For a while, after a small container of stuff from my place in the Netherlands arrived to the my first ever home in Colorado, all the trinkets and souvenirs I had collected lay along the walls and corners of the house, piled up, like a cross between a Moroccan bazaar and an unsuccessful thrift store. I actually liked the look very much.
Even after all the old European junk and far eastern trinkets were each in some sort of place, a friend visited and, looking around, grumbled “It looks like my grandmother’s house.” I answered simply, “thank you.” Another friend tried to explain to me how I really should focus on a good piece from each trip and get rid of all the rest. One centerpiece on each wall, perhaps with a track lighting illuminating them. She’s right of course; decorating that way would bring attention to these few quality items and reduce the clutter. In my case, I don’t decorate, I display.
People with great memories, those who can repeat long lists of unrelated items backwards and forwards, often reproduce such parlor tricks through mnemonic devices. To each item they imagine something related to it and place it in a distinct spot in the museum of their mind. Together with the other items; each with a quirky, unforgettable story. I must admit, I really don’t understand how this works. I’ve successfully employed this technique, remembering a colleagues name through its odd mental connection a giant capital letter D draped with red velvet robes and ermine tails (Deitrich). I vaguely remember some other much stranger concoctions involving zebras reading books in a forest or some such nonsense, but generally, I am neither creative enough to create such stories rapidly, nor very good at either remembering the stories or how they actually relate the thing I wanted to remember. (What are those literary forest dwelling zebras telling me. I can’t remember.)
For years, when I travelled I collected nothing. Maybe some postcards, or patches for my backpack which I never sewed on, but essentially nothing. I had no money to buy them, no strength to carry them, and no room to store them. When I moved to Europe, giving up all of the things I had amassed growing up until then, save for a suitcase and a bicycle, I was stunned at how freeing it was to embrace a, unknown to me at the time, buddhist principal of non-attachment. I was not then so attached to all the music CDs and, well, I can’t really remember what else I must have had. Once it was gone, I barely missed it.
Eventually I missed not having anything to remind me of where I had been. When I lived in a more stable place, the one in the Netherlands, I started to buy a few things on my trips. No more would the silly souvenir camel remain in Egypt. Instead, these little items would start piling up around me like little milestones of adventures.
That is what they have become. Real world analogues to quirky mnemonic devices. The tiny wooden dolphin still conjures up haggling with a charming shop owner in Bali who would always offer me “morning price” for good luck. A cheap silver tea-pot reminds me not only of the sweet mint tea in Morocco, but also a rare argument with my traveling partner because we almost didn’t get them at all when an angry merchant wouldn’t accept my price. And so it goes, the dusty camel hair bag from Jordon, the silk table cloth from Thailand, the ridiculously large Giraffe from Swaziland and the equally cumbersome Buddha from Cambodia, both imported the hard way, by hand, on the plane back home.
If my house burns to the ground, an insurance company might demand that I add up all the money spent on cheap souvenirs over the years. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t exceed $1,000. While I’ve experienced how easy it is to simply separate yourself from whatever you have, the flames would have burned more than pillow cases from Egypt and and copper water jugs from Holland. What really burned in that, thankfully, still imaginary fire, may not be worth much to the insurance company and if I had to, I am sure I could do with out them, but if I grow older still, these signposts of my life so far may be the only way to find my way through what I’ve experienced.