One of my very favorite ways to remember my travels is through the artful objects collected on my various trips. Learning to see objects as art has made souvenir shopping so much more interesting and now, one of my favorite elements of travel!
When I was a bit younger I assumed the best souvenir was something that served as clear evidence of having visited a place. Usually, I’d purchase something emblazoned with the name of that place to proclaim to the world my adventure. Stalls in tourist markets around the world indicate I was not alone in this assumption– most are filled with cheap objects emblazoned with the name of the city or landmark nearby. It makes sense, people want other people to know that they have traveled, and the simplest way to do so is to display items clearly marked as being from a faraway place.
I think though, when we curate the place we live back home, it;s not about announcing anything to the world, it’s about bringing who we are and where we have been- and building a nest out of those things. A wise friend once told me that to decorate a home is to build a shrine to one’s self: photos of people we love, objects that call up a memory, places where we can rest, be comfortable, and be truly ourselves in a way that only home invites us to be.
After a few more years of travel (and a few more moves to new homes) I’ve realized I don’t want the objects in my home to speak for me, I want objects that hold stories. A magnet that loudly proclaims “Rome Italy!” is now less, to me, than that lithograph print with the bent corners that I pulled out of a stack of papers in a used bookstore that I had found while trying to find a particular library on a side street in Rome. That print reminds me of the labored conversation with the elderly Italian-speaking woman who operated the shop and the younger Italian woman who helped me translate to purchase it. It makes me remember her face, the smell of the bookstore, the street outside, and the fact that I never did find that library. It’s the story, you see, not the place that shaped my memory of Rome- and that’s why when I travel I seek not just souvenirs but stories contained within objects.
I think the best souvenir objets d’art appear when we least expect them: a used bookstore, a charity shop, perhaps even a found object on the beach. But because those can be difficult experiences to curate – especially with when you are on a tighter schedule or traveling with a group – I think it’s also fun to explore alternate sources for souvenirs – both for yourself and as gifts for your friends and family back home. Here are the sources I look for for authentic gifts and mementos from my travel:
Buying Souvenirs at Thrift Stores & Charity Shops
Every country has some version of these, although they go by different names and sometimes have very different contents. For example, in some countries, a thrift store may contain only clothing, while in other countries is more common for secondhand shops to contain a little bit of everything.
Souvenirs I look for at secondhand shops:
- handkerchiefs and small textiles
- key rings
- jewelry and bracelets
- amateur art, folk art, or other handmade objects.
City Street Markets
In countries where there is one central market that contains literally everything, the same place where you can buy fruits and vegetables may be the place where you can locate your next treasured souvenir. When I spent spring and summer of 2019 in South America, for example, it was very typical on Sundays for a market to pop up that covered streets and sidewalks for blocks and blocks. After passing through the produce vendors and the vendors of new household goods, there was usually a section dedicated to antique items and secondhand clothing.
My very favorite rug, the rug that my feet land on first thing every morning when I wake up, I purchased stained and filthy for $2 US dollars from a secondhand textile vendor at a street market in Arica, Chile. This tightly woven cotton textile- that may likely have been woven by hand– cleaned up almost perfectly. The small frayed spots and the one stubborn stain I couldn’t get out remind me that that the object has its own story, and using it reminds me of my story of washing it in my tiny beachside air B&B and drying it on the balcony hammock in the dry Atacama Desert air.
Souvenirs I look for at general street markets:
- small metal trinkets
- handmade pottery
Buying Souvenirs at Antique stores
I’m fairly confident that for every good antique shop around the world – including the United States – there are six or seven terrible ones selling mostly reproductions or terribly overpriced authentic antiques. That said, I still get a little bit excited every time I see an antique shop as I’m exploring a faraway city. Though sometimes they are stuffy, containing items with no price and no vendor who speaks my language, other times they are a treasure trove- stores that contain objects that seem as if they were dropped from another time- ordinary objects made extraordinary simply by enduring through the years.
My favorite travel antique shop ever has to be a toss up between 1. the antique shop I discovered in Vatican City while attempting to avoid crowds and tour-sellers by taking back streets on my way back to the Metro stop, and 2. The tiny storefront across from the UNESCO monastery in Arequipa, Peru, where I found a on older, handmade, well used, and previously mended Andean Frazada (heavy woven blanket) that now lives on as a wall hanging in my office. It is art and it hangs there to remind me and my visitors how being mended can become a part of what makes something beautiful.
Souvenirs I look for at antique shops:
- specimens of art or handiwork that the region is known for
- small objects that could be turned into souvenir magnet gifts when I return
- textiles (are you catching a theme? They are so easy to pack!)
Buying Souvenirs at Flea markets
They aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I live for a good flea market. My parents raised me going to the Kansas City flea market – one of the larger markets in the US – at least a few times a year. There, I learned how to hunt for rare finds, and –maybe more importantly –how to separate trash from treasure. Now when I travel, I always keep an eye out for good flea market (you can find a list of my favorites here)
markets that go by the name of a “Flea market” come in all shapes and sizes. In Budapest, Hungary the famous ruin bars by night turned into fleamarket by day on certain weekends, these flea markets were curated and inviting to tourists, interspersed with local artists and craftspeople. A very different experience though also called fleamarket, During a recent trip to Bucharest, Romania I took a cab out to a used car lot that turned into a giant flea market every Sunday. Surprisingly similar to a South American St. market, except for the lack of produce, the Eastern European fleamarket was filled with Cold War treasures, like vintage Russian clocks and piles and piles of secondhand fur coats. Compared to the Budapest market I felt clearly an outsider, yet was able to navigate a few purchases.
Things I look for at flea markets:
- literally anything, because you never know what you’re going to find
- textiles and paper goods that pack easily
- secondhand handmade items
- small metal objects like keys or old cigarette cases, etc
Buying Souvenirs at Tourist Markets
I’m going to go ahead and give a shout out to tourist markets. Though 99% of what is sold in tourist markets is made in China and unlikely to last five years without avoiding the trash bin or thrift store for donations, it is possible to find treasures in tourist markets. Keep your eyes peeled for what doesn’t belong. Often tourist markets are stall after stall of the exact same thing. Scanning for what is different they help you find the treasures.
Things I look for at Tourist Markets:
- local minerals
- authentic handmade items
- raw craft supplies (fiber, beads, metalwork, etc)