Poking around a cathedral’s thrift shop in Cape Town, waiting for the opening of the Design Indaba this week, I came across a majolica pitcher. It was painted with the picture of a man on horseback in a funny hat, and the name and address of a restaurant in Spain. “You have good taste,” the saleswoman told me. She meant, And if you believe that, I have a Mona Lisa right over here in the corner I can sell you. The price was around $30. “Rather expensive,” the saleswoman nodded. She meant, Go ahead, bargain with the Church. You’ll be removing food from the mouths of little orphans, but God will forgive you. I meekly told her I’d buy it, and fished for my wallet.
Caveat emptor et Google. Let the buyer beware and consult a search engine before paying 200 rand for a souvenir. My acquisition, as I soon discovered through eBay, is a sangria jug that has been sold by the Restaurante Botin in Madrid for decades, maybe even centuries. Founded in 1725, Botin is said to be the oldest restaurant in the world. Goya may have washed dishes there. Hemingway gave it a shout out in The Sun Also Rises. The restaurant's specialty is suckling pig and, apparently, selling off the vessels that hold its wine.
My pitcher may be 40 years old — or 4. It isn’t as elderly as one I found online that dates from the early 20th century and is scrawled with the prefix El Antigua — or old — Restaurante Botin. Even as Botin grows longer in the tooth, old doesn’t appear to be a big selling point. The man on the pitcher may be Don Quixote, as one eBay seller insists, but that seems unlikely. Too cuddly. And where’s Sancho Panza?
I’ll admit right now to a fleeting, pre-Googling dream of appearing with my sangria pitcher on Antiques Roadshow. “Good God!” the majolica expert on the show would exclaim. “Wherever did you discover this magnificent specimen?” In a South African thrift store, I would say proudly, surrounded by liver-spotted prints of English cathedrals and Afrikaans-language editions of Harry Potter. Among the relics of homesick colonialists was this token of someone’s foreign adventure. Make that two people’s adventures: the original owner’s and mine. Someone, after a satisfying dinner (because who would want a souvenir of a bad one?), had carted the pitcher from Madrid to Cape Town, where at some point a spouse or uncaring descendent decided that it had to go. Now I’m preparing to haul it to New York along with more customary South African mementoes: textiles, bangles, music and wine.
I hope my family likes it or it will be back to the secondhand shop, a treasure for some future scavenger of dislocated bits of peripatetic people’s lives. In each location a spot of patina will have accrued. Here, a sangria-soaked night in Spain. There, a walk through Cape Town’s Company’s Garden. And soon (if my husband doesn’t throw me out of our home when he hears how much I paid for it), a place with the other cuckoo pitchers that occupy our nest.