Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to Look for Souvenirs

It's that time of year again. When Spring break starts to infect college students and people start dreaming of beach weather and traveling to exotic or cozy places and visiting friends. Between my time abroad and a wee bit of travel while staying abroad, I've learned to be picky about the things I buy. Since people will be heading off to see new places soon - if they haven't already - I thought I'd share some of my best souvenir ideas that are easy to carry when you're trying to pack light (think just a carry on or maybe a carry on and a small checked bag) and a few of my favorites that are a bit bigger but totally worth it. Maybe they'll help you when trying to decide what's worth bringing home.

Packing light list:
  • locally created art - paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, etc. Walking down the road in Edinburgh the last time I was there, I picked up a tiny watercolor of the castle. It's about a 2x2 inch square, but it was too lovely to pass up. Look not just for images of the local areas but also artwork that you like. I have some lovely prints done by an artist in Dublin who paints child like figures as well as a large print by a local artist in Glasgow that I found in a shop but decided to order online and mailed home.
  • your own photos - I can't stress this one enough. Take lots of photos. Even if you think you've taken enough, take more. Once you're home you can't go back and realize you should have taken that picture you were too lazy to take in the first place. This one from when I was at the Vatican is one of my absolute favorites.
  • an amazing pair of shoes - especially flats or small sandals
  • hair accessories - clips, barrettes, and hair pins
  • keychains - one from each place usually has it's use in some way. If they're sturdy you can use them a zipper pulls on luggage or coats
  • hats -they keep your head warm and pack small (usually
  • a few scarves or shawls - also great while traveling to change up a look, add sophistication, or provide another layer of warmth on a bus, train or plane
  • small jewelry - earrings, necklaces, charms, etc. This includes fun pins and brooches, which can be used to hold clothing or scarves in place while adding a bit extra to an outfit.
  • socks - look for the 'cute' ones, the ones you know you'd love to wear. you'll be able to wear them while traveling but they're also a great little addition to your wardrobe when you need a small reminder 
  • fun pens - I'm a sucker for a cute pen
  • small novels to read while traveling- the key is small because they add weight, so pick something you've been meaning to read for ages. Also, when you're leaving a city or country, consider leaving the guidebooks behind if you brought them with you. Better yet, consider pulling out the pages you need from the guidebooks while at home, stapling them together and not bringing them at all. (I always consider it but can't bear to deface a book like that. Too much of the bibliophile in me to allow it.)
  • street musicians cds - it's wonderful to be able to hear music from time spent on vacation. Just be sure it's music you like for the music as well as the memories. Otherwise you'll get home and never listen to it again which makes it a waste of space in your luggage.
  • one or a few flattering pieces of clothing - be sure you'll feel comfortable wearing it at home if it's based on local clothes or if it's from a place where the fashion is ahead of where you're from
  • for knitters and crocheters:
    • notions
    • needles/hooks
    • single patterns you like
    • project bags from the LYS
    • buttons
    • shawl pins or regular pins (which can also be used as shawl pins or sweater closures)
  • small kitchen utensils - look for something that you would have needed for your kitchen anyway or something that will compliment it. Find an interesting serving spoon or a hand painted trivet for instance. Something that you'll be able to use when it's just you and your family but also something you can bring out when entertaining people. This is not the time to consider that dutch oven you've always wanted. I've lived in two foreign countries and stocked a kitchen in each. I didn't bring much home from either other than a set of unique measuring spoons, a mug that I fought to keep a roommate from stealing, and a set of mini pie pans. Although I really wish I had brought home a kitchen timer I bought in Dublin. 
  • Guidelines: The key here is things that are small and have value to you (or whoever you're buying for).  If you can wear it on the plane while traveling, consider it an added bonus. Look for things that pack easily, are not likely to break, abide by whatever guidelines your mode of travel demands (ex: liquid limits for flying), you'll still be glad you bought them when you get home, you can use them while home (not just abroad unless it's something you need while abroad and will be useful the next time you're abroad as well - such as a cell phone) and don't take up much room in your luggage. For instance I adore little boxes and collect them from each place I go. They're also useful for packing things in on the trip home. They're scattered around my bookshelves holding little trinkets like earrings or foreign coins that I've kept but they make me smile and add a bit of color to my life.

The Totally Worth the Space list:
  • an amazing pair of shoes - especially that pair of boots you thought you'd never find
  • a candy you fell in love with - try and find out if you can find it at home and that it's the same at home before you decide if you need to stock up. I love European Cadbury Caramel bars, but while they sound the same as American Cadbury Carmello bars, they taste nothing alike. I didn't know that when I developed a serious addiction to them and it was a serious shock when I came home and they just tasted wrong. 
  • a large piece of art by a local artist that you adore - generally you can ask the artist or shop owner for cheap ways to mail it home if it won't fit in your suitcase or you're worried about carrying it if you're moving around a lot
  • a purse that's both practical and stylish
  • a great coat - I've actually brought home a coat each time I studied abroad. I found an awesome heavy coat in Florence with my mother and a lovely pink rain coat in Glasgow, both of which I still wear regularly.
  • a bottle of some locally made alcohol (if that's your thing) - just check travel regulations between countries and modes of transport according to your plans
  • a local cookbook - did you fall in love with a local staple? I've been home from Dublin for two years and I'm still looking for a good brown bread recipe 
  • shot glasses, dram glasses, and/or draft or pint glasses from local alcohol distilleries (again if that's your thing) - just be sure to pack them carefully. also check if the place has a website you can order from and have sent home or if the shop will mail them home for a small fee.
  • for knitters and crocheters:
    • yarn - be picky when shopping for yarn. consider if you'd buy it if you could find it at home or if you want it for the novelty of it being foreign. don't buy yarn just to buy yarn, rather look for a few skeins of something delicious that will make a lovely reminder of your time abroad
    • pattern books
    • hand knit or crocheted objects by local crafters
  • kitchen supplies - they have to truly be worth it. Traveling around Britain and you found a Doctor Who tea set? Do you really need it or do you just want it because it's Doctor Who? If you just want it because it's Doctor Who, consider if you can buy just one cup. Have to have it? Find out if it can be mailed home or ordered online and shipped home. I did find a lovely polka dot set in a John Lewis shop once that I didn't buy but now I wish I had taken the time to ship home. I've also mailed home a set of six mugs, several sets of shot glasses and pint glasses. 
  • Guidelines: This is the place reserved for those things that you know if you don't buy them you will truly regret them. It's the things that will haunt you long after being home and putting both time and distance between your vacation and your normal life. Think long and hard before you bring home something heavy.  I stocked two kitchens while abroad, and despite the handful of small things I brought home from those two kitchens, the only big thing I kept was a marble rolling pin. And that I bought with the knowledge that I would bring it home. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. I looked at it in the store over several days, went back to where I was staying to compare prices at several online sites, called my father and spent a long time debating whether it was worth it, and finally came to the conclusion that not only was it an excellent price, but if I didn't buy it I would regret it for years to come. I've had it for over a year and only used it a handful of times, but it's still a point of pride for me. I introduce people to it by saying, "This is the rolling pin I brought home from Scotland", and they usually take two steps back and give me an indulgent smile.
If you're buying for lots of people consider semi-generic gifts such as buying everyone a shot glass or keychain but with different designs on each. I once brought almost everyone (about 25 people) I needed something for a voodoo doll key-chain (like these). It allowed me to know I spent the exact same amount of money on everybody, everybody knew what they were going to get but at the same time I was able to personalize each person's gift.

The typical tourist souvenirs are nice if you have the room, but if you're trying to pack light or just have a small amount of space, be pickier about what you buy. Consider buying fewer items that are better quality instead of a bunch of cheaply made items. I love to be able to wear clothing that I brought home from overseas. The key is to buy normal clothing rather than the more traditional touristy T-shirts and such. There's something so satisfying about being able to say "Thanks, I got this in (insert place)" when someone compliments something. Although I do love my sweatshirts. I've found that for me they fall under the "Worth the Space" column, and I can wear them while traveling, which is an added bonus.

It'll be different for every person. If you can, take time before you head out to consider the kinds of things that you would like to bring home. Look for clothing that already compliments your wardrobe, knick-knacks and chotchkies that fit with what you have, or things that you think you will find joy in when having in your home. Think about things that you've bought on previous trips that looking back weren't worth it for you, as well as things that you regret not buying. Keep those feelings in mind and apply them when looking for new things. It'll help you buy less that you'd regret and more of what you love.

If all else fails and you don't know whether it's worth it to buy something or not, consider this: If it was the last or only thing you bought as a souvenir, would it be worth it? Would it have been a good choice? Is it worth the risk of not having the money if you find something else you love more? If the answer to any of the above is no, then put it back, step away, and keep walking. If you're still not sure, maybe you need to give it a few days (or hours) if you can spare them. Call somebody and ask for advice if you have to. If the answer to all of the above questions is yes, then go for it. Run, don't walk to the register. Heck, send me a picture! You've found something wonderful, and I'd love to see what it is.


If you'd like to talk with me directly about anything, you can send me a message here, or through email at teacupsandradios(at)gmail(dot)com .
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