Rocks, Leaves, Toys, Tools, Trash: Erik Shonstrom Interviews Rolf Potts




IN MY LATE 20s I was obsessed with a little book called Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. A mixture of advice, anecdotes from around the globe, and snippets of wanderlust-infused philosophy, the book fueled visions I had of exploring precipitous ridges in the Andes and spice-scented bazaars. I imagined its author, Rolf Potts, possessed infinite tales of epic exploration replete with pith-helmeted adventure and drama; tigers and hidden treasure and romance in the remote corners of the Earth. An aughts version of Indiana Jones.

When I finally got a chance to meet Potts years later, it was on a small, ice-encrusted campus in Vermont. What surprised me were not his yarns of exotic mischief at the edges of maps (though I was right: he had plenty of those), but his interest in the quotidian moments of life. Potts seemed as curious about the trials and tribulations of my son’s co-op daycare as I was in his travels. He was game to share stories of far-flung expeditions, but also happy to engage in conversations assessing the merits of the pasta alfredo in the campus dining hall. For Potts, it seemed, there was nothing that didn’t warrant closer scrutiny.

It’s this quality that makes him the perfect person to write in depth about souvenirs, from talismans to tchotchkes. His new book is a delightfully discursive and inquisitive account that seeks the source of our collective need to collect things ― ephemeral moments made tangibly manifest ― and use them as signposts for our own personal narratives.

Part of the Bloomsbury “Object Lessons” series that explores the history and significance of items as various as socks, luggage, burgers, and dust, Souvenir takes a deep dive into the human urge to acquire and commemorate. Whether it’s keychains, postcards, or carved masks, Potts considers the manner in which the purchase of trinkets can “authenticate experience.” After reading the book, I can honestly say I’ll never look at a foam Canadian-maple-leaf koozie the same way again.

Recently, I tracked Potts down — in between his various jaunts (to Iceland, Hawaii, Paris, and Namibia in just the past year according to his Instagram feed) to ask him a few questions about travel memorabilia, his new book, and the desire to remember.

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ERIK SHONSTROM: First, and most obvious, question: Why a deep dive into the story and significance of souvenirs?

ROLF POTTS: I’ve been working as a travel writer for nearly 20 years now, and for all the themes I’ve explored within discrete, self-contained journeys, there are certain travel rituals — taking photographs, visiting museums, crossing borders, buying something to bring home — that hint at a much broader story. Over time I began to keep notes about these kinds of recurring experiences, and the more notes I took, the more I realized that souvenirs in particular — that is, the ritual of collecting and curating them — carry a surprising existential resonance, one that speaks to more than just the distance covered. So while Souvenir employs scholarship and reportage to unpack the 4,000-year history and psychology of travel objects, it’s also a philosophical examination of the ways we construct meaning out of experience.

It’s interesting that you don’t look down your nose at tourist attractions and cheap plastic totems. Instead you investigate those traps and impulse purchases with the same depth as you do a collection of ancient one-of-a-kind relics. Is there a difference in types of souvenirs — a hierarchy, if you will?

There has always been a souvenir hierarchy, but it became more pronounced after the Industrial Revolution, when hordes of inexperienced middle-class tourists could afford to take railroads and steamships to destinations once favored by aristocratic travelers. For old-money types, the mass-produced tchotchkes marketed to these bourgeois tourists were synonymous with their lack of taste and refinement. We still tend to view this travel ritual through a decidedly class-based lens, regarding cheap souvenirs like “Milan”-inscribed shot glasses as socially inferior to more “authentic” cultural products like Milanese crystal.

But what this attitude overlooks is the fact that social meaning is less important than personal meaning when it comes to how souvenirs evoke memories. Inexperienced travelers may exercise less so-called “taste” when it comes to buying (and statistically speaking they purchase more gift-store kitsch) but their experiences tend to be more emotionally intense, and thus more personally significant. We may know more about Milan in the intellectual sense after having visited the city for the 10th time, but at an emotional level it’s hard to compete with a first impression. That means a “Milan” shot glass may well carry more private value for a first-time visitor than Milanese crystal acquired by an experienced traveler.

Your book really explores the notion of ascribing meaning — to the experience of the journey, and thus to the self. Where does this need to embed travel in some overarching narrative come from, and how do souvenirs help?

There’s an interesting parallel between souvenirs and memory itself. As life plays out, we don’t remember the past in terms of documentary data; we remember it in terms of narrative: of cause and affect and association. In a sense, our memories are neurological souvenirs — moments that stand out from (and in effect symbolize) an infinitely more complex tangle of thoughts and events and relationships. Souvenirs might be seen as a tangible representation of this process — a way of curating and making sense of our recollections and our lives.

This is, in fact, a ritual that goes back to childhood, when we pick up and comment on objects — rocks, leaves, toys, tools, trash — as a way of identifying and indexing (and asserting a small amount of control over) the environment that surrounds us. As we get older this pastime becomes more deliberate and consumer-oriented, but it’s never fully separate from the childlike desire to identify and possess a small part of our world.

Souvenirs serve memory, you say in the book, but not always in the way that we might expect. You offer some anecdotes about items you yourself have collected after over two decades of travel and the way your feelings about them have shifted. How does our perception of the significance of souvenirs change as we get older and further away from the experiences they’re supposed to recall?

The more I studied souvenirs, the more I came to realize that they don’t exist as a static, one-to-one token of a single travel experience. Often souvenirs are tied up in broader ambitions, or interpersonal relationships, or compulsive habits that speak to something beyond a given moment of travel. Even when they’re collected or purchased as a straightforward memento of place, they can, in time, come to represent not just that place, but who we were when we visited, and how our way of looking at the world has since changed.

In the book, I give the example of a clamshell I found on the shores of Lake Michigan at age seven. I took to calling this freshwater mollusk carapace a “seashell,” and in retrospect I realized that it kind of became a totem for all the farther-flung travel I dreamed about as a kid. I kept the shell in my room as a kind of promise to myself that I might one day see an actual ocean. I finally did glimpse the Pacific in California at age 15, and a few years later I went to college not far from the Oregon coast. The more I got used to being near the ocean, the less important my “seashell” became — and I’ve long since forgotten what became of it.

Of course now I wish I still had that old shell, to remind me of the wonder that was contained in my seven-year-old worldview, and what a privilege it has been to travel so far in the ensuing years.

You mention many of your own souvenirs in the book — any odds and ends that didn’t make it into the final draft that bear mentioning?

Well — I’ve had a weird relationship with national flags my whole life. This probably started out as a childhood obsession with the Olympics, but in time these flags became symbols of places I dreamed of visiting. When I learned to sew in a junior high home-economics class around age 13, I took it upon myself to sew a small version of every national flag in Europe. I realize these aren’t really travel souvenirs; they’re more like dreaming-of-travel mementoes from a different time of life. But I found them in a shoebox while going through other souvenirs from my past, and I was so struck by the care I had taken to make them all those years ago that I put them in a display frame. They don’t appear in my book, but they do hang on my wall.

Finally — is there a souvenir you don’t have but wish you did? Sort of the ultimate “holy grail” of souvenirs?

You would think that after all of these years of collecting souvenirs — and many months of researching them for the book — that I would have a strong sense of which one might make my collection complete. And it’s possible that I might one day stumble across a souvenir that comes to emblematize my entire travel career — but at this moment the one thing I long for is a home-run baseball from Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

I realize that sounds kind of silly, since game-used baseballs only tangentially count as travel souvenirs. But I think it’s tied into memories of my childhood, of loving the Kansas City Royals without being able to attend many of the games in person. Now I attend several games a year, but the protocol is that adults who catch a baseball at a major-league game should give it away to the nearest kid. So I’ll probably never add a home-run baseball to my collection, but I think the simple longing for one is a way of reminding myself of the person I once was, and how that boy’s way of seeing the world is still a part of who I am now.

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Erik Shonstrom is the author of two nonfiction books, Wild Curiosity and The Indoor Epidemic, and has published essays in The Chronicle Review and Essay Daily. He currently teaches writing at Champlain College.

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Banner image by epanto.


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