Monthly Archives: August 2013

Souvenirs

Lovely but useless Murano glass.
It’s not even real Murano glass!
When purchasing souvenirs on holidays, most of us lose our heads. We just want to capture the moment with something tangible – a little bit of sparkly magic we can cling on to when we go back to our routine lives. Even though we know, most of us know, that souvenirs are inevitably rubbish and carry no magical powers whatsoever. Oh no, we tell ourselves, I’m not buying plastic trinkets made with cheap child labour. Oh no, I’m going to buy something real, something authentic. Say, a tiny Murano glass figurine from Venice that costs half your shopping budget. That sits on the shelf. Collecting dust. Made exclusively for the tourist market.
I’ve bought a stack of useless things both for myself and for others, in the spirit of souvenir buying. In Canada I loaded up on bear poo (chocolate coated sultanas), maple leaf key rings and maple syrup soap, butter, candles and tea. In Spain I bought hand painted plates, in Russia I bought lacquered trinket boxes and in every country I’ve visited I’ve collected a pen, key ring, postcard and/or magnet. I bought $20 worth of bead jewellery in Brazil and paid $60 to get them treated at Customs.
I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed when purchasing my cheap Taiwanese import spoons at the counter, but tell me what else I can give my aunts. Let’s face it, they’re convenient and don’t take up any important space in your suitcase. In Hong Kong my niece actually spent seven days and nights searching for damn tea towels for her aunts. They were, incredulously, nowhere to be found. Cheap jewellery, pashminas, imitation handbags and purses aplenty. But tea towels, forget it. She ended up finding one at the airport as we were preparing to head home.
Perhaps my parents take the biscuit in terms of impractical souvenir buying. My Italian parents living in Australia visited their homeland in 1977. As gifts for themselves and other family members, they brought back with them four (that’s four) La San Marco espresso machines from Milan. Orange and chrome. Four. My father estimates a good 6 kilos each. In one suitcase. My parents were clearly well ahead of their time with regards to home espresso machines, but right up there in the ‘crazy’ category as far as souvenir buying is concerned.
I scrounged around for a photo of this coffee machine that used to sit in our kitchen. I failed to locate one, so I casually asked my aunt, one of the espresso machine recipients, if she had one. She had one better – the actual coffee machine, still in plastic. I took this photo last week. Needless to say, my aunt is a bit of a hoarder….
You think this is just a 21st century malady? Not so. On the Grand Tour in the 1700s the English hoards invading Italy packed up extraordinary booty to take home. Keep in mind, those on the Grand Tour were mainly male 20-somethings with money to burn and an aching desire to prove to those at home that they were now learned and cultured young men. They took home plaster busts and portraits of themselves sitting idly by classic Roman scenes. They carried off with them an enormous amount of sculptures, medals, paintings and books. Some of them started museums. Possibly the most disturbing to our modern sensibilities – they chipped off hunks of marble from the Roman Forum relics that they would later convert to a lovely coffee table.
But like us souvenir suckers today, the English regularly fell for fake antiquities. Enterprising Italians quietly rustled up some half decent marble Roman torso, scrounged up some suitable limbs and then tinted them all with tobacco water to age them consistently. ‘Come this way sir. Of course it’s real!’
I had my own Grand Tour / crazy souvenir moment when visiting Hobart in Tasmania. I walked into an antique map shop and stopped dead in my tracks. On the wall were four framed engravings of Rome in the style of Piranesi. They were at least half a meter in length and height. Each. They were straight out of the 1800s and I instantly fell in love with them. I recalled my parents epic journey with four coffee machines and thought, I can’t really buy four framed 19th century engravings can I? No, I decided, that’s too silly. My souvenir from Hobart will be restricted to fudge and chutney from the market. And maybe a hand painted bookmark. But no 19th century engravings.
Six months later, home in Adelaide, I was still thinking of those engravings. They called to me like no other souvenir ever had. (Except for maybe a pair of Prada sandals in a Hong Kong outlet store that I still dream about now and then). So I called the store and, yes, they were still available. A few days later I was hanging them on my office wall. Best souvenir I ever bought. 
One of my beautiful engravings. No regrets about this souvenir.

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Beijing disconnect

Temple of Heaven

When I meet a new city, I’m so willing to fall in love with it. I try to give it a warm hug and ask it to bear its soul immediately. I’m demanding. When perhaps I should hang back a little and let it come out from behind the curtains in its own time.

I went to Beijing wide-eyed and eager to swoon but left feeling a little rebuffed and disorientated.

When my friend Michelle and I arrived, mid-November, mid-afternoon, the sun was an amazing golden ball, hazy but intense. It was cold. There was snow and ice on the ground and tree branches. The air felt crisp and fresh but surely that lovely hazy light was just pollution?

We were staying in a rather lovely hotel but it sat on a ring road – a vast, multi-laned ring road with no pedestrian crossing in sight. We gazed into the middle distance from our windows and wondered how anyone ever managed to get to the other side. There was an observation tower seemingly only meters away but after much deliberation we decided it just wasn’t worth risking our lives for.

Like the beacon in The Great Gatsby….
We took a short walk outside, laughing at the minus zero temperatures for the first few minutes, and then grimacing and struggling to inhale. We just wandered down the street and in and out of little shops. Certainly we didn’t feel unsafe, but the curiosity and interest from passers-by was not playful. It wasn’t tempered with the innocent joy of the unknown and the shy possibility of connection. It was, instead, a little suspicious and closed. Even though I tried to grin pleasantly at everyone (I admit, that may well have been the problem).

The communication breakdowns we found endearingly funny were just sources of consternation to service staff. At the hotel we ordered something like a Bailey’s on ice, and a vodka and lemonade. The waitress returned with a Black Russian and a Kahlua shot in a martini glass. But no smile.

Michelle and I took the inevitable Great Wall tour. It was only a small group – a very quiet Indian couple, and an American Chinese couple with elderly parents. Our Chinese guide, Eric, was lovely and engaging and helped us believe we could still fall in love. The tour group itself was from one of Dante’s circles of hell. The one were people responded to questions in monosyllables and didn’t bother to ask any in return. The one where people on holiday were depressed and depressing, uncommunicative and closed. These were folks who audibly sighed with joy and relief, and pounced eagerly, when fries were brought to the table at the end of an excellent Chinese lunch. Even, to my dismay, the elderly Chinese Americans.

Michelle and I drank all the alcohol at the table – our glasses, the Indian couples’, the elderly Chinese parents’ – and left to wait outside.  

Maybe it was the cold. Beijing was cold. The cold was sometimes unbearable. My fingers hurt, I couldn’t feel my face well enough to speak. I was standing, walking, waving but only because my brain was still functioning and sending the correct messages to my obedient limbs.

Finally we get to the Wall. It is an impressive and beautiful structure. It’s just a wall but it’s built across mountain tops and the idea of hundreds, thousands, of Chinese building this enormous monument by hand, brick by brick, of surviving winters in the dark and freezing watch towers is truly staggering. I struggled up the wall – icy steps and gale force winds. I lost my balance and slid to the ground. I stepped carefully and all the while thought of those who built and guarded it. What resilience, what fortitude. And what misery and despair they must have felt, surely.


The next day, our last in Beijing, I was restless and cantankerous. Like a selfish traveller I was looking for the familiar. I like to think it was in search of connection, but maybe it was just a comforting blatant search for the familiar. The city seemed soulless, the people hesitant. We had met a few warm people but we were kept at a distance. When I like to be close. Of course, that’s my problem, not any other nation’s.

So we headed for the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. You can find any information you like on both of these astonishing places – go look for it if you like – but not just yet. In a moment. Because one of the most interesting episodes for me was the walk through the park to get to the Temple of Heaven.

Here was life. A sheltered gallery where groups huddled together playing cards, slapping them down, jeering and triumphant or frowning and defeated. There was karaoke – a serious looking sing-off between two men. Another woman putting her whole heart into her song and all the expression into her face.

And then there was an open air ‘disco’. I love music and I love to dance. So I watched transfixed at a group of folks gathered together in an open space in the park. All these people, young and old, dressed in heavy coats, moved in various ways to loud speaker music. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Sunday. Minus 8 degrees. A middle-aged couple danced a tango so gracefully and beautifully you’d think they were competing. They were so earnest and light at the same time (remember, minus 8). Everyone was beaming, content and patient. It wasn’t a wild party; it was a sedate but passionate appreciation of dancing and music.

I smiled. I smiled and smiled. Strange how these few minutes influenced all my perceptions. I knew this, I knew dancing. And I knew community, and togetherness and warmth when I saw it. Even if I didn’t necessarily feel welcome to join in, that was ok. I’d witnessed it. That was enough to connect.

Even if just for a moment, only connect.


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Filed under Beijing, Great Wall, Great Wall day tour, Temple of Heaven, The Great Wall of China