Exit Through the Gift Shop: Why We're a Sucker for a Good Souvenir

Souvenirs are like a trail of breadcrumbs, leading us back to special moments that might otherwise have been lost to the tangled branches of time, says Julie Alpine, in the latest instalment of a regular column.

This article is part of a regular monthly column from SUITCASE's Julie Alpine celebrating the joy of travel.

The saying "Take only memories, leave only footprints" is seen on signs everywhere from the Bounty ad-like beaches of Patillas, Puerto Rico, to deep underground in the US state of Maryland, whose Baltimore Grotto caving club the words have been attributed to. But what about those of us whose memory is so shot we can't even remember what we did yesterday without prompts, let alone on last year's "unforgettable" trip?

Back in the 70s, my dad brought home 200 conkers from the lakeside town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee in Carinthia, Austria, collected, pocketful by pocketful, en route to breakfast each morning, in the grounds of the hotel where my parents were honeymooning. Every now and then, during my childhood years, he'd chance upon the box they were stored in, giving me the opportunity to run my hands through them and admire their chestnut lustre, their size - five times that of the Scottish ones! - and the sheer number he'd somehow managed to fit into his suitcase.

Today, he claims to have brought them back with a view to selling them to local kids - conker fights being a popular pastime in the days before Snapchat - but I prefer to put it down to true romance. Because nobody smiles over a souvenir brought home from a trip that was rubbish, do they?

The fox illustration on a scrap of cardboard found by the writer

An Athens street, left, and the pen-ink illustration found by the writer in the city.

Collecting must be in my DNA. That's my excuse, anyway, for - among other flotsum and jetsum - the giant, gold-painted fibreglass conch shell picked up in Amsterdam's IJ-Hallen market; kaftans from Tunisia; Dynasty-worthy 80s earrings from Cannes; pen-ink illustration of a fox on a piece of brown cardboard found on the pavement on the corner of Ermou Street, Athens - like a gift from the goddess Artemis; birdcage from Morocco; glass paperweight containing a dandelion clock from the Outer Hebrides; feathers, flowers pressed between the pages of books, driftwood, pebbles, trinkets, treasures and - OK - tat gathered on my travels. Not to mention the Shazam-enabled playlists from everywhere I go (the digital equivalent of catching butterflies in a net), or 232,784 - and counting - photos on my iPhone.

Coming from the French word for "memory", and the Latin "subvenire" - "occur to the mind" - souvenirs have been around for as long as people have been travelling. In 2200 BC, following a visit to Sudan, Ancient Egypt's Prince Harkhuf brought back with him leopard skins, ivory and incense to present to the pharaoh.

While the pelts and tusks of endangered animals are now obviously out, incense still graces gift shop shelves spanning remote Icelandic wellness retreats to Camden Lock. A certain brand instantly transports me back to a journey on the overnight sleeper train from Aberdeen to Kings Cross, when, on a first trip to London without adult supervision (and smoke alarms seemingly not yet installed on InterCity services), my best friend and I filled our cabin (and possibly the whole carriage) with a pungent, patchouli-scented mushroom cloud.

That's my excuse for the Shazam-enabled playlists, the digital equivalent of catching butterflies in a net

Not that souvenirs act only as an aide-mémoire. Selling unique mementos of a destination has long been considered an effective way for communities to take economic advantage of tourism, and provides much-needed financial support for local artisans, be they watercolourists or winemakers.

"We wanted to bring home the cheese we ate in Spain - a big amount of it," remembers Stuart Millar, an Edinburgh-born, Costa Rica-based international school administrator. "When you land in San José, you have to put your suitcases through a scanner - that's when they catch you for bringing in seeds and that sort of stuff. So they find these huge foil- and plastic-wrapped lumps and want to know what it is. I explain that it's cheese, but they insist on opening up the bags. They're very upset because it doesn't have the ingredients listed. So I lie, and say that it's homemade, by my Spanish grandmother, and she wouldn't have dreamt of writing down her secret recipe. I got to keep my cheese."

A souvenir shop in Krakow, Poland

Flea market paintings, left, and a Krakow souvenir shop.

Asking around, I hear fond descriptions of a - now-framed - front page of a Berlin newspaper bought on the day news of Bowie's death broke (and that inspired a legendary bar crawl around all the late singer's favourite haunts in the German capital); fancy cupcake sprinkles from Paris; a crocodile tooth from the Congo; sun-bleached goat's jawbone from Santorini; wooden donkeys from Cyprus; polka-dot flamenco dress from Madrid; socks from San Francisco; chocolate from the Alps; poker chips from Japan; porcelain rooster from Sardinia; "a wife" from Patmos; piercings from a diverse array of international outposts; tattoos from escapades near and far (some cherished, some regretted); firstborn children (conceived in Vegas, in Inverness, in Nairobi); and a forearm-sized solid wooden penis from Bali.

This year marks my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. While memories might be golden, so, too, are the souvenirs the 14 of us take home from the big Cornwall family getaway we just toasted the occasion at, which include a small blue tile, found floating adrift in the deep end of the swimming pool, vintage Levi's from Camelford treasure trove The Really Groovy Shop and a bikini made from recycled water bottles. Me? The lion's share of a gooey peanut butter and salted caramel birthday cake with Swiss meringue frosting and purple pansies, ordered by my sister - a pro baker herself, far from her own kitchen - from the independent LadyVale Bakery in Nansladen - the sugar rush from which will soothe the sorrow of having to say goodbye.

Stuff your carry-on with souvenirs, I say. They'll make you smile on a rainy day. And, if it's a keepsake of the bought variety, rather than a scribbled-on restaurant napkin or piece of burnt toast featuring the likeness of Elvis, make sure that it's made locally and not in China - unless you happen to be in China, of course. I hear the woven raffia handbags are gorgeous there…

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