Six weeks after my first trip to Italy, the fresh mozzarella I brought home was long gone, and so were the hard salami and pistachio-flavored chocolate. To draw further from my experience in the Mediterranean, I can rely a little on the tube of Elmex brand toothpaste I used to get rid of all that food. As time goes on, each day begins and ends with an ingredient called “Fluoruro Amminico,” which I think has something to do with fluoride but I didn’t bother translating. The lingering sense of wonder it evokes is something I’d rather not name.
Elmex is, strictly speaking, a Swiss brand, but its taste, color and packaging are always tied to the week I spent in Naples: the smell of the misty summer air, the taste of plump local anchovies, the view of Mount Vesuvius from the Riviera di Chiaia. I bought toothpaste the morning of my arrival, and spent about a minute choosing Elmex over another brand. My habit of treating toothpaste as a souvenir is about celebrating rather than elevating the trivial — I’m not chasing quality, authenticity or meaning, the most overrepresented pursuits among world travelers. So I choose whatever looks fun, interesting or tame, depending on my mood. It’s a low-stakes exercise with only one rule: My choice must adhere to the 100-milliliter limit for packing in my carry-on.
The effect of this habit is Proustian but its origin is not. About a decade ago, I chose to ignore some advice I was given before moving to Japan for a study abroad program. Japanese toothpaste, I was told, might not be to my liking, so I should pack a few tubes of my favorite brand to take with me to Tokyo. Avoiding even the most trivial new experience seems to me a bad way to approach a new life in a new country. I am 32 and have learned to squeeze all I can out of my days as a hard worker. Why shouldn’t I do the same as a middle-aged university student in Japan? I stretched my student loans and scholarship money so that I could quench my thirst for novelty by drinking from the well of everyday experience — which, in Tokyo, was so deep with small consumer pleasures.
Among these pleasures, buying toothpaste that I can never find in an American drugstore has proven to be a reliable way of invigorating an otherwise unremarkable daily activity — one that we often take for granted but try I embrace it as a ritual for chasing the fog of sleep. from my waking hours. Each new and unfamiliar taste recalls a time and a place, but also serves as a gentle tap on the shoulder — a reminder to look in myself, no through myself, in the bathroom mirror and to appreciate even those moments spent brushing the bones of inevitable decay.
Years later, I found myself traveling more than I thought possible, mostly for work and always on a budget. Sometimes I treat myself to more common souvenirs, like new dinner plates from Stockholm or a rare book from an antiques dealer in Hong Kong. But more often than not, I take home more than experience and variety. Invariably, the charm of some new toothpaste will assert itself two or three weeks later, when the odd snacks have been eaten, the plates have been put away in the cupboard and the books have been placed on some shelf or other. Most souvenirs are lost too soon, while others outlive the memories they are supposed to hold; the toothpaste somehow always seems to last long enough.
I can quench my thirst for novelty by drinking from the well of everyday experience.
By the time I got to Naples, I was about to go through the 75-milliliter tube of TePe-brand toothpaste I brought home from Sweden in January. Last year, a winter vacation in Finland led to my undying love affair with Salutem, which may be the most delightfully mild toothpaste available anywhere in the world. Last year, it was a clove-flavored toothpaste from Botot, a product originally made for King Louis XV of France. And at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, when I spent six months in a small business hotel in Tokyo, I leaned into the black mood that had settled around the world with Kobayashi Sumigaki charcoal toothpaste. No matter where you go, and no matter how long or short the trip, there’s always a dentifrice you can sneak back into, one gooey piece at a time.
There was a time when my odd choice of souvenir was probably a stand-in for the more expensive items I planned to buy after upgrading from economy to first class. However, these days, when I look at myself in that bathroom mirror, I tend to see my limitations as clearly as the endless possibilities that once stared back at me. I am 43 years old and still working hard, but more aware of the fact that I may have gone as far as I can go. If this be the case, I shall be glad that I wasted no time in pursuing better souvenirs than the one which served me best; always close at hand, a small totem of good fortune that reminds me of all the places I’ve been and all the places I can go.
Whether half-full or half-empty, clean or dripping with gunk, each tube exudes nostalgia in doses small enough to leave no trace of melancholy. With the final squeeze, each tube becomes ordinary, and I’m reminded that there are endless recipes for preventing decay — a whole world of flavor profiles and ingredients. To access those realms, I just need to follow the same simple instructions: Brush. Rinse. Spit out.
Joshua Hunt is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. He previously worked as a Tokyo-based correspondent for Reuters.