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Travel 2003

TROLLING FOR TCHOTCHKES Gathering memories, piece by treasured piece

Objects from Lucy Mohl's travels include a Japanese woodblock print, Italian ceramic ware, a Mexican tray, cashmere socks from the Caucasus Mountains, opera glasses from the Bolshoi and assorted personal treasures. The floaty-pen collection is a recent addition.
IF I COULD HAVE, I would have brought back more than a few streets of Paris, a slice of light from a Frankfurt museum, and an everlasting scoop of rice gelato after seeing Michelangelo's David in Florence. And those gulls that plunge and swim at twilight on the beach in Troncones, off the Pacific Coast of Mexico; although that probably involves bringing back the coast, too.

But if you can't put an entire beach or David in your purse, you can pack in plenty of replicas: you can buy sand in little bottles, and there's David as a bookmark, a key chain, a tasteful little statuette for the car. Whole industries are built around satisfying the visitor's demand to commemorate far-away trips, but in the form of — what? A tchotchke or souvenir? (T.S. Eliot wrote of J. Alfred Prufrock wistfully measuring out his life in spoons; if he were a modern traveler, he could have collected them instead.) This is the challenge: Do you bring back stuff that says "I was there," or find the piece that takes you back the moment you see or touch it?

I've done both. The early years of travel were all about the art of buying a whole lot of stuff: earrings hot off the Fifth Arrondissement of Paris; a set of brass candlesticks from one of the original Pottery Barns in Greenwich Village; seashells from the seashore of Florida. Looking back, my acquisitions and travels paralleled our transformation into a global, buy-everything-from-anywhere society.

I probably should have explored the career possibilities of being a trend spotter: In New York City, my first taste of balsamic was a revelation along the lines of a tribal initiation rite. On one trip to Italy, I tossed away clothes and tucked prized, delicately wrapped pieces of Deruta ceramic ware in my suitcase. I hunted down authentic Dijon mustard from Dijon (it's still hard to get the good stuff). Kenneth Cole boots for the urban cowgirl. And, let me say, I was way ahead of the curve on that whole square-plate trend. Now, the exotic is commonplace and little kids say things like, "Is that fresh mozzarella?"

Coming from a hard-to-shop-for family, too, travel has meant opening up the possibilities for interesting presents. Watching two nieces grow up has meant traversing the arc from teeny tie-dyed T-shirts from the Oregon Country Fair to a set of inlaid turquoise-and-silver jewelry from Mexico. My sister has one of those Deruta discoveries hanging in her kitchen. It's not likely I'll forget, either, talking that sweet woman from customs into letting an under-age me back into the country with a selection of obscure little Scotch bottles for my father, who kept waving from behind the window at her.

At some point, the pursuit of stuff shifted into the more satisfying pursuit of memory. A woodblock print from Kyoto reminds me of a short, special visit to Japan. Often, I eat off a finely painted tray that recalls many visits to Mexico. And, I want it on the record — I didn't pinch those opera glasses from the Bolshoi Ballet because I wanted opera glasses; I wanted to capture the experience of sitting in the Bolshoi, in Moscow, on the only occasion I was ever likely to be there. (This was communist Russia, and there wasn't a gift shop, as I recall, and frankly, the opera glasses aren't that good.) This was a trip in which I also worked on a film with people from Georgia — as in Georgia, the former Soviet country, not the Southern state in this country.

The Georgians are among the most hospitable people on the planet, and within a few days of our arrival, our small film crew had been adopted, feted and drunk under the table. This was the early '90s, a period of prolonged economic deprivation, but you wouldn't know it from the way we were treated. It was impossible to buy a meal. Georgians threw money over our heads to keep us from paying for ice cream.

One day, some of my new friends took me skiing in the Caucasus Mountains. On the way, we saw some women clustered by the side of the road alongside several rather odd-looking wooden racks. As we got closer, I could see the racks were draped with long, brilliantly decorated socks. My Georgian friends, deducing that Americans don't see women knitting away at 10,000 feet every day, pulled over. There were never such beautiful socks. I tried to flash my rubles — silly, I know — and the next thing I knew, the Georgians had taken care of everything and I was sitting with a lap full of socks we'd purchased for about 50 cents a pair. I touched the rough wool and fingered the detailing. Then I felt an extraordinarily soft set, which I took to be a cotton. I paused. Cotton? In the mountains? I suddenly realized I was up to my elbows in pure Caucasian cashmere.

I have worn those socks every winter since, and the moment they're on, I'm back with my friends and those ladies, clicking their needles high in the hills.

I know I'm not in the league of some shopping friends who could be running import-export businesses, what with the stone pillars of India and English armoires they've brought back from their travels. If it doesn't fit in my suitcase, it's unlikely I'll make the effort to bring it home.

In truth, my latest chapter of adventure acquisition has veered sharply into the small, cheesy/collectable category. I've become inordinately fond of floaty pens, those tourist-shop pens with an object inside them that floats back and forth against a famous background when you tilt it one way or another. I bought my first one in Paris (Eiffel Tower), picked up the fascination in Japan (a happy Buddha), and have delighted in amassing an eclectic assortment (Loch Ness monster, Mount St. Helens, Central Park, Munich beer kegs, Siegfried and Roy — with lion) ever since. I like their utility and the unlikelihood of someone taking them by accident. I like the way they make long meetings more entertaining. I like that, no matter where you buy them, they're almost all made in Denmark. Most of all, I like sitting at my desk, the world stacked up in front of me; in a moment, with a simple gesture of my hand, I can revisit those memorable places, anytime.

Lucy Mohl is senior news producer for Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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