Posts Tagged With: Souvenirs

34×34 #2, Part 1: Strasbourg, France

Life is annoyingly all or nothing: this past November, after months of languishing and stressing about money, I finally got a job, but this coincided with some nice dating, a 20,000 word deadline, a study guide for a silly porny novel, organizing a Thanksgiving meal for eight, and preparing to go home to the US for the first time in a year for almost three weeks. Not the time to try to cram in some random travel goals.

Or is it exactly the time to cram in some random travel goals?

In my first year of living in England, I only managed to get to other parts of Europe twice – and once was a re-visit to Amsterdam, a lovely city, one of my favorites, but someplace I had already been. Thus my 34×34 goal to see five new European cities/countries. Of course the travel needs of my book plus constant fretting amount money made this seem like a bit of a dreamy stretch. But when my fellow expat/faux-Mancunian friend RE-expatriated herself to Strasbourg, France for a limited time of four weeks, and I found a Ryanair flight for GBP35 – less than a train ticket to visit her in Manchester – I once again reflected on life happening while you’re busy making other plans.

Obviously, I booked the flight.

Strasbourg cathedral

Strasbourg cathedral

Pretty canals

Pretty canals

Two days after Thanksgiving, fridge still groaning with leftovers, I headed to Stansted for the short flight to Strasbourg. What sold me on making the trip was the fact that it was the first weekend of Strasbourg’s Christmas Market. Some quick internet research informed me Strasbourg has one of the best and biggest holiday markets in the world. My Mancunian and I had meandered through the Manchester Christmas Market last year when I visited her for Thanksgiving, and I thoroughly enjoyed my sausage and mulled wine (though not mead. Never again, mead.) I had bought some Christmas presents and a nice fair trade scarf. If Strasbourg was better than Manchester I was in for a real treat.

I was fortunate enough to be there on the first Sunday of the month, so many of the city’s attractions were free – we were able to visit the Musee des Beaux Arts where I saw a Raphael and a El Greco and a Corregio that I liked very much. We were also able to wander around the Cathedral, which is famous for its enormous astronomical clock. Mostly I just noticed the creepy grim reaper figure within it. We climbed about 330 steps to the cathedral platform, where we had amazing views of the entire city, having lucked into some cold but fair weather.

View from the top of the catheral...

View from the top of the catheral…

Astronomical clock

Astronomical clock

Creepy...

Creepy…

The Christmas Market itself was disappointing. I was expecting local handicrafts with a French and German flavor (Strasbourg being in Alsace-Lorraine, an area of France handed back and forth between Germany and France multiple times in the twentieth century), but mostly what we found was junky trinkets made in China. I bought some silly springy Santa hats for my nieces and nephews, also surely made in China, but otherwise left empty-handed.

The Christmas Market

The Christmas Market

Even my goal of eating my way through the market was underwhelming. I was dying for a soft pretzel, a local specialty, but the one I ate was stale. Ditto the beignet chocolat, a sugary stuffed donut that was cold and filled with little more than pudding. We did get some spaetzle and sauerkraut and sausage that was salty and delicious, but overall, the food left my poor edible heart broken.

Before I ate the pretzel I was so excited.

Before I ate the pretzel I was so excited.

I wanted to love my beignet, I just didn't.

I wanted to love my beignet, I just didn’t.

Okay, yum.

Okay, yum.

However, besides just getting to see a dear friend and catching up, a worthwhile use of GBP35 if ever there was one, as well as drinking a ton of good local Alsatian Rieslings, the entire trip was worth it for the fondue.

Oh fondue, sweet nectar of the gods.

My friend and I went to a well recommended place called Cloche au Fromage, jam-packed with locals at lunchtime. We made a small error by ordering two types of fondue – thinking they would come in individual servings that we could share. Instead, we were faced with two VATS of melted bliss-inducing cheese. We got a basic and one with Munster and herbs and – okay, I’m not a food blogger so all I can say is that one tasted stronger and stinkier, but in the good cheese way. Trust me.

I want it in my face.

I want it in my face.

The fondue was pricey but “all you can eat” – I mistakenly thought I could live up to this challenge. Despite the bottomless pit that is my stomach combined with my inappropriate love of cheese, I couldn’t finish even one pot, let alone ask for more. I think these before and after photos can attest to the harrowing yet worthwhile emotional journey of my experience.

Oh the joy, the triumph...

Oh the joy, the triumph…

and pain of defeat.

and pain of defeat.

Anyway, Strasbourg is a beautiful little city, and I wish I could have explored it more, perhaps in summer when it wouldn’t have been so brutally cold. It was nice to try and recall all the French I learned over a decade ago in school. I was really surprised to find I wanted to speak to merchants and vendors, to see if I could communicate. Since the days of taking Latin I have long feared speaking foreign languages, and have shunned them at every opportunity. I think my experience on the Camino last year made me slightly braver, and more willing to try to speak and understand languages. So hurray for that.

One city down, four to go. I have a lot of travel plans this year, so let’s see what I can make happen.

Oh, and I love this girl by the way. Ever and always a good travel buddy.

Oh, and I love this girl by the way. Ever and always a good travel buddy.

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Categories: 34x34, Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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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