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Can souvenir matchbooks, once a hot item, still rekindle travel memories?

By ZOFIA SMARDZ | The Washington Post | Published: July 26, 2019

It's time to say goodbye to the matchbooks.

Yes, it's a sad thing to give up the mementos. But when you're saving keepsakes that you picked up in places that closed down decades ago, what's the point, right?

Take the other night. I pulled a book out of the big glass bowl we've stored our souvenir matches in for the past, oh, 25 years at least. I needed to light some dinner candles, but we were out of regular matches, and it struck me (ha!) that I could put this old collection to good use at last.

Don't ask me why it took me so long to figure that out. Could it be because I keep that bowl high atop a wardrobe in the third-floor bedroom? (What, you think this is maybe not the best way to display keepsakes?)

Anyway, what I pulled out were matches from the Childe Harold, a once-famous Washington saloon that shut down a decade or more ago, though I was there a lot longer ago than that. I'm pretty sure it was to see the Ramones. In the late 1970s.

Wow, these are some old matches, I thought. Not only is the Childe Harold gone, but all four original Ramones are dead. Yeek.

After this memento mori (not the kind of memento I kept those matches for), I used the book for a couple of weeks to light candles indoors and out. Candles are my thing. I'm not a smoker, never was. Matches were just, many moons ago, a free souvenir that you could pick up in any restaurant or bar almost anywhere in the world. There they were, in a basket or a bowl by the door, for the taking. So I took.

They'd be a good reminder, I thought, of the corner bar we hung out at during my junior year abroad in Vienna, or the great pizzeria not far from my flat in downtown Bonn, or the Oslo hotel where I was lucky to find a room the one time I visited. Or the Parisian brasserie or the Venetian cafe or the Prague pub or the Berlin kneipe. Or the upscale New York restaurant or two. Oh, so many places.

Except. Well, except you see where they ended up. I hadn't looked at those matches in, oh, 25 years at least. I guess it was time. So I hauled down the bowl and spilled the contents onto the bed. (Though first I blew off the dust. Cough.) And there they were. My travel memories, laid out before me.

Or at least, some memories. Less extensive than I'd thought. Why were there so many identical matchbooks? Like, a fistful from the Churchill Hotel in London? I didn't remember ever staying there. (Ah, because those turned out to be my husband's, who was, apparently, a matchbook kleptomaniac on his business trips.)

There were also a number of specimens from the Hotel Imperial in Vienna. Now that I understood. A decade after my junior year abroad, I went back to Vienna a bunch of times as a reporter. It was so exciting to be able to stay at the Imperial, the elegant old hotel on the Ring that was infamous for being Hitler's unofficial Austrian headquarters before the Anschluss. That wasn't why I was excited to stay there, of course. It was because the Imperial was so ... imperial — grand, Old World, a bit stuffy, yes, but luxe. And of course expensive. And I was on an expense account. It was heaven.

Then years later still, I went back with my husband on a business trip. We took along our 14-month-old son, and he took his first steps in a room at the Imperial. My heart lights up just remembering. Worth grabbing another handful of matchbooks for, obviously.

The Austrian capital was (apart from the Churchill) the mother lode of our collection. There were a couple of books from the Hilton, with a pretty art nouveau design — and disintegrating strike strips — that made me wonder: When did I stay there? Maybe the OPEC meeting in the early 1980s, back when everyone knew what the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries was. And the time I met some friends in Vienna and insisted that we head to a heuriger — a Viennese wine garden — for dinner and ended up feeling super-sheepish for having dragged everyone to such a cheesy tourist trap. (Hey, but it's a great memory.)

There was also a little box from a Viennese ... shoe store. I know, weird. But it was a smoker's world once upon a time.

Then, however, the selection dwindled rapidly. There were matches from a hotel in Munich, where I once saw Klaus Kinski. (He was a famous German actor, father of Nastassja, a famous Hollywood actress.) There was the box from Oslo, where I bought the two beautiful Nordic sweaters that I still keep in my storage trunk, though they're too small for me now. There were some matches from Stockholm, and a bunch from Seoul (my husband's, again).

But what threw me was what wasn't there. Nothing from Berlin, where I spent endless days in the 1980s. Or Bonn, where I must have hit every restaurant in the nearly three years I lived there. Or Warsaw, destination of so many family visits. Nothing from Paris! All the times I've been — and with smokers, too — but no souvenir allumettes? How could this be? There was nothing from my own trip to the Far East and Australia/New Zealand. And virtually nothing from countless U.S. cities.

Go figure. Here I thought I'd amassed a trove of keepsakes to ignite fond memories, but the memories turned out to be limited. Still, pawing through this pile did just kindle a blaze of nostalgia, didn't it? So it looks as if I can extinguish it at last, use the books up one by one, letting each warm me with the glow of remembrance of things past.

And anyway, it's not as if I'll be able to add much to this collection. I figured that out not too long ago when, leaving a Greenwich Village restaurant after dinner, I noticed a bowl by the door filled with ... little matchboxes! I hadn't seen anything like it in ages.

I dropped one gleefully into my purse and bore it home. And forgot about it. Until I needed some matches again and remembered the little box resting on the fireplace mantel, waiting to serve. I yanked it open, and out fell ... breath mints. Sigh.

It's just no match for the old days.
 

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