A friend of mine tells a story of a day tour she was on. There was was a choice of an ancient burial ground and a pottery shop. The pottery shop had the exact same wares as in town, but cheaper. The democratic decision of the group was disappointingly to visit the shop for several hours instead of the historical site. I see it in the groups that I have been on as well. People often seem to spend as much time looking for stuff to buy as they do actually experiencing the place they are in. I tend to think the best of people and expect that most would say they are looking for something to remember the place by and for gifts for family and friends.
Do souvenirs add to or distract us from the place we visit?
A Distraction at Best
We all know the big tourist sites. Vendors selling everything imaginable with even a remote relation to where you are. T-shirts and books are just the beginning of it and it doesn’t end anywhere near that. Especially when you add the generic stuff to the stalls that don’t even attempt to have the site’s name on it. These shops extend away from the tourist sites in all directions.
The means to “remember” a place can supplant then the experience itself. Has it gone so far that in the end people remember more the shopping experience than the place itself? Does the little slanted coffee mug replace the actual experience of climbing the Tower in Pisa? I hope not, but I wonder. I do believe though that many of the low quality, generic, cheap souvenirs compete for space in memories. So are a distraction at best and a complete replacement at worst.
“It is still a good trip even if you don’t have a souvenir.”
You don’t HAVE to have something to remember the experience by. The experience should be memorable by itself. If it wasn’t, then buying a trinket won’t fix that. If it was, don’t dilute that memory by external stuff.
A Token of Remembrance
Am I saying that I am totally immune? Of course not. I like stuff too and things that really remind me of a cool trip are well worth it. I just try to only get a very few things from a trip to make sure each is worthwhile and to get things that are special. Lately I have been look at local art when I do my souvenir purchases. Quirky reminders are neat too. As I am writing this I notice a tube of lip balm on my desk. With it comes a morning of memories from Prague, when I needed something to keep my lips from drying out. It cost me about a dollar and it helps me remember Prague and that trip just as well as a 10 dollar t-shirt.
Lately I look to making the souvenir almost a separate memory and experience. The example I have in mind here comes from Cinque Terre. It is a wonderful beautiful place, but as with other sites overwhelmed with souvenir stores. In a back street I ran across a shop full of photography. I spent a few minutes picking out a neat one of lightning, and then the next 10 minutes talking back and forth in Italian and English with the photographer; about where the photo was taken and which size frame I needed. It is in the end, just a souvenir, but now I have a memory of a small connection to the artist making it more special than just a picture.
Family and Friends
I know the urge to “bring something back” for your friends and family. My dad traveled a lot when I was a kid, and I too enjoyed his gifts. Especially when we are young, often our parents or grandparents help fund our trips; and we want to give them a token of thanks. I get this, but I think the same rules apply. Find more meaningful gifts with stories rather than a snow globe of the Parthenon.
A number of friends of mine have said that they would rather postcards from places than gifts. I carry an ever growing list of people that just want to see where I am and enjoy being remembered. Don’t overlook the humble postcard. Especially as it lets you send your own written thoughts and not just a trinket.
For those that like something “brought back”, I tend to go for food. Most people like chocolate and a lot like beer. For a while I have been making a swing through a supermarket to stock up before heading home. I have yet to see someone be upset with a gift of exotically labeled food. I like the idea of supporting local infrastructure rather than mass-market stalls.
No more El Crapo
My great aunt used to call souvenirs “El Crapo”. This being all of the various useless bits that people brought back from their trips. The various generic items, usually made far away, with simply a place name on them.
Avoid El Crapo style souvenirs.
- Buy things when you travel, but don’t ignore the travel for the things.
- Meaningful. Unique or an experience of their own.
- Locally produced. It is kind of a bummer to notice that your cool souvenir was made half a world away. (Note, if you are in China, it is ok for something to be made there.)
- For people at home, send stories and emotions. Show you thought of them and let them experience the trip with you.
Do you have any favorite souvenirs? Any standard things you look for? What would you want from a traveling friend? Leave comments, please.