Like most travelers returning home from a trip, I unpack, make sure the DVR did its job and, before my head hits the pillow, take a look at whatever souvenirs I brought home for a quick replay of my travels. Unspent coins, museum maps, or reasonably ‘unique’ trinkets from cities and towns seem to be my mementos of choice. All haphazardly catalogued in a clear, plastic box that gathers dust under my guest bed to be occasionally taken out for a walk down memory lane, usually after shiny new remembrances have been added to the cache. But, what I most often bring home isn’t an accessory I can stow away in that box beneath the bed. Unlike foreign coins or refrigerator magnets, the things I’ve come to cherish most from my travels abroad aren’t kept hidden away, but kept with me, wherever I go.

I was a late bloomer when it came to travel and didn’t take my first trip overseas until I was in my late 20’s. Two friends and I ventured off to Japan, almost as a dare because, honestly, the price was right and it was a chance to fly enough miles to earn status that year. From my maiden voyage overseas, I brought home my first passport stamp, a small, red Buddha, and a set of hand carved chopsticks. But, as a virgin traveler, what stayed with me was my first ever realization that other parts of the world don’t operate the same as they do in my sweet home of Chicago. Anything I may have thought of up until my first trip abroad as right or wrong, strange or normal, no longer mattered. I was the visiting team on someone else’s field and ironically that had become my most cherished souvenir.
As my airline miles accrued and new countries logged, I continue adding to the clear plastic box. And while the box fills up with fridge magnets, my appreciation for the intangible relics of those travels remain the same. Beyond the dinners that last well into next morning’s breakfast, or tours of ancient cities, the memento of being welcomed the world over with open arms by complete strangers can’t be stuck on a fridge or stored in a plastic box. With any luck, when held in hand years later, souvenirs won’t’ conjure memories of a delightful financial transaction between tourist and trinket salesman. They’ll bring back the smell of walking through a Japanese fish market at 5am, the taste of steak frites while dining with an old friend at midnight in Paris, or the feel of dice in hand as drunk businessmen attempt to teach a customary game of chance at a karaoke bar in China.
What I love most about the type of souvenirs I’ve tucked away is that they continue to do what they were inherently designed to do: live on. When I meet people visiting Chicago, whether tourists from another country or friends of a friend, I can’t help but erupt with thoughts on where they should go, what they should eat, and what they should see because, so often, the same courtesy has been given to me. I hope when guests of my city return home – after they put away their Chicago Cubs T-shirt and postcard from the sky deck at Sears Tower – they not only speak fondly of my windy city, but of the people they met, the experiences they had, and that they were shown courtesy, respect, and, hopefully, one hell of a good time. Now, you can never have too many of those.

C. Roe. Chicago, IL. USA.

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