Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Ultimate Tchotchke

The Ultimate Tchotchke
travel memoir
by Greg Larson
     You have them.  I have them.  We all have them.  Some have gathered dust.  Some are handled reverently and command a place of prominence in our homes.  Some are expensive, and some are cheap. They’re the trinkets we bring back from our travels near and far.  They trigger fond memories and funny stories of unusual happenings in strange lands.

     Gretta and I don’t spend much time shopping on our trips, but we do like to bring back something to remind us of our travels.  She enjoys finding playing cards that have pictures of the country or area we’ve visited.  She also looks for silver spoons that have a country’s emblem on the handle, or she’ll search for a good refrigerator magnet.  I look for one special thing to bring home . . . something that embodies the essence of our experience in a different place.

     Logic doesn’t always factor into the decision on what to purchase.  In 2007, I noticed a pair of stainless steel coffee cups in the window of a shop in the Latin Quarter in Paris.  I envisioned them full of steaming French coffee and whipped cream.  The cups were made in Brazil.  Go figure.  But I have fond memories of surprising Gretta by sneaking out of the hotel, speaking broken French to the shopkeeper, and seeing Gretta’s big smile when I came back and showed her the treasure.
Brazilian coffee cups from Paris, France
     Knick-knacks were not on our mind as we began an epic bike trip across Italy in 2005.  Every day was its own adventure as we moved from one village to another.  Our starting point was the town of Fano, on the east coast of Italy.  The weekend was in full swing when we arrived, and thousands of people had flocked to the beach.  We discovered they were celebrating the Festival of the Adriatic Sea.  The town had a party atmosphere and was full of vacationers. We ate a seafood dinner in an open air restaurant next to the beach, and were told the festival parade was about to begin, and it was going to come right past us.

Festival parade comes by the restaurant
     Women wearing giant hats with replicas of lobsters and clams danced down the street, followed by a brass band, pirate ship floats, and fire-breathers in Renaissance costumes.  The parade looped around the main boardwalk no less than four times.  As it came near the restaurant, we got up from the dinner table to go watch the revelers and participants, who became more inebriated with each pass. One of the unanswered mysteries was the parading woman in a costume decorated with a vacuum formed aircraft carrier.  It seemed like we were in a very strange dream.
Strange costume

     People on the floats threw candy at our feet, and I picked up the pieces that were close to me.  Nearby, a woman with her three-year-old granddaughter watched while children scooped up the treats.  The little girl was crying because she wasn’t quick enough grab any of the pieces, so I bent down and offered my candy to her.  Immediately, big smiles came to the faces of the girl and her grandmother.  I had just performed my first act of diplomacy with a smile, and without speaking a word of Italian.

     Candy and trinkets kept raining down from the floats.  Gretta lurched for the unopened plastic bags of inflatable beach toys being thrown to the crowd.  In a flash, she grabbed two inflatable pillows.  “These should be good for something!” she exclaimed.

   The next morning we dipped our bike wheels in the Adriatic Sea and began our 450 mile trip westward to cross the Apennine Mountains, with our goal of making it to the Tyrrhenian Sea in eleven days.  After several days of riding past farm fields, vineyards and forests, we pedaled across the Madonna della Cima mountain pass and roared down the highway towards the ancient town of Gubbio, built on the mountainside. Arriving in town, we pedaled up the quaint cobblestone streets and into the town square.

     Gubbio is the quintessential Italian village.  We fell in love with the stone buildings and streets, the carved wooden doorways and the potted plants.  We learned it is a town with an ancient festival celebrating the patron saint, St. Ubaldo, and two other saints, St. Giorgio and St. Antonio.  Every year, three tall wooden boxes topped with figures representing the saints are carried by teams through the streets, and then raced to the top of the mountain to the Church of St. Ubaldo.   Gubbio is also known for the Taverna del Lupo (Tavern of the Wolf), where St. Francis of Asissi visited in the thirteenth century.  Apparently, a wolf was terrorizing the village, and St. Francis was asked to come to coax the wolf out of the village.  He spent time with the wolf and prayed for it, then he asked the tavern to set out food and water each day.  He assured the townspeople if they followed his instructions, the wolf would no longer be a problem.
Taverna del Lupo

     In the late afternoon, Gretta and I walked the narrow streets and discovered some ceramic shops displaying large and colorful plates and vases.  Several pieces with a pattern of grapes, oranges and sunflowers caught my eye.  They were large, and the quality was good.
Ceramic shop in Gubbio

     “Gretta, look at these.”  I showed her the group of pieces with the sunflowers.  “One of these big platters would make a great souvenir."
     Gretta had a concerned look on her face.  “How would we ever get it home in one piece?  I do like the colors.  Maybe we could have it shipped home.”

     I pointed to a square plate that was fourteen inches in width, and asked one of the workers in the shop how much it would cost to have it shipped.  She told us that the shipping cost would be more than the cost of the plate.

     We thanked her for the information and told her we would look around the store.  My mind began to race with thoughts about our bike tour and how nice it would be to have some type of trophy to remind us of the accomplishment.  The British Open golf tournament has a silver claret jug as a prize.  The winner of the Tour de France gets a fancy French bowl.  Some of the competitors get Lalique vases. Although our bike tour was not a competition, certainly an Italian ceramic plate would be something to always remind us of crossing Italy on a bike.

     “Let’s get the plate,” I said to Gretta, “We’ll find a way to get it back home, even if I have to carry it in my lap.”   The shop worker covered the plate with bubble wrap and craft paper.  Once back at our hotel, I packed the plate deep into my suitcase.  It would be safe riding in the van each day.
Vineyards and fields in Italy
     We continued our tour through the countryside and the villages each day, passing vineyards, grassland, and fields of sunflowers, and heard bells toll from villages nearby.  When we dipped our front wheels in the Tyrrhenian Sea, we had emotions of accomplishment, but sadness that our tour was at its end.

   On the train ride back to Rome, Gretta smiled and said, “I think I have a solution for getting our ceramic plate home safely.  Do you remember those inflatable pillows I picked up in Fano?  We can put the plate in a shopping bag and put a pillow on either side of it.  You can take it as one of your carry-on pieces of luggage on our flight home.”

     I thought it was a great idea, and that’s exactly what we did.  Once our flight was in the air, I put the shopping bag on the floor between my legs.  I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of pedaling the bike across Italy.

     Today, the plate is hanging on the wall of our kitchen, near the entry into the living room.  The colorful tchotchke is a constant reminder of our first bike trip to Italy, and our accomplishment of touring coast to coast.
The Ultimate Tchotchke

1 comment:

  1. We really have to have you two over for dinner and share knickknack stuff! Loved this essay!