Treasures abound in travel trash

Maybe in another life I was a ragpicker, but I just can't just keep away from other people's rubbish. 

Perhaps I don't mean this literally, although I'm not ashamed to pick up things I find in the gutter. I once found an enormous, heavy wooden screw, the size of a teenager, on a street in Tribeca and rolled it to my apartment. Later, I shipped it to Australia and plopped a lamp on it. I've only just discovered it belongs to an ancient wine press. 

When I travel, I'm as likely to pick up a bit of an old window as I am a pair of new shoes.

That's probably the largest (and heaviest) piece I've scavenged, but my home is full of small curiosities. Just the other day, in Sydney's Surry Hills, I walked a past a shoemaker's shop that was being cleared out. Wooden and plaster shoe lasts, old sewing machines and rolls of unused leather were being stacked in the street for anyone to take.

The shop had belonged to Adam and Morris Perkal, brothers who had survived the Holocaust and were reunited by chance in Australia. They worked together for 64 years as shoemakers, the last 25 years in a shop on Crown Street in Surry Hills. They made shoes for the Queen and the Beatles as well as Kerry Packer's riding boots. Last December, Adam, 92, died and Morris, 94, died two weeks later of a heart attack. 

It's an incredibly touching story and part of local history, but much of it was ending up in the gutter.  Although my house could do without the clutter, I couldn't help myself – I needed to salvage something as a memento. I brought home four wooden lasts. Many of the lasts being thrown out still had the names of regular customers scratched on them. I wonder if any of those customers thought about claiming them back.

I never met the brothers or went to them to have my shoes repaired, but at home and when I travel I'm always most interested in the stories attached to a place, the lives that people once and still do live. The Perkal brothers have faded into Sydney's history and I'd like to keep a little bit of that history alive.

I've written about my love of flea markets before but I haven't until now admitted to my greatest love – ruined and dilapidated buildings. I'm fascinated by them, by the people who might have lived in them and the circumstances which might have led to them being abandoned.  When I travel, I'm as likely to pick up a bit of an old window as I am a pair of new shoes. Rarely is this anything another person would recognise as treasure, like the bit of broken chandelier I found in a partly demolished building in Valparaiso, Chile. These forlorn items remind me more of a place than the shiny things I can buy in a shop.

Some rubbish is, of course, merely filthy, the horror of plastic bags and bottles that clog up the world, strangling wildlife and ending up in the whirlpool in the North Pacific or on a barge being towed about from country to country, unwanted. 

But give me a dilapidated building that once had some beauty to it and I want a piece of it, to take a bit of its soul. I'm not into wholesale ransacking. I don't have a container ready. All I want is something small - a piece of broken tile, a rusty hinge, a fragment of stained glass. Nothing that would upset Customs when my suitcase is X-rayed.

I've wandered though abandoned buildings from Bucharest to Syracuse. (Luckily my photographer husband is as devoted to shooting them as I am to rummaging through them.)  

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered dilapidated nirvana. Travelling in the south of Oman, we were taken to the old port city of Mirbat, much of which was abandoned in the 1960s. There were modern houses, but a whole neighbourhood of 19th-century merchants' houses had been boarded up or left open to the elements. Anyone could wander in. Some were now squats, judging by the rubbish, but much of the tiling and beautiful old doors were still in place.

I suppose one day it will be razed. So I had to bring home a bit of it.

My stash? I wanted those doors, but in the end I pocketed a little piece of weathered glass from a shop in the abandoned souq. 

You can keep your palaces. I like ruins. I'm a cheap date.