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Essay

Intangible souvenirs become part of everyday life

They come: an Argentine tango, an Italian risotto, the spicy aroma from a brazier in Marrakech, the taste of the sea in a Valencia paella . . .

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / December 11, 2011
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T here are places we remember . . .

Some nights after dinner we push in the desk chair, clear out some furniture, and watch the cat scurry for cover. Then we cue up “Bodega de Amor’’ by Nacha Mendez, take our positions, and step off into an Argentine tango.

Truth is, we are not particularly good at the fancy footwork (we blame it on our limited space), but by about the third number we remember counting the steps while waiting at stoplights in Buenos Aires. We recall climbing the worn wooden staircase to the upstairs dance studio where we would take a lesson and stay for the milonga. Soon we can feel the rhythm like a syncopated heartbeat.

We dance to remember - and out of fear that if we don’t practice, we will lose the steps forever. In Buenos Aires we bought nothing, but all the same we keep dusting off our souvenir.

We have not always been immune to bringing the odd object home from our travels. Just ask the Harvard student who bought our Oaxacan wood carvings of mezcal-drinking devils at a tag sale. We loved the memory of bargaining for the figures in a crowded market, but in the cool light of Cambridge, they didn’t really fit into our small apartment and they didn’t really match our taste. Our best souvenirs are the ones we don’t have to dust. They are intangibles that become part of our everyday lives.

Some of the best have made their way to the dinner table. We have no gondola tchotchkes around the house - not even a photo of the bird man of Piazza San Marco covered in pigeons. But we think of Venice and our landlady Ana Maria Andreola at least once a week. She gave us a cooking lesson that included making baby artichoke risotto in a pressure cooker. “I do everything in a pressure cooker,’’ she told us, putting the lie to the idea that risotto is too fussy for a quick meal. “I would have had my children in a pressure cooker if I could have.’’ We apply her technique to whatever vegetable is in season, and as we sprinkle a spoonful of cheese on top, we remember traipsing to the Rialto market with Andreola to buy the ingredients and the smell of onion and hot olive oil wafting down the stone staircase of her family’s 18th-century palazzo.

The vendor in Valencia’s Mercado Central who instructed us in making the city’s signature plate of rice gave us the trigger to a whole set of recollections. When we sit down to paella Valenciana we recall the earthy aromas and the crowded bustle of the market. We can envision the full heads of rice swaying in the breeze as they rise from the marshes of La Albufera south of the city. In similar fashion, when we haul down our American-made ceramic tagine to prepare meatballs spiked with ras al hanout, we are thrown back to Marrakech nights on the square of Jemaa El Fna when smoke rose from charcoal braziers, spice and meat smells filled the air, and a hundred polite young men would try to convince us to dine at their stalls.

If, as the saying goes, you are what you eat, then travel has certainly changed who we are.

It has also provided the soundtrack of our lives (and we don’t mean the bouncy harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash and their fictional “Marrakesh Express’’). We have to confess that one of the things we do bring home from travels are CDs of music that moves us. (They don’t take much space, and when they do, we will transfer them all to digital files.) Often as not, we buy the recordings from musicians on the streets. Our current dance track diva, Nacha Mendez, is a bar singer from southern New Mexico. When we listen to flamenco recordings we bought in Seville, we can close our eyes and the temperature seems to rise 30 degrees and we recall flamenco guitar riffs drifting from open car windows all over Andalucía. When we play the fado of legendary singer Amália Rodrigues, we recall all over again the thousands who filed past her coffin in Lisbon, lamenting a world and a love that would never come again.

We wish that some of the great style that we have experienced around the world had rubbed off on us more. We would love it if our living space could look more like a great European hotel suite. That is not to say we haven’t gleaned some ideas, but the only one we have been able to implement is massing amaryllis bulbs in a brass planter a la a certain Paris hotel lobby. (It has become a New Year’s Day ritual with us.)

On the personal style front, Pat learned how to carry off a beret by watching stylish women in Montreal, but she has yet to master the Parisian art of the scarf. (She is lobbying for more research.) David remains hopelessly confused between the contradictory styles of English and Italian tailoring.

But we can count as souvenirs moments that we can only call acts of grace. For David it is as mundane as memorizing the movements of the baristas at his favorite coffee bar in Naples. Bang, bang, tamp, tamp, whoosh-sh-sh-sh! He nearly has the dance mastered, yet he still remains miles away from replicating the world’s best cup of coffee.

For Pat, Northern Ireland poet-cum-tour-guide Ken McElroy charmed her by reciting poetry - his own and others’ - at the drop of a hat. She had no intention of constructing her own verse, but found herself inspired by McElroy to memorize works by great American writers. Those mantras of colloquial American speech carry her through hours in the dark when she is unable to sleep. Frost and MacLeish and Updike and Lowell - she recites them all in her head, often high above the Atlantic in the middle of the night, on her way to yet another place.

With apologies to Lennon and McCartney, there are places we remember. In our lives, we loved them all.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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