I used to collect shot glasses when I traveled. I think it started with my first Hard Rock Café experience in high school, but it expanded beyond generic restaurant chains. Now I probably have…I’d like to know how many I have. I have over 20 from Hard Rocks alone (I know, don’t judge) so I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 75. All that cheap glass, made in China, has sat wrapped up in a box for a decade. I always meant to display them – I even had two racks – but I was never quite that organized in my decorating.  Now they live in my storage unit. If I ever get around to living in my own place in America again, they will get…I don’t know, sold on eBay? Would anyone want a collection of someone else’s travel memories? I replaced shot glasses with magnets, but they are fun and cheap and easy to display. You can’t totally break your addiction to tacky kitsch I’m sorry to say.

These days I am more discerning about what makes an appropriate souvenir, a true and revealing, unique memento of a place. I try to avoid things that are mass-produced in China (magnets notwithstanding). I tend to buy art books (and postcards, which are not cheap anymore, a euro each at most European museums) of collections I like. But I also try to get something locally made that really evokes a culture. My parents often come back from trips with small prints bought from street artists. Since this fits my art geek persona, I dig it. Some sort of rendering of a locale, created by someone who lives and works there – what could be a better way to remember a place?

They aren’t so easy to come by.

I wanted a hand-carved Buddha in Thailand. I didn’t see them anywhere – I ended up with a gold-plated tacky thing that exactly matched all the Buddha statuary I saw there. I purchased it at a temple gift shop, theoretically blessed by a Buddhist monk. Okay. I wanted to get a wall hanging of some sort in South Africa, but didn’t see any real artists creating anywhere we went. There were some nice prints of the townships that were unique and interesting…but I don’t know, that doesn’t seem the sort of thing a white person should have hanging on her wall. I got this instead:


The man I bought it from said it was hand-carved, and explained the polishing process. I don’t know if it’s true. On the other hand, my local guide-friend explained Africa doesn’t have any infrastructure for mass-production, even though I saw this pensive guy in a lot of places alongside roads. I think there are popular motifs and these Zimbabwean (wait, what?) men hand-make and sell them. I hope so anyway…

On the other hand, when you look at that, do you think: South Africa? Probably not. I love the colors and smoothness, the minimalist play on Rodin’s “Thinker.” Of course, this means I bought a souvenir that is an imitation of a Western European masterpiece.

Oops. Not doing so well with my local quintessential souvenir, am I?

Still, I find it thought-provoking and beautiful, and when I look at it I think of my two weeks on the bottom of the world. At least it’s not cheesy, like a giraffe (because I didn’t see any giraffes there and it would be all LIES!)

I went to Amsterdam in October and was once again determined to buy art. I love that city, its quaint and lovely architecture. I was hoping to get a local artistic rendering of the city itself.

This is what I ended up with:


So, yeah.  Doesn’t look much like Amsterdam, huh? I didn’t have time to check out every corner of the city for local art markets, so my options were limited. I stumbled into one small patch of artists’ tents, and none of the artists had painted their hometown. I bought a few postcards from a man who did prints of his Amsterdam etchings, but they were black and white, not really what I wanted.  This artist (Rebecca) did abstract impressionistic landscapes with gloppy paint, like a much latter day Van Gogh. This is her home, and her vision. Why should I dictate what she chooses to paint to suit my touristy needs?

But no one’s going to know I bought that in Amsterdam.

So despite my good intentions, I guess I’m not buying hand-crafted, ideal souvenirs that capture the spirit and identity of a place. Nothing show-offy that immediately tells people where I’ve been. I’ll keep trying. I guess it’s good that I’m conscious of how my purchasing power effects the places I visit. I’m putting my money toward those who create locally. I think.

Should you worry about supporting local artists and artisans? What are your favorite souvenirs? Talk to me, dear reader.

Categories: Travel Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Souvenirs

  1. Cassie Apthorpe

    As long as its not a t-shirt that says the name of the place I’m visiting, I’m pretty open to whatever object will bring happy memories to me when I look upon it later. If you want to go the locally created route though you probably can’t go into it with something specific in mind unless you do a lot of research ahead of time as to where to find it and the legitimacy of its origin. And then the more you research it the less it becomes a souvenir. Because isn’t the whole point of a souvenir is that it’s something that spontaneously catches your eye and represents your whole trip?

    • As usual I’m totally overthinking it and you are right. Souvenirs should be spontaneous and about the moment you are in when you buy them. Which is probably why I actually do keep ending up with stuff that isn’t what I “intend” to buy. It’s how I actually live, just not how I think I should live. Although I do think it’s important to try to buy things not made in China whenever possible. Whatever more local source you can give your money to, that’s a good thing in my opinion.

  2. Bill B

    I also get stuck on the idea of something local and handmade for my souvenirs, though it often doesn’t wind up that way. I’ll cave and settle pretty quickly under pressure.

    • What sorts of things are you usually after, Bill? Anything in particular? Or does it totally depend on the country? I do find myself drawn to art and jewelry first and foremost. Like, I didn’t go to Amsterdam and think, “I need to get some hand-carved clogs” just because the Dutch are famous for clogs. And Tulips. and Delft ceramics. And weed. None of those things came to my mind as a must have. I just wanted to little city-scape with the canals. Couldn’t find it. Do you have things you generally gravitate to?

  3. nadine

    I stopped buying souvenirs a few years ago. They take up too much room in my luggage and I always figure I can buy whatever I want on the internet once I get home. Joe and I buy gifts for each other that are from places we have visited together- usually Hawaiian things for our anniversary since we got married there. When we buy stuff we also try to support local culture. Foods, hand carved things, etc. I do have a pair of socks that have bikes on them from Amsterdam, but that’s because I needed a pair of socks. Most “souvenirs ” I get now are out of necessity, like a toothbrush I forgot to pack or a hat I didn’t realize I’d need. My true souvenirs are my pictures and memories.

    • My cousin said the same thing about photos – and you are totally right. I generally take 2,000 pictures over a two week vacation. That’s a lot of memories. I’m just too lazy to do anything with them. I have visions of nice framed collages or arty bigger prints but I never get around to actually creating these glorious projects. I should. They are the most personal – and pretty, AND arty – memories I have.

      • nadine

        The “art” in my home is blown up pictures I have taken on vacations. A flower from the botanical gardens in Victoria, Canada. A castle in Visby, Sweden. Our wedding photo from Maui. Flowers from Washington state. I also need to print and frame some more photos and put them up on the wall. I procrastinate because I can never find the “perfect” spot to hang them. I need to just pull the trigger and get them on my empty walls.

  4. margaret

    Anything that reminds u of a place you have been is a great souvenir in my opinion! Weather its memory of trip in high school or piece of art that reminds u of where u got it from….get what u like and that u can say to someone I got that _______.

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