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In my 40s, as a newbie solo traveller, I spent endless time browsing souvenir shops in tourist areas of towns and cities. It never dawned on me that if I shopped further afield where merchants weren’t paying big rents, I could get much more for my travel dollar. Nor did I give much thought to the size of what I was buying, and that I would have to schlep it around for the duration of my holidays.
I learned and adjusted. But I also found that over time, the objects that beckoned to me changed as well. As my tastes matured, my bags got smaller, and so did the time I spent buying tchotchkes.
In my 50s I collected boxes from around the world. Not ordinary boxes but ones crafted lovingly by artists. These were small and fit easily into the nooks and crannies of my backpack. The variety was delightful – silver encrusted from South Korea, painted camel bone from Egypt, brightly coloured paper maché from Mexico, mosaic-topped from Greece and dozens more were amassed and displayed in my powder room.
Then a funny thing happened. My interest in the collection waned while my grandchildren’s interest in it grew and so began a wonderful, new ritual. Each time a child came to visit they were allowed to pick a box. Magically, my popularity increased as did their visits and pretty soon my collection had been divided amongst the little people in our family. Each gift was accompanied by a mini travel-story explaining where the box was found, who had made it and what that country was like.
Next came my 60s and my appetite for primitive art and black and white photography. I had a cardboard tube cut to the exact size of my carry-on so my treasures would not be harmed as I travelled the seven continents. I looked for work created by locals and came home with budget treasures from Israel, India, China, Russia and Africa to name just a few. All hang in my home to this day. I remember every experience I had chatting with the artists and listening to their fascinating stories. These are souvenirs in the true sense of the word. Each has expanded my knowledge of the world and continues to give me the greatest of pleasures.
Now I am in my 70s. I pack less and carry less. My time in shops has diminished to practically nothing. My grandchildren are teenagers and their tastes bewilder me. I don’t even try to shop for them.
However, I do have a passion for scarves and shawls, which I fastidiously hunt down in markets around the world. These pack flat in my suitcase, weigh little and are usually quite reasonable in price. I rummage through bins, check packed shelves and go through hanging samples while visions of the perfect design dance in my head. I think very carefully before each purchase; I feign disinterest when approached by merchants. It’s common knowledge that this tactic might help when it’s time for me to bargain. I will admit to splurging, though, when I can’t imagine walking away from the latest object of my desire. Now I own light, loosely woven scarves for warmer weather and heavier woolen shawls for the winter months. My goal is to acquire the ultimate accessory for each colour in my wardrobe.
Will I be traveling in my 80s? If the fates allow, I certainly hope so. Will I be collecting something completely different? That, too, is up to the travel goddesses. What I do know is that my multicolored collection has become my wearable travel journal of today. When I’m at a meeting and someone compliments my red scarf, I reply, “Ahhh, yes. I found this fabulous piece hanging in a dusty market in Shanghai. Thank goodness I looked up because there it was right above my head just waiting to be discovered. I haven’t seen another one like it. Have you?”
And, when I’m lunching with a friend who tells me how much she loves the way my turquoise and purple scarf matches my new outfit, I’ve been known to answer, “It was a rainy morning in Montecatini Terme, Italy. Not wanting to waste time indoors I decided to stroll through town. I turned left down a cobblestone laneway. There, on the corner in a posh clothing shop was this fabulous scarf. I just had to have it, elevated price or not. I haven’t seen another one like it. Have you?”
On cooler days I rely on my hand-embroidered shawl to keep me warm. Each time I wear it, I remember where I was when I found it and the triumph of making it mine. Two local women came with me to a popular shopping mall in Chennai, India. This mall was much like all others except for one important difference: Amongst the many large boutiques were countless small shops that sold shawls in every size, weight and colour. After much careful browsing I found exactly what I was looking for – a soft, black wrap embroidered with brash, bright flowers. I was careful not to wear my heart on my sleeve. I casually asked for the shopkeeper’s best price. He quoted, assuring me that this was his “very best deal.” My guides scoffed at his offer and promptly took over, this time in their local dialect. I have no idea what transpired in their conversation but that merchant had definitely met his match. They examined the piece in minute detail. They picked at the embroidery threads to see if any would unravel. Poor man, by the end of their assault the price of his shawl had fallen drastically. The women signaled their approval, I quickly counted out the required rupees and made that treasure mine.
Lately I’ve been thinking that when my granddaughters leave their teenage fashion behind they might enjoy wearing some of my many fabric finds. I will happily share my latest collection with them. That is, providing they visit often and listen raptly to their grandmother’s many travel tales.
Evelyn Hannon lives in Toronto.