When I was a kid, I was pretty addicted to bringing back cool souvenirs from any new countries I visited. I’ve still got quite a few of them, and now that I’m living somewhere for longer than a year or two, I’ve got them sitting on shelves above my desk so I can enjoy them when I’m working.
But you might already be on to my problem: “sitting on shelves” is not a great thing for souvenirs. (And honestly, I hardly ever look up and see them – my eyes are always on my monitors!). I still like them, though – the ornament in this photo is, in fact, the very first souvenir I bought, when I was in Hong Kong at the age of eight.
Sometimes the most meaningful souvenirs are not the ones you buy
Before I give you my own personal rules for picking meaningful souvenirs, I want to digress to a story I heard when I visited my friend Jo for morning tea recently. She made me a cup of tea and handed it to me in the mug you can see below. And she told me I would love the story about where this mug came from …
She was right. The story is … my friend Jo and her friends were all on holidays in Greece, having an island holiday on Crete. (Important context: Jo grew up in England, so popping over to Crete for a summer break is something like us Perth-ites heading to Bali, except of course I think her version is way better).
There were all the usual kinds of tacky souvenirs available around the place where they were staying. One possibility was using a photo to make a coffee cup, ready to take home with you. (Back when this stuff was relatively rare.)
On their holiday, Jo and her friends struck up some friendships, one of them with a Norwegian guy, whose name has (probably fortunately) been lost to historical memory. But we know what he looks like, because as a parting gift, he got these photo mugs made with a picture of him, and gave them to all his new friends!
Now that’s a unique souvenir! It’s hard to see in my photo, as the poor coffee cup image has faded a bit over years of use, but there’s even a random passerby there – the picture was taken right at the little stall that created the coffee cups. As you can imagine, Jo remembers her trip to Crete every time she uses this coffee mug. We had a good time wondering what that guy was up to now (and what kind of gifts he might be giving out these days!).
How to pick meaningful souvenirs – my rules!
If you’re not lucky enough to have some random person give you a souvenir, you’ll have to choose your own. I have a lot of experience of bringing home tacky and terrible souvenirs in my lifetime, so I have a few rules now that I try to stick to. (Not always with success but I’ve got much better.)
1. Can (and will) you wear it, on a regular basis?
This single rule has made the biggest difference to my souvenir buying habits in the last ten years. And the word “regular” is important (buying a thick scarf when you live in a warm country doesn’t count, for example). This winter I’ve been wearing the green jacket with its Inis Meain logo from my Ireland trip last year very regularly. And as I type this, I’m wearing the woolen jumper I bought from the knitting factory on Inis Meain. The only mistake I made in this regard was to also buy my son a green Irish jacket and when I’m not careful and we wear nearly the same thing, people give us some strange looks.
I’ve also got some really gorgeous bracelets, necklaces and earrings bought on my travels. I love to dig around in my collection and wear something different, each time remembering where I got it and what else I did on that trip.
2. Can (and will) you use it on, on a regular basis?
Clothing and jewellery aside, there are lots of other souvenirs you can buy that are practical enough to get regular use. For me, it’s technology-related stuff. In Penang, for example, I bought a gorgeous iPhone cover with an image of George Town’s famous street art on it … although sadly, it remains at large in my lost luggage, but if it was here, I would definitely be using it because my current phone cover is cracked and in need of urgent replacement!
3. Is it truly beautiful and do you know where it will live when you get home?
Sometimes a souvenir might really be something that’s just ornamental, but that, under well-thought-through circumstances, can be okay. I have a few souvenirs hanging on my walls that fit this category although as I look at them, I realise they’re mostly gifts from students from around the world – from where I sit right now I can see hanging ornaments from Russia, Slovakia and Turkey – and it’s the people I remember in this case, rather than the place, but the same principle applies. But if you don’t know which wall you can hang it on or where else it can sit (and what you’ll get rid of so there’s space for it), don’t add it to your suitcase.
Simple as that – those are my three criteria and if a potential souvenir doesn’t fit into one of these categories, it gets left in the shop or at the market stall. Well, most of the time, anyway! What are your rules for buying souvenirs on your travels?
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