It seemed right, somehow, that I should have a flash of inner recognition in a gift shop across the street from Vatican City. Even though my flash had nothing to do with religious awareness and though there were no theological visions involved, the ambiance for sudden realization was correct.
I was buying a miniature likeness of Pope John Paul II for my sister Emily in Oakland, who, as she likes to say, is a Very Devout Catholic. I capitalize the phrase only to indicate the tone in which it is said.
The likeness of the pontiff was full-bodied and about three inches in length. Its feet contained an adhesive substance so that one could affix the Holy Father to a dashboard where he could gyrate to the movement of the car, because of the rubbery substance out of which the likeness is crated.
No comparison is intended, by the way, to those minaiture hula dancers that are meant to sway suggestively with a similar automotive movement. It wasn't the pontiff's bottom that swayed, if memory serves, but his outstretched arms, as though he were blessing the mulltitudes.
The flash that came as I purchased the Pope was a recognition that I was finally buying the ultimate trinket, and I do not say that lightly.
The swaying pontiff was without a doubt the most unusual artifact my wife and I would find in a month spent traveling through England, France and Italy, visiting every gift shop in sight.
When there were no gift shops in the immediate vicinity, I searched until I found one, as tour-bus drivers honked for me to hurry and other tourists aboard the bus grumbled their unhappiness in half a dozen languages. I hadn't realized until then how lyrical cursing can sound in Japanese.
If I'm an Ugly American, I don't mean to be. I just can't help myself when I travel. I'm a gift shop junkie.
I say that with an appropriate sense of uneasiness, because there is a kind of addiction involved. When a man walks into something as vast and beautiful as the Louvre and instantly asks where the gift shop is, you know he has a problem.
"You're buying more and more junk," my wife said to me one evening in our room at the Hotel Elysees Marignan in Paris.
I was sitting on the floor with my day's purchases. Spread before me were mementos of our trip thus far: coasters, towels, woolen stocking aglow with the Union Jack, wooden soldiers, a Winston Churchill mug, and even a kitchen knife purchased at Stratford-on-Avon and said to have been used by the Bard himself. "These are treasures of which memories are made," I said.
"Infant-sized T-shirts that say 'France is for Louvers' in Algerian across the front?"
I had picked them up in Fontainebleau, on a side street near an Algerian restaurant where we ate huge bowls of couscous with chicken, and something brown in a bowl. Usually I don't eat brown things, but I didn't want to upset the Algerians. I don't know where we stand with them.
"They're for our grandchildren," I said.
"We have three grandchildren and you have 14 infant-sized T-shirts," she said. "You plan on selling some to other grandchildren in the neighborhood or are you going to buy addtional grandchildren in France who will fit the T-shirts?"
"I like T-shirts."
She leaned closer to look at my collection of trinkets.
"Do you also like miniature toilet seats?"
I think I got that on the West Bank. It's a small, pink toilet seat with a cardboard backing into which one can slip photographs. You lift the little toilet seat and, voila! , there's Aunt Zulema.
"It's for pictures of our loved ones," I said. "The French are very imaginative."
"Not for any lovedone you share with me. Store it with your genuine-ivory Eskimo rock."
I had almost forgotten the rock.
We were on vacation in Point Barrow, Alaska. I'm not sure why we'd chosen Point Barrow. It was 20 below in the pale sunlight, and an arctic wind cut like a whaling knife. But there we were.
We dragged our luggage over an icy road from the airfield to discover that the Top of the World Motel had no record of our reservations.
"Sorry," the desk clerk said, slamming the book closed.
The last plane had left for Anchorage. We were stranded in a frozen wasteland. Top of the world offered the only accommodations in town, and quite possibly the only accommodations north of the Arctic Circle.
A motel employee was, in effect, telling us to sleep outisde in the snow and thus sentencing us to death by Popsicle-ization.
I don't recall what I said to her, but I am certain it had something to do with the life expectancy of a desk clerk in combat with a desperate tourist. The way I saw it, it was her or us.
"All right," she said, "no need to get snippy. I'll put you in a temp."
I didn't know what a temp was, but at that point I'd have slept with the stuffed polar bear in the lobby.
"A temp is fine," I said.
"Absolutely no alcoholic beverages in the room," she said.
"I wouldn't dream of it," I said, thinking about the martini flask in my suitcase.
I felt a moisture on my chin.
"You're drooling," my wife whispered.