Competing Souvenirs

I am in my favorite city. Its name, for the moment, does not matter. Favorite cities generally aren’t the ones we actually live in. We save favorites for places that we pass through infrequently and superficially enough to be a tourist, not a resident. Tourism means indulging in all of the invented fantasies of a place without suffering its day-to-day realities. 

Once on the ground in our chosen favorites, hotel breakfast rooms seem to be launching pads for these fantasies. The fancy ceremony of seating and serving, the ornateness of settings, whether intended to communicate a comfortably bourgeois brass-trimmed bustle or a frescoed grandiosity, and the needless finickiness of details like tiny individual jam jars and baskets of different delicate pastries all set the experience apart from how most of us actually break our fasts at home. Across these rooms a universe of possibilities expands, a universe of different personal fantasies for the day, and a fantasy that I can’t be alone in entertaining, a fantasy that imbues each different table with some disparate elegance. I often think that almost anything can appear elegant given enough space and framing. In these breakfast rooms, each table is its own vortex of personal engagement with a new city and a new day, so that each different guest can momentarily appear to have his or her own world of promise.  Before, I suppose, recognition floods in in the forms of regional accents and tacky scraps of overheard conversation. Best not to examine those daydreams too closely.

How do we capture those mornings’ promises in a new city? For many of us, it is in the form of some souvenir: some talisman we can purchase to remind us of our visit. Ideally souvenirs reflect both exclusivity (that is, they should not be available elsewhere) and our sophistication in choosing that particular item. Ideally, that is, if we try to verge away from the tacky, the item that too overtly signals that it was purchased solely as a memento of a particular place. We attempt to flatter our egos with an item from, say, the local famous outfitters. We purchase it after a brisk walk through the city center having noticed that this distinguished house with extinct branches in Bad Gastein and Palm Beach no longer even figures in the tourist guides. Afterwards we head to our favorite konditorei to congratulate ourselves both on our sophistication in patronizing this retailer, and on how sharp our knowledge of city geography has remained over our infrequent visits here. Despite this self-congratulation, we realize immediately that we have bought the item only to say it came from so-and-so, famous old tailors and perfumers… An emotional overlayer, a thin, brittle and bitter crust of regret that we could find nothing more meaningful forms over our self-congratulatory nostalgia. It is probably even machine-stitched, my new tie-toy… Nowadays the modern tourist spends too short a time travelling actually to try the bespoke makers of repute; the age is past when travel took long enough for tourists to spend lengths of weeks in a single place, and when those bespoke makers had sufficient staff on hand to rush orders to be done in the space of a few days and measured, fitted and delivered over the course of a week, even if the prices are tempting in some of these corners… Why could I not have been contented with a bottle of the excellent local wine instead?

What are our real place-souvenirs? For me the jet fuel and human odor-reek of Charles de Gaulle airport, say, or the stale cigarette smoke basenote of public areas that tells me I am back in a hotel in Central Europe, even were I not to open my eyes to confirm that surroundings are grandly warm, heavily brassed and upholstered, and invitingly decadent. Those place-feels, I realize, are the real souvenirs: impossible to export, inseparable from my feeling of being there amid the pale gold wallpapers and green imperial-patterned carpets, as inseparable as the sluggishness caused by use of Schlagobers as a fifth food group, the heaviness in the stomach each morning arising realizing that tourist indulgence in the heavy local sweets and delicacies means that the new day’s possibilities are weighed down by the realities of the day before, that my hunger for new experiences is sated. And yet breakfast still awaits.

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