Friday, July 18, 2008

About Souvenirs

'Souvenirs' literally are 'Memories'. The word is derived from the French word for memory but originally was taken from the Latin roots of sub and venire. I myself would translate that as 'to come from beneath', in other words, 'to surface'. A memory is a thought that surfaces in the mind from the past.

In English, a souvenir is an object that reminds one of the past, usually an item purchased or acquired in order to remind one in the future of a place visited or an event experienced.

When tourists go anywhere, they search sometimes rather desperately for souvenirs either to take home for themselves or to give as gifts to loved ones and friends. An entire industry exists for the creation and sale of souvenirs throughout the world.

The souvenir industry is an ancient one, probably as ancient as the human race itself. There are mundane souvenirs as well as souvenirs that are imbued with alleged spiritual or magical power. Pilgrims to sacred sites often purchase souvenirs not in order to 'remember' the site but to take some of its power home with them.

Archaeologists obviously cannot determine which of the artifacts uncovered at any site were souvenirs and which were trade goods, nor can they definitively determine whether an object acted as a conduit of spiritual power or whether it simply was fashionable. The appearance of specific symbols and items carved or made from specific substances decade after decade, century after century, found especially in grave goods, would tend to suggest that the items held spiritual significance and power.

I have been blessed throughout my life with opportunities to travel but without ever having much money. As a very sentimental individual who loves beautiful objects, I often have been frustrated by the inability to buy 'souvenirs' from my trips. When one has the funds, one sometimes is frustrated by the poor quality of items offered as well as their inflated prices.

Books often are the best value in terms of souvenirs, but they can be costly and heavy. It is a pity that many museum catalogues can be purchased only on site. A chance of a lifetime, gone forever...

For me, objects are invested with memories of time and place. It is not a question of 'value' in financial terms but in sentimental and magical terms. One is prohibited nowadays from taking a rock or flower from a site. Sometimes the reasons are valid. Sites cannot be stripped of their stones. In this respect, however, I found a prohibition against the removal of even a teaspoonful of sand from a beach in Bermuda outrageous. The same sand is bottled and sold (legally) to tourists for exorbitant prices! That is not conservationism but sheer greed.

I have discovered a remedy for this frustration and it is one that appeals to me on many different levels. One can obtain souvenirs after the return home, even years later...

In fact, it is after one returns home that one begins to recognise the hierarchy of memories of any trip. The places and events that were not 'memorable' recede into the mist, while those that were significant attain a certain stature where history, beauty and personal experience come together to create a mental 'sourvenir'. When one is able to find a physical souvenir that encapsulates that memory or at least resonates with it, another link in the chain of remembrance is forged.

What is appealing about this in sentimental terms is the idea of acknowledging and respecting some one else's 'souvenirs' or memories. People die and their heirs sell off their 'souvenirs' when they have no significance to THEM. An object that was cherished by some one becomes a commodity. I like the idea of restoring that object to its former position of being cherished. I suppose that is one reason I always loved museums and antiques in general.

When I visited Pompeii, I was taken through a local cameo factory. Cameos have been made in Naples and the area surrounding Pompeii for hundreds of years and have been travel 'souvenirs' probably as long as they have been made. They can be extremely expensive and those that are not costly usually are poor examples of the art. Is it better to pay a large sum when one is at Pompeii or Naples or is it better to wait until one returns home, then find an antique or vintage cameo? I have to admit thatI saw a cameo at the factory that I really loved, but I was unable to afford it. I would have purchased it could I have done so, but it kindled an interest in cameos even though I was unable to satisfy my desire at that time.

Vintage and antique cameos can be outrageously expensive or pathetically inexpensive, depending on the vendor and the current popularity of the item in question.

I found a very inexpensive cameo from 'Torre del Greco' after my return. It had been purchased evidently as a souvenir many decades ago, and was framed rather than made into a piece of jewelry. It is not really the epitome of elegance, but it speaks eloquently of the region and possesses its own unique charm. In its little frame, it acts for me as a mirror of Naples and Pompeii. Some might dismiss it as a piece of 'tat' but it is a period piece and fashioned with a certain care. The cameo itself is quite fine and is made of shell hand-carved by a 'master'. It rests on a background of deep red velvet. The frame is of heavy wood with hand-made Italian decoupage over silver. I personally would have preferred a mythological subject, but it nonetheless is representative of the cameo art of the region. It is a vintage item of course and that makes it attractive historically. (I have to admit that I would not have bought a new cameo in such a frame.) It cost me very little but in obtaining it, I experienced a great sense of fulfillment. I feel somehow connected to the original owner who brought it back from his/her trip to Naples even if that individual exists more in my imagination than in reality at this point. It could have been a perfectly awful, vulgar individual, or some one who had absolutely no interest in history or the arts and who simply bought the mandatory 'souvenirs' everywhere he/she went... who knows?

In my mind, though, I have 'rescued' the memory and preserved it a little longer by binding it to my memories. It may not be the cameo I would have chosen initially, but it is charming in its fashion and now it has become the repository of my memories of Pompeii and the outskirts of Napoli. I hope to treasure it for many years.

Yes, I am materialistic in the sense of being attracted to objects rather than being satisfied completely with concepts. I love metals, gems, minerals, silks, velvets, wood, shell... any organic substance. I love plants and animals as well, but one cannot capture them the way one can capture a rock or shell. I have a little box filled with small rocks and shells I collected from every continent I visited. When I open that little box, I truly have the world at my fingertips. As my ability to travel physically diminished, that little box and other 'treasures' I have became more valuable to me. They remind me of freedom, of wide horizons and unexplored corners. They inspire me to renew my determination to travel again, never to surrender my desire to explore, however difficult my circumstances may become.

All that aside, I think the idea of 'delayed souvenirs' is a very good one. It should appeal to conservationists and sentimentalists alike. One thus recycles memories rather than allowing them to die, creating a timeline as visitor after visitor acquires the 'souvenir', linked by a common experience over the course of decades or even hundreds of years.

The ultimate souvenir of Pompeii would be a Roman artifact. Perhaps one day I will find one somewhere that is not too expensive and yet speaks across the centuries to me. The quest for the souvenir could be a journey in itself.

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