Words from Sicily: Souvenirs

My brother and I used to have this game we played. Every place we visited, we’d seek out the tackiest souvenir we could find and take a photo of it.

It was just about having a bit of a laugh and trying to outdo one another on family trips. It could have been a tacky postcard, a sad-looking ashtray, a terrible fridge magnet, wall hanging or shot glass.

My brother has sent me the most random things to remind me of this game we used to play over the years. And I have quite the cute collection of magnets on my refrigerator.

I’m sad sometimes when I think how long it’s been since we’ve played this game. We have both hit our forties and now live in two different hemispheres, so it is no longer practical to send things by mail.

I find myself, even now, whenever I visit a new place, randomly browsing souvenir stalls on the hunt for the tackiest thing available.

There are plenty of tourist spots in Sicily, filled with sun-faded magnets, deformed ceramics, gaudy key chains and other similar stuff. Occasionally I’ll become intrigued by how they may be displayed, colour or pattern will catch my eye, and I find myself taking a photo.

It’s pretty poignant how much money is spent manufacturing and selling such a wide array of tourist-based material. It’s sad to think how commercialised certain places in Sicily and Italy, in general, have become. Hell, you could say the same thing about the whole of Europe and the world.

Once, the ‘Grand tour’ of Europe was undertaken by the wealthy (usually male) class and was seen as a rite of passage. A life experience to see the worlds most significant monuments, art and history. A way of completing an elite type of education and somehow experience life in a much more mature way.

Travelling was seen and was often an adventure, a slow undertaking that changed your worldview and educated you. Some even managed to sow their wild oats and behave terribly. But it mostly was about making the transition into adulthood.

Even though the Grand tour was an elitist and sexist relic, the idea was noble. So very far away from the ticking off of items in various bucket lists and competing with others to post it all on social media, that’s so common these days.

So often, people are simply tourists rather than being travellers.

A tourist is just blindly led by fashion, popularity or boastfulness. Today if you have money, you travel.

Once travel was difficult, it took time and money. A grand tour could take years. You would have to travel by foot, horse, carriage and sea. You weren’t tucked away safely in coaches, cruise ships or first-class suits.

Travel was done hand in hand with everyday people; you were living with locals, forced to speak the languages of each country, and it was a challenge. Once to travel you needed to be a good traveller, so much more knowledgable than anyone today.

The souvenir you brought back home used to be experiences or something exceptional that you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world.

As travel became more accessible, take-home keepsakes became less remarkable.

I recall reading Frieda von Richthofen’s extraordinary memoir about her life with British Novelist D.H Lawrence. Lawrence fell madly in love with Frieda, who was already married with children at the time. Frieda left her husband and later married Lawrence.

Together they lived a genuinely adventurous life, travelling Europe in the early 1900s. Their life was filled with financial hardships, scandal, bad luck and a continuous struggle with Lawrence’s feeble health. Frieda and Lawrence were a formidable couple who were exceptional travellers.

The recollections in Frieda’s book titled Not I, but the wind tell of the difficulties of travelling in the early twentieth century; it was more of an adventure to travel then. Their lives took them all over Europe, America and Australia. The chapters dedicated to their journeys through Italy are particularly vivid, and their time living in Taormina was a magical period for them.

I still browse the stores; I think about buying something for my brother occasionally. I know my Sicilian relatives insist on getting a souvenir and offended if you don’t get them something. I know it’s hilarious.

Sicilians often have innocent child like habits, like demanding souvenirs. It reflects their approach to life which makes them appreciate the small things. There is something about seeing the world from the point of view of a child, to be filled with awe magic and happiness.

If I’m travelling by myself, I see the patterns of little trinkets which talk to me. Sometimes it’s their shapes, the way they have become faded in the sun, the strange way the designs have become deformed.

It’s a quirky thing to take a photo of the souvenirs as a bit of a keepsake. But I find I can’t help myself.