Anyone who walks through our front door understands that this is the home of world travelers. Guests are immediately greeted with a spirit house, a small, traditional, and highly decorative teakwood house meant as a resting place for honored spirits of ancestors. From the sidewalk looking into the sunroom, anyone who we don’t want around may well be scared away by the witch doctor mask from Indonesia, which I take off the wall and wear every Halloween to scare neighborhood children. Part of our massive book collection is held in a large and highly decorative Burmese cabinet we found in a bazaar in Rangoon.
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Although it is primarily an Asian household due to my wife’s influence, it’s also European (my own background), and every Easter I line the windowsill with wooden, hand-painted polskie jajka (Traditional Polish Easter eggs) I found in a shop in Kraków.
Of course, not everything is as it seems. While many of these beautiful artifacts were lovingly discovered and carefully packed to ship back home, some of the are, in fact, sourced either from a local shop or by mail-order. The very traditional-looking Chinese cabinet looks like it’s straight out of back alley bazaar in Beijing, but in fact we found it at TJMaxx. We never tell our guests that though. We want to retain our exotic mystique, and make people think that each item in our home was painstakingly sourced from a small, off-the-beaten-path shop, prices haggled over through excruciating negotiations, bribes given to customs officials. Each item has a story. If that story involves driving the two miles from our home to TJMaxx, we make up another one. In this case, I explain how I negotiated the price with a 105-year-old shop owner in Yunnan, speaking flawless Mandarin, and being told of the cabinet’s mystical qualities and its ability to bestow good luck on its owner and horrible curses on the owner’s enemies.
While visiting the south of France, I came across a wonderful set of Laguiole cutlery with distinctive features and a “shepherd’s cross” on the handle, which was made of animal horn and solid hardwood, but didn’t want to take the chance of it getting confiscated on the plane, so I ordered it from a company called Occitan Imports; once I got back home. Now our dinner parties are a little more elegant, and I have one more conversation starter for when everyone sits down at the table. I made French food for our last dinner party, and I think the cutlery got more positive comments than my coq au vin.
Before my visit I had never realized that in Provence, there was an entirely separate language called Occitan! It’s not widely spoken any more, but its existence is nonetheless fascinating, and I was able to convince a Provençal shop owner to say a few words to me in this regional language.
In Macau, the shopping is as incredible as the opulent casinos. Language there is a little more challenging. I can speak a little Mandarin as well as French, and my wife speaks Thai and Vietnamese, but none of that did us any good in this Cantonese-speaking Special Administrative Region of China, where the most common second language is Portuguese. We mostly communicated through anxious pointing and gesturing.
We were living in Bangkok, and Macau is just a short plane ride away, making it a perfect weekend jaunt. We stayed at the Hotel Sintra, right in the middle of the action, and near the Lisboa Casino, with its unusual pineapple-like shaped tower. The Sintra’s rooms were comfortable, the service excellent and the buffet was the best in town, and they make a fabulous sangria. We shopped – boy, how we shopped. The small desk caddy with dragons still sits on my desk at home. We brought back several examples of traditional Chinese paper cut artwork, a type of elaborate folk art with intricate designs cut from paper and framed, and we have four of these beautiful pieces in our living room. These were mostly smaller items, which were easy to carry back home, but make wonderful conversation starters, and I have never seen anything quite like these items here in the United States.
In Burma, when you walk across the border from Thailand, you are instantly in a bustling informal bazaar environment, with street hawkers everywhere, selling everything from cheap plastic imports, to Burmese cigars (very strong, not very good), to handcrafted items made by members of local hilltribes. If you go, bring an empty suitcase, you’ll fill it for the return trip.
Perhaps one of the most unusual street bazaars I ever visited was in Cambodia. I didn’t buy anything, but noticed a small, dessicated leathery thing on a table. I picked it up and looked at it, unable to figure out what its purpose was, until my wife told me that it was a bear’s gall bladder. I put it back down immediately.
Of course, any visit to Southeast Asia must include the endless stalls of Chatuchak Market, where you can find anything you can imagine, and a few things you wouldn’t want to imagine. Every time we visited we found something new and unexpected to add to our collection. It’s an all-day trip, and easy to get lost in the maze of shops!
It may be easy to visit the gift shops on the tourist streets, and pick up the cheap plastic replicas, shot glasses with pictures on them, and baseball caps, but those items will quickly be forgotten. Every day when I walk into my living room I am reminded of the many exotic places we have visited, and our guests are always excited to take a quick tour and hear the stories – some real and some manufactured – of each item.
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