Vacation souvenirs take the form of so much more than T-shirts, shot glasses and snow globes. Travel sends us home with an expanded palate and a refocused palette.
I owe my love of olives to the street markets of Provence, where abundant, glistening displays of the fruit helped me overcome a childhood aversion. Right now, fresh from travels through the Vaucluse region of the province, I’ve plucked a cookbook by Francophile food maven Patricia Wells from my kitchen bookshelf in hopes of extending the vacation via taste buds.
Often, though, what’s captivating on journeys fails to translate at home. Diaphanous sundresses that are de rigueur resort wear — especially where air conditioning is minimal — look skimpy in real life. And the bold florals of Provençal fabrics so appealing in French cafes and on medieval stone terraces look almost gaudy, or just plain wrong, in many American interiors.
However, one charm of southern France is an easy export: its nuanced hues. Duplicating the muted blue, green and gray shutters — soft as cats’ eyes — that frame the windows and doors of quaint French village abodes and farmhouses can ease the yearning for the countryside’s narrow lanes and twisting village passageways.
Vacations leave us with a more worldly inner color wheel, like the international flags flapping outside the United Nations, only better. There’s Caribbean turquoise, Russian amber, Nantucket gray, Miami Beach pink, Cotswolds yellow, adobe beige, Oaxaca black, Lake Louise aqua, Santorini white and Georgia red — among the many global hues.
They say smell is the most evocative of our senses. And, true. Sage is the Grand Canyon; diesel exhaust is European capitals; barbecue is Texas.
But it was the colors of Southern France that inspired the paintings of Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh. For the rest of us, a little paint might help create a postcard that we can live in, at least until the spectrum of another region catches our wandering eye.
After one Provençal vacation, I came home and changed the family-room walls to a sunny yellow. (They’re now back to a more sedate Midwestern gray.)
Between Cézanne and Kodachrome, so much commercially reproduced imagery was rendered in shades of gray. A man I knew, who grew up on black-and-white TV, once described to me the wonder of his first visit to an American baseball stadium and the initial shock of seeing the field in all its vibrant green glory. Before the 1950s and ’60s, seeing anything in color required a visit. There were tinted postcards and commercial brochures, of course, but enjoying the full spectrum required being there.
Even in a time when we’re fully saturated by a digital (and digitally enhanced) rainbow of images from across the world, local color is still just that: local, a rich mix of sight augmented by our other senses. (Don’t believe the pundits. Our United States are much more than a political patchwork of red and blue.)
In my house, there are hints of geographically distinct color collected from well beyond my address: Red rocks from Sedona, Ariz., that still seem to exude sun-drenched heat; gray Petoskey stones (that come alive with hexagonal fossil shapes when wet) collected along the Lake Michigan shore; a chunk of raw copper purchased from a young boy in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he had a roadside stand to raise money for his out-of-work miner father; and shells in pale yellow, red and ivory plucked from the Atlantic surf.
Some world travelers live in homes that resemble galleries, like high-end domestic travelogues, and display art objects from India, Africa and China. For most of us, far-flung panoramas are stored in a mental palette collected from various roads taken. My interior slide show includes the brown mountains of Southern California that, to my 30-year-old roving reporter’s eyes, looked like great sleeping elephants. And I have teenage memories of buff-colored dunes at Kitty Hawk, N.C., to revisit at will.
From space, our glass marble of a planet is a pristine beauty all blue and white. But, like looking beneath the surface of the ocean, the zoomed-in view reveals a multicolor world — from the skin of its inhabitants to San Francisco’s historic Painted Ladies.
In our color-conscious world, the absence of color has its own startling power. Utah’s vast, starkly white Bonneville Salt Flats invite the mind to paint its own scene. Give humans a sea of nothing and they get ideas — in this case, a desire to set a land-speed record.
Nothingness has its own appeal, especially for travelers who’ve fled dense cities. But more often, we migrate from a black-and-white Kansas to the Emerald City, just for the pleasure of dazzling our own personal prism.
We gravitate to blue, the most universally liked color. It’s the shade of forever, the wild blue yonder. But beneath that sky, a variegated world is waiting to be seen.
Powers is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Her website is rebecca
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