I sent it the cheap way, by boat. After a few months had passed, I thought, I’ll give it time to cross the ocean. I had entrusted the Dutch postal system to safely deliver my random souvenirs, collected over three months of travel. Eventually I wrote to them, and included a copy of my tracking slip in hopes that my parcel might be traced. No reply.
I had scavenged the carton from a shop’s trash in Haarlem, Holland. I can still picture my yellow room at the B&B, where I had been their last guest for the season. Too lonely to continue traveling and too interested to simply go home, I found refuge in that little room. There I re-grouped, re-energized and re-packed. It was time to lighten my load.
Yes, I’d felt certain that I’d made the right decision, hauling my goods through Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic, waiting to send them from that bright Dutch post office with an English-speaking clerk.
Three years have passed and my box still hasn’t arrived. I know it never will.
My most valuable souvenir was procured in a shop off a steep, cobbled alley in Prague. “Antique Textiles,” was painted on the window in letters as aged as the objects I’d hoped to discover inside. I’d become enthralled with the subject and never missed a chance to inspect a tapestry or a piece of embroidery up close. In museums or historic houses, I always sought out a guide, even those with the smallest amount of English, for more information. Now, inside this treasure trove, I knew that this is where I’d find the start of my own collection, and imagined a wall in my home in twenty years whose array of exquisite textiles would represent my travels.
I discovered an unusual piece from the 1890s, a hunting scene woven only in black and white. Its shades of yellow and rose were hand tinted from the reverse. It was perfect! After all, it came from Prague, and I could afford to buy it.
This shop also yielded a late nineteenth-century ostrich-feather fan. Its black lacquered handle and exotic pink plumes seduced me with the romance of its era. I bought it too and paid with my American Express card to insure the purchases. Ironically, when I contacted them to file a claim, too much time had elapsed for me to collect.
What else had I packed in that box? Oh yes, the embroidered handkerchief given to me by Erzebetta, my hostess in Hungary. It was part of the bounty she’d crafted twenty years earlier while she’d been bedridden through her entire pregnancy, the only successful one of ten. I’d stayed with her and her family in their bed and breakfast for $5 a night. Theirs was a family effort to raise money for their daughter, Csilla’s, university tuition. Each evening Erzebetta invited me to dinner, keeping my glass full with their homemade wine. On the kitchen table sat two dictionaries, English to Hungarian and vice-versa. Conversation flowed as both sides looked up random phrases, passing papers back and forth, then responding with charades and the universal sounds for “Oh, yes, I get it.”
One day she tried to teach me Hungarian embroidery. Csilla had purchased a piece of preprinted fabric for me to learn upon. Erzebetta encouraged me to choose a palette from her sewing box filled with bright colors of cotton thread. We worked through an afternoon. She’d demonstrate and I’d imitate, promptly poking myself with the needle and tangling the length of thread. Erzebetta clucked her tongue to get my attention, then she’d mime my stitching. “Thees way…no, no, no.” Then she’d take my fabric and needle and patiently demonstrate, again.
Somewhere in that box are both of our efforts. Her meticulous needlework—a reminder of the miracle of her life, the birth of her only child; and my ragged and uneven design—a token of a day spent head to head with a Hungarian woman, communicating without the aid of a translation dictionary.
From the Netherlands, I lost the exclusive-edition picture book from the Anne Frank House, where the impact of the family’s unfurnished rooms had caught me unprepared. I sobbed in Anne’s bedroom, bare except for the pictures of movie stars she’d pasted on the walls, preserved as she’d left them. It was that image that I chose from the postcard rack to commemorate my visit.
There were the shells I’d collected from Zandvoort beach, where I’d taken the train on a cold October day to search for sea-glass, an idea from a woman I’d met in a hostel in Germany. After more than an hour of studying the ground around my feet, I discovered that the rising tide had stranded me on a sand bar. I took off my boots, rolled up my jeans and waded back to shore. The piercing salt-water licked three-quarters of the way up my thighs. I rode the train back to Haarlem wet and freezing.
I never found much sea-glass, just a few smooth pieces polished to a milky finish. However, I gathered a Ziploc bag of unusual shells; some curled like trumpets, the color of angel flesh, and others shaped like harmonicas. Delicate pieces, mostly in halves, littered the beach. The excitement was in discovering a whole one, still clamped at the joint. Three or four made it into my bag. Beside my Haarlem bed, I wrapped each shell in the toilet paper from down the hall and tucked them inside the box.
Finally, I included the pile of paper I’d accumulated over the months; postcards, city maps, leaflets with self-guided tours for churches, museums and neighborhoods, along with the handwritten notes I’d copied on the history of the French mountain hamlet of Bardou, where I’d stayed for more than a week. I rented “The Tower” where I cooked on propane and wrote by candlelight. Each day I gathered wood for my fire and hauled water from the spring. I hiked on Roman mule cart paths to swim in a pool called Paradise. I lived in history.
Together, these papers carried the narrative where the objects left off.
I didn’t come home from that trip entirely empty-handed. Stashed somewhere in my closet is the hand spun wool from Bardou’s sheep. It’ll make a gorgeous sweater someday – when I learn how to knit. On my desk, floating on a hidden stand, is the terra-cotta angel swathed in silk from Naples. Her presence has melded into my workspace. I see her everyday: her shape, craftsmanship and beauty.
I realize it’s the objects that I didn’t bring home that keep my memories alive. The real treasure is in the hunt, and that’s what keeps me traveling.
Megan Padilla is a former editor of ISLANDS and other national consumer publications. Travel writing led her to magazine editing, which took her away from writing her heart’s desire. Now she’s a mother who is jonesing to experience the world with her daughter. Dream trip: returning to South Africa, this time with her family.
*photo courtesy of http://creativecommons.org/licences/bt-sa/2.0