The Best Souvenirs:
Remember that time, when that thing happened in that place?
When I (Albert) was a kid, my dad was trying to build his consulting business, and he traveled a lot. Like, sometimes 200 nights per year. And while this presented its own challenges for my mom, my siblings and I, it was also fascinating. As his business is mainly in service to the Oil&Gas Industry, he was traveling to places I had never heard of or thought about. He always came back with these stories of strange and exciting places. He would go to the North Sea and swing across to a floating platform from a ship on glorified rope-swing. Or there is one story about being in the Black Sea, a political coup, and ending up in Casablanca - at least that’s how I tell the story. To this day, Jenny still likes to say that she is sure that my dad is actually (or was) in the CIA, not a rotating equipment expert and, for fun, my dad has never fully denied that story!
Besides these fascinating stories, every time my dad would come back from a trip, he would bring us souvenirs. Maybe a small stuffed animal from a local shop, or a keychain bought at the airport, or a delicacy from the local (and strange) cuisine. These things were prized possessions for my siblings and I. I can remember the excitement of my mom saying “Dad’s coming home tonight” before we set off to school. I would spend the entire day dreaming about what kind of thing my dad would be pulling out of the suitcase, and what kind of story he would tell. This was the foundation of my desire to live overseas as an adult.
“Souvenir” is a word that is commonly used today across the world. It’s root is from the Latin “subvenire”, meaning “occur to the mind”, and in French it is a verb meaning “to remember”. In the English language, it is used mainly as a noun as “a thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place, or event.” These are all very apt descriptions of those chachkis and other things that my dad brought home to me. They were things that caused my dad’s travels to “occur to my mind”, or to “remember” where he had been. They were things that we kept around as a reminder of those stories he would tell. What really struck me one day, when I was about 16, was the fact that none of those memories or experiences were mine. They were my dad’s memories and my dad’s experiences, translated into a “souvenir” and a cool story.
Eventually I came to appreciate that this ritual of small, childish gifts and a story that fascinated the mind and left me dreaming of far off places was one of the best gifts that my dad ever gave to me. It sparked my curiosity about the world, and different cultures, and learning about people. It gave me the desire to, and the confidence that I could, live in other places. As Jenny and I became a family of our own, I wanted to move overseas, and take my family with me, so that we could have our own “souvenirs”, but not the same ones I got from my dad. I wanted “souvenirs” that were shared by all of us.
So what are the souvenirs that you will take (or have taken) from your own experience as an expat family? They could be material “things kept as a reminder” such as a favorite hat bought on a trip to Italy, a handmade wok from an artisan in China, flags hanging in your room or office from all of the places you have been. But more often than not, the best souvenirs will be more closely related to the Latin root, or the French translation. They are things that will randomly occur to you one day, years later. They are things that will cause you to remember the joys (or challenges) of being on assignment. If you have an open mind and an open heart to whatever this new country has to offer, these are the things that make the whole experience worth it, no matter how tough it may have been. These are “gifts” that can come from many different areas of your expat life, and will help shape your family in many ways.
G.K. Chesterson said “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” As you embark on your own travels as an expat family, we encourage you to go as travelers who make their own souvenirs by discovery and not as tourists seeking out the souvenirs already made for them by others.