TRUE STORY: It was the morning of the day the young woman was to fly home to America after a most pleasing week in Paris. She wrestled her enormous suitcase into the hotel’s minuscule elevator and onto the street, where her taxi and traveling companion awaited.
“I’ll be right back,” she told the driver, and she tore down the sidewalk. Several minutes later, she returned, with two dozen life-life, long-stemmed silk roses in her arms. She had eyed them all week as she traversed to and fro, and at the very last moment decided she must own them. For the next 12 hours—through two taxi rides and a cross-Atlantic flight with wine—until she reached her apartment in the suburbs of Chicago, she clutched those tulips.
The woman wasn’t me, but I was with her that day. I was enlisted as a part-time tulip-carrier while she wrangled her tray table and on-flight entertainment selections. Even though she was my dear friend, I was mildly annoyed by the cumbersome assignment. (I had purchased quite packable lingerie at Galeries Lafayette.)
That trip was a once-in-a-lifetime event, or so I thought. But years later, I embarked on a personal world tour and have accumulated my own “How Did I Get It Home?” souvenirs.
Here are the stories of some of my favorite treasures purchased overseas. You’ll be glad to know they all landed safely and are decorating my house:
Oil painting in Ukraine. Before our cruise of the Dnipro River in Ukraine, well-meaning friends advised us to pack plenty of towels and toilet tissue. We did, but it turned out we didn’t need them for personal care. The ship was well-stocked. One day we took small watercraft to a backwater village, where a family hosted us for lunch. We sat at trestle tables in the yard, and chickens and a young calf wandered freely.
Before reaching the family’s home, we had to walk through a gantlet of neighbors displaying their handicrafts for sale. One made fur hats, and several showed off intricate needlework. I negotiated with an artist for an oil painting of a babushka woman feeding chickens. The painting was on a wooden board, about 16 inches by 22 inches in size.
To get the painting home, I wrapped it in the towels and toilet tissue we had brought with us, then placed it smack-dab in the center of our 32-inch suitcase.
Oil painting in Tanzania. I had long loved the colorful cartoonish style of the Tinga Tinga artists, so I was thrilled to buy a painting of giraffes and birds at a souvenir mall. The canvas measured about three feet square. The sales associate rolled it up, and placed it in a tube. For the rest of our trip through the Serengeti, the tube tucked neatly behind the back-seat headrests of our safari vehicle. I hand-carried it on the flights home.
Beaded lion figurine in Cape Town. While touring the Bo-Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town, South Africa, we happened upon a shop called Monkeybiz. The shop features handmade beaded items, mostly animal figures, created by indigenous folk artists.
I had to have one of the lions. The large size, of course. And it was the first day of our two-week trip. The lion was too fragile to pack in a suitcase. It didn’t really fit in my tote bag, either, but that’s how I toted my treasure, with its head sticking out the top.
Tulips in the Netherlands. Like my friend in Paris, I bought tulips. Unlike her, mine were real. Tulip bulbs, to be exact. What you have to know is, although tulip bulbs are sold everywhere in the Netherlands, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection is very picky about which ones are allowed into the country. We bought 100 approved bulbs in assorted colors while touring Royal FloraHolland, the international flower market, in Aalsmeer. The bulbs were shipped to us at planting time.
What is your souvenir story?