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The Things We Collect While Traveling
Tourists often purchase souvenir trinkets, t-shirts and keychains — but physical objects aren't what matter most.
Major tourist destinations are filled with souvenir shops — and, unlike the candy stores on London’s Oxford Street that are devoid of customers and most likely a front for money laundering, the sale of t-shirts, plush toys and bottle openers to visitors is big business. Travelers love to take overpriced trinkets home.
I have a friend who has visited nearly 100 of the 165 Hard Rock Cafe locations in the world — he hopes to visit them all, which would be an impressive feat! At each cafe, he buys a t-shirt to mark the occasion, and you’d be hard-pressed to spot him wearing anything but a Hard Rock tee. I support his endeavor, as the Hard Rock brand and restaurants are owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which shares a special relationship with my alma mater, Florida State University. Go ‘Noles!
My souvenir of choice? I collect magnets — one for each country I’ve visited, which I proudly display on my refrigerator. They cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to ten, and are manufactured in foreign factories for pennies. Profit margins on magnets and other souvenirs are huge!
Whatever we collect during our travels, we shouldn’t lose sight of the priceless gift we each take home: memories stored in our hearts and minds. Some of those memories we might choose to share, others we keep for ourselves. My magnet collection reminds me of those memories and, when friends visit my home, they can point to a magnet and I’ll gladly share one of my stories.
Today, we’ll pretend that you’ve just marveled at the magnet I purchased in Poland and I owe you a story!
Last summer, I traveled to Warsaw, Poland, adding a new country to my travel map and a new magnet to my refrigerator. I had rolled my wheelchair into Poland before, but both visits lasted less than a day (and were barely across the German border). I chose not to “count” those trips as I hadn’t met the criteria discussed in my article, Layovers, Connections and Cruises: Have You Actually Been There? Perhaps most important of all, I didn’t have a meaningful memory from those earlier “visits” to Poland — but, in May 2022, I left with many!
In a previous post for premium subscribers (like you - thank you!), I wrote about that trip to Poland and a wild conversation I had there, about a clandestine plot to recover nuclear warheads from the sunken Russian warship Moskva. If you haven’t read that article yet, you can find it here — it also includes some helpful information about visiting Warsaw with a wheelchair!
That story might seem difficult to top, but the memory I treasure most from Warsaw is a conversation with Illia, a Ukrainian man that I met at the Hard Rock Cafe.
I never planned to visit the Hard Rock, but spotted it across the street from a tourist attraction that I was visiting. That site, the Palace of Culture and Science, is the second tallest building in Poland and it is often referred to as the “Eighth Sister,” a reference to its similarity in design with the “Seven Sisters” in Moscow. You can read more about the Seven Sisters and their Stalinist architecture in my guide to wheelchair accessible Moscow, Russia (though you probably won’t be putting it to use anytime soon).
When I wheeled up to the bar, Ilia was already seated there and made space for me. My expectation was to order one beer, then be on my way, but Ilia introduced himself and a conversation began. We talked nonstop for hours, discussing the war in Ukraine, his family, my family, his friends, my friends — on and on it went. Needless to say, I drank more than one beer!
During our conversation, we were joined at the bar by a U.S. diplomat (who had left Ukraine two days prior) and a guy from Tennessee who was visiting Poland with his fiancé (a Ukrainian). By the time I left the Hard Rock, the sun was setting and the sky had become a beautiful tapestry of pastel colors — the icing on the cake of what was a truly memorable day.
I decided to mark the occasion as my friend so often does — with the purchase of a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt. It was money well spent, and it reminds me often of Ilia, the stranger who became a friend, and the beautiful sunset that graced the Polish capital city that night.