On an end table in my living room sits a chubby, six-inch-high blue pottery owl with huge eyes. His name is Bernard.
Bernard was also the name of the slightly plump, doe-eyed waiter who brought us strong coffee and a genuine smile every morning on a trip to Cancun some years ago. When I saw the owl, reasonably priced in the hotel gift shop, I had to have him. Twenty-five years later, every time I pass by him, I think of how friendly and sweet our waiter—and the people of Cancun – were.
Now, that’s a souvenir.
I rarely buy tacky T-shirts announcing I’ve been to Acapulco, Antigua or Austria. I have no need to brag to strangers in the grocery store about where I’ve been. And I’m normally not a knick-knack person, either. I hate dust-catchers.
But souvenirs in and of themselves can be wonderful. I just don’t usually find them in a souvenir shop. I like souvenirs I can use. Or eat.
Montana is one of my favorite places to get edible souvenirs. It starts with huckleberry jam, huckleberry chocolates, huckleberry pancake mix and … well, you get the idea. I adore huckleberries and I buy everything huckleberry I can get my paws on while I’m there.
I’ve also brought home jerk seasoning from the Caribbean, dried Chilies from New Mexico, Cajun seasoning from Louisiana and chocolates from just about everywhere. Their flavors remind me pungently of the place where I first experienced them. And when they’re all gone, well, that’s what the Internet is for.
Locally made jewelry makes a great souvenir, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. I once paid $2 for a necklace made of juniper berry seeds in Wyoming. In New Mexico, I paid $15 for a strand of turquoise from the elderly Jemez Pueblo woman who made and sold them at a little roadside stand.
I have about 25 pieces of locally made pottery representing everywhere from Puerto Rico to Alaska. Each piece is unique, from salt shakers to salsa dishes to platters – and, when I use them, each one holds a memory for me.
Music makes a great souvenir – every time I listen to the voice of Iz, a Hawaiian legend, it takes me back to Kaua’i. A reggae Christmas album reminds me of a December cruise we took for a special anniversary. They cost less than $10.
A friend of mine who travels the world says she and her family have a rule about souvenirs: They have to fit in the palm of your hand – or they have to be shipped home. Shipping isn’t a bad idea, if you just have to have something that won’t fit into your suitcase or that will put it over the maximum weight. You can end up paying another $50 to bring home a $10 starfish paperweight.
Sometimes, you buy a souvenir by default, though. You didn’t dress warmly enough and have to shuck out some vacation bucks for an “I Love Philly” sweatshirt you’ll probably never wear again. Or you forgot your swimsuit and skinny-dipping isn’t really encouraged at the resort you’re visiting.
My husband collects post cards. He buys one everywhere we go. But he doesn’t mail them and he doesn’t keep them. He brings them back for his barber, who collects them and who lives vicariously through her customer’s travels. At least they don’t take up much space in the suitcase.
Impulse buys of souvenirs are almost always a mistake. We never remember to wind the little cuckoo clock we bought in Germany’s Black Forest. I’m not even sure where it is in the house. Maybe in the far corner of the family room? Right next to the beer steins we’ve never used?