A pandemic-era ode to every tourist’s guilty pleasure: The gift shop
Right now, of course, I can only do one of those things and when it comes to future travels, my outlook is far less sunny than that of Mr. Poe. The evil twins, pandemic and penury, have turned my Bucket List into a Shot Glass List.
When I have a minute to escape this Bosch painting we’re all in, I indulge in my new hobby — coveting. I look at websites of places I long to visit and, of course, the lovely trinkets I would bring back, and I wonder if I’ll ever go anywhere again.
I accept, for example, that I may never get to go to Zagreb, Croatia, to give live appreciation to the conceptual brilliance of the original Museum of Broken Relationships. (There’s also a Los Angeles outpost.) Thanks to its virtual component, though, I can feel the heartbreak and think “Wow, that sucks,” from afar. I can also support the museum by going to its online gift shop and buying a “bad memories eraser” or a chocolate bar whose mean-spirited label says it hopes you gain weight from eating it. The chocolate, like the sentiment, is dark.
A different kind of desertion is on display, and on sale, at the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala. For thrift-store lovers, picking through other people’s abandoned pants is more relaxing than meditation, and this place sounds like the greatest garage sale on Earth. The center is open, but if you can’t get there, they do sell items online. There is probably nowhere else in the world you could buy a pure silver flute, a Nicole Miller wedding dress (size 6) and solar-powered snake repellent under the same roof.
Traveling to see family can be stressful, unless the relatives you are visiting are orangutans or other nonhuman primates who never show up to Thanksgiving and ask why you’re not married yet.
I may never get to visit or volunteer at the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Borneo and meet the cousins before they go extinct. Anyone can help these gentle primates, though, by adopting an orphan orangutan or buying an orangutan face mask through Orangutan Outreach. It’s a nice way to thank your kin for having no opinion about your leaving law school.
Everyone I know who goes to Prague comes back in love with this grand, soulful city, and I’m aching to join their ranks. In addition to many other sites, being the ray of sunshine that I am I would very much like to see the Franz Kafka Museum, and the surrealist statue of the author in the Jewish quarter where he lived and worked are high on the list.
Sure, anyone can get into a Kafkaesque groove by reading his work or turning on the news. The museum shop, though, has some wonderful, whimsical tributes to the author. Personally I like sets of notebooks — one with a robotic-looking cockroach, another with a drawing of an exhausted writer at his desk. His images are perfect for our post-truth age, a reminder that feeling lost and desperate is normal and that when you feel the most alone is when you’re actually the most like everyone else.
That brings to mind a place I would like to return to one day, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I always wonder if the very people who would most benefit from a museum like this one are exactly the ones who would never go. It’s too bad. Sure, it’s uncomfortable, learning about “man’s inhumanity to man,” as Robert Burns put it, but it’s also edifying, learning how willing people are, not to just fight for what’s right but to try to heal the damage caused by what isn’t.
I may not ever see this remarkable building in person again, but anyone can view and support the museum by buying an elegant Holocaust Remembrance pendant or other human-rights-inspired jewelry.
If you’re in a lighter mood, there’s a Sasquatch mug designed by Coast Salish First Nations artist Francis Horne Sr. that would brighten anyone’s day.
Animals don’t have to be real to bring joy. I’ve romanticized Loch Ness and it’s famous monster since my dad went there on a press junket in the late 1960s and came back misty-eyed over the locale, the people and the whiskey.
Whether I’ll ever get to retrace his Nessie trip myself, I don’t know, but the Loch Ness Center and Exhibition has lots of digital offerings and, of course, where Nessie is or isn’t, tchotchkes abound. I could spend a fortune at Loch Ness Gifts, but I’m keen on the Nessie ashtray, partly because I thought ashtrays were as extinct as plesiosaurs, and also the Harris Tweed hip flask. Keeping the dad vibe going. Cheers.
Of course, real animals are good for the soul too, the calm and contentment of the Japanese macaques or snow monkeys, bathing in the hot springs of Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano is positively tranquilizing. I may never see them in person, but I can buy Snow Monkey Resorts Hot Spring Bath Powder, which says it’s made with the water of the Monkey Park springs.
So they get a free hot tub, and I’m willing to pay for their bath water. I’m really not sure I’m the superior species here.
Vampires are a superior species, of course, but a love of gothic horror isn’t the only reason I would love to visit Bran Castle, also called Dracula’s Castle, in Romania’s Transylvania. Ever since a trip to Budapest some years ago, I’ve ached to see more of Eastern Europe and its darkly romantic cathedrals, castles and other features, and Bran Castle certainly fits the bill.
“Dracula” author Bram Stoker did model his epic vampire’s home on Bran Castle, though he never went to Romania himself. He also lifted the character’s name from Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, whose English title was Voivode Dracula. Stoker chose the name because he was told that “Dracula” means “devil” in Romania, not because Vlad was a bloodthirsty character (the nickname kind of gives it away).
Sadly, like Stoker, I may never visit Romania, either, but I know there’s an abundance of Dracula tourism there and souvenirs that go with it. My favorite, online at the Romanian Boutique, was a cutting board festooned with the image of Vlad the Impaler.
I’m certainly not the only one with a macabre sense of humor. The item is currently sold out.
Thinking of all these trips is giving me a feeling I vaguely remember as optimism, like I might be able to buy these in person one day. In the meantime I may at least get a “Finding Nessie” face mask, in the style of “Finding Nemo.” If gift shops are, indeed, the dessert after the attraction, 2020 is definitely a year to eat dessert first.