The clutter on my desk includes souvenirs like mini-Eiffel Towers and a vinyl Longchamps change purse I grabbed at the duty-free shop at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
They seemed like a good idea at the time.
Once I returned home, I had second thoughts, wishing I had purchased leather wallets instead. The guidebooks suggested buying $40 Ladurée china cup and saucer sets, but how silly – just one? Lingerie is easier to pack.
In French, the verb “souvenir” means “to remember,” a nicer take on the word than, well, “useless trinket.” Travelers want meaningful objects to spark stories and to represent the countries they visit: wool from Ireland or handmade terracotta bowls from Italy.
And to remember happy times.
In our rush to make the train or plane, we end up buying the cheapest things in volume. Converting currency under deadline pressure can also be daunting. How much is that 50-lira canary in the window, really?
Once I start shopping for handicrafts to take home, my husband, ever the consumer watchdog, points out that we could buy Majolica bowls in North Beach.
While it’s true that the dramatic masks purchased on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio could just as easily be found in upscale Napa shops, I won’t come home empty-handed. Gifts for our kids, friends and something special for us, that’s my mantra, in between absorbing UNESCO sights. If I’m under the gun, I’ll pop into a souvenir shop and load up on trivets printed with famous cathedrals or kitchen towels stamped with the London underground map.
Don’t do what I do, though, do what I say:
• Buy something classy, like a flea-market chandelier in Paris. If you have to, hand-carry a one-of-a-kind item that will make you feel like you’ll always have Paris.
• Splurge on one big item – unless you’re backpacking. It can be tricky to think quickly about what something costs in dollars, but practice makes perfect. It’s better to carry fragile items, but many shops will ship bottles of wine or even china sets.
• Research before you leave home to find out what’s good to buy where. For example, several outdoor stands in Istanbul sell massive colored lanterns that you can get imported here – but for a lot more money.
• Stop at museum gift shops. With treasure troves of unique jewelry, prints, bags and scarves, museum stores have something to please discriminating tastes. We once found a Phaistos Disc at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Even the Northstar Mining Museum in Nevada City had some great gemstones and canyon pieces for sale under cloches.
• Buy gourmet food. I learned this from an Italian friend who returns with all kinds of deli meat whose quality surpasses anything you can get here. She has the butcher freeze-wrap it with cold packs for the long plane ride. Italian coffee and French artisan chocolates are great gifts for friends.