The magical power of the travel souvenir
Stuff can speak louder than words
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
Tourists have always purchased souvenirs. The word itself is from the French meaning a remembrance or memory. Thus, a memento or keepsake transported from a country is a memory of a visit. Whether a postcard, a T-shirt or a trinket, it matters little. These articles all hold a very strong potency, the power of storytelling. They allow the buyer to look at the object and conjure up or visualize pictures of visits to different countries and en-counters with the people who live there.
I have traveled to many countries, but articles that I, as a former board member of the Norwegian-American Historical Association and current travel editor of The Norwegian American, obtained in Norway hold special meaning, People have always told stories. Before written language and books, the oral tradition was a way to teach knowledge and pass down wisdom from generation to generation. In addition, it was educational entertainment before public television.
Today ways of communication have expanded greatly. Think social media. Gone are the days of sitting around a radio to hear the latest news or follow an installment of a favorite entertainer. Today, websites, earbuds, and podcasts provide a great wealth of perspectives that challenge us to look beyond our own limited viewpoints.
But when I see a Norwegian item in my home, my travels to Norway and my meetings with people there pop into view. These objects have the capability to speak louder than words. They unleash memories, often sequestered in the back of my mind. It’s a sentimental assortment of seemingly random objects that might mean nothing to any per-son except me. It’s not an irrational attachment but one moored to events or people in my past. I see an object, and I remember things, events and people. Travel souvenirs have this exceptional power.
Mircea Eliade (1907–1986), a philosopher of comparative religion, discussed the concept of sacred in his book The Sacred & the Profane: The Nature of Religion. He says that we become “aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane.” In this way, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example. “The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because they are hierophanies (manifestations of the divine), because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred, the ganz andere.” Thus, any object can be “some-thing else.”
A sacred stone may always remain just an ordinary stone; it looks like a stone, and it feels like a stone, but for those to whom a stone reveals itself as something else, its immediate reality is transmuted into a super-natural reality. For Eliade, this is a religious experience. “The sacred is equivalent to a power and, in the last analysis, to reality. The sacred is saturated with being.”
For me, it’s not so much a religious experience but a magical one. Norwegian objects are not hidden away in my home. They take part in my everyday life. They are decorative objects, on display for all to see. Others have a certain use and are taken out of drawers when that use is needed. The connections, the magic in the ordinary, are always there woven into the personal fabric of my life and history. A few examples follow.
Every time I look at this, I remember my first visit to Norway. I was researching the background of O.S. Leeland, the immigrant photographer who worked in South Dakota in the early 1900s. On my way from Oslo to Sirdal, my friend Ruth and I stopped for lunch at an area where there was a small shack selling fiskekaker (fish cakes), my first taste of this Norwegian specialty. After eating, we walked around a bit and stopped in a store that sold decorative objects and souvenirs. I saw this little wooden three-dimensional natural still life sculpture depicting flowers, a frog, and a butterfly and bought it. It now sits beside another travel souvenir I bought in Dresden, a figure from the Erzgebirge region of Germany known for wooden Christmas carvings and folk art.
Norsk bulletin board
The bulletin board above my desk is filled with all sorts of reminders and notes. If you look really hard in the upper left, you will see Norwegian colors. One item is a piece of a ribbon that Richard Christopher (1939-2022) gave me at the opening of the Leet-Christopher School on June 6, 2015.
The Leet School, beloved by Richard, was saved by him. It sat on his farm land until I discussed with him its donation to the Norwegian Emigrant Museum in Ottestad near Hamar, Norway, where it stands today. Every time I sit at my desk, this piece of ribbon that was cut on Opening Day reminds me of my deep friendship with Richard, a South Dakota farmer.
On my first trip to Norway, I was on my journey to track down any information I could find on O.S. Leeland from the Liland farm in Tonstad parish, Sirdal kommune, Vest Agder. Leeland was an Americanization of his Norwegian farm name.
I met with Martin Lindeland, eldest grandson of Leeland’s sister and his son, Ola and family. I was in Norway over the 17th of May celebration, and I found myself in Tonstad for the festivities. I saw the local bunads and when talking with Ola, I asked about the high socks. I always liked wearing them in cold New England winters, and they were red and green, my favorite colors.
“Where can I buy a pair,” I asked Ola. He laughed. “You can’t buy them,” he responded.
“What! How do you get them?” I asked.
“You have to knit them,” he told me. Of course, I hadn’t thought of that. Soon he was putting a piece of paper under my foot, and with a pencil, he outlined its shape. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. And soon I went home to New York City and forgot about them.
Several months later, a package arrived in the mail, and there was my first pair of Sirdal Bunad socks. What a wonderful souvenir! I’ve never worn them. They are too good to wear, as my mother would say. But every time I see them, I think of Syttende Mai in Tonstad.
Books line the walls of my office, but this one group of books, the Sirdal Bygdebøker (farm books) that I obtained in Norway began my journey with Norwegian culture so many years ago. It is a wonderful source of genealogical information, the history of a specific community recording who lived there, and as much information that was possible to learn when it was published.
Every time I glance at these volumes when I pass them, I am reminded of my search for the life story of the photographer, O.S. Leeland.
All photos by Cynthia Elyce Rubin
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.