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.