Josna Rege

11. The Napkin Collection

In 1960s, Childhood, Greece, Stories on March 5, 2010 at 4:42 pm

As a girl of eight, I collected paper napkins; a strange hobby, no doubt, and seemingly a typically girly one. But my fellow-napkin hounds were all boys in our Athens neighborhood, and we traded and struck deals with our folded bits of colored paper with all the passion of Wall Street stockbrokers, with the important exception that not a single lepta ever changed hands.

We didn’t have much stuff in those days, and even less cash, but we didn’t even know that we didn’t have these things. Pocket money was unheard of, and my only access to money was through the kitchen drawer where my parents would throw their small change in lepta coins, holed in the center so that one could string them together.  Every few months the lepta would add up to drachmas, and when I could string together 60 drachmas’ worth of coins, I could take a trip to the English bookshop in Athens and buy a new Puffin Book (another collection, another post). How, then did I come by the currency of this chosen occupation?

Every time my mother did her weekly grocery shopping, she would buy a new pack of paper napkins: modest, serviceable table napkins for everyday use, but nonetheless pretty and fresh, with a one-color floral or abstract design printed on single-ply but reasonably absorbent paper. These were my first acquisitions and our basic stock-in-trade, since most of the boys had at least occasional access to this grade of napkin, and I had access to enough of them to help get them started with their own collections.

Another kind of napkin that came our way with some regularity was the smaller cocktail napkin, the cheap kind given out free at cafés or tavernas, generally advertising a brand of beer.  These were less desirable than the table napkins because they tended to be printed on only one face, so that when unfolded the other three quadrants were blank. This blatant cutting-of-corners was displeasing, even to our developing aesthetic and ethical sensibilities.

A premium find, highly sought-after in trading, was the soft two-ply, four-color napkin found at special occasions like birthday parties. These extravagant napkins were generally imported and beyond the means of our own parents, so they were few and far between. An additional difficulty was getting more than one of them at a time, one for one’s own collection and at least one extra for trading. What was disgusting to us was when we unfolded one of these lavishly appointed napkins to find that the luxury was a mere façade, and that it too had been printed on only one side, just like the advertising freebies.

Every collection has prize pieces and one-of-a-kinds. Mine included a set of cocktail napkins with sketches of beatniks on them, a select few round napkins among the predominant squares, and one soft, bright yellow beauty with scalloped edges.

My active napkin-collecting days ended in 1963 when we left Greece. In India over the next five years I had little opportunity to add to it, and no fellow-collectors to motivate me. Nevertheless I kept the collection, and have it still, carrying it along with me on every move I’ve made since.  Even today, whenever I see a particularly beautiful napkin I take a special pleasure in it, and often slip one into my pocketbook, meaning to add it to the old collection. But I rarely do, and it just gets dogeared and grungy in the bottom of my bag along with the rest of the accumulating stuff of my life.


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  1. So innovative! 🙂 I must see this the next time I visit you!

    I have a decently big stamp collection from my school days..
    and a box of memorable items (often not worth any money) that remind me of happy moments in the past 🙂

    • Mayuri, I love those little “memorable items.” My cousins Jacky and Carol used to have a shelf in their living room where they would display interesting items, found objects from roaming the surrounding countryside on walks with their father. They called it something like The Treasure Shelf (perhaps Jacky will see this and remind me), and would label the items like rare archaeological specimens–which of course they were. Looking forward to your next visit out this way. xx J

  2. I never knew you’d lived in Athens! My collections were more a matter of compulsion than discernment: horse chestnuts by the bagful (which my mother threw out when I wasn’t looking), miscellaneous pebbles and rocks that I never bothered to identify. I suppose the only collection worth anything were my books, all very carefully chosen and read. When in England, I started buying the Penguin paperbacks, which moved with me many times but eventually fell by the wayside. Now, well along in my 50s, I’ve accumulated an almost embarrassing number of plastic dinosaurs, mostly given to me by friends. Alan bought me a huge T Rex at Christmas, one that rocks and roars, but I persuaded him that the child of a good friend might appreciate it more than I did. Heck, I don’t really like reptiles!

  3. Sarah, I love Penguin paperback to this day. I love to see their orange spines (black for classics, blue for non-fiction, green for crime) and arrange them by color on my bookshelf! I also love finding old penguins with slightly different logos. My oldest one was published during WWII on special economy-grade paper. You don’t like reptiles? Were dinos birds, then? (Sorry, I need continual reminding) xx

  4. I like dinos now because I’m interested in the tracks, but it’s taken some time to appreciate dinosaur art (especially when it’s T Rex fighting a Triceratops and the blood is flowing). It’s true, the more they are depicted as birds, the more appealing I find them! I do like all the little dinos that friends have given me, though, scales, teeth, and all.

    By the way, I’m teaming up with a local sculptor who works with kids. They’ve created a sculpture park in town. We’re going to make a dinosaur out of wire that will go in the Turners Falls Parade in August. Afterward, it will be covered with cement, painted, and hauled over to the sculpture park. There’s something there now that made me think of it: two wonderful pieces made of old bicycle parts that look a lot like dinosaurs (or an ostrich, in one case), but unfortunately it’s much harder to work with bike parts, so we’ll do the cement.

  5. There are big cement dinosaurs in the Kanpur Zoo that actually look quite good. Your description of the dinosaur art with a gory (and one-sided) battle between a T Rex and a Triceratops put me in mind of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Have you read it? (Any relation, by the way?!)

  6. I didn’t know you lived in Greece. And I didn’t know that Sarah doesn’t really like reptiles (and evidently has enough dino figurines). Good to know!

    Very much enjoyed this post on kid collecting. As it happens, I’ll be sewing scads of cloth napkins this season. (Part of my self-education at the sewing machine.) I don’t suppose those you would have any need for those? 🙂

    • I am totally impressed by your online sewing lessons, Mary. Needlework was the only subject (in convent school) for which I was rapped on the hands with a ruler by the nuns–I was atrocious at it, and have grown up with a firm belief that I am no good at sewing and never will be. Do pass along any basic concepts that instill confidence! Would love to see the results of your prowess as it develops.

  7. Well, you know I say this only in jest, but I think I may need someone to rap my knuckles now and again. For the past few weeks, my sewing efforts have fallen by the wayside, a victim of too many other deadlines and far too little sleep. Someday — oh sweet, blessed *someday* — Julia will stop waking up 4x a night and I will again find the energy for sewing. In the meantime, I’ve made a fall season resolution to resume my catch-up on Tell Me Another.

    • Your comments on these older posts always make my day, Mary. The sewing can wait for those long winter’s nights. But sleep–that rare and priceless commodity for Moms–must come first, to “bind up the ravel’d sleeve of care.” (And no knucklerapping, even metaphorically. Did I write in my blog or tell you that I once got hit on the hand with a ruler in convent school as a punishment for not completing my needlework?)

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