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Ornamental Solution to the Souvenir Problem

VACATION MEMORIES. This is one in a continuing series on memorable vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

December 16, 1990|BEVERLY STEPHEN | Stephen is a New York City free-lance writer.

It all started when we bought a tiny replica of "A Street Car Named Desire" in New Orleans. The miniature trolley was a Christmas tree ornament--the first of many we would collect as we traveled--and as sound a solution to a recurring fight as any marriage counselor might propose.

Our happy mutual decision to buy an ornament or two wherever we stopped and shopped around the world eliminated forever our tug of war over carting back unwieldly artifacts from exotic locales, and worse, displaying them.

No more Mexican baskets too big to fit under the seat or in the overhead compartment. No more matador hats from Madrid. From now on, the only souvenirs we would buy would be Christmas ornaments suitable for display only once a year on the family tree.

Over the last few years, this has turned out to be not just a solution to the souvenir problem, but a wonderful personal tradition.

Each year when we unwrap the ornaments and trim the tree, fond memories of our travels come flooding back.

And best of all, these mementos are discreet, quite unlikely to bore guests as much as a slide show. Most people probably never even notice them hanging among the shiny balls and twinkling lights.

In Chicago for a wedding, we visited the Oak Park home of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in the gift shop we found an ornament taken from a design element of the master architect's house.

It reminds us not only of Wright's highly designed home, where function frequently suffered for form, but of a warm family get-together and a city we'd love to visit for more than a short weekend.

During a ski vacation in Aspen, we picked up the little skier sitting on the chair lift. And when my husband unwrapped him this year, he wanted to be on that lift. "Let's go skiing out West again," he said.

On a glorious fall foliage weekend, we drove up to Newport, R.I., and visited the enormous mansions that turn-of-the-century industrialists called "cottages."

In the gift shop of the Breakers, the most impressive cottage of all and former summer home of the Vanderbilts, we were able to buy a Christmas ornament cottage.

On the Caribbean island of Nevis, we visited a local crafts cooperative where native artisans were carving and painting Christmas decorations. We bought a green salamander with yellow spots, a pelican in flight and a placid donkey.

These ornaments are so charming, we look at them and wonder why we didn't much care for the island, a destination I'm convinced is largely undiscovered because there's very little reason to go there.

In Puerto Rico, we bought bright green marzipan parrots, toucans with fiery orange bills and a turtle with a hot pink shell. They remind us of a colorful place in the sun where we spent a delightful long weekend.

In Phoenix, we bought a tiny adobe house, a coyote wearing a bandanna, a cactus and a Georgia O'Keefe-style skull. Looking at them reminds me of bright sun, desert landscapes and a sky that stretches out forever.

A rubber crawfish from Cajun country looks more like something a mischievous first-grade boy would try to scare the girls with than something to put on the Christmas tree, but this south Louisiana mascot turns up on everything from refrigerator magnets to oven mitts.

We adore nothing more than eating by the Bayous, and that ferocious-looking orange critter reminds us of happy down-home crawfish boils, Cajun popcorn and elegant restaurant meals where crawfish tails are as happy as lobster in a bisque or a cream sauce.

And even though we live in New York City, we saw no reason to pass up a tiny Checker cab with a Christmas tree sticking out of the trunk.

It sometimes takes imagination to find an object representative of a country or city that's suitable for use as an ornament.

Not every entrepreneur is as savvy as the proprietor of that tourist trap in the French Quarter which actually produced a marzipan replica of the famous trolley.

Sometimes you have to think about what kind of souvenir or toy can happily hang on a tree. Can it be rigged up with a hanging wire? Is it too heavy?

In London, I fell in love with the famous double-decker buses and rode them everywhere. When we found an adorable double-decker bus intended to be a toy, we knew it was destined for our tree. All it needed was a hanger.

We were also quite fond of the colorful Yeoman Warders who take care of the Tower of London and of the snappy Palace Guards. In the Queen's Gallery gift shop at Buckingham Palace, we were delighted to find them represented by felt finger-puppets. A yarn loop attached to their heads will quickly change their function.

The next time we go to Paris, we'll buy a tiny Eiffel Tower, suitable for hanging. A bullfighter in Madrid, a gondola in Venice. Cowboy boots made in Texas.

The possibilities are endless. And don't you think one of those colorful Mexican straw baskets might come in handy for storing the ornament collection?

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