Who here doesn’t have a collection of mini monuments, fridge magnets, key rings and mugs collected on vacation? For as long as humans have been traveling, we’ve had an inexplicable urge to bring back some sort of object that reminds us of our trip, and that’s the focus of a new exhibit by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. But don’t be fooled, you won’t find any mugs or magnets here.
The collection displays some of the world’s oldest souvenirs and harks back to a time when travelers clearly didn’t have to contend with airport customs officials. You see, back in the early days, there were no souvenir shops attached to museums where you could pick up your trinkets, so tourists eager for a knick-knack just took whatever they wanted. On display is one traveler’s souvenir of a napkin that belonged to Napoleon, and another tourist’s odd collection of hair, including tresses that belonged to George Washington.Other souvenirs that would clearly be illegal to buy or take today include pieces of the Berlin Wall, a fragment of Plymouth Rock and a piece of marble chipped off the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that we started catching on that taking home actual relics and historical objects was a bad idea, and it was this realization that sparked a boom in souvenirs — as shops started manufacturing the kitsch Eiffel Tower statues and collectible teaspoons that we know today.
It only takes a minute to buy a souvenir from someone on a beach but if you stop to find out about that person’s life, you might take away more than just the memory you’re holding in your hand. In May, while visiting the Greek island of Kos, I took an excursion boat to Pserimos, a tiny little island with just a few dozen inhabitants, and bought a handmade magnet (see photo below) from a local woman who spoke English with an Australian twang.
I was excited by the fact that she spoke English because all of the other people I’d encountered on my brief visit did not and I was curious to know what it was like to live on a remote little island with a tiny population. But almost as soon as I bought the magnet, the skipper of our boat called us back onto the boat, so I lost an opportunity to find out what it was like to live on Pserimos. I know that I’d hate living on a remote island but every time I take an excursion boat to these kinds of places, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to not get back on the ship.
Weeks after my visit, I thought about the experience again and recalled that I’d seen a sign in Pserimos which read, “Welcome to Pserimos, Pserimos@gmail.com.” The fact that the island had its own Gmail account amused me, so I fired off an email to the address on the off chance that the person would be able to hook me up with my souvenir lady.
I received a reply right away from George Karaiskos, who, oddly enough, lives on the nearby island of Kalymnos, which is famous for its sponge divers. George wasn’t immediately sure of whom I was talking about, but he filled me in on his own interesting story. He was born in L.A., but at age 8, his father died in a car accident and his mother took him and his siblings and moved to Kalymnos, where he has worked for the municipality for the last 28 years.
A few days ago, George got back to me to give me the souvenir woman’s name and mobile phone number. Her name is Vaggelio Koukouvas and she’s 53 years old. She was born on Kalymnos and immigrated to Darwin, Australia, at 13. She married her husband, who is from Pserimos, in Australia and the couple returned to live on Pserimos in 1994. When I called her, she was initially surprised to hear from me. “Do you know you are calling Greece?” she asked. But once she understood the nature of my call, she was happy to share her thoughts on what it’s like to live on a remote Greek island. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Why did you and your husband move back to Pserimos?
We bought a sailboat, a day-trip boat and came back from Australia with our four boys, and started a family business. My husband grew up until age 10 on Pserimos, then moved to Kalymnos and then to Australia at age 17. He never forgot Pserimos for one minute when we were in Australia; every day he was talking about how much he loved Pserimos. So we saved our money to go back.
How many people live in Pserimos?
About 35 people live here year round. Up until two years ago, we had a primary school here, but the kids grew up and moved on, so the school closed down. The nearest school now is in Kalymnos.
When your husband grew up on the island in the ’60s, were there more people living there?
When my husband grew up there, they had 150 kids. There were fewer houses than now, but everyone had a lot of kids – at least four. His grandmother had 11 kids, for example.
And your husband returned to look for work in Australia?
He left. We sold the boat because we got tired of it and there was too much competition in Kos with other boats. And you can only make a living doing that for five months out of the year. In Australia now, he’s working as a heavy machinery operator – something completely different. And my sons are all working in Australia, because there’s a crisis here and there’s no work at the moment.
I have my little business selling souvenirs that I make here in Pserimos and I don’t really want to leave because I’m happy. It was hard this year with the bad economy; even the tourists who are coming are really watching their money. It’s hard for me but I like this work. I’m fighting for my bread here but I want to stay.
Is it difficult to make it through the winter there?
In the winter, Pserimos is nice and quiet, especially if you’re a pensioner and have enough money to get by. But if someone gets sick, there are problems because we have no doctor on the island. No one has died though because we can always find a boat out to Kalymnos or Kos, but it isn’t always easy in winter. If the seas are bad, we can go two weeks without a way to leave the island.
Who lives on Pserimos?
We have a priest, some fishermen, pensioners and me. Pserimos is known for producing sea captains – one family can have three captains in it. There are some families that have goats and sheep. That’s all you can do on a place like this. There aren’t very many young people.
How do people pass the time?
If you have animals to care for, there is always something to do. The old people watch T.V., talk to each other, and have coffee. If we get bored, we go to Kalymnos.
But you have to be careful not to make enemies on a small island, right?
(Laughs) That’s true. Almost everyone here is related in some way by blood.
And do you all get along?
We have arguments sometimes. And there’s gossiping too, just like any small village. But this makes life a little more interesting, doesn’t it? Otherwise, we’d be really bored.
But if you get into an argument with someone on an island with only 35 people, it’s pretty hard to avoid them, isn’t it?
You can’t avoid anyone here, that’s for sure, so we do have to get along. People are busy and our houses aren’t that close to each other though, so in some ways, we are on our own, especially in winter.
I didn’t see much in the way of shops. Where do you buy food?
There is no supermarket, that’s for sure. We have a minimarket that’s open in the summer. In summer, the boats come every day from Kalymnos, so there’s plenty of food available. In the winter, the boats come three times a week, or less if the seas are bad, so it’s harder to find products – that’s why people stockpile food here.
Is it lonely living there on your own?
Yeah, it is sometimes. Now, it’s September and it’s already quiet. Most of the tourists are all gone. Sometimes I go down to the beach and I feel like I’m the only one living on the whole island. It’s really quiet – people come out of their houses when the boat arrives from Kalymnos to see what’s going on.
Is your husband planning on coming back to Pserimos?
He does come back to visit and he’ll return. He’s in Australia for work – a lot of men do that now, because there’s not much work here. He’ll come back one day because he loves it here.
How has the crisis in Greece affected Pserimos?
A lot of the people who live here are pensioners and their pensions have all been cut. And they used to get a bonus in their pension, an extra 50% payment that would come at Christmas and Easter but that’s gone now. It’s hard to live on what they get now – impossible I would say.
What do you like about living on Pserimos?
Every day is a new day. It’s quiet. It makes me happy to see the sea. I don’t care if there are people. I enjoy it here. Everybody loves Pserimos. If people could make a living here, we’d have so many more people living on the island.
During the summer season, how many hours a day do you work selling the things you make to people that arrive on the excursion boats?
About 12-14 hours per day, seven days a week. I start at 6 a.m., making the items I sell, and getting my stand ready. I’m there in the sun, the wind, with the sand blowing in my face all day. By the time I get to sleep, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning. This is how I make a living for five months of the year. People think it’s fun, but it’s not.
Will you go off to Kalymnos to look for work this winter?
I might, but there’s not much work there. If I can clean some houses that would be good but I need time to make the items I sell to get ready for next summer. You always have to be ready.
I love the little souvenir I bought from you because I can look at it in my home here in Chicago and it transports me back to Pserimos.
That’s why I make these things. I don’t make much money, but I don’t care because life isn’t just about getting rich. I know that people like the things I make and that makes me happy.
My wife and I travel a lot, sometimes together, sometimes separately. We both have careers that require us to travel and while it can be tough to be apart, at least we have the regular ritual of seeing what gifts from abroad are popping out of each other’s suitcases!
My wife just came back from an astronomy meeting in Tokyo and brought back this haul of loot. The Japanese are masters of packaging, whether they’re being stylish and traditional or garish and modern. I wonder what a supermarket full of this stuff must look like. The panda head cookies are especially good. I’ve always wanted a bag of decapitated pandas. The T-shirt is for her, because she knows I’m fond of her “especially cuteness.”
What I forgot to include in this photo were the three bottles of sake she brought back. While I’ve always had my sake warm, she tells me it’s often served cold in Tokyo and that regulars have their own monogrammed bottle reserved for them behind the bar!
When I came back from writing my travel series about Greece, I brought her and my son lots of olives since they both love them. I also brought back some honey from Sparta. My wife adores honey and it’s a good gift to bring from abroad because it tastes different in every region. Of all the honey I’ve brought her from far-flung places, she’s liked the Spartan honey the most.
You’ll notice that we mostly bring back consumables. A great way to share the experience of your trip is to share some of the tastes. Also, we live in a European apartment (read: small) and we have too much stuff anyway.
What gifts from abroad do you like to give or receive? Tell us in the comments section!
Souvenirs are difficult for travel writers. We travel too often to be slapdash with souvenir selection, for one. Some frequent travelers focus on a particular thing: snow globes, pens, local magazines, liqueur, rugs, candy.
Others ignore the self entirely and redirect the impulse, choosing to make souvenir purchases for their friends, family, and neighbors.
Me? I like beach towels. I’m picky, mind you. Few make it into my collection. Those that do, however, are true prized possessions.
As souvenirs go, beach towels are extremely useful. They can do service as standard towels when bath towels are not available. They are great for beach runs in the position of reserve towel. (Who wants to dry off with a sandy towel?) And they can be washed and dried quickly and used over and over again.
I’ve got some doozies. There’s the grotesque print of the Titanic movie poster on a beach towel I bought in Croatia in 1998. It’s held up remarkably well, despite the thinness of its material. The likenesses of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are barely recognizable, their skin tones inaccurately flan-like in a loveably inarguable instance of copyright infringement. And now, almost 15 years after Titanic hit theaters, it’s also got an undeniable near-retro cache. Bonus.
There’s another beach towel in my collection from the Balkans, purchased several years later, an enormous beach towel patterned with a replica of the €500 bill in all of its pink and purple glory. I’ve never held a €500 bill in my hands, but I can relax upon a blown-up version of it, even if a French friend once pronounced it “kitsch” with a sniff.
And then there’s the crowning glory of my beach towel collection, a yellow and red number with the slogan “Wipe out in Guam” in a Flintstones-like font above a figure of a hapless purple-skinned surfer sailing through the air.
The thing is, I’ve never been to Guam.
I bought the towel on Anegada in the British Virgin Islands, an island I visited with my high school friend Mike. We stayed in a cheap motel without beach towels. Finding ourselves on a perfect beach island without beach towels, we promptly headed to the nearest store to rectify the situation. Sorting through a stack of BVI-specific towels, we found a handful of specimens clearly supposed to have been included in a shipment to Guam. We both snapped one up, to the marked surprise of the shop owner.
The material of the towel is thin but wiry, almost viscous. Structurally speaking, it’s not a great towel. But it’s got a back story and an in-built hilarity. What more does a souvenir need?
If you are in New York today, consider paying homage to one of the city’s most venerable landmarks: the Brooklyn Bridge, which turns 128 today. The iconic bridge opened in 1883 after 13 years of construction. As is common with mid-week birthdays, the main celebrations happened over the weekend, including a special offer to get a $28 tattoo of the Brooklyn Bridge from a local tattoo parlor. Brooklyn Tattoo illustrated 60-70 proud Brooklynites in 2010, and inks another dozen or so each month. That’s a lot of bridge enthusiasts!
Should you not want such a permanent souvenir, you can always celebrate with a walk across the bridge and a picnic at the newly-expanded Brooklyn Bridge Park (where yours truly got married 7 years ago), but forget the Champagne – no alcohol is allowed on the bridge or in the park.