Are you a souvenir person? Must it have a practical purpose? Does it need to be made locally? Travellers have varying opinions on the matter and mine has evolved over time. I thought I’d explore the topic a little further during this period of limited travel when many people might be reminiscing about past trips.
What Qualifies as a Souvenir?
Merriam-Webster defines the word as “something kept as a reminder (as of a place one has visited)”. It’s something you intentionally hold on to as a memento. So my little scar from when a horse I once owned pinched the skin on the back of my wrist with his teeth and then tried to lead me across the paddock is a reminder of him and his weirdness – but it’s not a souvenir.
What about photos that remind you of your trip – are they souvenirs? What if you have them framed and up on the wall? They come from your camera, not the destination you visited, so maybe not?
What about an object that has no real connection to the place you visited other than the fact you acquired it there? That wallet might remind you of the city where you purchased it but it’s the same one available at a store where you live.
The Practicality Problem
How is the purpose of a souvenir altered, if any, when the item has its own function besides evoking travel memories?
I’d say the primary issue is one of durability. That bottle opener could be around for ages but the T-shirt you wear frequently is not going to stand the test of time. When you buy souvenir clothing you think it’s so smart, I can wear it on the trip when I run out of clean clothes, and then back home when I put it on it’ll remind me of good times. Therein lies the conundrum. The more use you get out of it, the quicker it will wear out. After a while it’s faded with a couple of holes and you still wear it around the house but eventually you must bid farewell. It’s the same with ball caps. You can ask my father…
The Origin Issue
What about the thorny issue of whether the item was actually made locally in the place you visited? Does something made in China still qualify as a souvenir of London? I’m torn on this because the two main criteria to justify the purchase are that you like it and can afford it. Often the authentic locally-crafted souvenirs can be quite pricey. However, if it’s what you want, I think you need to acknowledge this reality and cough up the extra cash if you have it. But, if it’s just a run-of-the-mill tourist trinket you’re after, who cares where it was made.
The Collector’s Quandary
Some folks always buy the same type of souvenir: pins, bells, spoons, shot classes, whatever. In some ways that can make the hunt easier; if it’s an item that’s found in any gift shop then it’s not too hard to complete your mission. But if it’s not something ubiquitous like a keychain, finding the right sort of item for your collection could become a chore. I have mixed feelings on this strategy…although I did dabble in fridge magnets for a while.
Distinctive or Stereotypical?
The opposite approach to getting the same type of item everywhere is to find the most distinctive, original thing you can. I’m not very good at that. I generally veer toward the most common souvenirs – those knickknacks that loudly convey the place they represent.
The Size Factor
If you’re a light packer, obviously a souvenir has to be relatively compact unless you’re willing to ship it home. And once it’s home, a smaller memento is much easier to display or store.
There is a downside to diminutive curios, sadly. If it’s too tiny, like, say, a wee donkey figurine from Torun (similar to the monument in the old town square), you may get home and realize you cannot find it anywhere. I should’ve bought one less easy to lose.
The Affordability Aspect
As mentioned above, some souvenirs can be expensive if you’re keen on getting the genuine article. That Venetian glass or Black Forest cuckoo clock is going to eat into your travel budget so you need to be sure that it will give you enjoyment long after the trip is over.
I’m not a big spender so my biggest splurge was probably this musical snow globe from Walt Disney World. It still makes me happy as long as I don’t wind it up too often (it plays “It’s a Small World”).
Occasionally you can get an interesting souvenir without paying a dime.
Another way to save money on souvenirs is to avoid gift shops in the main tourist areas and check out stores that aren’t geared primarily toward visitors but might have appealing souvenir-esque inventory.
The Ones With a Backstory
Sometimes a souvenir will evoke the memory of how or why you acquired it, not just the destination.
For example, on my first trip to Washington, DC I went into the Old Post Office to see the view from the Clock Tower but it wasn’t yet open when I arrived. I wandered into the gift shop on the ground floor and the owner approached me to say that she was closing out soon so all her merchandise was on sale. The Trump organization had recently purchased the building to turn it into a hotel. She was not pleased, to put it mildly. Her store had been in operation for a long time. I felt compelled to buy a souvenir after hearing her story and I remember that conversation whenever I look at it.
In Scotland, the extremely hospitable owners of a west highland B&B always told us to “come to the lounge for a blether” when we got back to the house in the evening, so we had to buy this mug when we saw it.
So, Are Your Souvenirs Serving Their Purpose?
How often do you gaze upon your souvenirs? Do they bring back good travel memories?
The memories the souvenir represents often far outweigh the value of the thing itself.
One of my oldest souvenirs is from a trip to Florida when I was a child. It was an absolutely incredible vacation and I cherish many vivid memories from it.
Although I try my best to leave souvenirs largely up to fate with no self-imposed obligation to buy one, I still tend to find myself thinking I should bring home some little doodad by which to remember the trip. I just wish I were better at making decisions.
One time in Poland I popped into the same little gift shop two days in a row and the friendly young employee recognized me from the previous visit. I apologized for some reason (I guess I thought I was borderline loitering?). She said she wasn’t surprised when I told her I was Canadian. We had a nice chat and I finally made my purchase. And on the next trip, in another small Polish gift shop, the proprietor apparently couldn’t bear to watch any more of my indecisive browsing so she just walked over and told me what to get. I was most grateful.
Anyway, in these travel-restricted times, it’s nice to survey my collection of souvenirs. They really live up to their name and help bring to mind wonderful memories of trips past. Actually, I’d say I have a renewed appreciation for them. No matter how cheap it was or where it was made, if it brings a little joy today, it was worth taking home.