And thereby hangs a tale and a pail
It used to be that we’d purchase exotic bits and bobs on our travels and decorate mantelpieces and, aeons ago, put “dust-gatherers” in china cabinets, sometimes with a placename inscribed, such as Katoomba or the Isle of Wight.
They were tangible pieces of evidence as to where we’d gone. You couldn’t buy, say, a Moroccan brass pot anywhere but Marrakech or Fes so if you had one on the hallway table, it was a symbol of your adventurousness, affluence, or combination of the two.
Perhaps it had been a gift from friends or family returned from foreign reaches but, nonetheless, it came with a provenance and, perhaps, an inflated story or two. Now it could just as well mean you (or they) have been to a homewares store at the local mall or bought the item online.
The ready availability of everything on our doorstep, from Chinese silk cushion covers to Sicilian pottery, has taken the thrill out of shopping overseas. But this has simplified my travels for I rarely go to a shopping centre or department store abroad unless it is for cheap sportswear or cosmetics (in the US) or to designer outlets such as Serravalle (an hour’s drive from Milan). At the latter, the goods are last-season’s stock or excess items from recent production runs. It is completely impossible not to buy sunglasses by Marc Jacobs for a song or drench yourself in cut-price Bulgari fragrance.
But, mostly, the world has come to us and we can decorate our homes, and our lives, in any style we choose. Hamptons? Bring on the pastel blue and white striped cushions, white furniture and shutters and enormous amounts of grey paint. Santa Fe? I wouldn’t mind betting they sell plastic cacti and terracotta tiles at hardware barns across suburbia and surely there are online tutorials on how to apply stucco. Indian or Spanish Mission is never more than a bolt of red-and-gold fabric or an arched wrought-iron gate away.
Increasingly the real fossickers among us, I predict, will haunt markets rather than predictable shops, looking for the hand-crafted and the unusual — that is the “one-offs”, as they are now called. Such markets could be immense and glorious, such as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, or at our local community halls where each stall is ideally staffed by the craftsperson, available to answer queries and (hopefully) take orders for more.
As I look around our house (a mix of Provencal and Hamptons, it does have to be admitted), it’s easy to spot the treasures — pieces by my potter friend Brooke Clunie, the rusty metal rabbit I rescued from a salvage store in rural France, and old textiles from long-ago Bali. Then there’s the bucket from Khartoum that was part of a bride price when a mad male travelling companion thought it would be a lark to sell me to a trader in exchange for a racing camel.
The local chap was interested in my child-bearing hips, sensing a succession of sons, but negotiations broke down and we ended up not with a speedy dromedary but a good tale — and an admittedly handy pail.