Six weeks after my first trip to Italy, the fresh mozzarella I brought home is long gone, and so is the hard salami and pistachio-flavored chocolate. To squeeze a bit more from my Mediterranean experience, I can rely a little while longer on the tube of Elmex-brand toothpaste I used to brush away all that food. For as long as it lasts, each day starts and ends with an ingredient called “Fluoruro Amminico,” which I assume has to do with fluoride but haven’t bothered to translate. The lingering sense of wonder it evokes is something I would rather not name.
Elmex is, strictly speaking, a Swiss brand, but its flavor, color and packaging will always for me be tied to the week I spent in Naples: the smell of the dewy summer air, the taste of plump local anchovies, the sight of Mount Vesuvius from the Riviera di Chiaia. I bought the toothpaste on the morning of my arrival, and spent scarcely 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, those most overrepresented pursuits among world travelers. So I pick whatever seems fun, interesting or tame, depending on my mood. It’s a low-stakes exercise with just one rule: My selection must comply with 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. Shunning even the most inconsequential new experience seemed to me a bad way of approaching a new life in a new country. I was 32 and had learned to wring all that I could from my days as a working stiff. Why shouldn’t I do the same as a slightly-too-old university student in Japan? I stretched my student loans and scholarship money so I could quench my thirst for novelty by drinking from the well of everyday experience — which, in Tokyo, runs deep with small consumer delights.
Among these delights, buying toothpaste I would never find in an American drugstore proved to be a reliable way of enlivening an otherwise unremarkable daily activity — one that we often treat as routine but that I try to embrace as a ritual for chasing the fog of sleep from my waking hours. Each new and unfamiliar flavor recalls a time and a place, but also serves as a gentle tap on the shoulder — a reminder to look at myself, not through myself, in the bathroom mirror and to appreciate even those moments spent brushing away the seeds of inevitable decay.
Years later, I find myself traveling more than I ever thought possible, mostly for work and always on a budget. I sometimes treat myself to more conventional souvenirs, like new dinner plates from Stockholm or a rare book from an antiques dealer in Hong Kong. But more often than not, I bring home little more than experience and sundries. Invariably, the charm of some new toothpaste asserts itself two or three weeks later, when the exotic snacks have been eaten, the plates put away in the cupboard and the books placed on some shelf or another. Most souvenirs are gone too soon, while others outlast the memories they are meant to enshrine; toothpaste somehow always seems to last just long enough.
By the time I set out for Naples, I had just about gone 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 enduring love affair with Salutem, which might be the most pleasantly mild toothpaste available anywhere in the world. The year before that it was a clove-flavored toothpaste from Botot, a product that was originally created for King Louis XV of France. And at the outset of the Covid pandemic, when I spent six months holed up in a small Tokyo business hotel, I leaned into the black mood settling over the world with Kobayashi Sumigaki charcoal toothpaste. Wherever you go, and however long or short the trip, there is always a dentifrice through which you can later peer back, one gooey dollop at a time.
There was a period when my odd choice of souvenir was probably a stand-in for more expensive things I planned to buy after upgrading from economy to first class. These days, though, when I look at myself in that bathroom mirror, I tend to see my limitations as clearly as the boundless possibilities that once stared back at me. I’m 43 and still a striver, but increasingly aware of the fact that I may have gone as far as I ever will. If this turns out to be the case, I’ll be glad I wasted no time yearning for finer souvenirs than the one that has 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 might yet go.
Whether half-full or half-empty, clean or oozing with gunk, each tube doles out nostalgia in doses small enough that they leave no trace of melancholy. With the last squeeze, each tube becomes ordinary, and I’m reminded that there are endless recipes for staving off decay — a whole world of flavor profiles and ingredients. To access those realms I have only to heed the same simple instructions: Brush. Rinse. Spit.
Joshua Hunt is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. He previously worked as a Tokyo-based correspondent for Reuters.