The French language has transmitted so many lovely words into our vocabulary: paramour, soupçon and, ah, yes, pain au chocolat. But my favourite has always been souvenir—to remember, to recall. One of our Canadian provinces, Québec, even works the idea into its motto: Je me souviens—I will recall…our past, our language. Most of us, however, attach the word to those things we buy on our junkets away from home. We acquire souvenirs as little tokens of remembrance that keep us connected with fond memories of distant places.
Today, the souvenir has become a rather banal object, debased by a global economy and often disconnected from any authentic connection with the place visited. Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, Cuban cigars and “international” gemstones and jewelery are the truck and trade of innumerable Front Streets. Sadly, Bermuda is not much different these days. A quick survey of the hordes on any cruise ship day in Hamilton will attest to the homogenized standard of tourist taste.
But there was a time when the steamer trunks and airline bags of Bermuda tourists bore a genuine freight of souvenirs, things that really kept one connected with the Isles of Rest when the snow fell in Dayton or summer grime and heat enveloped New York. There were bits of carved Bermuda cedar, watercolours by the Tucker Sisters and banana-leaf dolls. Or a recording of the Talbots or Hubert Smith. Or even a Scottish-knit sweater imported by some more-English-than-the-English Bermudian shopkeeper. These were the things—the souvenirs—that made us think of Bermuda as a distinctive place. The souvenirs kept us connected with mid-Atlantic pleasure.
Sandy and I spend our summers at our cottage in the Rideau Lakes district of eastern Ontario. The lakes are cool and the pine trees fragrant. On many a Saturday morning we head over to a wonderful flea market at the little junction town of Crosby. My wife, Sandy, is particularly adept at sweeping through the stalls and spotting gold amid the dross. Her eager eye has, for instance, allowed us to build up a considerable collection of real Bermuda souvenirs. We have acquired Tucker Sisters paperweights, monogrammed bone-china plates, watercolours, postcards and embossed playing cards from the heyday of the Queen of Bermuda—all at bargain prices.
The search has often taken us widely to places across eastern America. In Cooperstown, New York, a recent opera trip netted a mint-condition copy of Ronnie Williams’s (a one-time Bermudian editor) lovely 1936 picture book Bermudiana for a mere $4. These treasures are the telltales of holidays long past, part of a diaspora of Bermuda artifacts now spread across the North American continent, surfacing at garage sales, at church bazaars and flea markets. Each find undoubtedly has a story to tell, a story about which we can only speculate.
This summer’s prize came from Crosby, a beautiful hand-tinted photograph of a 1920s palm-lined Bermuda lane by American photographer H. Marshall Gardiner (1884–1942). Gardiner frequented holiday destinations like Nantucket, Florida and Bermuda, turning out gorgeous photos that captured the soft colours and play of light in these getaway paradises. It’s a lovely photograph and we’d love to know its story—but never will. And all this art and intrigue for just five dollars from a flea market stall, frame included! We’re still looking for the Tucker Cross.
Souvenirs, it seems, can have double lives. They can serve to connect one generation to a place visited and warmly remembered and then serve another as a found object, a prompt to an entirely different but still affectionate tie with a pleasant place, far away. So next time you reach for a t-shirt on Front Street, think twice. Memories can be made of better things.
Je me souviens.
Duncan McDowall & Sandy Campbell