A Missed Opportunity
I didn’t grab one of rocks, and I have lived to regret it. I knew it the instant one of my friends asked me if he could have one, that it would have made the perfect souvenir.
In Cyprus I went to the beach where Aphrodite is thought to have emerged from the sea in Greek mythology. This beach was one of the places I was looking forward to the most, because I love Greek mythology and am especially enamored with Aphrodite.
I had been planning on it from the second I saw that the beach was covered with these small, smooth stones. But at the last second, I felt really stupid. Am I really going to tote a rock around for three months?
So when my friend messaged me on Facebook and joked that he wanted one, I realized my mistake. I should have trusted my gut. This would have been the perfect souvenir to remember Cyprus by-it was something I would display proudly whenever I settle down again, it holds personal significance, it’s local to Cyprus and not something I can pickup somewhere else, and a small one would have been practical and easy to transport. So. Much. Regret. Ugh.
So that got me thinking, how can I articulate what makes a souvenir the right one. And when is it going to just end up in a closet horde gathering dust?
After some reflection, here’s what I’ve come up with: the eight qualities that make the perfect souvenir. And though most items will not have every quality, having at least four of these characteristics is enough to put it in the go ahead pile.
Whatever the thing is (jam, soap, a t-shirt, a figurine, a jar), you are actually going to use it. You will eat the jam. You will wear the t-shirt. You will play with the playing cards. You will hang up the poster. Don’t ever buy something that you might use. You won’t. You’ll just waste money, space in your luggage, and end up having to decide later when you can get rid of it. Or it will end up in a dusty horde and some closet organizer will force you to put it in the donate pile while you sob and then Dr. Phil tells you you’re a brave girl. (Honestly, the show Hoarders changed my life y’all).
One shot glass that says Cancun belongs in a college dorm. Fifty shot glasses prominently displayed is a horse of a different color. So if you want a tchotchke collection, go for it! But you gotta actually do something with that collection. A stack of postcards in the back of a desk? Not a collection. A series of postcards lovingly placed in a basket on a coffee table to flip through or framed on a gallery wall? Now that’s a collection.
For me, my only collection is my art collection. But just buying something on a trip doesn’t cut it. If I didn’t have plans to frame it and a place to hang it, then it was still just going to end up as junk. (Here’s a great piece on how to display your collections).
I don’t mean a key chain with your name on it. Something is personal when it hits you deep and transforms from a cool thing to a significant thing. Maybe it connects to an anthem or philosophy you have, your religion, your personal spirituality, or is something you loved in childhood. For me, a 8€ mass produced figurine from the museum shop at the megalithic temple of Ġgantija became something that both reminded me of my trip to Malta and also gave me a boost of confidence every morning. Before seeing it, I never would have guessed that a grown woman could fall in love with a silly little statuette.
The figurine is a reproduction of one found at the site of a voluptuous woman reclining on her side. Multiple figures like this were found during the excavations. The research surrounding the originals aren’t conclusive, but it’s believed they are a mix of fertility goddesses and powerful women (priestesses and matriarchs). As a proud curvy chick, seeing this ancient symbol of sex and power every morning meant more than just a travel memory. It connected to my personal identity and gave me a spark to start each day. Now it’s tucked away at my folks house, ready to be displayed again down the road.
There’s a great scene in the movie My Life in Ruins (a totally underappreciated chick flick gem) where an older couple is fighting with a shopkeeper over the price of Greek souvenirs. The shopkeeper says in Greek that it’s just crap from China and has no connection to Greece at all. Then he charges them double.
Something doesn’t have to be made literally piece by piece by local artisans to qualify as local (although that certainly would). But there has to be something about the item that can’t be done somewhere else. Local chocolates from Belize. A leather bracelet made by a Montreal shoemaker. While you can get chocolates or bracelets anywhere, there’s a tie between the place and the thing that will carry on.
Travel connects you to places, but it also connects you to people. These people could be great locals you meet, family you visit, or friends you travel with. Sometimes a great souvenir is a gift from one of these people, a gift you buy for everyone in the group, or an item that is part of an activity you all do together. For about five years, my friends from college would rent a beach house every summer. One year I got everyone personalized cups with super crazy nicknames. I cherished mine for years until it finally cracked. It wasn’t even from the Outer Banks, but it was a reminder of both the fun of the trip and how much I cherish those friendships.
For about five years, my friends from college would rent a beach house every summer. One year I ordered everyone personalized cups with super crazy nicknames off Etsy to give out when we got there. I treasured mine for years until it finally cracked. It wasn’t even from the Outer Banks, but it was a reminder of both the fun of the trip and how much I cherish those friendships.
This means different things on different trips. Essentially, you need to be able to afford the thing and getting it home needs to be fairly easy. Don’t bounce a rent check over a souvenir or end up breaking your back lugging the thing through the airport.
Every major city seems to have the same basic stores and brands. Unless you get a crazy awesome deal or the shopping experience itself has a really cool story, it’s not a souvenir. It’s just a thing you bought in one city instead of another city.
For the price you are going to pay and for the use you intend, the item has to make the cut. A three dollar t-shirt that looks like garbage after one wear won’t keep the fond memories rolling. What’s the point of getting a souvenir and going to the trouble of getting it home if it won’t last long enough for you to use it?
Looking at it this way, the rock would have hit 5 of these: useful (I would definitely display it), personal (the Aphrodite myth), local (it’s from a special beach), practical (small and free), and quality (it will last forever). And while I don’t have a rock collection, it’s not related to anyone else, and it’s not unique (you can pretty much get rocks anywhere), it hit enough marks that I should have known to grab it.
Not every great souvenir will have all of these qualities, but they should have at least half of them. For each person, the qualities that are important might be different ones, and they might even change trip by trip. The goal is to skip buying something that will be a waste of money and recognize when you totally need to grab the rock on the beach.