Travel Kitsch

For travel (and I suspect for many other things), it’s important to have some memento of what you’ve done. This is biological: I think it’s impossible to store all memories in an easy-to-retrieve way, but I think most people can remember some bit of everything. However, it’s difficult to retrieve things in a sequential fashion (ie, Two years ago, first I did this and this happened, and then I did this where I saw that). Furthermore, some memories are ‘lost,’ in the sense that the memory is there but there’s no way to retrieve it. At least, that’s the way it works for me.

So, looking at pictures from travel, I remember things that I’d be unable to retrieve on their own.

The desire to remember is really strong; who wants to ‘lose’ experiences? I think people’s memories also turn sunny in the long-term, so it’s nice to always be prompted “hey this was a pretty good time,” or alternately “listen to this miserable experience I once had!” That’s the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of souvenirs, which are useless kitsch that prompt memories. Or maybe people want a subtle way to show off how well-traveled they are.

It’s probably clear that I think souvenirs themselves are worthless.

I keep pictures. And I keep ticket stubs and brochures, which don’t take up much space and provide a detailed record of travel. But these usually just sit on the computer hard drive, or gather dust in an old box.

This seems sub-optimal. I don’t want to be weighed down, trapped, by a bunch of useless crap. But I think it’s cool that you can have something sitting in plain view, prompting you to re-live magical experiences.

I thought I’d come up with a solution: buy useful things when traveling. If a place is known for something, buy a good version of that there; if you can’t think of anything it’s known for, buy something generally useful. So, in Iceland I bought a wool sweater and wool gloves. In Köln I bought a plain T-Shirt. In Amsterdam, jeans; in München, a beer mug. The jeans were 15 euros, the t-shirt, 7 – they weren’t even a local brand. But because of where and when I bought them, they were extra-meaningful. I was satisfied with this solution: I thought it was clever.

Now so fast! It also means that I’ve infused everyday objects with meaning. It’s hard enough to get rid of crap you don’t need; it’s that much more difficult if it has sentimental value. For instance, if a relative gave you a book, it’s tough to discard it. You’re throwing out smoe piece of your relationship with that relative; if they’re deceased, it’s an irreplaceable part.

So it is with the jeans from Amsterdam. A pair of jeans is simply an object; even if it’s expensive, it can be replaced. I lost a button-down shirt on my trip, and although it was a nice shirt, I shrugged my shoulders. One dollar at a thrift store, so what? But when you associate a t-shirt with that crazy bike ride down the Rhine, through driving rain and howling wind, the object assumes new meaning.

And that’s the last thing I want, to get desperately attached to objects. If I outgrow the shirt, I’d have to throw away the physical embodiment of my memories, or hold onto a useless piece of crap. If I break the beer mug, I’ve destroyed a link to the past. I already own enough crap, without wanting an extra reason to hold onto something I own.

I don’t have a solution for this – some way to remember happy times without getting bogged down in useless crap. Maybe I can put pictures on the wall and collage ticket-entries across the refrigerator. But is that the same?

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  1. I buy postcards whenever I go somewhere – similar idea to taking photos, I guess, in that you can have a visual reminder of major sights or experiences. When I was younger, I put them all up on my wall like wallpaper – hundreds of post cards, each group of 2 or 3 telling a different story about a different journey. Now, I plan to get a large frame or canvas or shelving (like this: so that I can display them again. It’s exciting reminiscing about where you’ve been!


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