The Souvenir

Image of Short Story
By late August 2005, the backpacker had seen nearly every great cathedral, famous statue, roman colosseum, fishing town, frescoed ruin and great organ that her Eurail pass could take her to. In just 3 months, the trip of a lifetime had whittled itself down to the routine pressures of fulfilling pre-purchased ticketed obligations and snapping photos of landmarks in between. One after another, day after day, world-renowned, big city attractions whipped themselves into one homogenous blur. The traveller had ceased to be amazed.
This far into the season, she wasn’t the only one. Every hostel-hopping 20-something on the continent was exhausted from the arduousness of shlepping bags and bodies from trains to trams to hostels and the required museums along the way. The finality of knowing that their long-awaited adventures were nearly over had turned the predictably optimistic common-area banter into something morose. Gone were the early days of summer when coeds cheerfully spouted off meticulously-planned travel itineraries and fell in love for the weekend. Their glittering, wide-eyes and fresh faces had gone sallow from alcohol and sleepless nights on cheap mattresses in rooms shared with snoring strangers. Hopes for the future had morphed into spotty reflections of the past. They swapped stories about unexpected places they wound up, instead of the obligatory capital cities that everyone had planned for.
The coolest among them had lists of places they’d been that no one else had ever heard of, where international recognition had not yet caught up with the quality of the experience. There was also a direct correlation between the affordability of beer and the amount of fun to be had inside old town walls. The irony was lost on most:
“No, no- Prague is over. Braaa-ti-slaaava is the place to go,” vowed a tall shaggy guy on a bench in the far corner.
“I had a great time in Dubrovnik,” added a smiley Australian.
“Yeah, I went there. It was cool, but this year is probably the last good season.”
“I agree. The tourists are coming.”
Our hero had also sought anything different from the norm by visiting places off the beaten path. Bile rose in her throat when she realized that the most memorable and spontaneous parts of her trip had happened in basically the same sorts places as everyone else’s “most original” adventures.
Nevertheless, there was a lull around the table and so she spoke: “Poznan was a logical stop between Berlin and Warsaw. When I got there, I was starved for anything out of the ordinary but nothing really stood out. The cobblestones of Cascais were better laid. The colorful facades of Czesky Krumlov were more endearing. The vestiges of soviet grit were more authentic in Berlin. I’d become so blasé...”
“Oh, I know the feeling.”
“Anyway, I went to the park and picnicked by a fountain. Dozens of people had the same idea. We all sat without talking, watching a local boy play in the water. Periodically, he splashed unsuspecting adults. His mother watched from afar, but didn’t tell him to stop. She half-smiled and looked away whenever he made a particularly good shot. I felt jealous of the boy.”
“It was either because of how much joy he got from that simple fountain or it was because I wanted to play like that too, but knew I couldn’t because of my age.”
“Dude, that’s heavy. What did you do?”
“Well, I knew that if I jumped in the fountain with the kid I’d likely be detained, so I just got up and walked to the old city. I drank a lot of tiny coffees and then charged through the narrow streets, looking for anything to make an impression on me.”
“Did you find something?”
“Oddly enough, I did.”
“What was it?”
“A golden pearl necklace from Southeast Asia.”
A previously disinterested few leaned in, so she continued: “delicately veiled by a reddish nacre, each pearl was like the eye of a tiger reflecting the warm ochres of the African Savannah.”
“Pearls always seem so uppity and cold to me,” countered the Australian.
“They did to me too, but I’d only seen white, pink, and grey ones. I didn’t know there was a color out there like this one. It was a delicious, pale caramel that took my breath away.”
“It’s gotten bougie up in here!” yelled the auburn dreadlocks from the corner.
“Eh- whatever. I thought I’d never be impressed again and then I suddenly saw something I’d never seen before.”
“All I’m saying is that’s a real first-world problem, if I’ve ever heard one.”
“Oh, I know. You’re right. Still though, I was pre-occupied for the rest of the day by the originality of the beautiful bauble and how disheartened I was about being too jaded to jump in a public fountain in the middle of a hot, boring day.”
“Yeah, it’s like, why can’t adults goof around? Why would it have to be weird for you play with that kid, whereas it would have been totally endearing if someone his own age had joined him.”
“It’s something about passing time and recognizing patterns. Poznan was delightful but I got in my own way until all I could see was how it resembled everything else.”
“Yeah, I’ve been there. After dreams become realities, they’re just memories. A lot of times they don’t live up to our expectations, no matter how seamlessly you pre-plan the route.”
The scruffy guy piped up from the bench: “Yo- you guys should check out Braaa-ti-slaaava. That’s the place, I swear.”
“So what happened with the necklace?” someone else asked.
“I ambled around town all day taking pictures of obscure details, but it was always in the back of my mind. I walked all the way back to the shop window to admire it twice. Finally, the third time I went back, I slipped in the door.”
“Oh, nice.”
“Yeah. When I got inside, the jeweler said: ’I see you admire this all day today.’ He pulled the necklace from the window and put it on a small velvet display surface, so that I could admire it up close. His hands were so clean and pale, I could tell my dirty fingernails and giant bag made him nervous. He draped the heavy strand around my collarbone. It was oddly thrilling to feel the clasp fasten. I bought it right there on the spot for 300 zloty.”
She fingered her throat as she spoke until a quiet guy with a fresh haircut asked: “why aren’t you wearing the necklace now?”
After a sharp inhale, she replied cooly: “I got hustled trying to win the shell game in Vienna and I lost it.”
Nobody spoke until a trendsetter contributed: “Vienna is so over.”
Someone else added: “Yeah, and beer is, like, double the price.”
“Well, that’s exactly part of why I was gambling with my necklace. Sadly, I lost it and I had to leave the next day.”
“Dude, that sucks.”
“Eh, I don’t mind,” she sighed. “I went camping in Hungary.”
“Oh, they have the best thermal baths-”
“I’ve noticed many golden pearls since then, but the rarity of that thing to me at that time, epitomized the originality of luxury. Every time I think about that necklace, it reminds me that I’ll always have the capacity to be amazed.”
“Also, that you can still make impulsive decisions, even though you’re too old to play in a public fountain with a random kid.”
“Shut up, Allison.”
“It’s Ashley.”
“Eh, sorry.”
“I love that story,” croaked the lanky hippy, “it makes me want to go to Palawan.”