Friday, 1 January 2010

My best souvenirs

Straw donkeys.  Cheap jewellery. Turkish carpets. Models of the Eiffel Tower. All souvenirs I haven't bought - and never wanted to buy.

On the other hand, I do have some marvellous souvenirs, bought or found, which I'll treasure for ever.

  • Three splendidly made zurnas - strident Turkish shawms, in apricot and rosewood. I've made wind instruments myself and I would be proud if I could turn out anything as elegant and well made. We spent a whole afternoon in the shop in Unkapani, Istanbul, trying zurnas, talking music, and drinking apple tea, before I bought these three. I can only play them when the cats are out in the garden...

  • A Bulgarian duct flute which I bought one snowy Saturday morning in Sofia, a city no one likes but where I felt instantly at home. I tried twenty flutes before finding this one, and the guy in shop said 'Ah, dusha' - 'soul'. Yes, I'd found a soul mate. It's quite the opposite of the zurnas - robust, roughly made, but it has integrity, and a marvellous breathy sound that thrills me every time I play it.

  • A little palm leaf book with a frog on top that I bought in an antique shop in Herault when I was walking the 'Via Arletana' to Santiago. I think it's Indonesian. It's nothing to do with the pilgrimage, nothing to do with the south of France. But it was cute, and it was a hot day, and it reminds me of the fountains in Saint Guilhem du Desert, and the wind on the mountains.

  • A pair of black babouches that I bought in Sefrou, Morocco. They're not posh, they cost about five quid, they're the same old black babouches that everyone wears in Morocco. Except, apparently, I'm gender-bending; black is for men. And they're in suede, which I love. I've just had to superglue the soles back together, I've worn them so much.

  • Wooden spoons and spatulas from the Tahtakale market in Istanbul, made in olive with its dark brown patterns in the light yellow wood. I use them most days, feeling the heavy wood against my fingers, so much more satisfying than the furry softwood of spoons made in the west.

  • A huge wooden pestle and mortar we bought in Rabat, which reduces spices to dust in a matter of minutes. So much more fun to use than the electric grinder.

And the one that got away;

  • The singing mosque alarm clock, which plays a muezzin for you every morning, as seen in the souk at Muttrah, Oman. It's tacky. It's tasteless. It cost one rial (about £1.50). I wish I'd bought one.

If I think of my best souvenirs, they're either tiny things that won my heart, or things I'm going to use every day.  And of course because I'm a musician, and enjoy cooking, they're things from a strange place that relate to my interests - that are specifically interesting for me, not necessarily for other tourists.

Of course the best souvenirs, though, are not physical at all. You can get them on the plane whether you have a spare luggage allowance or not. They are memories, photographs, thoughts - the space where your mind opened up as you realised that life could be different, that the crescent moon sits with its horns up in the Middle East, that a city can be built on water, that a muezzin's voice can be a thing of beauty, that Oman smells of cardamom, that emptiness can have as much appeal as the busy texture of city life. The best souvenirs I have are all locked in my mind; and, I was going to say, they'll stay there - but since I'm a writer, they'll probably make it out on to paper or pixels at some point.

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