulty of different pub quizzes, so I can’t tell you if mine was a representative example. As usual, I dove in without looking, choosing a pub that I like very much in Crouch Hill/Finsbury Park area that has good food (three words: pumpkin amaretto cheesecake) and a sprawling, quaint interior. I believe The Old Dairy was once…well, a working dairy, but don’t quote me on that leap of assumptive logic. The building is ruggedly aged and has nifty relief sculptures on its outer walls, which you can see here.

Obviously, it’s a classy pub, and has thus named its quiz, “Not Just An Udder Quiz.”

Names are important to pub quizzes. I had no idea. I think people exert more effort on cleverly naming their team than on winning the quiz. I honestly can’t remember any of the names at our particular quiz, but I looked up a list of pub quiz team names, just to give you the flavor of what I’m talking about, and I think my favorite on the list was “Halal, Is it Meat You’re Looking for?”

I was not prepared for the crushing pressure to be creative on the spot, so I named us “Three Davids,” after my three best boy writers, which I guess was quirky since there were only two of us, and neither of us was named David. Hilarious, right? I know.

The quiz itself was divided into multiple sections, none of which was an essay, which is where I really excel, so I guess we were doomed before we started. The first part involved a handout to identify pictures of actors…mostly British and I didn’t recognize any of them. There was a section called “39 Steps” which involved questions with multiple part answers, the total of which were supposed to add up to 39. I knew all the states in New England, and the items that the Statue of Liberty holds, and the names of the women in Destiny’s Child. Wheeee! I’m smart.

Then came the part where the MC proffered questions orally, in a variety of categories, and this did not go so well. The questions were just very British, and I clearly haven’t penetrated the culture as much as I had hoped. Nor has my companion, an Irishman whose heart is still in Dublin. The only question I knew was a guess: there was a question about which English city had been named the next “City of Culture.” I have a friend who is from Hull and always talks about what a hole Hull is (say that out loud, please) so I ironically assumed Hull would be the answer…I was right, but we didn’t write that. My Irish buddy chose Newcastle instead. (No offense, Newcastle).

When the scores were tallied, Three Davids came in third to last. Oh, sure, that’s embarrassing, right? Actually it is infuriating, because the team who came in SECOND to last won a GBP30 bar tab. We were a half point off being second to last. A half point! All that un-knowledge for nothing.

Still, the pub quiz gives a purpose to your drinking, which you’re going to do anyway, so why not contextualize it with trivia? Indeed it was a pleasant way to spend an evening, especially with a friend who cared enough about my goals to push me out of my apathy and get something done. A silly, fun, and totally worthwhile thing. To that Irish buddy I say: thank you. It means the world to have a friend who will remind you that you yourself are worth the effort of following through on even the tiniest of dreams.

I look forward to more alcohol drenched quizzes in my future. I just have to come up with a better team name.

And in case you wanted to salivate over that pumpkin amaretto cheesecake…

MMmMmmmm

MMmMmmmm

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

34×34 #21: Host a Dinner Party – Expat Thanksgiving Edition

You would think by now I would stop writing the repetitively themed blog, “I had this perfect vision…but reality did not live up to my expectations. (But then it was perfect anyway).”

It’s like, so basic and self-evident, and yet I must learn my lesson over and over and over.

Sisyphus and me, the universe’s bitches.

This past November was the third Thanksgiving in a row I was missing at home, and I didn’t like it. Year one was spent on the boat, eating crummy buffet food, albeit with forty of my nearest and dearest entertainment department family. Last year Thanksgiving was in Manchester, where a deceptive online grocery store misdelivered several crucial elements at the last minute, giving my fellow expat friend and I a unique, if somewhat frustrating, meal. With that friend re-expatriated to France, I didn’t know what I was going to do for Turkey Day this year.

I wanted to host Thanksgiving for the few other Americans I know in London, but I live in a vegetarian flat. As in, I am not allowed to bring meat into the house. Not deli meat, not on takeaway, nothing. But none of my friends has a space to accommodate a group of six or more.

I do. I have an enormous kitchen. And then I found an American grocery store called Partridge’s near Sloane Square. They had French’s Fried Onions and I knew I had to do this.

American foodses in London

American foodses in London

I don’t know if it’s the delicious food or the concept of family and gratitude, but Thanksgiving is a big deal to me, and while none of my fellow Americans seemed overly concerned about the day, I was determined. I negotiated my stubborn landlord/flatmate into allowing me to have people over, as long as the turkey was cooked elsewhere, and none of his kitchenware touched it.

One American friend took charge of the turkey, gravy, and stuffing, another decided to make mashed potatoes, and our Australian friend promised cranberry sauce. That left me to make pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, and butternut squash lasagna.

In my 34×34 vision of hosting a dinner party, I cooked the full multi-course meal – an appetizer, a meat-centered main course, a dessert. Part of the point of this self-challenge was to face my strange distaste – almost fear – of touching raw meat. The reason I can live in a vegetarian house despite not being a vegetarian is that I don’t ever cook meat: I don’t like to touch it, and I don’t really know how to prepare it properly.

So was I cheating by delegating this pivotal portion of the meal to someone else? I mean, quite frankly, it’s the quintessential element – people could live without the butternut squash lasagna, but nobody wanted to do a turkey-less Thanksgiving. Also, because of the kitchenware stipulation, I had to buy paper plates and plastic cutlery to serve the meal. This did not fit into my elegant vision of hosting a dinner party either.

You know what? I’m counting it. Judge me as you must. And just for full disclosure, I cut up some cheese and dumped some crackers on a platter for my appetizer. Sue me.

At the last minute, one of my friends realized she couldn’t make the mashed potatoes because her refrigerator was broken and she had to work all day preceding dinner. Potatoes are as necessary as turkey, so I added them to my schedule. One of my goals with attempting this dinner was to learn how chefs/cooks/my sainted mother time their preparations to set all the food out piping hot at the same moment. There is a real art to cooking a whole meal, and I’ve never mastered it. Things get cold or burn, but nothing is ever ready simultaneously.

Getting down and dirty

Getting down and dirty

My day started at 9am, baking bread, two loaves of pumpkin made separately because I wasn’t sure if I could just double the ingredients and then halve the mixture into two pans – and it was 4am in New Jersey, too early to call my mother.

Pumpkin bread!

Pumpkin bread!

My mother played a prominent role in my day – I called/skyped her at least once an hour, freaking out about what order I should do things in, what ingredients I might be forgetting as I went to the supermarket one last time, how to bake the squash and mash the potatoes and what was the recipe for chocolate chip cookie pie? Really, I know nothing about cooking. My mother must be disappointed in her three children, none of whom took up her great culinary skill and enjoyment. She LIKES spending all day in the kitchen preparing a groaning table’s worth of food for her family.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Chocolate chip pie and pumpkin pie. Amazeballs.

Anyway, I got through it. Breads were followed by pies, which cooled all day on the counter, teasing me. I prebaked the squash and mashed it, then boiled the potatoes and mashed them – all by hand, because we don’t have a mixer or blender or anything fancy in my house (we only barely have a microwave, after much whining on my part). Everything was going well until one friend apologetically texted that she and her boyfriend would be an hour late – totally throwing off my calculations for getting everything ready simultaneously.

At that point I started drinking wine and eating cheese cubes.

Classy spread

Classy spread

But that’s as dramatic as it gets; everyone eventually arrived, loaded with food and alcohol, all of which was delicious. Everything I made came out perfectly and reasonably hot. No one even touched the chocolate chip cookie pie, so stuffed were they from the meal.

I am my mother’s daughter, wanting to be absolutely sure everyone was gastrointestinally protesting too much food.

Eight of us ate and drank together: 3 Americans, an Aussie, a Lithuanian, a Frenchman, a Brit, and an Italian. Just like the Pilgrims would have wanted.

Mmmm. Food.

Mmmm. Food.

My contribution

My contribution

After my funny little hodgepodge family left and the dishes were washed, I Skyped with my other family in New Jersey. I realized I had done all that work mainly for myself – no one else was nearly as fussed about it, no one was desperate for pumpkin bread and green bean casserole the way I was. But that’s okay. It was worth it for the leftovers alone.

I’m so grateful to my mother for all her help, even from thousands of miles away. We stood in kitchens on opposite sides of the Atlantic, cooking together, and if my meal came out even a fraction as well as hers, I have reason to be proud.

So I accomplished my goal: I brought people together, we broke bread, we laughed, we were thankful. So fuck the turkey. Maybe next year I’ll tackle “cooking meat.”

Fat now.

Fat now.

Categories: 34x34, London | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

2013: Reframing a Failure

Since I began keeping track of what I was reading in 2010, the number of books I completed each year has steadily increased. My goal for 2012 was 50, and I handily surpassed it with 59. I didn’t think it would be too much of a challenge to pledge to read 75 in 2013.

For ten months of last year I was ahead of schedule according to Goodreads, who calculate my reading stats. At one point I was 8 books ahead, and I thought: I got this. No problem. In the terminology of your typical sports flick, “I couldn’t lose.”

Ah, the hubris. Pride go-eth before the fall, right?

At the beginning of December, I realized I had only read 66 books. I knew I couldn’t read 9 books in December – December! a month when I had 20,000 words due for my Masters, a weekend trip to France and a 2 ½ week trip home for Christmas and all the holiday madness therein – and I knew I was going to fail to achieve my goal. I finished the year with 69 books read.

My immediate react to this was, of course, searing disappointment. How had I squandered that enormous excess of books? It shows what kind of nerd I am that I was humiliated to have come so close and fallen short.

Yes friends, my life is replete with the first-iest of first world problems.

Still, I am just competitive enough (with myself, apparently) to be super annoyed that I failed. And that’s what it felt like: failure. Once again, I had set a goal, and I had failed to check it off my list.

After a dark night of the soul (look, my favorite activity is reading. I don’t have a lot of drama in my life as I sit around with sheafs of paper, so allow me some hyperbole for the sake of the narrative), I had to reframe my failure.

I failed because I was busy. My life started to turn around in October and November. I got a job. I started hanging out with some new friends and good friends more frequently. I started seeking out the strange and wonderful bits and bobs that London has to offer, going to more events, playing in more of the city. Going home to New Jersey for the first time in a year meant there were many people to see, catch up with, laugh with, enjoy. There wasn’t time to read as I soaked up my parents, trying to figure out how I can be more like them.

I was reading less because I was living more. See, now when you look at it that way, it’s not so bad, is it? (You probably didn’t think it was that bad to begin with.)

There is another vital life lesson tied in here. I fell short on this goal because I picked up three books in a row that I didn’t enjoy, but rather than giving up and moving on to something I would like, I hung around in my own version of purgatory, not reading these dull tomes, but not reading anything else either. I think this is important. I think learning to let go is something I’m still figuring out, and the metaphorical resonances in the bigger picture of my life abound. I have to get better at walking away from situations that are unhealthy or make me unhappy. My fear of quitting (which equates to failing in my mind) is definitely something to work on this year.

A friend of mine wrote an excellent blog on managing expectations recently. Her life and mine are different – I aspire to be where she is in my own writing career, and I admire her perseverance in pursuing writing in a way I still don’t, to my further embarrassment – but I understand the sentiment of expecting a great deal from yourself and feeling like you miss the mark even when you give your best. But looking back at 2013, I have to recognize that while nothing major was achieved, I took a lot of small, significant steps forward.

While I was home in NJ, I turned on my American cell phone and noticed the last text I had sent a friend before I left to return to London last December. I told her I had been crying all day, that London was a mistake, that I didn’t want to go back.

I can honestly say right now I don’t even remember feeling that. In the past 12 months I have come to love this city so hard that no matter what else might be making me bluesy, I have learned to maintain my perspective: I am so lucky to be here, and when all else fails, I am so happy to be here. I feel like I belong here, a feeling I have never had before (as frequent readers of this blog know, my search for a sense of home has long haunted me). I am lucky to have made some good friends this year. I’m lucky to have done some nice travelling this year. I am lucky to be pursuing writing, no matter how much work there is still to do on that front – I’m lucky to be writing the book I’m writing, on a topic that I truly love and find fascinating. I’m lucky that after 12 months of not seeing them, I can still go to my family and bask in their unconditional love and support. I’m lucky that I wanted to cry as I left them again, because how many people have that much love in their lives?

2014 makes me anxious for a lot of reasons: I have to finish this book, I have to figure out what my actual career is going to look like. I only have a year left on my visa and I don’t want to leave England. I still would like to feel a little more entrenched in London, less like an outsider. Every time I open my mouth I reveal my foreignness, my unintentionally loud, friendly, brash Americanness.

Still, I am so lucky that this is my set of problems. I am learning to reframe my anxiety as excitement. I want the world, and of course that’s bound to cause disappointment, because who can have the world? But I know I’d rather set a high goal and standard and dream big and fall short than sell myself short and accept too little and be discontent. As Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Here’s to failing better in 2014. I have no expectations for this year, only hope.

Well, I have one expectation.

I’m going to read 75 books this year.

Happy reading and happy living. Here’s to a dream and love and laughter filled year for us all.

A small sampling of the books in my future. There are many, many more not pictured.

A small sampling of the books in my future. There are many, many more not pictured.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Adventures with Vouchers: Acupressure Massage

I should really read through voucher offers before I buy them.

This week I got an acupressure massage.

I had just seen the word “massage” and the cheap price and thought, “Sign me up!”

Ordinarily, I would have spaced out the acupuncture and the massage, but please see previous post about procrastinating and facing expiration dates.

I knew I was in for a different kind of experience from the acupuncture as soon as I walked through the door: there was my soothing fountain, resting on a mat of fake turf.

The waiting room was spacious, white walls and melon-colored faux leather armchairs. Expansive and generically inspiring nature shots hung on the walls: a mass of trees in blossom, a clifftop view across misty mountains. A very different vibe from the acupuncture place.

I was gently asked to put on some little white slippers, which these spa-type places should realize is not particularly relaxing, at least if you’re me and wondering who else’s funky feet have tred in these slippers previously.

I was introduced to G., my qi master. The staff wore white gis, which I imagine is a comfy work outfit, even if it did make me think of The Karate Kid.

G. spent a good ten minutes talking to me about qi/chi, or the body’s energy system. It all does make a lot of sense, really. That the body and mind and spirit are actually interconnected and one affects the other. Why is that an Eastern philosophical idea? Why isn’t it just a human philosophical idea? Why are Westerners so cynical about this intermingling, why are we embarrassed by talk about the spirit, why can “New Age” ideas only be considered with irony?

Of course, I couldn’t help but think how disappointed I would be if I ever saw G. in a Starbucks. So I guess I’m just another cynical, overly-ironied Westerner, a revelation which will come as no surprise to anyone.

Acupressure massage is not a medical, physical kind of massage. It’s all about unblocking blocked-up qi. It is performed fully clothed (me – well, and him too), and involved deep fingertip-rubbing over the entire body, head to toe, sternum to butt.

As part of the qi stimulating process, G. made noise while he worked me up. It is supposed to be a cosmic noise, a sound that encourages qi flow from master to client. The best I can do to describe it is as a prolonged “shhhh” except it was “chhhh.” It was the sound an aerosol can makes and it would be really bad for the environment if you continually sprayed a can as long as G. had to make this noise.

I get the meditative qualities of chanting, and I have an album of Tibetan Singing Bowls that is supposed to hit different bodily chakras, and I get that too, I can feel the vibrations in various parts of my body. This just sounded like spraying an aerosol can. I may have mentioned that.

But bless him, G. motored his mouth through my massage and dug his hands so hard into every inch of my body that two days later, my sternum still hurts. There is obviously no way this kind of rubbing can be bad. It might be painful at the time, but it does loosen up all your muscles and tensions, and I felt pretty nice afterward.

We chatted again after my treatment, and G. told me that I have huge blockages in my kidneys, which are the body’s battery packs of energy, as well as my stomach, which blocks energy from getting to my lower half. Maybe that’s why my feet are always cold. (G. repeated several times that he is not a licensed medical professional and there is nothing physically wrong with me. Phew.)

Seriously, I don’t want to be cynical. I want to believe in magic. If we don’t think our own bodies are capable of something mystical and special, it’s really hard to expect it from any other part of the world around us. Qi could just be another part of physics: atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, it’s all swirling around inside us. The idea of energy, positive and negative, is the best way to describe any sort of spiritual views I have.

I want to believe in qi, I want to get in touch with my qi, but I didn’t have any sense of energy release or free flowing radiance in my body. I enjoyed the treatment, but. Sometimes it’s just nice to get poked and prodded. Realistically, I can’t have expected all my qi to start cheerfully flowing after one forty minute session. (But I probably did expect that because I am not realistic.)

G. did a soft-sell for the center’s holistic chanting/movement/meditation class. And I will really consider it. It’s just sort of a pain in the ass to get to the center from where I live. If I’m going to harness my qi and unblock my energy, which sounds like a lot of work in and of itself, I’m really going to need it to be superconvenient.

G. was too genuine and sweet for me to feel that this voucher was a scam, but I don’t know if I really got all that much out of it either. So here’s the new scorecard: Vouchers – 1, Me – 0, Qi – 1

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dutch Dining

My last trip to Amsterdam, ten years ago, had been predicated on the whims of my travel buddy, Tom; it was his trip, I just invited myself to tag along. It was my first time in a non-English speaking country, and I was more than happy to let him take the lead.

But when I went again last October I tried to do a little more planning, have a more in-depth experience.

Well, sort of.

I mean, I guided my friend to the same exact restaurant Tom and I had stumbled upon near the Anne Frank House, the Pancake Bakery. But that’s because I remember that meal vividly a decade later. Though, it turns out I remember it wrong; I had this vision of a giant plate-sized stack of pancakes, slathered in ice cream and chocolate sauce (because I was twenty, and a grown up, so I could eat whatever I dang well pleased for dinner.) But actually, Dutch pancakes are flat, like a crepe, and the size of a small pizza. My possibly maturing taste buds led me to the savory Hungarian pancake, piled with chorizo, salami, tomato, cheese, paprika, onion.

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Then we went to a street fair in Dam square, gorged and waddling, and had tiny profitjes, bite-sized pancakes slathered in whip cream and chocolate sauce. The best of all worlds, pancakes for dinner, pancakes for dessert.

Okay, sure all you see is whipped cream. But there are delicious tiny puffy pancakes under there.

Okay, sure all you see is whipped cream. But there are delicious tiny puffy pancakes under there.

But seriously, I wanted to broaden our horizons and steer clear of endless meals of carb-laden comfort foods. I had bulked up a bit on Dutch history, and learned that the Netherlands had colonized Indonesia in the seventeenth century ergo (direct link, right? We can skip the four hundred years in between) there are a lot of Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam.

We were up for trying this untested cuisine, so I asked our walking tour guide for suggestions about a good Indonesian restaurant. Terry was an Irishman, married to an Australian, whose kids spoke better Dutch than he did. But after eight years in country, I figured he would have some good local insider tips.

As he mulled my query, he mentioned that he could point us in the direction of the Hard Rock Café.

My friend and I were offended. Obviously our request meant we were trying to get off the beaten path, to eat like the Dutch. We weren’t your typical tourists.

Anyway, we’d eaten at the Hard Rock two nights before.

After that suggestion, we began to worry Terry wasn’t as familiar with life beyond the tourism industry as we had hoped. He couldn’t remember the name of the Indonesian restaurant he’d eaten at recently with his wife, but he knew it was just off the Leidseplein, in the direction of that shiny neon landmark, the Hard Rock, and it was up a set of stairs.

Later that evening, my friend and I wandered the cobbled pedestrian alleys around the Leidseplein, following my hastily scrawled directions from Terry. Our frustration mounted as we crisscrossed streets with nary a glimpse of anything Indonesian. A name would have been really helpful. Thanks, Terry.

We stood at an intersection, peeking to the left, which is what Terry had told us, and then to the right, because Terry clearly had no idea what he was talking about. Back to the left, a green neon sign suddenly stood out in relief against the mass of culinary advertising.

It simply read “Indonesian Restaurant.”

We approached it, and yes indeed, it was upstairs.

We found this pretty funny.

After all that, we decided not to eat there. Upon inspecting their menu, we realized Indonesian cuisine is far spicier than either of us cares for.

We meandered some more until we stumbled upon a restaurant offering traditional Dutch cuisine called De Blauwe Hollander. We each got a “hotchpotch,” a comforting meal of potatoes, veg, and meat, all smushed together and drowned in sauces. My friend ordered a bacon/endive/meatball/mashed concoction that you could well crawl into and hibernate for the winter. And then we had traditional Dutch apple pie for dessert. So much for avoiding carbs.

IMG_8115

I don't know if it's actually traditional. It seemed a little fancy to me.

I don’t know if it’s actually traditional. It seemed a little fancy to me.

Moral of the story: Terry knew exactly what he was talking about even when he didn’t know what he was talking about, and if you’re ever in Amsterdam, I highly recommend you book a walking tour with him. (And the Hard Rock has really good nachos, so lay off.)

Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Souvenirs

I used to collect shot glasses when I traveled. I think it started with my first Hard Rock Café experience in high school, but it expanded beyond generic restaurant chains. Now I probably have…I’d like to know how many I have. I have over 20 from Hard Rocks alone (I know, don’t judge) so I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 75. All that cheap glass, made in China, has sat wrapped up in a box for a decade. I always meant to display them – I even had two racks – but I was never quite that organized in my decorating.  Now they live in my storage unit. If I ever get around to living in my own place in America again, they will get…I don’t know, sold on eBay? Would anyone want a collection of someone else’s travel memories? I replaced shot glasses with magnets, but they are fun and cheap and easy to display. You can’t totally break your addiction to tacky kitsch I’m sorry to say.

These days I am more discerning about what makes an appropriate souvenir, a true and revealing, unique memento of a place. I try to avoid things that are mass-produced in China (magnets notwithstanding). I tend to buy art books (and postcards, which are not cheap anymore, a euro each at most European museums) of collections I like. But I also try to get something locally made that really evokes a culture. My parents often come back from trips with small prints bought from street artists. Since this fits my art geek persona, I dig it. Some sort of rendering of a locale, created by someone who lives and works there – what could be a better way to remember a place?

They aren’t so easy to come by.

I wanted a hand-carved Buddha in Thailand. I didn’t see them anywhere – I ended up with a gold-plated tacky thing that exactly matched all the Buddha statuary I saw there. I purchased it at a temple gift shop, theoretically blessed by a Buddhist monk. Okay. I wanted to get a wall hanging of some sort in South Africa, but didn’t see any real artists creating anywhere we went. There were some nice prints of the townships that were unique and interesting…but I don’t know, that doesn’t seem the sort of thing a white person should have hanging on her wall. I got this instead:

IMG_8398

The man I bought it from said it was hand-carved, and explained the polishing process. I don’t know if it’s true. On the other hand, my local guide-friend explained Africa doesn’t have any infrastructure for mass-production, even though I saw this pensive guy in a lot of places alongside roads. I think there are popular motifs and these Zimbabwean (wait, what?) men hand-make and sell them. I hope so anyway…

On the other hand, when you look at that, do you think: South Africa? Probably not. I love the colors and smoothness, the minimalist play on Rodin’s “Thinker.” Of course, this means I bought a souvenir that is an imitation of a Western European masterpiece.

Oops. Not doing so well with my local quintessential souvenir, am I?

Still, I find it thought-provoking and beautiful, and when I look at it I think of my two weeks on the bottom of the world. At least it’s not cheesy, like a giraffe (because I didn’t see any giraffes there and it would be all LIES!)

I went to Amsterdam in October and was once again determined to buy art. I love that city, its quaint and lovely architecture. I was hoping to get a local artistic rendering of the city itself.

This is what I ended up with:

IMG_8406

So, yeah.  Doesn’t look much like Amsterdam, huh? I didn’t have time to check out every corner of the city for local art markets, so my options were limited. I stumbled into one small patch of artists’ tents, and none of the artists had painted their hometown. I bought a few postcards from a man who did prints of his Amsterdam etchings, but they were black and white, not really what I wanted.  This artist (Rebecca) did abstract impressionistic landscapes with gloppy paint, like a much latter day Van Gogh. This is her home, and her vision. Why should I dictate what she chooses to paint to suit my touristy needs?

But no one’s going to know I bought that in Amsterdam.

So despite my good intentions, I guess I’m not buying hand-crafted, ideal souvenirs that capture the spirit and identity of a place. Nothing show-offy that immediately tells people where I’ve been. I’ll keep trying. I guess it’s good that I’m conscious of how my purchasing power effects the places I visit. I’m putting my money toward those who create locally. I think.

Should you worry about supporting local artists and artisans? What are your favorite souvenirs? Talk to me, dear reader.

Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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