I wanted a gift to give my daughter’s Peace Corps host family. I suggested food, maybe chocolate. Abby nixed that idea. She explained via email that chocolate was unknown in her Cambodian village. How about something from Boston, she suggested, maybe a calendar? A Boston gift felt right, but a calendar seemed paltry. I considered a coffee table book or Red Sox jerseys before deciding on a Revere Bowl, that functional, graceful, and historic Beantown classic.
I had never been to Shreve Crump & Low. The tuxedoed doorman greeted my bicycle pants and reflective vest like I was wearing Burberry; the elegant saleswomen smiled at my bicycle pannier as if it were Louis Vuitton. I chose the 8” diameter bowl; I figured it would fit in the plane’s overhead. Visions of presenting this finely crafted piece of our culture to the family sheltering my daughter for two years ran though my head while the saleswoman stepped away. When she returned with an immense silver box with wide ribbon and bow, I realized I’d need a checked bag.
In Phnom Penh, I gave Abby soap, candy bars, novels, and granola; American basics that Peace Corps volunteers crave. Her eyes arched at the silver box. She slipped off the ribbon. Oh, Dad. I know you meant well, but we can’t give this to my family. I didn’t understand why but acquiesced to her cultural sensitivity. We forsook an afternoon at the National Museum to find a more appropriate gift and settled on a World Atlas. Cambodia and the United States bound between hardcovers.
We wanted the atlas wrapped. A petit woman laid a generous sheet of gold paper on the counter. She cut the sheet, trimmed it again, and again. I grew more nervous with each reduction. When the remains were scant millimeters larger than the book itself, she started to tape the wrapping directly to the cover’s satellite photograph of earth. No! I reached out to stop her from obliterating the Philippines. Abby, in perfect Khmer, explained that we did not want the paper taped directly to the gift. The woman shrugged. She made tiny folds and sealed them with bits of tape until the book was covered in gold, just barely. She snipped two pieces of thin blue ribbon and taped a cross on the front of the box. After ten minutes of frugal wrapping the woman brought forth a wide chunk of garish ribbon, pulled a hidden string and it blossomed into a gigantic bow that concealed the entire mess.
The next afternoon, Abby’s Cambodian family reversed the process. We sat around a wooden table, shaded by the sleeping rooms above. They unpeeled each snippet of tape and smoothed each paper fold with agonizing precision. When they finally exposed the book, Philippines intact, we traced our fingers over each page and scrutinized every image with equal interest, Index included. The map of Cambodia held no more interest than any other. For some reason we lingered long in Paraguay.
Meanwhile the Revere Bowl lay inside its box, zipped inside my duffle, ungiven. Abby was right. There’s no place for a pewter bowl in a traditional Cambodian house. The raised sleeping spaces are private and sacrosanct; public spaces are open to the elements.
We stashed the bulky silver box in the baggage hold of our bus to Battambang. We carried it on the boat to Siem Reap, and the tuk-tuk to rural Bakong. Then we retraced our route. I gave Abby a roadside hug when the bus stopped in her village and then continued with my bowl to Phnom Penh. I checked the silver box at the airport.
Three flights, thirty hours, a pair of customs lines, two subway rides, one bus, and a four-block walk later, I unpacked. The Shreve box was skewed and cracked, the ribbon frayed. Three security search tags nestled inside the Revere Bowl.
My elegant gift survived its 20,000-mile journey in perfect shape. I could return it; I don’t need a Revere Bowl. But it’s become a souvenir; its function is irrelevant. It looks lovely on my piano.