Thursday, 15 July 2010

Globalisation and the souvenir

Gods know, souvenirs were already pretty tacky. 'Your name in hieroglyphics', or Chinese, or Greek, or Arabic; singing mosques, leather camels, reproduction Venuses de Milo with or without arms, David's genitals or Mona Lisa's smile reproduced in their hundred thousands to immortalise that 'special' moment...

But new heights of tackiness are now being reached, because the souvenirs have nothing to do with the place you've just been.

Experience # 1: Athens. I do like to buy musical instruments if I can, when I'm travelling; and they will be played, too, so I tend to concentrate on wind instruments (though an Estonian kannel did join my collection and is a delight to play). A Bulgarian whistle became one of my favourites very quickly; I have a collection of Turkish zurnas; and having visited the wonderful (and free) music instrument museum in Athens I was keen to get a floyera, or the lovely deep-toned souravli that's played on Crete.

So I'm looking on the stalls of Monastiraki, the more interesting ones towards Thission which haven't yet been commercialised (a 'flea market' selling new Nikes at 'only' EUR 70 is an interesting concept), and I find a tub of little reed flutes. I pick one up. Not all that well made; rough hairy fibres left around the finger holes, and the top very poorly cut, uneven and jagged. Then I notice the label. I have no idea at all what it says; could be anything - 'cheapest you can get', 'kwality brand', 'it's a flute, idiot'. It's in Hindi, anyway.

So much for 'Greek traditional' instrument, which is what the cardboard label propped up against the tub said these were.

Experience # 2:  Paros.

I like shopping in Parikia. It's a laid back place, where two or three butchers' shops still divide up the space on the main street with a bakery as well as the souvenir shops and upmarket jewellers'. You can get good sandals, the jewellery here is pretty good (which it really wasn't on Thira), and you can get the best ice cream in the whole of Greece* at Sulla Luna, down on the waterfront, once you've finished shopping.

But I'm a well travelled geek with an interest in art history and enough of an amateur silversmith to be particularly interested in jewellery. So when I spotted an entire case of  Turkmen work - which I'd been introduced to by an erudite emigrĂ© salesman in the great market at Istanbul - I recognised it instantly; heart shaped slabs of silver encasing huge semi-precious stones, warm reds and oranges, gold leaf 'foliage' patterns against the silver background.

At least there was no claim that this was 'traditional Greek', but I wondered; why go all the way to the Cyclades to buy Turkmen work? (And I don't think this was a business run by a local Turkmen emigrant, as had been the case in Istanbul.)

Experience # 3: Istanbul

I'm not an innocent souk-wise. I spent far too long in the Muttrah souk, Oman, to be wet behind the ears when it comes to sourcing of the goods displayed. There are very few souks these days where you'll see the goods being made in the market (though we did see ploughs and spades being made, and tool handles shaved and fitted, at Sefrou and in Oman, and found a man in Rabat who would make handbags or briefcases to our description in two days, in a workshop tucked away behind the main souk street).  One of my regular stops in Muttrah was a lovely shop where I bought a couple of woven Paisley jackets and some nice embroidery - all of which came from Kashmir, as the shopowner told me.

"Nothing to do with Oman. Oman's a hot country, Kashmir it gets very cold, so you see, big arms, big pockets, nice warm coat." He told me a lot more about Kashmir, over the next few glasses of sticky, tepid tea. (Yes, tea, in Oman, the country of cardamom coffee; but not if you're Kashmiri.)

Oman also did a great trade in Baluchi jewellery (and I saw some of that in Thira, so the Baluchi salesmen have made it to the Med); no one in Muttrah was ever dishonest about where their stock came from, though. They were positively proud of Muttrah's status as a cosmopolitan trading centre - in a rather different way from brand-name and designer-gear Dubai.

Imagine my surprise to find exactly the same embroidery for sale in the Sandal Bedesten, at the heart of Istanbul's great bazaar. "Oh yes, it's Turkish," I was told. "Made in Turkey, hand made, very nice traditional pattern. Only in Turkey."

I bought the coat anyway - a marvellous pattern of pink and gold  flowers on a black background, in wool, with a silk lining. It was too good not to buy. And too cheap. But it wasn't Turkish. At least, not unless someone's copying those Kashmiri designs...

We think of globalisation in terms of the big brands - Coke, Pepsi, Big Macs, and if you're going upmarket a bit, Swarowski or Dior or Versace. But globalisation is also changing the nature of the tourist souvenir - it's no longer something you buy to remind you of a place, or to embody the spirit of that place, but something you buy because you're on holiday. Hence the lines of African drums and fetishes in Athens, and Paris, and Rome, and nearly everywhere else I've been recently. Hence the fact that you can buy a 'legalise cannabis' T-shirt in Monastiraki, or Saint-Ouen, or Camden - but not, because thank God some places are sacrosanct, in Meteora. Yes, a souvenir has to be bought because your reason for going on holiday is simply to spend money, isn't it? And by spending money you will make yourself relaxed, and happy. No?

Which is, for me, beside the point. I travel to see places - not to spend money for the sake of spending it. (And dear restaurant touts everywhere, I only eat dinner once every evening. Not twice, not three times. Once. Got it?)

Although it strikes me that in the Turkmen story, there is the beginning of an interesting story about the new diasporas of the Middle East... and that, you know, would be a very interesting tale to tell.

And for my own souvenir? Two shards of pottery picked up on tracks in Thira and Naxos - nice, boring, twentieth century traditional stuff, not antique, not fancy, but with nice deep glaze, which I'm going to set in a silver bezel and use as pendants.


* Best icecream in Greece? Oh yes it is. We had some damn fine ice cream elsewhere on the islands (Andros has a great patisserie with branches in Batsi, Gavrio and Andros town which makes its own icecream; there are some good places in Athens, too) but nothing to match Denise's frozen yoghurt, stracciatella, or particularly the marvellous coconut ice cream which we ate straight out of the ice cream maker.


  1. hey!
    thanks for the kind words!!!i'm missing that coconut ice cream
    right now!!!!have a great winter. happy new year
    denise marinucci
    gelato sulla luna

  2. Thanks for your email - still remembering the lovely ice cream, in fact I was thinking of it yesterday as I walked past a definitely not as good ice cream stall in Jodhpur, Rajasthan!

    Hope the new year brings you good fortune