I have never bought one.
Although souvenir key chains are cheap and available on spinning racks in airports, markets and tourist-focused stores all over the world, and I’ve had, oh, forty-five gazillion opportunities to add one to my accumulated possessions, I have never once been vaguely tempted to buy a key chain during my travels. Nor have I bought a refrigerator magnet, nor a shot glass, or anything else bearing the name of the destination I’ve visited. I guess I don’t have enough keys, or drink enough shots or want a ton of clutter on the refrigerator. The truth is, I’ve never really thought much about these mementos, one way or the other.
Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say my fridge does happen to bear green magnet that proclaims that Ithaca is Gorges. It was thoughtfully affixed there by a travel writer friend who’d visited us after visiting there; I left it because my husband and I lived in Ithaca, New York after college, and it makes me happy to think about that time. I suppose that people who purchase these sorts of souvenirs have a similar motivation, to happily remember their travels when they’re opening the door to their house, opening their fridge, having their shots of tequila.
I mention all this because I decided, earlier today, that I really wanted a new key chain, for all the new keys I’ve accumulated since my recent move. I hit Etsy, searched for key chains, and was struck by how many of the site’s 28,467 practical little gizmos are a means of self expression.
An astonishing number seem to be aimed at reminding people that they are parents and quite good at it. (I lost track of the number and variation of “Best Mom”, “Best Dad” designs, and was particularly tickled by the ones that also could be customized with said children’s names — if you can’t remember your children’s names, perhaps you’re not really the “best”?) Also filed in the “not really me” folder were a couple of key chains that had a charm made out of bullets — didn’t seem the wisest thing to be slinging onto the tray at airport security.
Oh the airport — that reminded me of all the travel souvenir key chains I could have had, if I had only anticipated this need earlier. I headed over to eBay, figuring it would give me a good cross-section of what I’d missed out on.
I clicked through the 1,685 souvenir key chains available at that moment. Besides a great many key chains that are a destination photograph encased in plastic, the two most popular travel souvenir key chain motifs seemed to be the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. This makes sense, given how people do seem to like to travel to Paris and New York City. I like both those places, so I pondered a purchase for a while. But the Empire State Building isn’t my favorite skyscraper in New York (that would be the Chrysler Building, if you must know) and while I really appreciate the Eiffel Tower, it’s not, like, my favorite place on the entire planet.
I will confess that I seriously tempted by a red and white beaded change purse that said Geneva on the Lake, attached to a key chain. Even though I’ve never been to Geneva on the Lake.
Back to Etsy, where I decided on a custom map key chain. The map I requested for my key chain will show my new hometown, a place which no one’s ever heard of, and for good reason: by moving here, my husband and I helped the town’s population hit 490.
No, I have not forgotten any zeros.
And actually, we don’t even live in a town, technically, we live in a hamlet — which is exactly the type of arcana I’m trying to avoid getting into when I’m asked the number one question asked of all travelers: where are you from? I struggled with a smooth answer to the question during the first trip I made since the move. I tried answering “New York”, meaning the state, but everyone thinks that’s the city. (What’s the problem with that? The inevitable follow up question: which part of the city you live in? A good way to look like a total poseur if you don’t, in fact, live in the city. I’ve seen it happen and don’t want to be that person.) I also tried answering that I lived in the Hudson Valley, but that’s either meaningless to people not from the U.S. Northeast or too vague for people familiar with the region.
If someone really cares where I live — not a guarantee by any means — the conversation can go on for a while, and it’s not really what I want to be talking about.
So rather than playing the game of locating my town by trying to determine what Berkshires or Hudson Valley town my inquisitor is familiar with — “have you heard of Great Barrington. No? Hudson? Rhinebeck?” — I will simply say, wait, let me show you. And then I will take out my new key chain. It’s not a souvenir, it won’t bring back any memories, but it will do something even better: it will move the conversation forward.
Alison J. Stein
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