Russian nesting dolls
Whether girls with long lashes or U.S. presidents, they scream souvenir.
Every July when I was a child, my parents would pack their bags and go on vacation. My sister and I were left home with our grandparents. We played dodge ball and drank bug juice in the grungy day-camp nearby, and spent the rest of our time drawing with chalk on the driveway and vegetating in front of the TV. It was adults, not children, who had the exciting lives then — and no one questioned our parents’ right to fly off for a month to France or Italy, Bermuda, Mexico, or Guadeloupe. We enjoyed staying with our grandparents, who allowed us to eat cookies for breakfast and stay up to watch The Tonight Show, but what we liked most was the expectation of our parents’ return. It wasn’t that we missed them — such a thing never occurred to us — but we looked forward to the souvenirs they would bring back from their travels.
Even the word souvenir, that delicate French term for remembrance, still summons up in me a frisson of expectation. The souvenir was something unknown and exotic, rare and surprising, beautiful and not at all useful, that evoked a far-away world — and more metaphorically, a world of grown-up pleasure from which we were excluded. The souvenirs we received, unlike most things one anticipates in life, somehow never disappointed us. I still have the doll in the costume of Bretagne, given to me after my parents’ trip to France. They described the annual festival in that region — how the entire citizenry came out in costume and how they ate the most delicious pancakes they ever had. I can still summon up their description of those pancakes; real crèpes, consumed later, never approached those delectable, imagined ones.
Other souvenirs were equally evocative: the worked leather belt from Rio, the glass pen from Venice, the abalone pin from Caracas, the stitched leather notebook from London. As we grew into teenagers, the souvenirs kept pace with us: makeup from Paris, scarves from Florence, handbags from Barcelona. Some of these things are still in the back of my drawers, wrapped in tissue paper. A set of hankies embroidered with tulips, brought back from Amsterdam, were so exquisitely folded in their clear plastic box that I never opened them. The hankies remained mummified until one day I found the box, thick with dust, and finally discarded it. It seemed to mark the symbolic end of my childhood.
As with so much else, when the context changes, the particulars change. And so, the souvenir is not what it used to be. Partially, as I suggested above, this is because I am no longer a child. The world does not hold the mystery that it once did. Perhaps the true souvenir must come from a parent to a child as a sign of a world outside the child’s ken. If so, it is not so much a remembrance of things past as a promise of things to come.
But a more concrete reason for the change is the global marketplace. We now have the goods of elsewhere at our disposal — every corner boutique has Moroccan fabrics with little mirrors embroidered on them, Italian handbags in the softest leather, beautifully packaged Parisian perfume and makeup. The once-unique artifact has also been mass-produced, standardized, and polished down to its best, most essential form, so that the real thing looks like a crude facsimile. It is one of the hallmarks of modernity that the imitation can seem more desirable and authentic than the original.
This summer my husband and I went to Russia, where we had long wanted to go. We took our teenage daughter with us — itself a sign that times have changed. Children are now fussed over and cosseted in a way they never used to be — no dodge ball and bug juice for them. My daughter, to her credit, had some dim sense that she was fortunate to be taken halfway around the world, but she still wanted a souvenir. Maybe it is an inherent function of childhood to hanker after that thing which encapsulates the remote and the wondrous. Thus, during our stay in Moscow and St. Petersburg, we looked for something to buy. It was difficult. The prices were exorbitant — Moscow is the most expensive city in the world right now. And although the once tightly rationed country is now overflowing with goods, those goods are not necessarily charming or unique. Near our hotel in St. Petersburg was a shopping mall that must have housed a hundred clothing and shoe stores, all stocked to bursting with ugly merchandise. (So many ribbons, bows, and zippers placed gratuitously on garments reflect surplus value gone berserk).
One day we took a day trip to a monastery outside of Moscow that had been preserved as it was centuries ago. There were the old women in babushkas shuffling around; the men in priestly robes and black hats looking like so many Rasputins; the gorgeous, decorated churches. But when it came to buying a souvenir, we were at a loss. The monastery had reserved a spot in an adjacent field where they had put out tables and tables of merchandise: nesting dolls, scarves and shawls, jewelry with semi-precious stones, lacquered boxes. But all of it looked like a tourist’s idea of what a Russian souvenir should be. The colorful shawls were coarse to the touch and garish. The lacquered boxes were cheap, mass-produced items. One could find nicer and better-priced versions at Pier One and Marshall’s.
Still, an older woman who traveled widely once told me that it’s important to buy something while abroad, even if you can get the same thing for less at home; it will remind you, she said, of that time and place in your life. So we finally settled on a store in Moscow that specialized in good deals on souvenir-style merchandise. One whole section of the store was devoted to Russian nesting dolls, some painted with the faces of world leaders (Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Bush Sr., in diminishing sizes). I finally found a shawl a little less coarse than others I had seen, and it now lies draped across the couch in my living room. My daughter, for her part, spent an hour trolling the aisles until she came up with the following souvenirs: a Russian doll key chain (no doubt available in Brooklyn), an amber pendant (I saw practically the same one at a craft fair in the Berkshires), and a fake fur hat with a CCCP badge on the front. We told her that CCCP stood for USSR, and was therefore outmoded. But she thought it was neat, and was not about to buy one of the real fur hats without the insignia, which she found morally anathema. (In another time, it would have been the CCCP that posed the moral problem). To be truthful, her Russian commissar hat is the one piece of merchandise that we are unlikely to find at home.
There’s something both ironic and profound about the idea that the most original souvenir we could find of old Russia was a souvenir of the old Soviet regime. CCCP evokes my own childhood, but for my daughter it evokes something strange and original. She intends to wear the hat in college, where it’s supposed to get quite cold during the winter. Thus it fulfills what may be the essential double function of a souvenir: It recalls the past and projects into the future. • 3 October 2007
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications.