Unintended Souvenirs

When the opportunity to travel to a new place arises, a sense of excitement often bubbles up and infuses us with a particular kind of energy. We scroll through webpages and flip through guidebooks to hunt down the popular tourist sites—when is the best time to go, should I book a ticket in advance?—and to uncover the local haunts. Some of us plan our itineraries to the smallest details, while others arrive at a neighborhood and explore without timetable nor map, relying on the advice of the locals to navigate and find lunch. However, when all is said and done, when the suitcases have returned to the closet and the passports to the document drawer, the memories of vacationing retreat to the backs of our minds, all too easily replaced by the humdrum thoughts of daily life.

How do we hold on to the delight that we felt during those days when we were out exploring, discovering, and learning something new?

One centuries-old answer lies in the souvenir. The word might conjure images of kitschy gift shops on the beach boardwalk or illuminated by the glow of neon downtown lights, carrying mass-manufactured mugs emblazoned with city icons and shimmery snow globes in garish colors and over-saturated postcards and magnets punctuated with cheery greetings and exclamation points. However, souvenirs can also be more personal, triggering memories specific to the people who experienced a particular moment. As photography has become cheaper, more convenient, and more accessible to even slightly curious adventure-goers, it is easier than ever to record each moment of your trip, from the obligatory portrait in front of the Eiffel Tower, to the close up of your meal, to even the interior of your luxury hotel room or one-of-a-kind vacation rental. With a tap of the computer keyboard or a swipe across our phone, these moments are readily conjured upon a screen, waiting expectantly to be shared with others.

Then, there are the miscellaneous, seemingly insignificant objects one might collect during one’s journey, whether to a neighboring town or across the vast seas to another continent. These are the items you might have picked up with a second thought, stuffed into the depths of a backpack or purse, or forgotten to return when you departed. They can sit, neglected, in the bottom of a box or in the back of a drawer, having neither aesthetic value nor practical function. When you chance upon them, perhaps during the occasional burst of deep cleaning that prompts you to leave no box left unopened and no pile left unturned, simply seeing them again can pull forth the memories of the experience, reminding you of the moments when life was, just briefly, a little different.



Originally functioning as a proof-of-purchase voucher, these small slips range in design from mere blocks of simple, serif text to intricately watermarked, thoughtfully constructed works of art. Often printed on flimsier varieties of paper, they can be found crumpled near waste bins, discarded under bleachers, and wedged between train seat cushions. Yours may end up stuffed in a back pocket, recovered with your day’s receipts when you check your pants before tossing them in the laundry hamper. They might be lucky enough to escape the recycle bin, and end up in the slightly more permanent stack or shoebox of various-papers-and-receipts. Despite their lack of physical weight, their reappearance can remind you of the disorienting experience riding the funicular up the nearly-vertical face of a mountain, or the garbled half-conversation that ensued when you tried to discern how to get to your train platform in limited Swedish. In some ways, this little piece of paper is less about where you went and more about how you got there.



A visit to an authentic patisserie or two-person-run Japanese café might engender sparkling eyes, a plethora of ohs-and-ahs, and a desire to consume every perfectly assembled confection and beverage your money can buy. Unfortunately, the only remnants of that delightful meal or snack might be the crumbs littered across the table and the stains on your paper napkin. This is when the unique paper sleeve that came with your hot beverage might get slipped into your bag, or the beautifully patterned chocolate wrapper gest folded and tucked into your coat pocket, or the precisely assembled box that carried your macarons gets wiggled into your camera bag. In almost any other circumstance, you would have chucked them in the waste bin, but there is something special about even a scrap of plastic or cardboard when you’re sitting somewhere new. If these are fortunate enough to make it home with you, the residual sugary scent that wafts to your nose or the texture you feel when you pull it out of your bag might be enough to elicit a craving for those special treats. No packaging? Take one of the store’s business cards on your way out—even if you never make it back for a second taste, you’ll at least have a way to remember the first one.



A visit to a different climate often presents you with an assortment of flora you have never before encountered. Whether strolling down a commercial side street dotted with mom-and-pop shops, a residential alley inhabited by green thumbs, or a manicured hiking trail filled with shade, leaves and flowers are likely to spill over the rims of hanging baskets, overcrowd window boxes, and pop up behind craggy rocks. Caught up in the moment, you might pinch a particularly colorful cluster or wonderfully scented sprig, to twirl in your fingertips as you continue on your way. Tuck it behind your ear or thread it through a buttonhole, and you might forget its weightless presence until you see it in your reflection from a store front window, softened and wilted and fading. Delicate as it may be, it is still capable of surviving the journey home. Tie it up and dry it upside down, or if needs to be packed, press it between the pages of the magazine, paperback, or any in-flight reading at hand. The next time you pull the book out of the shelf to re-read it, the immortalized petals and leaves will greet you.



In the era of smartphone apps and digital navigation assistants, paper maps and informational brochures seem to serve only to brighten up reception desks, destined for the depths of a bag or a trash receptacle where the glossy, color-print pages may never again see the light of day. Such maps are usually lacking in detail, often depicting only the busiest landmarks in a small geographical space, and offer neither the functionalities of a driving map nor the aesthetic pleasure of a hand-drawn one. Unfortunately, they pale in comparison to our digital maps that can zoom into every store front, show us which direction we face, and even verbally communicate when we should turn the corner. However, pull out a forgotten map, not when you are navigating the neighborhood but after you have long since left, and you might find yourself peering closely at the squiggles and squares, re-tracing your steps and recalling the corner bakery, the grand city hall façade, or the public garden: a trip down memory lane.

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