A souvenir from the past

A year ago I decided to broaden my horizons and challenge myself by leaving home and going to study abroad. I am glad that my home country, Lithuania, is the member of European Union, as it provided me, as a citizen of Lithuania, a chance to get a grant for studying in the Netherlands. This is how I end up living in Nijmegen and enjoying studies at Radboud University. Before moving to Nijmegen I could not take many things with me, though I was certain that I wanted to have something that would remind me of home. I had to choose from a number of objects but all of them appeared to be too familiar, too common or too ordinary therefore did not hold any symbolic or personal meaning. I wanted to have a souvenir for myself, so I was looking for an object that could really speak to me in the unique manner. Suddenly I found a coin of Lithuanian national currency called “Litas” that was replaced by Euro in 2015. It evoked many different feelings and memories and made me think about myself and my relationship with my homeland and culture, as well as my relationship with time and space in particular.
The coin, issued at 1998, served its function for seventeen years. It had a very clearly distinguished meaning that was comprehensible for everyone as it was used as money in everyday transactions. The exchange value was inscribed in the coin but local people were able to recognize it from the size and the color of it. It was a very common object that every Lithuanian had and used frequently. A few years ago, a particular coin that I kept would have never been considered as a unique item. Minted in aluminum its thingness have probably never been recognized as well. From Kopytoff’s biographical approach it can be said that once this object was issued to circulation it instantly acquired a unique commodity status with embodied monetary value and for so many years it traveled between one person to another in the specific territory of Lithuanian Republic while it had no meaning and no value in any other country in the world. However, the commodity status and monetary value that was an essence of this particular object were demolished overnight as the national currency of Lithuania was changed from Litas to Euro. The coin was de-commoditized, the object became a thing. People then had to decide to either exchange it to Euro (by re-commoditizing it) or to keep it as a sacred item.

I kept the coin as a souvenir from the past. Susan Stewart (1993) explains that souvenir exists as a sample of the now distanced experience, an experience which the object can only evoke and resonate to, and can never entirely recoup. This definition perfectly describes the way I feel about this particular coin as if it still would be in circulation, I would probably never have thought about it in the sense that I do now. This now sacred thing for me has two layers or in other words two narratives. First, it stands as a reference to my own childhood memories, a childhood voluntarily remembered, a childhood manufactured from its material survival (Stewart 1993:145). Second, it symbolizes the history of Lithuania and a difficult path to country’s independence. To join these notions together the coin poses as a signifier of my cultural belonging, my personal and national identity. So it can be said that the materiality was transformed into meaning (Stewart 1993:140); the meaning that evokes nostalgic feelings but at the same time stands as an important reminder of my identity’s construction.

Paradoxically, I value this particular coin for its symbolic meaning and not for its material essence. I do not know when, where and from whom I acquired this certain object. I have never tracked its biography. I do not think from its materiality but rather from its statement. This object for me is metonymic and I value it because it delivers a function of the souvenir that is to create a continuous and personal narrative of the past (Stewart 1993:136). Though, the object cannot create a narrative by itself but rather the narrative is created when the relationship between possessor and object emerges. The narrative, that the coin holds in itself now, started to flourish when I noticed the thingness of an object (when it lost its original use value and function) and confer it to the new social life. The coin for me stands as a symbol of all the other Lithuanian coins that I used to use in the past. Moreover, it represents money in the broad sense and reminds me of a number of human interactions, the processes of giving and receiving, decision making, places of encounters, childish bets and so on. Or in other words, it represents a circulation, the process, the continuous movement. And the fact that it was replaced by Euro also stands as a symbol of inevitable sacrifice for the country to move forward.

A Cultural approach to understanding material culture suggests that objects can be a valuable resource for understanding the very nature of our social lives. Many people need souvenirs as material objects that could evoke memories of lived experiences. Though the souvenir, as a material object, is not valuable in itself the value together with the meaning is created by its possessor. It means that to become a souvenir object needs to be acquired by the person. As people, we choose what is important for us and what is worth remembering, therefore, we keep objects that remind us the most exciting or life-changing experiences. For me, the most important souvenir is the coin from the past, that signifies the process of becoming and reminds me of my cultural identity and national belonging. Or to express it in the Emile Durkheim sense: “to express our own ideas even to ourselves, we need to attach those ideas to material things that symbolize them” (Durkheim, 1995:228).

 Emile Durkheim “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life” in trans. Joseph Ward Swain. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1995).
 Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process” in Appadurai (ed) The Social Life of Things (Cambridge UP, 1986).
 Susan Stewart, “Objects of Desire. Part I: The Souvenir” in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke UP, 1993), 132-51.

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