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

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.

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

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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