These last few weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time not traveling…stuck at my desk, starting at my bookcase, being taunted by the top shelf of knickknacks and mementos from half a lifetime of exploring Europe. It’s quite the hodgepodge. I’m not much of a shopper, and I go entire trips without buying a single souvenir. But sometimes a special item just catches my eye — usually one of those quirky little cultural footnotes that get overlooked by blitz tourists.
Recently — around the time our world went into lockdown — I reached my 20-year mark of working at Rick Steves’ Europe…two decades as a professional traveler. But in 2020, it looks like I won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon. So, instead of getting depressed, I’ve decided to use all of those European artifacts to do a little armchair travel — reliving some of my most memorable trips. If you’re stuck at home too, join me on this little “knickknack shelf” tour of Europe.
Shirtless Vladimir Putin Riding a Bear Across a Map of Russia
Clearly, this is the star of the show (and, along with the final item on this list, among my most prized possessions). It also sets the tongue-in-cheek tone for much of my collection. Some items are sentimental, but most skew to the weird. I love the way this figure pushes Putin parody to the Nth degree: It begins with the famous photo of manly Putin riding a horse, plops him on a Russian bear, and then — for good measure — positions him striding across a map of Russia. It’s also the single best conversation-starter in my office: The first time a visitor scans my shelf, their gaze is stopped in its tracks by this knickknack, which instantly becomes the only thing they want to talk about. A few years back, I saw this online and knew I had to have it; my wife managed to order me one from Russia for my birthday. What a wife! What a birthday!
Pelota Ball from Basque Country
Every little Basque town and village has a pelota court, where locals play the traditional pastime, similar to jai alai. I appreciate how this ball is even embossed with the words “Pays Basque” in that distinctive Basque script. To me, it represents those beautifully quirky cross-border regions that make Europe so richly rewarding.
I love to quiz my well-traveled colleagues when they drop by my office: What does this flag represent? The obvious first guess is Norway…but what about the yellow trim? Nope, this is the flag of Orkney, the remote archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. The one-hour ferry crossing to Orkney brings you to a very different landscape than the rugged Highlands you left behind, and a different cultural flavor — this part of the British Isles really does feel more Scandinavian, thanks to the influence of passing Norsemen way back when. This flag reminds me that those distant fringes of Europe can be the most rewarding to explore.
Bottle of Cockta
I love the idea of this Yugoslav-era Coca-Cola knock-off more than I actually like its taste. The children of Yugoslavia (where real Coke was a rare luxury item) grew up on this stuff. To me, as a child of Reagan-era America, it tastes like Coke that’s gone bad. But because it’s “the taste of your youth” (as the slogan goes), nostalgic middle-aged Slovenes and Croats and Bosniaks still love the stuff. On my first-ever Rick Steves’ Europe tour — assistant-guiding our inaugural Best of Eastern Europe route — our Slovenian bus driver stocked the on-board fridge with bottles of Cockta, then couldn’t figure out why none of his (American) passengers wanted to buy any. (I’d watch them file on the bus and ask, “Do you have any Coke?” And he’d just shake his head and shrug, with growing impatience. Why do they need Coke? This is Cockta!) This bottle reminds me that there’s no accounting for taste.
Slate from a Welsh Mine
I watched a miner hand-split this shingle of slate at the Blaenau Ffestiniog mine in North Wales. It’s a reminder that in addition to great art, great food, and great culture, Europe also has some fascinating industrial sights.
“Pooping Catalan Villager” for a Manger Scene
A few years ago, I heard about a unique tradition in Catalunya: Their manger scenes include a villager taking a dump, tucked in among the donkeys and oxen and wise men and whatnot. This character is called — wait for it — “The Pooper” (caganer). But this bit of cheeky, scatological humor comes with a theological point: It’s a reminder that the story of the babe in a manger is one of divinity mingling with real-world grit and grime…it’s not just a gag, but a commentary on how God chose to enter our world. In this highly agricultural region, the figure also represents the “fertilization” of the Nativity…making the world ready for God’s incarnation to take root on earth.
That’s all well and good. But I will also admit that I simply enjoy displaying a pooping dude that also has redeeming cultural value. (And, yes, my shelf also has a tiny pewter replica of Brussels’ Manneken-Pis. Because, deep down, I am a 12-year-old boy.)
When traveling in the UK, I get a kick out of seeing my name — almost — at every candy stand. (Get it? C. Hewitt…Chewits.) I keep this on my shelf to remind me to always be sweet to my co-workers.
Wooden Model of a Slovenian Hayrack
When I wrote the first edition of our Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook, my editor thought it bizarre that I would wax poetic about a roofed hayrack. “Why such a fuss about a farm implement?” But anyone who’s spent time in Slovenia understands why these structures are so iconic: They are uniquely Slovenian, and they are absolutely everywhere. I have several of these little wooden re-creations of hayracks, scattered around my house, and this one injects a little more Slovenia into my office.
“Golden Pen” Prize
In 2009, I worked with Rick and our TV crew to write and produce an episode of our public television series about Croatia. The Croatian Tourist Board honored the show with their “Golden Pen” award, which we were flattered to accept. I’m honestly not sure whether Rick knows that I kept this trophy, but if he’s reading this and wants to reclaim it, he knows where to find it.
Hórreo from Galicia
In college, I did a semester abroad in Spain. Our professor took us on a multi-day field trip to Galicia, the green and gorgeous area in the northwest corner of Iberia. Up in that rocky landscape, locals build rustic stone igloos — called hórreos — for protection against the elements. To help us identify them, my professor would call them out as we rolled down the highway: “There’s one again! Hórrrelllo! Hórrrrrellllllooo! Hórrrre-órrrre-órrrre-llllllllloooooo! ” Many years later, I traveled back to Galicia to research and write a new chapter for our Rick Steves Spain guidebook — and I could not resist buying this as a souvenir of both trips. Every time I see this little stone hut, I think of that formative first study-abroad experience.
Eastern Europe Slide Carousel
When I started working at Rick Steves’ Europe in 2000, I was just about the only person in the office who had traveled a fair bit in Eastern Europe…and certainly the only one who would admit to enjoying it. So, essentially by default, I was deputized to present a slideshow lecture on the region, as a part of our free Saturday travel classes (which are still going on). And I’ve been doing a version of that talk ever since. Many years ago, I replaced this old Kodak carousel with a new, digital PowerPoint. But this vintage black-and-yellow box survives as a poignant reminder of how far I, Eastern Europe, and technology have all come in the last 20 years.
I appreciate this tiny pewter model of the good ship Vasa — which sunk to the bottom of Stockholm harbor on her maiden voyage in 1628 — for two reasons. First, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm — where they’ve restored the entire ship, bow to stern — is one of my favorite museums in Scandinavia (and that’s saying something). And second, it reminds me of one of my favorite pearls of Rick Steves wisdom: “For the cost of a pewter Viking ship in Oslo, you can buy an actual boat in Turkey.”
Hugging Solidarity Salt-and-Pepper Shakers
Since my first visit in 2005, I have been a passionate advocate for the northern Polish Baltic port city of Gdańsk — home of Lech Wałęsa and birthplace of the Solidarity movement that toppled European communism. Anyone who loves history and/or beautiful cities is happy as a clam in Gdańsk. A few years back, Rick traveled to Gdańsk (with a healthy dose of skepticism)…and quickly became a convert. This sentimental “I love Solidarity” salt-and-pepper set was his thank-you gift to me for nudging him to a place that he found just as fascinating as I do. (Rick and I were planning to travel to Gdańsk in 2020 to film a new TV show there. Those plans are postponed…but we’ll get there eventually.)
I’m fascinated and entranced by the Eastern Orthodox faith, and I have two icons displayed in my office. The little diptych came home with me after a trip to Greece — I think I bought it in Corfu. I appreciate its packability…very handy for travel. And up on my wall is a bigger, hand-painted Bulgarian icon of Cyril and Method — those early Christian missionaries who first translated the Bible into the language of the Slavs (and in the process, created what became the basis for the Cyrillic alphabet). I bought this one from the artist who painted it, Rashko Bonev, in Veliko Tarnovo. (You can see him at work in this clip.)
Drinking Pitcher for the Healing Waters of Karlovy Vary
Spa towns compel people to do very strange things. And Karlovy Vary (a.k.a. Carlsbad), in the Czech Republic, is no exception. Shops sell these distinctive little pitchers, which are used to drink the local “healing” waters — tepid and infused with minerals. All over town, you see arthritic Germans and Austrians filling up these tiny pitchers from free-flowing taps, then sucking on them like miniature hookahs. I decided I could not have the true Karlovy Vary experience without investing in one for myself. (Unfortunately, the water tasted exactly the same.)
Chunk of the Berlin Wall
Inside this sealed jar is a real piece of the real Berlin Wall, which was a beautiful gift to me about 20 years ago. When I started working at Rick Steves’ Europe, Rick put me in charge of re-starting his treasured tradition of the “World Travelers Slide Club” — where avid travelers would gather on a Sunday night to take turns showing each other slideshows. One couple who attended religiously recognized my passion for Europe’s communist period. They had a few chunks they’d carved off the Berlin Wall, and I think they knew I’d give this one a good home. Over the course of other trips to Berlin, I also picked up a matchbox Trabant (the classic East German car) and an armband for the DDR secret police…creating a little tableau of East Germany.
Shingle from a Maramureș Wooden Roof
When I joined Rick to film a TV show in Romania a few years ago, I was determined to take our crew to the remote, rustic region of Maramureș — where woodworking is still as vital as computer programming is in most societies today. We went to a woodworking shop where I grabbed this shingle off of the discard pile as a memento. I also picked up a funny little straw hat, traditionally worn by local men. These remind me of the rich folk culture that still survives in Europe’s remotest corners.
Paper Model of Hotel Kranenturm by Herr Jung
So many members of the Rick Steves’ Europe extended family — from guides to tour members — were touched by the beautiful soul of the German schoolteacher Herr Jung, who for decades led tours around his little Rhine town of Bacharach. Herr Jung passed away recently, but his legacy looms large in the halls of our office. One of Herr Jung’s many hobbies was making paper models of buildings around his hometown. Many years ago, when he came to Edmonds for a visit, he gifted us with this model of the Hotel Kranenturm (another Rick Steves mainstay for decades). It made its way around the building until eventually the last person who owned it realized they didn’t have a good space for it. So they sent around an email saying, basically, “If nobody claims this, I’m afraid it’s going in the trash.” I immediately ran down and rescued the Kranenturm, and now it sits on top of my bookcase. Especially now that Herr Jung is gone, I like to think I’m preserving some small part of the sprightly spirit he so generously shared with many Rick Steves travelers over the years.
And speaking of kind souls who’ve touched many, I’ve saved the best item for last…
Autographed Photo of Mister Rogers
I work for a public television icon, but I grew up watching a different one. Recently, I was going through some old childhood papers — elementary school report cards, handmade Mother’s Day cards, and so on — when I came across this photograph of Fred “Mister” Rogers, signed (presumably) by his own hand. My Mom explained that I’d written to him as a child and he’d sent back this photo…but I never got an answer as to why it’s been buried in a manila folder in our attic for the last 30 years. I’ve now framed it, and it’s the highest thing in my office — reminding me that everyone is special and deserving of being treated with respect. You still can’t beat that Mister Rogers wisdom.
If you’re a frustrated would-be traveler, try this at home: Glance around and notice all of those little things you picked up in your travels, and have since become the wallpaper of your life. Look at them with new eyes and let them spark some memories. For now, that’ll have to do.
What’s your favorite offbeat souvenir from Europe? Which knickknacks and mementos fill you with happy memories that keep you going through this challenging time?