SOURCING QUALITY SOUVENIRS
Souvenirs and mementos can capture a time, place, or feeling and are an important part of the travel experience. Though It’s not always easy sourcing something authentic, that also holds a special memory. I can be fanatical about what I bring home. My space is limited, my budget tight (unless it’s really special), and my eye discerning.
I’m not big on typical souvenirs shops. I actually avoid them at all costs. There are lots of ways to find great items to bring home without resorting to cheap trinkets, lame t-shirts, and mass produced junk. Don’t waste your money. Instead find something with a story, some inherit meaning, or at least beautiful and well made.
Local food is the easy and delicious choice. Seek out local food markets, specialty shops, or get your goods straight from the source. I’ve brought home lavender honey from Provence, apple tea from Istanbul, olives from Greece, and coffee from Costa Rica. Small packaged food samples are usually easy to transport and inexpensive. Food items are also a great choice for anyone helping you out back home during your trip, like a house, kid, or dog sitter. The only problem with food is it isn’t a life-long souvenir, of course it’s meant to be consumed. In a year you won’t look back upon that jar of pickles you bought in Cambridge, MA and think, what a great trip. In fact if you are me, the jar will be empty before takeoff.
For a person who doesn’t drink a whole lot, I find myself at a lot of breweries, distilleries, and vineyards around the world and I’m always walking out with a bottle or two. I love learning about the alcohol making process, chatting with the local employees, and getting a new perspective by learning about an iconic drink. A country can become synonymous with a product, and learning more about it will give you a deeper look into its history and culture. Also, it’s a fun way to spend a few hours.
Getting your new goods home can be the tricky though. I’ve successfully brought home more than my fair share of bottles in a check bag, but it’s always a risk. I’m just waiting for the carousel to deliver a red wine soaked backpack. I’m actually not really sure how I managed to bring home a bottle of Rose’ in my backpack that was already loaded to the max. Where there’s a will there’s a way. If you are looking for tips on how to safely transport your souvenirs, I wrote an article for Travel Fashion Girl on exactly that topic.
Original handmade crafts can be a difficult one to source, especially if you are traveling to a huge tourist destination. If I’m visiting a place known for their local handicrafts or textiles, I will do a little research before I shop. You can look online, ask your guesthouse hosts, or inquire when chatting with locals. You will often pay more at small specialty shops, but typically that's because it’s authentic and probably not mass-produced. A favorite memory of mine is when I bought an original watercolor from an artist in Myanmar. He had a tiny little nook where he painted all day and into the night. At first a bit standoffish (this could have been the language barrier) the artist quickly opened up after realizing we were serious buyers. We were even able to snap a photo, and he gave us a free beer with purchase. A great deal in my opinion.
I also like to pop into iconic shops, even though I can’t always afford the merchandise. If a brand is known worldwide as having originated in a particular place, I always like to take a peek. The flagship usually has an interesting story and history, the retail displays are great, and sometimes you might be surprised by what you find.
When all else fails, buy a book. It’s actually at the top of my list when visiting a new place. I try to bring home a book from every city or country to add to my growing collection. I love the whole experience of visiting a bookshop, perusing the stacks, and slowly selecting the perfect title to represent my trip. I’ve written more extensively about it here.
Another quirk I have is stealing a little piece of nature wherever I go. I feel a little bad about it, but I can’t help myself. If it’s a protected site I respect the rules, but I have a box of tiny tidbits that I’ve picked up along my travels. Shells, leaves, moss, granite, olive branch, lots of rocks…all sourced from a special place. I have had my bag flagged by airport security and gotten weird looks, but upon further research they always let me leave with my object.